18120 words, novella
Kora Is Life
I banked into a climbing clockwise turn, my wing’s fabric snapping, my jet’s exhaust hot on my backside. A beautiful panorama of Shuwash Island spread out below me, black beaches and orange jungles rising from a white fringe of surf to the gray and treeless volcanic peaks. Beyond those peaks, across the sea, lay the long stony ridge of Ookura Island, and barely visible beyond that, the flat orange patch of Skein Island. Names famed in song and story, places I knew by heart from the map tacked up on my boyhood bedroom wall . . . and now I was here, here for the Kora!
Me, Kestrel Magid, the first human to fly the Kora! Indeed, the first non-Silene. Ever. In a thousand years or more.
It was a dream come true.
And at the same time, it was turning out to be my worst nightmare.
A roar off to my right caught my attention. A pure white practice wing like mine, but with struts painted in red and blue . . . it was Skeelee. Of course. She gave me a roguish salute as she passed me, climbing fast.
My patrons were the Stormbird clade, their colors yellow and black. The Sabrecat clade, red and blue, was Stormbird’s longest-standing and most hated rival, and the loathing was mutual; Skeelee had given me nothing but shit since I’d arrived here last month. I had tried to maintain a professional, sportsmanlike attitude in the face of her provocations . . . but this was no competition, not yet. This was only a practice session. So maybe I could rag on her a little without betraying my principles. I squeezed the throttle and surged upward after her.
Neither of us had a structural advantage over the other. Our wings, both the end products of a thousand years of Silene wingmakers’ craft, each had their pros and cons, but neither was superior overall. Skeelee was eight centimeters taller than me, but with my Earthborn bones I was over ten kilos heavier. My jet was the very latest human tech, not merely a top-of-the-line Gyrfalcon Mark VII, but a prototype of the forthcoming Mark VIII . . . but by that same token it was a bit temperamental, even fickle. Whereas Skeelee was flying a sturdy, proven jet whose basic design was used by every clade and hadn’t changed in a century. Its capabilities might be less than my jet’s, but she had been flying jets just like it since she was a child, and she knew in her bones how to squeeze every drop of performance out of it.
I pushed my jet hard, riding the ragged edge of a stutter, and tightened my turn to catch the strong rising air at the center of the updraft. This made my sail luff and took all my skill to keep from slipping into a stall, but it worked—I soon shot past her and leveled out, flying just behind and above her as we both continued circling. From here I could keep an eye on her and compensate for any move she made.
“Leeshka ssu, neneka!” she called over her shoulder to me—a rude mock-compliment that I understood even before my headset translated it as “Nice flying, Stinky!” A “neneka” was a quadruped ruminant known for its slowness and foul odor, but the word was also the insulting nickname given to the clade that had gone the longest without a Kora victory. It was a status that weighed heavily on the Stormbirds, winless for the last twenty-eight quadrennial contests, and was certainly the reason for my presence here. The Stormbird clade was so desperate for a win they would do anything, even hire a non-Silene flyer.
“First one to Hokeesh Cliffs and back buys the drinks!” I called back, letting my headset translate and amplify my reply.
“Shureekele!” she squealed—a crude insult that my headset refused to translate—and then she swung her weight hard to the right, slipping suddenly into a tight turn that cut her directly across the updraft, which caught her and flung her swiftly upward. I cursed and goosed my jet, hoping to make up the lost altitude with my superior jet performance.
It almost worked. I was very nearly level with Skeelee, orbiting on the other side of the updraft, when she suddenly peeled off and dove. As her red-blue-and-white wing slipped away, gaining speed as it fell, I realized that she’d timed her departure from the rising column of air perfectly, heading northward while I was on the south side of it. If I tried to follow her directly, I’d be blown higher, losing even more time. Cursing some more, I could do nothing but wait for another half orbit before I could follow impotently in her wake.
Skeelee cut her engine and dove hard, pulling out with a wicked burst of speed. I followed, using my greater weight to dive even harder and longer, but though I had more speed when I pulled out, I was well below and behind her. Still, I had enough altitude for the long glide to Hokeesh Cliffs.
We glided along together for a time, our wings dipping and tilting to catch every vagrant breeze. She was good, very good—of course she was, she had beaten every other Sabrecat flyer to get here—but my hard dive had given me a speed advantage, and I caught up to her around the two-thirds point, though I was still flying below her. I gave her a mocking salute . . . and then I saw her reach below her waist. This was followed by the sound of pattering drops, the appearance of yellow splotches on the pure white silk of my wing, and a sharp, distinctive smell.
Silene females are built differently from humans.
“You bitch!” I yelled—my headset didn’t translate that—and I hit the throttle hard. My jet’s roar cut off her contemptuous laughter as I surged ahead and out from under her, but when I looked back over my shoulder, I saw her fastening her pants and grinning malevolently.
I put a hundred meters between us before I let up on the throttle. I would rather have gone farther, but I was using the small tank for this practice run and the Mark VIII prototype was a terrible fuel hog.
I entered a rising air current and began spiraling upward, with Skeelee still behind me . . . but above my altitude, which meant that when she too entered the current, we were nearly at the same level. “Your wing is wet!” she shouted across the updraft. “Did you meet a rain shower?”
In reply I merely glared.
We spiraled higher, each silently daring the other to make the first move. The first to peel out of the updraft would take the lead, but if you did it too soon you might not have enough altitude for the home stretch. One orbit, two, three . . . and then I saw Skeelee’s hands shift on the control bar, preparatory to banking out.
Before she could complete her maneuver, I beat her to it! Banking hard and diving to the right, I exited the updraft and headed south . . . but when I looked behind me, ready to call out a taunt, I saw the hated red-and-blue wing turning away, making another circuit of the updraft! Surely she couldn’t have missed the turn?
Then I looked ahead and realized that the error hadn’t been hers but mine. I was too low. Skeelee had faked me out. “Damn it!” I shouted.
But I did have the lead, and maybe enough fuel to compensate for my mistake. I goosed my jet, a quick thirty-second burst, angling my wing for the best altitude gain, but when I leveled out Skeelee was still above me, just exiting the updraft with a clean smooth turn that mocked me with its perfection.
I focused my attention forward, running Loktakoora’s ridges, trying for maximum speed and minimum altitude loss. If I looked back, I’d just give Skeelee another opportunity to mess with my head.
And then I heard a roar above and behind me. Skeelee had ignited her jet, driving full-bore down the straightaway toward the landing zone. I checked my fuel, the amber fluid sloshing in and out of visibility at the very bottom of the glass. If I hit the throttle a little after she passed me, my jet’s better thrust might let me catch up before I ran dry.
The roar came up from behind, louder and louder, then Dopplering down as she caught up and passed me. A moment later I fired up my own jet. The control bar juddered in my hands as I powered toward the finish line, the wind and my jet roaring in my ears. The beach raced nearer and nearer . . .
And then my engine coughed twice and died. Out of fuel. My wing veered hard to the right as the jet spun down. I managed to get it back under control, but after that I could only watch, gliding slower and slower, as Skeelee’s red-and-blue wing pulled ahead, taking a mocking victory circle before sailing in for a smooth landing on the beach.
“You shouldn’t have let her mess with your head like that,” Cassie said. “You have the tech and the skills to beat her.” Of course she would say that. She was my Gyrfalcon corporate rep, and it was her job to keep me focused, upbeat, and winning.
“Oh, I’ve got the skills all right,” I said, “but I wonder if your damn prototype is up to the task. It slurps up fuel like a drunken sailor, and then when it runs out it pulls to the right! I’m lucky I didn’t crash!”
Cassie patted the air between us. “I’ll have the techs look into it. Anyway, this was just a practice session.”
“Yeah.” I sipped my beer. It was warm, flat, and bitter, but it was the only Stormbird beer this bar offered. “But it still hurts.” I looked across the bar to where Skeelee was drinking the most expensive stuff—on my tab!—and carousing with her Sabrecat friends.
“Of course it hurts.” She laid her hand on mine, a practiced corporate move as sincere as the smile I’d given the local paparazzi on my way into this bar. “But you need to take that as a lesson. Focus on the flying. You can be your own worst enemy, you know.”
“But she pissed on me!” I glared at the painted back of Skeelee’s leather jacket, which portrayed a fierce red-and-blue sabrecat pouncing savagely on a tiny, frightened black-and-yellow stormbird.
Clade is everything in the Shuwashee Islands. The word “koravi,” usually translated as “clade,” also means district, clan, faction, political party, and army. Each of the seventeen clades of Shuwash Island consists of a few dozen closely related families living in a well-defined geographical area . . . though the lines between clades are squirrely and often invisible to outsiders. They have their own colors, emblems, flags, monuments, songs, traditional professions, even distinct dialects. And they have deep-seated friendships, enmities, and alliances with over a thousand years of history behind them. The Stormbirds and Sabrecats have been sworn enemies ever since a Sabrecat flyer deliberately bumped a Stormbird’s wing in a Kora six hundred years ago, sending the Stormbird pilot spiraling down to his death . . . though, of course, the Sabrecats tell the story differently.
Most of the time the clades interact quite civilly. They live side by side, do business together, intermarry, and cooperate in the government of the islands. Many an outsider has learned to their sorrow that the Shuwashee can band together very effectively when the islands are threatened. But the Kora—the big quadrennial air race—is where the clades let it all hang out. The whole Big Island flutters with clade flags on every corner and everyone wears a korashute neckcloth in their clade colors. Clade battle songs are sung with drunken enthusiasm, often in competition with the enemy clade’s rally right across the street. People get killed in bar fights. It’s very serious business, and the winning clade gets bragging rights and significant perks for the whole next four years.
And there’s only one winner. Second place is the worst possible finish. If you come in second, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough.
Just then there was a distinct change in the sound of the crowd. I looked toward the disturbance and saw that a group of Stormbirds—you could tell by their black-and-yellow neckcloths—had just entered the bar. And not just any Stormbirds.
Kenshee, the Stormbird clade’s Kora Captain, was a slim distinguished Silene, his fur sleek and obsidian-black, his leathers expensive and impeccably tailored. He and his retinue paused just inside the door, letting their eyes adjust to the dimness and assessing the situation. The crowd, meanwhile, assessed them. This bar was in the Kokeela Beach strip, neutral territory, so everyone was theoretically welcome . . . but for the leadership of any clade to enter it in force was a violation of protocol.
One of Kenshee’s assistants spotted us at our little side table, caught his elbow, and pointed us out. Immediately the whole coterie headed our way, with determined steps and ears cocked. I immediately set down my beer and stood, and nudged Cassie to do the same.
