Islands in the Sky

Chapter One

 

Sema sat at the edge of the island, staring out into the sky. It was dusk, and birds were screeching, and the night was coming swiftly. As the sun fell below the horizon the hot ember glow of the surface, far below, became more obvious, a warm orange shimmer like a slow-burning hearth in the middle of the night. On a cloudless night, like tonight, the surface made enough light to see by, anywhere except the middle of the island, in deep among the trees.

Sema was playing the old game of tossing rocks out into sky and watching them float, alongside the island, keeping face with it among the other dirt and rubble that had slipped from its edges. She watched, seeing patterns, the same way clouds formed patterns in the sky.

Sometimes, she threw sticks at the floating rocks, trying to land one on the other, but it was harder than it seemed. They were always caught by the wind and floated aside and missed, and then tumbled, end over end, miles down to the unseen surface.

She watched rocks, and threw sticks, and every so often she glanced over at the other island.

A mile away, now, out across the empty sky. It seemed empty, abandoned, a little forlorn. Many of the smaller islands were, because people had sought the company of others in the years after the Rising, and a lot of islands like this, smaller islands that would barely support more than a few dozen families, those had never been resettled.

The other island was drifting on much the same path Sema’s island was. It was drawing closer, but only slowly. They had been watching it for a week, from here, out at the northernmost peninsular of their island. Watching for danger, and watching with greed, too, hoping the islands would touch, and they could tie them together and climb across to loot it.

They needed to find a hoard of the Ancients possessions. They were running short of much they needed, of plastics and medicine and ammunition that had been saved from the olden times. They needed water, too, and food would help a lot. Their island was overpopulated with almost fifty souls, so that every year, little by little, they grew hungrier. As well, for a year or two now, their island had been drifting through a warmer part of the sky. They had been short of rain, and had trouble growing their barley, and all their supplies were running low.

An encounter with a new island was a boon. If people hadn’t been standing on that particular of land during the rising, there could be all manner of relics of the old times there. As well, they could bind the islands together, for islands were mysteriously so light a stout rope could bind two onto the same path in the sky. They could bind the islands, and build a bridge between the two, and then have more land to farm, and more places to catch water, and the hope of better land and soil, too. They could hope for more fertile soils, over there, better soils from a distant part of the world to the dirt that made up their own island. They could hope for wild animals to hunt, and so fresh food that didn’t require a painful decision between meat now and milk or eggs later. They could hope for wood, or trapped rainwater, or some place to build a new weir or dam and increase their water supplies dramatically. Most of all they could hope for relics of the past, metals and plastics for repairing houses and perhaps even medicines, that they might be able to discover the use of.

Everything would be good once the islands touched, so Sema watched, and waited, as she had been for a week when it was her turn, wondering when it would happen, and when the islands would touch.

 

*

 

This is the history of the world.

First there was magic. Then there was none. And then there was magic again.

The ancients, those wonderworkers of metal and plastic and air, they did not believe in magic. They looked at their world and saw no magic and told themselves that no magic now meant that therefore magic could never be.

They believed the history of the world had been thus. First people believed wrongly in magic. Then wisely, they did not. And that was as the world was, forever.

But they were wrong. They were wrong about everything, because they did not know that the world could change.

This is the true history of the world.

First there had been magic. And then there had been none. And then there was magic once again.

And with that magic came the awakening, and the war, which some now call the God’s War, in which those with magic tried to defeat those with none, and when both had been evenly matched. So then there was short, awful war in which unimaginable numbers of people died, as gods fought heroes, and emotionless war-machines, too. There was a war, and a burning of the land and skies, and plagues and famine and all manner of devastation.

And then there was the rising, although none knew why.

Some weapon, or some mixing of magic and the tools of the ancients, or perhaps just the hand of god for god’s own mysterious reasons, had cracked the world asunder and lifted it into the sky. Now the surface of the world floated, some miles above the glow of hot broken rock that was the actual surface. All the surface of the world had been made into islands, larger and smaller, covered in grass or trees or ocean or the ancients’ cities, although the ocean waters had run off almost right away. The islands floated, through who knew what power. They floated, weightless, all at around the same height in the sky, apparently light enough that the winds blew them into columns which floated alongside one another, and a rope tied between two trees could pull two islands together. That light, but not so light that heavy rain would make an island sink and settled.

