On December 31, 2008, I opened up Textedit and wrote down the following:
Last night I dreamed about a boy who built himself a kite to fly around the world. It wasn’t a pleasant journey because the people around the world were in distress, fighting each other. But somehow his journey helped enough people to make a difference.
The boy lived on an isolated village at the top of a huge cliff. His fellow children made fun of him and his wish to fly, until he shocks them all by jumping off the cliff and flying. (Note, even the bullies don’t consider throwing him off the cliff. They just want him to go back to the village to be humiliated. They get a little scared when he proposes to jump)
Within two months, this had evolved into the first scenes of Icarus Down. Along the way, the story changed substantially. The world was no longer fighting each other, but it was hiding a terrible secret, and the cities were no longer at the edge of cliffs, but tethered halfway down the chasms. Over the next fourteen months, I explored the world of Icarus Down, discovered the mystery at the core of the colony, and made Simon come of age. Finally, at 10:52 a.m. today, at a table of the Second Cup coffee shop, I put the finishing touches on the final scenes, finishing the first draft of my sixth novel.
I feel good, and also a little wiped. For eighteen months, now, I’ve been sharing Simon’s burden. And now that it’s off my shoulders, I feel a bit at a loss. This has happened before with my other manuscripts. My friend Martin described the completion of major projects such as this as akin to being a marathon runner at the end of the race. Suddenly having that thing you’ve focused on so long out of your way leaves you a little empty, and mourning its loss.
And as often happens when writing, the element which was the initial inspiration was one of the last items removed before the story could be done. I actually finished a version of Icarus Down just after midnight on Saturday, May 22, but as I was pushing through the last scenes, Erin suggested a substantial change: perhaps it would be better if, instead of an ornithopter pilot, Simon was a clerk at his city’s communications office. After all, the story turned on issues of language and communication, and being a postal clerk had more resonance here — not to mention, it made Simon more of an unassuming everyman, forced by circumstances to do extraordinary things. I had to go through the story again to make these changes before I was comfortable calling the whole thing a first draft.
And at 86,000 words, Icarus Down has passed another milestone. It is officially the longest single story that I’ve ever authored or co-authored. Previously, the record was held by the Doctor Who fan fiction story, In Tua Nua (co-authored with Joseph Keeping, clocking in at 82,500 words). There’s no guarantee that Icarus Down will remain this length. I fear that parts of the story are too talky, and I’ll be trying to cut down the word count. On the other hand, revisions to The Night Girl and The Dream King’s Daughter expanded both stories by as much as 10,000 words.
So, what happens now? Well, it’s time for me to set this story aside. I have a few people who have consented to read this story and offer me their honest feedback, and once I get it, I’ll set about rewriting the whole thing again. Then, maybe, it will be ready for professional submission.
Below, you shall find a revision of the opening scene (see the original here), taking into account Simon’s new profession, and amplifying the setting of the tale. I’ll leave it to you to decide if improvements were made.
The day Isaac died started as all days do: a kilometre in the air, and veiled in shadow.
I was at the bottom level of Daedalon, in the flight bay waiting area, sitting near one of the doors, looking over the notes I’d need for my report to Iapyx’s Postmaster General. (I’d thought that by turning Iapyx’s semaphore by two degrees, the sight lines to Daedalon could be improved, and my trip here had just about confirmed that.) I was feeling nothing more than warm competence, boredom (I’d been waiting for a while) and — well, a little trepidation; but not about what was about to happen. It was just that flight bays — and flights — are not my natural habitat.
The little wood room with its perspex doors bustled as people came and left from the other cities, some hauling crates, some holding clipboards. There was a rattle and a clang as an ornithopter dropped from its gantry, and then a loud but fading buzzing as its wings engaged. I looked up at the door to the platform where my ornithopter waited to take me home. The arrow was still angled in the “please wait” position. I glanced at the clock on the wall, and looked through my notes again.
