The day Isaac died started as all days do: in shadow.
Strapped in my seat, I looked out of the cab windows of our two-person, bat-wing ornithopter. The cable gantries of Daedalon’s flight bay stretched above me, its hooks like barbs in a net. Other white gliders hung upside-down.
“What’s our weight?” Isaac called from the gangway.
I checked a gauge. “A hundred kilos even,” I shouted back. I put my feet against the pedals. My legs ached in anticipation of the flight ahead.
“Okay, that’s everything,” shouted Isaac to the dockhands. Then he shouted through the door again. “Simon, begin flight check sequence.”
I swallowed. This was it. I took out my clipboard and began calling out the steps, performing the checks on each lever and dial in sequence. I still could only half believe that I was here. I held my own at cadet training, but everybody wanted a chance to fly alongside Isaac Grace, the hotshot, the famous one. But they picked my name at random, and I was only too happy to come along.
Above us, beneath the white-sheet sky, the cables holding Daedalon across the chasm spread out like a spider’s web. Below us, the cliff faces vanished in cloud.
“Lateral wing levers, check,” I called. The ornithopter’s white canvas wings fluttered as I pressed the controls. “Rudder controls, check.”
“Battery levels?” called Isaac as hauled himself into his seat, buckled himself in and turned to face the controls.
“Seventy-five percent,” I called.
“That’s plenty.” He turned and signalled the all-clear to the dock hands, who closed the cabin door on us. I stowed my clipboard in the compartment beneath my seat.
He turned to me, then, his blue eyes bright beneath his shock of blond hair. “How’s things, cadet?”
I swallowed. “Everything checks out. We’re ready to go.”
He grinned. “How are things with you, cadet?”
“Oh.” I faltered. “I’m fine.”
“Butterflies in the stomach?”
“Uh…” In his grin, I found myself grinning back. “Check.”
“Sweaty brow and palms?”
“Congratulations, cadet,” he replied. “You pass all the pre-flight checks of a normal human being.”
I chuckled, a little hysterically.
“Listen,” he said, more serious. “You got us this far. The first flight went well, didn’t it? It isn’t hard flying these things. It gets easier — fun, even — if you loosen up a little. So, let’s have a little fun on the way back, okay?”
He turned away, and made the launch signal through the cab window. The dockworkers nodded and worked the gantry, and the hooks kicked our ornithopter into the air. My stomach lurched as we tipped over the edge, and dropped like a stone.
“All right, Simon,” said Isaac calmly, as the cloudy bottom of the chasm rose up to meet us. “Now.”
I pressed the button, and our jointed wings stretched out, caught the wind, and began to beat. The safety belts caught me and pulled me back in my seat as we jerked level. Wings buzzing, we hurtled forward, between the towering cliffs of the canyon, out from under the cable umbrella of Daedalon. I settled back in my seat, peddling steadily, adding my torgue to the wing’s power, and steering the rudder straight, while Isaac flipped switches, grabbed levers, and peered at the controls. Our town, Auerbach, was an hour away and past several turns in the chasm. I took a deep breath and composed myself for the flight ahead.
I ran over in my mind all of the procedures of flying, and the advice of our instructors. I pictured our ornithopter in the centre of the canyon, like a tiny moth running the routes of a maze: left cliff face half a mile to port, right cliff face half a mile to starboard. Ahead, five miles off, the right cliff face angled cut in front of us: the first turn. I gripped the rudder controls and counted down the minutes. Finally, the black rise of rock on my port side fell away, and a carpet of cloud stretched to my left. I turned the rudder, felt the ornithopter bank, and held on until the chasm opened up in our front wind screen. On my left, the cliff face blocked the city of Daedalon from sight.
“Very good,” said Isaac.
I blinked, then let myself enjoy the flush of pride. I hadn’t realized he was watching.
Isaac flipped some more switches and tugged at some levers a moment, before he turned to me. “You know,” he said, giving me a lopsided grin. “We’re not due back home for an hour, and we’ve got plenty of fuel. Why don’t we take this bat for a spin?”
I stared at him, open mouthed. This was more than a generous offer, a chance not only to fly in an ornithopter, but to really ride it. But even as temptation spoke, my training clamped down. “We shouldn’t.”
“Why not?” said Isaac. “We’re past the first turn. There’s nobody else in the sky. Who will know?” His grin widened. “I’ll let you in on a secret: this is the place is where we upperclassmen stretch our wings a little. I’ve even seen these ornithopters do loop-de-loops.”
I felt my face go white, and he must have noticed that, because he sighed and gave me a sympathetic smile. “We won’t do that today. You need two very experienced operators to pull that off. But that doesn’t mean we have to fly the straight and narrow, here. Let’s go for a little ride. Feel a little bit of free-fall.”
