I think most writers — the lucky ones, at least — have a loved one who is a natural editor, be it parent or child or sibling or spouse who isn’t afraid to say exactly what he or she thinks about what the writer has written. That person has a sense of what works and what doesn’t, and is a wealth of ideas on how certain things can be improved. Only the most arrogant writers think that they don’t need to be edited. Those people who can give you advice and still manage to speak to you the next day are a vital asset that must be cherished. Indeed, it’s critical. Your material has a much stronger chance of being accepted by editors if it comes pre-edited.
I’m lucky enough that I don’t have one such individual, I have two: my mother, and my wife. Both are published authors (we are eagerly counting down to the official release date of Erin’s Plain Kate). Both are talented. And both aren’t afraid to tell me when something isn’t working in one of my stories and when something needs to be changed. My mother has long proofread my material, going back from my fan-fiction days, and her advise has always been helpful. My first draft of Icarus Down was no different.
Some of you will recall this bit of advice, which forced me to reconsider a critical aspect of Simon’s character:
The big weakness in the book is Simon (who ought to be your greatest strength)… …You have cast Simon very much as a beta male — he is passive, does not try very hard to hold his own against Isaac, tends to follow Rachel’s lead, chooses a risk-free career, insists on not questioning authority, and does very little thinking for himself. In conversation, his responses often make him seem startled, abashed, or confused. This does not make him a character who engages the reader’s interest or sympathy.
You’ll also remember her suggestion: make Simon a pilot, as he was when I first started the story, instead of a postal clerk.
But Erin had some advice of her own to add. Simply changing Simon back into a pilot wasn’t enough. The first scene didn’t quite snap. And part of it, she thought, may have been due to the ambiguous relationship between Isaac and Simon. They clearly have a long history together, but they’re not related. As a result, Isaac comes off as a bully, and Simon comes off as a wimp by simply accepting his presence. There have been friendships between golden boys and quiet keeners before, but if Isaac irritates Simon, why doesn’t Simon just walk away?
But what if Isaac and Simon were brothers?
You can see the difference in my mother and my wife’s creative styles, here. My mother came up with her suggestion after an extensive review of my full manuscript, considering the character of Simon as a whole and identifying the change that could improve the structure of his character throughout the story. Erin’s idea came more spontaneously, one evening as we were getting ready for bed. Her view was, the difference in Simon and Isaac’s characters was not one that would naturally bring them into conflict with each other, unless they tied closer together by familial bonds.
This meshed several dangling elements in the early part of the novel together. The mystery of Isaac showing up on Simon’s maiden flight deepens, from an attempt by Isaac to recruit Simon to a cause, to a discussion about something that is now a pressing concern for the both of them: their mother’s mysterious death.
Erin went further, and took a stab at revising the first scene. After a bit of back and forth between her and me, we have a completely new opener for Icarus Down, which I’d like to share with you, after the break:
My name is Simon Daud, and I was never the special one.
My brother Isaac, now: he was a golden boy. He was older than me — two and a half years — and one of those people to whom everything comes easily. He entered the room and people smiled. He turned in his perfect schoolwork and his teachers smiled. He turned his bright eyes — they were a peculiar shade of amber — toward some girl, and she smiled. He went to the flight academy a year early, became the youngest full-fledged pilot in our colony’s short history, and the mayor himself smiled, and gave him a medal. In short, the universe smiled on Isaac. Right up to the morning he died.
It was, I thought for a long time, my fault. If you’ve read deep enough into the history to bother with this annotation, you already know it wasn’t; you understand what really happened. That puts you ahead of me, because when I remember it — and I remember it like it was yesterday; nothing textbooky about it — it still feels like my fault.
He shouldn’t have been there at all, of course. God knows what strings he pulled. (It’s in some other annotation, I expect. You can check) The senior pilot that accompanies a junior pilot on his maiden flap is chosen at random, but obviously older golden-boy brothers shouldn’t be called on to supervise younger, unremarkable ones. But Isaac could always bend the rules.
