Word Count: 12,013
Warnings: Post-apocalyptic scenarios, violence
Author's Notes: Written for dragonbigbang. This was inspired by a song, On the Rooftop with Quasimodo by Apocalyptica. Thanks to boudecia7 for betaing. Thanks to desiderii for the wonderful artwork! Desiderri's Lovely Art
Summary: In a far future, where everything is dissolving, a group of survivors is creating a way to escape. Or maybe, just maybe, it's making itself....
On Ao3 or below the cut
A long time ago, rain used to be pure water. It poured out of the clouds and filled up the lakes and the rivers and the oceans. It cleansed the world, watered the plants, and made everything bright and clean afterward. People would walk in the rain without fear.
This is not a fairy tale. It was true. That’s what everyone said, everyone claimed, the stories passed down from great-great-great-grandfather to great-great-grandmother to the ears of little children listening in rapt attention as someone shook a glowstick to light and carefully recited from the etched metal pages in the Book of Days. Days, because that was how they measured time. Not years, not even months. Days. Each and every precious day had to be used to its fullest, because at any minute it could all come tumbling down.
It could dissolve.
Somewhere in the Book were etched pictures of high buildings standing proud in the cities, man-made mountain ranges that stabbed the skies. Whoever had made them had never thought that one day the skies would stab back.
The hunter awoke, the scent of baking grasses in her nose, the drone of flies and the distant cries of birds echoing in her ears. The leather tent left her in deep shade from the hot sun, and the softness of her pallet of skins and dried grasses cushioned her from the earth. She breathed deep, tasting a faintest hint of blood on the wind, and raised her head, her smile a sharp and feral thing. She looked out to where the plains gave way to teeth of stone, biting at the sky, and crawled forth to stand, scanning the horizon for the prey. The omen that they’d been sent to find was surely here, where the easy hunting of the grasslands would give it plenty to eat. She raised her face to the sun and shouted out loud, drawing the notice of the spirits to this place. Eagerly, she grabbed her spear and thrust it to the sky, the other hunters rising as their prey winged out of hiding in the mountains, darkening the sky as it soared.
Gee woke up with her entire body tense, like she was a second away from striking, all her strength put towards making that killing blow. She mentally shook her head as she strapped on her breathing mask and tightened the suit-skin she had loosened for sleep. Killing blow, she thought, snorting. She’d never killed anything in her life. Never held a pointy stick, never run over a plain of growing plants, and certainly never had her nearly-naked body exposed to the environment. That way lay death. She double-checked her suit-skin, settled her goggles, and finally unsealed her sleep tent. All around her everyone else in the band was stirring, sleep tents making odd bulges and ripples, like currents in the sludge flows, before people finally began to emerge, goggled and suited, breathing masks in place. She checked them automatically, the drill routine, looking for gaps, for flaws in anyone’s protection.
Seeing none, she cast her eyes to the ceiling, hunting for any hint of brightness that would mean a possible gap in their cover. None there either. Finally she felt safe enough to shove herself upright and close her sleep tent, her breath rasping across her breathing filter.
She turned her head to see Dad, suit-skin already tightened down for outside work, skimmer and air-scoop already clipped to the webbing on his back. His sleep tent was already sealed up, the teardrop symbol painted on the outside in a glowing orange prominent in the dim light. Gee grabbed her own tools and went to join him, looking over at the tall, curving metal ribs being assembled over on the far side of the building.
“They need more,” Dad said softly, noticing her interest. “They’re going to need a lot more than we thought. No rest for the wicked, not today, m’gal. We’re working the west passage today, seaward side.”
Gee felt her face go bloodless, and Dad put his arm around her shoulders, the warmth penetrating their suit-skins. “Hey. Who’s the best skimmer in this band?”
“Vac,” she said, tapping the orange teardrop painted on his shoulder.
“And who’s going to be the best skimmer in this band once she learns how?” he said. Without waiting for an answer, he hugged her, their suit-skins squeaking as they touched. “Gee is, and we both know it. Come on; you’ll never be able to find what we need without braving the Sea.”