A rattle and a clang brought my attention around. The arrow above my door had tilted. It now pointed to “ready to board.” I got up, gathered my things, and stepped to the door. As I reached for the doorhandle, I hesitated. I listened to the bustle of people behind me, and the buzzing of ornithopter engines. I took a deep breath.
I’m not afraid of heights, I told myself. Twice.
I pushed open the door.
The hot wind tugged at my tunic and my hair. I stepped onto the metre wide platform and grabbed hold of a plastic-sheathed cable. My other hand touched the harness of the emergency parachute all passengers had to wear, though the thought behind it wasn’t particularly comforting.
If you’re worried, the pilot had told me when coming here, then just don’t look down. Of course, he looked down all the time.
Above me, the cable gantries of the capital city stretched away on all sides. Below — and I very carefully did not look — were banks of clouds. Around me were the pier-hooks. White planes from Daedalon and the other twelve cities swung gently on their tailfins, waiting. I saw the hammer and cog insignia of Daedalon, the arrowhead of my city, Iapyx, the little bird of Perdix, and more. I took another deep breath. Then another.
Below me, through the latticework of cables binding Daedalon to the cliff face, clouds rolled and billowed over the floor of the chasm, a sheet of white backing the black web. The stem of the city started as a small point in that whiteness, before rising and widening into the curving wall behind me. Behind it, the cliff face stretched up further, bathing us in shadow.
It was hard to tell how far it was to the clouds below. Sometimes they looked as soft and up-close as bedding. Then, moments later, the wind would pick up, the clouds would shift, and it felt as though, if you fell, you’d fall forever. I’m not afraid of heights, I told myself again. Just the outside. I mustn’t think otherwise, or the fear wouldn’t go away by going inside.
An ornithopter flew in and caught itself in one of the pier-hooks, which dragged it to a stop by another landing bay. The impact rang the cables like a bow against a cello.
I brought my gaze back up to my ornithopter and swallowed down my stomach. I stepped towards the open hatchway.
A hand shot out, palm open, and blocked my way. “Sorry,” said a voice inside. “Pressed the ‘ready’ button a bit too early. Still some preparations to do before you can board.”
My stomach lurched. I clutched my clipboard to my chest. “W-what?”
“Won’t be a moment,” said the voice, which sounded strangely familiar. “I just need to replace the batteries.”
I gaped. “We’re underpowered?”
“Not for long!”
Behind me, the pneumatic tubes whistled and a canister thunked into the receiving hatch. I looked back.
“There they are!” said the voice. The hand pointed. “Be a gent, will you, and get them for me?”
I turned, did a quick step to the pneumatic tubes, and pulled open the hatch. The canister inside was too large to be picked up with one hand — I knew that, but I’d been in denial about it — so I set my clipboard down, the flapping papers on the bottom, and pulled the canister from its receptacle.
“Don’t drop it!” the voice called.
I bobbled the canister and caught it just before it went sailing one kilometre to the clouds below. “Thanks,” I growled, clutching the canister to my chest. “I hadn’t thought of that.” I walked back to the ornithopter and held out the canister. The hand snatched it inside. I heard the pop of the container being opened, and the snick and snick of batteries being slipped into their slots. Then the canister came sailing out at me. I caught it, bobbled it, then held on.
“Thanks,” said the voice inside. I knew I’d heard it from somewhere before, but where? “Could you send it back, if you wouldn’t mind?”
I glanced at the label and saw that the return address was already on it. I nodded. The Battery Officers ran a tight ship. The Daedalon Postmaster must hold them to a high standard.
I went over to the pneumatic tubes, shoved the canister inside and hit the button. A hiss of steam shot the canister through the tube into the ceiling. The hiss continued for several seconds, lowering in tone as the canister swept further away. I picked up my clipboard and turned back to the ornithopter. “Are we ready now?”
The ornithopter hatch was empty. From within, the voice called, “Sure! Come on in!”
“Finally,” I muttered. I grabbed the open hatch and hauled myself inside. I clambered over the freight compartment and slipped into the passenger chair. Making sure I was strapped in, and my clipboard stowed beneath me, I turned the winch beside my arm-rest, turning my chair to face the front windshield and the cavern floor through the windshield. Gravity tugged me against my harness. Again, I swallowed down my stomach.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m ready.”
