|The Bird of Time
Author: The Blue Footed Booby PM
Kino thought back to the stories Master had given her to read - in one, a person had panicked and frozen to death. Another protagonist had died by infection. More by thirst, quicksand, bog, crocodile, abandonment or betrayal. Now, Kino knew, she was in one of those stories, and despite all her efforts and preparation, fate had found her weakness!Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Adventure/Sci-Fi - Kino & Hermes - Words: 8,809 - Reviews: 2 - Favs: 1 - Published: 09-10-12 - Status: Complete - id: 8515335
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Redirect subsection: zero-five.
Transferring command protocol.
Begin chatlog: Com_Ashita
Interface: Yeirumis(command submodule)
Error: "Yeirumis" undefined.
"Urgent address to Yeirumis: Ashita condition frightened superlative!"
"Reassurance. Sentry ships pursued however, their fire never reaches us due to relativistic effect."
"Sentry ships irrelevant!"Ashita wailed in the frequencies that denoted a late prepubescent. "Yeirumis and Ashita fall!"
"Inevitable we will die!"
"Contradiction." Yeirumis's presence, childlike too, always managed to say encouraging things. "Death not absolute until Ashita guides us into additional X-ray pulse. Then death certain."
"Apology already offered."
"Reminder of injury. Ashita has learned enough of work of mother-of-Ashita to correctly plot escape from event horizon?"
"Ashita not able to perform chronofracture."
"Conclusion: time superlative to learn. Concur? Yeirumis possess skil-softs and ready."
Yeirumis monitored Ashita as the little one attached the contact to the pore at the top of his skull. The wetware organ he'd been born with, nestled snugly in the interhemispheric fissure of his brain, was immature, but it was state-of-the-art. Yeirumis felt confident that even a mere ten-thousand calculations per second would suffice.
"Ashita: aware, difficulty and emotional trauma. Parents, hope memories never perish, trusted Yeirumis to protect Ashita however, Yeirumis cannot perform function alone."
"Ashita possesses traits brave and admirable. Function completed."
"Ashita requires additional time to process. Data limits near-exceeded."
"Need anticipated. Recall, Yeirumis construction for overpressure optimized." Yeirumis sounded proud. "While Ashita process and recover, Yeirumis able to tolerate gravity shear. Additional: more we fall, slower we fall."
"Quantity time remains?"
"Exact computation advised against superlative due to Heisenberg variables! If time-quantity computed then time-quantity must equal less-than-zero, else time sufficient. Advise Ashita to rest."
Ashita disconnected and floated silently for a while, and Yerumis thought he'd fallen asleep before he remembered what century they were in. Ashita had never slept and, barring serious cranial injury, never would.
"Yeirumis: story requested."
"To pass required time-to-process with pleasure?"
"Agreement. Yeirumis navigate internal library... found! Relevant account. Aware prior operand confronted similar challenge?"
"Data reconstruction from her account, however fidelity within veracity-parameters. Seeking optimal commencement..."
The Bird of Time
"All done!" Kino crowed, a pay-chit in hand. "Quick trip to a bank and we're all set."
"I take back everything I ever said about me doing all the work," Hermes answered, even as Kino vaulted aboard, kicked his starter and set his engine running in one smooth move. Hermes' roar echoed inside the underground parking garage.
"How was the job?"
"Fue muy interesante. Traduciando. El professor desea—"
"Whoa whoa, Kino! That's one I don't know."
"Eep! Lo siento." Kino shook her head. "Having trouble switching gears. Uhm... right. It was really interesting, for a change. I told you I was translating? The old professor had me working on some obscure archaeological books."
They burst out into the sunlight, and purred onto the road. Her work done, Kino was in high spirits, leaning heavily into the curves. And Hermes was not complaining.
"Ancient languages? I didn't know—"
"Ho, now don't give me that much credit! I don't do dead languages. I was translating modern theses and research papers. Y'know, stuff that's only of interest to a small group, like academics, so it doesn't get widely distributed. It was tricky, though. Lots of jargon I hadda learn on the fly."
"That does sound interesting! I'm glad you finally found a temporary job that wasn't torture."
Kino's belly roiled in revulsion. "The very smell of a Kudzuburger sends me into post-traumatic flashbacks."
They reached the bank. Kino took a few minutes to cash her paycheck, and then turned them right back around the way they had come.
"Yeirumis of appearance unexpected and risible!"
"Ashita demonstrates insufficient concern for vanity of Yeirumis."
"Past Yeirumis primitive and awkward superlative! Power converter performs with low efficiency."
"Confirm, approximately five percent. All else thermal waste. Now would function unacceptable superlative! Ashita wish see greater primitive?"
Yeirumis called up an even older image. Even as Ashita processed and appreciated the representation, he enjoyed another hearty laugh. "Yeirumis was extant as cylinder with wheels, towed by herbivores?"
"More than as-described required. Ashita advise: craftsmanship of pictured vehicles exceptional within temporal context."
"Self control lost!"
When he'd finished giggling, Ashita returned to the frozen image of the motorcycle and its rider. "Historical humanity appears unfinished always. Nomenclature equaled 'Hermes?'"
"Reproduction acceptable fidelity and unexpected. After GenPatch three-point-five, larynx uncomfortable to produce those sounds. Yeirumis adapted. After six, communication blowhole-interface obsolescent complete. Yeirumis yearns for past methods despite inefficiencies. Poetry no longer extant."
