Downdraft

Above Poylinn, altitude 9.2 km

Fulven first mistook it for a ship of some kind, only the hull’s underside discernible through a transient breach in the layer of brown haze.

.

Upper troposphere, altitude 14.1 km

The zep was dying, and she knew it.

She’d thought herself escaped from danger. She had been stalking a flight of juvenile bloons as they bumped and buffeted each other in the lazily churning current. The bloons were a kilometre or more ahead and perhaps a couple of hundred metres higher. Probably, to their rudimentary senses, she appeared indistinguishable from one of the haze-clouds and therefore hazardous only to the extent that clouds could harbor danger. Apart from the bloons and the messy skeins of the haze-cloud fringes, the only obvious movement arose from a lone dangler, its lengths of deadly braid hanging almost horizontally behind while its puffy, flimsy envelope was pushed along, bumped by the same stream of wind.

The zep had felt the current too, a ticklish whorl of orchestrated air; but as propulsion it was inadequate. She would need skill and lift to close with the bloons. Lift was still too difficult to come by, even now.

She had not spied the hunter until too close, too late.

The hunter, riding a mantawing, had used the old needlehawk gambit of radial approach, no lateral movement, beyond the subtle oscillation of its broad, haze-camouflaged wings, to alert her attention. Even so, if she hadn’t been concentrating on the forward view and the bloons, she’d have registered much sooner what her aft-eyes were seeing. As it was, it had been the mantawing, itself a predator of more thinly-skinned aerofauna like bloons and bubbleheads, which had unwittingly alerted her. The wing’s missile had struck her squarely near an attitude gland, but the missile, blunt and slow – unripe – could not penetrate her taut, muscled hide. The shot was a warning, a gift.

Panicked, she’d begun the cumbersome process of evasion, of escape to the relative safety of yet higher altitudes. The wing itself was normally a high-altitude predator also, but the hunter straddled across its back must limit it substantially. Laden, it was probably near the peak of its range now; and the hunter lacked breathing apparatus…

Could she exploit those weaknesses? Likely not: she was slower and much less manoeuvrable than the manta. But the beast’s premature reflexive firing of its missile argued that it was either ill-trained or resistant to its rider’s directions. The missile was never going to harm her unless, by ill luck, it struck an eye or one of her more recent wounds or scars; and she could not believe the rider would have wished her thus forewarned while a still substantial distance separated them.

Not that that gulf would save her or her passenger. Escape from this predicament would take longer than the time she judged remained to her. There was only one hope left.

Feed. Feed on this. Time is short, you must.

Escape, if she could. Her first action, though, was a belly roll as she squirted gouts of attitude-gas out of the ring of armoured glands encircling her midsection. Only when her pale ventral surface was uppermost and shielded from wing and rider by her bulk, did she flex her rear stave-muscles to generate the lift she’d need.

Her aft constricted, her prow rose as the centre of mass shifted within her. A thick stream of dark liquid ballast sprayed out noisily from the recessed sphincter of her rear valve. Most fell away towards the brown-black haze of the lower clouds; some, satisfyingly, splashed on the hunter and its steed. Lift, forward propulsion, and bombardment, in one.

Retaliation was swift and lethal.

.

Poylinn promontory stables

Though, like most adolescents, they had played at impregnation, taking mirth at the ways in which their dissimilar forms could interconnect, it struck Fulven that this business with Yarran was thoroughly ambiguous. They had been friendly a long time, but Fulven was not sure of which way, if any, he wished to gravitate on that issue nor whether he was yet ready. And even less concept of how Yarran viewed him… he knew only that Yarran would sometimes gaze at him with a look of depth, but a look which in some measure suggested that Fulven lacked for substance, for seriousness, for dignity.

Regardless, though not fully understanding what it signified of his feelings on the subject, Fulven knew that he would do anything required to change his valuation in Yarran’s eyes. Let him only manage that and see what followed. Something within him quickened at the thought, a thrill almost illicit in its strength. Yet how to achieve it… there lay the mystery.

