Takoda is shown a sign
The fields and shops of East Shore grew sparse then nonexistent before the road dipped sharply to the west and Takoda dove into the shadow of forest on the outskirts of town. She settled into the long, bounding stride of those raised on low G worlds wondering what the future would hold outside the boundaries of her old life.
Though Takoda longed for change and an opportunity to prove herself, she feared it too. She’d grown comfortable beneath Master Achak’s tutelage and the rhythmic pace of her days. She loved their pre-dawn jogs along the cliffside roads, past the fish loaded mule trains on their way to market, she loved the damp earthy aroma of the forest on cool summer eves, and the echo of waves on the cliffs as they dashed into the sea at the end of a sweltering summer day.
On a thousand rainy afternoons, Takoda’s fingers had trekked along the brittle pages of Master Achak’s atlas. In her imagination, she’d followed the roads and paths to the icy shores of the Schrodinger Sea, she’d flown the gypsy steamers across the deserts of the Highlands and ridden the great Island Ships of the Imbrium Sea. As the kilometers flowed beneath her pounding feet, Takoda realized she’d soon be further from home than she’d ever traveled before.
As she ran, Takoda weighed the possibilities of where she might be posted once her Becoming was complete. Rumors that the master in Von Neuman had died last June meant the village would be in need of a new priest. Though not the adventure she’d envisioned, an assignment to Von Neuman would be comfortable. She might even travel to Komarov now and again, maybe stop by East Shore and say hello to Achak and her friends.
The sun dipped its fiery head into a bank of clouds as Takoda moved along the well-worn trail. Over the cliff’s rim, white birds darted above an indigo sea while further out, the crimson sails of traders hovered on the water.
But what if she were posted somewhere else? Someplace close to her mother? Takoda’s memories of her family were vague. Like most children initiated into the priesthood, she’d been only five when temple priests took her to Komorov for training.
Takoda remembered her mother’s soft hands and gentle eyes, her dark hair, as smooth and heavy as silk. She remembered the solid smell of her, an aroma of hard work and spices. The day the priests came, she remembered crying. Her brother and sister gathered around with hugs and tears. Her father towered above them all, his arms crossed, he’d eyed their show of emotion with a scowl.
“Don't worry.” Takoda thought he was talking to her. When she glanced up, she saw Father holding Mother’s hand. “With the 1,000 credits the church gave us, and one less mouth to feed, we can buy another mule.” He’d reached over and lifted Mother’s chin. “With Takoda gone, things will get better.” He actually looked happy. “Maybe we'll drive into town,” he said, “and pick up some things we’ve always wanted.”
At the memory, anger rose in Takoda’s cheeks and she let her gaze drift across the sea. Far below, the surf painted retreating white lines on the shore as the bronze flame of the sun winked on the horizon. Forgiveness is the fragrance the flower sheds upon the heel that has crushed it. Isn’t that what Master Achak says? Takoda smoothed over her anger, pressed it back. Wherever Father was, she sent him her love.
Mounting a low ridge, she followed the curve of a crater rim and began the arduous climb towards the Cliffs of Insanity. Perhaps someday, Takoda thought, she might actually feel that love being sent, and not like she were running through a script.
As the trail’s angle steepened, the sun’s final glow bled onto the horizon. Takoda was panting as she clambered up the ridge on all fours then suddenly, she was there. The trail leveled onto a rocky plateau stretching to the north and east as far as the eye could see. To the west, the land fell away sharply to flat darkness of the sea far below.
Now that the run was over, Takoda felt the day’s effort fall on her like a weight. She opened her waterskin and swallowed a tepid gulp. With a glance towards the sea, she suddenly realized how high and far she’d come. The breeze was humid and warm as it swept off the sunbaked water and mounted the canyon walls bringing with it the scent of fish, and water, and life. The perfect jump-off point for fliers, Takoda thought, or those in search of oblivion.
