Climbing the Air
by Sari Friedman and Julia Cheng
Don’t make me come up there to stop you!
As if she could. I climb out my window. Balance on the sill. Glance with contempt at the safety ledge my parents installed when I first learned to fly. How many times have I told them I don’t need that stupid thing? But they refuse to remove it.
They’re so embarrassing.
I close my eyes... luxuriating in the Wildlands’ delectable pull.
Stop, Aya! What’re you doing? my mother cries. You’re too young!
You wouldn’t break a rule if your life depended on it.
You’ve got to resist! Think of the Vex!
Her words have no meaning: her terror, no weight. So what if my wings aren’t full-grown? So what if I’m a tad over-reactive? As Summer’s suns slip into the formation that triggers Fledge-Fever in a ripening Taeme, it’s finally all happening to me — everything I could ever want. And I’m ready. The alignment of the four suns is creating an electromagnetic flux that seems to have recalibrated the beat of my heart...
My time has come.
Stay! My mother screams, knocking over things in our tree-home in her rush to get up to my room.
You should be proud, I send back, rough. I ignore the safety ledge. Move to the edge of my sill. The fluctuating electromagnetic vibe is mirrored in ripples of awakening awareness from my head to my toes. Before me, tree leaves spread in a haze of green: leaves that spend their whole lives in the same exact place, always fluttering in the same exact way... leaves that reach out forever but will never touch the sky.
Feeling pity for trees, I jump out my window. My mother crashes into the space behind me an instant too late.
Once I’m out, I’m free. She’s not permitted to stop me. A few sure strokes and I’m over the treetops. Diving into the easygoing zephyr that’s flowing in the direction I need. It feels good to swim through the silently streaming air, pushing it down and under my wings, its touch sifting through to my skin.
But my increasing restlessness, the inner urging, that itch I can’t yet scratch, keeps me from melting into its calm. I start going faster. Drink in the speed. I’m soon gaining on a tree-home builder ahead of me, her wingtips so faded they almost blend into air. She nods in a resigned way and lets me pass.
Then there’re leaf-gatherers ahead, flying in a horizontal row, spaced luxuriously, even filling the passing zone. They wave their ancient straggly wings in deliberate identical strokes. I veer close.
With the complacency of an old flock they just completely ignore me. Plus, of course, there’s less second-sense in adults.
I said let me through!!
We’re going the approved speed for this air current. You shouldn’t be going any faster.
How rude! Can’t believe what the younger generation is coming to.
Slow down so you’ll be further behind us. You know the rules about buffer zones.
The usual timid Taeme pace disgusts me. The same pace as everyone. The same pace as always. The Taeme way of life. I’ve got Fledge-Fever! Heading to the Wildlands!
Aya? My mother’s mind-touch.
It’s too late, I remind her. I’ve left.
She’s in tears. You disobeyed... Goodbye... Hope...
I glance at the open sky.
I tear upward. Abandoning the zephyr. Climbing the air.
Flying without the support of an airstream is crazy. Who does that? But I can’t seem to stop. Fledge-Fever has become a crashing of perceptions within. There’s my previous existence: watching rain fall outside while feeling safe and warm, trusting my parents to figure out what’s best for me; and there’s who I am today: the pressure to burn off the energetic potential that builds within, the pressure that mounts so quickly I feel I’ll explode.
Delicious near-impossibility of keeping myself aloft, one set of wings doing all the work: holding up the heavy bones, the arms and legs, shoulders and feet and beautiful excess plumage that are useless midair.
The Vex have evolved without such encumbrances. Nothing interferes with their reptilian lusts. Since birth I’ve heard about their sharp, always-growing teeth. Their talons, scales, bodily fluids that dissolve Taeme flesh.
My father’s mind-touch, his grim: Did you remember food? You’ll be ravenous soon.
Sweet-nut bars in my bag.
We might never see you again.
My wings are almost the span of an adult’s. This is the first time I’ve tested their strength. I still don’t even yet know their full power or size. I’ve been so constrained! Keeping them folded in so they don’t knock over the things in my room or crowd the other pre-fledges in my generational flock. This is the first time I’ve even been out alone.
The portal between Taeme Sacred Space and the Wildlands lies ahead. Summer’s four small suns are now almost perfectly aligned in the diamond formation that causes Fledge-Fever, the biochemical and electromagnetic changes that drive us into the Wildlands where our transformation to adulthood can be completed by its gravitational flux.
Some other pre-fledges are already here. All of us hungry, but not for food.