Breaking from reverie, he resumed his search. The tackle room was a small, cramped, disorganised space surrounded on three sides by stable stalls and thus heady with the smell of stale manure. There was just enough natural light, a sepia-stippled twilight courtesy of an unrepaired skystone breach in the room’s roof, to allow Fulven to see without resorting to sound-sight. He hefted the flight saddle from its shelf, found a matching bridle, and carried the leathery bundle to the big mantawing’s stall.

Struggling with the crucial task of cinching Pennant’s girth-straps – the big manta had a reputation for bloating up during saddling, and a loose strap could prove disastruous at altitude – Fulven sensed that he was not alone. He turned, foolish, frustrated, reluctant to relinquish his partial progress with the saddle.

“Hail, Fulven.” Yarran, breathing heavily from the climb, bending to see in below the corridor’s low roofline: the stables were sized for scouts and their mounts, not for soldiers.

How long had she been there, watching him, Fulven wondered? He nodded a bluff greeting to Yarran while his fingers continued to busy themselves, blind, with the trickeries of the mantawing’s riding tackle. Then, giving up, he fumbled a tar-fruit from his breeches pocket, palming it into the beast’s warm maw, seeking its compliance. He stepped out of Pennant’s stall into the comparative brightness of the adjacent lofting-yard. Yarran followed but stayed well back from the lip of the sheer drop which terminated the yard’s run.

“Where are you going?” Yarran asked, a shy smile spreading across thin lips.

Fulven, standing at the rim, took a further moment to take a swig of some sticky liquid from the small chiselled-diamond flask drawn from the pocket of his flight tunic. Then he looked into the sky’s depths, as if seeking to sight the sun, before returning his gaze to Yarran’s face. “Up. Aloft. You should try flight for yourself sometime, Yarran.”

“I plainly haven’t the build for that,” the other retorted, spreading her arms apart, as if to emphasise the disparity in their bodyforms. Though they shared the same age, soldier Yarran was fully twice scout Fulven’s height, perhaps five times his weight. “Besides, I’m too busy with lessons, as should you be, from what I hear.” That smile again, a gentle mocking grimace. “But if you must elevate yourself, my little scout, why don’t you bring me back some souvenir?”

“What souvenir would that be?”

“An air-weed of some kind, perhaps. Something exotic, of an altitude. It needn’t be anything too precious – just some object to show that you have, in fact, gleaned something from the heights and thought enough of me, and it, to bestow it me.”

“You shouldn’t need any such token,” Fulven replied, turning his head again as though seeking something in the murky smear of the sky’s vault of haze above them. “But did you just come here to catch me, to chat? Or for the exercise of the climb?”

“I came to ask” – there was reproof in her tone – “if you had remembered our lunch arrangement. You’ll need hurry, if you’re to be back down in time.”

Fulven swore, surprising himself at the vehemence of his own outburst. In his anticipation of the morning’s flight, he had forgotten their appointment. Self-conscious, embarrassed, both at his oath and at the lapse in his memory, he licked like a rebuked child at the sticky residue of a raindrop that had fallen, just now, on his wrist. “Yarran – I’m sorry. Really. But this is the only morning for months Pennant hasn’t been rostered out to someone else. Let’s lunch tomorrow, alright?”

Yarran’s answering look was unfathomable, like a column of clear sky.

“And I’ll bring you that souvenir you seek,” he added softly, though with no concept of what to offer Yarran as a memento.

Yarran had already forgotten the request.

.