I have a pretty good grasp of basic Shuwashee, usually relying on my headset only for nuance and advanced vocabulary. But Kenshee’s Stormbird accent was so thick, and his voice so harsh with angry sibilants, that I didn’t have a clue what he’d said until the headset translated it. “Word has reached us that you have been buying drinks for the Sabrecat flyer.”
“I lost a bet,” I explained.
Kenshee put a slim but surprisingly strong hand on my shoulder, forcing me to meet his eyes. “Stormbirds do not make bets with Sabrecats,” he said, as if stating a law of physics, “and if they do, they do not lose them.”
I dropped my gaze. “I apologize, Grandfather,” I said in my most polite Shuwashee. “I will not make such a mistake again.”
“You had best not,” Kenshee said, then turned to one of his assistants. “Cut off the pussy’s tab. No cat drinks from a Stormbird purse.” I suspected the mixed metaphor was a rude pun that had been lost in translation.
I said nothing as the assistant bowed and went to the bar. I didn’t relish the thought of reneging on a bet, but I was in enough trouble with my sponsors that I didn’t dare protest.
One of Kenshee’s aides, an older female, touched his arm. “It is not too late to replace the alien,” she said, pointedly ignoring me. “Stekha is the better flyer, you know she is. And she will not dishonor the clade.”
“Stekha does not bring the Terrans’ technology,” Kenshee replied. Gyrfalcon had insisted that they would provide the Mark VIII only if one of their sponsored flyers flew it.
Cassie heard the translation on her own headset and brightened. “I appreciate the vote of confidence, sir,” she said, injecting herself into the conversation, “and I can promise you the Gyrfalcon Mark VIII prototype will bring you the victory you deserve.”
Shut up shut up shut up, I thought at her, but what I said was, “It is absolutely the best jet I’ve ever flown.” Which was true in terms of raw performance, if not reliability or fuel efficiency, and I hoped it would help smooth over ruffled feathers all around.
But despite the fact that Kenshee had just defended me, the set of his ears and his stance told me he wasn’t happy with the situation. “This is our year,” he said, casting his gaze around the whole group. “The Sunfish are out of the running, we have drawn a good starting position, and the moons are favorable. We cannot afford to leave a single advantage on the table.” His eyes settled on the aide. “I will not renegotiate a settled matter. The alien flies for Stormbird. Is this understood?”
I knew that there had been considerable disagreement among the Stormbird leadership over hiring me in the first place. Even though many of the clades’ flyers were non-Shuwashee hired guns, champions brought from all over Silene space for their skills and winning records, bringing in a non-Silene was unprecedented, a highly controversial move that had just barely passed muster with the Kora authorities. Kenshee’s faction—the new money—was so desperate for a win that they’d pushed this radical plan through despite opposition from the more traditional Stormbirds.
Kenshee and the aide locked eyes for a moment, then she put her ears back and bowed. “Yes, Grandfather.” The term was purely an honorific; she was more than old enough to be Kenshee’s grandmother.
But my relief was very short-lived, as Kenshee’s gaze swiveled to me. “As for you,” he said, “you will conduct yourself impeccably on the ground and in the sky. You will keep yourself and your equipment in the most pristine condition. You will obey the laws and regulations of Kora, the dictates of custom, and the instructions of your betters. And. You. Will. Win. Is this understood?”
“Yes, Grandfather,” I said again and lowered my head.
Kenshee sniffed the air and glared pointedly at the Sabrecats. “Something stinks in here,” he said to his retinue. “Let’s go.” But he held my gaze with his own for a long silent moment before turning away.
“Well,” Cassie said, breaking the awkward silence, “that could have gone better.”
Before I could respond, I was interrupted by an altercation at the bar . . . so loud, so drunk, and so thick with dialect that my headset just gave an error tone instead of a translation. It was Skeelee and her clique, arguing with the bartender—a tall and muscular agender Silene—over the tab that Kenshee’s assistant had just informed them I would not be paying. There was a lot of shouting and pointing and many angry glares in my direction. I gave a broad expressive shrug—sorry, nothing I can do about it—and hoped the body language would cross the boundaries of species and culture.
It didn’t; Skeelee started toward me with murder in her eyes. But a couple of her friends, less drunk or cooler-headed, held her back. More shouting, pointing, and shoving ensued, and the bartender came out from behind the bar, adding to the ruckus. I glanced nervously at Cassie, but there was nothing either of us could do . . . we were trapped in a corner booth, with the argument between us and the door.
Finally, with an explosive shout of anger and disappointment, Skeelee ran out into the street, with her pack following at her heels. The bartender followed as far as the door, but after shouting and waving both hands at them in an extremely rude gesture, they turned back in disgust to their station behind the bar.
“I’m done for the evening,” I told Cassie, pushing away my three-quarters-full, warm, flat, bitter beer. But as I was settling my tab I spoke quietly to the bartender. “How much did you get stiffed for?” I’d been a waiter once, many lightyears from here.
They glared at me. “Three hundred seventy-eight.”
“You have to cover it yourself?”
I emptied my wallet. “Here’s . . . two hundred ninety. That’s all I’ve got. But this is for you, for your trouble . . . I’m not allowed to pay the Sabrecats’ tab. Understand?”
“I understand.” They pocketed the money, unsmiling. “Don’t come back.”
“I won’t. Sorry.”
“Don’t laugh,” I said.
“I promise,” Cassie replied.
I pulled back the curtain.
She tried. She really tried. But a little snort of laughter escaped her nose anyway. “Sorry.”
I was wearing the sacred and honorable raiment of a Stormbird flyer, which hadn’t changed in eight hundred years. Based upon the ancient garb of the guild of dyers, the traditional Stormbird profession—though most of the clade is in the legal field these days—it had long, loose sleeves, a hood that fell almost to my knees in back, and a fringe of loopy ribbon along the outer seams of the sleeves and each pantaloon leg. All in bright, bright yellow silk and deep midnight black velvet, with about a thousand tiny gold-and-obsidian buttons. I was already running with sweat, and I hadn’t even stepped out into the sun yet. “Could be worse,” I said, defensively, gesturing at my beribboned sleeve. “The Nautilus clade has this big spiral shell cuirass, and the Coral outfit has stripes in bright green and pink. Makes my eyes hurt just to think about it.”
Coral was the oldest clade, and alone among clades they lacked enemies. And yet somehow when truly nasty shit went down, intimidation and assassination and cheating scandals, eventually it always came out that Coral money or Coral influence had had something to do with it. The Coral motto was, “We will not move, and yet we will cut you.”
Cassie tugged at my shoulders to try to get some of the wrinkles out. “Can’t mess with tradition.” Even though the outfit had theoretically been tailored to my measurements, the Stormbird tailors knew little of human anatomy and it bunched awkwardly at the knees, elbows, and especially shoulders.
The outfit’s poor fit pointed out just how much I didn’t belong here.
My parents were Terran diplomats, and we were posted to a Silene colony world when I was twelve years old. While I was there, I learned to fly Shuwashee-style. I discovered I was good at it, and I really came to love it and to love Shuwashee culture. I kept flying after returning home, bringing Shuwashee techniques to Earth, and I became one of the leading practitioners of what we call “natural” flying. My record brought me to the attention of Gyrfalcon, who became my corporate sponsors, and with their support I turned pro. So when the word went out that Stormbird scouts were looking for exceptional Shuwashee-style flyers from other worlds, I leaped at the opportunity. I was thrilled beyond words when out of hundreds of applicants I was the one selected. But when I arrived, I found myself . . . othered. Treated with suspicion, disdain, hatred. Even my patrons viewed me only as a means to an end.
Is it enough to love something? Especially if it doesn’t love you back?
Cassie took a step back to inspect her work. Her face showed that she wasn’t quite convinced, but she put on a smile and said, “There you go. Now you look like a proper Stormbird. And after the ceremony you’ll be one!”
This was the investiture ceremony, in which the seventeen clades officially presented their flyers to the gods for approval. All of the islands’ most important people would be there, and once presented to the gods the flyers would be sealed to their clades for the duration of the Kora. From this point forward, any flyer who was unable to compete—whether by disqualification, injury, or death—could not be replaced. This was good for me, because it meant that no matter how much Kenshee’s enemies hated me they couldn’t kick me out, and in fact for the good of the clade they would be forced to defend me in any dispute. But it meant the end of any freedom and privacy. Once sealed to the clade I would be escorted everywhere under armed guard . . . and even so, the risk of attack was not trifling. The last successful assassination of a flyer had been only twelve years ago, and as the first alien to qualify for the Kora I had a huge target painted on me, front and back.
If I decided I wasn’t up to it right now, Stekha would pick up my wing without hesitation and almost everyone would breathe a sigh of relief. But after the ceremony there would be no turning back.
“There are a lot of people here—even Stormbirds—who will never accept me,” I said.
“Fuck ’em,” she said. “You are one of the best flyers in human space, and probably the best natural. You’ve got a great team behind you, and the best jet ever built.”
“In theory. Did you get that veering glitch fixed?”
“They tweaked the starboard injector. Should be fine.” Her face went serious. “Officially, this little anomaly doesn’t exist. Clear?”
I rolled my eyes. “Of course.” We both knew that the main reason Gyrfalcon had insisted that only one of their sponsored flyers fly the Mark VIII was that we were all under heavy nondisclosure agreements. A Silene flyer’s loyalty would be to their clade first. “Gyrfalcon jets are completely problem-free.”
She whapped my shoulder hard. The ribbons cushioned the blow somewhat. “I’m serious! This is make or break for us!” She leaned in, and her face was as intense as I’ve ever seen it. “You know how competitive the Silene are. If you win, next Kora every clade will want a Gyrfalcon jet. And with that platform, not only will we dominate the human and Silene markets, but the Chokasta and Th’tt as well. So you bet this jet is problem-free.”
I wasn’t completely happy about that, but before I could say anything the door opened. It was Kenshee and the whole Stormbird retinue, barging into my dressing room as if they owned the place. Which they did, actually. They were all in their traditional yellow-and-black garb, and on them the outfits were as natural and fitting as an oriole’s plumage. “It is time for the ceremony,” Kenshee said, holding out a topaz-and-jet-encrusted mace, handle-first. “Are you prepared?”
I looked at the Stormbird leadership, and through the open door behind them at the yellow-and-black-clad crowd outside, with the banners and the shields and the swords and the lances and all. They hadn’t had a win in over a hundred years. They were counting on me . . . and on the Gyrfalcon Mark VIII.
And behind them waited Skeelee, in her own red-and-blue finery, and fifteen other flyers. All of them eager to show that no human could beat the Silene at their own game.
