The hiatus is over! Thanks to everyone for your patience while I caught up on things. It’s back to the regular update schedule starting now.
“Kaaaaarla!” Jenny slid into the clinic on her heels, making enough noise to startle the elderly patients awake. “You ready to go yet?”
“Couple seconds!” Karla called from the side cavern.
“Well, hurry up.” Jenny swaggered past Karla’s slim view on the outer cave. “The food’s already going. Even Aunt Rose beat us there.”
Notwithstanding, Karla knew she had a moment or two to spare. A week after the glow, the infirmary was mostly filled with pilots on the last stages of recovering from blows they took in their landings. Many of their twisted ankles and fractured collarbones had bandages ready to come off. They put walking off for a half a day to rest, drink the endlessly flowing mugs of tea, chat with the others and Rose. They’d be more than able to stall Jenny too.
Especially since most of their injuries were healing fast since they’d gotten word of the party in the square tonight. Through the door, pilots clustered around Jenny asking her who was playing the music, how pretty the girls were, how dashing the men, what there was to eat. Rust Town didn’t gather often, but when it did, the nights were remembered.
Karla took a second to look around the small room before heading out to join them. It was something she caught herself doing a lot lately–checking her surroundings, running her hands over them, trying to convince herself they were real. The little cubicle Rose had set aside for her was nothing special: just a cot with a woven red-and-blue rug as a blanket and a little table with a basin of water and a lantern half-filled with oil. On Nashido, she owned a dozen rooms this one could fit inside.
Yet everything was different. In seven days, she hadn’t yet managed to wake up without pulling on her old still-damp fur jacket and running a checklist of which systems it was her turn to inspect today. The coat smelled awful–the first thing she’d learned on the surface was that old saltwater was about the grossest scent there was–and by the time she made it to the cavern door she’d be sweating buckets. Rose, who was usually up tending to patients at sunrise, had laughed the first time, but quickly fell silent when she saw Karla’s face. By the fourth day, she’d just said good morning, and invited Karla to come hold a man’s leg while she washed it.
When the healer could spare her, she would wander the safe parts of town, from the caves to the crystal square to the hanging wooden piers the Rusters had drilled into the cliffside to grab at more space for more treasure hunters. Often she couldn’t even make it an hour before the sheer number of people overwhelmed her and sent her rushing back to somewhere cool and dark. There were humans stacked on humans in Rust Town, working their gardens, tinkering in their workshops, staggering up and down the paths with heavy loads, none of them noticing her existence except when she was in their way.
On Nashido, she’d been trapped, but at least she knew any other person she saw would be trustworthy. Having only Kio to run into made that simple.
Thinking of him was the only thing that hadn’t changed. Karla could get used to waking up in a cave on the surface. Not to waking up without knowing how to reach him.
Her third day, when the crush of people had gotten too much again, Karla had urged herself not to run back to the infirmary. She hadn’t finally reached the surface just so she could hole up in a cave. Instead, she had found a little switchback trail that ran behind the crystal square, and soon enough was winding her way up the cliff face.
The sun was high on a warm day, and she felt her heartbeat slowing. This she could deal with. As she climbed above the town, the dome of blue sky expanded. Amid the lonely path, the high breeze rustling clumps of heather clinging to the rock, Karla could almost feel at home.
The clockwork helped, too. Drilled into the side of the cliff face were several sets of pulleys attached by rope to lifts and hooks, meant for raising aircraft up to the lofty alpine meadows where they could be launched without jostling dozens of others. She was tempted to try taking a ride on one of them–but of course they were meant to be used with someone at the top. These people were so used to a world full of others top help them that they hadn’t even set up a decent counterweight.
Mid-afternoon, she stopped to take a break on a wide ledge. She sat down in the grass and felt its chill through her fingers. A tiny brown bird chirped at her from an aerie a few feet above.
She could have kept going to see what was on top of the mountain–from her new angle, at least. But when she leaned back and looked at the sky, it was suddenly empty.
It had been before, of course. The sun was gone. There were no clouds. And the crystal wasn’t glowing, the Rusters not launching their planes, so there was no Nashido. But before, there had been roofs or the mountain itself to distract her from the fact that Kio was so far gone she couldn’t look up to see him.
A star, she had thought, sitting up and clutching her face in her hands. We should have picked out a star to look at together. That’s what they’re always doing in the stories.
She’d stumbled her way back down the trail, and hadn’t gone up again since.
“Karla!” Jenny’s voice shook her awake. The young engineer had pushed into Karla’s room to find her standing motionless, staring into her washbasin. “You coming or what?”
Karla blinked. The room was real. “Yeah,” she said, managing a smile. “Let’s go.”
