“Keep going,” I said to Maurice who had the controller. “It’s not like they’ll have gun turrets or missiles to shoot us down.”
The four boxes flying towards us looked the same as ours—red and blue with large wings. And ours didn’t have any weapons attached, so it seemed reasonable to assume theirs didn’t either.
They were still a fair way off, so we had plenty of time to work ourselves up into our preferred mindset of panic, self-incrimination and rampant bewilderment.
“Maybe they’ll fly right past,” I suggested.
Maurice’s fingers worked the knobs constantly, correcting and adjusting. The wings flapped in smooth strokes, hardly causing any jarring. I’ve had tube rides that were rockier.
“Bibler did say he stole this from them,” said Maurice, “so we might look like one of their transports going about official business. It’s not like they have radios to check.”
It would be convenient if he was right. It wasn’t like there were markings on the outside that would identify us as the stolen flappy-box. Or perhaps there were and we didn’t know it.
“You should have asked Bibler how these things work,” said Claire. She peered around the dark interior like there might be a user manual lying about.
“It’s magic, Claire. It’s not supposed to make sense.”
“Even magic has rules.” She tried to attract Maurice’s attention, presumably to back her up. Maurice was too involved in his doohickey to notice.
“Sure. Magic is just science we don’t understand yet.” I produced a ball of light and balanced it on the end of my fingers. “What fucking law of the universe lets me do that?”
Claire bit her bottom lip and a little bead of blood appeared under her teeth. She was making a serious effort not to lose her temper. “I’m not saying we should write up a paper for New Scientist. I’m just saying people like Bibler obviously have a grasp on the mechanics, and we could use a little more information.”
It was a reasonable point.
“You say that like you weren’t there, too,” I said. “You could have asked him yourself. Any of you could. It’s one of the most annoying things about this group. If I don’t think of something no one else does, either. Having six of us should be an advantage when it comes to covering our bases with things like this, but it never fucking is. Never.”
My little rant took the focus off the bogeys closing on our twelve (I have no idea if pilots really talk like that, but they do in movies, and that’s where I get my information). I hadn’t meant to sound quite so resentful but I guess it had been building for a while.
“Ah don’t really want to say summit that ends up being stupid,” said Flossie, her gaze on the floor.
There was a murmur of agreement.
“Do you really think I could possibly have a lower opinion of your stupidity?” I physically felt Dudley tense up as killing intent bore into the back of my neck. “I don’t mean just Flossie. All of you. And me too—I include myself. We are completely out of our element here. Clueless doesn’t even begin to describe it. But the rules here are so screwed up, stupid could actually be the way to go. Asking a question, no matter how dumb, isn’t going to make things worse.”
“You say that,” said Claire, “but you always seem to be handling it. And usually you’re doing something sneaky. And manipulative. And underhand.”
More supportive murmuring.
“If we butt in, we might ruin whatever scam you’re running. And then you’d be mad at us and that puts everyone in a bad mood. You can be quite a negative person, you know?”
Her assessment of my character overestimated my abilities while simultaneously disparaging my character. A twofer. Nicely played.
Still, I considered it a bit of an unfair characterisation. It wasn’t that I was a negative person, it was just that I was surrounded by a bunch of hopeless morons constantly putting my life at risk. It’s enough to get anyone down. At heart, I’m an optimist. I truly believe life could be amazing if people left me the fuck alone.
“You’re right, you could fuck things up if it’s a delicate moment. But that’s the whole point of experience. We’ve been in enough tight spots for you to be able to know when to shut up and when not to.”
A begrudging shrug passed across their shoulders like a non-committal Mexican wave, neither confirming nor denying anything.
“Back there, you had time to ask a stupid question or two. I didn’t. When I’m multi-tasking hysteria, terror and desperation, I don’t have time to set up an AMA on Reddit. I’m the leader because I’m just better at this than any of you. Which isn’t much of a claim. You lot can still be doing stuff while I’m attempting to trick everyone into not killing us.”