I was a winner. I’d made it this far. And if I was my own worst enemy . . . well, I could overcome that too.
“I’m ready,” I said, and took up the mace.
The day after the investiture ceremony, we took a boat to the wingmakers’ island. It was a much more intimate affair—just Kenshee and I, two of his aides, and two bodyguards—and we all wore simple white smocks with tasteful black and yellow piping, which looked fine on even my non-Silene body.
The Stormbird master wingmaker was named Faree. He was a very elderly Silene, his fur gone entirely gray, who moved with a cane and the help of an assistant. But his grip as he took my hand was astonishingly strong, the skin of his hand as hard and rough as a steel rasp. His other hand moved along my furless forearm, examining my alien muscles and tendons, and I realized he was blind.
“Your airframe,” the master wingmaker explained as we made our laborious way up from the dock to the workshop, “is the very one that Korekeke flew to victory in the three hundred seventeenth Kora, one hundred and sixteen years ago. We have modified it somewhat to suit your . . . unique requirements, and we stand ready to make further modifications after the first trials, but it is still the same wing.” We reached the workshop then, and two wingmakers drew aside the broad sliding doors to reveal . . .
It was magnificent. That was the only word I had to describe the wing that seven apprentices brought out for our inspection. The pure white Shuwashee sun bathed it like a benediction. Even here, with no wind at all, it seemed to drift on the air like a feather. The struts, intricately carved with stylized Silene figures and painted in every shade of black and yellow, somehow projected strength and lightness simultaneously. The koeena, or beak—the nose junction cover, which the Shuwashee believe holds the soul of the wing—was a filigree triangle of solid gold and obsidian, a gorgeous jewelry piece in its own right. And the wing itself, depicting the legendary Stormbird in a thousand hand-stitched patches of black and yellow silk, was both a spectacular work of art and a masterpiece of practicality.
“May I touch it?” I asked, hesitantly.
Faree chuckled. “You would find it difficult to fly it if you could not!”
The silk slipped beneath my fingertips like warm water, the joins between colors almost completely imperceptible. “Amazing,” I breathed.
The apprentices brought out my harness, glove-soft leather dyed black and yellow, and helped me fasten myself into it while they lowered the wing into position. I clipped myself onto the wing and tested the balance. “Isn’t it a little nose-heavy?” I said.
“This is a wing that wishes to win,” the master replied. It was true that a nose-down trim optimized for speed rather than stability, and I couldn’t really argue the point until I’d tested it out.
A sibyl came in then, laid one hand on my forehead and the other on the wing’s gold-and-obsidian beak, and keened some words while everyone knelt and bowed their heads. It was a magical, peaceful moment, and a luminous lightness of spirit suffused the high-ceilinged space.
But as I was being helped out of my harness, I noticed a group of white-clad Silene standing just outside the door. Their faces were held carefully neutral, but their ears betrayed attitudes ranging from disappointment to disgust to outright anger. “Who’s that?” I whispered to one of Kenshee’s aides.
“That is Tula, the master jetmaker,” he replied. “Normally, at this point in the proceedings, your jet would be presented . . . ”
Suddenly all the lightness went out of my heart, and I shrugged off the last harness strap and walked over to the jetmakers, ignoring the aide’s hand on my arm. “I am so sorry,” I said to the oldest, largest, and angriest of them, who stood at the head of the group with arms folded across their broad chest. This must be Tula. “May I . . . may I at least see the jet that you prepared for this Kora? I am certain it is a spectacular example of the jetmaker’s craft.”
“There has never been a finer,” Tula replied, not uncrossing their arms. “And you may not lay your unworthy eyes upon it.”
Again the aide’s hand plucked at my elbow, and again I brushed it away. “I . . . I mean no disrespect. I wish only to honor your efforts . . . your craft, your expertise, your traditions.” Every new word I tried just made Tula angrier.
“Honor?” they growled. “You come here with alien trash on your back, and you talk of honor?” They leaned in close and poked a finger in my face. “For nine hundred years we have built jets for Kora. Every vane, every valve formed and set by hand. Your machine-made Terran trinkets have no heart—no soul—and neither does anyone who bears one on their back! Blood-sucking metal leeches! They will suck the life from Kora.” And without another word they turned and stalked away, the other jetmakers following.
I turned around and saw the entire workshop just looking at me, and behind them the wide-spread silk wings of the Stormbird . . . of which I suddenly felt horribly unworthy. The meticulously stitched silk eye seemed to regard me coldly. “I’m sorry,” I said again, not really sure who I was speaking to. “I . . . I wish . . . ”
“You are sealed to the clade and to the wing,” Kenshee interrupted before I could even figure out what I wished, never mind put it in words. “You will take up that wing, and you will put on your oh-so-superior Terran jet, and you will bring honor to the clade.” He turned to face the crowd. “This is our year!” he roared. “We have awaited this moment for twenty-eight Koras, we have devoted every resource to this victory, and no petty gang of self-important tinkerers will take it away from us!”
Kenshee’s aides and the two bodyguards immediately dropped to their knees and bowed their heads in obeisance. Many of the apprentices did too. But the older wingmakers stood firm, and the master, his blind eyes somehow meeting Kenshee’s unerringly, said, “We have served Stormbird for nine hundred years, and we will serve for nine hundred more. All we ask in return is your respect.”
“And our money,” Kenshee spat. “But you will get the money, and the respect . . . if you earn it.” He gestured brusquely to the apprentices. “Pack up that wing and take it to the boat.” Then he swept out the door. His aides followed, gathering me up as they did.
I tried to silently express my regrets to the master wingmaker as I passed. But of course, he was blind and couldn’t tell.
Five days later I found myself one of a colorful bouquet of flyers, circling above Kokeela Bay awaiting the starting gun.
This was the first of the two shuree, or practice races, that would be held before the Kora itself. The shuree were an opportunity for the flyers to familiarize themselves with the course, their equipment, and each other . . . and also to psych the other flyers out, or possibly even worse. Interference, crashes, and outright sabotage were far from unheard of; indeed, they were practically expected. And, now that the flyers and wings had been sealed to the clade, any damage to either that put them out of flying condition would knock the clade out of competition for the year.
A huge crowd packed the beach and the balconies below; hundreds of thousands more watched through the eyes of the camera drones distributed along the route. Sibyls and leading Stormbird citizens had gathered in a predawn ceremony to wish me luck and the blessing of the gods, and to impress upon me the weight of responsibility I bore. From there we had walked up to the launch cliff in a dense scrum of well-wishers, hangers-on, and tourists with cameras. I was more fearful for the wing, whose silk was in constant danger from reaching hands, than I was for myself, even though my bodyguards would scarcely be able to prevent my assassination if anyone in this tightly packed mob had a gun or even a knife.
Only flyers were allowed on the cliff itself, and as we lined up to take to the air, the atmosphere was competitive but convivial. There was a certain amount of trash talk, to be sure—the Sawtooth flyer led a mocking cheer for the neneka when I arrived—but no one pushed or shoved or tripped anyone else, and I observed no attempts at any of the forms of sabotage I’d been warned about. But I did notice that no one let the Coral flyer get behind them, and I strove to do the same.
We all reached the cloud base and formed up in a wide circle, awaiting the starting gun. The tension was palpable; every flyer kept a sharp eye on the beach below, trying to discern any hint from the tiny scurrying specks that the starting cannon was about to fire. The officials at the gun, in turn, were all blindfolded, to guarantee that the start of the race was not affected by which flyer was in the best or worst position.
The gun, when it came, was an echoing thud barely audible over the rushing winds. But I did hear it, and by chance I found myself in a very good position to bank out of the circle and head north.
The course of the Kora supposedly commemorates the flight of Prince Leekakae’s messenger to deliver his marriage proposal to Princess Kaleeshka in the legendary days of the Shuwashee monarchy. The race begins at Kokeela Bay at the southern tip of Shuwash, the Big Island, then runs the length of Shuwash to the Hokeesh Cliffs where racers ascend for the first big glide across the sea to Ookura, the second biggest island. Ookura is long and rocky and the racers ridge-run up its spine to Shanashee Cape, a broad volcanic plain whose black rock provides a strong updraft for the very long glide to Skein, the smallest of the three inhabited islands. Racers traverse the length of Skein, turn around at its far northern end, then race the length of all three islands back to Kokeela Bay. The home stretch, against the prevailing winds, is generally done under power . . . and many racers run out of fuel before reaching the finish line, as I had done when racing against Skeelee. But this time I was using the big fuel tank, and I was better rested, more experienced with local conditions, and forewarned about the head games my competitors were likely to play.
The racers jockeyed for position and altitude as we all took the western route dictated by the current wind conditions. I was in fourth place, with the hotheaded Sawtooth flyer far in the lead and the next two seemingly focused on competing with each other, which was fine with me. Skeelee was somewhere behind me, but not far.
We reached the Hokeesh Cliffs updraft and began circling upward in preparation for the glide to Ookura. But how much altitude would we need? The winds were strong today, which would make that glide shorter than usual, so an early exit might be a beneficial strategy; but we’d be fighting those same winds on the way back, and this might be our best chance to bank some altitude for later.
Sawtooth was the first to break, but he was a fool and no one else peeled off with him. Perhaps he was fool enough to feel smug about his dramatic lead; perhaps he looked behind and realized his error. Either way, his die was cast. The rest of us kept climbing.
Three orbits later I was starting to get nervous. No one wanted to join Sawtooth in his overeagerness, but no one wanted to be the last one to head off across the sea either. I kept my eye on Skeelee, for though like any good Stormbird I hated the Sabrecats, I had learned to respect her skills . . . and also to be aware of her deceptions. So when she made to bank out of the updraft, I waited to see if she was truly committed . . . and felt remarkably smug when she brought her wing back to level flight, leaving three other flyers gliding away with at least ten meters less altitude than they would have had if they’d ignored her. On the next orbit Skeelee and I both peeled out at the same time, but I was above her. “Ha,” I said to myself.
When we reached Skein, the northernmost of the three islands, Sawtooth was in the lead, with me in second place. The rest of the pack was well behind both of us. The winds had been light and the waters cold, and Skein’s jagged rocks and stunted trees loomed much closer than I would have liked. But Sawtooth flew even lower than I; his wing, gray and white and blue, stood out clearly against the rust-colored treetops below.
I got lucky with a random thermal over a patch of bare earth, denuded of trees by some recent mudslide, but in general my path was downward. Sawtooth too was dipping lower and lower, and as he descended, his opportunities to spot and seize fortunate chances like my random thermal grew fewer and fewer. Again and again, he was forced to ignite his jet to pull himself out of a nasty situation.
