There was a time when men could fly—
Bobby pressed his makeshift goggles to his freckled sunburned face, the ones he’d rigged from transparent artifacts he’d found floating on the salt flats.
—a time when people sped from continent to continent faster than the wind—
Bobby shoved his hands into gloves made of ancient vinyl he’d harvested himself from the buried city.
—skimming over empty oceans, gliding over barren mountains, traversing the endless deserts without even touching the sand—
Bobby puffed his cheeks out and climbed into the cockpit he’d made of rusty metal and panes of antique treasure glass.
—an ancient time when men could descend below the edge of the world and soar back up the other side—
Bobby looked behind him at the giant cloth he’d laid out carefully on the cliff top. He’d quilted it from bits of anything he could find. Shredded pieces of tarpaulin, rags of oiled canvas, squares of thin black plastic he’d had to double up so it could hold a stitch.
—a time when men were masters of earth and sky and masters of their destiny!
Bobby looked down past the cliff's sheer drop. The desert dunes washed drily into the distance and his little village looked like toy huts someone had pushed up against the rocks.
He tugged the tether ropes one more time, checking they were hitched up tight where he’d tied them to the cockpit, then he blew out three quick breaths and rested his hand on the lever holding him from falling into space.
“I am the master of my destiny,” he whispered to himself.
“I am the master of my destiny,” he chanted again.
“I AM THE MASTER OF MY DESTINY!” he shouted and jerked the lever.
The metal cockpit screeched against the stony cusp, then plunged from solid overhang into open air. Tether ropes hissed as they snaked across the ledge, and for an instant Bobby thought they’d left the wing behind. His body had no weight as he was falling, falling, falling, then the wing appeared above him, twisting in the wind. He pushed the tether ropes apart, he couldn’t let them tangle! He shook them once, shook them twice, then the quilted fabric blossomed.
“Whoooooooeeeeee!” Bobby hollered as the creaking tethers held him careening through the sky. This must be what freedom is! The rushing all around him, the coursing in his veins, the world spread small beneath him like a map of conquered things. Though he was just a boy, he was like the men of old, a master of the sky!
The cockpit shuttered in a gust of wind, and the wing above him groaned, and he noticed, though he soared, the ground was creeping up to meet him.
It takes heat to stay aloft, at least that’s what Terddle’d told him, and Bobby’d found some deep inside the city. Rarer than the plastics or the metals or even than the glass, he’d found a canister of fire his simple flint could light.
He twisted in his seat and grasped the knob behind him. He turned it till he heard the hissing, then he sparked his flint. The flames that billowed out were much bigger than he’d counted on. He watched them for a moment, wondering what to do. He hadn’t thought they’d burn the tethers.
Bobby braced himself as the cockpit listed sideways, giving him a view of all the clear-aired nothingness piled tall between him and the duney earth straight down. He didn’t like to look at that, so he pointed his eyes back up ahead. The crippled wing arced the cockpit around back the way it’d come, which didn’t help at all with the cliff face standing firm in that direction. Solid rock or sand dune? Bobby didn’t like his choices.
The burning tethers decided for him.
The quilted wing, now smoking black, went limp and fluttered away. The cockpit dipped its nose towards shimmering waves of sand.
As he fell, Bobby wondered what the villagers thought of him, trailing flame and hurtling towards their huts. By his reckoning, there was still a chance he’d hit a dune before he reached them, but only just.
The cockpit clipped the crest of the tallest dune just outside the village, splashing sand like a gritty, dry corona. It took a bounce, then skidded hard down the leeward slope, shedding shards of glass and crumpled metal as it went. By the time it reached the village only the canister was left, fizzling as it rolled down in between the huts. Bobby blew the sand out of his teeth and flopped back against the dune, surrounded by the rest of the debris.
“I oughtta run you right outta of this town.” Meechum spit in the sand as he leaned over Bobby, a little bit of juice catching in his dirty beard. “I take you in, give you a share of our manna, give you a drip of our water when we don’t have none extra, and you do this?” Meechum gestured at the scattered wreckage. Behind him, the gathered villagers murmured in agreement.
“It almost worked,” Bobby tried to explain, “you must have seen, I was flying, like the ancients!”
“Ha!” Meechum threw back his hairy head, laughing in derision, “And I suppose for your next trick you’ll make food come out of the ground and water fall out of the sky, ‘just like the ancients.’”