"Idea and image communication via exhalations optimized for harmony and rhythm."
"Inefficient probable. Example provide?"
"'Come, fill the cup, and in the fire of spring, your winter garment of repentance fling. The bird of time has but a little way to fly - and lo! the bird is on the wing.' From The Quatrains of Omar the Tentmaker, where 'quatrains' defined as four lines of alternating syllabic harmony."
"Yeirumis odd superlative."
But even as he derided "poetry," Ashita felt, at hearing this ancient musical chanting, as if some strange, new thing had entered his life. Had his own communication protocol, so precise and logical, lost something valuable in its abstraction?
"Yeirumis informed so frequently," Yeirumis answered wearily. "Proceed?"
"I've traveled so much in space," Kino continued as if the interruption had never happened, "it never occurred to me to travel in time. Researching old cultures is the next best thing to having a time-machine."
"Hey, I'd look snazzy with a flux capacitor!"
"Never mind, before your time." They'd reached the familiar grounds of the university. "So, where're we headed now?" Hermes asked, unwilling to admit his mild confusion.
"Right back to the parking lot with you," she answered.
"I've been there all month!" Hermes protested. Because the work had been so agreeable, and because they needed the money after the thuggish police of a particularly rotten place had robbed Kino blind, they had waived their usual three-day rule.
"I thought you were off taking care of 'other things' when I'm not around."
"I am. But I miss you, and traveling with you."
Kino allowed a warm smile to break through her usual impassive mein, like a crimson snow-flower blossoming from the frosty tundra. "Aww, that's sweet. For that, you get to pick a museum."
Hermes made... odd choices in museums, and Kino usually ended up hopelessly bored by things that utterly fascinated him.
They reached the now-too-familiar concrete box of a parking lot. Kino killed the engine, dismounted, pulled luggage from Hermes' back, and sat down on the concrete to rummage about in her packs.
"I miss you, too. Very much. But doctor Choi offered me a chance I just couldn't turn down, something I found in one of those books I was working on."
Kino paused in her unpacking, and turned suddenly dreamy eyes up to Hermes. "There's this island, and the people built this gorgeous temple-like... thing... cut it right out of a patch of volcanic rock. The photos he showed me were amazing! I wanna see it with my own eyes."
"Traipsing around some old ruin isn't like you, Kino. What's the attraction?"
"He's going back there to survey the site for underground vaults. It's possible they stored old records and texts down there. That's the sort of find that could make his career."
"So you're gonna be doing a lot of digging?"
"Ugh! No, thank you. I'm not that interested in archaeology." Kino stuck out her tongue in distaste. "I'm just a traveling companion, and y'know... security?" Here she withdrew her gun belt from under Hermes' saddle to emphasize her point. She had been very wary of going without it after recent harsh experiences. But the quiet, cultured confines of academia had calmed her, and after the first day she'd stashed away all but her smallest, most easily concealable weapons.
"Speaking of which, how do you know you can trust him?"
"Hermes!" She gently scolded him. "Professor Choi's a nice old man with a good reputation."
"Does he have a family?"
"Uh huh, grandkids too."
"Well, I guess that's alright then."
"I'm so glad you approve."
"Hey! Now don't be so smug, Kino, after that mess you got into with Gia."
Kino tapped her fingers in irritation. The annoying part about him presuming to poke his nose into her personal matters was... he was dead-on right. "Yes Hermes," she answered, indignant but also suitably chastened.
She set back to re-organizing her things in sulky silence. She needed to extract the absolute necessities for a three-day trip away from Hermes. Fortunately, she knew exactly which pocket or compartment her every possession nested in. Kino was, of necessity, compulsively organized about her meager belongings, and one needed a surprising, even bewildering number of small things to travel comfortably. Micro-managing these details made her feel in control in her otherwise unpredictable and marginal life. Control was, she knew, even in the stablest life only an illusion, but such a comforting one.
Pouting was beneath her, and she did not want to part with Hermes on a sour note. She concluded her compulsively fussy packing, stood and said, "thank you for being so patient. I promise we'll be on the road again soon."
"Hang on a moment, you." Hermes said. "Siddown."
"Huh?" Kino turned startled eyes to her friend. Hermes never bossed her around like that. Well... except when it was life and death. She reluctantly sat, mystified.
"Lemme guess: this doctor Choi showed you pictures of his family."
"So... the only times you ever willingly stop traveling is when you bond with somebody who has - a family."
"What? Hermes, that has nothing to—"
"The 'People?'" Here he used the throat-rasping term that tribe had used to refer to themselves.
Kino crossed her arms. "Begged us to help 'em out, remember? And you were the one who nagged me to turn back."
She shrugged. "We had a lot in common."
"Could seduce a eunuch."
"Did you see those fresh tattoos on her?"
"And so much more."
"They're the marks of a crime family."
That tidbit wiped Kino's ribald smirk away. "Dangerous?"
"Eeh, not a big surprise, Hermes. Did I tell you about the switchblade?"
"Getting back to my point, she has a home now."
Kino's eyebrows drew together. "So soon...?"
"...while you've been looking around all this time."
Kino winced. Then, "wait... no I haven't!"
"Other people can't read you," Hermes chided, "but don't try to fool me. You're so jealous you're turning fluorescent. Look, you go and have a good time. But be aware of what you're doing, alright?"
"I'll think about it." With a sigh, Kino shrugged under her small, infreqently-used backpack and walked away, eager to start whatever adventure awaited her. "Hasta luego," she called back.