“I would love to be able to do that,” said Claire, “but we aren’t those sort of people. I only thought of asking him now, ten minutes after it’s already too late. Maybe we are stupid like you always tell us, but I don’t have the kind of familiarity you or Maurice have with this sort of world. I didn’t waste my childhood reading stupid books about dragons or imagining what it would be like to be Spider-man. How the fuck was I supposed to know that crap would turn out to be useful?”
She wasn’t wrong. Mages and paladins were as real to me as cops and firefighters.
“It’s never too late,” I said. “As leader, I delegate you to think of any questions that might be useful to ask, and ask them. How things work, how to make the best of them, life hacks, exploits, cheat sheets. Whatever, feel free to be a mouthy bitch at people other than me. Congrats on the promotion.”
“I say,” said Dudley, “I think they may have spotted us.”
His interruption came at a good time, which is to say it gave me the last word. We all moved to the grate to watch as the four boxes changed direction so they were on a collision course with us.
“When I say it’s never too late,” I said, “it could be that it is in fact too late.”
“You don’t think they’ll ram us, do you?” said Maurice. He veered us to the right and the four boxes turned to keep us in their flight path.
“Take us up,” I said. “If we can get over them, it’ll be harder for them to turn and follow.” I had no idea if that would be the case, but the handling on these things wasn’t great, and if they had to make a large circle to change direction, it would give us more of a lead.
Of course, they might not have been planning to collide with us. They could just follow until we landed and grab us then. Did these things run out of fuel? What powered them? Did they eat? All good questions someone should have asked.
“How is climbing going to—”
“No,” I said, cutting Claire off. “I didn’t mean ask me. I know nothing, that should be clear by now. I meant you should ask people who actually have an understanding of this world.”
“Oh,” said Claire. “I don’t know if I can do that.”
“Try,” is what I said, but it came out as a long, meaningless yell as we suddenly went vertical.
There were leather straps hanging from the roof and now it became obvious why. We all grabbed one and clung on. Flossie was too short to reach but Dudley had her firmly around the waist.
Maurice went flying backwards as he had both hands on the controller. I managed to grab part of his jacket and Claire had her hand inside his belt. He hardly seemed to notice; all his attention was on the box in his hands.
“I think I got it now,” he said as we levelled off.
The main problem, however, was visibility. The only way to see where we were going (and what the approaching transports were doing) was through the slit in the front. Currently, we could see nothing but whiteness.
I left Maurice in Claire’s embrace and worked my way to the front, strap to strap like a gibbon. The door was a simple affair. Ropes on either side to pull it up, and hooks to tie them off.
After some faffing, I released the ropes and gave the door a shove. It fell forward and disappeared from view to hang below us.
Looking down from a precarious position like that is never a good idea but I steeled myself and forced my gaze over the edge. How could I ask Claire to talk to a stranger once in a while if I wasn’t prepared to hang my head out of a flying box hundreds of feet above the ground?
It took me a moment to get my bearings and for the ground to stop zooming in and out. Empty fields of grass passed by underneath. No animals, no people. My stomach tightened like my intestines were trying to pull my anus back inside my body.
The four other boxes were way below us. They were banking around and climbing in a spiral. They probably hadn’t expected us to go stratospheric and didn’t look very confident in following us.
If these transports were used to go from A to B and little else, then I could see how suddenly having to capture another ship would be a difficult thing to figure out.
Mist began to fill the interior, making it hard to see.
“Go up a bit more,” I shouted to Maurice. “Take it easy, though.” I grabbed another strap, just in case.
We tilted up and gently eased into the clouds. We quickly got enveloped by cold and wet. There didn’t seem to be an end to it. I began to think the sky was all cloud and we’d pop out in space.
When we did finally break through to the other side, what we found wasn’t the cosmos but a brilliant blue sky. There was a sun, bright and small. The light seemed more white than yellow, but maybe our sun was like that when you looked at it from above the clouds.
It was beautiful. Beautiful, silent and very cold. My ears were numb and my nose started running. If we didn’t get back down soon the final boss to our adventure would be pneumonia.
“Did we lose them?” asked Jenny from over my shoulder.
I wondered the same thing and lay on the floor of the box, my head hanging over the lip. Below me, the door to the box swung to and fro in time to the beats of the wings. Other than
that, nothing moved. A vast, white expanse stretched out in all directions.