Gan waited for all the skimmers at the door, her hands locked around the heavy latch that led to the tunnels that honeycombed the ruined city. She counted heads as the skimmers assembled, and shouted out the number to the entire band, already busy at the endless work of survival.
“Twelve go out!”
“Twelve come back,” they all responded automatically.
With a heave, Gan slammed the latch open and hauled the door up, touching each person on the shoulder as the skimmers marched out, confirming each person leaving. The counting wasn’t because they were expecting them all back. The counting was so that someone would remember them when they didn’t. Gee sucked in a breath nearly deeper than her filter would allow, and felt Gan’s hand on her shoulder as the band’s leader watched her vanished into the depths behind her father. The door slammed shut behind her with a thud more felt than heard, the ratcheting of the latch a scream echoing in the depths.
Patches of the usual phosphorescent smears of unknown origin gave the only consistent light, showing the river of sludge that ran below the walkway, a turbulent dark flow that drained from the acid rain-washed surface. Everything they dissolved ended up down here in the flows sooner or later, studded liberally with whatever chunks of surviving material had slid down here with it.
A crude walkway of shattered and half-melted concrete made a splash barrier, painstakingly crafted over the generations to protect returning skimmers from surges in the flow. But Gee knew, they all knew, that where they really needed to go, there were no barriers. The other skimmers disappeared up and down the tunnels, turning off one way or another, each trying to find their own patch where the detritus of the old world had left something useful behind.
Wisps of vapor danced in the dim light as footsteps faded into the background beat of sludge against the tunnel walls. Dad turned back to her and nodded once. Gee grabbed her air scoop and brought it out in front of her, and followed him towards the Toxic Sea.
The horn sounded out, an echoing scream that rang across the pass, and the hunters surged forward, a rising tide of armor and leaf-bladed spears and cruel sharp javelins, pungent sweat and the iron tang of blood. Uncut tresses flagged out behind them, flogging backs covered with the hides of a dozen other kills, talismans clinking and chattering against each other. The hunters began their blood chant, a rough, pounding, driving beat that emphasized their running pace, every strike of their feet making the ground rumble like thunder, a rising storm.
Gee shook off the odd daydream as the growing sound penetrated her trance of walking and watching. Ahead of her, glimpsed only in the moments when the vapor cleared, was an endless roiling plain of viscous green and purple, writhing like a living thing. It was enormous, mesmerizing, the graveyard of all the world, so the storyteller said.
The thick waves crashed into the ruined shore, making the air vibrate and the flows surge. Clouds of vapor thickened, curdling into a nearly palpable mass that Gee had to force her way through with some effort, using the air scoop on her staff to carve a path. The remaining vapor slid greasily along her suit-skin, looking disgusting, but harmless to the material. It was horrible disfigurement or death if it touched her bare flesh, but that only made it one step worse than anything else she or Dad had to work with.
The froth-laden river of sludge near her feet surged and gurgled with the force of the surf, audible even a hundred yards away. It revealed its treasure little by little, a metallic glint suddenly catching her eye. Gee had spent ages helping Dad pull little blobs of surviving ore-globules from the flows, but here at the edge of the Sea, the metal had clumped into bigger balls, tougher than anything else they could find.
“Dad!” she called in excitement. He turned and dipped in the skimmer where she pointed, activating the magnetic lifter at the same time. Once the fibers touched the metal, the entire pole would vibrate, showing it had made solid contact. Dad grinned at the sensation, his eyes crinkling up in pleasure through his goggles, and carefully lifted. The whole chunk of reheated and cooled metal slowly pulled free from the flows, opposing magnetic fields from the skimmer letting him manipulate the two-hundred-pound blob of unknown alloy as if it were made from foam, pulling it from the floes and finally settling it on the shore.
“Good catch, Brighteyes,” Dad said, patting the metal and absently wiping off the smoking bits of fluid that still clung to its surface with flicks of a stone whisk. “This’ll make the builders proud.”
Dad pulled out the shield, a half-bubble of protective plastic, clouded with countless runs, and fixed it over the close end of the skimmer, big enough to cover them both. Gee felt her breathing go harsh for several breaths before managing to get ahold of herself. They only used the shield if they were going out of the protective tunnels, trying to shelter themselves from dissolving in the rain should it happen to fall. Dad caught her look and smiled, his eyes crinkling behind his goggles.
