The iron floor was rough and hot against her skin. Rachael was lying on the hard surface of the platform, aching all over. She could see sunlight, streaming in through the spaces left by two broken panes in the black glass ceiling above. She wondered what had broken them. The air had an acrid smell to it. A foul tasting slime coated the inside of her mouth. Her eyes felt raw, and each breath she drew was hoarse and ragged. Her arms and legs seemed to be too heavy to move.
A tremor ran through the platform. She heard the building groan around them as more cracks appeared in the black glass panes. She eased herself into a sitting position, knees curling to her chin. She saw that her left hand was still bound up in the heavy iron gauntlet, the plates moving clumsily as her fingers curled. For a moment she held the strange object up to the light, watching in curious fascination as she clenched and unclenched her fist. She could feel her heart pounding against her chest, and a sick feeling coiled up tight within her stomach. She had the curious sensation of being a passenger in her own head, watching everything with a strange detachment, despite the constant urge to fill her lungs and scream. Everything was too loud, and too hot. Whisps of smoke curled through the air, making her cough.
Arsha was lying beside her, sprawled out across the platform. Rachael wasn’t even sure if the girl was breathing. She forced herself to reach out a hand, pressing trembling fingertips to the girl’s neck. She imagined she should be searching for a pulse, but when she touched Arsha’s skin, she felt a breath drawing inward, throat swelling as the girl’s eyes flickered open. Arsha coughed, loudly, as Rachael jerked her hand away.
Arsha sat up and looked at her, blinking away tears.
“You’re OK?” Arsha gasped.
“Yeah,” Rachael managed. “Yeah, I’m…”
She tailed off, not sure what she was supposed to say. None of the words in her head seemed to fit. Then her sister’s arms were around her, her face buried in the girl’s hair as Arsha pulled her into an embrace so fierce and strong that it crushed the air out of her lungs. Without even meaning to, Rachael found her arms encircling her sister’s body, holding tight as if she were the only solid thing left in the world. She felt tears rolling down her cheeks, as her breath came in short gasps.
She couldn’t say how long they held each other, as she felt her sister’s chest rise and fall with each breath, her heart pounding through her ribcage as tears ran down her shoulder, mingling with her sweat.
“Thank you,” Arsha said. The words were a faint murmur, the girl’s face still pressed against her neck.
“For what?” Rachael said.
“For coming back.”
Arsha’s grip loosened a little, and the girl sat back to look at her with eyes red from crying. Arsha wiped a hand across her face, and her eyes settled on Rachael’s left hand, encased in iron.
“Oh Fates, Rachael, your hand. Is it OK?” the girl exclaimed, seizing the gauntlet with both hands.
“Uh… Yeah, I think,” Rachael said.
“Can you take it off?” Arsha said. Looking down at the strange device, Rachael could still see where parts of seemed to have emerged from within her arm, the skin parting around the blades of iron.
“I don’t think so,” she said.
“Does it hurt?”
She shook her head, as Arsha continued to stare in horror. Rachael shifted uncomfortably, and turned to look at their surroundings. They were both sitting at the foot of the plinth, just below where the gateway had been. The twisted remains of the bridge hung, creaking, from the far edge of the pit that surrounded the platform. Black shards of glass littered the platform, along with larger pieces of iron debris. The whole tower was swaying gently, the metal groaning as tremors ran up from below.
Arsha followed her gaze, noting the disarray with an expression that slowly shifted to alarm. As the girls took stock of their situation, the platform suddenly shook, and a thunderous roar echoed up from somewhere far below.
“We’re stuck here, aren’t we?” Arsha said, looking at the broken bridge.
Rachael gave her a gloomy look.
“Yeah, I think so. Serves you for coming after me, I guess.” She saw Arsha’s expression. “Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“We’re getting out of here. Somehow.” Arsha said, firmly.
“Your dad left us.”
“He must have thought we weren’t coming back. He wouldn’t have… he’s probably coming back with the ship,” Arsha said, her lower lip trembling slightly.
Another bellowing reverberation ran up the tower. Moments later they both heard a movement above them, a little like the crackling of ice-cubes in the glass. She looked up to see a maze of cracks slowly spreading across several of the black panes above them. Arsha let out a shriek as shards of black glass rained down towards them. They shielded their faces as broken splinters flew at them from every direction. Rachael felt the shrapnel biting at her skin, and she saw one shard draw a perfectly neat red line across Arsha’s forearm. As the black rain stopped they looked up at each other, blinking, breath coming in short gasps. Arsha clutched at the cut on her arm, blood oozing between her fingers. Another tremor ran through the chamber, and they both heard a groaning sound from up above.
“Oh Fates,” Arsha whimpered as she looked up. High above them, one of the long spars that formed the skeleton of the dome began to shudder and twist.
“Arsh, I think we’re in real trouble here,” Rachael said, touching her fingers to a cut on her face. Blood was already running down her cheek.
With a terrible moan the huge metal beam began to tear free, seeming to sag at first, until the end snapped loose and the whole beam began to fall directly towards them. It seemed to happen so slowly, so gently that at first Rachael didn’t even feel scared. It took a moment for the perspective to snap into place. The iron beam was huge, maybe a hundred feet from end to end and wider than two grown men, and it was hurtling down towards them.
“Rachael… Fates…” Arsha whispered hoarsely, scrabbling to her feet. They both took faltering steps backwards as the huge mass of iron hurtled towards them. The platform was barely twenty feet across in all, and they had no way off. They could only guess where the falling beam would land. Huddling close to each other they moved towards the edge of the platform, each of them whispering desperate prayers. Rachael reached out and took her sister’s hand, squeezing it tightly.
It was Arsha who saw that they had both guessed wrong. She threw herself forwards, tugging at Rachael’s hand, yanking her forcefully along as she dove past the gateway, throwing herself forwards onto the ground. Just behind them Rachael felt the colossal weight of the mass of iron as it passed just inches from their heels. The beam struck the platform like a sledgehammer. The whole building shook, and Rachael was thrown forwards on a wave of air that hit like a thunderclap. She slammed into the ground, skidding forwards on her elbows as the edge of the platform rushed towards her.
She couldn’t stop in time. As she was about to plunge over the edge she felt Arsha’s hand tighten around hers, and a moment later the whole of her weight seemed to focus itself like a solid blow against her shoulder. She dangled halfway over the lip of the platform, restrained only by Arsha’s tenuous grip on her arm. All the air seemed to have been sucked out of her, and no matter how she wished she could pull herself back, all she could seem to do was stare into the vast drop below. The pit seemed to go down forever, nothing but blackness below her.
She felt the platform shift underneath her body, and it took a moment to realise that it was Arsha pulling her clear of the edge, inch by inch.
Head spinning, she found a purchase and pulled herself away from the gap, the sharp tips of the gauntlet scraping against the iron of the platform.
“Thanks,” she gasped, blinking in confusion.
“Come on, we should go,” Arsha replied, gesturing towards the fallen beam. It took Rachael’s befuddled mind a moment to grasp what she meant. The beam had landed astride the chasm that surrounded the pillar, joining it to the rest of the chamber.
Beneath their feet the platform was shaking violently. The impact of the beam seemed to have cracked one of the supports, and the whole thing felt like it might collapse any second. Arsha quickly leapt up onto the beam, turning to help Rachael up as they both struggled to keep their footing.
They ran the length of the beam without even daring to look down at the fall below. Terrible shuddering groans emitted constantly from the entire chamber as their feet pounded against the body of the iron spar. It held just long enough for them to drop down onto the floor of the main chamber. As they fled the room, a sickening crunch resounded through the air as the platform gave way, crumbling down into the pit with the massive beam sliding in after it. Arsha turned back to watch, eyes wide, until Rachael grabbed at her sleeve.
“Come on, let’s go,” Rachael screamed over the constant groaning of the building. Another ceiling pane crazed with a spider web of cracks and began to disintegrate, raining black razor shards into the hall. They ran out of the sagging arched doors and into the dark corridor beyond.
Emerging at the far end of the arched tunnel, they found themselves blinking in the sunlight that streamed in through the shattered outer windows of the tower. As their sight returned, they looked out on the rusted city and saw a sea of crumbling towers beginning to sway and topple. Parts of the buildings were falling away, raining down into the dark mists below. Many of the towers seemed to be crowned in a glittering haze; thousands of falling shards of black glass glinting as they caught the light.
The tremors were nearly continuous now, the building shuddering and groaning beneath their feet. There was a gaping hole where the elevator had been. Daring to lean out a little over the edge, Rachael glimpsed the twisted remains of the platform, far below. From the look in her sister’s eyes, she could tell that her expression had said it all.