His enthusiasm was infectious. And he was my superior officer, after all.
“C’mon, cadet! Live a little!”
I swallowed. “What do you want to do?”
It was the only encouragement he needed. He turned in his seat, and grabbed the levers. “This.” He pulled.
We plummeted. I yelled.
The air rushed past the cabin, a howling wind that I heard over the sound of our buzzing engines. Only my safety harness held me in my seat and I tried to shove myself down without pushing the rudder controls out of alignment. I saw the altimeter rolling back, like a clock telling people time was going backwards. Fifteen hundred feet. A thousand. Five hundred. My breathing grew ragged. The cloudy floor of the chasm rose up to swallow us.
Then Isaac shoved the lever back just has hard, and we levelled out. Gravity pulled me into my seat, I looked out the window and gasped to see it shrouded in cloud. Isaac quickly adjusted the controls, and we rose up above it, and skimmed the surface of the white carpet.
Isaac laughed, and so did I. My heart raced, and I had to admit, it felt good.
“Well, now,” said Isaac. “Have a look at that.”
We slipped in and out of columns of fog that turn visibility from clear to opaque in an instant. Beneath the veil of white, I saw dark shapes, the limbs of trees, shiftless like a shipwreck underwater.
“The bottom forest,” said Isaac. “The big fog shrouded mystery from which no expeditions return.”
“And you upperclassmen just skim over it for kicks?” I asked. Maybe the adrenaline was making me feel brave.
“Hey,” he said with a shrug. “We’ve got to find some things to impress you kids with.”
“I can’t believe you guys would take risks like that,” I said. “Your commanding officers would drum you out of the squad.”
“We’re perfectly safe up here,” said Isaac sharply. He adjusted his controls and we swung up over a patch of cloud that was darker than the neighbours around it. “You want my opinion about the forest below, it’s just fog and fear that keep us from properly exploring it. Nothing more.”
“But the expeditions,” I started.
“We’re over thirty years ago,” said Isaac. “Funny how no one mentions that. Officials don’t like looking around down there where it’s too foggy to shoot straight, so they don’t try. They haven’t tried, beyond the fenced off perimeters they’ve established below the gantries.”
He looked at me, and I frowned. There was an intensity in his eyes I hadn’t seen before.
“Think about it,” he said. “Think about the fruits we’re able to pick up at the marketpace. All that from our tenuous little grip on the forest below. Think about what we could find if we ventured out from this narrow passage. Just a bit. Just think.”
“It’s dangerous,” I said.
“Of course it is,” he replied. “So’s flying an ornithopter, but we still do it.”
“I never thought you were political,” I said, awed.
He chuckled. “I’m a pilot. Not that it’s against the law, but I’m not supposed to be. So it’s good to have someone to vent to at least.” He gave me another grin. “Thanks.”
Our wings buzzed, sending ripples of fog up in our wake. We flew on, circling over the clouds filling the bottom of the great chasm. Despite myself, my nervous butterflies returned. I glanced at the battery levels, checked my watch. We were spending too much time here.
“We really shouldn’t be here,” I said, swallowing. “We should be getting back home.”
Isaac ignored me. He kept his face to the glass, peering down. “I said we’re safe, so just keep pedalling,” he said at last. “We’re above most of the cloud, so as long as we don’t go any lower, nothing can snag us up here.”
Then, as we passed a dark patch, something leapt out at us.
I yelled as I saw the dark shape sail at our cabin window, claws outstretched. I’d hate to say I screamed. I yanked the controls, and the ornithopter swerved, then pitched, yawing to the right. I shouted in frustration and struggled with the wheel, but the machine wouldn’t respond. I could barely keep it level. Why wouldn’t the machine respond?
“We’ve got a passenger,” Isaac yelled over the groan of the engines.
I could barely look away from the front window as we skimmed across the cloud top. My heart in my throat, I strained to look for the shadows in the mist; some tree limb or something that could catch our ornithopter and bring it crashing down, to vanish us in the mist forever. Ahead, the right cliff face of the chasm became alarmingly distinct.
I did manage a quick glance at the right wing and saw what was making our plane weave. There was a black creature on our wing, as big as a body, but long and limp like a rug. Until it looked up. Then I saw sinew and muscle, claw and teeth. It had hooked itself into the canvas wings of the ornithopter. The wing bent awkwardly under its weight, throwing everything off.
Isaac unhooked his safety harness and stood up, grabbing the cabin frame.
I gave him a quick, wide-eyed look of disbelief before bringing my glance back ahead. “What the heck are you doing?”
“We can’t get lift with that thing on our wing,” he shouted. “A good swift kick; that’s all we need.”
“It’s got teeth!” I yelled.
“That’s why I said a good swift kick!”
