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BIANCA NAZARIO STANDS at the end of the world.
The firmament above is as blue as the summer skies of her childhood, mirrored in the waters of la caldera; but where the skies she remembers were bounded by mountains, here on Sky there is no real horizon, only a line of white cloud. The white line shades into a diffuse grayish fog that, as Bianca looks down, grows progressively murkier, until the sky directly below is thoroughly dark and opaque.
She remembers what Dinh told her about the ways Sky could kill her. With a large enough parachute, Bianca imagines, she could fall for hours, drifting through the layered clouds, before finding her end in heat or pressure or the jaws of some monstrous denizen of the deep air.
If this should go wrong, Bianca cannot imagine a better way to die.
Bianca works her way out a few hundred meters along the base of one of Encantada's ventral fins, stopping when the dry red dirt beneath her feet begins to give way to scarred gray flesh. She takes a last look around: at the pall of smoke obscuring the zaratán's tree-lined dorsal ridge, at the fin she stands on, curving out and down to its delicate-looking tip, kilometers away. Then she knots her scarf around her skirted ankles and shrugs into the paraballoon harness, still warm from the bungalow's fabricators. As the harness tightens itself around her, she takes a deep breath, filling her lungs. The wind from the burning camp smells of wood smoke and pine resin, enough to overwhelm the taint of blood from the killing ground.
Blessed Virgin, she prays, be my witness: this is no suicide.
This is a prayer for a miracle.
She leans forward.
2. THE FLYING ARCHIPELAGO
The boat-like anemopter that Valadez had sent for them had a cruising speed of just less than the speed of sound, which in this part of Sky's atmosphere meant about nine hundred kilometers per hour. The speed, Bianca thought, might have been calculated to bring home the true size of Sky, the impossible immensity of it. It had taken the better part of their first day's travel for the anemopter's point of departure, the ten-kilometer, billion-ton vacuum balloon Transient Meridian, to drop from sight—the dwindling golden droplet disappearing, not over the horizon, but into the haze. From that Bianca estimated that the bowl of clouds visible through the subtle blurring of the anemopter's static fields covered an area about the size of North America.
She heard a plastic clattering on the deck behind her and turned to see one of the anemopter's crew, a globular, brown-furred alien with a collection of arms like furry snakes, each arm tipped with a mouth or a round and curious eye. The firija were low-gravity creatures; the ones Bianca had seen on her passage from Earth had tumbled joyously through the Caliph of Baghdad's inner ring spaces like so many radially symmetrical monkeys. The three aboard the anemopter, in Sky's heavier gravity, had to make do with spindly-legged walking machines. There was a droop in their arms that was both comical and melancholy.
"Come forward," this one told Bianca in fractured Arabic, its voice like an ensemble of reed pipes. She thought it was the one that called itself Ismaíl. "Make see archipelago."
She followed it forward to the anemopter's rounded prow. The naturalist, Erasmus Fry, was already there, resting his elbows on the rail, looking down.
"Pictures don't do them justice, do they?" he said.
Bianca went to the rail and followed the naturalist's gaze. She did her best to maintain a certain stiff formality around Fry; from their first meeting aboard Transient Meridian she'd had the idea that it might not be good to let him get too familiar. But when she saw what Fry was looking at, the mask slipped for a moment; she couldn't help a sharp, quick intake of breath.
Fry chuckled. "To stand on the back of one," he said, "to stand in a valley and look up at the hills and know that the ground under your feet is supported by the bones of a living creature—there's nothing else like it." He shook his head.
At this altitude they were above all but the highest-flying of the thousands of beasts that made up Septentrionalis Archipelago. Bianca's eyes tried to make the herd (or flock, or school) of zaratanes into other things: a chain of islands, yes, if she concentrated on the colors, the greens and browns of forests and plains, the grays and whites of the snowy highlands; a fleet of ships, perhaps, if she instead focused on the individual shapes, the keel ridges, the long, translucent fins, ribbed like Chinese sails.
