Flying True, by K. S. Dearsley

HONORABLE MENTION

sfreader 2017 story contest winner

K. S. Dearsley has an MA in Linguistics and Literature and has had numerous stories published on both sides of the Atlantic. She lives in Northampton, England, and when she is not writing, she lets her dogs take her for walks. Her fantasy novels are available on Amazon. Find out more at http://www.ksdearsley.com/.

‘Flying True’ was the result of hearing a disabled person say how people offer her the help they think she ought to want, rather than finding out what she actually wants. 

Flying True
by K. S. Dearsley

“You want to destroy Menandran culture, Lojai.” That was what my father, Shayoon, had said when I came back empty-handed from the testing. I left not only the swamps but the planet soon afterwards, and for the eight years since then I had believed my father’s words. It was only when my friend, the space yacht captain, Phraz, had come to me with his proposition that I discovered how far they were from the truth.

Phraz had found me stowing cargo in the transit station. Menandrans have a good sense of balance and are used to living conditions that would send most humans to their beds with wet lungs and a fever. I was the best worker the transit station had and I earned good wages, but it was hardly a career.

“You can make more on this one trip than you could here in a year,” Phraz had said.

“It’s illegal.”

“Why do you think it pays so well? And what harm is it doing? Tobold only wants to bag himself an oracle bird–a creature that you say doesn’t exist.”

I was not worried about what he would not find. Ray Tobold was an industrial scientist who had made his name and fortune by discovering a way to release oxylene from dead rock. He was no fool. It was that, rather than the money, that had made me decide to accept Phraz’s offer. That, and the chance to prove my father wrong.

“You won’t regret it,” Phraz had said.

***

Sitting in my father’s lodge once more, I regretted many things. I had introduced myself as Tobold’s interpreter, but I was no one. My non-existence left me free to look around the lodge without any of the villagers taking note of me. There were some who would not remember me, and others who must recognize me as easily as I did them, if they allowed themselves to look. My father was little changed. His skin seemed to be taking on the hue of the swamp water, and the lines on his face had become channels with many tributaries. The rush blinds on the windows were rolled back to let in the light and the all-pervading reek of the marshes, and he pulled his woolgrass cloak closer about his shoulders, a sign of weakness that he would never have allowed himself once. Behind him, the light caught on the intricate display of oracle bird tail-feathers. It glowed with saturated reds, blues and greens, apart from where a gap had been left for the feather I had never brought.

Tobold could not take his eyes from the display while my father recited the traditional elaborate greeting. Shayoon avoided having to speak to his non-existent son by directing his words straight at his guest, never once glancing in my direction. He clapped his hands, and a succession of delicacies were brought in.

“Thank him for his hospitality,” Tobold said. Despite spending most of his time in artificially ventilated laboratories lifting nothing heavier than a test tube, the scientist had a sturdy build and windburned complexion.

“He thanks you,” I said. “I hope you poisoned his food.”

“Our honoured guest may find mud crawlers an acquired taste, but this is not the season to hunt warmbloods.” Shayoon ignored my comment.

Tobold nodded. “Tell him it’s delicious, and make sure Captain Phraz sends something edible off the yacht when he disembarks the rest of my gear.” He smiled at Shayoon as if my father was senile.

I translated exactly and added. “His gear’s supposed to be cameras, but he likes trophies.”

Shayoon pushed another dish towards his guest.

“Tell him, I’m here to shoot an oracle bird,” Tobold said.

I translated.

“We do not kill oracle birds. They are sacred.” The draught in the room was suddenly as cold as deep mud.

Tobold grinned. “You misunderstand. I want to record them–help preserve them for the future.”

“…stuffed and mounted in his study,” I added, “and he has larger prey in mind.”

“There are many dangers in the swamp.”

“The Lantir, you mean? Now that would be something worth shooting.”

“There are other things,” I said. “Biting insects, scratches that go bad, land that sinks beneath you, mists… you could wander in the marshlands until you die.”

“No point in doing the thing if every other guy can do it. Tell the old man I’ll pay well for his help.”

