Can I say that my wife is a genius?
The revision to Icarus Down is going well. I’m now into the fifth chapter and I’m moving scenes back and forth that make for a tighter, stronger development of the plot. I’m incorporating comments and suggestions made by my editors (my mother and Andrew and people on Private Kidcrit), and I’ve been generally pleased with the results. But I didn’t feel like I had done all I could do to improve things.
After the mayhem of the first chapter, Icarus Down settles down for two long chapters. In the present day, Simon wakes up three months later from a medically induced coma. He finds himself in the infirmary of Iapyx, being looked after by Rachel — a childhood friend whom he loved, but who loved Isaac. And as Simon recovers from skin grafts and third degree burns, we flash back to Simon’s childhood, as he remembers his life with Isaac and Rachel, the story of the colony Icarus Down, the death of his father, and the fateful events of Nocturne, two years ago, when Simon had a chance to win Rachel’s affections, but lost them finally to Isaac.
Two chapters. Eight thousand words. I’d been assured by my readers — my mother and Cameron among them — that the two chapters were eminently readable, full of world-building details that helped bring Icarus Down to life. But the fact remained that the story stopped dead for those two chapters. Flashbacks are risky things. Sometimes they’re unavoidable — necessary to fill in details, or gradually unveil the mystery — but the risk always remained that a reader slogging through these flashbacks could end up saying “GET ON WITH IT!” and abandon the book before the plot kicks back in gear in chapter four.
So, I handed the two chapters off to Erin, who didn’t alter my writing, but simply took a Gingsu knife to it. Cutting and cobbling pieces off of the various scenes, she united the two chapters into a dynamic whole. It’s startling reading something that is so obviously mine — it has my phraseology and everything — but is so obviously different. Erin also cut 3000 words from the final wordcount.
So, instead of chapter two and three, here’s the new chapter two, after the cut. Enjoy!
Blindness and pain. Soft white: the fog; I’d fallen into the fog. No. I was looking up at a mottled white ceiling. It seemed to billow and drift above me.
“Simon?” A warm voice, pulling on me like a cord, a parachute drifting above. “He has his eyes open again. Simon, are you with us?”
I tried to turn my head toward the voice.
This turned out to be a mistake.
Pain surged through me and I tried to raise a hand to it, which made it worse, which made me jerk, which made it worse, which made me thrash, which made it worse. I think I might have screamed, or tried too. The parachute voice spoke again, wavering above me like love out of reach.
I saw a woman’s hand, and the flash of a needle. My thoughts turned murky. The pain went away. I didn’t feel it go.
The woman was looking down at me. She was dressed in white, like a parachute. The constellation of her features swam and I knew them the way our people used to know stars: the blonde hair coiled in its snood; the galaxy of freckles and the beauty mark star at the corner of her jawbone. The just-slightly crooked nose. Those eyes….
Rachel, I thought. Rachel was taking care of me.
Of course she would.
Darkness took me. I burrowed into my memories. I burrowed deep.
What does one remember when driven into dreams by morpholog, third-degree burns and fresh grief?
I remembered carpet. The bright-colored squares of carpet we sat on in the school, how we hauled them out of the stack. They always smelled a little of pee, but their colours were amazing: one of the few things in the colony not painted sun-reflecting white. I remembered how the orange edge of my matt curled up around me like a little boat; I remembered picking at the ravelling strings where one piece was ripped. I remembered a tattered book in my teacher’s hands.
“Now, children. It is time to tell the story of Iapyx and Icarus Down.”
The teacher smoothed down the spread as she held it up to us. “Speak of the planet we left behind.”
We spoke up in a unified chant. “Mother Earth. Blue marble. Yellow sun. Crowded. Polluted. Depleted. We had to go away.” The page spread showed a blue ball suspended in black, tall grey buildings, and people everywhere.
“Speak of the ship that bore us away,” said the teacher. This page showed a great ship in space, segmented like vertebrae. We saw the bridge leading the way, thirteen pods strung along its spine, and gigantic engines at the rear.