The zaratanes of the archipelago were more different from one another than the members of a flock of birds or a pod of whales, but still there was a symmetry, a regularity of form, the basic anatomical plan—equal parts fish and mountain—repeated throughout, in fractal detail from the great old shape of Zaratán Finisterra, a hundred kilometers along the dorsal ridge, down to the merely hill-sized bodies of the nameless younger beasts. When she took in the archipelago as a whole, it was impossible for Bianca not to see the zaratanes as living things.
"Nothing else like it," Fry repeated.
Bianca turned reluctantly from the view to look at Fry. The naturalist spoke Spanish with a flawless Miami accent, courtesy, he'd said, of a Consilium language module. Bianca was finding it hard to judge the ages of extrañados, particularly the men, but in Fry's case she thought he might be ten years older than Bianca's own forty, and unwilling to admit it—or ten years younger, and in the habit of treating himself very badly. On her journey here she'd met cyborgs and foreigners and artificial intelligences and several sorts of alien—some familiar, at least from media coverage of the hajj, and some strange—but the extrañados bothered her the most. It was hard to come to terms with the idea of humans born off Earth, humans who had never been to Earth or even seen it; humans who often had no interest in it.
"Why did you leave here, Mr. Fry?" she asked.
Fry laughed. "Because I didn't want to spend the rest of my life out here." With a hand, he swept the horizon. "Stuck on some Godforsaken floating island for years on end, with no one but researchers and feral refugees to talk to, nowhere to go for fun but some slum of a balloon station, nothing but a thousand kilometers of air between you and Hell?" He laughed again. "You'd leave, too, Nazario, believe me."
"Maybe I would," Bianca said. "But you're back."
"I'm here for the money," Fry said. "Just like you."
Bianca smiled and said nothing.
"You know," Fry said after a little while, "they have to kill the zaratanes to take them out of here." He looked at Bianca and smiled, in a way that was probably meant to be ghoulish. "There's no atmosphere ship big enough to lift a zaratán in one piece—even a small one. The poachers deflate them—gut them—flatten them out and roll them up. And even then, they throw out almost everything but the skin and bones."
"Strange," Bianca mused. Her mask was back in place. "There was a packet of material on the zaratanes with my contract; I watched most of it on the voyage. According to the packet, the Consilium considers the zaratanes a protected species."
Fry looked uneasy. Now it was Bianca's turn to chuckle.
"Don't worry, Mr. Fry," she said. "I may not know exactly what it is Mr. Valadez is paying me to do, but I've never had any illusion that it was legal."
Behind her, the firija made a fluting noise that might have been laughter.
3. THE STEEL BIRD
When Bianca was a girl, the mosque of Punta Aguila was the most prominent feature in the view from her fourth-floor window, a sixteenth-century structure of tensegrity cables and soaring catenary curves, its spreading white wings vaguely—but only vaguely—recalling the bird that gave the city its name. The automation that controlled the tension of the cables and adjusted the mosque's wings to match the shifting winds was hidden within the cables themselves, and was very old. Once, after the hurricane in the time of Bianca's grandfather, it had needed adjusting, and the old men of the ayuntamiento had been forced to send for extrañado technicians, at an expense so great that the jizyah of Bianca's time was still paying for it.
But Bianca rarely thought of that. Instead she would spend long hours surreptitiously sketching those white wings, calculating the weight of the structure and the tension of the cables, wondering what it would take to make the steel bird fly.
Bianca's father could probably have told her, but she never dared to ask. Raúl Nazario de Arenas was an aeronautical engineer, like the seven generations before him, and flight was the Nazarios' fortune; fully a third of the aircraft that plied the skies over the Rio Pícaro were types designed by Raúl or his father or his wife's father, on contract to the great moro trading and manufacturing families that were Punta Aguila's truly wealthy.
Because he worked for other men, and because he was a Christian, Raúl Nazario would never be as wealthy as the men who employed him, but his profession was an ancient and honorable one, providing his family with a more than comfortable living. If Raúl Nazario de Arenas thought of the mosque at all, it was only to mutter about the jizyah from time to time—but never loudly, because the Nazarios, like the other Christians of Punta Aguila, however valued, however ancient their roots, knew that they lived there only on sufferance.
