After a pick-up of the pace in August, it looks as though blogging time has been harder to come by this past month. I have been working on a number of projects, including the revision of Icarus Down.
Some of you may remember the debate I had over whether Simon should be a pilot or a postal clerk. On the one hand, having him as a postal clerk fit certain requirements of the plot, and made Simon an unassuming everyman caught up in events beyond his control. On the other hand, making him something other than a pilot rendered him a beta male, which possibly hampered the readers’ ability to sympathize with him.
In the end, we decided to go for both. Simon would start out as a pilot, and be reassigned as a result of his injuries. This had the added benefit of forcing Simon to re-invent himself, enhancing the drama of the early chapters.
After writing it, and having Erin edit it, the third chapter (where the reassignment occurs) is done, and I submit it for your comment, after the break). It takes place immediately after Simon waking up in Iapyx’s infirmary.
Third degree burns don’t heal. They leave behind scar tissue, raised and red, inflexible as ropes. Having those burns is like having ropes for skin, tight ropes of pain that pull every joint closed. My body curled itself: hands into claws, arms into a mummy cross, chin tucked, knees hooked up: if I didn’t work at it, I found myself curled fetal.
So I worked at it. Between the toxic sun and the steamworks that powered the cities, burns were common enough on Icarus Down. We were good at treating them; there were specialists. One of them, a reedy fellow named Michael Dere, was assigned to me. I suppose he saved my life, though given what happened later it’s hard to be too grateful. He fitted me with compression garments to shape my new skin. He pulled my arms open until I shouted with frustrated pain. He put rolls under my neck and made me learn to throw my head back. He massaged lotion into my scars, twice a day, until they became metabolically inactive, which sounds like a bad thing but isn’t. And one day he announced that my scars were “mature,” and we were ready to begin rehabilitation.
It was at this point that the pain really started.
Rehab was long and boring and stupidly painful. I’ll spare you writing about it, unless you want to hear about the triumphant times when I first held a fork, and then a piece of paper, in the numb pincers my hands had become. And I’m sure no one, no matter how interested they are in the fall of Iapyx, wants to hear how I learned to pee in a bottle all by myself. Let’s just say I got to know Michael rather well.
Long and boring and painfully stupid. Yeah. I learned to get into a wheelchair by myself, if I had enough time and someone was there to catch me if I missed the grab bar. Meanwhile a few friends from the flight academy drifted in. From their faces I knew I wasn’t up to facing a mirror yet. They didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to say to them. They were young and thought they were immortal; I was a ghost they couldn’t face.
Rachel, meanwhile, drifted in and out some days, like a real ghost. She was in charge of getting me off the morphium. I gave her no trouble: I would rather (most days) have the pain than the dreams. She didn’t ask me what had happened to me, to me and Isaac, my brother and her husband. And, unasked, I couldn’t tell her. So we didn’t have much to say to each other either.
The light above my bed kept flickering, and twice it went out. Faulty batteries, I was told. I winced from that, but gave it little thought.
I thought of Isaac. I thought of my Mom. I don’t think she jumped, Si. I even ordered up the coroner’s report on her, but it had been routine, and had long since been recycled. When your only source of fibre is a forest inhabited by monsters, you don’t keep records around just for the heck of it. You pulp your history. Turn it into something else. I wasn’t even surprised.
Still, somewhere, someone made note of that request. And someone decided it was time to turn Simon Daud, pilot, into something else.
It was just bad luck, I think, that the news came on the day Rachel and I finally got around to talking to each other.
She came in with my pills in a little cup. “A quarter grain,” she said, sounding pleased about it. “Your last step-down, Simon. We’ll have you off the morphium entirely next week.”
“Oh,” I said. “Good.” It was good, but it’s hard to get too excited about withdrawal tremors and rebound pain.
Rachel curled her lips in, looking sad. “I’m sorry. But it really is better.” She sat down on the edge of the bed. “You’re being very brave.”
I wasn’t being brave - I never had been brave, really. What I was doing, what I was good at, was following the procedures; trusting that the people in charge knew what they were doing. Still, I wasn’t about to contradict her. More than I wanted to admit, I liked her sitting there. I could feel the mattress dip toward her, pulling my hip toward hers. The light coming through the mylar sheeting over the window was metallic, tarnished. Her white dress looked silver. Her honey hair looked like polished wood.
