“Song of the Julara”
by Gary Baker, March 2012
(continual pieces to a larger project)
PART1: the surface
Hugh Donegan lifted his left hand, scrubbed it through his long, silky, blonde hair and pulled a few strands out from the tail hanging low on his neck. A warm breeze picked up, bringing the scents of mulch, rot, and the thick musty stagnancy of floor-level decay. Shaking his head lightly he pulled a small once-white cloth, soaked with sweat and dirt, and wiped it across the deep woody-bronze of his face mask and goggles.
He hated having to wear these contraptions, hated having to tromp through sticky mud and debris to get to the surface laboratory every day, and hated the fact that after seven long years they still had no clue as to how the humans might ever move back and repopulate the surface world.
It had been centuries upon centuries since the last human had ever stepped foot on these grounds, back then calling the terrain tropical--but the idea that humans had ever lived down here, Hugh assumed was no less than a fairy tale propagated by the various religions across the cloud cities. According to their myths: a great Cataclysm, aptly named just that by religious leaders, struck the planet like a vicious blow in the boxing ring, and sent humans high into the sky when a deadly toxin began to blanket the world. This toxin dramatically changed things in various ways, never quite killing right off the bat but
allowing intense mutation on the genetic scale. In the beginning, it had been recorded that humans had reached a climactic high in the dawn of technology and that, when the toxins arose, the genes that propelled intelligence began to undermine the genes for survival. Within a decade, the planets elderly had given way to unforeseen plagues while the younger generations began to spew mystical notions in their sleep that baffled scientists and local psychologists.
Then the flora began to morph. Deserts suddenly appeared in the middle of dense jungles, and jungles at the poles; corals vanished in all but a few select places, and fisheries switched their predator-prey relationships as if in reverse. When common worms began to increase into sizable carnivorous beasts, and children began disappearing from school playgrounds beside gaping tunnels that were previously unseen, the coalition of governments banded together and found a cipher to the baffling ideas that children often cried out in slumber.
These ideas, as it turned out, had become the way that humans could survive as it loosely translated to laboratory-generated floating islands.
So as the toxic mists grew thicker, and began to corner entire countries in their own damnation, the rich put all that they could into amassing gigantic cities in the skies. The wealthy went first as dictated by natural rights, followed by tradesmen and the common bourgeoisie to maintain the flotation devices, all followed by the desperate who hung from the wings of ancient transport aircraft. The world had lost more than half its human population, with over four billion simply never to be heard from again, in less than fifteen years from the day the Cataclysm struck.
Or so the Gospel said as it indicted the sacrilegious affairs of ancient times each morning to the men under Celestian rule.
Time had played out as if in scriptures over the next few millennia, and the realm of the sky flourished post-grief. The first city, named Celestia after the ancient belief in a city of the gods, grew as time went on. The commonplace buildings became towers of glass and carbon, with space-flight initiated by the ancestors of American scientists enabling surface mining on the moon and neighboring planets to bring in more materials.
Hugh gazed at the thumbnail sketch of the old world painted on the brown metal hull of his transportation airship, showing what the Gospel officials called countries. Evidently, his ancestors were among those who had come from a land known as Sweden and spoke a complicated verse that had vanished shortly after, whom had also pushed the hardest when it came to fleeing the planet altogether.
The brown metal hull of the ship known as La Foray arced up lightly to the sides and met wooden railing at the perimeter. In the center of the ship a massive ball-like engine held rotating cogs pushed by two steam turbines on either side, all hidden by glinting steel housing that kept things safely insured. Sprouting from the engines tip, was a thick blackened-metal bar that connected to a titan rotor blade for lift.
All-in-all the ship was a relic, with the hull slowly being replaced by moon-mined aluminum alloy and the steam turbines the same by a new magnetic memory-cell form of energy. These new energy conductors were said to be able to power a ship in sight of the sun indefinitely, with no outside resources needed to do so.
"Hugh," the deep rough voice of his marked companion brought him back to the moment, and he turned to face the speaker. The man was a typical Celestial soldier garbed with heavy black boots, pants and jacket that were meant to camouflage amidst the dense jungle, and the same metallic face mask beneath a pair of coruscating goggles issued only to men bound for the surface.
"What is it, Marlin?" His voice came out muffled, as if the masks were there to keep humanity silent and provoke cronyism in all who traversed the surface.
"Doctor Hugh, we need to move quickly. As you may know, this region is known to be excessively dangerous at night when predators come to size-up the ship--far more than what two stock rifles can defend against."
"But why must we do this anyways?" Hugh sighed with exasperation. "The Ministry has no idea just how hard it would be to cultivate oxygen-bearing plants from seeds after all this time."
Marlins eyes told the scientist that he was only here for the pay, and could care less otherwise. "Because we have orders to try and produce mitigation zones in select regions where the greatest research might bear new results with men who make a permanent base down here."
Hugh mocked the soldier within his own thoughts for such a blatant, memorized answer, and so scowled at his companion. "Always the scripted man, aren't you, Marlin?" He teased. "When will you learn to have opinions of your own? Forget what those hot-headed diplomats say, lets explore!"
"Yes, 'explore'. I know you know the meaning--"
"Listen," Marlin leaned close, placing his left hand on Hugh's right shoulder with a slight nod "you get this taken care of, and I swear to you that I will explore all the terrain you want. But right now the Ministry claims that we need to operate this mission, and the teachings say--"
"Forget the teachings!"
Hugh stood there, a pace from the soldier named Marlin, as his own angry echo ricocheted off the infinite mass of trees, vines, and forest-floor shrubs. Marlin gave the scientist a fierce glare and stepped back into a more formal stance. "If I were to 'forget the teachings', as you suggest, then you would be dead minutes from now." He turned to begin along the makeshift path through the walls of misty leaves and mossy roots again, using his rifle to move leaves out of his path. "Do not forget where I was trained, Dr. Donegan, for they also pay the costs of your research."
Grumbling to himself, Hugh re-tied his hair in an even tighter ponytail and hefted the rifle he had been told to carry as well. Once he began hiking through the boscage and morass again, he remembered just why the mobile laboratory strapped to his back was mocked as being five tons. "This is going to be a long day."
PART2: the sky
“Take me into you arms." She whispered, her voice like breathless winds of tropical reserve across the heavenly abyss.
Makay'Liu sat up suddenly, panting, with his right palm quickly finding its way to his eyes for shadow. A sudden cool, crisp gust of heavy wind against the soles of his dangling booted feet told him he was on the Edge Dancer, a short vessel from ancient times reconstructed to suit the pale blue heavens.
As his eyes adjusted Makay'Liu leaned onto his knees, looking beneath the hovering wooden bowsprit to peer at the sea of green mountains far below. Spires of tree-tufted stone rose like green-encrusted gray fingers among the reaching shoulders of sloping forestry and earth. Between several mountainous culminations, often hidden partially by masses of foliage, led snaking paths of pearly blue rivers. Turning this way or that, Makay'Liu could easily spot places where the water fell deep distances to crash with something beneath and create heavy clouds of mist that drifted out and skyward.
Massive winged creatures, known to his people as Julara, soared just above the canopy like specs of white and blue--though a single julara could easily cover the full deck of Makay'Liu’s craft from the tales men would often weave. It was said that the beasts were both venomous and fierce, that their talons were so sharp that they could tear through any metal--though no man that Makay'Liu knew of had ever seen one from a closer distance than a few aeronautical miles.
A section of trees suddenly shuddered, and the airy scree of a victorious catch broke the calm. In moments the same trees parted like clouds to the arcing white and blue julara that had just succeeded with its prey, holding a writhing unshapely dark object under its belly.
Intent on seeing just what the beast had caught, Makay'Liu swung his feet up and over himself in a reverse somersault, ending with his feet firmly planted on the wooden decks of the bow. The jib sail shifted lightly above his head, held fast and intact to the forestay by finger-thick twine rigging and copper clamps, while the main foremast of strengthened oak stood just behind him. The railing along the sides held silvery brackets at hand-span intervals to prevent shattering and, in many places, kept tied rigging from belaying forward or backward when pulled. The jet-stream indicator flags at the top of the foremast shifted slightly to indicate prevailing winds within another masts length in altitude, and held true just above the ropes that connected the foremast to the aft mast, with its rudder sail also tied away. Letting his gaze drift over the rigging and furled sails, Makay'Liu turned to the stern and began walking around the ships main support: a massive packet of hydrogen, held within a stretchy canvas bubble embedded where the antique cabins had once existed.
Makay'Liu's black boots clacked loudly on the deck as he paced to the helm, and the faint breeze tugged at the loose, un-tucked section of his trousers above the black leather. He let his right hand drag across the railing, over the brackets, and occasionally was forced to duck under the taut ropes, until he reached the helm at the rear.
A quick kick against a copper-boxed case of gears set the navigation dials spinning with a soft whir, and he pulled his finger-less gloves over each hand before attacking the large wheel with a rigorous yank to the right. Suddenly the ship lurched and the masts tilted to the left, until anything not tacked down would have slid and bounced over the side, then yanked just as hard to the left to set the vessel straight again. After the deck returned to a stable walkway again, Makay'Liu looked down where he had been looking earlier--now over the starboard railing.
"Where are you?" He whispered silently into the wind, searching for the julara with its prey, though it must have been long gone by this point. Desperately, he yanked down the goggles on his forehead, and flicked a switch on the right side that fluidly slid a magnifying lens into place. Suddenly he could see details of mountains deep in the distance, and scanned frantically for the beast that would be flying toward one of the spires.
Then he saw it, or what he assumed must be it--a beautiful white and blue feathered beast, with a serrated tail trailing behind its hawk-like wings -- and mentally noted the spire it headed toward, locking its coordinates in his mind while switching the lens away.
With a quick twist of an ivory crank-lever placed on the side of the helm housing, the rumbling of a rotor blade locking into a new position sent shudders through the hull. With the sails still drawn, the rotor pulled the ship down fairly quickly while sending fanned air up over the stern. A swaying crank-pulley attached to knotted rigging hanging above Makay'Liu's left side drooped within reach, and he tugged on it until the jib sail came loose from its bonds and began to catch the breeze to pull the entire craft forward.
The self-declared captain glanced over to see the julara still gliding home and took hold of the wheel and turned it lightly to the left. As the craft began jetting toward the mountainous terrain, with the rotor still drawing the ship down, the nose amiably shifted to the right, until it was aiming directly where the beast itself was headed. Makay'Liu cranked the ivory lever further and the ship seemed to lose all forward motion, instead replacing it with a sudden downward free fall.
"Come on, come on," muttering to himself, waiting for that moment when the ship would hit. He waited for the burst of energy that would tell him he had hit the target air current, one which he had seen rippling the highest trees moments ago.
Then with the loud creak of wood straining under tension, the Edge Dancer hit the bar-like jet of air, and the pilot snapped the ivory lever back into resting position. With a sudden gust of heavy gales the mist of the forestry seemed to splash outward like liquid. He then used both hands to buckle a cloth-lined metal mask over his nose and mouth, with leather belts that he tightened under his gold-ringed black dreadlocks. As if on cue, the mist swept in and consumed everything in its shifty scintillation.
The current surrounded the ship, and pressed hard into the canvas of the jib to pull the Edge Dancer along at incredible speeds. With just the jib open to the winds the ship was rocketing through open air and mist, which gave Makay'Liu reason to muse about what would happen if he had every sail unfurled. Smiling under the mask that enabled him to breath within the toxic mists of the surface world, he shook his head lightly at the ridiculousness of just how fast he could move should he find the need.
Trees taller than any Makay'Liu had ever imagined passed hastily beneath the deck and to the sides, small monstrous creatures darting over each extended branch like swarming insects, and the occasional bellow of something darker loomed out from the abyss.
But he had to make it, he would not fail this time--not when so much rode on what he had come so far to accomplish. Vara's work would not be in vain. That he had sworn this to her before she disappeared only heightened the obsessive need.
A sudden flash brought Makay'Liu deep into his memories, back before Vara had gone missing.
"There is something out there." Vara intoned softly, watching out the bright window of her manse in Kamal, a small outpost to the much-larger floating Celestian cities to the east.
"Whatever do you mean, Vara?" Makay'Liu smiled and looked up from his drawings. The graphite-sketched maps he had been working on crinkled as he set his hands, palms down, onto the sides to look it over. The map itself was of the region topography, blue lines showing zones his people had explored already, and red the regions where issues were known to occur for Platsiff ships powered by the new-age magnetic memory-cell energy. One day this skill of his would pay off, he had intoned while looking the map over carefully. Not a single known mountain peak on the surface lands was out of place by a single coordinate when compared to the green dots indicating the hovering precincts. Each region had been meticulously drawn to scale, and each bore the faint marks of erasing in many places until this final rendition was born.
Vara turned to lean on the window sill in her loose khaki slacks and tight brown turtle-neck short sleeve. The wind blew in faintly, and shifted her creamy blonde hair that she kept up in a loose twist held by a red-sheathed stiletto. Crossing her arms beneath her chest, Makay'Liu couldn't help but blush at how much he wanted her right then and there. "I don't know, Kye, something."
He had scowled in thought. "Why not just listen to the ministry, and give it up?"