He opened the cabin door, and the rush of air around our plane became a roar. He gripped the door frame and kicked at the creature. His foot connected, and the beast roared. It slipped back to the edge of the wing and dangled off of one paw.
Isaac tried another kick, but the creature was too far away, now. But it still held onto our wing. It still pitched us down and to the right. And we were running out of cloud.
“Shake it off!” Isaac shouted, pointing frantically at the sky. “Up! Up!”
There was no choice. The cliff face loomed in front of us. We were still skimming the cloud below. There was nowhere to go but up.
I cranked up Isaac’s lever and locked it into place. The ornithopter’s nose tipped up. Gravity pulled me back into the chair and I struggled to hold onto the controls and keep us from smacking into the cliff face. Rock that seemed sheer from a distance, looked pitted up close, scarred and full of outcrops that could smash our plane like an insect if I wasn’t careful.
I could only cast quick glances over my shoulder at what Isaac was doing. I saw him clinging to the door frame, his foot planted on the side rather than the bottom, kicking away at the spitting snarling lizard that dangled off the edge of the wing. Another quick glance and I saw that the creature’s hooked claws had snagged on the canvas. But with its free hand and bared teeth, there was no way Isaac was going to get close enough to untangle it and let it fall free.
Then I looked ahead, and my breath caught.
We were running out of shadow.
The cliff face ahead glowed in the sun’s radiance. On the other side of the chasm, the cliff-top glittered as the sun shone through the cap of fused silica.
“Isaac!” I yelled. “We’re going into sunlight!”
“Keep going!” he shouted back.
“Are you crazy?!”
“We’ll cook it off!”
“It, and ourselves!” But then, this was why we wore white, why the ornithopter was painted white and draped in white cloth. The hook-clawed creature was black. It was going to fry.
Grimly, I flipped the sunshades down on my goggles. I could only hope that Isaac had time to reach his. I angled the flyer further from the cliff face. The air glittered, and then we hit the first rays of pure sun.
The cabin glowed brilliant in the blue-white light. The temperature jumped as if poked by a stick. My first breath singed my nostrils, and I let out a gasp of pain. I had to remind myself to slow my breathing down. My skin tingled as if in an electric current.
And off the wing, the lizard screamed. And screamed.
I turned in time to see it catch fire. Its claws were still hooked into the canvas of the wing, but Isaac stepped out onto the wing and aimed one good kick. The blackened thing broke apart in a flurry of ash and flame. It sailed down, bright as a meteor.
“Isaac!” I yelled. His clothes were smoking. The plane was smoking. “Get back in!” I reached for the horizontal controls, shook them, then gave them a kick but they wouldn’t come free. I twisted my controls, trying to turn around, going upside-down if I had to. It wouldn’t happen soon enough. “Isaac!”
He struggled to the cab door. He gripped the edge. From here, I could see the skin of his hands blackening. An odour of cooking meat caught my nostrils and made me gag. “Isaac?”
But he stopped, leaning heavily on the door frame. He stared at his hand, distantly. He didn’t look as though he was in pain.
Then the canvas by the door frame caught fire.
Then the wing.
The whole plane was on fire. I scrambled out of my seat
The wing fell apart then, and Isaac fell.
I leapt after him, as the plane collapsed around me. I saw his parachute balloon out behind him, but it too was in flames. Cords snapped, and then he fell, his body alight. He hit shadow like a shooting star.
I looked up nervously. The canvas of my parachute was smoking. I stared until I gasped in pain. The backs of my hands were blistering. I tucked them under my arms and looked down. The veil of shadow was closer, now, but I wasn’t falling quickly enough.
A few weeks ago, I had a dream about a young man who was forced to leave the town he’d grown up in, and fly across the world on his personal kite. Gradually some of the images have reworked themselves and added themselves to others kicking around in my head, to come up with this first scene for what might be my next project. I should be working on rewriting The Night Girl, but with The Dream King’s Daughter resting comfortably, basically done and waiting for progress on other fronts, I’ve decided that it would be good to have this story as a back-up.
I’m indebted to two people for related inspiration here. First, KC Dyer gets credit for coming up with the title Icarus Plummets. It sounds right to me for now, so I’ll keep it and see what comes of it. Secondly, I must thank Cameron Dixon, who just happened to e-mail me about Zoe Keating and her wonderful work combining electronic music with her cello. She’s very Jorane in her way, although without the use of Jorane’s voice, she goes in a subtly different direction, as you can see from this video here:
Zoe Keating has two albums out; we’ve bought them both, and I now have a soundtrack. Erin actually quite likes it too. It’s perfect music to write to, she says.
So, here you have the first scene — basically a first draft, so it will certainly change dramatically as the story develops. I hope you like it.