Searching the ground beside the cliff, Takoda soon located the bundle left for her near the precipice’s edge. Willing her shaking fingers into action, she unwrapped the leather bindings and peeled away the burlap cover to reveal her wings. Constructed of lightweight polymer ribs no thicker than her pinky and a tough membrane as light as cotton, but stronger than leather, the wings shimmered in the alabaster rays of the rising Earth.
Laying out the wings, Takoda checked each for damage, first examining the finger and foot controls before confirming the wing’s white surface was free of tears. That the Harpies would not trouble her was Takoda’s main worry. A warrior clan of women, they were renowned for their ferocity and skill as fliers. Takoda lifted one wing and ran her fingers across its flat smoothness. Once airborne, she’d be as obvious to the Harpies as a moth to the bat.
But first, there was the matter of the vision bread. Lifting the pouch over her head, Takoda groaned feeling every bruise and scratch she’d earned in the day’s proceedings. Now that she could rest, stiffness seemed to settle into her muscles like a paralyzing fog. In a silent prayer, she thanked Achak for his ointment. With it, the pain retired … at least for a while.
Takoda unwrapped the flat grainy biscuit and brought it to her nose. The aroma was faint, a musky smell if it had one; reminiscent of mushrooms or mold. It smelled more like something she’d find stuck to the bottom of her shoes, than something to eat.
Like most of Master Achak’s recipes, it was overcooked, blackened on the corners, and dry as burnt toast. The taste was flat, the consistency chewy. Bite by bite, she gnawed it down, leaving a bitter, acrid taste at the back of her tongue. Takoda washed it down with her last gulp of tepid water before forcing herself to rise.
With difficulty, she worked her way into the flight suit, syncing down the leather straps holding the tail around her ankles before slipping her arms into the wings. She waddled to the cliff’s edge and stared into the darkness. The wind in her face was like the moist exhalation of some great, slumbering beast.
Despite having flown dozens of times, the prospect of leaping into the void had Takoda’s stomach doing backflips. Or maybe that was the bread.
Takoda considered the sleek appendages mounted to her arms. Lifting each in turn, she manipulated the finger controls causing the leading and trailing edges to bend and flex. In the past, she’d taken flight with the cobbled-together wings of friends. Those homemade variants were stubbier than these, a full meter shorter from wing tip to wing tip than what she wore now. Takoda lifted her arms and brought them down in a powerful flap. The effort lifted her from the ground. Although she could take off using arm power alone, these wings were clearly designed for gliding. Takoda’s eyes narrowed as she squinted towards the horizon. Somewhere out there, on the sea’s distant shore, a fire burned. A beacon that would guide her to the end of her journey and the beginning of her life.
Somewhere beyond the cliff’s edge, Takoda heard voices. She strained to catch their meaning, but the words slipped away the harder she tried to capture them. After a moment’s hesitation, she realized it was the distant crash of waves. A strange tingle at her fingers and toes had Takoda smiling. She realized her muscles no longer ached and the fatigue was only a shadow at the edge of consciousness. The vision bread was beginning to have its effect already.
It was time for her to go.
Stretching out her arms, Takoda leaned over the edge and let the meager Lunar gravity pull her down. For an instant, she hovered on the cliff’s edge before she began to fall. Picking up speed, Takoda raced along the cliff’s dark face until it became a blur. As she tilted her wings, the leading-edge bit into the wind. The flat, leathery surface flapped noisily until the wings suddenly caught and Takoda was swept into the night. Around her, the thermals swelled lifting her higher and higher until the edge from which she’d leapt swept suddenly past and fell into the shadows below.
Takoda circled the plateau, gaining altitude with each rotation. When she’d finally lost sight of the ground, she tilted her wing and edged into a turn. Her destination lay somewhere to the northwest. Despite the fatigue, Takoda sighted on the white glow of the guide star and flapped out over the sea. Achak said this was the most dangerous challenge in her quest of Becoming.
So far, it seemed the easiest.