Her - wait. “You took off your armband,” I said. Brilliant, Simon. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
Rachel glanced away. I saw that one loose curl had poked through the netting and curved over the top of her ear. “Six months today.”
“Is it?” Time had shortened and stretched for me in the hospital. The - accident — felt like last week. It felt like a million years ago. “Six months. Wow.”
“Six months. And I still don’t —” She cut herself off, stood up, and put the pills on my tray. “I don’t know what happened, Simon. No one has told me.”
Oh. That would be because someone was a rat fink coward. She’d loved Isaac. We could have shared that. But we hadn’t.
She looked at me for a moment, waiting, and then her face folded up and she turned to leave.
“Rachel —” I called after her. “Wait.”
She turned. She waited.
“He died —” my voice cracked. “There was a faulty battery. He climbed out on the roof to check the connections. The weight made us go up…” I stopped, realizing I was holding out my hand, like an ornithopter, tipping the fingers upward. Beseeching. Doomed. “We just - ran out of room.”
“A faulty battery?” she echoed. She glanced up at my troublesome light.
“I —” I didn’t know what had happened with the battery. I didn’t know what to tell her; it was such a stupid reason to die. “He was trying to save us, Rachel. He died trying to save me. I’m so sorry.”
“Simon,” she said, turning back to me. Then, one of the speaking tubes beside the door squeaked. Rachel looked at it, then at me. “Oh, for heavens’ —” She stalked across the room and pulled the bakelite end of the tube to her mouth. “Nurse Caan speaking.” She put it to her ear.
As she listened, her frown deepened. “Are you sure?” she said into the tube. “He’s just had medication…” She put the tube to her ear. “Yes, I know he’s been here a while. Why wasn’t I informed?” A gabble came through the tube. “Well, I don’t care if you sent the message through pneumatic tube, it isn’t here, now, is it?” Another gabble. Rachel’s voice was getting more clipped by the second. “Well, yes, he is getting better, but—” Then came a squawk. Rachel’s lips tightened. “All right. I’ll ask him.” She hung up the receiver and turned to me. “You have visitors.”
I sat up in my bed, then winced as my joints protested. “Really? Who?”
Behind Rachel, the pneumatic tube clicked as a message container slipped into place. Rachel pulled it from the receptacle, frowning.
What visitors could I have that had to be heralded by a message tube?
“Rachel.” She looked at me. She was pale: I could see her freckles. “Who’s here?”
Before Rachel could answer, the door burst open. My hands went to my side and I sat at attention as Mayor Matthew Tal swept in, his robes of office billowing behind him. The room suddenly got crowded as his entourage followed, carrying clipboards, pads of paper and, I noticed, a camera. All wore white, with the arrowhead insignia of Iapyx haloed in yellow, denoting the mayor’s office.
“Mr. Daud,” the mayor exclaimed. He glanced at his notes. “Simon! You’re looking much better. In fact, you’re looking great!”
“Um.” I had seen the faces of my fellow trainee pilots when they looked at me. I was fairly sure I didn’t look great. “Uh, thank you. Your worship.”
“I thought I’d pay a visit.” The mayor sat on the chair beside my bed. The room lights reflected off his bald spot and his chain of office. “Something like this deserves something more than just a lowly official, doesn’t it?”
“Sorry, what?” Something like what? What was going on?
“I hope you don’t mind the photographer,” the mayor went on. “For the colony newsletter, you understand. Iapyxians will want to know how the fallen pilot his brave comrades rescued is faring.”
The photographer raised his camera before I could react. The flash blinded me, and I flinched, reminded of sunlight.
Another of the mayor’s entourage leaned in, clipboard in hand, and pen at the ready. “So, Simon Daud, could you tell the citizens of Iapyx how your recovery is going?”
“Uh….” Clearly, my reputation as a brilliant conversationalist was safe. “Fine! They’ve been taking good care of me. I’m working hard.” I can even pee in a bottle.
“Very good,” said the mayor, slapping me on the back. I winced, but did not cry out. Rachel, I noticed, coloured red, and opened her mouth to say something; probably something unwise.