“The Icarus,” we intoned. “The great ship. Bearing thirteen cities to our new home.”
“Speak of the time it took,” said the teacher.
“Years we travelled, and many years more, jumping from system to system. Child learning from parent, and grandchild from child.”
“Speak of where we were going,” said the teacher.
“To the farthest reaches of space. Towards the brightest star in the heavens.”
“Speak of the work of those who went before us.”
“The way was prepared. The planet was ready. We had only to land.”
“Speak of the accident,” said the teacher.
As one, we lowered our heads. “We appeared too close to the sun.”
In my dream of the memory the orange cup of the carpet became flames curling up under me, and I burned. The Icarus fell. I fell and there was fire; the ornithopter burning —
I remembered the toy ornithopter my father had given me. His hands - his face was a kind blur but I could remember his hands; the bar of callouses across his palms. The weight of the little toy, the crackling of the wings he’d made from bits of cable shielding; the smooth-sanded wood of the needle-body. I’m a pilot! I shouted to him. To this day I swear it was my dream first, flying, and not Isaac’s. But he was older. He always lead the way.
Isaac in the hatch, the skin of his hands blackening. 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.
Pain. Someone sucked in a breath. Suddenly, Rachel was there, peering into my eyes. “Another dose, now!” A man there. A coil of plastic around me. The harsh breath was becoming a moan. “More!” Rachel snapped. The man twisted the dial another notch.
She looked into my eyes again. “Hold still, Simon,” she said, holding my arms down, each of her hands a sun of pain. Her eyes….
I remembered Rachel. We were kids - I was second grade? third? - and I just noticed her one day. She was walking from the art table to the hydroponic rack with scissors in her hand. I don’t know what caught my eye. That she didn’t walk like a girl, maybe, even though she wore a girl’s long skirts. They didn’t slow her down. She went striding. Or maybe it was that her hair was the same colour as my brother Isaac’s, but on her, it made me think: honey. Honey was a word I’d just learned, and a thing I’d never seen. It was exotic and sweet. Well, we can be friends, I thought, and in the manner of small children, we were.
“…Now, children. It is time to tell the story of Iapyx and Icarus Down…”
“Speak of the accident,” said the teacher.
As one, we lowered our heads. “We appeared too close to the sun.”
My drugged brain jerked away from that, and the picture in my teacher’s hands came to life. The Icarus, falling. The flat bottom of the ship smashing through the atmosphere, re-entry heat like a carpet of flame under it, a carpet curling up at the edges. The thirteen city pods ejected and their pilots fighting to stay behind the burning mothership, tumbling in its wake - the Icarus and all her crew, giving their lives to save us.
My favourite carpet was orange. Rachel’s was yellow, the colour of her hair. Isaac’s was red.
A mat of flame.
“Speak of the first days,” said the teacher. She didn’t notice that my brother was on fire.
“We explored our surroundings,” we replied. “We set out our cities. We planted our first crops.”
“Speak of the monsters,” said the teacher.
“They ticked in the fog. They attacked unseen. We drove them off, then raised our cities into the twilight.”
The web of the city. I could see my father through the observation window, swinging hand over hand among the cables. I had just learned the names of shapes. The splines of the city made triangles and diamonds. My father, swinging….
Deep in the morpholog, I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to see this.
“Keep them closed!” Isaac scolded. “You’re supposed to be in the fog! You can’t see!” He spun me, a little too roughly; I went staggering.
“Tick tock!” shrilled another voice, and I dodged. A birthday party, playing tick-tock monsters. Two generations, that’s what it takes to turn a nightmare into a children’s game.
Tick. Tick. Beep. My eyes opened on the real world. A monitor strapped to my arm made a noise. Tick. Beep.
A mottled white ceiling. A battery lamp; a duct and a pneumatic message tube. The smell: hospital. In front of me, a picture window. I could see cable stays and i-beam struts rising to the city’s umbrella roof. I could see the silhouettes of the construction workers, walking like ants over the struts and beams.
