Freetown 4

Over the next hour, as the lamps of Rust Town extinguished to reveal the stars, Karla learned that she had not erred in swearing by her mother’s name. Mara had spent five years in the village she’d called Freetown, demonstrating the energy of a minor deity for every day of them. Pacing, gesticulating, draining mugs–a task Karla helped with–Rose and Griffin explained the way Mara had brought the gospel of apocalypse to the people of the surface.

By the end of her first year, there were a group of people following in her wake, named after the gift Karla’s father–whom nobody ever named, because Mara herself had never named him–had given his love before she escaped slavery. The Harpooneers soon outgrew both the City Council and the bay-borne slavers, and cowed them both into the shadows for a blessed while. Treasure hunters supported them: anything to bring back a share of the sphere’s wealth.

Kevin Griffin, brother of Edward and husband of Rachel, became their most zealous booster, closely joined by Almon Carpenter, a famous sniffer-out of mushrooms. Their efforts that first year focused on trying to recreate Rokhshan-style flight using the lift runes Mara remembered from the castle.

But it was no use. Mara’s memory had holes torn in it by starvation and the lash. The runes had flaws just big enough to make them useless. In workshop after workshop, one hushed basement meeting after another, they sparked with brief light–and then fell dark again to groans and recriminations.

Later on, when the Ash Cloud didn’t arrive immediately, they diversified. Alongside their planes they began working on plans to save the townsfolk in case they didn’t find the right skycraft in time. They became a peacekeeping force, almost an actual city council, and started using the old town name. Some people dropped out when the end didn’t come, but others redoubled their devotion–after all, Mara had never set a date for the island’s doom.

Karla took all this information in with an off-kilter detachment, as though she had just discovered her favorite book had several chapters she’d always neglected to read. It was hard to imagine having come from this. Her mother had been a warrior, wasting no time in racing back toward the sky to save the people she’d left behind. Though it had taken five years, she had never wavered from her mission.

Karla, on the other hand…Karla was already giving up. It was easy, almost. Comforting to imagine there was no way to save Kio, that she had no work left but suffering through grief.

She pinched herself hard, startling the room for a moment. “I just…spaced out for a sec,” she told the three concerned faces. “Sorry. Keep going.”

“I was just saying, I saw the way your mother raised you,” Griffin told her. “She would make you toys out of bits of wood. Started her own garden, right by Rachel’s, to make sure you’d have mashed vegetables to eat. Never let go of you.”

“Even after you learned to walk,” Rose laughed.

With the joke came a new memory: strong arms holding her protectively, watching a clockwork craft wheel and cavort over the bay. She could sense the tension of the woman holding her, could feel her awe and relief when the pilot pulled out of a deep dive.

“I remember!” she spat out suddenly.

Griffin and Jenny were in the middle of an argument abuot one of the Harpooneer aircraft designs. Once again, everyone broke off mid-sentence.

Karla felt absolutely certain. The memory had come the normal way, no evil gas required. Her new Rust Town friends had unearthed something within her.

“I want to tell the way the story ends,” she said with determination. “I was there. I can do it.”

“When are you talking about?” Jenny asked.

“The day of the Ash Cloud. The day the Harponeers launched.” She gulped. “I call it Year Zero. But before, I only knew what happened in the sky.”

 

They gathered in the crystal square, bathed in faint blue glow that meant the castle was far-off but approaching. A dozen or so Harpooneers kept order with swords, while the rest readied the fleet. Rusters of all sorts milled around the edges, waiting for their places or snorting in disbelief.

But not many. Those who didn’t believe in the craft had run for the boats by now.

The craft were strange-looking: a new design, her mother said, never tested before, with some attempted runes to help them out. They weren’t what she’d wanted. But her people were out of time.

The Rokhshan would surely not shelter their landling slaves inside the Heartsphere. They probably wouldn’t enter themselves, due to the order from their Benefactor. That meant the only choice was to fight.

Mara kept one arm around Karla while examining one of the planes in the other. She kept glancing worriedly toward the southern horizon.

Karla herself wasn’t really paying attention to the big purple cloud, even though it was pretty in the sunset. She was watching Dr. Griffin fight with his brother Kevin.

Kevin was pulling on his gloves as they argued. “Griff, listen–”

“Don’t call me that!” Dr. Griffin yelled. “You don’t get to use nicknames and pretend we’re still brothers. Not with what you’re doing here.”

“Which part? Protecting the town? Or sending my infant daughter to safety?”

Griffin’s hands clenched into claws in front of his face. The blue light made him look like an angry monster. “I knew you’d lost your mind to Mara. I just never knew it was this far gone.”

“Evidence, little brother,” Kevin snapped. “I brought you up better.”

Dr. Griffin snarled. “Fine. You’re flying, because you think attacking the flying castle is the only way we can be safe. But you’re sending me on the boats, with Jenny, because you’re concerned for our safety? Which is it, Kevin?”