“Too awkward to take this through the tunnels. If we get hung up, then it’s both of us in the soup,” he said, chin jerking in the direction of the foaming, surging flow of acidic sludge. “This is what it’s like to work near the surf.”
“You’re sure?” she asked, eyeing the thick green sky just barely visible through the vapor, and shoving the worst of it aside with her air scoop.
“Sure. You know how much we need,” Dad said, his tone gone very serious. Gee nodded, seeing the huge metal ribs in the band’s shelter in her mind’s eye, the first part of their escape. Six hundred tons in total – that was the goal every skimmer was working towards. Six hundred tons of usable, acid-proof metal.
They could do it by finding lumps of one or two pounds in the safest, most protected flows. Or by something like this, claiming bounty from the edge of the Toxic Sea.
“Let’s do it,” Gee said, white behind her mask. Eyes crinkling with a smile of encouragement, Dad led her out into the open air.
A shadow cut over the plain, the sun blotted out by flying death. Howls of incipient violence, shrieks and wordless screams of triumph filled the ringing empty space around the hunters, seeming to press the shadow upward, forcing it to fly to the exposed ledges of the mountain. The hunters ran for the foothills, then clambered over the rocks with careless ease, spears glinting in their hands. The sun burned everything with its pure white light, hot enough to redden skin and blister feet, but the hunters ignored it, ignored everything but the prize.
“Movement!” Dad whispered harshly, and Gee pressed herself into an alcove, hiding herself from view, heart pounding from the echo of her daydream. From the shelter of the shield, she could see more survivors passing in the distance, acid-scarred and awful. Their suit-skins looked patchworked and tattered, their shields small, with melted edges. They nearly blended in with the sides of the corroded buildings, only their darting from cover to cover giving them away.
“What do they want?” she breathed. They were close to the band’s shelter, far too close for comfort, not with others creeping around, looking to scavenge.
“Our tanks, if they can get them,” Dad said, and Gee shivered. Their band had four whole tanks, two of the savory, nutritious brew, and two of the sweet, hydrating quench, to feed and water all of them. The tanks held precious algae and bacteria that had been cultivated from the few living plants of the toxic jungles that had remained edible. One filtered and held nutrients, and the other was able to recycle fluids into a drinkable liquid. The tankers carefully tended to the brew and quench with the reverence of parents looking after their children, knowing there was only so much they could produce in a day. Without the tanks, the band would starve and die.
“They either lost theirs in an accident or let them die through lack of tending. Either way, we can’t let them follow us back. Quiet, Gee. Quiet.”
Gee stayed quiet until the winds shifted again, thickening the vapor in the street until it was almost too much to push through. Dad tugged on her arm with his free hand and Gee started to move again, watching his back wordlessly as they circled back to the shelter. Billows of thick vapor shoved against the buildings, and occasionally there was a soft thud as something finally detached and fell to the ground. When the next acid rain would come, those pieces would be washed into the flows, to be dissolved and sorted until only the strongest alloys remained. Dad led them along the faces of the buildings, created by their ancestors long ago when having a wide window wasn’t tempting death. What they’d been made for, no one really knew. Whatever work had been done or lives led in these buildings, it bore no resemblance to how their band lived now.
Dad paused every few moments, waiting and listening for footsteps, for breathing, for anything that let him knew they’d been caught. Gee listened as hard as she could, hearing nothing but the soft susurration of the tide, and nodded tentatively. They circled around the valleys of buildings before coming back to the shelter, eyes flicking up towards the sky every few moments, looking and listening for any hint of impending rainfall. As they waited for someone to open the outer door, Dad smiled at her and put the skimmer in her hands.
“Take it in, Brighteyes.”
The hunters were stalking through the peaks now, waiting for the dragon to come out of hiding. It was dangerous here, the rocks waiting to turn the feet of the unwary and tumble them down to their deaths. The lead hunter had taken only the best with her, the strongest, the bravest, the most skilled of all the clan’s hunters. Their markings proclaimed their prowess, gained over years of successful hunts. And she had fought the hardest of them all to lead the hunt after the great beast had been sighted. For this, she had been born!