I cut a tight curve. Take a steep descent and skid to land. Then I can’t help but move forward on foot. Urging close as I can to release.
That you, Aya? asks Fuchsia, who’s a yeon older than me and standing nearby.
Sam touches down a step behind. Fuchsia immediately turns from me and focuses only on him. She fluffs her mane of pink hair, the same exact shade as her wings which arch a bit upward now, provocative and lovely over the barely-covered soft curve of her back.
Hi Sam! Fuschia says in a much sweeter and higher-pitched voice.
Sam nods at her, then at me; his dark eyes serious. Sam’s a genetic recessive, the only pre-fledge with hair and feathers totally black. At night he can barely be seen.
Sam’s family’s tree-home is near mine. He and I used to play a childhood game, tossing good-seeds into each other’s open mouths. Last chance to eat, Sam reminds us.
Fuchsia, Sam, and I scarf down all the food that we’ve got. Others stretch in preparation or prayer.
Fuschia shakes out her gorgeous long-feathers, strokes the ligaments where her wings attach to her back as though to emphasize their flexibility and vibrant health. She shifts even closer to Sam.
I wish we didn’t have to do this, comes from Fuchsia’s cousin, Lewey, whose pink hair is shorter and spiky. He comes running up to us, stops. He’s closer to my age, but I’m still the youngest one here. I ruffle my long-feathers that have only just begun to show the promise of scarlet, just a hint here and there.
The tension of readiness.
Wings are poised to open, feathers rustle, bodies jostle for position. There’s our shared, mounting craving to move, to transform. Then comes the signal. The sensation of massive release. The delicious gravitational pull that comes with ascent and the chaos of our taking off.
Fuschia, Sam and I pull ahead. Lewey quickly falls to the rear.
The boundary up ahead is a wavery haze. Approaching it comes with intense mind-blowing pressure and the first intimations of roughness. There’s the Wildlands’ atmospheric turbulence in which we can’t see a thing, are flying blind — then we’re through. I second-sense Sam’s surprise... His strong, smooth wingstrokes aren’t keeping him steady. And it’s freezing! I had no idea it would be so cold.
A flash of pink plumage. Is it Lewey or Fuscia?
Did Lewey make it through? Fuchsia asks, her voice shaking with the jolts and thrusts of the Wildland’s electromagnetic flux.
I’m here! Lewey screams. Hate it here! Wanna go home!
You can’t! Fledge or die!
The scarred grey wings of a Vex drop into sight. I can’t believe it’s so huge.
It’s worse than the legends! Fuschia sends.
What’m I doing here?! Lewey pulls up short, pivots, tries to turn.
The Vex dives toward Lewey.
Not my cousin!
My rapidly evolving mind makes a plan: Create a diversion! Give Lewey a chance to escape!
How? asks Fuchsia.
I send to both Fuchsia and Sam: Do something unpredictable! There’s a bunch of us and only one Vex. We have to confuse him!
I flat-fold my wings to my back and hurtle right into the Vex. The wind blasts raw in my throat. My ears roar. My eyes sting and tear. My hair whips back so hard it’s like it’s being pulled.
At the last possible moment, my sonar sensing the Vex’s bulk just ahead, I open to my fullest, most magnificent wingspan, brake with all I’ve got, shivering, the chill air solid as a wall under my wings.
It’s still hard to see through the murk. My second sense isn’t coming in right. My sonar feels goofy, too.
Instead of worry, though, there’s just the roar of my heart.
Now I’m swooping over a stubble of forest, the uneven electromagnetic vibes so strong they’re beating inside. Sweat freezes to ice crystals all down my back. The joy of flying like this thrills me from the base of my thrustors to my hyper-sensitive wingtips.
You guys okay? Where is everyone? I ask.
I’ve left. I’m heading back. I can’t risk getting hurt, Fuchsia sends.
There’s just static from Sam.
I thrust on. My throat is sore from taking so many deep breaths. Lewey’s panic still floods my mind. I second-sense the digestive enzymes the Vex’s glands have released at the sight of us. I second-sense more pain than I ever imagined existed as the Vex rips off one of Lewey’s wings.
A sudden clearing of the murk—
The Vex’s tail whips, sinuous and serpentine. Such sharp teeth. Outragous jaws. His tongue eagerly laps up Lewey’s blood. His throat convulses twice. My sudden nausea startles me into a downspin. I can’t check my descent! The sharp-edged crystalline outcrops and fat oily roots of the ground zoom scarily close.
Lewey is gone.
I crash, the breath crushed out of me.
I come to, find myself reaching out with fingers sticky with blood. The movement sparks a terrible ache in a wing. I slip while trying to stand; and then realize I’m on a pile of shifting stones. My shivering is now intense.
I reach down and pick up a rock with a long fine edge and interplay of electro-magnetic force. As my hand closes around it, a surprisingly reassuring sensation is followed by a shocking awareness... The change inside me... it’s as though I’m suddenly able to speak a new language. My transformation to Fledge is complete. All I have to do now is make it back.
I struggle upward... But my hurt wing is askew, sore, bruised, weak. Between the damage to my wing and my shivering I can’t even fly straight. There’s no hope I’ll be able to handle the blasting hardwind above.
I drop down into the milder but still insanely cold airstream below. Even going slow there’s the electromagnetic fluctuation, the gravitational eddies that threaten to suck me into another tailspin, the Wildland updrafts that swirl in dizzying chaos.
I search the wavelengths for mind-touch, spooked by my isolation. There’s just a very dim second-sense of inner strength coming from Sam and some others... They must have finished by now, made it back.
I’m really alone.
Then I’m not. The Vex’s grey tongue snakes out toward what’s left of Lewey’s arm that’s still caught in a talon, Lewey’s tendons bristling from his severed elbow. The Vex’s tongue whips in a loop, mopping up the last drops of Lewey’s blood. Then the Vex’s lips roll back. Its teeth jitter in excitement. The Vex has perceived me.
Long live the Taeme! I cry, surprising myself.
He’s after me. Practically reaching my toes. I brake hard, straining from the pain and the attempt to stop in midair. The Vex is fooled. He zooms by, his rage rolling off him in waves.
I don’t fall for the same trick twice, he informs me icily.
I’m sucking in frigid air so hard it feels like I’m breaking my lungs. My damaged wing has lost almost all strength. My mother was right! I’m too young. The Vex loops back and forth in the hardwind above, readying for another kill. When I perceive the infinitesimal weight of the stone still clutched in my hand.
He lunges, jaws opening. I second-sense his craving to bite, to crunch bone.
How shiny his scales, up close, almost glistening.
Then he’s flinching, there’s his screech of pain! and the slice of dark red that’s opened across his belly, revealing the goop inside.
And a sizzling sound and vicious pain from a spot on my hand that’s come into contact with his Taeme-flesh dissolving blood.
What have I done?! There’s no Taeme word for this.
Another Vex shows on the horizon. The original Vex whips his long neck and stares through the murk. The second Vex is bigger, older, baggier, and something’s unhinged in it from the scent of mingled Vex and Taeme blood. The first thing it does is try to bite straight into the original Vex’s wound.
The swinging anvils of their tails. Scales are sheering off like glittering daggers, flying in every direction. A screeching frenzy of claws, snapping jaws, and grinding teeth.
I couldn’t leave you, Sam whispers.
I don’t know how he does it. He slips me away as they battle, supporting my limp weight as I pass in and out of consciousness against the hard muscle of his arms, not landing until we’ve crossed the border and finally made it to a freshwater pond in Taeme Sacred Space. The suns are no longer aligned. It’s quiet now, dark. He touches down and I collapse onto the mudbank, unable to lift so much as a hand.
Sam strips off his shirt-wrap, exposing his chest. Tears his shirt-wrap into rags. Dips the first rag into the pond and starts to wash off the Vex blood that’s still hurting so much, easing the terrible burn. You’ll have a scar, Sam says. But you’ll live.
Feels better, I say. Both of us remembering to explain what we’re feeling and thinking now that our ability to read each other has been reduced.
Can I continue? he asks, indicating my own shirt-wrap and wings matted and sticky with my own drying blood and Wildland dirt.
I nod assent. He gently pushes aside the parts of my shirt-wrap, exposing some of my vulnerable skin.
I don’t think anyone has made it through a battle with a Vex before, he says.
He’s washed off all the blood, but my shirt-wrap and skin have gotten wet. I start to shiver again. I’ll be okay if you want to go. All the females will be waiting for you.
His black eyes send into mine.
What? I ask.
You’re shivering, he says.
Not much I can do about it.
There’s something I can do about it, he says. May I remove this? He indicates my now useless wrap.
His touch is surprisingly gentle. His fingers are shaking. After my wrap is fully off he takes me in his arms. This time we’re face to face. My breasts press his chest. I can feel his legs upon mine. His wings above us melt into sky.
Better? We remain together like that, the heat rising between us. I am finally warm.