“But Terddle said—”
“What Terddle says ain’t worth a fist of sand, boy!” Meechum shouted. He reached a single ham-sized hand down, grabbed Bobby by the shirt and lifted him up onto his feet, “Now, you listen to me. In this town there’s only two things that matter. The Manna and The Drip. If either of those contraptions stop working, we’re done. Dead. Nothing left of us but dried husks. You know that, dontcha boy?” Meechum’s eyes bulged with rage.
Bobby nodded his hanging head.
“Your job is to bring me everything—everything—you find out on the flats and down in that city so I can keep those contraptions humming, so I can keep us all alive,” Meechum narrowed his eyes and lowered his voice to a desiccated hiss, “and you do this!”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Bobby said, “I just thought—”
“I’ll tell you what you thought. You thought you were better than the rest of us, didn’t you? You thought that just because the Devil gave you the knack for finding things, you could keep a king’s ransom worth of pickings for yourself, and then burn ‘em up just for your own entertainment while everybody else died of hunger and thirst? Is that what you thought?”
Meechum let go of Bobby’s shirt and the boy fell back in the sand, “Did you bust yourself up bad?”
Bobby ached everywhere. He was sure his face was burned, he thought maybe his ribs were broken, and he hadn’t really tried to move his legs yet because they hurt so much, but he shook his head, “I ain’t busted up.”
Meechum turned and walked back towards the huts. “That’s good. The tide’s due up the flats tonight. You better bring me something special if you wanna stay in this town.”
“Well, how did it work?” Terddle’s old, quavering voice asked when Bobby ducked gingerly inside the mud hut. The hut’s only light came down through a hole at the top of the conical ceiling and Terddle’s frail form was hunched on the floor at the edge of the beam. He held a ratty piece of paper inches from his face, tilted at an angle to catch the light.
Bobby sighed, and slumped against the wall.
“Let me guess, that ruckus outside was you?”
“Yeah. I flew, Terddle, but only for a minute.” Bobby explained everything that happened.
“Hmm,” Terrdle stroked the papery skin that wobbled under his chin, “went up in flames huh? Well, it’s always a little tricky making something new from something old. Maybe it woulda been better to go with either the glider or the balloon. They might not have been meant to be mixed together. It’s hard to tell with all these out of order papers, though.”
“It took me months to find all that stuff,” Bobby said, “and all I’ve got to show for it is a set of singed off eyebrows and a whole village that hates me.”
“Nonsense, they’ll only be upset for a while.”
“They’re always upset with me, except for when I’m finding pickings for ‘em. Meechum as much as said that’s the only reason he doesn’t throw me out.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about Meechum. He’s more scared than mean. Give it some years and I bet you’ll be the one tending the machines and everybody’ll want to be on your good side. And I bet you’ll be the one that figures out all the other things those machines can do that Meechum don’t believe in.”
“No way!” Bobby shook his head, “I won’t be here in a few years. I’ll figure out a way to leave before then, even if Meechum doesn’t throw me out.”
“Now don’t go saying things like that. A boy like you can do a lot of good to a place like this.”
Bobby snorted, “You’re just the same as them, you only want me to stay so I’ll keep bringing you the papers I find.”
“I do appreciate you bringing me my papers, Bobby. Here, take a look at this one.”
Bobby took the delicate, water stained sheet. Bobby couldn’t read, but there weren’t many words. Instead, it was covered with a series of small boxes, each containing a colored drawing of a man in tight clothes with shiny black hair. Bobby could see the drawings told a story, but all he cared about was what the man was doing. He was floating through the air without the help of any machine.
“What is this?” Bobby asked, “did you figure out another way of flying?”
“Well,” Terddle shrugged, “I can’t say for sure. The hard thing about only getting bits and pieces of things is figuring which of them are true and which are lying. I can say that most of the ancients used planes for flying or some other machine. But there are few that seemed to get around all on their own.”
“It’s gotta be true.” Bobby held the paper closer to his eyes, “Why would anybody go to the trouble of learning how to write and draw just to tell lies? Does it say how he does it?”
Terddle shook his head, “No, it don’t. I just have the one page though.”
Bobby handed the paper back. “Well, I gotta spend the night out at the flats. The tide’s coming up. Maybe I’ll find you something.” He grabbed a pack from off the wall and bent to go back through the door.
“I’ve been thinking, destinies and pickings are kind of the same.”
“How’s that Terddle?”