“Thank you,” I said, quickly, before she could jeopardize her career. “Thank you, your worship; it’s an honour.”
The photographer leaned in and spoke low near the mayor’s ear. But not low enough that I couldn’t hear it. “Excuse me, your worship, but we’ll need to do the ceremony somewhere else. The lighting in here is totally inadequate. Too many shadows.”
“Hmm…” The mayor nodded. “The infirmary reception area, perhaps?”
“That will do nicely.”
“Excuse me,” I cut in. “Ceremony? What ceremony?”
The mayor beamed at me. “The ceremony where we award you with your medal, son. Didn’t you receive the papers?”
Rachel and I looked at the pneumatic canister that had arrived too late.
The mayor turned to the photographer. “Let’s set everything up. Nurse, see to a wheelchair for Simon here.” He turned his smile on, like a semaphore shifting. “We wouldn’t want you to miss your own medal!”
Then there was organized chaos as the mayor left the room, taking half his entourage with him, with the other have gathered things and prepared to follow. Rachel blinked in bewilderment. I knew exactly how she felt. But she remembered the mayor’s order, and went to a corner of the room pulled out the folded up wheelchair.
A dark sleeved arm gripped the armrest. Rachel looked up. Her eyes widened.
The man must have been standing by the side of the room the whole time. In all the commotion, we hadn’t noticed him.
“Nurse,” he said. “Please go help the mayor. I’ll see to Mr. Daud. Thank you.”
Though it was polite, it wasn’t a request. Rachel looked from the man to me, flustered. Then she ducked her head and marched out the door. The remainder of the mayor’s entourage followed suit.
Once the door clicked shut, the man turned to me. My throat tightened. Nathaniel Tal.
Nathaniel Tal had been the mayor’s chief of security for as long as I could remember — probably the only thing he had been for any longer was the mayor’s older brother. He was tall and, like the security officers he commanded, wore the only colour to be found on clothes on Iapyx. That colour was grey. Even his black hair was streaked with white. He was like a column of smoke standing behind the mayor’s left shoulder. I had no reason to be afraid of him.
I was afraid of him.
Nathaniel rolled the wheelchair to the bed and opened it. Then he reached out a hand for me to grab. “Mr. Daud.”
I took it, clumsy, and used it to heave my legs to the side of the bed and over.
He put a hand under my shoulder and guided me into the chair. Once there, he put his hands on the armrests, leaned down, and looked me in the eye. “I want to talk to you about your fateful flight.”
My stomach lurched as it had when my ornithopter had dropped off the gantry at Daedalon. The way he asked the question made me feel instantly guilty. I fought the urge to look away. “What do you want to know?”
He leaned back. “You departed the Daedalon flight bay soon after you sent a signal to Iapyx. You had a perfectly normal flight through the first turn, but then you dropped three quarters of a kilometre before rising again into the sunlight.”
I nodded. “The batteries developed a fault. Isaac— the navigator wanted to go out onto the tail to check the connections. He told me to fly down so we’d have room to rise. There wasn’t enough.” My brow furrowed. “How did you know what we did?”
“Your white box told us,” Nathaniel replied.
The white box. They found it.
“Well, then, you know what happened,” I said, with a sudden rush of courage. “It’s been six months. Wasn’t there an inquiry? The white box should have told you - everything.” Including what had caused the batteries to fail. The accident. Suddenly the word sounded strange in my thoughts. Accident.
Nathaniel ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth. “Well, your white box developed a fault when you passed the first turn on your trip home,” he replied. “It lost sound. So we don’t know all of what happened in the cabin.” His gaze bore into me. “What conversations you had, for instance.”
I kept my mouth closed. What had happened after the first turn? Nothing my instruments indicated. But Isaac had said, ‘here we are in the middle of nowhere, sky to ourselves, an hour’s easy flying from any prying ears.’
But tampering with the white box? Isaac often bent the rules, but he didn’t break them. He wouldn’t. Would he?
“I also note that the selection of navigator was rather unusual for your flight,” Nathaniel went on. “Your first flight. ‘Maiden flap,’ isn’t that what they call it? Your older brother giving you your final grade? Surely that’s a little … irregular?”
Feelings of guilt washed over me again. Nathaniel was trying to spook me. And doing a good job at it.