"Sichere reise," Hermes answered, knowing she understood not a word of it.
He surprised himself when he noticed how lonesome the echoing parking lot now felt, and how reluctantly he let his attentions drift away from the inert Brough Superior to his other concerns.
...Have a good time...
But be aware of what you're doing.
"Oh, got a story for you!" Kino looked out the window at the layer of clouds beneath them. "I once went through a rural area. Very isolated! There was a young engineer named Nimya. She actually built herself an airplane out of canvas and an old car motor!"
"You didn't go flying in it?" Professor Choi rasped, his bushy white eyebrows trying to hide under his salt-and-pepper scalp. Their ascent complete, he gently pushed the control yoke forward and leveled off.
"Not on your life!" Kino grinned. "She did, though. Pretty well, too! After all that work, I didn't have the heart to tell her she wasn't the first-ever human to build an airplane."
"Still remarkable, building that yourself. It's strange, how we've all spread out so far, nothing linking us together anymore, some places keeping the old technologies alive, some not. Such an odd world. Oh! We should be clear of the turbulence. You can unfasten your restraints."
"I'm fine. Truth be told, I'm not much for flying. I like watching the earth running along beside me. Feel like I've actually been to a place that way."
"Hmph! When I saw your hat I took you for an aviatrix."
"Nope! Just a motorcyclist. Be nice to learn though, someday." The clouds vanished beneath them, revealing a spectacular sunset over the glittering ocean. Kino's eyes narrowed, trying to drink in the glorious sight despite the glare. "Mmmmm..." she cooed.
"Pretty, huh? We'll be chasing that sunset the whole way. That's why I was rushing us. I don't care to try landing on an uninhabited scrap of an island after dark."
Kino grunted her acknowledgement.
"You, being a 'professional traveler,' as you put it, could write a very interesting memoir, interesting from an anthropological point of view. From what you've said, people have evolved quite divergent cultures, as well."
"It's alright, you can say it – vagabond. I'm comfortable with it. Been called a lot worse."
"I meant no disrespect, young lady. In fact, I think perhaps the rightful duty of a person is to leave behind an interesting memoir. A duty I've sadly neglected. I've done my traveling in books, and lecture halls. Written some few of my own, which... duly gather dust on library shelves, and raised a family by it all. I rather envy you."
"Heh! Life's filled with ironies," Kino said, thinking of Hermes' little lecture. She unbuckled her leather jacket and snuggled herself deeper into the little plane's comfy upholstery, entirely content to watch the ocean pass by beneath her. Professor Choi was good enough company that she found herself enjoying the change. The rumble of the engine hummed in her gut and bones, soothing her. This wasn't so different from traveling with Hermes - if he grew wings.
"A youngster like you, you probably think the world's always been like this, and always will. Did you know, at one time long ago, every little town and village and almost every person in the world, was plugged into a vast communication network? You could talk to somebody on the other side of the planet, instantly!"
"Really!" Kino had seen some technically advanced cities in her lifetime, but the thought of such a planet-wide network boggled her. "What happened? Some disaster?"
"No more than the usual. I suppose our forebears simply... ran out of things to say to each other."
"It's hard to see, but things do change, even over one lifetime. Resources dwindle, people adapt, and soon forget how bygone generations did things. My studies afford me an unusual perspective. Even the 'human condition' changes. Yesterday's miracles are today's discarded toys, while the past's trash becomes my treasure. And I'm peckish, care for a snack?"
"Uhm!" Kino nodded and smiled.
"Help yourself," doctor Choi gestured to the storage behind them. "And I'll take one of the ham sandwiches, if you please. I packed enough supplies for a week, just to be safe, so have all you want. I brought some fishing poles, too. The fishing's very good, if we can find the time."
"Anything dangerous to watch out for on 'Nothing Atoll'?" It was the nickname Choi had given their destination, in keeping with his genial sense of humor.
"Usual jellies and other dangers along the coast. Swim at your own risk. Reptiles and insects inland. Being so isolated and small, there's nothing larger than a lizard there, but don't go trying to catch them, or the toxins'll melt your hands off. Won't have much time to go wandering. The Temple's what we want."
...the rightful duty of a person is to leave behind an interesting memoir.
The temple was, indeed, what she wanted. Asked by the professor to unload all the supplies, some of which she thought she recognized as surveying or photographic equipment, and other things she couldn't even guess at, she was on her fourth trip from their little puddle-jumper to the site. And every time she looked at it, she smiled in wonder and delight. She had been braced for disappointment, only to find the books and simple drawings had failed to capture its grandeur.
Most of the more massive human constructs followed the same rough pattern, a central pyramid, high tower or dome, surrounded squarely by four smaller spires. Often repeated in layers. She'd seen the pattern over and over, as if the basic design nestled somewhere deep inside the human mind. But this temple, if that's what it had been, was a kind of miracle collaboration.
Five black volcanic pillars had erupted upward from the earth sometime before man even existed. The salty wind had cut the rock into hoodoos. The natives, seeing what no doubt appeared even then a divinely ordained order to the site, set about finishing what nature had all but completed.
The rough stone surfaces were carefully chiseled smooth by master sculptors, tiny quartz crystals trapped within flashed like stars. Then they hollowed the structure out, and covered portions of it with a lair of polished limestone, gleaming white over glistening black.
There was nothing of a fortress about the place. She knew military construction, and once touched by war, a people compulsively built embrasures and merlons everywhere.
