The Confederacy of Heaven Ch. 35
When Nasan came to, she was back in the tent, lying on the meaningless-pattern blankets. She felt all over like she’d been tenderized, but to her relief, she was herself again. No more shiny armor skin. Nice. Menkar sat cross-legged across from her.
“I’m sorry. I forgot how hard our dimension is on humans. I shouldn’t have let your testimony go on for so long.”
She sat up painfully. “I feel terrible.”
“Don’t you still need to be at the thing?”
Menkar shook his head. “It’s not my turn to testify just yet. There are some others. Would you like me to help you up?”
He offered her a hand up, but she pushed it away. Now that her head was starting to clear, she remembered all that had just happened. She’d gone up against the Confederacy and it was like a gnat against a mountain. Even rejection would have been better. She was just an item on a docket to be crossed off. She buried her head in her hands.
“I’m so sorry.”
Menkar was quiet for a while, letting her be. Then he said, “The trial’s not over yet.”
“But they aren’t going to give back the rain, are they?” Despite the massive feeling of failure, she managed to look up at him.
“The chances aren’t good, no. They never were. But you did the best anyone could under the circumstances.” He paused, serious. “If you must know, they’ve already voted to keep the gliders.”
“What about the other exiles?”
“We don’t know yet.”
The effects of being in spider form for too long were wearing off, so she got up and circled the room. She had to keep moving to be able to think. It was all over now. She’d failed. There would be another hundred years of the same old thing. And Menkar wasn’t even mad at her. He never expected anything to happen in the first place.
“I need to ask you what you plan to do now,” he said behind her.
“I don’t know,” she said into the wall. She made fists at herself. The tears would come later, when there was enough time for them. She didn’t want Menkar to see her like that.
“It’s actually a hopeful sign that the trial is still going on. Sometimes – often – they don’t last this long. It could take as long as an aeon. You can’t wait here for them to reach their conclusion.”
“And you will not exactly be popular with the high council of Calgary if you return.”
Menkar cleared his throat. That punctiliousness of his drove her crazy, and she wondered what he was hesitating about, but she didn’t turn around yet.
“This is not exactly legal… Hm. This is not exactly legal, but I have the power to return you to some other world than your own.”
That made her turn. “What do you mean?”
“It doesn’t have to be Earth. There are millions of worlds out there, thousands of which have life, hundreds of which a being such as you could live on.”
“Why would I do this?”
“I’m offering you a favor,” Menkar said. “Earth’s a ruined world. You’ve done all you can for it; you deserve a reward.”
Nasan couldn’t quite seem to keep her jaw from hanging open. It took her a minute before she could even put together the words.
“Do you seriously think that I would give up all the things I’ve lost – so many friends, my clan name, my possessions, my arm, someone I love – twice – That I would give up all that for Earth and I wouldn’t want to live there?”
“The city will have your head.”
“I’ll take my chances!”
“Very well,” he said.
“’Very well?’ What does that mean? Am I going home?”
“As soon as you say the word.”
“Oh.” She looked around the tent, hesitating. That meant this was the last she was going to see of Menkar, probably forever – hopefully forever. She wasn’t sure how she felt towards this being who’d been her enemy most of the time. “Look – Menkar – I don’t hate you. I think I gave that impression.”
“You would have been right to if you had. I underestimated the nomads in my calculations for your world. I counted you an unimportant people.”
“Well…” Not for the first time in her life, Nasan had no idea what to say. “I think I’m ready to go home now.”
Menkar nodded. “All right.”
And then the bottom fell out of the world.
The feeling was just like going through the portal the first time. It sure hurt as much – a searing on her skin worked its way inward, deeper and deeper until there was nothing left of her but confetti. The confetti didn’t pass out this time, though. She – it – or whatever – blew through the windstorm with a whoosh and kept falling and falling until–
Whump! The side of her face hit something hard.
Nasan was certain she was a pile of jelly that had been through an eggbeater. It took her the first few minutes to narrow down her senses to just five and to work out that she was smooshed up against something. All of her was there, as far as she could tell. It took her a few more seconds to figure out how to move.
She opened her eyes. Ah. So the hard thing against her face was concrete. Good. That was progress. She considered, distantly, the next step of her plan. She’d probably better try to lever herself up. That was, if she could remember how to use her arms. Getting to a sitting position went off pretty well, though it left her a bit dizzy. In the process she found out that her left arm still worked. Menkar hadn’t decided to change it back.
She was cross-legged in some sort of a concrete depression. Her vision had cleared, but it didn’t help to tell her where she was. She stood up. Her legs were still wobbly, but she was feeling better and better with every passing second. Everything was so real here. Real concrete, real air, gray sky and the soughing sound of a city’s background noise. Home. Better than any tonic that could have been invented.