“Good to know,” said the pilot, and he looked back, grinning at me.
In an instant, I forgot the fear in my stomach. “Isaac?!”
His grin widened. “Hello, Simon. Long time no see.”
“What are you doing here?!”
He shrugged, then pointed to the pale grey dragonfly insignia on his sleeve. “Well, I am an ornithopter pilot, and this is an ornithopter.”
He held up a hand. “Just a minute. Flight check sequence.” He tapped at the gauges on his dashboard. “We’re two-hundred kilos even. At full power. Lateral wing levers, check. Rudder controls, check… Okay.”
He signalled to the dock hands, who came over and closed the ornithopter door on us. They gave the door a four-code tap before stepping to the release lever.
“Right,” said Isaac. “That’s the all clear. The semaphore has been sent to Iapyx, which will soon be functioning better thanks to you, I hear, and the flight hands there will be expecting us.”
Some distance above us, even through the walls of our ornithopter, I heard a creak and boom as the giant arms of the Daedalon semaphore atop the vast dome of the city clanked and turned into their positions, relaying our message a letter at a time, a beacon above the sunline. Across the miles, I pictured the watchers of my own city, huddled in their roof bunker, wearing sunglasses and watching through mirrors, noting each letter down. Risking blindness. I was thankful I spent more time in the heart of Iapyx, where the pneumatic tubes converged.
Isaac turned his bright grin on me. “We’re all ready. Are you all ready?”
I leaned away from him. So, this was it. My second flight on one of the buzzing insects that flew the chasms connecting the thirteen cities. An hour of whitened knuckles, paired up with Isaac Abel, the hotshot ornithopter pilot who’d always been one year above me in school back home on Iapyx, right down to preschool, and who had never, ever let me forget it.
Well, until he’d graduated.
“Ready,” I said, my voice tight.
Isaac made the launch signal through the cab window. The dockworkers nodded and pulled the lever. The hooks kicked our ornithopter into the air. My stomach lurched as we dropped like a stone. Faster we fell, and faster. The clouds rose up to catch us.
“Steady,” Isaac muttered, his brow furrowed in concentration. “Steady… Now!”
He pressed a button, and our dragonfly wings shuddered and began to beat. I jerked back into my seat as our plane levelled out. Wings buzzing, we hurtled forward, between the towering cliffs of the canyon, out from under the cable umbrella of Daedalon.
“Relax, Simon, these things practically fly themselves.” To illustrate, he let go of the controls, and kept speaking while the colour drained from my cheeks. “If I wasn’t here to push the controls forward, this thing would rise up forever. They’re impossible to crash. Well, except against the cliff-face.” Then he suddenly grabbed the wheel and gave it a quick turn. “Oh, and the city gantries,” he added. “Yeah, I’ve definitely got to watch out about that.”
I gripped the armrests of my seat, hard.
“And there we go,” said Isaac, resetting the controls and giving me a grin. The gantries of Daedalon slipped away behind us, and our ornithopter struck out along the centre of the canyon, like a tiny moth running the routes of a maze. Ahead, two kilometres off, the right cliff face angled in front of us: the first turn.
“Excuse me a second,” said Isaac. He gripped the rudder controls again, and began counting down. Finally, the black rise of rock on our port side fell away, and a cloud of carpet stretched out to the left of us. Isaac turned the rudder, and I felt the ornithopter bank. I held on until the chasm opened up in our front windscreen. The chasm here angled more to the south, meaning that the sun cut lower on the cliffs, so Isaac dropped us a couple hundred metres to compensate. On our left, the cliff face blocked the city of Daedalon from sight.
Isaac flipped some more switches and tugged at some levers a moment, before he turned to me. “There we go.” He gave me a lopsided grin. “So, how have you been, Simon?”
I finally found my voice. “What are you doing here, Isaac?”