Wisely, the builders had also escaped the temptation to inlay precious stones or metals, sensing that the moment their day passed, grave robbers and plunderers would pilfer such glories from them. Kino had seen that often enough. Despite obviously having been abandoned, and looking a little neglected and rough 'round the edges, the temple retained its modest, stately beauty. Whoever had built it, built to last.
She didn't need for professor Choi to explain his fascination with them. Their final monument mutely spoke volumes about the island's erased inhabitants. They must have been precise, meticulous, yet reverent, thoughtful and cultured. No "ye mighty, and despair" here. Rather than shriek its builders' vanished glories and vanities, the massive, looming presence said in resonant, measured tones, "here was a people worth knowing."
She entered and followed the central corridor to the professor. She should have felt dread, descending into such dark corridors. But this was no tomb, it was a place for people to actually spend time in. Bleached and dusted though it was, Kino didn't mind abandoning the sun for its cool, intimate twilight interiors.
The professor was examining wall-writings, images and unfamiliar characters that wound sinuously in a zig-zag as she passed by. Each bend, she had read, counted two seasons, the sun rising to midsummer and sinking to Yule. Here was another time machine, and she sped through decades as she walked, scanning the bas-relief images of people who lived and laughed and died oh... how many centuries ago? She wondered idly, would some image of her survive such a gulf of years for tomorrow's grandchildren to contemplate? The wall's winding ribbon of time made her feel dizzy.
The chronicle ended abruptly where the professor stood, shaking his head sadly.
"The mountain exploded into the sky," he read aloud, "and black smoke covered all the world. But those who took shelter here in the home of Ki-lee-lei were spared, for She would not allow even the thunderous lord of the underworld to destroy this, our offering to Her."
Kino nodded. After her own personal experiences with "miracles," she wasn't about to scoff at the chronicler's account. Hermes might even know this Ki-lee-lei. She'd hafta ask.
"All else vanished into the mist and the water, until only Her home remained." The professor's finger traced the final turn of the years. "Starving, the survivors took to their boats to find other lands. We final caretakers remained to care for the home of Ki-lee-lei, until our water ran dry. Here we bury our last dead, and depart forever with tears, yet ever mindful to sing our gratitude to She-who-saved-us."
"Sad story," Kino offered. She remembered again little Sakura, and her whole lovely green village, erased forever by a similar horrendous eruption.
"Good-byes are always sad," Choi answered.
She sat in a slight depression in the warm ground, a parasol stretched over her, next to twin fishing poles. To her left she could see the ocean, and to her right the home of Ki-lee-lei, blocking her view of their little plane. She'd brought a last few books to translate and pass the time. The professor would pay her for them. Heh! Getting paid to sit on the beach, fishing. Sometimes life is so generous!
A sea bird landed and cawed at her, a particularly daft-looking creature waddling about on electric-blue feet. She recalled a friend named Rakka talking about crows, how she felt they somehow watched over and guided her. It'd be my luck to have a clown like this guiding me. "Shoo!" she waved an arm lazily, until it flew off, though whether the clumsy creature was frightened or merely miffed, she couldn't say.
Strange. She tried to remember Rakka's face. She remembered big chestnut eyes and bushy hair, but the face came up blank. Kana she remembered clearly, for she'd truly bonded with her. Kino's memory was like that. She could remember Sakura's face, but not the girl's parents', and Nimya, but not her fiancé.
At length, Kino managed to land a lovely tuna, big enough to feed the professor and herself. Pleased, she reeled in the other line. No need to catch any more for a day or so. She noticed the stippled trail of a man-o-war's tentacle on the fish's shiny hide and crossed swimming out of her plans. Instead, she decided to take a break and show off their dinner to the professor. Though the balmy weather and the lullaby of breakers made her feel like she was on holiday, she'd resolved to be as useful an assistant as she could.
Again, she entered the temple's half-light and circled about the chronicle-wall. Doctor Choi was haunting a far chamber which, he hoped, concealed beneath it a vault. They both doubted any material treasure lay within. It was more in character that it contained an archive of scrolls, tablets, or books, or whatever the temple's builders used to record things on. Such was the treasure of the children of Ki-lee-lei.
She saw his feet first, and knew something was wrong. She rushed around and, with a grimace, knelt by the old professor's side. He was ashen , his eyes staring, a rather stupid expression on his limp face. Choi was still warm, but she could not hear any breathing.
She put her ear to his chest but could not hear a heartbeat. Not right, she thought to herself. Too young, now he'll never enjoy his retirement with his cute grandkids!
She knew what to do, of course. She started with gentle arm-thrusts on his sternum. She cupped her hand into a tube and blew air into his chest. Nothing. She progressed to really banging on him. A moment's hope flared when his diaphragm convulsed and he sucked in air. Once, twice... no third. Like a fire sputtering. Then Kino set back to work again. He sounded like that fish I just caught.
She knew the odds. If anything in his heart had ruptured, then all her work was just pushing blood into his thorax. But she had to try. She liked the old man.
And when she paused, adrenaline starting to wear off, she checked the time and saw that twenty minutes had passed since she'd left her pleasant pit overlooking the beach. She'd done right by the old fellow, and it was time to give up.
She was comforted by the fact that she'd known exactly what to do, and had done it well. Professor Choi hadn't died due to her negligence; she'd given him what chance any human could give. She pushed his lids down over his eyes and arranged his limbs in a more dignified manner for him.