“There might be another way down, I guess,” Rachael said, not really feeling it. Arsha did not reply. Her attention had been drawn to something outside of the tower. As Rachael followed the girl’s eyes she found her gaze settling on a tiny but rapidly growing black dot, skimming over the rooftops. Arsha began waving frantically. At first nothing seemed to happen, but then Rachael saw that the dot was turning, coming closer. Soon enough, she recognised the shape of the Zephyr, blew light crackling around its floatstones as the propellers blurred. Arsha let out a whoop of joy.
“See? They’re coming for us. I told you they’d come,” she cried, punching the air in excitement.
The Zephyr closed the distance quickly, on a path that would take it right past the floor where they stood. She could see Micah standing at the wheel, whilst Ilona stood at the prow, watching them through some kind of lens. Arsha ran right up to the edge of the building, holding on to a window frame as she eagerly watched the vessel approach.
The building shifted again, beginning to slope forwards at an alarming angle. Tremors continued to shake the room, and Rachael was certain that she feel them growing in intensity. With nothing close to hold onto, she could barely keep her footing as the ground swayed underneath them, seeming to move further with each pendulum swing. An awful realisation settled on her.
“Arsh. He can’t stop. The building’s coming down Arsh. Nothing’s staying still. They can’t stop for long enough.”
Arsha turned to look at Rachael, eyes widening as this thought sunk in.
“Arsh, we have to jump,” Rachael said, voice trembling as she spoke the words.
“No. We can’t. No,” Arsha stammered, helplessly.
“We have to. It’s the only way out.”
Arsha looked out over the edge, and Rachael could see the fear in her eyes.
“Arsh, go. Go now.”
Arsha shook her head and backed away from the edge.
“Arsha, jump!” Rachael screamed in her ear, giving her a sudden shove. Off balance, the girl was forced to run down the sloping floor towards the edge as the entire building lurched forwards with them.
For a breathless moment the emptiness took them, and there was only the wind. The Zephyr seemed to slide beneath their feet, smooth and graceful. She saw the two figures on the deck looking up at them, faces aghast.
For a moment, everything seemed still.
Rachael came down hard on the back of the deck, her momentum carrying her into the back railing, pain exploding across her shoulders as she crashed into a heavy coil of rope.
Arsha missed the back of the deck by inches. Rachael watched in horror as she fell past the ship, her hand reaching out to grab at the railing which was just too far away. She saw Micah letting go of the wheel to reach out towards her, too late to try to catch Arsh’s open hand. She saw the look of hopeless and desperate terror in her sister’s eyes, fingertips outstretched to grasp at nothing. And then she looked down at the city below, the shape of the buildings hazy and indistinct. Distant, but inevitable.
Without a thought Rachael snatched up one end of the rope, heavy and rough against her palm, and in one smooth arc she dove straight over the edge of the deck.
She straightened her body out, pointing her toes like a diver, trying to gain as much speed as possible. The wind whipped her hair into her eyes and tore at her clothes, the sound of it roaring in her ears. Below her, Arsha’s expression was caught between terror and wild hope. Rachael plunged towards her, the heavy rope trailing out behind her in the freezing air.
With her free hand she reached out, the darkly gleaming metal fingers of the gauntlet outstretched as she slowly closed the distance. The drop below them was long, long enough that they could scarcely even see the ground, but the distance was growing shorter all the time, and Rachael wasn’t sure how much rope she had left. Arsha reached out her hand and their fingertips brushed, but could not quite catch. She reached out again, the distance closed a little more, and she got her hand around Arsha’s wrist, iron fingertips digging into the girl’s skin. Arsha grabbed her arm with both hands, squeezing tight. Even through the metal plating, Rachael could feel how tightly the girl was holding on. Barely a second later the rope ran out.
For a moment it seemed as if she felt nothing at all. There was sickening pop and then sudden, searing agony. Her hand had become a distant thing, something that didn’t belong to her anyore. The rope flew out of her grasp as her arm flopped uselessly, dislocated at the shoulder. For a moment all she could do was scream.
Eventually the pain subsided enough for her head to clear, and she realised what had just happened. She was falling to a certain death, and she had no way out. The sudden surge of adrenaline cleared her head a little, and in her terror she couldn’t even think of the pain. She looked at Arsha, who looked back at her with tears streaking her eyes.