But Bianca would sketch the aircraft, too, the swift gliders and lumbering flying boats and stately dirigibles, and these drawings she did not have to hide; in fact for many years her father would encourage her, explaining this and that aspect of their construction, gently correcting errors of proportion and balance in Bianca's drawings; would let her listen in while he taught the family profession to her brothers, Jesús the older, Pablo the younger.
This lasted until shortly before Bianca's quinceañera, when Jesús changed his name to Walíd and married a moro's daughter, and Bianca's mother delivered a lecture concerning the difference between what was proper for a child and what was proper for a young Christian woman with hopes of one day making a good marriage.
It was only a handful of years later that Bianca's father died, leaving a teenaged Pablo at the helm of his engineering business; and only Bianca's invisible assistance and the pity of a few old clients had kept contracts and money coming into the Nazario household.
By the time Pablo was old enough to think he could run the business himself, old enough to marry the daughter of a musical instrument maker from Tierra Ceniza, their mother was dead, Bianca was thirty, and even if her dowry had been half her father's business, there was not a Christian man in Rio Pícaro who wanted it, or her.
And then one day Pablo told her about the extrañado contract that had been brought to the ayuntamiento, a contract that the ayuntamiento and the Guild had together forbidden the Christian engineers of Punta Aguila to bid on—a contract for a Spanish-speaking aeronautical engineer to travel a very long way from Rio Pícaro and be paid a very large sum of money indeed.
Three months later Bianca was in Quito, boarding an elevator car. In her valise was a bootleg copy of her father's engineering system, and a contract with the factor of a starship called the Caliph of Baghdad, for passage to Sky.
4. THE KILLING GROUND
The anemopter's destination was a zaratán called Encantada, smaller than the giant Finisterra but still nearly forty kilometers from nose to tail, and eight thousand meters from gray-white keel to forested crest. From a distance of a hundred kilometers, Encantada was like a forested mountain rising from a desert plain, the clear air under its keel as dreamlike as a mirage. On her pocket system, Bianca called up pictures from Sky's network of the alpine ecology that covered the hills and valleys of Encantada's flanks: hardy grasses and small warm-blooded creatures and tall evergreens with spreading branches, reminding her of the pines and redwoods in the mountains west of Rio Pícaro.
For the last century or so Encantada had been keeping company with Zaratán Finisterra, holding its position above the larger beast's eastern flank. No one, apparently, knew the reason. Fry being the expert, Bianca had expected him to at least have a theory. He didn't even seem interested in the question.
"They're beasts, Nazario," he said. "They don't do things for reasons. We only call them animals and not plants because they bleed when we cut them."
They were passing over Finisterra's southern slopes. Looking down, Bianca saw brighter, warmer greens, more shades than she could count, more than she had known existed, the green threaded through with bright ribbons of silver water. She saw the anemopter's shadow, a dark oblong that rode the slopes and ridges, ringed by brightness—the faint reflection of Sky's sun behind them.
And just before the shadow entered the larger darkness that was the shadow of Encantada, Bianca watched it ride over something else: a flat green space carved out of the jungle, a suspiciously geometric collection of shapes that could only be buildings, the smudge of chimney smoke.
"Fry—" she started to say.
Then the village, if that's what it was, was gone, hidden behind the next ridge.
"What?" said Fry.
"I saw—I thought I saw—"
"People?" asked Fry. "You probably did."
"But I thought Sky didn't have any native sentients. Who are they?"
"Humans, mostly," Fry said. "Savages. Refugees. Drug farmers. Five generations of escaped criminals, and their kids, and their kids." The naturalist shrugged. "Once in a while, if the Consilium's looking for somebody in particular, the wardens might stage a raid, just for show. The rest of the time, the wardens fly their dope, screw their women…and otherwise leave them alone."
"But where do they come from?" Bianca asked.
"Everywhere," Fry said with another shrug. "Humans have been in this part of space for a long, long time. This is one of those places people end up, you know? People with nowhere else to go. People who can't fall any farther."
Bianca shook her head and said nothing.