Sawtooth was practically skimming the treetops as we reached Skein’s northern tip, an otherwise-unexceptional beach called Peeka that marks the midpoint of the race. The usually uninhabited sand glittered now with the lenses and antennas of race fans, and a tinny cheer reached my ears as Sawtooth swept low across the crowd. The Peeka spectators don’t usually get so close a view of the racers, and for good reason.
When I reached Peeka I took advantage of the updraft above the crowd—sun-warmed black sand, campfires, barbecues, and many Silene bodies all adding their mote to a gentle upward breeze—to take a rising turn before heading south, and I heard another cheer. I didn’t wave back at them, though; I needed both my hands on the control bar, and all my attention, to seize every sip of rising air I could.
Now I was headed south, still in second place but with Sawtooth now perilously low ahead of me. With most of the other racers now visible ahead of me—they were behind me in the race, of course—I felt good about my position. I reminded myself not to fall into the trap of overconfidence.
Then a sudden and unexpected engine sound drew my attention downward. It was Sawtooth, who had dived into a canyon in desperate hope of picking up a little active lift near the bottom. But he’d been disappointed in this, and now found himself with steep canyon walls on either side and no alternative but to jet hard in an attempt to escape.
He nearly made it. But just as his wing crossed the canyon’s lip, I heard his jet sputter and die—out of fuel, with nothing but rough jungle and jagged rocks ahead. He wasn’t completely stupid, though; he immediately looped around to run back down the canyon toward the sea, where he’d find a relatively smooth beach to land on. He wouldn’t have to wait long for a pickup.
But that made me the leader now. I determined not to let the pressure shake me.
I was still in the lead, barely, when I hit the updraft above Hokeesh Cliffs. But after I took one loop, I was joined by Skeelee, coming in behind and above me. The two of us orbited together, practically wingtip-to-wingtip, each wondering who would take the risk of peeling off first. The third-place flyer was far enough back that there was little question: one or the other of us would win this race.
And then a little gust hit me, and I peeled off without thinking. Skeelee followed right behind me.
As soon as I cleared the updraft, I jammed the throttle hard, my jet roaring between my shoulder blades. Skeelee immediately did the same. Side by side, wingtip-to-wingtip, we powered through the air straight toward Kokeela. The camera drones couldn’t keep up with us, instead whipping past one after the other.
Flying against the wind, our wings buffeted and juddered. My hands shook where they gripped the control bar, making my teeth rattle. I squeezed the throttle still harder, but the Gyrfalcon was already at maximum thrust.
But the Gyrfalcon’s maximum thrust was the best in the galaxy. Centimeter by centimeter I crept ahead. I didn’t spare any attention for Skeelee, focusing all my efforts on holding my course, but in my peripheral vision I could tell she was falling behind.
Closer and closer came the finish line, trees and then roofs and then black sand whipping past in a blur just meters below. The landing zone lay ahead, a large flat area of beach surrounded by waving banners in every clade color, welcoming me to my well-earned victory.
And then my engine seized! A harsh squeal of metal on metal, a hard jerk to my right like a parachute opening, and then a sudden sick silence and a smell of raw kerosene. I felt myself stalling—falling—with the jet’s hot dead weight suddenly pulling me down instead of pushing me forward.
My heart felt like it had seized as well, but years of training kicked in and I pulled out of the stall into a safe descending glide. But even as I strove to calm myself, my hammering heart gradually slowing, Skeelee roared past, not cutting her own engine until she was well down the landing zone. She slipped her feet out of the straps and began a running motion even as her wing slowed and settled to the sand, landing in a near-textbook touchdown gentle as a butterfly’s kiss. The winner.
I seethed with rage even as I guided myself into my own safe landing on the beach, watching the other racers sail home overhead. It’s only a practice race, I reminded myself, but that was very cold comfort indeed.
After that disaster I didn’t want to face anyone—not Kenshee, not Cassie, not even my bodyguards. I holed up in my room with a bottle of scotch and pulled the covers over my head. But eventually the scotch ran out, and I still wasn’t ready to face the Stormbirds I’d shamed, so I crept down the back stairs and went out to find a bar where nobody knew who I was.
I didn’t really think about the fact that I was probably the most famous human in all Silene space.
It wasn’t until after I’d ordered and settled down at a dark back table that I noticed a lot of blue-and-red neckcloths in the crowd. A lot of blue-and-red neckcloths. Like, just about everyone at the bar.
Sabrecat territory was right next to Stormbird, and the borders weren’t always obvious to outsiders.
I wasn’t so drunk that my sense of self-preservation had completely vanished. I tucked my black-and-yellow neckcloth into my shirt and hunkered down behind my table. I would finish my drink and sneak out before anyone noticed I was here.
But, of course, I had walked right in and ordered like I owned the place, so it was only a few minutes later that a large group of burly Sabrecats entered the bar and was pointed to my table, which they immediately surrounded. “What are you doing here, chicken?” said the biggest one, using what I figured was an insulting term for Stormbird.
“Just having a drink,” I said, which had the virtue of being true.
“That is Sabrecat liquor,” said one of the others. “Not for chickens.” She picked up my drink and, looking me straight in the face, poured it in my lap. “Now lay us an egg.”
I thought about trying to use humor to defuse the situation—clucking and flapping my arms while making my way to the door—but some terrified sober part of me realized I was in far too deep for that. “I think I should just leave,” I said, and tried to rise.
“I think not,” said the biggest Sabrecat, pushing me back down into the liquor pooled on my chair. At least, I hoped it was only liquor. I was seriously terrified.
“Really, folks,” I said, working hard to keep my voice level, “I really think you should let me go. You don’t want to create an internantl . . . interneshal . . . interstellar incident.”
The biggest Sabrecat had not released my shoulder, and now he drew a very large knife with the other hand. “This isn’t interstellar at all,” he said, his voice entirely too calm. “This is inter-clade business, and for a big, fat chicken to foul a Sabrecat bar is a very serious crime.” He leaned in close, the knife tip making a very precise circle just centimeters from my navel. “Now lay us an egg, or we will cut it out of you.”
I was just about ready to start clucking, but part of me didn’t want that to be my final action in this life.
Fortunately I was spared that indignity, because just then the door slammed open and everyone’s attention went to it. Saved! I thought, but then I noticed who had just entered.
It was Skeelee, my greatest enemy in all the worlds, along with a cadre of her biggest, meanest friends.
Well, I thought, this is it. I’m dead.
“Kes!” Skeelee roared, and anyone who had managed to miss her entrance turned to her now. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“It was a mistake,” I said, and I have never meant anything I’ve said more deeply.
“I’ve been looking all over for you!” she continued and pushed through the crowd until she could sit down next to me and put one sinewy arm around my shoulders.
“What?” I managed, trembling. I felt like the world was shifting beneath my soggy bottom.
“Kes here may be a big ugly chicken,” she said to the bar at large, “but he is a Kora flyer. Do you understand what that means? He is sealed to the wing, as am I. That makes us like brother and sister! A bond even closer than clade!”
I had never heard such a thing, but at that moment I wanted desperately to believe it.
The crowd, too, appeared never to have encountered this concept before, and several of them growled protests. “What about Loreesha, back in ninety-three?” came a voice from near the bar. “She was a flyer, and we cut her in three pieces!”
“Kora te veela, eh?” Kora is life, came the translation. “And life changes. Things are different now. We’ve never had an alien flyer before, eh?”
The crowd didn’t seem mollified by this philosophy, and some of them surged forward. But Skeelee stood up on the bench next to me, and her friends closed in around the table, blocking the surge. “Listen, people!” she called. “I represent you in Kora, right? I am sealed to clade and wing and jet. And if anyone is going to pluck this ugly chicken’s feathers it will be me! Leave him to me, and I will demolish him in the way that will hurt his fat, greasy chicken clade the most—in the air!”
Not everyone was convinced by this argument, but some were, and Skeelee and her friends took advantage of the resulting confusion to form a tight knot around me and hustle me out the door. The street outside was nearly as packed as the bar, but they pushed through that as well, rapidly conveying me three blocks to a corner hung with black and yellow flags. “Now go home,” said Skeelee, shoving me hard in the direction of my room. I fell to my hands and knees on the rough cobbles.
“Is it true what you said, about flyers being like brother and sister?” I said as I picked myself up.
“No. I just made that up. But I meant it about you being mine to demolish. Understand?”
“Now stay out of trouble.”
They turned and left me there, leaving me to exchange stares with an angry blue-and-red-clad crowd that was somehow willing to commit cold-blooded murder but not to cross a street marked by black and yellow flags.
It took every bit of nerve I had to turn my back on them, but I did it.
Then I went back to my room and threw up for a long time.
Two days later came the second and final shuree. I inspected my repaired engine extremely carefully, despite Cassie’s reassurances; no matter what Gyrfalcon said, this was still a prototype, and it was still my neck on the line.
When the flyers gathered on the launch cliff it was a much more serious group than before. Not only did everyone know that I’d barely escaped being knifed in a bar, but the Spearfish flyer had fallen ill at dinner and was now in a hospital on the mainland, her very survival uncertain. No one had claimed responsibility, but it didn’t escape anyone’s notice that only the Corals were saying that it couldn’t possibly have been poison.
The conversation was terse, formal, and strained. There wasn’t even any trash talk about my sad performance in the first shuree, and with everyone giving the Coral flyer a wide berth the glad-handing and back-slapping was reduced to almost nothing. The sound of engines was very loud as the wordless flyers took off one by one.
When the starting gun fired, we all peeled out of our circle on the eastern route to Hokeesh, dictated by the day’s light winds. And then a sound came to my ears . . . a cry like a bird’s, though not a bird, and a faint crackle. I peered all around, searching for the source of the sound . . . and my heart went cold when I spotted it.
It was the Nautilus flyer, a lean and canny agender whom everyone considered a strong contender. Their wing was damaged, one of its leading-edge struts broken and the sail folded nearly in half, spinning down toward the beach below. There was nothing they could do—nothing any of us could do—except hope that the impact would be survivable.
I couldn’t pull my eyes from the whirling blue-and-green wreck as it spiraled inexorably down, vanishing into the orange trees above the cliffs.
This kind of thing doesn’t just happen, I thought. These wings were better inspected and maintained than the most safety-conscious fusion plant. I looked back up to where the Nautilus flyer had started their fatal descent.
The only wing anywhere nearby was Coral. Sailing along unperturbed.
There were camera drones everywhere, of course. But, knowing Coral, if foul play had been involved there would somehow be no unequivocal evidence of it.
I looked down again, but there was no sign at all of the fallen wing. Only the foliage waving gently in the fitful breeze.
This isn’t just a pickup race at Malibu, Kes, I told myself. Focus. Don’t let that happen to you.
The winds that day were exceptionally mild, requiring everyone to use a lot of fuel. My powerful jet was a significant advantage in these circumstances—a little bit of juice could buy me far more altitude than a longer thrust by a weaker engine—and I was learning to manage its fuel consumption. By the time we hit Ookura on the southbound leg, several flyers had already run dry and dropped out, leaving two clear leaders: me and Skeelee. Again.
We made the ridge run down the length of Ookura like a pair of hawks fighting over territory, trading the lead back and forth, practically nipping at each other’s tails. Skeelee’s brilliant flying brought out my most aggressive, competitive, and daring side, taunting me into risks and hazards I would never otherwise have attempted. She made me a braver and a better flyer. Coral and the rest of the pack were somewhere far behind us, disregarded and forgotten.
Several times I opened my mouth to call something, then closed it . . . I didn’t know whether I wanted to compliment her or taunt her. I was impressed by her flying, but I still had to beat her. She had saved my life, but she wasn’t a friend.
I had less than an eighth of a tank of fuel.
We barely cleared the tops of the Hokeesh Cliffs when we arrived, and we found that the near-dead-calm air left us no updrafts worth the name. So we had no choice but to thrust for altitude . . . which immediately turned into a hard run, under full acceleration, for the landing zone at Kokeela Beach.
Side by side we roared along, the control bar vibrating beneath my gloved palms. Skeelee was ahead, but the Gyrfalcon was devouring her lead. We were flying low, skimming along the coast, trees and surf and cheering crowds blurring by beneath us.
I caught up with Skeelee and passed her, grinning into the wind that whipped my face. Kokeela Beach drew nearer and nearer . . .
. . . and then the Gyrfalcon coughed twice and died. Out of fuel. My wing veered to the right. I immediately compensated—but I knew the race was lost.
But then Skeelee’s engine sputtered into silence as well!
We found ourselves gliding along together, still wickedly fast and frighteningly low above the surf. The crash of waves against the rocks below was very loud in the sudden silence. Only a kilometer or so to the finish line, and I still held the lead. All I had to do was keep it.
My wing wanted to win, I reminded myself. I lightened my touch and let it sail, gliding smoothly through the near-calm toward the landing zone.
But Skeelee wanted to win even more, I think. Gently, gently, she put her nose down, just the tiniest fraction, offering a trade of altitude for speed. There was no wind to speak of and she had no altitude to spare, but somehow she convinced the air to give her a little sip more speed in exchange for a tiny taste of height. Lower and lower she sailed, practically skimming the waves, but gradually she closed my lead . . . pulled up next to me . . . began to pass me.
I tried to match her tactics, but every time I tipped my nose down at all I lost height frighteningly fast, finding myself forced to pull up before the waves caught me and the Gyrfalcon dragged me to the bottom. Every attempt to catch up to Skeelee just put me further behind.
In the end, that damned blue-and-red cat was two full wingspans ahead as we sailed across the finish line.
The next morning, I waited for Kenshee in his office, holding my pounding head. I had spent the evening in a Stormbird bar with my bodyguards, but they hadn’t protected me from this hangover.
I knew why Kenshee had called me on the carpet. I had let the hated Sabrecat beat me three times now: once by intimidation, once by equipment failure, and once by flat-out better flying. But the clade at the top of my throbbing skull was Coral. There was no doubt in my mind that Nautilus’ crash had not been an accident.
This wasn’t just a race. This wasn’t just for money, or status, or bragging rights. This was life or death.
I was putting my life on the line for Stormbird. Was it worth it?
Kenshee arrived before I could come to a conclusion. “Any word on the Nautilus flyer?” I asked immediately, deflecting whatever he was about to say.
“They died during the night.” My headset translated his words with a neutral tone, but his ears betrayed the fact that he considered this an unmitigated positive—the elimination of a strong competitor, not the death of a colleague.
Sadness, fear, and anger burned in my breast. “So what happens to Coral?”
Kenshee gestured dismissively. “Coral denies any involvement.”
“Of course they do,” I fumed. “What about Nautilus?”
Kenshee took a breath before replying. “For hundreds of years,” he said, “there were no drones on the course, and whatever happened in the sky was known only to the flyers. Any accusation of foul play was an affront to the accused clade’s honor. Wars were fought. Also, to admit having been defeated by stratagem would be a confession of weakness.” He looked levelly at me. “Nautilus grieves their flyer’s death and vows to return even stronger at the next Kora. Do you understand?”
I met his gaze for a long moment before replying. “I understand,” I said, but I didn’t have to like it.
“You’re supposed to fly in that?” Cassie said.
That was my flying helmet: black leather with yellow trim, topped by an enormous plume of black and yellow feathers. It stood on a little pillar at the center of the head table for tonight’s pre-Kora dinner. The table, in turn, stood on a dais in the middle of the main street of Stormbird territory, which had been blocked off and filled with long tables and hundreds of chairs. Every single member of the Stormbird clade, it seemed, was here for a ceremonial feed whose like had not been seen in decades.
Cassie ran her fingers through the feathers and looked at me askance. “What about drag?”
“Everyone has the same plume,” I explained with a shrug. “In fact, if you lose the plume you can’t win.”
Kenshee shook his head with a smile. “That is just a widely believed myth. However, it is true that the wing that crosses the finish line first is the winner of the race, even if the wing has lost its flyer.”
“Is that even possible?” Cassie asked. It was news to me too.
Kenshee shrugged. “It has happened twice.”
Although I wondered what had happened to the flyers in those two cases, I was doomed to remain ignorant, because at that moment several of Kenshee’s very dearest friends walked up . . . Silene of taste, bearing, and obviously considerable wealth, who simply must meet the alien flyer who was going to win the Kora for them. Their outfits combined rich black with just enough yellow to show Stormbird pride without gaudiness or ostentation.
They whispered to each other behind their hands as they approached, their ears held low. Not just as though I were a performing monkey dressed up in Stormbird flying leathers—I was used to that—but as though I held some sad and terrible secret. But no one said anything out loud, and I tried to chalk the impression up to nerves.
Despite their whispers, as we talked it became abundantly clear that they had very high expectations of me. A win was not merely hoped for but needed—the deep hunger for victory was clear on every face. And it wasn’t just Kenshee’s patrons. Everyone, from the Stormbird leadership down to the servers and small children, was looking to me with that same hunger. And who could blame them? They hadn’t had a win in more than a century, in a culture where winning the Kora granted status, privilege, and political power for years thereafter.
They had placed an enormous level of trust in an alien. It was a huge gamble for them, and if I let them down their next serious opportunity for a win might not come for decades. Perhaps this explained their whispers and pointing.
Could I do it? Really, was I up to it?
I thought about how Skeelee had outsmarted, outmaneuvered, and outflown me in so many ways, on so many occasions. She had even rescued me from her own people. I knew I was a very good flyer, even by Shuwashee standards, but the last shuree had proven beyond doubt that Skeelee was better.
But I had the Mark VIII. As long as it didn’t blow up and I could manage its fuel consumption, it might very well give me the edge.
And I would do my damnedest to give my Stormbird friends the win they craved.
Black-and-yellow-liveried servants appeared then, ringing bells and calling for everyone to take their seats. Mine was at the head table, of course, just to Kenshee’s left. I was amused that the Captain’s position in the center of the table hid him from much of the audience behind the helmet’s gaudy plume. There were three chairs to his right, occupied by a sibyl, the master wingmaker, and the head of the dyer’s guild, and two to his left: one for me and one for the chief notary. The setup felt strangely asymmetrical, given that everything else on the dais was neatly centered.
“Why are there only two of us on this side of the table?” I asked the notary as he took his seat to my left.
“The master jetmaker is not in attendance,” he explained. “I cannot say why.”
I toyed with my appetizer as a series of speeches began. I could imagine why Tula had decided to forego the proceedings, though I was sorry they had done so. It wasn’t my fault they’d been snubbed—well, not directly—and I wanted to express my admiration for them and their fellow craftspeople. The Mark VIII might have more power than Tula’s jet, but theirs had tradition, dependability, efficiency, and what for lack of a better term you might call soul on its side.
“It is absolutely unheard-of for a non-Silene to fly Kora, you know,” the notary commented between speeches.
“I am extremely honored to be the first.” I sipped my wine, which was excellent. “I don’t believe everyone here understands just how much love and respect I have for the Shuwashee people and culture. I learned to fly the Shuwashee way, from Shuwashee instructors, when I was young and very much alone. It helped me to define myself. I understand that some people don’t like it that I’m flying in this race, but I would never, ever want to hurt the Silene, or the Shuwashee people, or especially the Stormbirds. I would rather drop my jet into the sea than cause anyone here any pain.”
For some reason that statement caused the notary to withdraw from the conversation. He stared into his wine glass, took a long sip, then stared off—rather morosely, judging by the set of his ears—across the boisterous crowd. I found this behavior curious, but felt it would be inappropriate to intrude, so I turned my attention to my plate.
“I said before,” the notary said after a while—leaning close and speaking low—“that I could not say why the master jetmaker was not in attendance. I am very sorry to say that it was not because I did not know, but that I was asked not to tell you.”
My heart suddenly seemed to beat differently . . . not faster or harder, but more deeply. “Oh?”
“It was felt that you might not take the news well. That it might affect your performance in Kora.”
I had a horrible feeling I knew what was coming next. “Why are you telling me now?”
“Even though you are an alien, you seem to me to be a fine, honorable young person. You deserve to know the truth, even if it hurts.”
I swallowed. “Tell me.”
“Tula committed suicide this afternoon.”
The clattering of cutlery and the chatter of happy, slightly inebriated Stormbirds filled my ears. “I think I would be happier if you hadn’t told me,” I managed at last.
The notary nodded. “But when you did eventually hear the news, would you be happy to know the truth had been deliberately withheld from you?”
“I . . . I don’t know. This is a lot to think about.”
“Please understand that this was not your fault. If anyone is to blame it is Kenshee. He was the one who convinced the Stormbird council to hire a Terran flyer and the officials to accept a Terran jet.”
I acknowledged this statement without really accepting it. “So what happens to me now?”
“To you? Nothing. You have broken no rules. You will fly Kora tomorrow, and hopefully you will win.” He laid a gentle hand on mine, and I realized I was trembling, but whether it was rage or fear or just shock I had no idea. “Suicide is a very personal decision. No one will blame you for Tula’s death.”