Gee felt her breath, too hot, too harsh, rasping against her breathing mask like fire. The skimmer vibrated almost violently in her hands, the same fierce buzz that had distracted Dad for a crucial moment. At the end of the long pole bobbed a ball of ore that defied description, shot through with streaks of brilliant gold and glittering silver, winding around a core of dead black, the entirety several tons.
Tons. The flows never yielded tons. Most things were battered to bits before getting to the Toxic Sea, broken down to whatever components could actually survive there. A few hundred pounds here and there, that’s how Dad and the other skimmers had been getting the metal needed for the band to forge their escape.
Gee choked back a suffocating sob and looked up at the boiling cloud-cover above, acid green and purple, sluggish semisolid vapor ready to rain down upon her. Suit-skin would protect her from light vapor and casual acid rain contact, but a downpour would melt her where she stood. But the metal would never fit in the underground passages.
She stumbled on the uneven ground, broken chunks of artificial rock and what melted metal remained aboveground, and just tried to keep moving, keep her hands tight on the skimmer, tried to not think too hard that she was alone. Tried not to remember Dad bringing the metal out of the dammed flow with a shout of triumph, tried not to see the pain on his face as his hands, weary from endless days of labor, old from teaching her over days and days and days, tried to grasp the skimmer to steady the bounty he’d found. It had been so very long since her first time, so long since she’d brought her first large ore-chunk to the band from the edge of the Sea. She hadn’t realized how old he really was; she’d though he’d live forever. She tried not to cry when she remembered him shoving the skimmer pole at her, the weightless mass nevertheless having enough momentum to knock her down as the edge of the flow crumbled under Dad’s feet and his hands didn’t have strength to save him…
No, she was remembering. Would always remember. But she had to keep that memory from killing her.
“We’re going to escape from here, Brighteyes.” He’d said that every day he was alive, pointing out the growing shape the builders were making. “We’re going to help make those wings, and we’re going to get out. We’re going to see what it’s like above those clouds, over the rain.”
Gee didn’t stop, couldn’t stop, just kept trudging until she fell against the band’s hideout. Pra opened the door for her, her slim hand going to cover her breathing mask as Gee hobbled in alone, the metal bobbing behind her. She stomped over to the builders’ area, nearly throwing the metal at them before returning to her father’s sleep tent. Each breath ripping her throat, she grabbed a slurry sponge and made two broad wipes over the orange teardrop, erasing it. Then she tossed the sponge away, looking at the remnants of orange paint on her hands, staining the dark green of her throbbing hands like blood. Abruptly Gee’s knees gave out, and she collapsed on the ground, ripping off her goggles and mask in a frenzy before the sobs came bursting out of her like a storm.
The rest of the band, seeing the confirmed death notice in the erased marking, came to shelter Gee from the tempest.
The hunter looked up at the sky, cut off here and there by the mountain peaks. She could feel her own heart beat through her contact with the ground, the bones of ancestors who dwelt there, echoing out to the fires in the skies. If all went well, if the great beast fell to her spear, they would know it, feel it. She would live forever in the stories of the clan.
Hal knelt down in front of her, the pots of paint across his chest and the engraving tools at his belt a mute testimony as to his role in the band. Historian and tale-teller, recorder of facts and designator of new ones, he was the namer of names. Gee’s father had been mourned, Vac had returned to the sludge where they all would one day. But this day was Gee’s day, her name day. She had lived enough days to pick what she was ready to do. Mutely, Hal held up the orange pot of paint in front of Gee’s eyes.
“No.” She shook her head violently. “No. That metal was the last I’m ever getting. I want to see what we’re going to do with it.”
She had no experience. But she had skimmer’s hands, the implacable grip and unrelenting strength needed to break things down and build them up again. Hal put away the orange and brought out the red instead. With careful strokes, a tongue of flame now licked its way up her shoulder, across her tent.
She was in the lead, a wild storm, a beast of the mountains, avatar of gods and demons. Nothing would stop them, stop her, from completing her hunt. The gods demanded it, the creature would die. Under brilliant sunshine, she leapt, the others following her, spears shining like glints of rain as they fell.