Upper troposphere, altitude 14.2 km

A flash, then instant agony as the diamond-shrapnel dart punctured her hide and a half-dozen interior membranes. This, she knew within moments, was much worse than the stingers’ small punctures, more painful, even, than the agony she’d suffered from the spearbeak attack. The dart had cut through to her depths. Too soon. Lift-gas surged from her voluminous buoyancy organ into the tissues surrounding it, and she clamped her mouths rigidly shut to contain the rising internal pressure. Without the ballast she was now more buoyant, was rising; but it was ponderous, futile. The mantawing had another hunting-missile still, and who knew how many darts the hunter’s rifle carried? She had seconds, at the most, and likely not even that. She needed more height.

It was not destined. Another dart and the mantawing’s remaining missile, both striking near the wound. The hide punctures seemed minor and, by themselves, of little consequence, but the pain she felt spoke of horrendous internal damage. The hissing squeal of escaping gas, still internalised but no longer unconsciously confined, increased in pitch. She felt stomach, lungs, and other compartments bloat with lift-gas as her buoyancy organ ruptured within her. Nausea tugged at her throat, the taste of lift-gas grew overpowering. She was still rising, but too slow, much too slow. The manta was rising now too, coming in for the kill, its leathery wings beating awkwardly under the hindrance of the rider’s harness.

The haze-clouds grew more vivid, they appeared almost luminous, and she could no longer tell if she was rising or falling. She could not even determine whether she had succeeded in placing herself top-downmost, as was necessary.

Two will die today, at least, she thought. The hunter has seen to that. But I still may have some choice as to which two. Striving to control the roiling gases within her frame, mouths clenched tight shut, she spoke a word that could be heard only within, a murmur in the roaring chaos of her agony.

No answer came, but there was no time left.

.

Poylinn promontory stables

Watching Fulven’s preparations for flight, Yarran felt a queasiness in her belly. Partly, she knew, it was simple height-dread; Yarran was deeply conscious of the threat of gravity, a fear her friend apparently lacked. But there was more besides: she’d seen something in Fulven’s eyes, a desperation, a compulsion the root of which she did not understand. The little scout sometimes showed such a dark, purposeful seriousness, so unlike his normal levity… Now Yarran waited, at what she perceived to be the safest point within the lofting-yard, while Fulven bustled and swore and stomped around within the stables. Looking for something?

Then followed the heavy, measured, rhythmic thump of the mantawing’s footfalls, as Fulven led it out from the gloom into the yard. Wings folded back against its flanks, Pennant did not look in any way imposing: just a large ugly thing, a mistake. Stumpy legs, too close together beneath a long, low, wide body; an improbably aerodynamic face that seemed at odds with the lumpy substructure apparent beneath the furled wings. The creature was barely taller than a scout but massive, long, and wide: it seemed a wonder it could ever get airborne. Fulven slipped the manta another tar-fruit while he fussed one last time with the fastenings of saddle and bridle.

Yarran was alarmed to note that Fulven carried, strapped beneath his bundled chute, what appeared to be Karnag’s rifle.

She was sure Fulven did not have permission to take that. What could he be planning? Yarran sought the words to frame a question, wary of sounding too challenging – there was this odd, unbalanced air about Fulven this morning – but nothing more was spoken before Fulven nodded ceremoniously to her and climbed awkwardly athwart the saddle. Yarran watched while the manta stepped to the cliff’s rim and arched its back. It urinated in a long steaming stream then shook its still-furled wings, tensing its body further in readiness. Yarran wondered that it didn’t prematurely stumble forward; the thing must be more sure-footed than it looked.

She turned away, unwilling to see the animal’s ungainly leap into the void.

She heard, nevertheless, the terrified, exultant yell that always announced Fulven’s plunge off the stableside cliff-face.

Yarran caught one last look of Fulven, several seconds later, dwarfed against the broad, blunt triangle of the manta’s outstretched wings as it lumbered through the air, slowly climbing from sight.

.