“Neither one’s yours till you grab hold of it.”
The salt flats filled on certain days each year. They stretched long and flat for miles between the desert and the ocean. When the big tides came crashing over the old stone dikes, a shallow sea would form from the water trapped there. On the days the tides were far and gone away, Bobby crawled over the dikes and dug into the silt to find picking in the buried city. But most of the time the violent sea was there, and Bobby had to settle for whatever got tossed over the dikes by the raging waves.
Pickings were good tonight. They were always good for Bobby, though he couldn’t say exactly why. He just knew how to look for things. But tonight, they were extra good. He’d already found a bunch of bottles, some wads of plastic bags, and something made from aluminum. He wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but he knew Meechum would like it, ‘cause anything aluminum was good for running the machines.
There was no moon and no clouds, and Bobby could tell the tide was already moving back because the water’d gone still except for the ripples he made as he moved. He went quiet for a moment, enjoying the cool wet around his ankles. The night above was all filled up with stars, and he wondered if the ancients had ever flown up to see what made them shine. He sucked a breath of salty air and spread his arms out wide. The glassy water reflected the black and diamonds above and for a moment it seemed to Bobby like he was standing in the sky.
“This must be my destiny” he whispered, “to soar among the stars. I’ll get there. I know I will.”
A shadow passed above him, shaped just like a man. Bobby blinked, not sure if he could trust his eyes. The silent shape kept moving.
“Hey!” Bobby shouted, and went full out splashing after it. The shadow seemed to notice him. It halted, floating in the sky, then descended till it set with gentle ripples in the water.
Bobby stopped when he could see the figure in the starlight.
“Are you an ancient?”
“Naw,” The voice sounded only a little older than Bobby was himself.
“But you can fly.”
“Sure, but you don’t have to be old for that.”
Bobby stepped a little closer, the figure had a pack that looked just like his own.
“Are you out picking?”
“Yep. How’s it looking around here?”
“But you can fly!”
“Makes the picking easier. You can cover that much more ground. I bet I came three hundred miles so far tonight, and I’ll do another three or four.”
“Whatcha got in your bag?”
“You gotta tell me how to fly.”
“I’ll tell you, but information’s worth something. Whatcha got in your bag?”
Bobby held his bag out, and the stranger rummaged through it.
“Not bad. I’ll take it.” He shoved the pack and all its contents into his own sack. “You belong to a village?”
“They have a Manna and a Drip?”
“They can do a lot more than just make gooey bread and water.”
“That’s what Terddle says!”
“Well anyway, you tear apart their insides, you’ll find a thing like this.”
Something smooth and shiny glinted in the strangers palm, like half an orb of polished steel.
“What is it?”
“Don’t know, except that it's what powers those machines so’s they can turn your pickings into bread and water. And it can make you fly.”
Bobby reached a hand out to touch the glistening half-orb, but the stranger slipped it out of sight and smiled.
“You’ll have to get your own if you ever want to fly. But listen here, I’ll tell you how to make it work.”
The Mana was tall and slender, made of shiny brass with a squared off snout where the bits of bread appeared. The Drip was short and squat, with an upward sweeping spout higher than the top of Bobby’s head.
He only needed one to open.
He ran his hand along the bulging belly of The Drip. He felt it humming gently. There was no other water in this desert besides the salted, poisoned sea. No wells, no rain.
The Manna’s brassy sides hummed at a different pitch. The desert had some other foods. The village had scrounged creatures that survived beneath the sand whenever Meechum told them mana might run short.
In the dim light of the morning, Bobby searched the cylinder for cracks or crevices to pry into the inner workings. Only feet away, Meechum rested fitfully in his cot.
Bobby watched him closely, careful not to make a noise, though he almost didn’t recognize him in his sleep. He looked smaller lying there, lean and parched just like all the other villagers, his hairy head and giant hands too big for his scrawny body. He whimpered as he dreamed, and instead of anger Bobby saw his face was deeply etched with worry.
Bobby’s nimble finger found a hidden latch.
“No!” Meechum mumbled in his dreams, “husks, husks.”
Bobby hesitated, reaching for the orb.
Meechum shifted, his sleeping face bunched up in pain.
Inside the inner workings, the half orb’s mounded surface bent the boy’s reflection, made him larger than the mud hut room.
Bobby passed a hand across his forehead, felt the burn marks on his brow. He blew out three quick and silent breaths, then chose his destiny.