The rain was beginning to pour heavily when she left the Crosswind Isles. She wondered what the local villagers would think of her. She and her sudden disappearance from the islands long after the last mainland ship of the season had sailed.
Would they blame her for Mrs. Marble’s demise? Would they suspect foul play? Ireulun decided that it was too late for thoughts of turning back now as she is already high in the cloudy, wet atmosphere.
Riding a flycraft.
Sitting in the cockpit, she probed the controls. They were less complicated than she had feared but still more than she expected. It was half a relief for herself, because it was too long ago since she remembered the last time she flew any kind of machine.
And the cockpit she sat in held only a vague reminiscent of the ones she was familiar with. Back in her childhood days at her family’s farm.
Unlike the crafts of her childhood though, the flycraft bequeath to her by Mrs. Marble - late Mrs. Marble, angels bless her - was coated in metallic chromium finish. Its surface was as smooth and glassy as river pebbles. It had a sleek, aerodynamic leaf-shaped body, flanked on either side by a short wing panels that ended with a small jet propelled engine.
Jet-wings, they were called, thought Ireulun. Having two small engines on the side of the craft was to help steer and stabilize the massive energy engine mounted behind the cockpit. The energy engine was the main propulsion system for the craft, flanked by four long ‘tails’ surrounding the exhaust of the energy engine.
Long buried in the sand, the craft had been kept in fairly good condition. Its system was of a long outdated design however. But to Ireulun, a traveller and historian by choice, the vehicle was dream embraced from the past.
It was no doubt in Ireulun’s mind that this craft was built for speed. She thought back on the story Mrs. Marble had told her before she died, that her people had tried to escape the invisible threat of her city but failed.
She inwardly said a prayer for the lonely lady who had been a close friend and companion, even though they met only three months before.
The craft must have been the chosen vehicle. But Mrs. Marble never left the islands. Proof of it was Ireulun being the current flycraft’s pilot, sitting in the cramped cockpit of a machine that should have flown decades ago.
The machine’s cockpit had a more traditional W-shaped, front-side steering wheel instead of the modern two stick, two-handed sideways steering. The basic interface, those that she could recognise, were the small virtual grid-map screen, visual sensors indicating the craft’s conditions and adjusters to the craft’s internal and external environment.
But there seem to be little methods for her to manually make adjustments to the craft’s mechanism. No dials to regulate fuel flow, no switches that indicate references to flight optimization, no programming interface to directly communicate with the auto-pilot.
In fact, Ireulun was beginning to suspect that the flycraft had no auto-pilot, despite the rapid ease of flight.
“Maybe you’re automated learning?” Ireulun thought aloud.
The craft answered with its never-changing monotonous hum, the sound coloured faintly by the splatter of heavy raindrops outside, flinging against the craft’s body.
From the outside, it had been hard to distinguish the windows from the rest of the body of the flycraft, so uniformed was its shape and colour. It had taken her a great deal of probing, dusting away the covered sands, until she located the hatch.
Ireulun stared through the chrome cockpit windows. The afternoon sky, already cloudy by the seasonal storms, was slowly turning to darkness. Ireulun checked her wristwatch. It had been hours since she took off and she had been flying at a cautious speed, just enough to counter the ever changing winds, following the land route across the archipelago’s biggest island.
Soon she will reach the white seashore and then onwards, to an even longer flight across the sea. Ireulun hoped she could outrun the seasonal hurricanes. Though the rains and strong winds she faced now were difficult enough with her limited experience to manoeuvre, she risked not flying through the heart of the storm.
Risk not losing what she had yet to discover in that dream forest in the east.
A loud noise, like the explosion of a hundred simultaneous fireworks, shocked suddenly on her right. The impact made her swirl sharply to the opposite side, nearly turning her over; the sound had been deafening. There was still ringing in her right ear when a large dark object passed her overhead.
While she was trying to distinguish what that object was, another explosion erupted on her lower left, almost as loud and juddering as the first. She held tight to her flycraft’s controls and flew a downward right, greatly reducing her speed.
She glanced again to the skies above her. Within the grey clouds were pinpricks of flashing luminous lights, darting and spinning in an odd pattern. Between the greyer rains are large dark objects; there were three, one more massive than the other two, flanked on the side by two flashing lights.
