12: The Kite
It was well into dawn now and still no Greg. Sard waited in the dip as instructed the day before. Waiting impatiently. Was Greg going slow motion because of their conflict earlier? Sard so couldn’t use hold-ups now, what could he do but try to please the man? He scooted here and there, on his knees, to be not seen above the level of the plain, setting up the bag-over-the-bush water getting trick. Using the same round pebble. Different bush. His suit remembered everything perfectly. Good to know.
< You + I are continuous >
Sard wrung his hands in the way he thought resembled Greg’s hands knotting the snare. Worked good. The suit remembered it.
“What have you been up to?” Greg stood on the edge of the dip with the sun behind him. His expression was in the shadow of his own head. Neat trick.
Sard looked up with a winning smile. “Practicing what you taught me?”
Greg stepped down. His eyes were narrowed. “You look smug. Self satisfied. It’s not safe to get too sure of yourself. The landscape, the weather, the people out here … none of them act the way you might expect.”
“Well … it feels good to me that I can at least depend on my suit. Are we going back through the desert door?”
But Greg led the way onto the ridge. “I’ve got something to show you up there.” He stopped at the eastern apex. “No talking from here on. No rolling rocks. Not any noise at all, okay? It’s the minion stronghold we must get near to.”
They clambered around the top of their own Pit, according to Sard’s feel. The superior sense of direction was one of his avatar talents. There began to be a sick-making stink on the breeze from the sea. He concentrated on not retching. Not safe.
Greg indicated that he should sit on the rim around the Pit. Did that mean no one was in there? How did Greg know? Sard mimed vomiting and only barely managed to keep it in.
< Waste not = want not >
Greg mimed pushing their suit-hoods back.
Sard shook his head. No thank you. Not here. The stink was indescribable even through the suit’s mask. He tried not to breathe. He concentrated on hoiking without a sound. His eyes streamed with tears. He crawled back along the trail.
Greg followed him, without any regard for his suit’s colour against the mainly blue-sky background. Sard had no energy to try and work it out. Back at the triangle, he trusted the air enough to finally push the hood back. “What was that?”
“Not the kitchens,” Greg said. He smiled.
“Bastard. Was it the moldeckery?”
“Yes. I figured you should know the smell of death before you leave. Might make you think. Might make you appreciate what people are doing for you. You might even come to believe that you might not have the worst deal.”
“That’s the smell Srese is having to deal with, is that what you’re saying?”
Greg nodded. “The so-called mermen, poor bastards, are sewn into raw human skins and sent out into the open ocean, waves taller than this ridge, to fish and fetch shell food, as near as I can make out.”
Sard’s main but fleeting thought was how well—in the courtship he intended to get going as soon as—he’d compare with men sewn into skins. “And Gammy our digital game master still has expectations?”
“Srese is out of the picture,” Greg said. “The lead merman has taken up with Zoya. She’s better at the signing they do to communicate.”
Greg’s expression was hard to read. “And so you’re relieved on the one hand,” Sard said. “And on the other hand you’re worried sick about what Gammy might do to Srese? I would be.”
Greg said, “That’s about right.”
There, Greg on the way to being mollified. A bit of stroking and a tad of empathy was all it took. “What happened?” Sard said, indicating with his head, “Smells like a lot of customers.”
“Daredevilry at the storm-watch. One of your arch-enemies, Phin, and quite a few others bit the dust in an attempt by our digital taskmaster … Greg grinned wolfishly at the taskmaster jibe before continuing. “…to make it possible for us to feed the incoming women and children.”
“Mmm. So the Pit’s closed?” Sard said sympathetically. All he was going to say as he didn’t want to undo his good works? Getting through the next couple of hours as almost-friends surely preferable?
— — — —
The corridors were quiet. A curfew, perhaps. Sard didn’t ask. Better to just follow Greg and not invite trouble. They met no one in Mab’s shop or in the dome. “Safe to talk?” he said. “No one here, every place we came by, quieter than … well, quiet.”
“Everyone’s busy. Us being up here is all about the kite,” Greg said. “You getting acquainted with it in a lit-up, hidden place where we won’t be disturbed. Especially by remaindered wannabes like Youk. Watch out for him when you are out and about and you’ll probably survive.” He pulled a tight roll from a storage bag and undid various knots in strings. Silk fabric flowed from his hands like a river. “Help me lay it out?”