“What are you doing here?” I said to him, when he turned up that morning on the cable gantries outside Daedalon’s flight bay. Actually, I shouted it to him: the hot wind rushing across the underside of the city was loud, and the cables that held the city suspended hummed like cello strings, so I had to shout to be heard. They could put all the vibration dampeners they wanted, and maybe inside the city you wouldn’t know it, but any pilot or gantry spider would tell you: our cities sang. Daedalon, the capital of our colony and our largest city, had a bass thrum you could feel in your femur. All around me, ornithopters hung like dragonflies caught in a spiderweb. Even folded, their fabric wings surged and rattled.
I’d already been waiting on the gantries for an hour, and I was just about roasted and nearly deaf. It was getting hard not to pace. It was, after all, my first flight as lead pilot. Today, I was going to earn my badge or wash out. Useless adrenaline was knocking around my system, and the delay wasn’t helping. I’d thought it was a problem with the batteries. But when they finally turned up — the pneumatic capsule whoosh-thunking into the tube end — I took them out, turned around and, ta-da, there he was: in his white uniform, the arrowhead of Iapyx above his heart identifying our city; the winged man, falling, on his shoulder: in memory of our colony ship, the emblem of Icarus Down. “Seven senior pilots on shift and I drew you?” I said. “Honestly, Isaac, it just isn’t fair!”
He came close, taking the tube of batteries from me and raising his voice over the oven wind. Our hair blew and tangled together, golden and unremarkably brown. “Fair won’t keep your flight level, cadet,” he answered. “Fair’s got nothing to do with it.”
There was never any point in arguing with Isaac. Holding on to one of the plastic-sheathed cables, I inched to the two-man ornithopter. Beneath my feet — far beneath my feet, a kilometre down — clouds rolled and billowed over the floor of the chasm, a sheet of white backing the black web of Daedalon’s suspension cables.
Behind my left shoulder was the only solid thing from down below: the stem of the city. Its wall curved behind me and swept downward, narrowing like a funnel and finally vanishing into a black point in all that white cloud. Further off were the cliff faces — Daedalon, like all our cities was, you’ll remember, suspended halfway down a clicks-deep chasm. The cliffs stretched upward, bathing us in shadow. Far above, I could see the sunlight blazing off fused silica, too bright to look at directly. Up there over the diamond lands, exposed to our too-bright sun, an ornithopter’s cloth wings would catch fire in under five minutes. A human being would sustain fatal burns in far less time. I didn’t know it, but I had about another hour before I was going to become intimately acquainted with that fact.
My first hour as a pilot, and my last. My brother’s last hour in the world.
Isaac was all business as he climbed into the rear seat and did up the buckles of his harness. He stowed the bag of lead he carried — the one that would perfectly balance his weight in level flight. I did the same. “Ballast in,” he reported, formally. “Cadet, what’s our weight?”
Between the pilot’s seat and the rear seat, the ornithopter engineers had squeezed a small bank of gauges. I checked one of them, tucking my head down to avoid my brother’s eyes. They were bright that morning. I was sure he was planning something. “Two hundred kilos, even.” I paused just long enough before adding, “sir.”
“Good. Battery levels?”
I had just put the batteries in, myself, a second ago. I did — I know I did — look at the gauge anyway, just to be sure. “Full power.”
“Lateral control reads true,” I said. “Vertical control reads true. Rudder true. Green board.” It wasn’t green, or a board; it was a series of wooden switches. But two generations beforehand, we’d been a star-faring civilization. Old words die hard.
“Tailhook reads true,” Isaac said. I’d missed that one, but he didn’t comment. He looked at me with his sunshine eyes and grinned dangerously. “Crank over.”
Finally. I turned the winch, cranking my chair around to face the windshield. My back left the seat; my chest pressed hard against the harness. Now there was nothing in front of me but the hand and foot levers of the flight mechanisms and, beyond that, a mile-long drop. And now I was in charge. The lead pilot. Isaac was just the navigator. Well, just the navigator who could wash me out of flight school with one report. I heard him tapping the Morse lever. “Requesting permission to drop, pilot,” he said.