Other flycrafts? Her suspicions were confirmed when the three objects descended lower and appeared out of the misty rain clouds.
Ireulun flew even lower, closer to the flat grounds, out of the clouds and where the rains were less, thick and more dispersed. She checked her map screen. The field showed the three flycrafts in her sensory field, the two smaller ones were about the size of her flycraft. About same metallic body as well. And the same shape...
“Holy crap!” blurted Ireulun. Her verbal profanity came out half in a gasp as that the last minute, a second bomb - missile? - flew over her before it broke into a shattering blast.
Ireulun’s mind quickly thought back. Her departed friend had never mentioned of any other flycrafts - hidden or otherwise. The inhabitants of the isles were ignorant - by choice and stubbornly so - of anything that had to do with their fallen occupiers.
So where did these flycrafts came from? Opportunistic pirates? Lost survivors?
She quickly dodged out the way of a speeding flycraft, barely missing it by a few hundred feet. When it turned around and engaged to close in to her again, she realized that the craft, perhaps even all three of them, was trying to engage her in some sort of combat. She suppressed the urge to cry out another expletive, redundant as it was.
Before she had boarded, Ireulun had not bothered to check for any means of flight communication or combat mechanism, either digital or magical. She had no idea how to contact the other crafts, did not suspect she would even need too, at least, not until she reached the mainland.
Even less did she expect was being targeted by dangerous projectiles that, even on missed impact, generated a shockwave vibration that could jar her bones to pieces, if the sound blast didn’t rocked her to confusion first. Ireulun had thought she was the only flycraft in the area. She was still in Crosswind Isles.
Concentrating at best on speed, she took off from the ground and into an opening space. Her aim was to run away and give as much space as possible to avoid them. And to separate them; it was two flyers against her and unlike her, they have intentions and methods of bringing her down to a crash landing. If they didn’t explode her to a fireball first.
With the two maniacs circling around for a second engagement, Ireulun turned her attention to the closer, larger, more silent flycraft. It was huge, but not overly so, about 10 times the size of hers. It was still large enough to bring an icy tinge of fear down her spine, despite its passive stance.
It was, in many ways, greatly different from the smaller crafts. It was subtler in its outlook, of earthen browns and dusty greys. Its main body was less sleek and streamlined in design; rather, more like it was coated in insect-like armour plating. Its titian-sized twin engines were mounted on either side of its wing-body fusion; those were similar to the main energy engine of the smaller flycrafts.
It was the larger ship that gave Ireulun a sudden flash of insight. She blinked for a moment; her mind rapidly calculated the revelations growing within her. Her hands faltered on the controls. Had she really seen it before?
Granted, the design and shape and structure showed nothing, betrayed nothing of its origins. In spite of the incoming threat of two offensive machines behind her, she raised one hand to caress softly against the cockpit hatch, her finger tracing the lines of the larger craft, still a great, silent, yet ominous distance away.
There was one way to put her theory to the test. It was a crazy one but if Ireulun suspected what the true situation was, she will take charge of it. Immediately.
Her mother always said that she had a streak of her father’s madness in her.
Muttering a quick prayer to the divine protectors, Ireulun grasped her flycraft’s control firmly with both hands. In a sharp forward thrust, she flew upwards into the sky. High into the storms until her field of vision were covered completely by white and grey mists. Relying completely on the virtual map, she estimated her position and leaned slowly to fall into a wide arch.
Falling out of the clouds. Falling straight toward the larger craft. Speeding toward the larger craft.
Maybe her mother was right about the madness part.
More explosive shells rocked beside her. The offensive twins were bombarding her with missiles to try to shake her out of her resolve. She outflew every one of those missiles; they missed her but she had expected that. Even if Ireulun wasn’t falling a straight downward path so fast, speeding on a single-minded suicidal path toward the larger flycraft, she knew that those missiles would not have hit her.
They had been only to scare her.
Just as the larger flycraft had scared her.
But she wasn’t scared now.
Now it was her turn to shock and scare.
The larger flycraft loomed even larger as she closed in on it. It attempted to turn away, out of her path but it was slow and cumbersome. In the last moment, close enough just before point of impact to hit the armoured body of the craft, Ireulun released the controls and switched off the engine.