The poacher camp on Encantada's eastern slope was invisible until they were almost upon it, hidden from the wardens' satellite eyes by layers of projected camouflage. Close up, the illusion seemed flat, its artificiality obvious, but it was still not until the anemopter passed through the projection that the camp itself could be seen: a clear-cut swath a kilometer wide and three times as long, stretching from the lower slopes of Encantada's dorsal ridge down to the edge of the zaratán's cliff-like flank. Near the edge, at one corner, there was a small cluster of prefabricated bungalows; but at first it seemed to Bianca that most of the space was wasted.
Then she saw the red churned into the brown mud of the cleared strip, saw the way the shape of the terrain suggested the imprint of a gigantic, elongated body.
The open space was for killing.
"Sky is very poor, Miss Nazario," said Valadez, over his shoulder.
The poacher boss looked to be about fifty, stocky, his hair still black and his olive skin well-tanned but pocked with tiny scars. His Spanish was a dialect Bianca had never heard before, strange and lush, its vowels rich, its hs breathy as Bianca's js, its js warm and liquid as the ys of an Argentine. When he said fuck your mother—and already, in the hour or so Bianca had been in the camp, she had heard him say it several times, though never yet to her—the madre came out madri.
About half of the poachers were human, but Valadez seemed to be the only one who spoke Spanish natively; the rest used Sky's dialect of bazaar Arabic. Valadez spoke that as well, better than Bianca did, but she had the sense that he'd learned it late in life. If he had a first name, he was keeping it to himself.
"There are things on Sky that people want," Valadez went on. "But the people of Sky have nothing of interest to anybody. The companies that mine the deep air pay some royalties. But mostly what people live on here is Consilium handouts."
The four of them—Bianca, Fry, and the firija, Ismaíl, who as well as being an anemopter pilot seemed to be Valadez's servant or business partner or bodyguard, or perhaps all three—were climbing the ridge above the poachers' camp. Below them workers, some human, some firija, a handful of other species, were setting up equipment: mobile machines that looked like they belonged on a construction site, pipes and cylindrical tanks reminiscent of a brewery or a refinery.
"I'm changing that, Miss Nazario." Valadez glanced over his shoulder at Bianca. "Off-world, there are people—like Ismaíl's people here"—he waved at the firija—"who like the idea of living on a floating island, and have the money to pay for one." He swept an arm, taking in the camp, the busy teams of workers. "With that money, I take boys out of the shantytowns of Sky's balloon stations and elevator gondolas. I give them tools, and teach them to kill beasts.
"To stop me—since they can't be bothered to do it themselves—the Consilium takes the same boys, gives them guns, and teaches them to kill men."
The poacher stopped and turned to face Bianca, jamming his hands into the pockets of his coat.
"Tell me, Miss Nazario—is one worse than the other?"
"I'm not here to judge you, Mr. Valadez," said Bianca. "I'm here to do a job."
Valadez smiled. "So you are."
He turned and continued up the slope. Bianca and the firija followed, Fry trailing behind. The path switchbacked through unfamiliar trees, dark, stunted, waxy-needled; these gave way to taller varieties, including some that Bianca would have sworn were ordinary pines and firs. She breathed deeply, enjoying the alpine breeze after the crowds-and-machines reek of Transient Meridian's teeming slums, the canned air of ships and anemopters.
"It smells just like home," she remarked. "Why is that?"
No one answered.
The ridge leveled off. They came out into a cleared space, overlooking the camp. Spread out below them Bianca saw the airfield, the globular tanks and pipes of the poachers' little industrial plant, the bungalows in the distance—and, in between, the red-brown earth of the killing ground, stretching out to the cliff-edge and the bases of the nearest translucent fins.
"This is a good spot," Valadez declared. "Should be a good view from up here."
"A view of what?" said Fry.
The poacher didn't answer. He waved to Ismaíl, and the firija took a small folding stool out of a pocket, snapping it into shape with a flick of sinuous arms and setting it down behind him. Valadez sat.
After a moment, the answer to Fry's question came up over the edge.
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Copyright © 1998–2008 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide