This week’s high-flying story by Christopher Rowe will sweep you away. ~ Julian and Fran, October 15, 2023
by Christopher Rowe
Floating the heights above the roiling, troublous clouds, watching flashes of thunderlight illuminate a quarter of the globe, Sana felt the usual delicious impulse to fall. Before she gave in to it, the sun flashed around the far curve of the world, sparking rainbow storms at the top of the sky.
She spread her suit’s wings and caught the photonic spectrum, then furled and dove.
The thicker the atmosphere became as she descended, the more she was buffeted about by the angry continental weather. The jet stream was well south of her flight, but the stormsscudding it were severe enough still to prompt constant course-correction warnings from her onboards.
From this height, even a slight angle in her downward course might find her touching ground a hundred miles from the chapterhouse, alighting in the mountains four days’ walk from home, or else far out to sea. Sana could not swim. No member of the Katabatic League could, so far as she knew.
Sana did not want to walk a hundred miles down from thebare-topped mountains and through endless stands of whip-thin trees, depending for her food and water on strangers not beholden to the League. Her suit and her badges might lend her some authority the closer she got to the chapterhouse, but the people who lived in the woodland fastnesses would only recognize her as a flier, and fliers were generally held to be responsible for the storms.
“We did not make them,” she might say, if they shared a language with her. “We tend them. We temper them.”
She knew nobody in the woodlands would believe her, though.
She flexed the muscles of her back and fought her fall into a spiral, aiming for the familiar scoured landscape that made up the holdings of the League. Sana was not a strong flier, but a subtle one. Her command of her suit depended more on instinct and an extraordinary feel for slight changes in the wind’s speed and direction, on a bone-deep awareness of atmospheric pressure, than it did on the brute might evinced by Bronn, for example, and his Condors.
It was why she was a scout, and they were the hammers of the League. They flew longer, she flew higher. They flew with strength, she with speed. There were other specialties among the Katabaticists, but hers and Bronn’s were those most recognized in the wider world, drawing praise and scorn in equal measure.
A proximity warning glowed briefly on her helmet display, the signal coming from one of the League’s low-orbitingsatellites set coetaneous above their territories. An aircraft was bellying in low over the sea from the east. Sana spared a moment’s attention to a feed from a buoy anchored just over the horizon from the shoreline, and saw a small fixed-wing planenearly surfing the tossing waves. The pilot had to be gifted beyond all belief to maintain such a steady course under those conditions, battered from above by heavy sheets of rain andfrom below by surging salt spray.
“I see a plane,” Sana said.
“We have it too,” Fonds replied from the squat control tower on the roof of the chapterhouse. “We were going to launch a drone to guide it in, but, since you’re in the neighborhood and have finished with your meditation, or whatever it is you do up top, you could slot in ahead of them. If you think you can bear company.”
The last was a jibe. Fonds did not understand Sana’s need for the solitude and stillness of the high atmosphere, but she knew her cousin was more than capable of making contact with an aircraft and guiding it to the proving grounds. She had, after all, trained Sana.
Fonds, though, was now confined to the chapterhouse by the vertigo that inevitably came with wearing suits for too many years. Sana was about halfway through her expected time of service and was supposed to be paying increasing attention to the administrative and training duties that would make up the balance of her life. She kept telling herself she would start those studies any day. . . .
But for now, the mystery of the aircraft. It had either made it all the way across the Atlantic from Europe or Africa against the prevailing winds, or launched from the Western Hemisphere someplace and was now curving back in toward the seaboard onsome mysterious errand. Trade frequently went east by air, but only came west by submarine. Or else the long way, riding the winds around the whole of the globe.
The plane wasn’t broadcasting a signal her suit recognized, just a sort of high-pitched “here I am” call across a narrow band of radio frequencies. No identification, no greeting, no call for help.
She blinked open a channel and had her suit send the plane’s current coordinates and heading back along the same frequencies. Then she said, “Aircraft, you have been sighted and are being tracked by the Katabatic League. Do you require assistance?”
Nothing for a moment. Then a crackling sound unlike anything Sana had ever heard. Then a man’s voice. “Katabatic. I’ve always found that such a lovely word. Winds blowing down. There should be an Anabatic League someplace, for winds blowing up.”
The accent was unfamiliar, but at least he’d responded in the language favored by the League. Which, to the dismay of her tutors, was the only language Sana had ever learned.
“We fly all directions. Do you require assistance?” she asked again.
“Not at the moment, no, though it’s so generous of you to offer. On the other hand, in a few minutes, my fuel will be exhausted and then I’ll be in the ocean just off the continental shelf. I might need a hand then.”
Sana cursed and blinked back over to Fonds. “Are you monitoring?”
“Bronn and his people are scrambling now,” said her cousin.
Back to the airplane as Sana curved east, dropping faster now, losing sight of the craft. There were no truly catastrophic storms in the area, but that could change quickly. The Condors would not make it to the plane before it hit the waves. “Pilot, do you have emergency open-water equipment?” she asked.
“Perhaps the most sophisticated ever developed,” said the man, his voice still easy. “I calculated a nineteen percent chance that I would not make it all the way across, so I spent a great deal of time preparing for a water landing.”
“Landing?” Sana had been assuming a crash, nothing so controlled as a landing. Not into the continental headwind.
“This is a seaplane,” said the man. “They used to make them all the time. Perhaps not designed for waters as rough as these—ah, just a moment please.” There was a roaring sound and then the crackling again. Then the voice: “There you go. I’m down. Tossing a bit, but not foundering. You are coming from above, yes?”
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