Well, hello there. This is a rather depressing-and-elating-at-the-same-time story about an alternate ending to Airborn. It begins during chapter twenty, when Matt is on top of the Aurora with Szpirglas and the cloud cat. Because of its length, it's about halfway between a oneshot and a drabble. I will remember you forever if you review!
Disclaimer: I don't own Airborn or the characters portrayed in it.
Szpirglas was stalking towards me. His wicked serrated knife glinted in his hand, drawing my eyes irresistibly. He was blocking me from escaping through the aft crow's nest, and the cloud cat was behind me, blocking the fore crow's nest. I was trapped.
"Just tell me, lad, for I've got a craving to know." His face was coolly purposeful, and it was clear that he felt no remorse. "How did you get out of the hydrium pit?"
My heart sped up as a shock of anger went through me. This man had tried to kill me, my family, and my home. "I flew!" I spat at him, and I felt a grim satisfaction to hear the ferocious hatred in my own voice.
But of course, Szpirglas was hardly intimidated. He only chuckled darkly as I faced him. "Then fly again." He grasped both of my shoulders, and before I could stop him he gave them a powerful shove, and then my feet left the Aurora.
I was falling: my body dipped smoothly as I dived backwards, my arms and legs spreading instinctively. I could feel the cold air rushing over me, parting for my back and rolling over my arms, chest and legs. I closed my eyes and felt. I felt the wind pouring over me, I felt the exhilaration of flight. I was not frightened. This was how my father fell. This was the most natural thing in the world for me, me, Matt Cruse, lighter than air.
But some part of me, some small but influential aspect of my mind, knew that I did not want to fall free of the ship. I opened my eyes and saw that I had soared over the starboard side of the ship, and I saw one of the Aurora's horizontal tail fins sailing towards me, becoming bigger and bigger until it filled my vision—and I landed.
My entire body thudded onto the giant fin and I began to slide off of it instantly; I threw my hands out to stop myself from falling and felt the skin of my palms evaporate. The metal screeched as I skidded down the fin towards the elevator flap, and as it drew near I saw a narrow gap between the hinges. Half-awake, I thrust my forearms through it and grabbed a metal strut on the fin's underside. I was in a sorry state: my clothes were ripped, my feet and hands and face were bloody. And I was ashamed. I had fallen; I had dropped like a stone; I was not lighter than air after all. I was just like the cloud cat: crippled. My wings would not spread. I had fallen.
I had fallen.
I looked up, my eyes blurry with tears brought about by wind and pain and pure shame. And at first I thought I was seeing things too, for what I saw next seemed impossible.
The cloud cat had taken off.
There was no mistaking it. She had jumped from the ship's back, and now her sleek, white, furry body was streaking through the air in a graceful arc. Come on, I thought, even so close to my own death. Fly now! Her right wing was fully extended, but her left wing didn't want to spread. She slewed through the sky, falling fast.
Somehow, despite her crimped wing, she managed to level off. She flapped once, twice, three times, and now she was gaining height as well as momentum. The gimpy wing seemed to be growing; it was getting longer and longer. She was opening it for the first time. She was flying.
Maybe I thought of the cloud cat as a kind of projection of myself. Maybe I felt I had been helping it get its wings this whole time. Probably I was just half-mad from the scalding mental and physical exertion. But for some reason, the sight of the cloud cat finally flying, the sight of her beautiful white tail disappearing into the clouds, contented me. I lay my head down on the cool skin of the tail fin. I was ready to let go.
But Szpirglas wasn't. Looking up, I was shocked to see him climbing down towards me. Somehow, he had found a safety line and was using it to rappel down to the fin. Why bother? I wondered. I was going to fall anyway.
"If I turn my back on you," he shouted over the wind, "you might appear again to vex me!"
I didn't see how. I was trapped now, well and truly. But Szpirglas seemed to want to see to that himself. He held his knife high, and I didn't have the strength to do anything more than look up at him through my hair whipping around my face. One hand firmly grasping the safety line, he stooped and grasped my collar. I had no power left to me to resist as he hauled me upright and my arms were pulled out of the gap.
"Boy," he said, "you've finished. It's time to go."
I couldn't say I disagreed.
He raised his right hand and drew it back. The sun winked off the blade of his knife.
The next half second was longer than a lifetime.
My senses seemed to sharpen all at once, and time slowed down. I heard the wind beating against me and Szpirglas and the ship. I felt the sun on my shoulders and head, the last sunrays I would ever feel. I smelled the sky and, very faintly, the sweet scent of hydrium. I tasted blood and tears on my lips. And I felt a strange turbulence sweep over us all of a sudden, like dozens of wingbeats.
Then Szpirglas's hand lunged forward, and the knife pierced my heart.
I registered the silvery blade and the black handle protruding from my chest with vague surprise, and I was grateful my body had so little feeling left in it. That, at least, was some relief. Szpirglas let go of me and our eyes locked on to one another. We stared at each other until I fell over the edge and away from the ship. I felt the knife in my chest, and a groggy sadness entered my heart. I was freefalling again…. Except that I wasn't falling… I was flying.
I had been anchored to land my whole life, landlocked like the cloud cat. And like the cloud cat, I had only to take off and spread my wings, and then I was soaring through the air—all I had needed was one little push, and Szpirglas had given me that.
I stared, brimming with happiness at the Aurora, my home, my girl, and I was so far gone by now that I didn't even feel surprised to see them. There were at least fifty of them, gliding and maneuvering around the great airship as though curious about this new flying thing. They truly were magnificent. I was glad to see them, such wondrous creatures. And the Aurora. It was the last thing I was going to see in this world, and it was so beautiful.
I knew that I was still falling, and I knew that Szpirglas's knife was still in me, but the wind seemed distant now. It didn't feel like falling anymore. It wasn't falling. Now I was soaring up, not down, and I spread my wings and I flew and I joined the cloud cats. There seemed to be nothing but sky now, just sky and fluffy golden clouds and the dazzling sun. I was flying, flying with the cloud cats, and something—someone—else was there too. He was the only other human there, and as he came towards me I saw his face: a glowing image of pride and love.
I had truly joined him now. I was with my father at last. It was just the two of us and the sky and the cloud cats. We were, the two of us, lighter than air.