That had been the end of the war. That had been the end of everything. Now magic was gone again, so everyone said. Magic was gone, with the effort of lifting the world into the sky. Gone, or at least used up in that deed.

Magic was gone and the old times were too. They were stories, little more. Now there were only islands, and eking out an existence, and hoping for the wealth and comfort that the windfall of an unscavenged island could bring.

 

*

 

Sema sat, idly, as the dusk grew deeper, watching the other island in the dull red glow of the surface far below.

She should go back the village and find someone to take her place here and begin to prepare her family’s dinner. She should, but she waited a little longer all the same. The village was work, and chores, and being shouted at. It was noise and people and being too crowded, all of the time.

The island was two miles long and half a mile wide, and fifty or so people lived there. It was difficult to get away from people, except at the farthest parts of the island.

In the time of the ancients, before the rising, the island had been a village called a suburb and a forest called a park, so Sema’s grandmother said. She had explained it to Sema once, pointing to the older, squarer houses, made of old-times materials, smooth plasters and hard rooves and big wide plates of glass. She had pointed to the sticky clean mud used for roads in the old times, smooth, except on the hottest of days, and she had showed Sema the metal playground Sema had used as a child, and said that was where the old park had begun.

Now the old-times houses were built in and around with newer ones, as families sought space, and divided those houses into separate apartments, and added lean-tos and awnings to the sides. Now the spaces between houses were filled through with rainwater tanks, and animal pens, and sooty marks from the outside cooking fires that were used when a whole animal was roasted. Now the park was dug up for crops, and pigs grazed in the forest, and even the forest itself was tangled and wild and no longer groomed, as Sema’s grandmother said it had once been. Although, at least they had a forest, it was often said. That was a thing to be grateful for, that the people of their island, long ago, early in the disaster, had realized the danger of cutting down all their trees and leaving none. They hadn’t cut too many, so there were still trees, for fuel and shade, and Sema’s people were very glad of that, for there were stories of islands with shortages of trees or crops, or with the land made entirely of the old-times rock, and how difficult life was in those places.

Sema sat, thinking. She liked it out here, at the point, at the far end of the island from the village. It was quiet out here, away from other people. Quietness was something she rarely had.

All the same, she knew she ought to stand up.

She waited another few moments, until the dusk was almost done. She sat there, idly resting, glad of the chance to.

She glanced around, and was about to stand, when she saw movement across on the other island.

She saw movement, and stayed still and watched, unsure if she’d seen what she thought. There might be animals over there, she supposed. There were no people, everyone was sure of that. They had all called out, time after time, when the island first came into view. There were no people over there, everyone said, but there might still be animals.

Sema watched, still and quiet, hoping to see whatever it had been again. Hoping to bring some good news back home when she went.

She waited, and peered into the darkness, and saw movement again.

She saw movement, and saw people, and was suddenly confused.

She didn’t understand why they had hidden themselves. She didn’t understand what they were doing in the darkness, now. She saw people, and something made her keep quiet, and watch cautiously, instead of calling out.

She watched as a group of people on the other island uncovered a shape. She couldn’t tell what it was, as they worked. Something long and narrow and made of wood. Something so light it slid easily at their shoving. It been on their island’s shoreline, at the edge of the sky, beneath some trees at the edge of the crack where the island’s surface fell away. It had been covered by scrub, and possibly by some kind of green cloth, and hidden in a crevice where rainwater was finding new channels to the edge of the land.

Sema didn’t understand why they had hidden whatever it was. She didn’t understand, so she watched, uncertain, as they all pushed it out into the sky.

She should have shouted, she should have called out a greeting. She didn’t, because something seemed wrong. There was something furtive about this, uncovering hidden things in the darkness.

She watched for a moment, instead.