On instinct, she curled her body close, her arms around her knees and braced for impact. She shut her eyes tightly. If she was wrong, the collision might be strong enough to... but it would be quick.
It didn’t come.
Ireulun slowly opened her eyes. She was still falling forward. The larger flycraft was nowhere to be seen; neither were the offensive twins. But she was still falling downwards, but this time, the earth was her target.
Still, she did not move.
The controls in front of her shook violently as her machine threatened to spin into a corkscrew. Ireulun started at the steering, half in deadly fear but her resolve was stronger. In the very centre of the steering was a glassy white stone. She had thought it to be decorative but now she knew better.
The flycraft was truly falling now. There was no stopping it, even if she tried, the force to turn against gravity in time for safety was too strong for her.
The ground loomed ever closer. She could see in the corner of her eye, the long rivulets of water swimming in a criss-cross on the barren, grassy terrain like slimy snakes.
“You’re going to crash,” she spoke to the white stone.
Almost instantly, the white stone turned blue.
The flycraft suddenly came to life. The engine restarted and flared to life. The control stopped jerking and swiftly yanked the craft into rising. It barely collided with some bush trees; one was too close that it scraped the underside of the craft.
All the while, Ireulun only watched the stone on the steering controls.
She touched nothing.
The flycraft was flying by itself now.
Ireulun smiled to herself. It was safe to do so. Not even a machine could detect how wildly her heart was still beating, her tension, her fear still gripping her like painfully sharp thorns; her damn crazy idea had nearly got herself killed in the wilds of nowhere.
Even Papa would probably have agreed with Mama about her uniquely stupid wild streak.
The rains were at its heaviest when the flycraft landed itself on a muddy but high ground. It turned off its engines by itself. There was no glowing light outside the windows. Darkness of the evening, made even darker by the storm, made her small, enclosed cockpit seem very much smaller and very private. It was surreal.
It was also a sham.
Ireulun knew that she was not alone in the cockpit. She had never been alone since she first eagerly placed herself into the cockpit. Was that event only happened that morning? It felt like days ago. The bright light of revelation she had when she studied the shape and structure of that larger flycraft had faded into a memory.
Basking in the revelation’s afterglow, she continued to watch the stone on the steering controls. It had turned to white again, but it still tinged with a blue radiance so soft, it would not have been noticed if her surroundings wasn’t so pitch dark.
She touched the stone with the tips of her fingers.
“You don’t like to fly do you?” asked Ireulun softly.
The stone’s bluish radiance grew stronger.
“I thought so.”
She sat silently, her thumb brushing against the stone. It was a long while before she spoke again.
“You could have told me. I don’t like to fly either.”
The stone immediately turn a deep red and at the same time, the still air in the cockpit turned a definite chilly temperature.
But Ireulun just chuckled, a smile that was too brief.
“Not really. I like it only a little bit but I don’t prefer it,” said Ireulun with a humourless tone.
“My dad flys all the time though. He has his own set of flycrafts.”
She had thought to placate the stone - the entity of the flycraft - but the stone turned to an even brighter red, until it looked like it was glowing with a fierce fire. The dark cockpit was bathed in red light. But Ireulun knew what it was thinking.
“I know what you’re thinking. You think my dad had enslaved flycrafts, don’t you?”
Red, red glow but it no longer felt so fierce.
“Naaah, he owns dead flycrafts. Metallic ones. Most of them he build himself.”
Ireulun turned away from the sight of the red stone and leaned back on her seat. Granted, there was not much room to lean back against; her action was more of trying to seat comfortably than trying to relax her guard.
“He’s friends with a clan though. Actually, he’s friends with several clans of living-crafts, flying or landed or seas. But his favourite were always the living flycrafts because they helped him find my mother once.”
She knew she was babbling but Ireulun was becoming more nervous as she continued. She was relieved when the ever-changing colour of the stone no longer seemed aggressive or hostile, though it still maintained its bright red glow. Then she dropped a risky question.
“Don’t you have a clan too?” she asked in a purely innocent tone.