“The ‘old man’ would willingly pay to be rid of him.” It was the first indication that Shayoon acknowledged he was speaking to a third party. He would never openly flout the laws of hospitality.

“He won’t go away, Father.”

“What’s he say?” Tobold grabbed me by the sleeve.

“He has no need of money.”

Tobold gaped. Menandrans lived in rush-thatched lodges on stilts driven into the marsh. Most off-worlders thought their lives bleak and failed to see the richness of the culture or the pure beauty of the landscape. Perhaps it was because I had been away so long that while I saw that my father appeared to have been preserved in peat, the wood of some of the lodge stilts was rotting at the water line, and some of the thatch was balding. I took another look around the lodge. It was not as crowded as I remembered it.

“If he helps me, he can name his own price.”

“No one will help you. Understand? No one,” my father said, and for the first time he looked directly at me.

I smiled. I had been given a second chance.

***

“I don’t get it.” Tobold spoke as if to himself. Well, I was used to that. We were on our way back to Phraz’s space yacht. The walkway from the village was made from bundles of rushes tied together. It was stable enough for a Menandran, but for one used to earth and rock underfoot, keeping their balance usually required too much concentration for speech. “Look at this place–it’s a dump! The kids look as if they haven’t seen a decent meal in all their lives…”

“All Menandrans look thin to off-worlder eyes.” The other workers at the transit station called me ‘the stork’.

Tobold gave me a look as if trying to guess my bone density. “And are all Menandrans averse to letting off-worlders in the swamp? I’m not leaving without one of those birds.” He saw my expression and added: “On film.”

I might have believed him if he had a camera around his neck now, or had shown any interest in capturing images of the villagers. There was no doubt what the boxes of equipment still stowed on the space yacht really contained. I had wasted time on the voyage out thinking of ways to damage his weapons, but disrupters can be replaced.

“And the Lantir?” I asked.

Tobold stopped and looked at me square on. “I don’t believe in bogeymen or monsters.”

“Menandran beliefs…”

“Menandran culture keeps these people rotting in ignorance in this stinking swamp. They’d be better off without the Lantir and oracle birds!”

For one sky-whirling moment I heard myself arguing with my father. I had embarked on the test believing as all others in the village did, except everyone’s expectations of me were greater being the son of the headman. I had no doubt that if the Lantir spared me I would return from the marshes with an oracle bird, but when it was released at the ceremony where my feather would be added to the display what would its flight predict? Would it meander and turn back on itself, or would it beat steadily upwards, flying straight as far as the eye could see?

Such thoughts had accompanied me as I scanned the ground for signs that there were oracle birds nearby. I came across the beginnings of one of their bowers at the edge of a reed bed adjacent to a pool fringed with garish oranges and yellows from the tainted water. Several of the rushes had been bent over and thinner stalks woven amongst them. I looked closely at the bends trying to determine whether the bower had been abandoned or had only recently been started. I was so intent that I did not notice the tremor of the Lantir’s footsteps until they were so close that the reed-heads shook and hissed. Without stopping to look behind me, I ran. The roar of the Lantir’s stinking breath knocked me flat, but no jaws latched around me. I was lucky. I had fallen into the reeds, flattening enough beneath me to buoy me up. When I dared to look around there was no beast, no tracks, only a stench that threatened to choke me. Back at the pool where I had found the bower there was a greasy film on the water, and dead mud crawlers and slangerfish floated in it. A little further within the reeds I found the still warm body of an oracle bird. My fear turned to anger, not at the cause of such arbitrary destruction, but at my father. From then on I had not believed in bogeymen or monsters either.

Funny how absence can change your view of things.

Tobold was too angry at the rejection of his offer to notice my distraction. We arrived back at the space yacht.

“How’d it go?” Phraz asked. Tobold pushed past him for answer. “That well,” Phraz said. “What do we do–take off again?” The question was aimed at me.

“If Mr. Tobold is patient, I believe I can discover what he needs to know.”

Phraz looked at me, puzzled, but Tobold was only too willing to grab the suggestion.