Kino walked on shaky legs back to the temple entrance and sat down. She'd seen death before, most recently the fish she'd taken from its briny home. She'd heard death rattles. It still upset her though, and that was fine. Proves your still human, huh? She remembered Hermes' advice. "Don't pretend everything is okay when it's not."
So she let herself sag and blather. "I liked him," she heard herself moan. "It's not fair. He wasn't even that old. And damn, my arms hurt now!"
It was awful, such a miserable end to what had been a gentle idyll. Some faiths, she recalled, said that those who witnessed death were somehow left spiritually unclean, and had to be purged. They may have a point. I certainly don't feel right.
With a final sigh, she let him go, and her ever-pragmatic mind turned to practical matters. The professor had naturally brought rudimentary digging tools, and despite all her protestations it looked like she'd be doing some excavating after all. The sand covered volcanic rock, and she would hardly be able to dig through that, but there were plenty of loose stones to build a simple cairn.
With a nice view of the temple. He'd have liked that. Well, looks like I'll get to meet his family, after all. Get to tell them about how he died. Yeah, that'll be fun.
Carrying his corpse was going to be particularly unpleasant, but somehow she couldn't bear turning the elegant home of Kee-lee-lei into a tomb. Best get it over with. So she got up and started walking to fetch the pick and shovel from the plane—
"Plane!" she shouted aloud into the island's silent solitude. "I can't fly the plane!"
She stood frozen, as if struck by lightning, her head busily trying to process, internally gathering, sorting and rejecting alternatives.
"Radio," she said, "right now. No, wait!" Kino was about to sprint, then stopped. There are at least twenty ways this island could kill you if you panic. Walk to the plane. So she walked.
You're well trained, remember? You can recite field manual twenty-one-dash-seventy-six like it was your personal scripture. That was a military manual on outdoor survival. Master had considered it the very most important thing for little Kino to study, even more so than firearms, and had held back on teaching her how to shoot until she could recite the book from memory.
As she walked, cool and deliberate, toward the plane, her eyes alert for holes that might break her ankle, toxic plants, or those lizards she'd been warned about, or any of the hundred other hazards the wilderness might throw at her, she thought back to the stories Master had given her to read. In one story, a person had panicked and frozen to death because he'd underestimated the arctic cold. Another protagonist had died by infection, more by thirst, quicksand, bog, crocodile, abandonment or betrayal. One particularly dreadful story featured a man marooned like she was - hunger had driven him insane and he'd eaten parts of himself. It was only a fiction, though.
The most important thing you must hang on to, Master had taught her, is your life. Impressed, little Kino, not yet thirteen, had applied herself with all the diligence she could muster.
Now you're in one of those stories, Kino. You are thoroughly competent, yet despite all your efforts and all your preparation, fate's found your weakness at last: you have no idea how to fly a plane.
She spent an hour in the cockpit with the radio, twisting the frequency knob one click at a time and calling out, mimicking the late professor, "Mayday, Mayday. This is flight SJ-410 out of Ventnor. Does anyone read? This is flight SJ-410, please respond."
Nothing but static answered her. She knew the island was remote, indeed she knew its coördinates by heart now. She'd need to fly a whole day to the east to get back where she started. Sadly, "Nothing Atoll" was too small to turn up on any but the most detailed of maps.
When she'd covered the entire circumference of the radio's dial to no avail, she shut it off.
She was a professional traveler, trained in mental disciplines that allowed her to keep her head under fire. So she impassively exited the aircraft, closed the door, walked a few paces, and very calmly and professionally threw a conniption.
She cursed, she screamed, she stomped her feet uselessly.
Okay, good. That's out of my system. Hungry now. High time to bury doctor Choi. Then I'll get to enjoy that tuna, at least.
So she returned to the corpse and searched his pockets. The family would want his things. She found no medicines, so he hadn't been taking foolish risks. We just both got lucky. She photographed the remains where they lay. There would be questions to answer when she returned, but she had no motive to kill the old man. Hopefully with this evidence, any investigation would be perfunctory and brief.
Dragging him out without assistance was as unpleasant, and undignified, as she'd imagined. The emotional disassociation that Hermes had said was so unhealthy for her was in full force. On occasions like this, she was profoundly grateful for it.
She wrote a little note identifying professor Choi and explaining how he died, signed it, and put it in the pocket of his jacket in case anyone dug him up.
Then she made use of the axe and pick, found rock not far down, pulled him in, and gathered stones to pile atop the now clammy corpse. Work finished, she held her hat in respect. "Good-byes are always sad," she quoted.
She cleaned herself and her clothes off with salt water. Unpleasant, but it would do. Tired and well fed by fresh tuna smeared with wasabi and shooyu, Kino spent the night in the plane's cockpit under a blanket. She woke up feeling refreshed and healthy, but still the fear gnawed at her. How am I getting home?
"Home." Odd word for you to use, girl. Where's home to you?
She answered herself in a word. Hermes! But even had that comforting, childlike, whispery voice come with her, she had nowhere to travel. The tiny land of Ki-lee-lei had become her prison. And for her, a prison was worse than death.
Her training had allowed her to sort priorities by now. Food wasn't a problem. Even when her supplies ran out completely, she had an unending supply of fish, and a bottle of vitamin pills. She could survive on that alone for months before deficiencies set in. If only she could manage to harvest some of that tantalizingly close seaweed... big if. How would she protect herself from those dratted jellyfish?