“I thought we’d covered that,” he said, “with the comment about this being an ornithopter, and me being an ornithopter pilot?”
“No,” I snapped. “What are you doing being my ornithopter pilot?”
He shrugged. “Does there have to be a reason? Couldn’t it be a coincidence?”
My eyes narrowed. “Is it a coincidence?”
He looked away. “No. I asked for this assignment.”
“Why not?” he said. “I’m heading home for vacation. I saw your flight was on the duty chart, and I signed up. I thought we could catch up on old times. After all, we haven’t seen each other since…”
“Nocturne,” I said grimly. “Almost two years ago.”
“Well, yeah,” he said, still smiling. “It’s been a while.” He nodded at the circled emblem of an envelope in flight on my sleeve. “You enjoying your stint in the Postmaster’s office?”
“I can’t complain,” I said, slowly, keeping an eye on him. It was odd, making small talk like this. Seeing his smile with no hint of a tease in it; at least, no malicious hint. “I’ve been there about six months, so it’s mostly been grunt work, you know? Grabbing the canisters, reading the labels, and passing them over for sorting. What about you? You like being a pilot?”
“Oh, yeah,” he said, his smile widening. “Much more exciting than, well, anything else.” He adjusted the controls for a slight turn in the chasm, then looked back at me. “You know,” he said, giving me that lopsided grin of his. “We’re not due back home for an hour, and we’ve got plenty of power in the batteries. Want to take this bug for a spin?”
I blinked at him. “You sure it’s wise to deviate from the flight plan?”
“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 where we upperclassmen stretch our wings a little. I’ve seen these ornithopters do loop-de-loops.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle. This was the Isaac I knew. “And you never got caught?”
“I think our superiors secretly condone it,” he said. “They think it makes us better pilots, and we have the tradition of living on the edge to think about. So… You want to try some things? Feel a little bit of free-fall?”
I frowned at him. “This isn’t one of your old pranks, is it?” There, I’d said it.
He looked at me, a little hurt. “Simon, I haven’t done anything like that to you in years. Haven’t we moved on?”
Well, maybe he hadn’t done anything to me deliberately. But until he graduated ahead of me, I’d felt his shadow over me. It was, frankly, odd to see him being so nice to me.
“I’ve grown up a little,” he said, almost as if he’d heard my thoughts. “I’ve… seen things. And…” He looked away. “I’m sorry for calling you Simple Simon all those years.”
I blinked at him. “Um… Okay.”
“I’m sorry I dropped that spider down your shirt in fifth year.”
“Um…” I coughed. “Okay.”
“And I’m sorry about pantsing you in the gymnasium in front of the girls.”
“Well, it was funny.”
“Look,” he said, unfamiliar in his seriousness again. “We’re not in school anymore. I’m a pilot, you’re a postmaster clerk. So, trust me.” He thought about this, then added, “Well, maybe not trust me per se, but trust in the fact that I’m flying this plane with you and we’re over the fog forest and if we have to bail, then we’ll both be in really big trouble.” He looked at me sidelong. “You did remember to put on your parachute, didn’t you?”
I couldn’t stop myself from grinning. His enthusiasm was infectious. “Yes, I did,” I said, carefully. “What do you want to do?”
He turned in his seat and grabbed the levers. “This.” He pulled.
We plummeted. I yelled.
“You said you wouldn’t play any more pranks!” I shouted.
“I said you needed to trust me!” he shouted back.
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. I saw the altimeter rolling back, like a clock telling time backwards. A thousand metres. Five hundred. Two-fifty. My breathing grew ragged. The cloudy floor of the chasm rose up to swallow us.
Then Isaac shoved the lever back just as 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. I had to admit, it felt good.
“Well, now,” said Isaac, leaning forward. “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.
“The fog forest,” said Isaac. “The big shrouded mystery from which no expeditions return.”
“And you pilots just skim over it for kicks?” I asked.
“Hey,” he said with a shrug. “We’ve got to find some things to impress passengers with.”