Plenty to worry about in that little speech. He should stick with the going concern. “I worry about it being a kite,” Sard said, taking the swag of cloth offered to him. “This all seems far too much fabric.”
Greg chuckled. “I told Rider we were calling it the wrong word. It isn’t shaped anything like that kind of kite and when used properly, it’ll help you float over the desert easy peasy.”
Was that the man being sarcastic as well as mysterious? “The beige-coloured side on top?” Sard said walking backward with his arms full. The beige-colour being the same indefinable shade and texture as his life-suit? “I have no idea about the shape but what the heck.”
“Just copy-cat me on this side shaping it, on your side,” Greg said.
Trying to get more info, Sard started listing the kite’s features as he discovered them. “Right. An elliptical mat made of many flat sausages laid side by side.” Waited.
“Sausages will fill with air,” Greg said.
Mmm. “Each of the sausages has three strings hanging from it?” Sard said.
Greg stared at him in waiting mode.
“Strings where they are fastened to the sausages …”
“Cells,” Greg said. “The sausages are cells.”
Fine, cells. “All the strings up to the middle cells are gathered first in triplets, then them in pairs dancing to the left and right and then them …?”
“To a brake each to help you control the rig, and then them to your harness which will be—if you get good—a glorified seat, just right for the lording it over everything kind of guy that you are. When you’re wearing the harness you’ll be hanging under the kite.”
Guess I didn’t do such a good job with the empathy. And it doesn’t sound like the time to pile on more. What then? Ignore? “A brake in each hand?” Sard said.
Greg nodded. He seemed to come to some sort of conclusion and continued with his instructions. “Now we lay it in a sickle moon shape, so the front edge, which is called the leading edge in the video-mentaries, is on top. Ready to take in the wind.”
“Oh. You got all this from a video-mentary,” Sard said. “I think I remember it. Some of the words anyway. We did an entertainment once about the different ways of flying.” Oops. Reminded him who I am.
“Prove it,” Greg said. “That you studied that video and that you recall any damn thing. I think you’re just buttering me up. Have been all along today.”
Oh well, back to the beginning. “The cells together are called a canopy,” Sard said. “But that’s just a word. I could never really understand how one person alone could open the cells enough for the wind to get into them. The openings to the sausages, I mean cells, are small and flat. How are they going to fill?” Like, wasn’t it obvious it just wouldn’t work?
Greg rested in his tai-ji stance. Said nothing, not even with his face.
“What now?” Sard said.
“You don’t need me. You already know it all,” Greg said.
“I think I said, I could never really understand?” Sard said. “I do understand that for me to get out of your face, you need to tell me how to work this thing. I thank you for all the trouble you have gone through for me. I’m keen to leave. As soon as.”
“I’m listening,” Sard said.
Greg stared at the blue sky dome but did continue. “I think you need to be at the centre, facing the wind, already strapped in. Whether you’re lying down, sitting, I don’t know. Probably depending on the strength of the blow.”
“Rider is still working on the harness.”
“If only we had some wind,” Sard said.
“We can fire up the airlock machinery and open the doors into them.”
Which resulted in a couple of flutters at the leading edge and the kite staying stubbornly on the floor.
Sard went to stand in the place where he’d hang between the two ends of the wing. “The air is passing straight over me, look at these thread ends.” He launched a couple of the silk bits that attached themselves to everyone passing through Mab’s workshop.
“Let’s lift up and see what happens,” Greg suggested. “Each at an end. No, forget that, We’re stretching it too tight, the air can’t get between the two layers.”
“I suggest we hang on to just the top layer of the front edge then, loosely. Now we run. One … two … three.” The moving air grabbed the cloth from their hands and deposited it at the other side of the hall.
“Right.” Greg looked nonplussed.
“Obviously not made to work without someone hanging on,” Sard said. “I guess I’ll just run into the wind dragging it.”
“All we need is your feet off the ground.”
“If I can get it to billow, I’ll be happy.” Sard bunched each side’s lines and wound them around his hands.
Three big breaths. Five big steps into the centre of the hall, into the so called wind. He lifted his arms despite the weight and the foregone uselessness.
The wings took in a smidgin of air that danced its way from front to rear, causing a brief ballooning that collapsed as Sard hit the wall.
“So now we know,” Greg said.
But what do we now know? Sard didn’t say. “I’m going to try running directly at an airlock.” He set about arranging the wing on the floor on the opposite side of the hall. Greg encouraged the machinery.