The problem was water. The maps had shown, and her peregrinations had confirmed, that the former inhabitants' river had vanished, and there was no source of fresh water. If she was lucky rain might fall, but she had very little in the way of equipment to catch and store it.
Knowing the island had no water, the professor had brought along several liters. One stroke of luck... well, not luck, her usual crazy-prepared paranoia: she'd brought her filter.
The filter was designed for mountain-climbers. Expensive, lightweight and very thorough, you could literally urinate into it, twist it several times and squeeze out potable water. Not that she'd tried! She knew mountain climbing in theory and it was on her list of things to practice, but it hadn't come up. She wanted to see people, not scenery. She used the filter whenever she took water from a stream. Reading about the infamous Guinea Worm alone (ghaaa!) had made her vow never to take unnecessary risks.
Naturally, it could also desalinate ocean water. But for how long?
Two weeks, she estimated. She was, without a doubt, living under a deadline.
The professor must have left word about where he was going, right? Surely the university would investigate his disappearance? His family would ask after him. They'd send a plane.
There was also Hermes. Hermes was unfathomably clever, and had demonstrated an ability to subtly manipulate things behind-the-scenes. However, he apparently chose not to do so, not unless other supernatural forces were involved. "I don't do tricks, don't ask."
She'd been taught never to helplessly wait about to be rescued. Take the initiative! She remembered a bit of history about people caught in a terrible fire in a building. Those who quickly found a way down survived. Those who dawdled, or climbed to the roof to await rescue, perished.
But what were her options? She'd already walked the entire circumference of the atoll. She tried the radio again. No use.
Around noon, she rummaged about in the cockpit for the insane thing, the unbelievable thing, the I-can't-believe-I'm-even-thinking-about-this! thing.
She found the flight manual.
There were three of them. Kino began by reading them cover to cover, then she identified sections she needed to commit to memory. Learning several languages had taught her how to study and memorize. But halfway through the last book, she knew she was in trouble.
These were reference works. They told her how to read gauges and operate controls. None of them provided the rules and principles she'd need to actually fly. They presumed, logically enough, the reader had attended a flight school. Kino felt apprehension pouring over her like molten lead. This time she was really in trouble. Without a copy of Piloting an Aircraft for Dummies, flying home just wasn't a realistic option.
But what other choice did she have?
So she sat in the cockpit, now her schoolroom, with the windows open. She committed the names of instruments, their location and function (as best she could deduce) to memory. She created drills for herself, pausing only for some quick calisthenics whenever she felt sleepy. She adjusted the seat, yoke and pedals to her shorter stature. All the while, she brought all her coping tools into play to fight off her dread.
So of course, it fed on her, and grew. She tried sweeping it under the rug, and ended up playing a psychological version of whack-a-mole. It was too much to bear. So she put down her notes and said to herself, okay, make up your mind! You wanna die crashing this thing into the ocean, or do you wanna die of dehydration?
Such wonderful choices! But if I'm gonna die, I wanna die trying, not cringing and feeling sorry for myself.
Good. Then that's enough out of you.
But I'm scared!
Yup, that was the problem. She was in mortal terror of starting this thing up and driving it right off a cliff. She was not fond of heights, probably why she'd put off mountain-climbing. And the thought of crashing in this thing...
So she visualized her own death. She made it as bad as she could. Stalling a thousand meters up, horribly unprepared and unable to regain control, helplessly watching the ocean fill the windshield and – bam! Somehow she was still alive, submerged, but her limbs and ribs were broken. Even trying to move was agony, until her will gave out and she inhaled water, coughing convulsively, but unable to clear her lungs. Then the darkness mercifully took her.
Kino returned from the horrific vision to find she was crying, a little, but not as bad as when she'd lost Hermes, or after what happened to Gia.
"Still better than dying of thirst?" she asked aloud.
Yeah, still. Barely.
"Okay, then stop bothering me."
This is getting old. I was still recuperating from almost getting executed, remember? I can't even legally drink in some nations! How many times do I hafta face death already?
"At least once more," she answered herself. She laughed a little then at the witty reply, an unhinged laugh that scared her.
Okay, insanity's scary too. Let's get back to work.
Ten days. That's how long it took. She knew every lever and dial in the cockpit now.
Ten days utterly alone.
She had never spent such a long time alone. No new city with new people to visit, no Hermes to chat with. Only those goofy blue seabirds to entertain her, though admittedly, they were hilarious. The nearest human could easily be hundreds of klicks away. Kino had to process that too, dying alone, with no one to know. Hermes would eventually find out, resourceful thing that he was, and soon enough find a new rider.
Not. Gonna. Happen. She'd been using the same visualization technique, not to rehearse her death now, but to rehearse the flight out of here. And she'd just about talked herself into it.
So she started the engine. It gave her a bad scare when she saw the battery had run so low. Fortunately she'd read what to do, and the engine finally caught. Letting it run a little while would recharge the battery for tomorrow morning.
That engine! Twelve cylinders of thunderous power, even idling. It put Christine's V-8 to shame. Hermes was a toy. Kino fought away her intimidation and taxied about, confirming that she knew the controls well enough to at least manage that.
She spent fifteen minutes cruising from one end of the "runway" to the other. No longer, though. Fuel. Going fast would be rougher, and this was no paved road. She couldn't even follow the tracks she made in the grass to avoid any bad holes; the nose pointed too far up, so she couldn't really see.