The light from the stone disappeared. Everything turned black. Pitch dark so deep, Ireulun could not even see her hands in front of her face. She took it as a signal that the flycraft no longer desired her chatter.
“Gotcha,” she smiled.
She tried to ease herself on the cramped chair. Though it had seemed to be designed for someone who was obviously larger than her, it still felt small and cramped, more so in the darkness. Stalemate. She can’t stay in the machine, reluctant as it was to bear her.
Still, she knew she could force it to obey her command. Mrs. Marble had bequeath it to her. Such was what the metallic flycraft was forced to do. It hankered back to the older warring days, when infant living-crafts were forcibly taken from the clans, subjected to slavery. Metallic armour, welded to the body of the young living-crafts was to toughen their structure. It also served as a branding of ownership between master and slave.
Such practises were banned, prohibited, but some groups of people still follow it, citing traditions or obligations or greater good or such crappy excuse.
This flycraft had been a slave.
But to be a slave, one must have a master.
She probed to the space above her head, hands groping for feel to compensate her lack of vision. Ireulun’s fingers found the heavy catch in the expected spot. She tugged, tested it and then pulled hard. With a loud click and a burst of pressurised air, the hatch of the cockpit opened.
The noise of the rain became very loud, and the chill of the wind crept inside the machine, slowly dispersing the last warmth.
Ireulun sucked in a lungful of wet outside air before she turned to the stone, now silent and white as dead.
“I’m not your master. In fact, I don’t know how to be a living-craft’s master.”
She continued to prod in the dark. Her rucksack should be at that small space behind her seat. There’s a cloak in it that she could use.
“You can stay here if you want. But I need to leave. In this storm if I have too.”
Inwardly, she groaned. If she had to walk out into the rain, she would. The storms of the archipelago were nothing to sneeze at; the winds were always freezing cold. If it does become cold enough, the rains would turn into small hailstones. In the flat open plains, there would be little to no shelter. Her only option was to find a way back to the town where she had started.
A trip, which by foot, could take days, maybe weeks, depending on how far she had strayed because of that illusionary fight. A very realistic fight, but illusionary nonetheless. They had been holograms, projected on to the cockpit windows. Were those flycrafts were part of this flycraft’s family? Fallen comrades?
It was the larger flycraft that made her realize what her flycraft was, a machine that was eerily similar to one of the most celebrated - and most tragic - enslaved living flycrafts in history.
So many questions floated in her head. But she couldn’t learn something that couldn’t be taught. She won’t force. It’s just not her nature with forgotten slaves, rebellious or otherwise. Still, the truth needed to be told.
After she found her rucksack and covered herself with a thick cloak and hood, she spoke softly.
“Captivity is only in the mind. Oppression is only as you receive it.”
She bit her lower lip as she thought of something else, something wiser to say. She didn’t particularly felt very wise, - witness her jumping out into the storm and at night, what’s more - just needed to say what should be said to something - someone - who had been too alone for too long.
She pounced on the words her father once told her.
“Isolation is no way to survive.”
She pushed the hatch all the way open. The raging storm greeted her; its raindrops were wet and cold but the winds seemed to have lessened a bit. A few drops that fell from the sky struck her face. It was stinging on her cheeks. Ireulun groped for the muffler around her neck and covered the lower half of her face.
She took one last peek at the stone on the steering.
It stayed silent and white.
In normal circumstances, she should have felled maybe some irritation or at least inwardly groan in frustration. The tiny, cramped cockpit never looked so dry and comfortable.
In stead, she was filled only with pity. She could not stay.
The flycraft didn’t need to go anywhere. It also never had anyone who did not command it to do anything.
Ireulun hoped that it was thinking about that fact.
“Later,” she said with false brightness. And said it quickly; she was getting wet and will be even more wet.
Taking a firm hold of the overhead fittings, she pulled herself up and out or the cockpit.
In two seconds, the hatch closed shut. A few bumps and bangs against the hollow body before Ireulun slid herself on the wet surface of one of the jet-wings, carefully gripping in every possible place for hold. Eventually she splashed on the muddy ground.
She walked, going west. Back to the village. Eventually she disappeared from the flycraft’s field of sensory vision.
Inside the cockpit, the stone on the steering glowed to cobalt blue.