There was no sign of our pursuers. Either they were still in the cloud, or they had decided not to follow us. The important thing, however, was that if we couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see us. Running away FTW!
It never pays to be triumphant. If you win, you should quickly move on. Don’t wait around to collect your prize. Not losing is your prize. Get going so you don’t end up having to win anything else.
This is the sort of thing you learn in retrospect. As I stared down at the fluffy clouds, feeling premature relief, the sheer vulnerability of our position slipped my mind.
We were in a wooden box, in the sky, in the freezing cold. If the wings froze up, we’d die. If a little turbulence shook us out of the opening, we’d die. If Maurice lost control, we’d die.
None of these things happened. What did happen was that a large, red fin swept out of the clouds in an arc and then disappeared.
Being an optimist—because, as you know, it’s all sunshine and lollipops as far as I’m concerned—there was no reason to assume it was a sky-shark. It could have been a friendly cloud-whale. Or a flying dolphin.
The fin had been very big, though. Three or four metres tall. No need to freak out. The creature could have been all fin and nothing else. Or perhaps birds here had fins for aerodynamic reasons. Mind you, we hadn’t actually seen any birds since we’d got here. Maybe ‘Monstro of the Skies’ was the reason why.
Optimistically speaking, Monstro didn’t have to be a carnivore. He might live on water vapour and dandelion seeds caught on the breeze. Not that he would have to eat us to kill us. A slight nudge and we’d be sent crashing. And he might not be alone.
“What is it?” asked Jenny. She always seemed to know when I was feeling anxious.
“Nothing,” I said as I got back to my feet. “I think we lost them.”
Claire still had Maurice by the belt while he focused on trying to keep the box flying straight. He had smoothed out the flight so that the wing flaps registered little more than a slight rise and fall.
“Can you tell which way to go?” I asked him.
He nodded. “I can feel it tug me in the right direction. Or at least in a direction. Wherever Bibler told it to take us, it seems to know the way.”
Bibler had given the box instructions to head for the city. How he had done it wasn’t clear and we hadn’t asked him. We probably should have, but I was in a rush to get away from him and from Loran. I didn’t trust either of them.
My optimistic side likes to think the further away I am from people, the less likely they are to kill me. I’m all about the positivity.
We kept going , teeth chattering and holding onto our respective partners for warmth. After an hour and no more sightings of Monstro, I felt a little less tense, which made me even more tense. That’s always when the monster attacks, when you least expect it. Maurice took his eyes off the horizon and leaned over towards me.
“I think we’re getting close. We should probably head down.”
I nodded. “Okay. But take us through the clouds fast.”
“As fast as you can without killing us.”
He gave me an odd look. “Why?”
“What the fuck is that?” said Claire. With Maurice leaning over, she had a clear view of the huge dorsal fin cutting through the clouds ahead of us.
“I don’t know,” I said. “If we get through the cloud quick enough we may never find out.”
The fin was moving in our direction. Whether that meant it had spotted us, I couldn’t say.
“It’s the same colour,” said Jenny.
It took me a moment to realise what she meant. The red fin had turquoise splotches across its surface. The colours matched the outside of our box. It didn’t seem like a coincidence. Perhaps it would think we were one of its own and not attack. On the other hand, it might think we were one of its own and try to have sex with us.
“Everyone hold on,” shouted Maurice, and then we dived into the white.
The angle wasn’t super steep, otherwise we’d have all fallen out, but we weren’t gliding. Maurice had retracted the wings and we were dropping like a brick.
Going down was a lot noisier than going up for some reason. The wind blasted my eardrums with a constant roar. The fog around us made it impossible to see but we just had to make it through and then we could take a more leisurely route to the ground. Assuming the wings didn’t snap off when Maurice opened them again.
On the plus side, we were moving very quickly. Possibly too quickly. The box shook and Flossie’s whimpering took on a vibrato.
It came out of the mist without warning.
One second there was a blanket of white, the next, yawning mouth and teeth.
It was fish-shaped, although not a shark or whale. It had a tall, thin body; the mouth easily able to take us in one bite. It looked like a giant piranha. And it was going to eat us.
