Jenny leapt out over the grass trail that passed for a street. Her stomach plummeted when the airstrip vanished. She decided to leave it on the ground.
The next instant she was passing over other roofs. The ornithopter pitched upward on a thermal from a steam vent, nearly flipping her. Throwing her weight forward to right herself, she swerved as somebody’s prop flyer roared overhead.
Her feet skimmed a roof. She ran, jumped again into a sky filled with machines. Craft of all shapes and sizes were taking off from everywhere, every flat surface in the city, and some others. Craning her neck up, clawing for lift, she saw at least a dozen craft set off in a flock from the highest ridge of the mountain. A raft with a single massive propellor lumbered through the sky just under the seacliff, pedaled by what looked like twelve people, some of whom were still drinking. Far to her port, she saw the crystal green, covered in the tangled wreckage of scores of crafts that had hit each other midair. The City Council and their bombs were nowhere to be seen.
At last, she hit one more updraft, and with a somersaulting stomach found herself picking up height. She beat the wings a few times using the foot pedals, and found she could rise even further.
Something felt different this time. Dr. Griffin might have actually perfected his invention.
Jenny shook that thought out of her head. Pride didn’t fly planes.
She banked toward the seacliff, alternating beats and glides. Over the ridge, she could see people trying yet another approach: flat barges floated in the dark water, some Rusters straining at oars, others joining hands to link the rafts into airstrips. One wind-up prop plane attempted to leap from a lone barge without a runway and plummeted nose-first into the water. His oarsmen pulled him aboard, letting the aircraft sink.
Jenny winced. Lucky the sea was calm tonight.
The cliff dropped away, leaving Jenny over empty sea, the town lights shrinking behind her. She swept over the barges along with the handful of skycraft keeping pace. Ahead, the mountains, scoured grey teeth with no haven at their base, jutted from the sea toward the sphere.
Her breath caught. The plane dipped before she could focus and warp the wings back to level.
It had never seemed so close before.
Risking a brief glance from side to side, Jenny counted only eight other craft still in the sky with her. One of them banked back toward Rust Town as she watched, vanishing into the cluster of lights.
The constellations came into focus above her, the Compass Rose and the Orchard Keeper and the Seamstress, beckoning her closer to the sphere. Her goal was even beginning to resolve itself into the castle some claimed it was–Jenny picked out a tower here, a buttress there.
In the sky, skimming half a mile over the whitecap waves, she let the elation in.
Jennifer Hunter Griffin owned the sky. She couldn’t even see any of the other craft anymore. They all must have given up. Her next task was what Rust Town engineers all called “the Great Corkscrew”: the calculation that any craft would need to make several upward circles to reach the altitude of the sphere.
That was fine. She and her majestic craft were alone with the treasure-house in a dance the size of the ocean. They would learn each others’ secrets. She would coax her way toward a landing if it took all night.
Then she’d take whatever she could carry, as proof, with the side benefit of buying her and her uncle a palace somewhere far away from Rust Town, where only Rose and maybe Calvin got to visit. And a trebuchet to fling the city council into the ocean.
Jenny willed herself not to get hypnotized. A thousand things needed her attention. The wings had to be trimmed, like sails, and the pedals wouldn’t run themselves. Wind rushed in her ears like twin herds of horses racing past her, she felt sure she’d emptied her stomach somewhere over the seacliff, and she had to gain another hundred feet to make it safely over the gap in the far mountains that were not so far anymore…
…before the gap, someone was falling.
All right, I’m hallucinating. Uncle Griff had warned her about altitude sickness. There was an oxygen tank built into the body somewhere.
The shadow fell past the top of the ridge, serene and plummeting and unmistakably human.
Jenny checked herself for the other symptoms–lightheadedness, shallow breathing. But for a twelve-year-old girl hurtling through the sky, she felt remarkably calm.
Until she realized that if she wasn’t hallucinating, there must have been a real craft quite a bit higher than hers, abandoned by a pilot in real danger. But where was it?
I’m asking the wrong questions, she thought suddenly. How fast do I have to dive to catch them?
Quick calculations gave her the answer. She banked her wings down–
–and stopped, forcing the numbers to reconstitute in her head even as she had another thought: she would never complete the Great Corkscrew with the weight of another person on her craft.
Yet the pilot was falling. Jenny could still see her outline against the moonlight on the granite.
It couldn’t be.
It wasn’t fair!
“He finally figured it out!” she roared aloud. “My uncle got it right! I’m so damn close!”
She banked the wings down on the calculated course, and dove. The choice was easy. But she didn’t have to be happy about it.
In the second before plunging, Jenny happened to glance up, and saw the craft. Its outline was so bizarre it burned into her mind. The thing was twice as high above the ocean as she was, and still beating its wings–wings that looked as leathery and jagged as a bat’s, with a tangled mass of ropes instead of a rear propellor, and a cockpit that looked like something too ridiculous to name.
Yet, hurtling downward in pursuit of the falling pilot, Jenny said the word to herself anyway.
Dragon. The falling pilot’s craft had looked like a dragon. She’d have to remember that for Dr. Griffin.
Later. Her whole world had flipped 90 degrees, the sea before her, the mountains her sky. She swept past the pilot, kicked one of the pedals, swung a tight circle underneath them–
–with a bone-shattering whump, the pilot sprawled atop Jenny’s wings.
Not just a pilot. A girl. The pilot was a girl, not much older than her.
Jenny throttled back with a lurch of her entire upper body, and failed. With the extra weight, not only could she not gain altitude, she couldn’t pull her way out of the dive.
And to her left, the lights of Rust Town were already level with her. She wasn’t getting that lift back.
She ground her teeth. Whoever this girl was, she had better be grateful.
I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!
Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.