The group pushed their shape out to the edge of the island, and off, which made Sema think for a moment it was a funeral. That was what her island did, sliding a coffin off into the sky, to fall through the heavens to the hot surface below. She thought for a moment it was that, perhaps with some custom of silent mourning and evening burial, and that was why these people had never answered her island’s shouts.

She wondered, and watched, but soon realized she was wrong. This shape was larger than a coffin, almost as large as a whole room of a house, but it was longer and thinner than most rooms were. It was a box, big enough for all of them to sit inside, a dozen or so people, and when they pushed to the edge, and it slid off, the shape settled beside the island, in the sky. It floated, like a rock would, but was clearly something else, made of wood.

It floated, and then they began to climb inside.

Sema could hear voices. Low murmurs, as they climbed inside their box. She could hear, she realized, because the wind was blowing from their island to hers. It had changed in the last few hours, and for several days it had been the other way.

She listened, still, trying to decide what to do. She listened, hoping to hear some words to explain all this, feeling fortunate the wind had changed to let her try and listen.

The people on the other island climbed into their box, and raised a pole from the centre of it, and a cloth fastened at the top fell down and away from that pole. The cloth caught the wind, and spread it out, and suddenly their box began to move.

It floated out into the sky between the two islands.

Suddenly Sema understood. Suddenly she knew what this was. She’d seen pictures in the books she’d looked as a child, the books her grandmother had read to her.

It was a boat, she realized, and the wind would push it across to her. A boat, like pirates had. She had heard stories of those too.

Suddenly she was afraid. Suddenly she was terrified.

She looked once more, and then began to run. She ran back towards the village, as fast as she could, but she had taken too long, watching. Now it had the wind, the boat was moving far faster than she was.

She couldn’t even keep up, let alone hope to catch it.

 

*

 

Sema ran.

The forest was still, and the darkness in among the trees was deep. Narrow branches, invisible in the gloom, whipped at her and scratched her face.

Sema ran, but she knew she was going to be too late. By the time she could reach the village, at the far end of the island, the strangers in the boat would have had time to sail down the island, and around the southern point, and catch the village unawares.

This was all her fault, for waiting and watching. She should have started to run as soon as she saw the boat.

She ran, knowing it was hopeless.

A thousand paces from the village she was almost out of breath. Her legs ached and her chest hurt and she was gasping for air.

Then, suddenly, she smelled smoke, and began to run faster.

Something was terribly wrong.

She kept running, but cautiously now, trying to see what was ahead. She had planned to run into the village, shouting a warning, calling out that something was wrong, but she changed her mind. The smoke meant people already knew something was wrong.

She kept going toward the village because it was all she could think of to do. She went forward carefully, stumbling now and then. Around her, the forest had become unnaturally still.

She reached the edge of the forest, and ran three steps out onto the raw sod furrows of ploughed earth in the fields which surrounded the houses. She burst out, and then stopped. From here she ought to be able to see across the fields to the village, but she couldn’t. All she could see was a dark haze of smoke, thick in the last twilight, hanging in the air.

Something was on fire, and badly so. The dried standing grass in the pastures, perhaps, or the last of the winter hay. Perhaps the roof of one of the newer houses. Those were thatch, not the ancient’s stones and metals, and would burn if they caught.

Perhaps all of those.

Sema hesitated, then began to walk forward, unsure what else to do. She made her way across the ploughed fields, avoiding the path, slipping and stumbling over clods. The wheat plants were only two hands high this early in the summer, and didn’t block her way. She tried not to stand on them anyway, almost without thinking about it.

She walked forward, listening. She heard flames, and she heard low voices, but the voices were not nearly as loud as she had expected. She expected shouting. People calling out about the fire, organizing water to put it out, and warning one another. She expected screams, and panic too, but there was nothing.

Just low voices she didn’t recognise, and a terrible strange silence, and once she was very close, the roar of flames.

She walked around the edge of the nearest house, Jenk Limpleg’s. It was one of the ancient’s buildings, with their square-stone walls, but the roof had been rethatched with grass sometime in the past. Now the roof was on fire. She looked up as she neared it and saw flames flickering in the thick smoke.