Sard ran. Halfway across, the canopy filled with the rushing air, bloomed and crumpled against the wall above the door. Sard dug himself out from under. “Did you see that!”
Greg pumped his hand, slapped his back. “It’s going to work! When I think we had only the old video-mentaries to go on. No patterns or anything.”
They pulled the fabric straight and rolled up the pleated length as tightly as possible. “Okay, let’s fit you with the pack,” Greg said.
For a joke Sard made his knees buckle at the weight.
“Yeah mate, and there’s still the shoes and the harness. Rider is stitching them like a fury. You need to go down to his workshop, fit the tackle to your size and I’m sure to be wanted in the kitchen.”
Rider’s workshop was next to Mab’s, Sard discovered. They had the use of the kitchenette between them. Rider’s doorway was hung with drying silks inside and out and the worktable was screened from the shop-front too. Prospective customers shouldn’t know of Sard’s presence, Rider signaled.
Sard pulled the suit-hood over his face, fastened it to the suit-neck. Make us alive-to-background, he thought at the suit.
< We are continuous >
After hot-sealing the adjustments, Rider loaded Sard with the harness, the two brakes and his flying boots. With the wing, his clothes, food and water it would be quite a load. But once he and Ahni flew, the luggage would weigh nothing, he had to believe.
Back in under the dome, Sard patiently allowed Rider to explain the webbing though it was pretty self-explanatory. Sard told of his and Greg’s experiments so far. He and Rider attached the brakes to the lines and played with their actions for a while.
At dusk, the dome lit up with a vibrant sunset. Shreds of cloud breathing pink wisped across a red background which over time became sapphire and finally night blue.
Greg brought a feast of take-out boxes filled with special titbits. Ghulia followed him in. “Zoya couldn’t make it and I can’t stay very long, darling. Things are hotting up.” She hugged Sard until they were both breathless.
Choosing delectable tidbits, Rider hovered his chopsticks over the dishes. He said, “Last thing we need to talk about is your reason for being.”
Sard choked. After the coughing and back-slapping—by way of Greg’s heavy hand—Sard said, “What? My reason for being?”
“You’ll need a trade that allows you to travel,” Mab said. “Why else would you be wandering the country side?”
Trying to equate the idea with what he intended to do, Sard said the first, weakest thing that came to mind. “I thought that at first I’d be living in the desert around here?” He twirled his raised hand to show his meaning.
“The clay-faces maraud through all the wild places,” Rider said. “On the ground, you’re no match for them on their camels, hunting people with nets and sizzle-sticks. You’ll have a better chance to live in the villages to the northeast.”
“Not so,” Mad said, contradicting as if she knew. “Those villages are small. Even one extra mouth, however beloved, is a burden if it doesn’t produce food as well as consume it.”
“What you can do well is fireworks,” Greg said, grinning at Sard. “Isn’t a traveling trade what we’re setting him up for?”
A hard-hearted wolf sneer that was, Sard thought. “Fireworks?”
“Last time I watched you do your fountaining. With sparks and flames and criss cross spatters gobs of light; stripes rippling; neon lighting up the dark. Damn, I’m jealous! I’ve had my suit for years. Never thought to ask it for fireworks!”
Sard hardly had time to take in Greg’s reasons for envy before Mab ran with the idea. “So he needs a magician’s cloak,” she said.
Sard back on track. “I was thinking a circle of this cloth would be good to hide under, camouflage in the desert. For the fireworks I’d put it on the ground, see if the light will pool.” Glancing at Greg’s baleful expression, he added. “Once I got good, I mean.”
In his mind he knew he was good already. He was a rider on a steed of light, a seahorse in the sea of the night. A fire fuelled with light. A firefly dancing above its reflection.
“Attaboy, Sard,” Greg said. “Put away those glazed eyes. Presuming people everywhere are the same as the people I dish up for, what you need is patter. To get them in, stand around. Pass the hat afterwards. ”
“You’re fast,” Rider said. “You’ll think up the patter when the occasion demands. Your practice in the meantime must be with rocks and sand.”
Finally all the goodbyes were said and Sard, not being able to flit with the load he had on his back, or fit through any secret tunnels, made like he was in transportation and counted himself lucky he didn’t meet anyone.
He slept at the lens door until dawn. Then there was just enough time to backpack his gear to the head of the ridge before the sun rose from the sea like a proverbial ball of fire. After fixing himself a time-honoured wake-up trick, with a strand of silk fastened across the path from the beach and tied to one of his toes, he napped.