“I can’t believe you guys would take risks like that!” I said. “The Flight Master 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? It’s just fear that keeps us from properly exploring it. Nothing more.”
I started. “But the expeditions! The—” I caught myself. I almost said ‘ticktock monsters’. Instead, I said, “…animals.”
“The expeditions were over thirty years ago,” said Isaac. “Funny how no one mentions that. And as for the animals? Well, the ones that have blundered into the stem compounds have been a great source of meat. I can understand that our officials don’t like looking around where it’s too foggy to shoot straight, but there are ways of dealing with that. They simply haven’t tried. We haven’t moved past the fences in decades”
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 marketplace right now; all 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. Maybe even the Icarus itself.”
I snorted and shook my head. “The Icarus is long gone.”
“You don’t know that,” he said.
“It’s been fifty years, Isaac,” I said, incredulous. “If that ship was in the fog forest, it’s long since rusted and rotted out.”
“Yeah, but what if it’s not?” said Isaac. “Think of the technology we could recover if we found her. Living could get a lot easier in our cities. We won’t know unless we try.”
“Of course it is,” he replied. “So’s flying an ornithopter, but we still do it.”
I frowned at him. “Since when did you get so political?”
He shrugged. “Theres’s no law against being political. But some officers do frown on it. So it’s good to have someone to vent to at least.” He gave me another grin. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” I said, after a moment.
Our wings buzzed, sending up ripples of fog 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 kept his face to the glass, peering down. “I said we’re safe. We’re above most of the cloud, so as long as we don’t go any lower, nothing can snag us.”
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 jerked back, and the ornithopter swerved, then pitched, yawing to the right. The roar of the engines intensified as we strained to stay aloft.
I looked around, astonished, wondering how I’d caused the ornithopter to pitch like that. Then I saw Isaac. He wrestled with the controls, struggling to keep the ornithopter level. Ahead, the chasm’s right cliff face became alarmingly distinct.
“Simon,” Isaac yelled. “Check my starboard! Is there something on the wing?”
My heart in my throat, I pulled at the restraining harness and peered over my shoulder. A black creature was on our wing, big as a body, but long and limp like a rug. It moved.
“We’ve got a passenger,” I shouted over the groan of the engines.
Isaac looked back and swore, He unhooked his safety harness and stood up, grabbing the cabin frame. He pulled me towards his seat. “Grab the wheel!”
I gaped at him. “What the heck are you doing?!”
“We can’t manoeuvre with that thing on our wing,” he shouted. “A good swift kick; that’s all we need.”
“But the ornithopter—”
“Your choice,” he yelled. “You take the wheel, or you kick that thing off the wing. Which would you rather?”
I looked back. The creature looked up, and opened its mouth. Its roar was lost to the sound of the engines but I saw sinew and muscle, claw and teeth. Lots of teeth. The claws had hooked themselves into the canvas wing, which bent awkwardly under the weight.
“Just hold her steady,” Issac shouted.
I unhooked myself from the seat. I pushed past Isaac and grabbed the controls. The sudden pitch of the ornithopter knocked me into the pilot’s chair. I fought to hold the controls steady as they jerked in my hands.
Isaac opened the cabin door, and the rush of air around our plane became a roar. I chanced a look back. 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. And we were running out of room.
“Shake it off!” Isaac shouted. He mimed pulling the controls towards me and pointed 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 pulled the controls towards me. The ornithopter 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.
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.
Ahead, the cliff face 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. This was why the ornithopter was painted white and draped in white cloth. The hook-clawed creature was black. It was going to fry.
I narrowed my eyes to slits. I could only hope that Isaac had sunshields on his goggles. I angled the flyer further from the cliff face. The air glittered, and 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.
I turned in time to see it catch fire. Its claw was still hooked into the canvas of the wing, but Isaac leaned out 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 twisted my controls, but I had no idea how to turn the thing around. “Isaac!”
Isaac 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, hitting the panic button on my emergency parachute.
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, at the same time as mine, but his was already in flames. Cords snapped, and 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.
I hunkered down and prayed for a quick end.