But as I thought about it, a resolve crept up in me to say as little as possible. My last words with Isaac belonged to him and me alone. Whatever Nathaniel thought we had talked about, it had in no way contributed to the accident.
If it was an accident.
I looked him in the eye. “I wouldn’t know, sir. I just followed orders.”
His frown deepened. “So, what did you talk about?”
We talked about Mom, I remembered. Or, we started to. ‘I don’t think she jumped,’ Isaac had said. Looking up at Nathaniel, I knew in my heart that this was something to keep private.
“Stuff,” I said. Then, realizing this was woefully inadequate, I added, “Flying, mostly.”
“Can you be more specific?” he asked.
I’m not used to lying. “He… he told me how good it was to be a pilot. And… the scenery.”
He didn’t look impressed. “The scenery.”
“Yes, sir. You know, the cliffs, the fog and stuff.”
“He didn’t talk to you about the Grounders, did he?”
I stared at him.
The Grounders? Why would Nathaniel ask about some flaky movement obsessed with moving our colonies onto the foggy ground below? They were insane, with all the monsters down there. Why—
But Isaac had said, ‘I’ve been working with some people…’
Isaac’s words echoed in my head. ‘I think she was murdered…’
“No,” I said, firmly. “Nothing about the Grounders. No. We didn’t really get much of a chance, before the batteries developed a fault and we had to try and repair the ornithopter in flight.” I leaned forward in my seat. “Look, what is this? An interrogation? For what? My ornithopter developed a fault. We tried to fix it, but we couldn’t do it in time. Isn’t that what the white box said? It’s been six months, today. What more could you find out from me?”
I glared at Nathaniel. He looked back at me. Silence stretched.
Then my resolve faltered. A question demanded to be asked. “What caused the fault in my ornithopter? Does the white box say?”
Nathaniel’s face betrayed no emotion. None whatsoever. “The evidence was deemed inconclusive. It could have been anything.”
There was a knock on the door. One of the mayor’s assistants poked her head in. “Officer Tal?” Nathaniel looked up. “The mayor’s ready.”
Nathaniel nodded. He took the handles of my wheelchair and wheeled me out of my room and down the corridor, towards the reception area.
“I have never had the chance to say I am sorry about your mother,” he said.
I jerked, and tried to look up at him, but I couldn’t crane my neck that far. “It’s okay,” I said, though it really wasn’t. I just wanted this conversation to end. “It was years ago.”
“I worked with her” Nathaniel went on. “An excellent assistant to the mayor. Her death was a great loss to the colony.”
“Um… thanks.” I coughed. “I appreciate that.”
“I wish you well on your recovery,” said Nathaniel, as he turned a corner. “You’ll be a great asset to the Postmaster.”
I looked up at him so sharply, it made my neck ache. “What?! What are you talking about?”
“Didn’t you know?” He kept his eyes on the corridor ahead. “On the advice of the Surgeon General, you’ve been deemed medically unfit to fly. We sent the information with the papers about the medal. You have your pilot’s eyes, but not your hands, anymore. I’m told that the Flightmaster did what she could and pulled some strings, but there are plenty of flight instructors at the academy, I’m afraid. Fortunately, the Postmaster’s office can always use additional personnel.”
It was like the accident again. I could feel the ornithopter flying apart around me, and the ground too far below. “No,” I said, all the strength gone from my voice. “I want to fly.”
Nathaniel shrugged. “Could be worse. You could be a battery boy. Here we are.”
He rolled me into the reception area where the mayor stood waiting, the entourage gathered along with a small crowd of curious onlookers. Cameras were poised. Rachel stood at the edge of the crowd, straining to look over the shoulders of the mayor’s entourage, looking concerned.
Nathaniel rolled me up beside the mayor and stepped back.
“Simon Daud,” the mayor recited, raising a disk on a coloured ribbon and draping it around my neck. Flashbulbs caught off the shiny surface and dazzled me. My eyes watered. “In recognition of your bravery in the face of danger, it gives me pleasure to honour you with this award of service on behalf of the citizens of Iapyx, in the name of the Creator of the Stars and the Captains of the Icarus.”
Then he patted me on the shoulder. “And congratulations on your reassignment to the Postmaster General.”