“Accept the hospitality of the guest lodge; spend a few days taking images of the village. It will give me time to talk to the villagers. Then we pretend to leave on the yacht. Our hunt should not take long. When you have succeeded, you can signal Phraz to pick us up.”

“Okay, but don’t take too long. I have business to get back to.”

I had heard about it. The dust planet of Yulann, whose scant inhabitants had hitherto been allowed to huddle in their rock-hewn shelters in peace, were about to be evicted to a more temperate planet so that Tobold’s company could harvest the charged particles in the air. They would gain a life of ease and luxury, and lose everything that gave it meaning.

“What makes you think the villagers will talk to you? The old man said no one would help.”

“‘No one’.” Phraz gave me a look.

“As you said, Sir, everyone wants something.”

Phraz nodded, and I breathed more easily.

***

Three days later we made a show of stowing Tobold’s equipment back on the space yacht, and Phraz left. Tobold hefted a backpack. It looked heavy.

“Take as little as possible,” I said. My own pack contained only a coil of rope and a knife.

“You think I’m sleeping in one of your reed nests, think again.”

“However hi-tech the sleeping bundle, it’s unnecessary weight.”

“I’ll be careful where I step.” He began priming a tracer.

“I wouldn’t.”

“We want to find our way out again.”

“A trail can lead both ways. If the villagers find them we won’t have to worry about the Lantir getting us.”

Tobold hesitated, then stowed the tracer away again. I led the way into the swamp following the route I had taken eight years earlier. Behind me, Tobold’s splashing and cursing gradually lessened. No doubt he was looking for the signs that I sought, and if I followed any that were not there, he would know it. I took us through a stand of rushes that had been attacked by mire beetles turning the stems and the water around them as slimy as spit. The noise of Tobold’s fall sent up a fountain of wading birds that had been hidden in the tall stalks. I turned. Tobold was up to his shoulders in phlegmy water, clutching at the nearest rushes to prevent the weight of his pack from pulling him under. His fingers kept slipping off the oozing stems.

“What are you waiting for?”

I reached out a hand. It would be so easy to put it on top of his head and push. His eyes glared into mine as he grabbed my hand and hauled himself out.

“You took your time.”

I shrugged. “I forgot you are not Menandran.” Even we would need help in such circumstances, but Tobold accepted my response. I found a less boggy area and we made camp. I had let one chance pass, would I be able to take another? Eight years ago I had failed the test.

“When I was a kid, I always hated camping out.” Tobold’s comment took me by surprise. “I always hated the way you couldn’t control the outdoors. No way to adjust the temperature, food had to be caught, nowhere to lie down without sharing your bed with crawlers… ”

“And now?”

“It reminds me that without me there’d be thousands of people still living in ugly rotting dwellings in barely breathable air. No, not living, existing. I give them life.”

“Most would say that is a role reserved for the Creator.”

Tobold slapped at a stink-fly. “Tales to keep them oppressed. Take away their beliefs and you’re not depriving them, but freeing them.”

Again, I heard him uttering my words.

“Are you telling me you enjoy this?” he asked.

I breathed in. The air carried the scent of sunshine on last year’s rushes, of the mysterious damp hollows filled with moss and the sweet nectar of the insect-trapping sugar-caps that colonized many areas, turning the ground fleshy pink. Birds and amphibians whistled and croaked in an evening concert. As the light faded, streaks of yellow separated sky from land.

I shrugged. “I left.”

“Still, there’s usually some truth in the stories. Take the Lantir–its breath strikes fear and it swallows people without leaving a trace–something must have started that off.”

I changed the subject. “We should sleep now. This is the hot season. We’ll need to be in place before the sun climbs high.”

***

Sleep. My dreams were haunted by a monster, but it was not some beast roaming the swamp.

Despite his liking for ease, Tobold showed no signs of the previous day’s hard trek when we set out. He kept his jacket done up tight despite the humid heat. There was a bulge where a disrupter would be easy to reach. My knife was far easier to conceal.