“No one but me.”
I had to get away from this conversation. I looked around and didn’t see Kenshee, but Cassie was seated nearby. I pushed back from my plate and descended from the rostrum, confronting her at her table. “The master jetmaker committed suicide,” I said. It was an accusation.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She wasn’t sorry. “But you can’t let it get to you. Sometimes old things have to pass away to make room for the new.”
That was exactly the wrong tack to take with me just then. “Tula wasn’t a thing!” We were speaking English, but ears turned in our direction at my outburst.
“I didn’t mean it that way!” She paused, collected herself, put on her most sincere expression. “Look, you know I have the greatest respect for the Silene. They invented this sport!”
“It’s not just a sport to them! To the Shuwashee, Kora is life! And I took Tula’s reason to live away!”
Now she looked genuinely horrified, and for a moment I thought I’d found some spark of humanity within that corporate shell. But only for a moment. “Don’t you dare even think about backing out!” she snapped. “You will fly the Kora, you will fly the Mark VIII, and you will fly to win, or your career is over.”
“There are more important things than my career,” I said and turned away before I could say something that would get me into even more trouble. If that were even possible.
I didn’t return to my seat. I left the dinner completely and went walking through the ancient streets, hung with colorful banners and illuminated by torches for the night before Kora. It might have been a thousand years ago, except for the chattering tourists.
I kept an eye on the flags this time, careful not to wander into enemy territory. My bodyguards would have stopped me if I did, I’m sure, but as long as I didn’t do anything truly stupid, they were content just to follow me. I walked down to the square, where workers were hammering together the spectators’ bleachers for tomorrow’s race, and through it, and down to the beach. Neutral territory.
I walked in the surf for a long time, head down, listening to the endless breathing rhythm of the waves. They’d been crashing on this shore, driven by the same winds that lifted my wing and every other, since long before Silene or humans had existed, and would keep doing so until the islands were worn completely away.
Old things pass away. New things come along. If I were just part of that process, was that so terrible? I would make so many people happy—people for whom I had come to care deeply—if I won. Yes, the jetmakers might not like it, but sixteen of the seventeen clades were sad at the end of every Kora. Someone had to win, someone had to lose, and that was something I couldn’t change no matter what I did.
I couldn’t back out. I couldn’t use Tula’s jet—the jetmakers would consider it an affront, and Kenshee would kill me for giving up the Gyrfalcon advantage. And for the sake of my own self-respect, if nothing else, I couldn’t give it anything less than my very best.
And besides . . . my clade was counting on me.
The sky was beginning to lighten when I found my path blocked by Kenshee and his entourage. He was wearing his full military outfit, with an impressively plumed helmet and a large, jeweled sword on his belt. He was also carrying my helmet. “You have heard about Tula,” he said.
I just nodded, not trusting my voice.
“I am sorry.” He held out the helmet. “But the time has come.”
“I will fly for Stormbird,” I said, taking it. “And I will win.”
The Dawn Parade was one of the Shuwashee Islands’ cultural treasures, so much so that not even modern commercialism was allowed to touch it. It began at the beach, wound around the city on a tortuous route that passed through every clade’s territory, and ended in the square, from which the flyers proceeded to the launch cliff. The sibyls, the governors of the islands, and the guilds each had their contingent, as well as every clade.
I could not help but notice that, while the master wingmaker marched at the head of his colleagues, the jetmakers had only a significant gap at the head of their group. I bowed my head as they passed, out of respect for the dead and also because I could not bear to meet their eyes.
After the last of the guilds had passed the Corals stepped out, their lurid pink and green stripes muted in the rosy dawn light. Stormbird followed, in order of seniority, led by two children carrying a black and yellow banner on poles, followed by me—walking in splendid isolation, but inconspicuously surrounded by four black-and-yellow-liveried bodyguards. Each of them carried a large Stormbird crest, which just happened to be made of a high-tensile-strength alloy that could stop a bullet. My ostentatious parade helmet was lined with the same material, as was the tabard I wore over my flying leathers. The whole thing was hot and heavy, even in the cool of the early morning, but not as hot or as heavy as the gazes of the thousands of spectators who lined the parade route, with millions more peering through the glittering lenses of aerial drones. I did my best to smile and wave.
I was followed by my wing and jet, carried by stalwart young Stormbirds who had earned the honor through contests of strength and skill—though not the actual wing and jet, which awaited me and the other flyers at the launch cliff under armed guard. This substitution was an open secret, but everyone nonetheless treated the copies with reverence, the wingbearers dutifully fending off the many hands that attempted to touch the silk for luck.
Kenshee followed the wing, accompanied by pages in traditional outfits carrying the clade’s symbolic mace and sword on velvet cushions. Behind them came more Stormbird dignitaries, officials, and notable personages, and behind them followed a less-formal, but equally black-and-yellow-clad, contingent of ordinary Stormbird citizens, singing the clade’s traditional battle songs with more enthusiasm than precision.
The Stormbird proletariat, it had seemed to me as we’d formed up, were even more boisterous than their peers in the other clades, waving their black and yellow flags with undimmed vigor even after standing and waiting for hours. They had hope, I realized, for the first time in a hundred and sixteen years, and it was because of me. And the Mark VIII prototype. Which was problematic in so many ways.
I kept smiling and waving.
The sun had risen while we Stormbirds were standing waiting to join the parade, and as we proceeded through the city the temperature began to rise. But then clouds rolled in, which was pleasant . . . until I realized they were cumulonimbus clouds, threatening rain.
The official rules of Kora state that the safety of the flyers is paramount. But with tens of thousands of spectators present, many of whom had been waiting years for the lottery draw that let them attend, the pressure for Kora to begin on schedule was enormous. So we were all prepared for the possibility that we might have to fly in less than ideal conditions. But rain would make everything different . . . technically, strategically, and psychologically.
The Dawn Parade ended in Shuwash Square, where most of the marchers joined their clades in the bleachers and a few began displays of acrobatics and historical drama to occupy the crowd until the race began. But the flyers, officials, and sibyls left the square and proceeded to the launch cliff.
We passed through three security checkpoints on our way to the cliff, and as we climbed the atmosphere changed from historical pageantry to serious business. Silene in modern uniforms, with body armor and high-powered rifles, patrolled each checkpoint, and no one got through unless their face was on the approved list. By the time we reached the top, the Stormbird contingent was reduced to me, Kenshee, and the master wingmaker.
What was supposed to happen now was that we would accept, inspect, and don our wings and jets. But instead the clade representatives were called together to consult on the weather with the race master and the meteorologist. “We assess the chance of light rain at one in four,” the meteorologist said, “with a one in sixteen chance of heavy rain.”
“In circumstances such as this, the representatives must vote,” the race master continued, looking around the circle. “One vote per clade, no abstentions. A majority—which, in the absence of Spearfish and Nautilus, is eight votes—is required to proceed. If the vote is no, the launch is postponed until tomorrow. If a majority votes yes, the launch proceeds as scheduled.” As she spoke, she met each flyer and captain’s eye with deep sincerity. “Once the racers have launched, Kora will proceed to its conclusion without possibility of delay or cancellation. Do you understand?”
We all indicated our assent, and every face was serious. There had been a few cases in history where a storm swept in during the race. In one of those the winner had been the sole survivor, who with her wing had been pulled from the sea and thrown, still dripping, across the finish line.
“You may consult before voting.”
Kenshee, Faree, and I took a few steps away from the group. The wind off the bay was freshening and surf crashed on the rocks below.
“How will this wing behave if it gets wet?” I asked the wingmaker.
“All Kora wings are optimized for speed, not stability.” His meaning was clear. If I were caught in the rain, I’d have to use all my skill just to remain aloft. “We can treat the silk to repel water, which will improve handling in case of rain, but at some cost in speed if dry conditions continue.”
I considered that. “How much cost?”
“Between one in sixty-four and one in one hundred twenty-eight.”
One or two percent. Not too bad but flying against Skeelee it could make the difference between victory and a worse-than-ignoble second-place finish. Unless it rained, in which case it might make the difference between life and death.
I stared out at the lowering clouds. Skeelee had been flying these skies, on wings just like this one, since she was little. My jet had the performance to beat her, if I could just manage the fuel . . . but if the rain did come, fuel consumption would go way up. But the water-repellent treatment might help on that. One in four chance of rain. One in sixty-four reduction in performance if it didn’t.
I’ve never been any good at math.
I turned to Faree. “If your child were flying this Kora, would you send them out in this weather?”
He gave the question very serious consideration. “I would vote no,” he said at last. “But if the launch proceeded despite my vote, I would treat the silk.”
Kenshee glowered at my indecision. “True Stormbirds do not fear the weather,” he said. “And the moons are particularly propitious for Stormbird this day. They will not be so tomorrow.”
I wasn’t sure of the politics of the situation. Back home, the flyer had final say on anything regarding safety, but here Kenshee’s word as Captain of the clade might be law. But the fact that he was looking at me right now, not charging off to inform the race master of the clade’s vote, implied that I did have some influence, at least.
So what did I want?
If you’d asked me last week, there would have been no question . . . I would vote no. Don’t risk your life for a stupid air race.
But now I was sealed to wing and clade. I was a Stormbird.
“True Stormbirds do not fear the weather,” I echoed. “I say we vote yes. But we will treat the silk.”
“Very well,” Faree said, inclining his head respectfully.
Kenshee nodded curtly, and we all prepared to deliver our vote to the race master. But before we could step away from our little colloquy, the Coral Captain approached us. I thought this was rather unusual, but though Kenshee’s expression was sour he didn’t seem surprised.
“We were just curious,” the Coral said, “how you were planning to vote.” I couldn’t fail to notice that they held one hand rather awkwardly in the pocket of their garish pink-and-green-striped velvet doublet. A gun? No, that was absurd. The Coral Captain was a frail, elderly agender who didn’t seem the type to hurt a fly.
“We’re voting yes,” I said, and at Kenshee’s immediate thunderous glare I realized that I’d made a mistake.
“Excellent,” the Coral purred, and as they walked away, they withdrew their empty hand from the pocket.
“What was that all about?” I muttered to Kenshee as we walked along the cliff edge back to the race master.
“You just cost us a great deal of money,” he growled under his breath.
“The Corals were offering a bribe for a yes vote,” he explained as though to an ignorant child. “The three of us could have made thousands—tens of thousands! Each!—for a vote we were already planning to cast!” His tone reminded me that bribery was not only acceptable but expected.
“I’m sorry,” I said, though Silene money meant very little to me. “But why would a yes vote matter so much to them?”