Maurice veered sharply to the side. The violent change of direction shook everyone loose of their chosen moorings and we clattered around the box. Thanks to a mixture of surprise, speed and not falling in a straight line, we evaded the snatching teeth. Maurice managed to pull us out of the dive and we swooped out of the bottom of the cloud cover with the open end tilted up.
There was a brief glimpse of green, then a sweeping shot of, thankfully, empty white.
We all lay in a heap, gasping.
Maurice got to his feet first. “I think it—”
The fish leapt out of the clouds like an inverted salmon, and bit off one of the wings before falling upwards with its thrashing prize between its teeth. We went into freefall.
Jenny slammed into the roof, Claire went sprawling to the back. My only thought was to get Maurice. If we lost him we were a hundred percent dead. If we didn’t lose him, I’d put it at an even fifty.
I grabbed a foot. The other end was shouting, “Auto-rotate! Auto-rotate!” although I wasn’t sure voice commands would work. They barely worked on an iPhone, so a magic box with feathers probably didn’t have the technology.
We started to spin, which was nauseating but did seem to slow us down. Then we hit the ground.
The box shattered and we were thrown in different directions. It was painful. Like everywhere was being punched at once. And then I bounced and got thumped hard. I passed out.
When I came to, I didn’t feel any pain, which either meant I had got very lucky, or that my neck was broken.
Claire appeared over me. “I healed you a bit. You’ll have to do the others.”
I staggered to my feet and looked around. The remains of the box looked like a half-eaten carcass. A dismembered wing feebly slapped the ground, sending bloodied feathers into the air. The others were lying in the grass, moaning. Not in pain, they were just complaining. A sign they were okay.
Once everyone had been healed, I looked around. We were in a large field with tall grass that made it hard to see very far. Above us, the placid white sky looked as empty as ever.
We made our way to a rise and were met by the sight of a city in the distance. It was huge, rambling and ramshackle. There were tall buildings that looked like blocks haphazardly placed on top of each other, and short buildings that looked like they’d once been part of a tower that had fallen over.
It was a big, sprawling mess.
“Oh no,” said Claire.
I turned towards her. She was looking in the opposite direction. High up, four boxes flapped towards us.
We had no way to escape, so we just waited.
The boxes landed with a series of soft thumps. Only one of them opened. Bibler came strolling out.
“That was exciting, wasn’t it? I’ve never known anyone to challenge a koi before.”
“How did you get here?” asked Claire. A sign she was taking her role as chief inquisitor seriously.
“Helps to know shortcuts. I must say you did very well. I didn’t think you would be so resourceful. You passed every test with flying colours. Even the ones I didn’t set!”
He sounded impressed, but mostly with himself.
“All this was a test?” Claire asked him. “Even the other boxes.”
“Oh yes.” He produced a controller from his robes. This one had a lot more buttons and knobs on it. The doors to the other boxes fell open. They were all empty.
“Was all this really necessary?” I said wearily.
“We had to see why the masters were so interested in you. You could have been a trap. You still could be, but I think it’s worth the risk.” He turned to Maurice. “You must show me how you pulled off some of those manoeuvres. I had no idea some of them were even possible.”
“I’m glad we passed your test, but what makes you think we want to go with you?” I asked him. “You could have got us killed with your tests.”
“Life is a test, is it not? And there’s someone I think you’ll want to meet. He is a Visitor like yourselves. He has been here some time, so he’ll be able to give you the answers you need. Some you don’t even know the questions to, yet. He can even tell you how to get home.”
That caught everyone’s attention.
“Of course,” continued Bibler, “just because he can doesn’t mean he will. He doesn’t like sorcerers, he himself being a warlock.”
“What’s the difference between a sorcerer and a warlock?” asked Claire.
“Oh, it’s very straightforward,” said Bibler. “Warlocks kill sorcerers.”
I'm thinking about starting my own subreddit, somewhere to discuss the themes and ideas I bring up in the story and maybe explain some of my more obscure references. I also have a bunch of other projects I hope to finish (some of you may have read 'Grin the Cheat' and 'Saviour of the World') and it would be good to have a place to talk about them. I don't know if anyone would be interested, but if you would please let me know in the comments.
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