Again I led the way, deeper and deeper into the marshes where few would ever venture for fear of the Lantir. I also hoped we would come across no signs of it, although I knew it was already too late. The story had been enough, and now Tobold’s thoughts would follow the path until he knew the Lantir for what it was. As the sun rose higher, instead of the air becoming drier, the heat began to suck moisture from the ground. At first it bled over our ankles in a tainted mist so that we could not see our feet. Soon we were wading through it up to our waists. It was not long before we were breathing in air that looked as if all the dishes from a feast had been washed in it. The sun was only visible as a candle flame of hazy light. Holding out my hand, I could see it only as an eddy in the rising air.

“We should stop until this passes.” Tobold’s voice could have come from anywhere.

“The oracle birds will go to ground while it lasts. It’s our best chance.” As I spoke my foot caught against the thing I had been searching for–a clump of reeds I had woven near the base as a marker. While Tobold had been playing at being a tourist for the benefit of the villagers, I had revisited my old testing ground to be sure of finding what I needed.

“Wait.” I took out my rope, tied one end of it around Tobold and the other around my waist. “In case you decide to bathe in marsh water again and I don’t hear the splash.”

I moved rapidly ahead to a woody stand of giant grasses as tall as my shoulder. Having turned to check that we were out of sight of each other, I looped the rope around the stalks to ensure it would stay taut as I began to semicircle back. I must have been close behind him, but Tobold was hunter enough to move with silent care, and I could not hear how close. There was a sickening moment when I felt I was walking between worlds, where backwards and forwards, good and bad, hunter and prey were all reversed. I tugged the rope and it fell slack. I had taken too long–Tobold had reached the grasses. He had not called out. That told me all I needed to know. Moving slowly to avoid disturbing the mist I drew my knife. One quick step and its point was pressed against Tobold’s chest. At the same instant I felt the cold hard imprint of a disrupter barrel on my temple.

“How did you know?” I asked.

“Something in the way you moved–too silent, a born stalker. No, before then–in the village, the way the people looked at you, or rather, through you. But to be honest, I wasn’t sure until you drew your knife.”

“The movement?”

“The sound. What I don’t understand is–why?”

I shrugged and Tobold pressed the disrupter harder against my head. “This is my home. I can’t let you destroy it.”

“Come on, you don’t really believe that Menandra won’t survive without its monster?”

“You are the monster. You would drain the swamp, move its people… the birds, flowers–everything would wither. You talk about the good your work does, but what makes your view worth so much more than theirs? You don’t rip the core from planets for the good of their inhabitants, only pride and profit.”

“Ah, and I had you figured for a realist. So, what happens now? Are you sure you can stick that knife in me before I can fire the disrupter?”

“Are you sure I can’t?” The mist above the pool began to weave trails of yellow. “I’ll tell you what happens now–we wait.”

“For what? Your mythical Lantir?”

I felt my face twist into a smile. “You said yourself there’s always some foundation in fact to every myth.”

The reeds trembled. Giant footsteps made the ground shiver. Tobold looked puzzled, but the hand holding the disrupter never wavered.

“So, we wait to be eaten, is that it?”

“Something like that.”

There was a tremor and an oracle bird flew up, straight and high. Then another tremor like thunder underfoot, and a smell of long dead things rising from the water. Not long to wait now.

“Gas.” Tobold tried to spit out the taste without risking moving. His expression cleared. “Gas! Don’t tell me, it erupts under pressure, right? Okay, so we make a deal. There must be enough here to make us both rich–hell, to make the whole village rich.” He was talking fast. We both knew what was coming. “Come on, Lojai. Money’s no good to either of us dead.”

Being scattered over the swamp by an explosion of caustic gas had not been my intention either, but I had seen the oracle bird fly straight and true.

“I’ll count to three. We’ll drop the weapons…”

I let Tobold talk.

“One…”

The colours were beautiful.

“Two…”

All the colors of an oracle bird’s tail…

Share
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmail
Follow
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestrsstumblrFacebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestrsstumblr
Liked it? Take a second to support SFReader on Patreon!

What do you think?