My city, I realized. Iapyx. Rachel, I remembered Rachel. How did I get to Iapyx? To Rachel?
There was a respirator shoving my lungs up and down. I felt distant from my body, as if I were dead. I was in as much pain as if I were still on fire, but it didn’t matter. I watched the workers.
One of the workers dropped down and went swinging, hand over hand.
I closed my eyes. No. I did not want to see this again.
An elevator - a rare treat. Isaac laughed and I lurched as the car dropped, and then we both laughed as it stopped and shifted sideways. Iapyx went past us in flashes: the sparks of welders in the factories, people sitting in offices, staring at papers, the green pause of the Great Hall.
I could feel my mother standing right behind me. Somewhere inside the dream, the grown-up me, the one who had already lost her, wanted to turn around. But the memory had me. I couldn’t change it, even though I knew what was coming.
A viewing gallery at the very end of Iapyx, where the city narrowed to a point. All around us, a spider’s web of cables stretched on to the cliff face, to one of the two great anchors that held us between the chasm walls. The great canopy draped down on us like a blanket. I pressed my face to the glass and looked out at the splines.
They made shapes. A triangle. A diamond.
Mom knelt down beside me. “Can you see Daddy?”
I stared out at the workers along the net of wires that tied our city to the anchor, crawling along or swinging from one handhold to the next. Suspended over a sea of white, it was as though they were clinging to the only real thing in the world. I remember thinking that if they just let go, they’d experience weightlessness.
Isaac’s breath caught. “Mom? Is that—” He pointed.
I looked up. Mom looked up. Her face changed.
A flurry of activity along the splines. Workers were running, crawling or swinging their way towards someone, who dangled awkwardly from a cable.
“No,” Mom breathed. It was my father who was dangling.
The workers clambered closer.
“It’s okay, Mommy,” I’d said. “If he falls, the clouds will catch him.”
Then my father dropped like a pear from a tree. Against the white backdrop, it looked like he was floating, twisting in midair.
The clouds caught him. They didn’t give him back.
Someone in the smoke-grey of the security officers had come to our classroom. “The Daud children?” he said.
“I don’t think she jumped, Simon.”
“Well, I don’t think she flew!”
Tick, tick. Beep. A monitor and a drug pump strapped to my arm. The smell: a hospital. A picture window in front of me.
Oh, yes, said my brain, the part that was a brilliant conversationalist. This.
The light was brighter this time. My eyes watered. I felt…. Oh, I did not like what I felt.
My skin felt like someone had scraped off every centimetre of it down to the muscle below. My arms spasmed. There was a tube down my throat; the moan came up it.
She looked into my eyes again. “Hold still, Simon,” she said, holding my arms down, even though that hurt. A lot. My groan became a shout at last.
But the sizzle of pain began to ebb. I could breathe deeply again.
“I’m sorry, Simon,” she said, brushing back my hair. “We’re trying to ease you off the morpholog.” She must have seen a question in my eyes, because she added, “We have to. It’s dangerous stuff to get addicted to. You’re healing up well; the skin grafts have all taken.”
I stared at her. Skin grafts?
“You’re healing,” said Rachel softly. She touched my bandaged arm, lightly, carefully, so I wouldn’t feel it. “You’re going to be fine.”
The pump on my arm went tick tick beep. I felt cold, chemical sleep pour into the vein. I didn’t want to dream again, but the cold spread. The light above me flickered. I remember thinking, the battery’s running out. They need to bring a battery boy in. Then my eyes fluttered closed.
In my dreams, I heard Rachel’s voice, speaking softly. “You’re going to be fine.”
I dreamt of Nocturne.
How can I explain Nocturne to you? It doesn’t mean anything here. But to us, in our bleach-out colony under a too-bright sun, it was everything. The whole life of the colony swung around two points: Solar Maximum, when the sun peaked over the rim of our nearly-polar canyon and for a few short days blazed into our city, and Nocturne, the few days went it set. Nocturne, the end of white, the end of restraint. Nocturne. Darkness and colour.