It was enough to snap everything into place – she was in the middle of that hole in the ground in the Olympic Plaza. She put her elbows up on the ledge. The dark shapes of trees against the sky and light poles sans their buckets of flowers. Gone also were the thick smell of incense and the crowds of people in costume. It was just a park, looking a little the worse for wear. And the overcast, it meant nothing, as usual.
The portal was gone, too. Somebody must have packed it up and put it in storage. How long have I been gone? Days? Weeks?
A boy across the street was gaping at her. He’d probably been stuck there since she’d crashed to the ground. When she looked at him, it seemed to give him the power to move again, and he turned and dashed off down the street.
Nasan let the boy go. In her condition she wouldn’t be able to catch up to him, anyway. But … how was she going to get herself out of this one?
She decided to focus on getting up out of the hole first. It was doable, though it took a lot of strain and flailing about. She wondered if Menkar had had to reconstitute her again to travel between worlds the other way. The problem of escape seemed abstract, somehow. She’d just been through something that wasn’t supposed to happen to anybody. And failed. It was going to be hard to think about normal life again. She tried to remember which way would lead to the city wall – the last time she’d been in Calgary felt like centuries ago. She picked a direction and started walking.
She got barely a block before two dozen of Calgary’s town guardsmen stopped her. With lightning-like efficiency, they knocked her down and got her arms behind her back before she could ever defend herself. These men were clearly not accustomed to making the same mistake twice. There was pain, yes, she registered that as her jaw hit pavement and her lip bled, but it, too, was distant. She felt more like telling them they needn’t have bothered. She was too weak to put up much of a fight.
The guards hauled her to her feet and force-marched her. At bayonet point – she could just feel the tip of something sharp grazing the back of her neck. A crowd gathered around them as every townie who happened to be out on the street dropped what they were doing to watch. The wind picked up, oddly cool for – well, she didn’t even know what time of year it was. It smelled like that hill by the ruined city where she’d hidden for a while. That day she came out of her cave and the snow was melting, and it was time to travel again. How odd to be thinking of that, of all things! When it was so far away in time and space, and she was in the shadow of all these wretched skyscrapers and about to find out what it was like to die for real.
Nasan turned her head; the bayonet dug into her skin warningly.
“I just have a question,” she said. The pressure didn’t slacken. “What are you going to do with me? Are you going to put me on trial first or are you just going to shoot me?”
There was a long pause. Then the man behind her spoke gruffly, unsure of himself. “We’re – we’re going to take you to the authorities.”
A short, choked-off ha! got out despite herself. Authority? “Stars know what they’re going to do to me.”
The worst they could do was kill her. She’d hoped it wouldn’t come to that, she’d promised people she would survive, but…
“Hush, now.” The bayonet dug a little deeper.
Something cold and wet hit her on the head. She figured she was imagining things the first time and kept walking, but a few seconds later it happened again. The portal hadn’t just addled her head. The soldiers in front of her – the ones she could see without getting sliced and diced – could feel it, too. They clapped themselves on the heads and arms and looked around. At first, nobody thought to look up.
Then it really started to come down. The bayonet on her neck clattered to the ground, forgotten.
“By the Stars, it’s water!”
“Falling from the sky!” another one exclaimed.
Rain. It was raining.
Well, what was a person supposed to feel when something like this happened? Consternation? Joy? Nasan had a vague idea that it should be one or the other of those two, or maybe both, but instead she was overcome with manic laughter. It just bubbled up. After all that she had been through to make it happen, it was raining. After all of it.
The Confederacy had rendered its verdict. She’d never understand those bastards if she lived to be a million.
She was free to walk away. Nobody was going to stop her. Certainly not the guards; they were all too busy gawking up at the sky and each other, unable to convince themselves that it was true. They were out of formation, their prisoner was forgotten, and their guns were all on the ground.
So Nasan Demonslayer, Rattlingbones, Cripplewitch, Public Enemy #1, walked away. Everywhere shutters flung open, heads and hands stuck out of the buildings to get a view of the spectacle, and none of the townspeople gave an escaped nomad a moment’s notice. There were exclamations, confusion, people hugging each other for joy. Some just stood there, staring, stunned. Nasan walked on.
The world looked so different this way. The water turned all the dust lodged in the cracks of the pavement to mucky goo that sucked at her shoes each time she lifted them. The concrete glistened. Everything was a different color, wet, darker, shinier. The rain made a drumming sound when it hit, like pebbles falling, except where it struck metal, then the sound was harsher. Water streamed down her face, there was a rainbow oil scum in the street, and in the alley, something feathery and blue–
It was Oscar, all right, and he came flying out to meet her. As if she’d needed anything to make this moment better, there he was.
“I’m soaking wet!” She held her arms out and twirled around like a mad ballerina. “Isn’t this fantastic?”