Overhead, the gleaming orb of a quarter Earth pulsed with a neon blue intensity. The white clouds swirling on its surface morphed from white to pink to purple as the scattered lights of the planet's dark side thrummed to the beat of Takoda’s pulse. It was beautiful. She couldn’t take her eyes from the view. Takoda felt the lift in her wings suddenly vanish as her climb became a stall. Tumbling backwards, she cartwheeled into a spin. She tried leveling out, but the spin only increased. Her feverish attempt to gain control by beating her wings only made matters worse.
In the back of her mind, she could hear Achak’s gravelly voice. “Living a balanced life means being awake. It is knowing where you are.”
Tumbling towards the sea, Takoda realized the nature of the challenge. She’d tested her spirit through fasting and prayer, her body through combat and effort. The vision bread would appraise her mind. If she could not maintain focus through the hallucinations, if she could not stay on track, she would die.
Takoda squeezed her eyes against the whipping wind and focused her breath. Drawing in her arms, she extended her legs and let gravity have its way. She became a missile streaking towards the sea. As she picked up speed, Takoda wondered how far she’d fallen? The tail fin flapped as her spin slowed, the shoulder straps burrowing into her flesh. Slowly, Takoda extended the wings. They caught the air with a shoulder jerking pop almost ripping them from her arms. Suddenly she was soaring, rising once more on the thermals and climbing towards the stars. When she looked down, she spotted the white-capped waves gleaming in the Earth’s ghostly glow. Another thirty meters and she’d have hit the sea.
Takoda found the guide star and set her course ignoring the whisper of voices on the wind, ignoring the chattering stars as they pulsed and glowed beneath the gleaming Earth. Through the vision bread’s lens, the entire universe became a vibrant, living thing. The night sky swelled and collapsed like the rising and sinking breast of some great slumbering giant. The glowing earth and its banded vibrant colors swirled like a rainbow. Even her body became a distraction, her arms and legs tingling with sensation. At one point, she almost fell into another dive when she glanced over and saw a snake crawling along her arm. Takoda closed her eyes and looked again. Nothing was there.
As the Earth crawled across the heavens, Takoda fought the desire to peer into the bizarre world around her. Again, and again, she found her mind wandering. Again, and again, she forced it back; a reticent child eager to escape the classroom and play.
Before she knew it, the eastern sky began to lighten. The stars lost their glow. In the distance, she spotted her goal, an orange wink of a bonfire high on the crater sea’s rim. Yet she’d still not had her vision.
Before her Becoming, Achak told her of his own vision flight. Two Harpies appeared beside him and escorted him across the heavens. Among the stars, they’d conversed with him in an ancient tongue, yet he’d understood what they’d said. Takoda remembered a visiting monk relating how a full Earth spoke to him on his own flight of Becoming. How its words had guided him on his path through life. Takoda searched the pink-tinted horizon for some message concerning her own life’s journey.
“Please,” Takoda cried to the wind. “Give me a sign.”
Searching the night, Takoda found nothing. No mystery, no voices. With a disappointed sigh, she dipped her wings and headed for the bonfire and the conclusion of her Becoming.
It was then she saw it. A star on the northern horizon, it dropped from the heavens and streaked over the sea. The glow of its passing winked on the waves below.
Takoda wondered if it were one of the water comets sent to replenish Luna’s slowly fading atmosphere? Those forgotten remnants of the builders still crashed into the distant western seas. With a tooth rattling ‘Boom’, the star streaked across the sky and vanished into the western hills.
Takoda flew on. Her gaze drifted again and again to where she’d lost sight of the falling star. Was this the sign for which she’d prayed, or an illusion designed to steal away her future? The bonfire, the end of her Becoming lay only a few kilometers away. Takoda peered over her shoulder towards the receding western hills. If she turned back now, she’d never become a priest, yet ignoring the star might be denying the Goddess' call.
With a nod of decision, Takoda’s face tightened. She turned from the glow of the rising sun and flapped after the fallen star and into the land of the Harpies.