Taxi-ing done, she lined up the little plane at the end of the runway, ready for the morning. She had to start at dawn. Flying east, she'd be going against the earth's rotation this time. The trip would be longer and the day shorter. Trying to land this bird would be bad enough by daylight.
Some last chores to do. She unloaded every bit of cargo, and carried it into the temple. Perhaps the next expedition would find it useful, and she wanted as light a load as possible.
She wrote a little note explaining what had happened, and what she planned to do, and left it with the pile. If she didn't make it back, it would be her final farewell, and probably give those who found it a mirthless laugh at her misfortune and desperation. She avoided the temptation to write anything maudlin. Just stick to the facts. Still... this might be the final footnote to her life. Surely she ought to say something.
A line from a poem her mother had read aloud returned to her, and so she wrote her own epitaph. "Every day is a journey, and the journey itself, home."
She said a respectful goodbye to the beautiful abandoned home of Ki-lee-lei. Doubt you're still about, but if you are, watch over me. You too, Hermes, if you can hear this. Kana, my personal guardian angel, sorry to call upon you again so soon.
Heh! My, what a pantheist I've become.
Another fish dinner. Allowing for breakfast tomorrow, she ate the last of the rice, the crackers, the fruit, and drank all but one remaining liter of her carefully rationed water. That's it, the end of my supplies. If I don't leave tomorrow, it'll be fish and increasingly salty water for me. She was committed.
She wondered if this was how the caretakers of this place felt before they left for good.
One final recitation from her notes by the day's fading light. Satisfied, she stowed them with the manuals, pulled the blanket over her arms and forced her busy head into stillness. Never had she studied with such frightful intensity, for so long. She felt dazed.
Outside, the silly gulls, or loons or whatever they were, already had their heads under their wings. She waved good-bye to them.
Every day is a journey, and the journey itself, home.
Fortunately, Kino habitually awoke just before first light, even without Hermes to rouse her. But it pleased him to feel useful and she liked their little rituals, so what the heck. She exited the cockpit to let it air and to relieve herself. She paid little attention to the place, she'd already said her farewells and was frankly sick to death of it. It was just another featureless train station to her this morning.
She finished her breakfast at a leisurely pace and threw the scraps out as a final thank-you to the birds, performed her usual quick-draw and a few calisthenics to get her heart pumping, and impatiently waited for the world to brighten.
Okay, this is it. Time. Start 'er up. She shut the door behind her and with a deep breath, ignited the engine. The low rumble raised her hackles but she had no time for that.
No panicking. Right up until the end.
If she understood things correctly, she needed to ease the throttle to full power, while holding the control yoke steady. Pull slightly toward her to raise the tail flaps, but not too much or it'd stall. She also should push the flaps down evenly with the pedals at her feet. How much? Again, she didn't know.
Okay, just drive full chat right off a cliff. Terrific plan, Kino. Here we go. She eased the lever forward. The engine noise grew and the ride got rougher. She couldn't actually see the edge because the nose was pointed upward, but she had a pretty good idea due to nearby trees. She shoved the engine into full force and grabbed the yoke, trying with all her might to keep the plane going straight despite the harrowingly rough ride.
Well over "stall-speed in normal flight," I hope. Too close now, anyway. Couldn't stop if I wanted to. Don't pull back too hard!
When the edge came, it took her by surprise. Suddenly the roughness vanished, and her bowels rose upward in her chest. Falling! She wailed, but kept herself frozen. No panicking! It's out of your hands now.
And to her great relief, the altimeter was rising, the hands turning clockwise. Fifty meters. A hundred. You did it!
No, you didn't, you still gotta land this thing. Take-off was the easy part. She took some comfort in looking at the complicated instruments and knowing exactly where they were, what they were, and what they were saying. Kino, you did good, very good for a week's work. Two hundred. It's time to get the landing gear up.
This part, she had watched the professor perform. Undercarriage lever. To her relief, the whole robotic, hydraulic system hummed smoothly and soon a little indicator light, exactly where she expected it, showed the landing gear was safely stowed.
Nothing beneath her but air. Aaahhh!
Okay... I'm okay. Just don't think about it. You're still alive. The engine sounds smooth, and the wings aren't gonna just fall off, y'know. But I swear if I get out of this I'll never get into another airplane as long as I live. Five hundred meters, now. 'Bout time to make the turn.
The runway, such as it was, forced her to take off southerly, but she wanted to go east. Kino gingerly turned the yoke, then quickly eased off. The slight turn to the left felt dksy, so she turned again, with exaggerated gentleness.
She certainly knew how to read a compass. She eased the bearing from about one-seventy to dead-on ninety.
Now the sun is in my eyes. Terrific! Well, nothing to see out front anyway. She scanned the instruments. Turn complete, and she hadn't spun out of the sky. Six hundred. The professor had brought them up to "angels twenty," two thousand meters up. She would do the same. But... I'm in no hurry. She knew intellectually that the higher she went, the more time she'd have to react if anything went wrong. She had to ignore the instinct that screamed, you want to go even higher?
She watched, transfixed, in something she recognized as a zen state, as the altimeter slowly spun to two-thousand meters. If I'm reading it right. No, don't second-guess yourself. Everything's gone smoothly so far. Kino let herself unclench and drank some of her precious water. Not precious anymore, silly.
Let's try the radio. She turned the dial to where the professor had left it, switched it on, promptly off again and smacked herself for forgetting the flight number. Plan ahead, dummy! Fortunately she'd had the good sense to write it down on the cover of the manual.