“It should be obvious. Our plan is to bring the sphere down to the surface.” Kevin buckled a pilot’s helmet beneath his chin. “But if we fail, I’ll be drowned if I leave my family without protections. Even if they are obstinate fools.”

“Fools like your two-year-old child?” Griff pointed in her direction. “Mara is bringing her daughter.”

“Karla can walk unassisted. Jenny is a baby in arms. Whose arms, by the way?” Kevin mounted one leg up to his cockpit bar. “I told you to take care of her.”

“Rose has Jenny. They should already be to the boats. But if you believe any of us remaining down here have a chance to survive, you have yet to explain why you’re flying.”

“For what I believe in, Griff!” Propellors were winding up around the square, ready to detach at altitude to turn craft into gliders. The sound filled Karla’s ears, nearly drowning out the argument though she strained to hear. “For the people trapped up there who can’t save themselves! For the future of this miserable rock, where my wife sleeps, where my daughter will grow up!”

“Your wife!” Griffin spat. “If you cared about her you’d let her stay down here! With–”

“With you?” Rachel asked. Karla jumped in Mara’s arms. She hadn’t seen Kevin’s wife hiding around the other side of the plane.

All the fight vanished from Dr. Griffin. It was like the man deflated. At once Karla could tell all he was thinking about was fleeing.

“With us,” he said lamely.

 

“Could you skip ahead?” Griff asked her.

Karla plunged back into the present day to notice he was holding his head in his hands while Jenny rubbed his upper back. Rose had vanished downstairs again, probably to consult with Grace, though the timing was a bit convenient.

And she remembered: he had brought up Rachel many times in his earlier stories, even while discussing other people, places she wouldn’t have been relevant. He was as good as screaming that this woman was still taking up space in his head.

To lose her to a brother…Karla had no idea what that would feel like.

“All right,” she said. “I’ll jump ahead. There was the Ash Cloud, and the castle coming from the north, and then the launch.”

 

The propellors reached a screaming pitch. The crystal glowed as bright as a star. Ahead, at the edge of the square, those closest to the seacliff launched in waves.

One row. Then the next. Like a tide that would carry Karla out to sea. Strapped into the cockpit, folded in her mother’s arms, Karla felt like she was buried in sand.

She craned her neck around, but couldn’t see far enough to find out where Dr. Griffin had gone. She badly wanted Jenny to be all right.

Another row of planes launched. Two left now.

What would it be like to leave the surface behind? Karla tried to memorize the feeling of grass under her feet, the shape of the mountains. She gazed up at the moon, and decided she’d better memorize that too: after all, on the castle they’d be much closer, and it would probably look pretty different.

Another wave launched. One left now.

“Are you ready, Karla?”

Her mom’s voice didn’t sound like it usually did. The ferocity was missing. Suddenly she wondered if Mara would rather Karla wasn’t going.

“I guess so.”

“Are you all right?”

More propellors spat to life. Karla shut her eyes tight, trying to trap the surface world behind her eyelids.

She asked, “Didn’t they hurt you up there?”

“Yes, they did.” Mara’s hand went to the long sword resting against her thigh. “But they won’t hurt anybody anymore. We’re too strong for them now.” She squeezed Karla tightly. “You’re too strong. I’d like to see them touch you. My little warrior.”

Karla didn’t feel like a warrior. She felt like she’d never see grass again.

The last row of planes leapt into the air. The propellor sped up. Mara was saying something, but Karla couldn’t hear.

 Her mother ran, then, when invisible hands pushed them upward, jumped.

The island dropped away like a stone into a well.

Karla had flown a handful of times before–Mara had insisted on taking her around the island in laps so she could “acclimate”–so she knew for certain: planes weren’t meant to rise this fast. Some of the first to launch were already specks against the darkening sky. The first lift frames had been released, plummeting to the ocean as their former skycraft turned into gliders.

She frantically searched the sliver of land and water she could see. No boats. No Jenny or Griffin.

In fact, to the east of Freetown Island, she could see nothing…except the roiling purple ash cloud, crawling through sky and sea toward everything she loved.

 

In the silence after Karla finished, Rose produced a match and lit a lantern on the wall, giving them all some long-overdue light.

“Why mention how quickly you rose?” Dr. Griffin asked thoughtfully. Karla studied his face as though for the first time, now that she remembered a bit of his younger life. She tried to figure out how only ten years could have turned a man in his thirties into such a greybeard.

“It’s just something I remembered.” Though in fact Karla was thinking furiously. If she could figure out the source of that surge in lifting force, she might have a path back to Nashido after all…in a working skycraft.

“And?” Jenny asked determinedly. “What happened next?”

Karla shrank a little. “That’s it,” she said. “I don’t remember anything else. Until…”

Three faces watched her, and she realized that there was only one way to go from here. She would have to tell the story of Year Zero, the one she had remembered in the Inner Citadel.

Then she realized something else: she could tell that story. It terrified her even now. But these people could give her the strength to be brave.

“My mother told me to crumple when we landed on the top of the tower,” she began. “Not to try and land on my feet…”

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.

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