We waited. At last, I heard the creak and boom as the giant arms of the Daedalon semaphore, standing atop the vast dome of the city, clanked and turned, aligning to send our flight plan. Poking above into the sunlight, the semaphore mirrors were a beacon that could be seen across the kilometres by watchers in my own city. Huddled in their roof bunker on Iapyx, wearing smoked goggles and watching through filtered mirrors, the semaphore operators risked blindness as they wrote each letter down. They’d put the pencilled slip in a pneumatic, send it down to Iapyx’s flight bay, who would reply, and then…
We waited some more. Hanging from its tailhook, the ornithopter swayed like a pendulum, waiting with us. Finally, the Morse lever clicked to life. Isaac read it out, though he didn’t have to: I knew the code well enough to translate by ear. “Iapyx is expecting us, pilot,” said Isaac. “We are clear to drop.”
I took a deep breath; I couldn’t help it. “Drop,” I said. And we did.
We fell. We needed to be well clear of the cabling before deploying wings, but I lost track of time when I was falling and it was always tempting to unfold too early. I tried to keep the count in my head. I’m sure Isaac never had to count out loud. My mind said the name of my city — one eye-a-pix, two eye-a-pix — and when I got to ten, I heaved back on both hand levers. They fought. Even with the gears, it’s no small thing to push wings out against that kind of speed. The wood handles shuddered; my arms shook. And then levers jerked as the wind caught the wings and snapped them back and into their locks. They seated with a stomach-lurching shchunk, and the ornithopter swung around to level as if it had hit a tightly curved rail. It wanted to keep swinging, and head up, but I fought it. “Wings set,” I reported, unnecessarily. “Navigator, start engine.”
Isaac hit the electric button — the only one on board — and the engine came up with a hum. The ornithopter’s dragonfly wings started to buzz. We were away, flying level, pretty as a picture. I’d done it perfectly. Isaac said not a word.
As we came out from under the cable umbrella of Daedalon, I settled back in my seat, keeping the ornithopter straight and level. Iapyx was an hour away and past several turns in the chasm. I ran over in my mind all the procedures of flying, and the advice of our instructors. I pictured our ornithopter in the centre of the canyon, like a tiny moth flying the routes of a maze: left cliff face half a kilometre to port, right cliff face half a kilometre to starboard. Ahead, five clicks off, the right cliff face angled 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. This length was angled more to the south, meaning that the sun cut lower on the cliffs, here, and I dropped us a hundred metres to compensate. On my left, the cliff face blocked the city of Daedalon from sight.
“Very good,” said Isaac.
“Let me be the first to congratulate you, Pilot Daud.”
“You’re supposed to file a report,” I protested. “It has to be evaluated.”
“Formality. You were never going to wash out, Si. You’re the best cadet the flight school’s had since… well, me. Didn’t you know?”
“Uh… no?” My brother always provoked me to brilliant conversation.
“Trust me. Your wings will be waiting for you when we hit Iapyx. I ordered them myself.”
“Oh,” I said.
“In the meantime, here were are in the middle of nowhere, sky to ourselves, an hour’s easy flying from any prying ears.”
“Prying ears?” I echoed. See what I mean? Brilliant.
“You’d be surprised,” he said. “We need to talk, Simon. It’s important. It’s — it’s about Mom.”
Mom. Is she even a footnote to a footnote, now? I don’t suppose she’s important enough even for that. Funny how things turn out, that you’re reading about me. Simon Daud, age (at the time) 16. Older brother: Isaac, 19. Father: Abram, a gantry spider by profession — one of the men who tended to and expanded the webs of cables that held up our cities. Fell to his death in the colony’s 53rd year, age 30. I was five. Mother: Hagar, map-maker, an aide to the mayor of Iapyx’s planning committee. Died in the colony’s 57th year. A suicide.
I was nine. That’s old enough to be shocked, old enough to be angry. Young enough — maybe — to forget, or pretend that you’ve forgotten. Isaac and I, far from the only orphans in that dangerous place, were raised together in resident school, without parents but with cheerful and competent teachers and hall mothers. We did well enough. We hadn’t spoken about Mom in years.
