Even if any residents of Rookers had been out before breakfast in the cold clear air of the mountain heights, it is doubtful they would have seen the Flier. He held his distance as he examined their city, holding onto the aluminum bars of his manglider with thick, furred mittens. The rattling and flapping of the glider was loud enough to him, even through his thick leather helmet, also fur-lined, but he knew it would be inaudible below. He scrutinized the city through goggles, which kept his tears from freezing on his eyes.
Rookers ran along the crest of a gray granite ridge for nearly a mile, a long, thin city. Only three to five tightly clustered buildings straddled the ridge at any width, and each resident, if he or she had come to the door, would look out on the ruddy, crumbling tiles of the neighbor’s roof below. Beneath the lowest home on each side of the crest, a sheer precipice fell away. Looking for signs of activity, the Flier gazed down at their windows and doorways, each one trimmed with a painted line of bright blue or red.
He tipped the forty-foot wings of his manglider and veered over the buildings, scanning below for a lighted window, but their owners had built their shutters strong and tight to protect against the high mountain storms. The homes seemed quiet, patient, sheltering the inhabitants as they slept, or perhaps, the Flier thought, the inhabitants were already working quietly indoors, in refuge against the early morning chill. Riding the frosty mountain currents, the Flier dropped to within fifty or sixty feet of their roofs. The yellow sun cracked the big planet’s horizon and poured its glow onto the faded red and blue paint of Rooker’s walls.
Wooden shutters slammed. Faces looked up. The people of the city were becoming aware of him. First, furtive glances from unglazed windows, then youths came bolting out of buildings. Soon young wives with tots in arms joined them, and old leather and wood workers with their tools still in their hands. The children ran to the city’s balustrades, and their elders stood behind them. The Flier spotted a few of the young women with bows, so he stayed out of bowshot. One or two of the young men held hesitantly onto mangliders, but the Flier took little notice of this. He already held the winds above the red-tiled roofs of Rookers. Any flier launched would drop as it left the city’s railing, and any flier remaining below him would be in a precariously inferior position. None of them launched. He continued along the city’s perimeter, scouting.
The Flier found the king – obviously the king. Those of superior clothing and attitudes crowded around him as he approached the rail, and yet they also gave him space. The Flier pulled up before them, almost stalling, presenting himself to the king, letting the royal presence and his advisers examine him. The king gave an order in his own tongue and the bows disappeared.
Now the Flier sped along the railings close enough that the people could hear him, asking again and again in English, “Do you understand what I’m saying? Do you understand what I’m saying?” Finally, a voice: “I understand!”
A young girl stepped forward, nine years old or so, the Flier thought. Her dirty blonde braids pulled harshly about her head. She was tall, with skin lighter than the others. Her hair dropped in straight locks to her waist. “I understand!” she called again.
“Go to the King,” said the Flier.
He quickly returned to the air before the palace and dropped onto a promontory just below and outside the city’s rail. With his feet on the solid rock, he lifted with his shoulders and elbows and felt the wings of the manglider fold. He slid out of it, laid it down, and quickly stretched two cords across it. Each cord ended in a chock, simple lumps of metal that the Flier wedged into the rock’s crevices. He pulled the cords tight and the manglider was pinned down. He left it there and approached on foot. If necessary, he could leap to his glider from the railing. Two guards met him at the banister and searched him. They looked briefly at his few gold coins and then returned them to his pocket, but they held onto his Crenshaw knife. The guards stepped aside, allowing him to approach the king.
He stood at a level below the royal personage. In a moment, the girl arrived. He looked at her more closely and saw a silver band around her forehead. On the front of the silver band was the logo of the Kraft food company.
So there is another breach somewhere, he thought, probably coming out in
“I speak your language,” she said, “because I am only visiting here. I live among the Dairy People, in the thickair dales below.”
“You must repeat my words to the king, but in his own tongue.”
She nodded. They turned to the king.
“I have been a prisoner and slave of Troudauf for over a year,” he began. “After my escape, I have made a long and difficult journey to bring you warning of their plans against you.”
The girl repeated it. The Flier saw the looks in the royal entourage intensify. The girl listened to the king’s reply, and then she turned again to the Flier.
“We are well defended against Troudauf, the king says, but he welcomes your words.”
Face-saving pride, the Flier thought, but not hubris.
“The Troudauf have acquired a new weapon from a distant land,” he began, now aware that his warning must not offend their martial honor. “It is not of their making. The weapon is a single bomb that can destroy an entire city, reduce it to ashes. Early next summer, a single Troudauf ship will approach your city, flying high…”
He stopped as the girl was laughing, babbling to the king. The old man gave a scoffing laugh. They jabbered briefly. When the girl turned again to the Flier, she said merrily, “Even a young girl such as I can know that you speak madness. The king believes that you have come with honor in your heart, but that this story you have carried here is a tool of the Troudauf. The Troudauf have frightened you with this story and let you escape, so that you would bring us this fairy tale, but they will have to do better than this. The king will never accept this story. So says the king.”
“No – I have seen it with my own eyes. Surely you have amongst you wise ones, scholars who know of the infinitesimally small bits that all matter is made of. If I could speak to them…”
The king arose and then spoke briefly. One by one, his entourage arose as well, and the Flier could see that their standing showed symbolic support. The king pronounced. The girl translated.
“His majesty dismisses you. You will be safe in your departure from Rookers, but you must not come again.”
The words sunk in. Another city of people would be killed. His escape, the near-starvation of the journey, Michael’s death – they had all been for nothing. He rose silently, slowly, and then stepped downward to his manglider. He strapped himself in and extended the wings. He stepped over the precipice.
He flew along the city’s edge unable to leave, but careful to show motion
away from the palace. I must make them
see it. I must make one of them see the
ruined city of
He circled back, thinking quickly. The girl would be light enough to carry. She was the only one who spoke English. If he took her, he would be too heavy to outfly pursuers, but if he dove down, down to the jungles where the air was thick to human lungs, to the moist places where they would fear to go…
He swooped in and grabbed her, pinning her to him with a strong arm, and before any flier had launched, while the city yet gasped, he dove.