Nocturne: music. Pipe, drum and fiddle: my foot tapped by itself; I could hardly hear myself think but I wasn’t thinking. I was happy. I was watching the dancing; I was about to graduate, I’d made the flight academy in Daedalon and in a few days I was going to swoop off and earn my wings.
“What ho, Simon! Isn’t it fantastic?”
I jumped. Rachel was suddenly beside me, her cheeks rosy and her eyes alive with laughter. Her skirt was calf-length, and she’d tied colourful ribbons around her waist, letting them dangle. “Do you like it?” she asked. She stepped back and twirled. Her skirt and her ribbons billowed up, showing more of her legs. Then she stopped and grinned at me. “Happy Nocturne!”
I smiled, and hoped I wasn’t blushing. I opened my mouth to say something, but suddenly had no idea what to say.
“But look at you,” said Rachel, coming forward. “Still all in white! Let’s do something about that. She pulled a ribbon of red cellophane from her waist and tied it through my hair. Her face came close to mine, and I smelt flowers. Was she wearing perfume? It dated from the space-faring days, but some families still had some. She tugged the ribbon into a bow and stepped back and admired her handiwork. I knew I looked ridiculous, but I could only look at her.
That’s when it hit me. She was beautiful. That was the word I’d been struggling to name in the months leading up to now, as our conversations got more and more awkward. She was my friend. And she was beautiful. And she and Isaac were… It made things feel complicated, but really, it was that simple. I just had to tell her.
I opened my mouth, only to have her shove a toffee on my tongue. “Isn’t it the perfect night?” she gabbled. “I love the colours and the music. And the food! Come, see!” She took my arm and led me towards the food table, which was busier than the daily marketplace. I tried to get a word in edgewise, but the toffee had glued my teeth together. But I didn’t mind. I liked the feel of her hand on my arm, how flushed her cheeks were, and the fact that the top button of her shirt was undone.
But, finally, when I’d freed the toffee from my teeth and swallowed, and when she stopped chattering, I opened my mouth to talk to her, and stopped. Suddenly, I couldn’t think of anything to say. Oh, there were a million things I wanted to say to her, but the words for them were wiped from my brain. Isaac had been by to see me earlier - home from the flight academy on Nocturne Break. Maybe it was his lingering effect that made me so tongue-tied now. I could see the flush and the soft pulse in the hollow of Rachel’s throat. To fill the sudden silence between us, I decided to supply her with news.
“Isaac was here,” I shouted over the music, which had suddenly picked up in volume.
“What?” she shouted back.
“Isaac was here,” I yelled. “Nocturne break. He asked after you.”
“Oh,” she said. Her smile faded. “Thanks for telling me.” And the silence got a lot more uncomfortable. She looked down at the end of the food table we’d just reached. She didn’t pick up a plate. My mouth watered as I glanced over the selection. There were forest fruits, prime cuts of roasted meat, fresh vegetables from our arboretum, and brightly wrapped candies. But as I reached out for another toffee, Rachel grabbed my hand.
“Come on,” she said, pulling me away from the table. “Let’s dance.”
I stumbled after her. “Dance?!” It was a different place, remember. That meant something to us, dancing. I couldn’t dance with my brother’s - whatever she was. I sputtered: ” But— What about Isaac?”
“Oh, pfft—” She waved her hand airily. “He’s not here. You are, and I want to dance! Will you?” Suddenly, her eyes were on me, and I looked into them. They were earnest and deep. “Please?”
I took her hand, and she led me onto the dance floor. We held hands and twirled amongst the crowds of couples and groups doing the same. We skipped to the frenzied beat, sometimes close together, sometimes an arms length apart. I liked the feel of her hands in mine. I liked the smell of candy on her breath, and the flowery smell in her blonde hair. I liked the way her dress swirled as she turned, the ribbons brushing over the strong muscles of her ankles. I forgot about trying to tell her what I was thinking. I couldn’t hear myself speak in all the music. I was happy enough with the dance.