Kenshee blew out a breath. “I’m not sure. It’s always schemes within schemes, with the Corals.”
We were among the last to arrive, joining a loose circle of flyers, Captains, and wingmakers around the race master. “The flyers will state their clades’ decisions,” she declaimed, “in reverse order of seniority.” The Sawtooth flyer stepped forward. “How does Sawtooth vote?”
“Sawtooth votes no.” I wasn’t surprised. After his disastrous miscalculation in the first shuree, the Sawtooth flyer had been the most cautious of us all.
And so it went around the circle, with no clear consensus emerging. By the time the voting came around to me, the vote stood at six yes to seven no, with eight yes votes required to proceed and only two clades left to vote: Stormbird and Coral.
As I stepped forward, all eyes on me, I looked carefully at the Coral flyer. She returned my gaze rather smugly, I felt, but her ears betrayed nervousness.
If Kenshee was correct that the Corals had been offering a bribe for a yes vote, I could understand both those emotions: smug because she wanted and expected the launch to proceed, with my help, but nervous because . . . well, because there was some Coral scheme at work.
“How does Stormbird vote?”
I hesitated. If Coral wanted a yes vote that badly, that might be a good reason to say no . . .
“How does Stormbird vote?” the race master repeated, rather crossly.
Schemes within schemes, but the moons were still in our favor. “Stormbird votes yes.”
The Coral flyer relaxed visibly and stepped up to state her yes vote almost before the race master finished requesting it.
“Very well,” the race master said, raising her ceremonial baton. “The vote is eight to seven in favor. The launch will proceed. You have one hour to prepare.”
As the apprentices applied the water-repellent treatment to my wing, I found myself standing with the master wingmaker with nothing to do but wait. “I heard about Tula,” I said. “I am . . . devastated for your loss.”
Faree’s blind eyes stared over my shoulder, but his attention was plainly fixed on me. “They did not wish to live to see what would become of Kora,” he said, “if a Terran jet were to win.”
A deep chill settled in the pit of my stomach. “I . . . I’m sure that, no matter who wins, Kora will remain Kora.”
Faree sighed and shook his head. “It has changed so much already, just in the past twenty years. The tourists, the media, the money, the aliens . . . ” He checked himself, nodded to me a bit embarrassed. “Present company excepted. But if you win, with that Terran jet on your back, the changes will only accelerate.” Again he sighed. “In another twenty years, every clade will be using the very best wings and jets that can be obtained on the interstellar market, and the traditional wingmakers will be left selling kites in Shuwash Square. I am glad that I will not live long enough to see it.”
I really didn’t know how to react to that. “And yet you have worked so very hard to help me to that win.”
“I have labored every day of my life to bring victory to Stormbird, and you and your jet offer the best chance we have had in decades. I cannot decline that chance.” The master wingmaker shrugged. “Kora is life, and life is change.”
“Life is change,” I agreed. But the image of proud wingmakers reduced to selling kites to tourists wouldn’t leave my head.
When we finally launched, under dark and threatening skies, the cheers of the crowd were audible even over the roar of our jets. The square below was a solid carpet of people—despite the limited number of lottery winners and the severity of penalties for sneaking in without a ticket. I had thought we’d had a lot of people for the first shuree, but the crowd for Kora made that look like a mere sprinkling.
We peeled off back to the cliffs and began climbing, awaiting the starting gun. The cloud base was low and rough, boiling with turbulence, and we reached it quickly, jockeying for position, eyeing each other as we circled. It seemed to take forever before the gun sounded, but when that wavering thud finally reached my ears, I peeled out hard, diving aggressively for speed as I headed north on the western route.
I could feel the water-repellent treatment on my sail, a slight persistent drag like a low-grade fever. And with the air so lively, I found myself facing constant surprises, with gusts or shear materializing unexpectedly.
Grumbles of thunder reached my ears, and the air grew chill and damp. By the time I reached the Hokeesh Cliffs my leathers were soaked, and my face felt like I’d been slapped repeatedly with a cold dead fish. The other flyers were spread all over the sky, but I could plainly see that damned red-and-blue cat flying low and fast ahead of me. I slotted myself into the same updraft as Skeelee, and we began climbing together.
Soon wisps of cloud began to interpose themselves between us, and I glanced across the dark choppy water toward Ookura. We were barely high enough to attempt that long glide, but if we climbed into the clouds, we’d be blind. It would be a tough call.
But Skeelee didn’t peel off. She kept climbing, even as the air chilled and visibility worsened. I didn’t want to peel off before she did—whoever hit Tokele Beach with more altitude would have an advantage that would last the whole length of Ookura—but I was becoming more and more nervous about it.
Still she failed to peel off. And then a dense fog suddenly enfolded us. We were in the cloud.
Nothing but gray all around. The wind loud in my ears . . . my sail’s trailing edge rattling . . . water streaming across every surface. Was Skeelee climbing still, just a few wingspans away? Had she banked off as soon as we’d lost sight of each other? Were we about to collide?
And how was I going to get out of this?
Think. Think. Despite the hour’s delay in launch, it was still morning. The cloud was brighter there . . . that must be east. Which meant I was facing north . . . now!
I banked off and dove hard, screaming a long pointless frustrated “Aaaa!” into the cold drizzle that whipped my face.
And then I burst out below the cloud!
Nothing but dark whitecaps below. Nothing but Ookura, an angular black shape against the gray horizon, ahead. Where was Skeelee? Was she still climbing? I whipped my head from side to side.
She was behind me. She was behind me! And very nearly at the same altitude. “Beat you at your own game!” I cried, not caring if she could hear.
A dozen colorful wings were visible behind her, and all of them flew lower. So Skeelee and I were well in the lead, and my fuel level wasn’t bad. My confidence tweaked tentatively upward.
But then we reached Tokele Beach, where the weather changed the ridge-run along Ookura’s spine from an exciting challenge to a terrifying trial. Beginning with barely sufficient altitude, handicapped by a chemical-treated sail, buffeted by hard and gusty winds, and slapped down at unpredictable intervals by cold downdrafts, I found myself in the fight of my life. Again and again, I was forced to bank hard, flinging my body to one side or the other to avoid a looming cliff or grasping tree branch. I spent a lot more fuel than I would have liked but ascending high enough to avoid the ridges completely would have cost even more.
There were no thermals; there were no cliffs; there were no updrafts. There was only speed and skill.
It was the hardest flying I’ve ever done in my life.
And Skeelee was right there with me the whole way.
My already great respect for her deepened still further. I knew that she was pushing me to be a bolder and better flyer, and it seemed that I might be doing the same for her.
The crowd at Peeka was three times the size it had been for either shuree, and when I reached that beach, I felt my wings buoyed up by the massed breath, body heat, and campfires of thousands of spectators. “Thank you!” I yelled at them, relieved beyond measure by what would have been, on any other day, a pathetic excuse for a thermal. Two, three, five, ten, twenty turns I took over that beach, collecting tiny scraps of altitude into a nearly respectable height. The crowd cheered. Half delirious from exhaustion and stress, I yelled incoherently back.
Skeelee was there as well. Of course. We were well matched. We would survive Kora together, or we would die together.
Several other flyers joined us in that slow rising gyre, all well below us. A few more wings were visible in the distance, still heading north, as Skeelee and I approached the cloud base and, as though by mutual consent, banked out at the same time and headed south. The light was beginning to fail, even though it was still midafternoon; the clouds above the visible solid layer must be getting thicker and taller. That didn’t bode well. Tall, thick clouds—cumulonimbus—are called thunderheads for a reason.
Coral, I noted, was not among the wings I could see, which worried me. They’d offered serious money to fly in this weather; they must have something planned. But what?
The thunder, which had been audible in the distance for some time, grew nearer and more frequent as we crossed Shanashee Cape and began the southbound Ookura ridge-run. Suffice it to say I survived that, though by the time I reached Tokele Beach I felt myself little more than a machine. My wing and my jet and I had unified into a single device, a puppet pulled upward and forward by strings of habit and duty. Skeelee was surely as exhausted as I, but neither of us wanted to rest and leave the other to an easy victory. So on and on we flew, exchanging the lead from time to time.
The Hokeesh Cliffs were visible in the distance now, dimmed by haze and failing light. Soon Kora would be over, one way or another.
As we fought through the gusty, grumbling air toward the finish line, I couldn’t forget that last conversation with Faree. Did I really want to win this race, knowing the damage a Terran jet’s win could do to the jetmakers, the wingmakers, and the whole Shuwashee culture?
But then I realized that the Hokeesh Cliffs were a lot closer than I had thought, because the view was obscured.
Obscured by rain.
I flew into the descending gray curtain.
The going wasn’t too bad at first, the air going from cold and damp to heavy fog, then a light spatter of drizzle that chilled my cheeks and crept into the seams of my harness.
But as the drizzle grew heavier, water began to gather on the wing’s leading edge. It immediately beaded and ran off, thanks to the water-repellent treatment, but even so I felt an abrupt change in my handling. I’d felt the drag from the treatment as a low-grade fever, but this was more like a bout of the flu . . . on a hot day.
My control inputs became nearly irrelevant. Every turn tried to slip off to the side, and even a hard lean to the left or right brought a response that was late, grudging, and feeble. Pull the bar in for speed? It was already in, almost all the way! And I didn’t dare let my speed drop too far, because the extra weight of water would make a stall far easier. Lacking a visor on my helmet, unwilling to let go of the control bar, I could only blink and shake the water from my eyes. It wasn’t very effective.
Working by feel and memory as much as sight, I made my way toward the Hokeesh Cliffs, rain and wind making my sail rattle. Unlike the thermals at Shanashee, powered by sunlight that wasn’t there, the updrafts at Hokeesh were driven by wind striking the cliffs and being diverted upward . . . and the storm-driven winds were hard, gusty, and powerful. So when I managed to stumble into one of those updrafts, the wind grabbed my wing and flung me upward like a rock from a sling.
I whooped, fighting for stability in the rough uprushing air. I had spent so much of this race struggling for altitude that this harsh, punishing updraft was practically a gift . . . especially as it would let me glide part of the way to Kokeela Beach, saving fuel for the final stretch.
But then, looming out of the rain to my left, I saw that damned red-and-blue cat. Skeelee was right with me, spiraling rapidly upward in the same turbulent updraft. I noted with satisfaction that she was fighting as hard as I.
Higher and higher we rose, pounded by the rain and hammered by the wind. My wing rocked sickeningly, like a boat on a stormy sea. Skeelee appeared and disappeared, sometimes above me and sometimes below. We were both using all our skill just to remain aloft, but neither of us wanted to abandon the updraft before it was absolutely necessary.