“Why is it that way? I thought it was supposed to be a-- a plane,” Gee said, hesitating over the unfamiliar word. “Ribbed cylinder with skin-sheet metal, pointed at both ends. This is… irregular.”
“It’s what it has to be,” Cam said, and crooked his fingers for her to come closer. Cam was the first amongst the builders, and along with Heb and Cle, were the ones teaching Gee her new life. “Look, you bring us the stuff from the flows, and we fire it up, and we start to pound it out and then this just happens. The metal only bends so far, only goes so straight. I wrestle it smooth, and when it cools, it curves again. I try to make a ring, it makes an arc. I’m not fighting it, Gee. I’m tired of fighting.”
“But it won’t fit!” Gee opened her mouth to protest further when Cam brought up a rod and socket, swooping, organic-looking things that looked precisely nothing like the blueprints. With care, he fitted them together, and they locked in place as if they were the opposite ends of a magnet.
“They want to,” Cam said, and took the scrap of metal ore from Gee’s hands before she dropped it and tossed it in the furnace. “Let’s see what this one wants to become.”
Gee looked from one builder to the other, not ready to believe quite yet, and picked up the hammer.
Gee pulled the metal out of the quench-fluid, frowning at the graceful organic curve. It should have been a perfect half-circle. She’d made it so, labored over it for three days to make it perfect, but somehow it had warped out of true. She made a disgusted sound deep in her throat, and Heb chuckled behind his mask. In the time she’d been learning the builder’s skill, they could fault nothing with her work ethic, but she still had the frustrated drive for perfection that marked the young.
“Welcome to our world, skimmer,” he said. “Bring that here.”
Gee grabbed it with gloved hands and followed Heb to the tapering cargo chamber skeleton, muttering quietly in irritation.
“There,” he said, and she placed it where he pointed and started when the imperfect curved end fitted neatly and snugly into the connector point as if it had been molded specifically. Gee gaped at it, then back at Heb.
“How?” she demanded.
“Let me show you,” he said, and pulled her to the work table. He elbowed Cam and Cle, and nodded at Gee. Cam began to rummage through a stack of odds and ends until he found what Heb had wanted.
“You see, we started with an idea for a plane.” Cam rolled out the metal sheets that the plans were etched on, pointing to a diagram probably painstakingly copied from the fragile wood pulp plans of ages past. It showed a pointed cylinder with rigid, tapered wings, a tall, pointed tail on the end. Round propulsion units hung from the wings, and Gee put a hand to her throat in fear. She’d seen what acid fog could do on the ground, and in the upper sky… Trying to suck the semi-solid vapor in through those huge vents could kill them all. Air scoops couldn’t work fast enough to push the vapor aside, not at the speeds they’d need to spin.
“How?” she demanded, frightened.
“We figured with the strongest alloys the skimmers could bring us, we had a chance. Except…” Cam nodded at the skeleton.
Gee turned to look at the scaffolding again, and went pale. The struts didn’t conform to the plan. By no stretch of the imagination, artistic license, or poor reading of the diagram did they even come close. The builders had been working on the escape since she was a child; what was going on?
“What are we doing?” she asked.
Heb looked at Cam, at Cle, at the other apprentice Mic, and finally nodded decisively. “The question is, what is it doing? We’re just its hands. It’s the one calling the shots.”
Gee stared at the plans, then rolled them up decisively. Fat lot of good they were. They were building without a plan, with parts that twisted themselves into an unknown configuration. If it was going for some greater plan, some unknown miraculous vehicle that would get them all out of here, that would be wonderful. But…
“What if it stops calling the shots? We need to know what we’re going for.”
Heb looked nervous, and Cam stared at the floor while Cle’s jaw moved, clenched tight.
“That,” Heb said, very grave, “is our greatest nightmare.”
Gee closed her eyes for a second, and tried to think, tried to imagine what it was supposed to look like when it was done.