But then Rachel took my hand and led me off the dance floor. I frowned, disappointed, but she put her hand in my arm and walked beside me, and I would have followed her anywhere. We walked to an area of clear floor space.
“Have you thought about the future, Simon?” Rachel asked abruptly. She was giving me a strange look, like there was a particular answer she wanted.
“Well… yeah,” I managed. “I mean, doesn’t everybody? I got into the flight academy, did I tell you?”
“Oh.” Her mouth curved down.
“What about you?” I asked, suddenly nervous. “I suppose you’ll go to the nurses and study at the infirmary?”
She took a deep breath. “I suppose…”
“Rachel, what’s wrong?”
She didn’t look at me. She stared into the distance and didn’t say a word for a long while. The music hammered around us. Finally, she said, “I want to be somewhere else.”
I blinked at her. “You want to leave Iapyx? And, what? Go to Daedalon?”
“No,” she snapped, looking up at me. “I want to be, somewhere else.”
“What do you mean? Everybody says you’re a shoo-in for the nurse’s academy; you’ll make a great contribution to the colony.”
“That’s the point,” she cut in. “It’s not about the colony.”
I stared at her, dumbfounded. She looked away.
“I’ve heard stories,” said Rachel, “about Mother Earth. If I were there, I’d still have three years of education in front of me. More, maybe, if I went to one of those universities, before I had to choose what to do with my life.”
I nodded. I’d heard the same stories, though I hardly believed them. How could people wait all the way to eighteen for their adult life to begin?
Rachel went on. “Not here, though. Here, the decision has to come now.” She shuddered. “The Quartermaster wants me to hand in my apprenticeship application. Isaac wants—” She stopped, clenched her teeth, and started again. “Elizabeth and Susan got married last year. They adopted a ward-baby together.” She looked up at me. “They’re sixteen, Simon.” She drew her arms around herself. “I have to decide now, and I’m not ready.”
“You’ll be ready.” Awkwardly, I patted her shoulder. “You love nursing. You’ll fly through the apprenticeship.”
“I know,” she said, and I hardly heard her over the crowd. “But maybe there are other things I could love.” She looked me in the eye again, and this time there was an intensity there that took my breath away. “I want more time to make my choices.”
I shifted on my feet. I wanted to reassure her, but I didn’t know how without repeating what I’d already said. The future would work out. It had to. What choice did it have?
I gave her shoulder a squeeze. “Look, don’t doubt yourself! This is your life, and you’ll do great at it. You just got to make your choice and stick to it.”
Rachel looked up at me. The intensity that had been there before wasn’t. For a moment, I thought she looked disappointed, but then she gave me a small smile. I took that as encouragement. “Look, it’s Nocturne! You don’t have to worry about this tonight. Let’s get back to enjoying Full Night. How about I brave the food line and get us something to eat? We’ll need to build up our strength before we go back to the dance floor, right?”
She smiled, and looked away. “Yes, Simon. I’d like that very much.”
“Good. Wait here!” I got in line for the food. Of course, it had lengthened considerably while we had stood around and talked, but I was patient and I made it in time for the cooks to bring a fresh selection up.
When I turned around I could see Rachel at the edge of the crowd. Isaac was standing in front of her. He was talking to her, gesturing, and Rachel was looking nervous. Then Isaac clasped Rachel’s hand, pulled her closer, and whispered something in her ear. She jerked back, and stared at him, wide-eyed. Then he nodded over his shoulder, and gave her a tentative smile. She stayed a moment, mouth agape. Then she closed her mouth, and nodded. He turned and walked off the dance floor, holding her hand.
I put the plates down.
