The Unwanted Wife of Lord Serramulla
A Tale of Flying, Falling and Fate
by David Barber
Morgan took a long pull from the bottle, just to keep warm, and stowed it safely again. “We’ll stall,” he repeated, pointing at their airspeed, which was slowly unwinding. He motioned with his hand, nose down.
The Jirt beside him was choking the stick with both taloned paws as if trying to bend an iron bar. Morgan could hear its leather armour creak as it panted, the scarlet bladders bulging on either side of its neck.
“I’ll take it,” Morgan said, reaching for the stick, and the Jirt snapped at his hand.
A less relaxed man might have flinched; he’d wondered if it might come to this. Without taking his eyes off the Jirt, he groped under his seat.
The falling Piper was sliding into a spin, the grey ocean below clarifying into distinct whitecaps. His fingertips finally brushed metal, the big wrench under the parachute.
With a tortured roar the Jirt released the stick and covered its eyes.
Morgan flew back in silence, debating whether a good instructor would let the Jirt handle the landing; a chance to recover its confidence.
Morgan loved these old J4’s. They, not the pilot, decide when they’re ready to land; you simply follow the ground, losing speed until the wheels bump. He turned to say this but the Jirt was in a foetal crouch.
The Earthwoman had been divorced by her Jirt Lord and her continued presence was an embarrassment to all.
Traditionally, the Walk of the Unwanted Wife lasted as long as the unwanted could survive without sustenance. A starved Jirt female tottering into the wastes was a sight never acknowledged.
The Earthwoman had followed Jirt custom and walked away from Lord Serramulla, but only as far as Earthtown.
Morgan noticed her standing out on the balcony, overlooking the bay. The Embassy reception served free drinks and he fortified himself with another glass. Her features were careworn but the bone-structure was good, and she wore a priceless Jirt robe, iridescent as a bluebottle.
He explained he was a pilot newly contracted to train Jirt warriors to fly the Archon’s Air Fleet. Currently, this consisted of a dwindling squadron of high-wing, single-engine Pipers.
She surprised him by saying Jirt might be unsuited to flying.
He launched into his own theory about them lacking a sense of 3D space because they hadn’t evolved from tree-dwellers. Though it didn’t explain that solo flight going straight and level into a mountain last week.
“He foresaw it happening,” said the woman distantly.
Morgan had heard about Jirt seeing the future; it was disappointing to find this woman believed it. “Why are people pretending not to look at us?” he asked instead.
“I’m the Unwanted Wife of Lord Serramulla.”
She was older than he’d first thought; what he’d taken for tall and slim was lanky and thin. “The Jirt in charge of the Air Fleet? My boss.”
“It will be noticed if you stay. There are Jirt servants. Even the people here disapprove.”
Her gaze moved beyond him, as if drawn to something of interest on the horizon; a habit of high-status Jirt. You were supposed to consult your watch and hurry away with apologies.
She didn’t seem interested, but he’d always liked clever women. He offered to get them both a drink and when he came back she was still out in the cold, stooped slightly, like a cut flower.
“What do you mean, wife?”
“I was a Wife of Lord Serramulla. And then he divorced me. Hence ‘Unwanted Wife’.” I was researching Jirt kinship structures; Lord Serramulla saw himself saving me from a kut. You know, like big hairless bears? Their word for us by the way.
“I’m not sure it was going to attack me, but he turned up and slew the beast. It was impressive. Lord Serramulla wished me to be his Wife, out of curiosity about human sexuality I believe. For me, it was an opportunity to gain admission into a Jirt housenest.”
“That’s... um...” He downed the wine he had brought her. “You got to see those hidden Jirt females.”
“Well done, Mr Morgan, though you are wondering about our marriage night.”
Morgan opened his mouth then closed it again.
“I thought of it as an initiation rite like the ones anthropologists underwent in joining a tribe back on Earth. Lord Serramulla showed no inclination to repeat the experience.”
“So he just divorced you.”
“No, he divorced me much later, because I betrayed him.” She patted his arm. “Are you safe to fly, Mr Morgan? I’ve never been up in an aeroplane.”
“It’s just Morgan.”