Oscar was a bedraggled feathery lump, half his original size. Maybe he didn’t think the wet part was so fantastic.
“Where have you been?”
She frowned. “You knew I was going through the portal.”
“You’ve been gone almost a whole year! I can’t see other dimensions! I thought you’d died or something.”
A year? She’d been gone a whole year? She tried to wrap her mind around that, but she couldn’t. An entire summer, and winter, and snowmelt. Time for Rigel’s survivors to start to travel. Time for people to get on with their lives. All the people who would be missing her–
“The city’s been going crazy.” Oscar interrupted her thoughts. “It’s been all I can do to keep out of sight. Let’s get out of here while we still can.”
She nodded, still stunned by the realization. A whole year? Everybody must think she was dead.
Oscar leapt into the air. “Wait here.”
He flew off into the alley, then came back a few seconds later with a bundle in his beak.
“I kept an eye on your stuff for you,” he said. The bundle was so worn out by beak marks that at first she didn’t recognize it. Her old pack and bow!
“Look, I can shoot it now!” She held the bow up with her left hand and drew it back with her right to show him.
“That’s nice, but we have to go! They won’t stay distracted forever!”
Nasan decided to take his advice and get a move on. Oscar flew ahead, ever wanting her to hurry up, and she ran along behind him with the pack over one shoulder, shading her eyes from the droplets, feet splashing puddles with every step. She was winded by the time they got to the wall and bent with her hands on her knees to rest. That whole traveling between dimensions thing had taken it out of her. The city gate hung open in mid-swing, and the gatekeeper had come out of his little room to stand in the road and stare up into the sky. He gave her a passing glance, decided she wasn’t important, and looked back up. She left.
They took shelter in the ruins, well out from the city, under a pair of walls and a corner of roof with a bit of white paint still clinging to it. The ancient suburbs looked just as changed by the rain as the inhabited parts of Calgary. Oscar was right, it must have been early spring. There were tufts of grass in the crack that ran past her feet. Oscar huddled close to her. Two centuries of decay had made their half of a roof leaky, and it didn’t protect them at all when the wind blew in the wrong direction, but it would have to do.
“Look, I am glad you’re not dead. I was just in a hurry,” Oscar said. “What happened? Did you do this?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I helped.”
When the rain hit the roof, it went plunk, plunk, plunk; when it hit the concrete, it hissed. She was squatting with her back against the wall, but that was going to get uncomfortable pretty soon, and she would have to sit down. It was a lot of fun to think about ordinary stuff like that.
“I’ll tell you the whole story,” she said. Oscar had hunkered against her leg to keep as dry as possible. “But first – are you free now?”
“Um…” He cocked his head, like he was thinking about it. “You know, I think I am. Ha!” With an ebullient squawk, he jumped up and flew in a big circle outside, ignoring the wet.
“What are you going to do now?” she called up to him.
“I – I don’t know.” He came back down to roost by her. “There’s so much I could do. I’m free.” Oscar tasted the words. “I … think I would like to go back and try to fix Systems Integrated.”
Nasan slapped her leg. “Then that’s what I’m going to do, too. We’ll go back to the ruined city.”
“The thing is, the only people who know how to fix a computer nowadays live in there.” Oscar waggled a wing at Calgary proper. “Fat chance of getting them to help us.”
“We can figure it out again from scratch, right? We’ve got plenty of time. Like sixty years if I’m lucky. We could get people from Green Vale to help us. We could get the nomads to help us. We could bring them all to the city. It has a spring– But that doesn’t matter anymore, does it?” She ran her hands over the carved scales of the bow she had promised to return to Bat with her own hands. Truer now than her father even knew. “We could breed gliders, Oscar. The stars voted to keep that part of the curse on. But it doesn’t have to be a curse. Maybe I can find Shadowings out there somewhere and get him to forgive me.”
She held her hand out, let the raindrops collect in her palm. “I’ll bet he hates this, wherever he is. Remember I told you gliders hate water?”
Nasan went quiet then, but not because she was thinking of Shadowings. Before they went to the ruined city, they were going to have to make a detour. There was somebody else she needed to ask to forgive her.
“Nasan and Lunde sitting in a tree,” Oscar sang. “K-I-S-S-I–”
“What?” She leapt to her feet, bow in hand. After all they’d been through together she’d decided she wasn’t going to kill the bird after all, but there was always time to change her mind about that… “You knew? The whole time?”
“Hey! Hey!” He hopped away in mock fear. “I didn’t even have to use the second sight. Face it, kiddo, you’re a terrible actress.”
The whole time! She suspected he knew it even before she did. But the fact was, that sprite who looked like a bird but wasn’t really, who’d been alternately a torment and an annoyance since she’d met him, was now her friend.