The dark shape flying against the sky, illuminated by the blazing sun. Its wings pumped against the pull of the earth, its head turning to find a safe place to land. The hunter snarled silently as it banked and turned, diving down the gorge and then back up the other side to a sheer, inaccessible peak. Not for long… The hunter gasped as the dragon unfurled its wings and pushed off, leaping for distance as it pulled itself into the upper air, deeper into the mountains, farther than anyone had gone before. The hunter stood and shouted into the air, a thrill of challenge overcoming everything else.
Her eyes flew open, and Gee knew her face was flushed and hot behind her mask and goggles. “It’s a dragon.”
“That doesn’t look like a cockpit,” Pit said warily. The skimmer’s eyebrows were furrowed behind his goggles, his eyes scrunched up in concern. Gee got that; the skimmers had the second-most proprietary interest in their escape, and they needed to know that they weren’t risking their lives for nothing.
The control module was roughed out at the front of the vehicle, and it was no featureless pointed cone. It would have nostrils that could flare to seek out toxin pockets and ears that could swivel to listen for rainfall, eyes that could adjust the input of light and protect themselves, spikes and horns for defense, all in an organic-modeled detection and defensive system unlike anything they’d ever seen or heard of, at least in their experience.
“It’s better. Don’t you see? It’s better,” Cam said.
“We can’t see, not like this. There are no monitors in the cargo space for us to view what the sensors see. Everything’s self-contained in the computer. We’d be completely at its mercy. At most we’ll be able to see a little of where we’re going from the lower panels, but….” Pit shrugged helplessly, and flicked his eyes briefly over to a tent marked with a bright green outline of a head. Gan’s tent, their leader. She was too savvy to voice concerns publically, and Gee was grateful she’d asked her questions through Pit.
“Better protection,” Heb said. “It is!”
“Not from rain, not if we can’t see.”
“We don’t know what we’re going to find. We’re trying to find a way out, aren’t we? We don’t know what’s out there. Isn’t that the point?” Cam said.
Gee stepped up next to Pit, and casually picked up his shield, the scarred, clouded polycarb similar to the viewing portals in the lower cargo chamber. The portals that would be beneath the protection of the wings and the bulk of the body, and out of contact with the worst of the vapor of the upper air.
“How long does it take your shield to get cloudy?” Gee said, making the others stop to consider her non-sequitur.
Pit opened and closed his mouth a bit, jaw working behind his mask, and shook his head. “One excursion, but I haven’t had a new shield in… since I started skimming.”
“Why bother putting polycarb portals on the cockpit, then? We won’t be able to see through them after fifteen minutes or the first time we hit a vapor-field.” Gee held Pit’s eyes until he looked away, nodding slowly.
“And it’ll be mobile. Moreso than anything we could construct from the old plans,” Cle added enthusiastically, pointing to the layout of the long connector passage, one that could allow the cockpit to swivel in any direction to look for danger.
Mobile. A head a long neck, like etchings in the Book of Days of animals long gone.
“If we have to,” Pit said, shuddering a bit in uncertainty.
Gee understood. “We do.”
The hunter led her people along a new path, scouted out from peak to peak, following the scraped rocks and hints of spoor that showed her where the dragon had gone. Not even a creature of the air could hide there forever. They were hot on its trail, and despite the grumblings from the others, she knew they were getting closer with every step.
“Wait, just-. You want to switch from the blueprints we have, the plans the band spent forever researching to-.” Gan cut herself off, keeping her voice from rising, a few small strands of brittle, gray hair escaping from the hood of her suit-skin. The green head outline on her shoulder seemed to gleam in the phospheen lights over the builders’ area. Her shoulders consciously relaxed as she let her temper flare out, replacing it with the stoic calm she used every day. Gan had been the one to propose escape in the first place, to bring up the possibility that there was a place beyond the Toxic Sea or the equally dangerous jungles, a place where there was cleaner air and the possibility of death was more distant.
But in all her time, she’d never considered this. That was why she’d sent her concerns in Pit’s mouth before coming herself. If the band saw Gan standing against the builders, then all the effort they’d put forth, all the people who had died, had all been for nothing. And they all lived on too narrow a margin for that.