We spoke about Mom, now, out by ourselves in an ornithopter, halfway between Daedalon and Iapyx, in some canyon so narrow, it hardly had a name. Isaac didn’t ease into it either. He said, “I don’t think she jumped.”
“Well, I don’t think she flew.” The bitterness in my voice surprised me; I thought I was past that. “They found — parts of her, Isaac. There was an ID.” Though, as I said it, it sounded weirdly vague. Found what? ID’d how? I hadn’t been asked to make an ID. Had Isaac? What if he’d been wrong? My heart lurched like an ornithopter levelling out.
“I don’t mean she’s not dead, Si,” he said. “I mean she didn’t kill herself. Maybe.” All of a sudden, he sounded preoccupied. I heard him tap a dial. How could he lose focus in the middle of telling me this? Isaac, the golden, flying away. He went on. “I’ve been… working with some people. I think… I think maybe she was…”
“Spit it out, Iz!” I said. The ornithopter had nosed up while I was distracted. I pushed the tail flap pedal down to compensate. “You think what?”
“I think she was murdered,” he said. And then: “Did we check these batteries?”
“What?!” And the batteries were fresh. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“We’ve got half a bank, and sinking,” he said. “Nine volts. Eight point seven five.”
“Is this a test?” I barked at him. “Emergency sim? Pilots under emotional stress?”
“No,” he said. “It’s dropping. Look—”
I tried to crane my head around, but I couldn’t see the indicators.
“What does this have to do about Mom?”
“Nothing,” he said. “I think, but… Eight point six. Point five five.”
I gaped at him. “We can’t make it to Iapyx on eight and a half volts.”
There was a sudden and very vast pause. The wings buzzed. They hadn’t changed pitch. We weren’t slowing down. Not yet.
“We’ll ditch,” I said. “Put up flares. They’ll come looking for us when we’re over-time.”
A paper rustle: Isaac pulled the chart down from the roll above his head. Another very long pause. I tried not to ask him. Pilots didn’t ask navigators, and navigators spoke out as soon as they had a fix. Simon Daud, playing by the rules.
“No.” Isaac gave his clipboard a final tap with his pencil. “We’re too far out. The rescue flight will be two or three hours, at least. The tick-tocks will get us by then.” We both looked down as he said it. Beneath the veil of white, I saw dark shapes, the limbs of trees, shiftless as a shipwreck. The fog forest. The bottom of the world.
‘Take us down,” said Isaac. “Get us as low as you can.”
I was pushing on the elevator pedals with both feet before it occurred to me that I was obeying without question, and I had no idea what the plan was. If we weren’t going to ditch, why were we going down?”
“Eight point four,” said Isaac. Those batteries were dropping fast.
“A leak,” I said. “An intermittent short, somewhere.”
“Maybe.” There was a racket as he winched his chair around, and a moment’s rustle poking. “The bank’s got a good seat.”
Funny how good news can be bad news. The connection between the battery bank and the cable that led out to the engine mounted at the front of the tail stem was the only thing that we could check on without landing. And there was no place to land.
“I’m going out,” said Isaac.
“Out where?” Brilliant, again.
“Out on the roof. Gonna check the engine connections.”
Check the engine connections. In flight. It was a wild idea but, knowing Isaac, it would probably work. The engine itself was from interstellar days; it was a black box to us, but nothing short of a supernova could make it go wrong. There were four cables connected to it, two for each wing pair. If here was a short, it was going to be there. It was probably just a matter of wiping some gunk off a plug.
“Keep going down,” he said. “We’ll need the room”
I saw what he meant, now: with him on the roof, the ornithopter would be tail-heavy, and would nose up, no matter what I did to keep her level. Up, toward the sunlight. I heard the click of buckles as Isaac undid his harness. And then the cuff of the door seal, and a deafening rush of wind.
“Take your parachute!” I shouted.