He saw the Piper fleet as his own, each crash a personal loss.
He waited for her to change into coveralls, then they trundled down the runway and into the sky. He explained how the Piper was a faithful copy of an ancient design, but with the hydrocarbon engine updated to power cells and electric motor. Eventually, he realised she didn’t care.
They climbed over the bay in silence.
“I lived in his housenest for a year.” He noticed she kept her gaze away from the vista below. “We got on well, I think, though they have no concept of friendship between males and females.”
Nor humans, Morgan supposed. Without thinking, he took a pull from the bottle he kept on the plane, just to keep out the cold. The Jirt never asked about his drinking. She didn’t either; nor did she ask how he ended up flying manually operated relics on a backwater planet.
“I disgraced Lord Serramulla by staying in Earthtown. He foresaw it, so he divorced me.”
“To the people here I am a diplomatic incident. They insist I catch the next c-ship out, but I cannot.”
“Because of what was seen.”
“You believe that?”
“Scientists have confirmed what the Jirt see.”
The grey islands below were the southernmost edge of the Archon’s territory. He tipped a wing, beginning a slow turn.
“That was a sceptical silence, Mr Morgan. What lies in that direction?”
Thousands of miles of ocean; then ice. “Nothing."
She produced a small Jirt artefact and pointed it at him. “This fires darts lethal to Jirt. I don’t know their effect on humans. Fly south, Mr Morgan.”
“Lord Serramulla saw me falling. He could only interpret it as the Walk of the Unwanted; perhaps this was how it was with human Wives; but it would happen, hence the divorce.”
He shook his head. He couldn’t believe this. "So you’re going to jump?"
She didn’t answer. Far out at sea, over the water, she fell from the sky. That was how her Walk ended. It had been seen and it was true. But she was only human and afraid.
"Prove it wrong, don’t jump. It’s that simple."
"In your own life, Mr Morgan, have you never known something was inevitable?"
“There’s a halfway point,” protested Morgan. “Beyond that, the power cells won’t get us back and we crash. That’s inevitable.”
The weapon didn’t waver.
"People make choices," he said. He felt a strong urge to have a drink. “Look, you already helped fate: you got me to fly you out here; you brought a gun along. Who knows what the Jirt saw.”
He tried again. “A parachute drop is like falling. Before you pull the rip-cord, it is falling.”
He was groping about for the wrench when she spoke. “I know what I must do, but I have an irrational fear of heights.”
They flew south in silence until she took a deep breath, struggled into the life-jacket and chute and lifted her door against the roar of the wind.
“Goodbye, Mr Morgan,” she shouted. Next to a Jirt flying, it was the bravest thing he’d ever seen.
He turned the plane until he spotted her white chute below. Sadly, he patted the Piper goodbye, and with the life-raft pack clipped to his belt, tumbled out after her. His parachute jerked and blossomed above him.
Faithfully, the plane flew on, and he lost it in the cloud.
The inflatable rose and sank in the cold green swell.
“What happens next?” he asked. “Did Serramulla see this?”
He’d been wondering about this woman’s fate. For a moment he’d almost glimpsed the whole thing; how the Jirt’s vision was inevitable, and how he was just one part of it, like the Piper and the parachute. He shook his head. No, that couldn’t be right.
“Brave of you to save me, Mr Morgan.” Her teeth were chattering.
“Just Morgan. Brave of you to jump.”
“Will anyone look for us?” She had been reprieved. She wasn’t sure what she thought about this yet, but her blood knew enough to be glad.
Cold and wet, they huddled together. He saw his bottle, sole passenger now, flying on into the dusk.
“When we get back,” he decided, “you board the next c-ship out; you start writing your story. Who knows how far you go on your long walk, but it all works out.”
“And what about you?”
He’d been on his own long walk now for years. “I bet there’s something in my contract about not wrecking planes. I’ll be looking for another world that wants a pilot; somewhere warm this time. But they’ll want me as technical advisor when they film your story. I’m played by Humphrey Bogart.”
They laughed together.
“You see all this, do you, Mr Morgan?”
“Clear as day.”
Copyright © 2013 by David Barber