And then came a blast of lightning that stole the choice from both of us.
The bolt was near enough to blind me completely and raise a hair-prickling sensation all over my body. The immediate accompanying thunder was an ear-shattering blow of sound that blew me sideways and left me tumbling, deaf, and disoriented for a terrifyingly long time.
I let go of the control bar completely. My wing wanted to win—wanted to survive—and right now I trusted the thousand years of instincts built into it by Faree and his wingmakers more than I trusted my own flying skills.
That was the right call. I soon found myself upright and in a stable glide, though still buffeted by the winds and descending at a frightening speed. I shook my head—it didn’t really help the blindness or the ringing ears or the choking rain that filled my mouth and nose—and took the control bar in my hands again, slowing my dive and bringing my path under control.
The shimmering dark patches in my eyes began to fade, and I realized I was over the ocean but, by sheerest chance, heading in approximately the right direction . . . though far lower than I’d hoped. I shook my head again and banked into a gentle curve that would set me up for the final approach to Kokeela without sideslipping out of control. I didn’t see Skeelee and, at the moment, didn’t care about her; I was just focused on finishing.
But then, as I continued to bend my course toward the landing zone, I saw the red-and-blue wing far off to my left, definitely much closer to the finish line. She was just gliding along, not thrusting yet.
I immediately jammed the throttle, as though the receptors for red and blue in my eyes were connected directly to my thumb. My engine sputtered for a moment, spitting out the water in its throat, then shoved with thundering power between my shoulder blades.
The jet’s hot breath on my bottom and legs felt so good, for so many reasons, but the rain in my face suddenly became a cold hard fistful of pain that left me half-blind and unable to breathe. But I could still hear, and off to my left I heard Skeelee’s engine fire as well.
Through the storm I rocketed, at the Mark VIII’s top speed. I was riding a whirlwind bareback. I was plummeting forward like a descending, vengeful angel. I was rocked and battered and jerked from side to side like an eagle in a panther’s mouth. But I hung onto the control bar, keeping my course by feel and instinct, and my thumb didn’t let up on the throttle. I might miss the finish line and ram straight into the cliff above Kokeela Beach, but by the gods I would not give up.
And then, perhaps, the gods rewarded my tenacity . . . but like so many of the gods’ gifts it was ambiguous. Because the rain chose that moment to let up, and as my vision cleared, I saw three things that made time seem to stand still.
I was heading straight for the finish line, just a hundred meters away.
Skeelee was right beside me, to my left.
And a third wing—a wing brightly striped in green and pink—was stooping down from the clouds above us to my right.
How the hell had Coral managed that?
It didn’t matter. This was obviously the endgame of Coral’s scheme. The Coral flyer was well behind both Skeelee and myself but diving fast, trading altitude for speed at a ferocious rate even as her engine fired full throttle. In a moment, she had caught up to both of us, the three of us flying wingtip-to-wingtip-to-wingtip with the finish line just seconds away. I was in the lead, barely, with Coral to my right and Sabrecat to my left.
Then my jet coughed twice. Out of fuel.
I had a fraction of a second to make a decision.
I made it.
And my race ended in a tangle of struts, wires, silk, steel, and bone.
I awoke in a hospital bed, which looked and smelled like any hospital anywhere, but every visible surface was adorned and festooned in yellow and black. Flowers, garlands, balloons, banners, all bearing messages in formal Shuwashee script . . . which I couldn’t read.
Also, I was in pain. It was the dull, throbbing, muffled sort of pain you feel when it’s being held back by drugs, but it was a definite presence, especially in my head. I shifted experimentally, feeling my limbs; they all seemed to be attached, though my left foot was immobilized.
There was a nurse present. Silene. He spoke reassuringly, but my headset was missing, and my drug-addled brain couldn’t process the language. I tried to shake my head but immediately gave that up as a bad idea. “English?” I managed.
I drifted off.
When I woke up again the room was crowded. Kenshee was there, and all of his aides, and several more Silene I recognized from the pre-Kora dinner. Their ears were all back, indicating sadness, worry, or disappointment. I couldn’t blame them. “I’m sorry,” I told them, and I felt tears welling in my eyes. “I’m so, so sorry. You put your trust in me. I did the best I could. But I failed you.”
But I said it in English, and they just looked blankly at me.
I tried to shrug. That was a mistake. I fell back on the bed with pain seething through my shoulder.
The nurse returned, carrying a small device, which he placed on the side table, and spoke. “Can you understand me now,” the device said. Its voice was robotic, not as good as my headset’s.
“Yes. Yes, I can.” The device repeated my words in Shuwashee.
The crowd erupted in gleeful noise. “Congratulations,” the translator repeated, emotionlessly, over and over. It was actually kind of hilarious.
Kenshee came up to the bed, grasped my hand, and shook it firmly. Seeing my grimace, he released it with an apologetic expression. But his ears showed joy. “Congratulations, dear grandchild,” the translator stated. “We are so proud of you.”
“I . . . thank you, I guess? I mean, I’m happy I survived too.”
Laughter and confusion, a muttered discussion that the translator didn’t catch. Then Kenshee spoke directly to me, and the translator picked it up. “I am sorry,” it said. “I forgot that you have been unconscious this entire time.”
“How long was I out?”
My brain tried and failed to turn that into a unit of measure. “I’m sorry . . . how long?”
“You won the Kora,” Kenshee repeated, and everyone cheered. This time I understood it.
“But . . . but I crashed!”
“The wing broke. But the beak flew on.”
That didn’t make a lot of sense, but I recognized the word “koeena,” which literally meant “beak” but referred to the wing’s nose junction cover.
The bejeweled decorative piece that the Shuwashee believe holds the soul of the wing.
I gawped wordlessly for a moment. “That’s not possible,” I finally managed. Everyone laughed.
“The Sabrecats said the same,” Kenshee explained. “But every camera agreed. Your wing’s beak crossed the finish line first.”
I fell back in my bed, blinking, trying to assimilate this information. It was the wing, not the flyer, that had to cross the finish line. And the koeena was the soul of the wing. It made sense, if you thought like a Shuwashee.
This was all a bit much to take in, and I was starting to feel exhausted. “Who . . . who came in secon’?” I slurred. Second place was worse than last, and I hated to think I’d done that to Skeelee, even inadvertently.
“Coral,” Kenshee replied, and there was much mocking laughter at that. “We believe they got a tow from a powered craft above the clouds,” he continued. “Somehow no drones saw it. But they ate the poison cake.” Which, I thought I recalled, meant coming in second.
“Tha’s . . . tha’s a shame,” I said. And although I wanted to continue the conversation, I found my eyes drifting closed and heard the nurse gently shooing everyone out of the room.
I felt Kenshee’s hand squeeze my shoulder as I faded out.
I awoke to dimness and quiet. I was alone, the lights low, the silence of the night punctuated by distant voices and a slow, regular beeping. I felt better. Rested, less fuzzy-headed, less pain. Thirsty, though.
What a dream that had been.
Or . . . was it?
I looked around the room, even more heavily bedecked with yellow and black than it had been before. An enormous trophy now stood in the corner.
It wasn’t a dream.
I had won.
I won the Kora!
That . . . had not been my expectation.
At the climactic moment, out of fuel, I had known immediately that my race was lost. Even with the finish line just meters away, I couldn’t possibly glide faster than my opponents could fly on full power.
But I had also known one other thing: when the Mark VIII ran dry it pulled hard to the right.
I could try to compensate.
But I didn’t.
So I crashed into the Coral flyer, on my right, taking both of us out of the race and leaving the field clear for Skeelee.
Yes, the Sabrecats were our longest-standing and most-hated enemy clade. Yes, bribery and sabotage and other forms of what I would consider cheating were an accepted part of Kora. But, with only a moment to decide, my gut had chosen Skeelee, my honorable enemy, over the underhanded and duplicitous Corals.
I couldn’t feel too bad about that. She had, after all, saved my life. And I might not have been able to avoid a crash even if I’d tried. We’d been flying wingtip-to-wingtip. I would never know for sure.
But I could never, ever tell the other Stormbirds that it had been a deliberate choice.
I sat in the sun on Shuwash Square, in a café, sipping wine. It was very good wine, Stormbird wine. It had been on the house. I’d become resigned to the fact that just accepting these gifts was easier than trying to refuse them. But I always tipped on the total of what I would have expected to pay. A small group of Stormbirds passed, waving to me as though I were an old friend. I raised my glass to them.
Shuwash Square looked nearly the same as it must have a thousand years ago, shop fronts and residences facing onto the bowl sloping down to the holy fountain. The bleachers and the portable toilets and the souvenir stands and the security barriers had vanished along with the crowds. A few tourists remained—there were always tourists in the Shuwashee Islands—but it wasn’t hard to imagine them away.
My left ankle still ached a bit, but it wasn’t hard to imagine that away either. The doctors said I could start flying again as soon as I wanted to.
And then Cassie appeared. “They told me I'd find you here.”
“They were right.” I gestured for her to sit.
She didn’t sit. “Why haven’t you been answering my messages?”
“Because I have nothing more to say to you.”
She stared, lips white, for a time before responding. “You have a contract!”
“Had. I terminated it, for cause.”
“There was no ‘negligence’!” she shrieked. The waiter looked over, alarmed by her tone, though he almost certainly didn’t understand her words. I waved him away. “There are certain risks inherent in using prototype hardware,” she continued more calmly. “You signed a waiver.”
“That document only waived my right to compensation in case of injury or death. Which, even you must acknowledge, I did not seek.” The Stormbirds had been very happy to cover my medical expenses. “The sponsorship contract, however—the one that you are hoping will obligate me to serve as your performing monkey for the next seven years—is not governed by it.” I set down my glass and leaned forward. “Even if you do somehow manage to hold me to that contract, I will find a way to let everyone on every stop on my victory tour know that your jet caused me serious personal injury. So be careful what you ask for.” I sat back, hands folded on my stomach. “But I’m pretty sure you don’t have a leg to stand on. Between Koras, Kenshee is a top corporate lawyer.”
She seethed for a moment more, then spat, “Your career is over!” And she turned and stamped away.
I picked up my glass and sipped. She was right, in a way. I would certainly never fly competitively in human space again.
But my new career—using the fame and money that flowed from my Kora win to promote and uphold traditional Shuwashee wingcraft and jetcraft—was only just beginning.
We have a saying, in the islands: “Kora te veela.” Old Shuwashee dialect for “Kora is life.” That means it comes with good and bad. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
But whatever happens, life goes on.