Through some luck that Isaac had, and he’d always had the luck, he and Rachel made it through the crowds with ease. I bumped into people, and struggled to keep the two in sight. In the end, I failed. I would have given up. I even wondered why I was following them. Hadn’t Isaac wanted to talk to Rachel? She looked like she wanted to go. But the memory of the intensity in those eyes when she looked at me… I wanted to see that look directed at me, again.
There was only one door that they could have taken from here, and I made for it.
I found myself staring at a flight of stairs leading to the lower levels of Iapyx. People were still coming up from below: utility workers, gantry spiders, all still in their work overalls. I charged down the stairs.
The levels below the Great Hall housed the factories, the utility rooms, everything else Iapyx needed to function. The white walls gave way to a dusty grey. I smelt machine oil and heard the hiss of steam, as well as the muffled laughter of young people as they used the nooks and crannies of the industrial corridors for some privacy. Workers coming off duty looked at the young couples darting around, and smiled knowingly at their co-workers. It was Nocturne, after all.
I stood in the middle of the utility corridor, surrounded by people but seeing no one I knew. It was silly to go running down on this level. I had to face up to the fact that I’d lost Isaac and Rachel. And, really, what business did I have in following them? Rachel had seemed entirely willing to go. And, hadn’t I asked her to choose? I thought I was talking about choosing her career, but thinking back over our conversation, I wondered if I’d told her to choose Isaac over me.
I turned to head up the stairs to the Great Hall. There, I happened to glance at the stairwell leading to the levels further down. I froze. I had found them.
Isaac had Rachel backed against the wall. His head was bent down, deep in a kiss. I opened my mouth to say something, to shout, but as I watched, I saw Rachel reach out and pull him closer. The kiss continued.
I closed my mouth and lowered my hands. I hesitated. But as they drew each other deeper into their embrace; as Isaac’s kisses strayed down Rachel’s throat; as Rachel gasped, I knew I couldn’t stay here any longer.
So I woke up.
Monitors. Hospital smell. Picture window. It all seemed endless. What had happened to me?
Out the window I could see the triangles and diamonds of the cables. They were adding mylar, and polishing the mirrors: the preparations for Solar Maximum. How long had I been out? One of the workers dropped down and started swinging, hand over hand. I tried to roll away from the sight.
I failed utterly. Where I tried to bend, the stiff plastic stuff what was my skin crackled with pain. My hands were curled up into claws.
“Take it easy, Simon,” said a voice at my elbow. “We just need to turn you on your side.”
“Rachel?” There was a raspy sound that I could hardly believe my voice.
“Simon! Are you really awake this time?”
Her face swung over me, shining. I could see the honey hair curling against the pale cords of the snood and the hollow of her throat, where the betrothal charm that had once been my mother’s hung like a star.
I had never seen a star. My friend Aaron swore he had, a blue star that came out only at Nocturne, but I had been dancing at Nocturne and I hadn’t looked…. Dancing. Rachel. Isaac. Rachel.
Rachel leaned over me. I couldn’t quite get my mind around what I wanted to ask her. I’d just been with my brother, after all. That always made me dull by comparison. “Rachel.”
“I’m right here, Simon.”
“Rachel … what … Isaac?”
“I’m sorry,” said Rachel, looking away. “He’s gone, Simon. There’s nothing you can do.”
Isaac. I closed my eyes. There was a long moment’s silence.
“How… How did they find me?” I said at last.
She smiled. “When you didn’t arrive at your prearranged time, the pilots scrambled to look for you,” she replied. “They found your parachute snagged against the cliff wall.” She didn’t say, ‘they found you, and only you,’ but it echoed in my head.
“How …” I coughed and felt my chest crack with a spiderweb fracture of pain. “How long…?”
There was a pause that was almost worse than the news. “You’ve been in a medically induced coma for three months.”
Three months. I tried to get my eyes to focus. My mind. Rachel, dressed in white, her hair like the gentle sun of Mother Earth, leaned over me. There was a slash in her: a black band on her sleeve.
Rachel, my brother’s widow.