Above Poylinn, altitude 9.8 km

Fulven dared not approach closer. Rather, he pulled on the mantawing’s bridle until the beast held a broad loping circle in the air so that, for most of the time, they were, he hoped, obscured by the intervening pall of barely-translucent haze, as well as by the thin murk of low rain. Even if the zep spied them – and he knew nothing of how good a zep’s eyes might be since they were creatures of the upper air and might not be expected to see well into the grainy twilight that existed below the perpetual haze layers – he trusted the mantawing’s flight would appear as a hunting circle, directed towards some ground-dwelling or at least lower-altitude prey. But he kept eyes focussed upwards, for all that the zep was most of the time hidden by the same haze that kept the manta and himself obscured.

A zep. Folk in the town knew of them, naturally; but he didn’t know of anyone who could actually claim to have seen one. Zeps were creatures of rumour, of mystery, creatures from far above the haze.

Yet this one was at the haze’s very rim, perhaps only a couple of kilometres above him.

He should be returning Pennant to the stables: there was no sense in tiring the beast, and there were other duties to which he should be attending. Yet he was reluctant to break off from surveillance of the zep, particularly just to return to his studies. The Academy – more, the whole town – was, in truth, a miserable place in which to be spending time right now, farmers, soldiers, clerks alike complaining of the exceptionally poor season and the scarceness of resources. And there was Yarran. Fulven needed more time to think, and aloft – among the cold, the gusts, and the crackling roll-snap of the manta’s powerful wingbeats – was a good location for thought.

Was the creature hurt? Mortally so, perhaps? There had to be some cause for its appearance during this prolonged drought. Though why the lift-gas farmers insisted on calling it a drought, he couldn’t fathom. They’d had rain regular enough, he was sure, commented on it to old Werilang last week, yet failed to make sense of the old farmer’s response, that it was the wrong sort of rain, too heavy and insufficiently sticky.

The zep, he judged after repeated sightings, was not hanging right in the air. The view through the handheld spyglass was so jittery as to be vertigo-inducing, but he could still discern the creature’s eyes were not level: in fact, its whole fuselage was canted at a large angle from what he presumed must be its normal, horizontal, displacement. Fulven wiped the glass clean on the inside of his tunic and stowed it again in its bloonhide sack. The zep was clearly sickened in some way; it hung at the air’s upper edge like some fell cloud, a contained storm.

He’d promised Yarran a souvenir. He had been intending to bag some small creature of the upper air, a floating plant or some small herbivore of a sort that never descended to surface. Far better it would be to show her this, if he somehow could: it would be something they could share, something Yarran could boast about to the other townsfolk. I saw a zep. Fulven took me aloft, to show me a zep. Yet Yarran, like most people, did not have the build that permitted flight; and, he now saw, the zep was slowly moving away and climbing. It might well be lost, or out of reach far above the haze, by the time he returned to ground and found Yarran; and then she would never see the zep, might well not believe him.

And with that thought, he knew what he would do.

But the manta was reluctant to take him higher.

Hazefeeding self-fondler! Fulven swore, pulling on the reins. The manta’s obdurance was, he was sure, due to the dark ceiling of solid-seeming cloud now gathering close above them. Mantawings did not like traversing the haze, though they were certainly capable of flight above it. He knew of other fliers who’d coaxed their mounts through the murk: it was a mark of honor for a pilot to be able to claim his haze-wings, and Fulven was sure that Pennant itself had made the transition before. Not with him, though; and therein, perhaps, lay the problem. The manta did not trust him.

Fulven, too, was fearful of the haze; but he was not going to let the zep evade him. No matter what the manta might think on the issue, even if it meant dropping the awkward bundle of the chute, to minimise weight. It wasn’t as if he’d ever needed the chute.

He jabbed in his heels and swore again as the manta still resisted his urgings upward.

.

Above Poylinn, altitude 14.2 km

She strained at the cluster of ventral stave-muscles, strained to the limits of endurance, and then beyond. At the last, pressure literally unbearable, the stressed chords overpowered the obstruction, and the pod ejected. The trailing cable stretched and snapped, releasing the pod to bob upwards until, ultimately, it would find its own neutral-buoyancy altitude.