"This is flight SJ-410 out of Ventnor. Mayday. Can anyone hear me?"
"Flight SJ-410, we read you," came a static-garbled reply. Yay for altitude!
"So glad to hear you! Can you confirm this is the right frequency for air traffic control out of Ventnor?"
"This is Biggin relay, not Ventnor. But you're on the right freq. Who is this and what's your Mayday, over."
"My name's Kino, the passenger on SJ-410. My pilot, doctor Choi, had a coronary four days after our arrival. He's gone, I'm sorry to say. I had to take off, and I'm all alone up here."
"Over," she added.
"Uhm... we read you, Kino. You did say, 'passenger.' How much flight time have you logged? Over."
"Zero! Zip! Squadoo! Okay, counting this morning? Lemme check my watch. An hour. Over."
An hour? No wonder I'm swimming in sweat. Ooooh, this sucks!
More static. Kino could just imagine what the good people manning the Biggin Relay Station were saying to each other. Finally...
"Kino? We need you to activate your transponder. That's a toggle switch to your left..." But Kino already knew where it was, and hit it. "Sorry about that, Biggin, I should have turned that on after takeoff. My bad."
"Not a problem, Kino. You're doing just fine. We have you at two-thousand meters, bearing due east. Confirm?"
"Yeah, that's what my instruments say."
"Damn impressive for your first solo flight. Okay, I have some course corrections for you. You're flying too far south. I want you to gently turn until your compass reads eighty-three degrees. You know where the compass is?"
'Yup. Hey Biggin, I didn't make a magnetic-to-gird conversion error, did I? I'm not that green."
"Nope. It's called magnetic dip. Has to do with your altitude. Don't worry about it. Alright, you're on course now, but your position is changing fast. What's your airspeed?"
"Uhh... AH! I still have the throttle opened up all the way! I was scared of stalling. How fast should I be going?"
"Cut throttle to seventy-five percent. You don't wanna overheat your engine."
"Seventy-five percent." Kino had heard the professor give these "brief-backs" and copied him as nearly as she knew how. A lot of the flying jargon he'd used went right over her head, but the nice man in Biggin had switched to plain language.
"Am I okay?"
"You'd get a lot of red warning lights if you were overheating."
"Uhm.. I was doing that for an hour. Is that gonna eat up my fuel?"
"Shouldn't. Give me a fuel reading?"
"About half a tank left?"
"You're fine. Now I want you to gently climb to seven thousand meters. You've got a big cloud front ahead, and I'm taking you over it."
"Seven thousand meters, gentle climb."
"Listen, that's a very safe, forgiving aircraft you're flying. And you've still got about two hours before I can transfer you over to Ventnor. My partner here has already informed them of your situation. I want you to try to relax."
"Why? Do I sound scared?" Kino stammered.
"Yes," the voice laughed, and Kino laughed with him. "But it's no good getting yourself worked up."
"Right. I'm keeping a lid on it. Hey, who is that down there?"
"Name's Roger Mahama, Kino."
"An air traffic controller named 'Roger?'" Kino laughed.
"And I know two pilots named 'Jack' and another named 'Ace.'"
"Heh! Thanks, Roger."
"This is Ventnor A.T.C. to flight SJ-410. Do you read, miss Kino?"
Kino actually started up from a trance. Despite Roger's reassurance, she had stared at the unchanging gauges for hours, searching for any sign of trouble. The dwindling fuel supply worried her, but at this point "worry" was her default state.
"Loud and clear, Ventnor."
"You're doing great. Kino, the folks at the pilot's club here have chipped in for a dinner and a generous bar tab."
"Thank'ya, Ventnor. I'm honored." But Master had warned her not to fall into the bad habit of drowning hard times in alcohol. "A glass'a wine's my limit, but I'll sure take you up on that dinner."
"See you there. For your final approach, we need you to steer to twenty, and descend to two thousand meters. Can you do that?"
"Pretty sure. Uhm... that's azimuth two-zero and two thousand meters altitude. Can you guide me over that magnetic dip problem?"
"Accelerate a little as you make the turn."
Kino had gained a little more confidence with the controls, and followed the directions with no trouble.
"That's great. Doing just fine. Now level everything out and throttle back to about sixty percent."
She did as instructed. "Listen... guys? Biggin did tell you I have no experience at all? You are gonna teach me how to land this crate, right?"
She caught what she thought was laughter on the other end, then, "ah, sorry about that, Kino. Activate the digital com, it's catty-corner to your transponder switch? Then the autopilot."
"Okay, done. Uhm... why?"
"You've got a cat-three-b system aboard. We're gonna guide you down by remote control."
For a moment, Kino sat with her jaw dangling. "...you can do that?"
"Just relax and don't touch anything."
Stoicism be hanged, Kino just managed to shut off the radio pickup before bursting into tears in relief.
It's strange.. some places keeping the old technologies alive, some not.
Such an odd world.
"Hermes?" Kino lightly kicked the inert motorcycle awake. His headlamp flared on, brightening the gloomy underground parking.
"Well there you are, about time! Kino, shame on you. I was getting very worried. You're late."
"I know. Thanks for worrying. Have I got a story to tell you! Take a look." Kino pulled back her leather tunic with a proud grin that belied the circles under her eyes, revealing a scrap of brass pinned to her shirt. She puffed up like a peacock.
"And just what is that?"
The bird of time has but a little way to fly
- and lo! the bird is on the wing.