“Like I’d leave you!” he shouted back. But there was a pause and, out of the corner of my eye, I could see the chute pack pull free from the rack above. “Right back, Si!”
And then he went out.
I didn’t have time to worry; it was all I could do to control the flight. The ornithopter lurched to port as Isaac swung out, and I swear it almost went sideways for a moment. I stomped on the starboard elevator pedal and trimmed back the portside wing pair. The next few minutes were a wildly swinging ride as Isaac climbed over the fabric roof. The fragile plane lurched and dipped and I moved hands and feet fast, trying not to drop my only brother into the clouds below.
“Hang on, hang on,” I muttered to myself. Ornithopters were maintained while hanging from their tailhooks a kilometre in the sky. There were handholds sewn everywhere. They were designed for climbing on. I thought things like that, but I kept saying “hang on, hang on,” as if it were a prayer to the Creator.
Finally, the lurching stopped and the ornithopter nosed up hard. Isaac must be on the tail. I floored the pedals, but we kept climbing. It was steep, maybe twenty or twenty-five degrees, but not impossibly so. The waiting was awkward; the bird wobbled every time I touched a control. Up, up. I could hear Isaac shifting on the roof. He must have checked one side and was ready to check the other. But I had got the feel of the weighted ornithopter, now: I compensated and we kept our glide true, right down the centre of the canyon, but going up.
Up. I looked ahead, and my heart thudded. We were running out of shadow.
Less than a kilometre’s flight off, the cliff face ahead glowed in the sun’s radiance. The very air glittered as the sun shone through the cap of fused silica.
“Iz!” I yelled. “Isaac!”
There was no answer. No way he could hear me above the wind of the flight and the buzz of the wings.
“Isaac! We’re going into sunlight!” I banged on the roof. I could suddenly see every wire and strut thorugh the fabric of the ornithopter, as if I were flying an x-ray. I could see Isaac’s dark bulk. He was moving toward the door hatch, thank the Creator.
The plane lurched again, but still headed up. I squinted, watching the cliff face through my eyelashes, unable to let go of the controls long enough to grab the smoked goggles that swung near my ear. Isaac’s shadow fell across me. But at that moment, the cabin glowed brilliant in the blue-white light. The temperature jumped as if poked by a stick. And, worst of all, the controls went slack — dead in my hands. We’d run out of time. Something vital had burned, and broken.
I wrenched around, looking over my shoulder. Isaac was in the doorway. His clothes were smoking. Behind him, the wing was smoking. “Isaac, get back in!” I grabbed at the winch by the seat, trying to turn around, to reach him, to help him. Or just to hold on to him as we both died. “Isaac!”
He struggled to the cab door. He gripped the edge. From here, I could see the skin of his hands blackening. I remember the smell of cooking meat. I remember the way he turned his hand over, peering at it as if curious. He didn’t look as though he was in pain.
The canvas by the door frame caught fire.
Then the wing.
The whole plane was on fire.
I had the seat around; I fumbled with the buckles of the safety harness, trying to get out of the chair, to reach my brother.
The wing fell apart, then, and the wind ripped Isaac away.
I grabbed up my chute and leapt, trying to pull it on as I fell. The ornithopter fell apart around me. I saw Isaac’s parachute balloon out below me. I pulled the cord on mine; it deployed and jerked me upward viciously. The harness, half-on, cut into my armpits. I grabbed the chest strap, buckling it over my breastbone. The backs of my hands were already blistering. Then, below me, Isaac’s chute caught fire. It ripped open from the centre like petals falling off a flower. And then Isaac fell, his body alight. He hit shadow like a shooting star.
The air was so hot that my lungs refused it, making me choke and gasp. I could smell my hair singeing away. I looked down, where Isaac had gone. The veil of shadow was closer, now, but I wasn’t falling quickly enough. I had forgotten to count. I had pulled the chute too soon. And now I was going to roast to death.
The shadow was dark and too far down. Of my brother, there was no sign.
Isaac. He had always led the way. I curled up, burning under the smouldering chute, and hoped I would follow him soon.