“You shouldn’t have come after me,” Arsha yelled at her, over the wind. For a moment Rachael was stunned
“How can you even say that?” she yelled back. Arsha bit her lip, but didn’t reply. Then Rachael realised that what she saw in the girl’s eyes wasn’t just sadness, but gratitude.
Tears were welling up in her own eyes. She didn’t even dare to look down. She didn’t want to know how long they had left. For a moment, she felt a wild hope that they might just stay like this, forever. As she stared into her sister’s eyes, she felt her breath catch in her throat.
“Arsha,” she gasped. “Your face…”
Creeping up from Arsha’s neck, like frost on a windowpane, was a fine pattern of rust, as if the skin itself was corroding. She looked down at Arsha’s arm and saw the rust growing across her body, seeming to spread from where Arsha’s hand touched the rusted metal plating around Rachael’s fingers. Where their palms met she felt a burning heat, and whisps of dark smoke seeped from between their clasped hands. With her free hand Arsha touched her face and flakes of rust fell away, the skin a raw pink underneath, as if she had picked away a scab.
“The seed,” Rachael said, her voice hoarse, barely audible over the wind.
Arsha’s mouth opened in a gasp of pain, but no sound came out. The back of her shirt exploded.
Rachael watched as twin shapes tore free, like they were being carved out of the air. Leaves of iron, paper thin and nearly eaten through by rust, piled onto one another, layer upon layer, forming a long, sweeping pair of wings. As they thickened, taking on substance, they caught the wind and Arsha’s body jerked upwards with the sudden deceleration. Their hands slipped apart and the force of their separation sent Rachael spinning. Desperately she looked about, trying to control her fall, but Arsha had disappeared from her view. As she tumbled through the air, trying to catch sight of the girl, her eyes fixed on the ground rushing up towards her. She had barely seconds before she hit. All other thoughts left her mind, and she closed her eyes. For a moment, she wondered what it would feel like. For a moment, she thought she saw her mother’s face.
She felt something crash into her chest, knocking the wind out of her. It was a few seconds later that she opened her eyes again and saw the ground growing steadily more distant. She turned her face to one side, and looked directly into Arsha’s eyes.
She felt Arsha’s grip around her waist slipping, and flung her good arm around the girl’s neck, holding on for dear life. Wings of rusted metal, whispering like dead leaves, seemed to rip the air apart with every stroke, strong and fast. They gained speed, climbing higher, as Rachael looked around and let out an exultant shout of joy.
“Oh God, I love you so much,” she screamed, laughing in delight. Looking back over Arsha’s shoulder she saw the spire continuing its slow collapse, fragments of rusted metal and glass showering down in a thickening rain, shattering on the ground as it cracked and shifted, chunks of pavement upending, deep rifts forming around the base of the building as it toppled. The top of the tower crumpled and then exploded outwards in a spray of twisted metal, as a dark shape broke free. Wings spread wide enough to black out the sun, Justin wheeled in the sky far above them. Rachael’s breath caught in her throat as she watched him circling. She felt Arsha’s hands clutching her tighter, as the girl saw the shadow pass over them both. Then he was climbing higher and farther, his vast form growing small as he soared into the distance. Solemnly, Rachael watched him leave.
The Zephyr was descending in a sharp dive, levelling out as it passed below them. Looking down, Rachael could see all three figures on the deck staring up at them. Wings beating hard to slow them down, Arsha descended, visibly straining at the effort of holding them both aloft. At first she seemed to be coming in smoothly, until it became clear that she had no idea how to actually stop. They hit the deck and rolled, tumbling together across the wooden floor. Rachael’s arm smashed into the ground as they tumbled and the pain in her shoulder exploded, drowning out everything else.
“Rachael? Rachael, can you hear me?”
She supposed she must have blacked out for a moment. Ilona was staring down at her, half her face covered by bandages that were already showing dark stains. She could see blood matted in the woman’s hair.
“Yeah… Yeah, I’m here,” she mumbled. Ilona sighed in relief, and for a moment she swore that a smile crossed the woman’s face. Two fingers were pressed against Rachael’s throat, feeling her pulse. As Ilona counted silently, Rachael looked across the deck to where Arsha stood with her father, their bodies pressed close together. Her face was buried against his chest and tears were streaming down his cheeks. Her long wings trailed across the deck behind her, fluttering gently in the breeze. The back of Arsha’s shirt had been shredded, the tattered remains soaked with blood. Where the wings protruded from the girl’s back she could see the ragged edges of the torn flesh. It looked very painful.
