Author: David Barber
The flag of the Kingdom of Florida features a white ibis, and supporters of beleaguered King Rollo consider it patriotic to pin ibis feathers to their caps. After the recent troubles with Atlanta, it even looked disloyal not to.
Sept collected ibis feathers to sell in Titusville, though he made a better living if he shot ibis and plucked them bare. Of course, poaching royal birds was a hanging crime, but who would suspect a raggedy youth without a fowling piece, and carrying only a shortbow? Still, best to keep moving.
Trudging north round the Cape, with its rusting towers and shallow mosquito lagoons, Sept was musing why folk in older times ever built here, when he saw a shadow ripple along the dunes. For an instant, with the sunlight on its wings, it seemed like some great bird, until the thing flashed overhead, buffeting him wildly. No bird this. With a yelp of excitement, he set off in pursuit.
He glimpsed it perched on an open stretch of concrete, and arrived breathless just as the man was climbing down.
Even stooped as he was, the fellow stood a head taller than anyone Sept knew, and gleaming droplets hung from his thin frame at wrist and ankle; more shiny teardrops swung from his ears. He dripped like a bather rising from quicksilver.
“Don’t be alarmed,” the man called out. “I mean you no harm.”
“I ain’t alarmed,” countered Sept. This close he could put an arrow in the fellow’s eye.
“Good. But keep your distance.”
“Jus’ look at that thing!”
“What is the name of this place?”
Sept made a face at such ignorance. “Canaveral.”
“A legendary name. Those were gantries once, and launch pads.”
Sept hesitated, not wanting to sound foolish. “There’s stories about here. You one of them flying fellows come back to visit?”
“I had hoped not to be seen. Keep your distance I say.”
“Jus’ making sure it’s real,” said Sept, caressing a wing.
“After so long we might be susceptible to your diseases.”
“Feels like glass.”
“Good guess,” the man said, offhand, as he gazed about him.
“Where you from?” ventured Sept.
“A sea ship? But…”
“Just passing. I will never see you again, nor your grandchildren.”
“Grandkids!” mocked Sept. “How old you think I am?”
The fellow shook his head, jingling like a wind chime. “There is something about ancient places.”
Sept pictured himself telling this tale, and knew some of the fellow’s trinkets would be convincing.
“Here is where it all began. Then you abandoned it. Do you know why?”
He was not from round here, Sept said, edging closer.
“You went your way and we ours. Are you happy with your choice?”
“What’s wrong with your eyes?”
The man shrugged, tinkling. “So fragile, the past.” He sounded disappointed.
Sept sized him up. He’d seen unlikely fellows before who proved quick with a hidden blade. And his craft did have something of the hawk about it; the way it kind of bristled when you got close; a feeling that it watched.
“No, they were right,” the man said. “Going back’s a mistake.”
The moment to act passed, and Sept watched as the thing dwindled into the sky with a sound like wind in an organ pipe. Turning away, he caught a glint on the concrete. A silver droplet.
Generations of their wearers had gone through fierce selection in high radiation environments, retroviruses boiling from their DNA. Two days later, in a crowded Titusville tavern, Sept collapsed, crying that his eyes must burst.
The start of what survivors called the Weeping Plague.
Really wonderfully wrought, David. This is another of the stories here that I find myself reading over and over, and I get something new with each read. Great stuff.