“To build something better! The ones before us had planes too, and look what happened.” Cam pointed a finger towards the scarred viewing portal near the door of the shelter where the sky was just barely visible as roiling banks of sinister green murk. “Look! The planes melted. The skies ate them up. Even if we have the strongest alloy left, I don’t think we want such a bad-luck design. The planes didn’t save our ancestors, and it won’t save us.”
“You… From your sketches you’ve made, it looks like you’re trying to create something based on a complex life form, something no one has records of. How are we going to build that? How is that better?”
“It’s better because it’s stronger, it had defenses, because it’s the toughest damn thing I’ve ever heard of,” Cle added enthusiastically.
“And we’re going to build it because it’s going to tell us how,” Heb said, fire in the older builder’s eyes.
Cam nearly opened his mouth, but stopped himself, unwilling to give voice to the impossible.
“Because of the dreams,” Gee said. Gan turned her gimlet stare on the youngest builder, daring her to explain.
“Does it matter?” Gee said. “Does it really matter where the plans come from? No one here’s ever seen a plane, in the sky or anywhere else. Maybe that was never the way we are going to get out of here.”
“She’s right,” Heb said unexpectedly. “Planes didn’t get our ancestors out. They had plenty of time to build strong planes back when people remembered how.”
“They didn’t have sludge-tested alloys,” Gan said.
“They wouldn’t have needed them.”
“The acid falls started slowly, first barely enough to burn the skin. Then our skies wept angry tears as all that had gone before returned to the earth, and flesh, wood, stone, and steel dissolved in the force of its fury,” Hal recited, holding up the Book of Days. “We did not comprehend, we did not understand, and so we lost what had been our world to the anger of the old ways.” Heb started at Hal’s appearance behind him, but nodded enthusiastically at the tale-teller’s words.
Gan put her hands over her face, her gloves pressing into her goggles and mask. “These dreams are worth the lives of our entire band?”
“Yes.” Gee could see, out of the corner of her eye, the orange stains on her skin-suit under the red symbol of her chosen profession. Gan stared at them too, at the skimmer who’d chosen to build, who’d taken everything she’d seen outside their walls and put it into their one hope of escape.
“Child,” she whispered, “you better have some damn good dreams.”
The hunter had drawn close now, still too far away for a spear thrust, but close enough to see the dragon sleeping, silver in the moonlight. She took the time to study it, memorizing the length of its claws, where its wings joined its body, and where the scaled looked worn or cracked. She would learn it better than she’d learned anything, better than she knew herself.
Something moved. Gee automatically looked upward, searching for flaws in the ceiling, then dragging her eyes downward to seek gaps in the walls, hunting to see if anything had eaten through their protections. There was nothing. No drips, no hissing, no melt-smoke, just the bulk of the dragon looming over them, eyes glimmering in the light of the forge-fires. Gee waited and watched, seeing if whatever moved would reveal itself. Then she shrugged and turned back to her work.
Pounding, pounding, pounding, knocking the latest part out of it mold to clatter with a crash, sleek and gently curved in the style she’d given up trying to fight a while ago. She tugged it free and heaved it down the length of the table to Cam, who fired off the rasper to take off the mold lines. Gee whirled in place, something catching her eye again. The eyes of the dragon were half-closed. She looked over her shoulders. Cam, Heb, Cle, all the other builders were all at their stations, and no one else in the band was close enough to touch the dragon.
Not that they would.
She turned back and went close, touching the eyelids, the ridiculous, pointless eyelids, a fillip of effort and materials that Heb had spent three weeks making and for what? Well, she knew what, for protection, but still. So much for so little. Gee’s fingers reached out, stopping just short of the refract-optic eyes. They were sensors of course, and they’d planned for them from the beginning, but not like that. Not in that form.
Her hand settled on the lower curve of the socket, warm from the proximity of the forge, and she reached up to see if the retraction connections had slipped. The pupil of the eye constricted, then expanded.
“Sensitive, aren’t you?” Gee said absently. They had the sensors hooked up to minimal power for testing purposes. She felt for the eyelid connection and it slid up immediately.
“There we go. You have to be able to see, right?”
The pupil expanded again as Gee nodded to herself, patting the dragon absently.