The smoke was thick enough here that she wanted to cough quite badly. She made herself not. She had learned to stop herself coughing and sneezing playing hiding games as a child. The village was small enough and crowded enough she had needed that trick, or she would never have been able to hide successfully. She had been glad of it then, and she was very glad of it now.

She made herself not cough, and walked along the space between Jenk’s house and the one next to it, Missi and Tothan’s, past the woodpiles and animal pens. The animals were gone. The people were gone.

She stopped, suddenly nervous, reluctant to step out into the open common space in the middle of the village. She stood there, uncertain, wondering what to do. If she walked any further, she would no longer be hidden. Out there, every doorway in the village would be facing towards her, and anyone left alive would be able to see her clearly.

It seemed like she ought to want that. She should want people to see her. Suddenly she wasn’t sure she did, though.

Suddenly that seemed something to fear.

She stood there, watching, making herself not cough, hearing the roar of flames. She stood there, hidden by the smoke, knowing she was too late.

She stood as long as she could stand to, terribly afraid, listening to the silence in what had been her village, and then she turned around and walked away, back into the forest.

 

*

 

Sema’s village was on fire. Many people were dead. Most of the people were dead, Sema thought, watching from the forest, and those that hadn’t been killed right away, they were by morning when she could see properly.

Sema watched, and began to realize how lucky she had been. The strangers were stealing and murdering and worse. They must be pirates, Sema decided. She had been right about that. She still didn’t understand, though. She didn’t understand why people would do this. Why they would be so cruel. She watched, from the edge of the forest, helpless to do anything.

She stayed still and quiet, and waited for the pirates to go.

It was all she was able to do.

The pirates stayed for two days. They brought a rope across from their island, in their boat. They pulled the two islands together, and transferred the village’s possession over to their own, using their boat and some planks to make a bridge. They took all the livestock, some grain and apples from the village’s orchard, some plastics and clothing and some spare pieces of metal.

They had tried to burn the houses, but many had not burned well. Enough to damage them, but not to be consumed completely, because the wood the ancients used for their buildings wasn’t like ordinary wood, and didn’t burn especially well. The pirates had burned what they could, though, the wood-piles and apple orchard and the almost-ripe barley standing in the fields, which seemed stupid and a waste. They had gone through the houses, searching, breaking things, turning things over, and ruining what was left.

They killed everyone, and stole what they could, and did their best to destroy the rest. They did all that, and then they untied their island and floated away.

And all that time Sema stayed hidden.

All that time and longer.

The pirate island floated beside hers for a week, while the smell of soot and ash filled the air. Soot and ash and the smell of rotting from the dead. It rained once, which seemed to make the smell worse. Animals ate Sema’s family, and the bodies of people she knew. Crows, which always appeared from the empty sky when any livestock were slaughtered, and a fox, too, which Sema had never known was on the island. Sema watched, and mourned, but didn’t let herself think about it too much, or care.

She couldn’t do anything. She had to stay hidden, in case anyone from the pirate island looked across and saw her, and then came back to get her.

She waited, while slowly the pirate’s island drifted away.

She realized, after a while, watching, that there were sails rigged among the pirate island’s trees. Their whole island was a boat, sailing sideways to the wind, crossing the paths of other islands, like Sema’s, letting them find new prey.

She watched, and waited, as they moved further away. She crept out to drink in the darkness of night, from a tap on a rainwater tank on the far side of the houses from the pirates that was undamaged, although it tasted of ash. She ate very little all week, only some of last years apples, shrivelled and dry. She wasn’t especially hungry, so that didn’t matter very much.

Mostly she hid, and stayed quiet, and alone, and wept when she had to.

Everything she’d ever known was dead, and it was her fault it had happened, and for a while she considered jumping from the island and having done with it all.

She was guilty, and lonely, and being entirely practical, she was going to starve in winter anyway, or die of the cold without proper shelter. The island was drifting north, and had been for several years. It would get much colder as the seasons changed. Cold enough there might be snow, despite the heat from the surface beneath. It would be cold, and the summers crops were burned, and the pigs and chickens were gone, and the only food left was a few apples.

Sema would starve once winter came, unless she could get to another island.

She barely knew what to do.

part 2 >>