I wasn’t actually going to post this yet, but my planned post for the day (on naming conventions around the south-western region of the Alcadic Ocean, which is in the same world Kirai’s from, but quite a long way from his home country) didn’t get written. So instead, have some completely random short story about a couple of daring pilots who’ve ended up in some strange hinterland halfway between life and death. This is the sort of thing that happens when I wander around the house singing to myself and making up the lyrics as I go. Sometimes it’s cheerful, sometimes it’s not, and occasionally the imagery sticks.
And we’re here at the end of the rainbow
This place at the end of the sky
We’ve come to the end of the rainbow
This place where our dreams go to die
Time gets lost here. It’s hard to tell how long it’s been, how long ago it was. Years, I think. They drift by, cloaked in fog, until the crash blurs into the flight blurs into the waiting, and as the memories fade it begins to seem that we could always have been here.
I wave the mist away from my face, my breath blowing out another little cloud of it. You stop noticing the cold after a while, but it’s always there, wrapping slowly around you like everything in this place. Impatient and holding on to the emotion, I stride forwards, fog streaming around me in a sad echo of the days when we flew through the clouds.
Before the crash. Before this place.
As I step determinedly back out of the woods, the graveyard melts into view, shrouded and shifting with fog. He’s sitting up against a gravestone, dew beading on his clothes, almost still enough to be dead. Something moves further away, but I ignore it. Here, halfway between life and death, our dreams are dying. They wisp around us like spectres, fading a fraction more with every day, and we’re a world away from where new ones are born. We’re at the end of the sky.
I kneel beside him and smile a little, but it’s becoming bittersweet. Day by day, the dreams fade, and now my memories are stronger – my memories of a time now past, a time I’m afraid will never come again.
He looks up at me after a moment. “There you are.” His voice is soft, a little muted. So’s mine. It shouldn’t be, but being here too long has got to me, even me, who escaped here once before. I can’t take this much longer.
“How are the patches looking?”
He shrugs. “She’ll fly, I think. But there’s no hurry.”
I doubt he’s even looked at his plane, the Skyborn, for more than five minutes at a time. And I know that I shouldn’t blame him, because I know what it feels like, but anger smoulders in my breast all the same.
“Want to take her up for a spin?”
I knew that answer was coming. It always does, now.
“I took the Infinity Sapphire up again.”
“You’ll have to tell me about it.”
I sigh, and settle down on the cold ground, stretch out my legs and begin. I don’t talk too much about the unknown, the places I’ve begun to explore alone. I tell him about changes in places we’ve flown over before, in the lives that seem a world away, when we were among the most daring of elite pilots, a perfectly matched pair who could fly just centimetres apart at top speed and never once crash. He nods, and smiles, and asks me little questions here and there. Is the church spire rebuilt? Is the smog still hanging over that motorway? He’s not really interested half the time, but he’s humouring me for the sake of the memory. I don’t even know if he really knows it’s fast becoming no more than that, if he’s just going through the motions or if he still cares at all. Around me, our dreams fade gently through the fog, outlined in the still air. They’re getting weaker, fading slowly. But I still find a sad kind of comfort in this conversation, knowing that some fragment of him might not have given up yet.
It must have been years ago that we ended up here. I didn’t recognise it at first. We were flying on, chasing rainbows. When you see one end land in a field not far away, what’s more natural than to go chase the other? Up into the sky, up to the apex, flying with all our skill for the sheer thrill of it and learning all the time, because there’s always something more to learn. Old formations, new formations, old stunts, new stunts, or just racing through the clouds and whipping them up in our wake.
Even the best engines stutter sometimes. I wasn’t too bothered at first when the Skyborn developed a little cough. We radioed back and forth, and came down to land. I stood back and gave some possibly-unhelpful advice as he tinkered about in there. No two custom planes are really the same, even ones with such similar capabilities. Only he knows his own engine the way only I know mine.
It seemed like it was over, but it wasn’t. I started dropping below cloud level most of the time, trying to avoid putting too much strain on the plane until he could track down the problem to its source. It could have worked; I hoped it would work.
It didn’t work. One day, the Skyborn went from coughing to crashing, streaming smoke from somewhere some vital component had at long last come loose. I chased it down, horrified, half-blinded by the smoke billowing out behind him. He managed a kind of glide, but it still ended in a horrible, rending crash. There was fog and smoke everywhere. I couldn’t see, but I came down for a landing anyway.
The greyness pressed in around us, and smoke threatened to choke me. I dragged him clear of the wreck, knowing I couldn’t know whether I was making things better or worse. I could only hold on and hope. The fog cloaked us as I waited for him to awaken.
It was a strange half-light, neither night nor day. That alone should have told me, but I didn’t think to think it. Being shot down by enemy fire is a world away from engine failure; when you crash in a halfway place between life and death, you don’t really expect to come back if you’ve finally escaped it. I just waited, and thanked my luck that I’d managed to get the Infinity Sapphire down onto flat land. Even if the Skyborn was beyond repair, I figured I’d be able to fly him to safety. Of course, knowing this place, I know now that I was wrong.
Only when I left him for a time to scout out the area in which we’d landed did its familiarity begin to nag at me. Shrouded in fog, it was difficult to know what I might and might not have seen before. I put it to the back of my mind, and tried to stay focused.
But he wasn’t getting better. We took two steps forwards and one step back: the cuts and bruises healed, and he got a fever; the broken leg seemed to mend, and he slipped into a slumber that lasted what felt like a month. And the familiarity grew on me with an old and aching cold.
Finally, I determined to take flight. Or maybe that came later; I don’t know. It all blurs together now. But in the end, I saw it. Saw the graveyard, saw the graves. Some of the bodies probably lie quite close to the surface. The headstones are worn and faded, the inscriptions are gone. Some of the graves, I fear, are empty. Waiting.
I wait ’til he’s sleeping to say it, so he doesn’t have to hear me.
“I’m going now. I can’t stay here any more, and I’m sorry. But when you get out of here, I’ll be up there. You know where to find me.”
And I say when, not if, because there’s always hope. Even at the end of the sky.