As their long embrace ended, Arsha looked up and saw her watching. Then the girl was running towards her, stumbling as her wings dragged on the floor so that she half knelt, half fell at Rachael’s side, hands framing her face. Tears streaked through the patches of red rust that covered Arsha’s face, cracking around her smile.
Smiling, Rachael went to reach out towards Arsha with her one working hand, only to pause as she caught sight of angular metal plating that encased it. The gauntlet almost seemed like a part of her now. She could barely even feel it. She hesitated, hand half-raised towards her sister’s cheek. Then Arsha raised her own hand to clasp Rachael’s, palm to palm. Arsha squeezed her hand, the gesture barely felt through the metal.
The clouds enveloped them, a wall of grey suddenly closing around the tiny vessel like a fist, before tearing open again as a brilliant blue sky was revealed above them.
The moment the Zephyr was above the clouds and on an even keel, Micah left the tiller and ran the length of the deck in three long bounds. Arsha turned to meet him, shrieking as she was lifted off her feet and swung round in a crushing embrace. For a moment her wings flared out over them both like a canopy, bare metal gleaming in the sunlight. Micah set Arsha down again and took a step back, an expression of pure astonishment on his face. With one hand, he stroked at a wingtip. Soft metal leaves rustled, and Arsha giggled in surprise.
“That tickles,” she exclaimed.
“Really?” Micah’s eyes widened. He tried it again, smiling as Arsha giggled.
“That’s amazing,” he said.
Experimentally, Arsha spread her wings out and then pulled them in close. Even tucked in tight to her body, her wings still arched high over her head, the tips brushing the ground.
Looking around, Rachael could see that everyone was now staring at Arsha. Ilona’s expression was equal parts surprise and concern, but on Rishi’s face Rachael saw something else entirely… Something like fear.
“Alright, let me take a look at that shoulder,” Ilona said, suddenly breaking the silence as she turned towards Rachael. The woman quickly unbuttoned the top of Rachael’s blouse and pulled back the collar to examine the swelling, prodding at the bruise flesh with the tips of two fingers. A fire burned where she touched, as Rachael gritted her teeth, unable to keep from letting out a slight whimper.
“It’s dislocated. I’m going to give you something for the pain. We’ll set the joint back into place as soon as we’re landed,” Ilona said, calmly.
As Ilona disappeared into the hold and Micah returned to the helm, Arsha and her father slipped away to the other side of the deck. Rachael watched their hushed conversation with a vague curiosity. Arsha’s smile seemed to have faded, leaving a coldness in her expression. Something seemed to have emerged from within the girl, as the exuberance of their escape faded. For a moment the professor turned to look in Rachael’s direction, and beneath his apologetic eyes she saw that same coldness, anger lurking there like a movement in the darkness. Her fault, perhaps, that his daughter had risked so much to save her. The thought twisted like a knife in her stomach.
Then Ilona emerged from below, returning to Rachael’s side with a small black leather bag which opened to reveal gleaming rows of medical implements. Sifting through the contents, Ilona produced a glass bottle and a brass handled syringe.
“For the pain,” she said.
“No I’m… I’m OK. I don’t need nothin,” Rachael said, shaking her head quickly.
Ilona’s eyes narrowed for a moment, and then she continued to fill the syringe, tapping the side to check for air.
“I said I’m fine,” Rachael snapped, jerking away from the needle. The movement twisted her arm, and blinding pain seized her. It seemed to crash over her body in a wave that left her trembling and breathless. As her vision cleared, she saw Arsha kneeling at her side. Without a word, Arsha reached out for Rachael’s gauntlet covered hand. As Arsha wrapped her hands around the cold metal, Rachael met her eyes. The girl looked at her steadily, concerned, but without pity. Rachael saw only a calm assurance. Ilona was looking at them both with an expression that was equal parts curious and frustrated. Rachael could feel Micah and Rishi watching them as well, but Arsha ignored them all.
“I was there, remember?” Arsha said. Swallowing the lump in her throat, Rachael managed a faint nod. She winced as the needle pierced her arm, but her eyes stayed locked on her sister’s. As the needle slid free, she felt Arsha squeeze her hand, clasping it tight. She gave an answering squeeze as she let her head fall back against the railing. A heavy sigh passed her lips as she stared up at the clear blue sky.
Copyright © 2015 by Peter Brunton. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.