Her hard stare sent chills up his spine despite the amorousness he had just been feeling. "I got a message, Kye--a real message--in a direct dialect of spoken Swahili. Do you know what that means?"
"Um, no, not really." Admittance of defeat was often better with Vara, Makay'Liu often learned and re-learned, especially when about a topic she knew more of than he did. "It rings a bell --" another glare sent more shivers across his back "-- but I cannot place where it’s from."
Sighing audibly at his naivety, Vara leaned forward as if to check the toes of her burnt sienna boots. "Swahili is a language of the ancients. It was lost to our people after the Great Cataclysm, and no one knows of it anymore."
"So then how do you know?"
"Because I found a book hidden away in the Temple outpost, that described the ways it sounded -- it was written as being one of the most common languages at the time." Her eyebrows raised with excitement suddenly, revealing star-crossed sapphire irises laced with hints of sea green. "Think about it! I got a message spoken in a dead language, that has something to do with the julara's! Do you know what this means?!"
She shoved off the window, and slammed her stiletto into the only drawn mountain peak surrounded by hundreds of red lines, with a loud thud. Her hair fell around her shoulders, and again Makay'Liu was dumbfounded by her perfection. "That somewhere near the center of all this is the answer to the age-old question: what happened to the rest of humanity after the Cataclysm?"
Makay'Liu was silent, knowing anything he said would sound like either disagreement or deliberate coo's to calm her.
"Don't make all that we have worked for be in vain, Kye, promise me that." The sheer suddenness of her longing tone, of the need kept within tomes of self-doubt, and of the wish for some grand explanation, caught Makay'Liu off guard and unsuspecting.
"I do." It was all that he could do, really, to give her what she wanted. If she had asked him to run off the perimeter right then, only to see if men could fly, he would have obeyed without question. "Vara, believe me, I do want you to succeed. I want nothing more out of life, but to see you smile; you know that."
She hesitated, still seeming to fight herself within her own head. "Then swear it." Vara pressed her gaze to his eyes, and locked the two with a look of hopeless resignation. "Swear to me that you will never let me down, that we will do this together as a team--as partners."
"I swear to you, Vara, that I will die before I give up on your--our--work. I swear I will not let it all be in vain."
Smiling as if her doubt only partially lingered, she stood tall with new found energy and bubbly excitement while replacing the stiletto into her hair again. "Good." She turned to the door, and paused while stepping out. "I'm going to go prepare the ship, but I'll be back in a couple hours to get you and the remaining gear!"
Laughing, she had strode away as giddily as a young girl who just received her first love note. She said she would come back in a couple hours.
But she never did; not then, not ever.
The glint of something metallic brought Makay'Liu back to the present, and he yanked the crank-pulley again to put the jib-sail away.
Slowly, the Edge Dancer slid through the misty expanse while losing speed with each passing moment. Ahead lay the spire he had been aiming for, less than two-hundred and fifty meters away, with a signifying tree that appeared to have been smashed against the grains by a godly hammer. "A nest." He breathed.
So the julara wasn't merely flying for its favorite perch, but for the towering grey stone structure that held its kin aloft. If only the ministry would allow such exploratory ventures on a regular basis, then perhaps the known lands might expand by leaps and bounds until they could find something useful within the topography!
As the Edge Dancer silently graced itself closer, Makay'Liu paced around the helm and to the bow along the starboard railing. Just meters beneath the hull stood insurmountably vast numbers of deep green flora and, undoubtedly, multi-hued fauna, that mingled with scents of sweet crisp petrichor and dense musky rot. Echoing calls of reptilian parrots, and bellowing climbing creatures surfaced all around the flying yacht, and a sloping mountain that passed by to the port side seemed to grow louder with each passing moment.
The nest itself came ever-closer, so that Makay'Liu could see minute details of the plant root systems that held soil and composting debris to the pale gray rocks. At this close of range, he could see that the nest was empty despite it being mostly above his line of sight. Toxic mist swirled about on his right, and he spun to see a break in the fog close up around itself without a sound.
Suddenly the whole world seemed to have been muted, and then it hit him--the nest was empty and void of the beast he had watched come here moments ago. "Son of a bitch!" He coughed, while turning to race for the helm. He knew what this all meant, he knew it was an unlikely chance to prevent the next course of action, and yet he darted across the deck to try anyways. The answer was not yet found, and thus he could not give up.
If he let death take him now, then all would have been in vain--and, most importantly, Vara would never see how much he had found out. She would never see how many more messages he had intercepted in her absence.