Jenny grabbed her hand and led her out through the cave, waving goodbye to the assembled pilots as she passed. Some waved back, some smiled at Karla, some got up to hobble after them, but not quickly enough. Hooked to Jenny, Karla had to race to keep up.
On the arcing path that led along the cliff above the north end of Rust, Jenny suddenly stopped, pondering. Then she asked, “Do you think pedalling is inefficient?”
“Well, yeah,” Karla answered without thinking. “Maybe not on all flights, but you’re building for a mile across the sea and three directly into the air. It doesn’t matter how strong you are. Your legs would give out.”
Jenny started walking again, but slower, letting Karla fall into step. “Sure. But you’ve seen what we’ve been working on at Uncle Griff’s. Hell, you’ve replaced half of it this week, and we’re about to tear out the other half based on all you’ve told us. Couldn’t that make pedalling work?”
“It’s…” Karla considered. “It’s not that. It’s this idea that there needs to be a power source at all. There’s enough force in the world to move anything anywhere, it doesn’t need its own propulsion.”
“Maybe not when all you have to is glide, but–”
“Updrafts! Updrafts are a thing!”
They kept on this way, back and forth, while the sound of fiddles and drums grew louder. At last, they emerged into the plaza under the quiet crystal.
Parties in Rust Town never seemed to be arranged by anybody, so Jenny had told her. Every now and then, everybody just realized all at once that there ought to be one. People would exchange words in the drinking pits, other people would run home to bring word to families, those families would discuss what they could spare, and one or two days later, someone had slaughtered a pig and tables were groaning with vegetables and half the town was sprawled on the grass in the twilight, talking and cajoling each other to dance.
Karla hardly had time to wave to Dr. Griffin, who was having his ear talked off by the Carpenter twins, before Jenny yanked her arm once more and pulled her into the middle of the square. Rusters were already dancing to the pounding music, in couples or groups or ambitiously alone.
“I have no idea how to–how do you dance?” Karla protested.
Jenny shrugged. “Just kinda flop around. Don’t think too hard.”
“How are you doing it? You think all the time!”
“C’mon, Karla, don’t you remember being a kid?”
Never was one, Karla thought, but didn’t speak. The torches hung around the square like fairy lights, the engineers sampling beef and crackers and trays of veggies instead of furtively sneaking through the streets, though they were still carrying knives and heavy wrenches…it all combined to send a rush through her.
She wanted to be worthy of tonight. It would make her worthy of the whole surface.
She threw herself into the dance, following Jenny’s spastic lead. The musicians under the crystal consisted of three fiddlers with different sizes of instrument, two people sitting on crates they pounded with their hands, and one plucking a long-necked banjo. They weren’t all playing quite the same notes, but their accidental harmonies added to the sense that Rust Town had slipped for the night into another, happier dimension. Plus, they were playing fast, and joyfully.
Jenny had to put a hand on her shoulder to get her to stop. “I’ll get drinks, yeah? Oughta be something we can keep down.” She clicked her tongue and wove off into the crowd.
Kio wouldn’t want me to sit around in a cave and pine. But with that thought, as she edged off the dance floor, came renewed guilt–she’d been working in Griffin’s workshop every day, but she’d wasted time rambling around on the mountain…
She was still thinking about how to put in more hours at Griffin’s shop when she nearly ran into the man himself. The square was wide, dancers only taking up a circle in the middle, but she’d skirted its edges faster than she thought. She’d come to where Griffin had just extricated himself from the Carpenters and gone over to join Rose.
The healer was standing with her wrench at her waist, tensed, ready to swing.
She looked around when Karla approached. Her eyes widened. “Go back with the other kids, Karla,” she said quickly. “You don’t need to see this.”
“Screw that.” Karla pushed her way between them. Griffin grunted, but didn’t take his eyes off the entrance to the square. With a hiss of leather, he drew his long knife.
Karla’s stomach clenched. She raised her eyes and saw a small man in a gaudy overcoat, soaked to the bone. He was panting and out of breath, his hands on his knees.
“Master Ranson,” she snarled.
“Please,” the slaver gasped when he could talk. “Listen to me. Would I have jumped off my raft if I wasn’t serious?”
“You might be lying,” Karla shot back. “You know, because you’re a floating piece of–”
“Karla,” Griffin warned. She shook off the hand he tried to place on her arm and took a step toward Ranson.
The slaver flinched. Huh. That’s new.
“Talk,” Karla demanded.
“He can talk from a jail cell.” Rose stepped forward, but Karla flung out an arm.
“Please, Rose. I want to hear this.”
Ranson gulped. “The Emperor is coming. He’s got thirteen ships on their way here, and they’re prepared to invade.”
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