The fissure along her hide started along the scar of an old toothwing’s gash just forward of her midsection, in the weakened strip between two bunched strands of stave-muscles. Then it rivened wider, catching at the seam of the spearbeak-inflicted wound, still quite fresh and tender. Her skin tore and would not stop as a bubbling mess of attitude-gas and vital fluids streamed from the developing gash. She clenched bands of muscles, distributed against her dermis, in a manner which her every instinct resisted. The pain was unendurable, yet still insufficient. She strained harder, watching while the hunter readied another dart for its rifle; and somewhere within her, finally, a vital chord snapped. A propellant bladder, now painfully distended and pushed up by escaping lift-gas, began to herniate from the growing gaping crack in her fuselage. She entertained two thoughts:

One (eyes upward): Good.

Two (eyes downward): Fool.

The squeal of escaping gas, still much too slow, grew in volume as it climbed slightly in pitch. Two more internal tethers, the last of significance, ripped themselves asunder.

Done. She gaped her mouths and bellowed, a death-roar that split her fuselage from bow to stern, massively enlarging the size of her hide’s fissure so that a lifetime’s hoard of precious lift-gas screamed out within a few seconds. Hunter and manta alike were taken surprised by the suddenness with which her ruined envelope fell onto them, draped the sky around them.

The hunter’s instinctive reaction doomed it as it sought to claw its way free from the shrouding, enveloping hide of the dead dirigible. In panic at its loss of flight and agitated by its rider’s thrashing, the mantawing twisted and spasmed until it shook off its encumbrance.

Wing and rider, now separated, plummeted downward from the wrecked zep.

A kilometre or so below, the wing levelled off and began a slow climb away across the top of a burnt-blood shelf of haze-cloud; the rider did not.

.

Poylinn west crater lake memorial island

So many mourners, such a small casket, Yarran thought to herself, rubbing her belly, still unsure. So very much, these days, appeared uncertain.

Words were spoken, a good many words, though Yarran seemed not to hear them against an internal wall of deafening static. It did not matter. None of the words would explain, could explain, what Fulven had thought he was up to. But it was comforting to think that he had had so many friends; unless, thinking less charitably, it was simply the spectacular manner of his death which had drawn this crowd.

They held the service, as was traditional, on the coral-groved mound of the round lake’s central island. Younger members of Fulven’s family – Pirrif, a half-grown, merchant-bodied sister; and Arranat, a soldier-bodied cousin – opened a tar-fragranced sack from which they removed a score of still-bright glowblooms. With rehearsed solemnity, these were handed out to the mourners, and as each took one they held it aloft against the midday gloaming so that its eerie blue light might be seen by those, back in the township, who had not been able to make today’s journey.

Gradually, in mute response, the town’s own illuminations were extinguished. Then the party waited, bearers still shouldering their load, while Fulven’s own parents set to with shovels, digging a rectangular hole into the small circular clear space at the grove’s centre. The digging went comparatively swiftly: this far up the slope, the ground was fluffy, tar-sticky soil rather than the dirty-diamond sand of the island’s shoreline; and the casket was small, even allowing for Fulven’s small frame.

At the last, after the words, the almost unbearable contemplation, they’d queued to drop tokens onto the unyielding carbide lid of Fulven’s coffin.

Some threw down their now feebly-glowing blooms; Pirrif, weeping, a small figurine; Yarran threw in some shards from the shattered dart-rifle. Karnag, Fulven’s father, simply shuffled past the grave. But Fulven’s mother Millak had been last in the queue: she had dropped an oddly-scented length of cord.

It was only several weeks later, when back in the township and speaking to Fulven’s still-grieving family of her own pain, that Yarran had learnt from Millak the true nature of the cord.

It was a piece of zep umbilicus.

(Copyright Simon Petrie 2009. First published in Sybil’s Garage, issue 6, March 2009.)

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