She would never be able to translate them for him, either, were she alive.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw a quick malignant blue shoot past and then gone. Then the same on the other side. It was toying with him, and he had no more time to hope for the best. Instantly he grabbed a latch to a small compartment near the aft mast, and threw it back with a loud smack of the metal handle on the wood planks of the hydrogen encasement. Inside were the various items Vara had insisted he keep aboard the ship at all times: a packed backpack with emergency food, in case they found an abandoned sky city; a sharpened ax, for splitting rigging in case they were boarded by pirates; a small quick-loading rifle for the same reason; several small mechanical devices, for signaling other ships; and a set of turbine-powered water filters that could fit in one’s palm. He grabbed the weaponry at first, hoping he would only need those, but then returned to grab the backpack and, as a measure of desperation, thrusted the filters into one of his pockets.
Another shot of blue amidst the toxic fog and he had the rifle out with the safety flicked off. The copper and gold metals shone with the vapor that quickly settled over it, and the silver rivets sparkled as if covered in liquid glitter. With the rifle aimed high, Makay'Liu paced his way to the stern and placed one hand on the helm.
A sudden cry, much like the one he had heard seemingly forever ago, brought his attention to a massive shadow coming right at him from the direction of the nest. Instantly his hand on the wheel shot to the right and the craft lurched left, while he let the rifle drop into place toward the diving beast.
The Edge Dancer pulled quickly back into the current of air, and Makay'Liu drew back the black-iron trigger with a deafening blast just as the beast toppled through the upper half of the aft mast toward the ground below, tearing the rudder sail and causing falling mast beams to smash through the stern railing. With the beast below him, he knew he had a moment to fix this situation, and wasted no time. He slammed the rotor lever as far up as it would go, to aim the propeller down and send him lifting high into the air. He kept his right hand held firmly on the lightweight rifle with a steady finger on the trigger, working everything else with his left hand, and tore the crank-pulley hard enough to break the ornamental metal clasp.
Suddenly the jib unfurled completely, and the craft moved with the current as it swept around the pillar of stone and foliage.
The blue blur shot skyward just behind him, and pieces of the torn-free rigging and mast beams plummeted back down. Makay'Liu panicked, he had thought the beast would be too injured to continue, after nearly impaling itself on the aft mast, but even more so because of the sure shot he had made to the monster's head.
Time was moving slower than ever before. The rudder sail dangled and flapped wildly by the two remaining ropes that held it to the ship, occasionally coming close to the helm with a whip-like motion, and the once-taut cables slacked. The mist shifted like malevolent torrents of water, and with every slight movement Makay'Liu aimed the rifle in the new direction. Everything gained an ominous tone, and the towering spire of light stone and jungle became a giant beast waiting to pounce.
Makay'Liu lifted the barrel of his rifle to the upper section of the main mast, aimed at the coils that held the sail in place, and blasted a gaping hole in the upper support beam. The main sail fell, unfurling as it went, and caught the current as well. Instantly the craft lurched forward at even greater speeds, while resonating a deep groan at the strain on the wood.
And the spine-wrenching cry of the hunting julara reverberated in the air once again.
"Too late!" He cursed angrily.
Makay'Liu spun to face the beast, coming on hard from the starboard side, and let loose three explosive shots before a collision became inevitable. With only slight hesitation, mostly out of sorrow for losing his only remaining connection to Vara, the ship captain spun to the port side railing and grabbed the backpack as the julara's long, fur-feathered neck reached over the deck with blood splattering from its left eye. He knew he had to move, now, as the massive wings and body careened toward the ship behind the beasts collar.
Even as he vaulted over the railing, Makay'Liu only realized how high up he was once he had dove away from one death, only to meet another roughly fifty meters down. If he survived this, he knew deep in his heart, then he would never live to see the floating cities again.
He knew that while the julara's roamed above the canopy like ferocious monsters of nightmarish lore, no man had ever even dreamed of seeing what roamed beneath the canopy that caused the jularas to take to the skies in the first place.
Suddenly a tangible wave of sound struck the falling sky-born man with a concussive blast, as the hydrogen balloons tore and allowed their contents to react with the mist. Makay'Liu didn't have to look up to see the ship burst into a massive ball of flames, he felt its heat sear outward and watched as flaming debris shot all around him like shrapnel from a giant fragmentation grenade.
Then the first tree branches hit, soft at first but quickly replaced by a powerful shattering uppercut of a thick baseball bat against his boots, and the lit-up oceanic canopy made way for the bitter darkness of the under-story--though by the fifth smashing tree limb, Makay'Liu lost himself to a black whiteness of his own.