The two aerocrafts shot under the overhang and into the canyon, sending out twin sprays of water as they sliced through the thin waterfall. Emron was in the lead, but the unmanned craft – Silver – was a mere arm's length behind. It was halfway through the race from the Academy in the Capitol to the Skycastle nestled deep in the Clou Mountains, and Emron Krampft had never felt so desperate in his life.
Down into the canyon at breakneck speed, close enough to the rapids to hear them growl. Never had an Aeryoine pilot dared to fly so low, so fast. But Emron had a point to prove, so anything less than impossible was unacceptable. He weaved and sped, banked and rolled, laying his life on the line with each manoeuvre, just to gain that little bit more of a lead.
Silver didn't sweat the turns. It couldn't. It was a machine.
Emron, on the other hand, had drenched his jacket inside out. Beads of sweat formed on his brow faster than the air could evaporate it.
Suddenly, a cliff rose before them.
The river bend here was too sharp.
Impossible to know how much it continued to curve out of view.
"Chaos balls!" Emron swore, lifting bodily from his seat due to the force with which he yanked on his controls. The crosswind at his sudden turn buffeted his body, almost throwing him from the craft.
Sparks flew as the underside of his aerocraft scraped against the limestone cliff. Emron gritted his teeth but he dared not shut his eyes.
The curve seemed to have no end. Unforgiving walls closed in.
Then, just as suddenly, the walls dropped away into a breathtaking valley.
Emron spat out the breath he didn't know he was holding and inhaled the sky.
"Obsolete! Obsolete my arse!" He shouted as they shot across the valley.
By taking the impossible bend at full speed, Emron had gained a craft's length on Silver. The gamble had very nearly cost the pilot his life, but the advantage it brought was worth it. If the stakes weren't so high, if Silver's engineer hadn't said what he had said, Emron would have given his competition credit for making it out at all.
Once in the valley, Emron could enjoy the fact that the day was a terrific one for flying. The morning air had just the right amount of bite to make him feel alive and the sun was pleasantly warm on his neck. He found himself wishing that Silver had a pilot. He was sure that they would have made good friends. This was the kind of day and the kind of flight that they would reminisce about for years to come.
The last mountain range was a grey ribbon at the end of the valley, but Emron wasn't fooled; the Clou was full of steep, rocky rises that climbed and climbed like a ladder to the stars. If he didn't start to increase his altitude now, he would meet a very abrupt end.
But fly too high came with its own set of problems. Emron wasn't just an ace at the Academy, he was also fluent in non-equilibrium atmospheric thermodynamics. The Clou was notorious for unpredictable oscillations. To fly too high meant being pushed off course.
Emron risked a glance behind him. He was still clear in the lead, and both aerocrafts were beginning to climb, but Silver made the rookie mistake of climbing much higher than needed. Emron shook his head.
By the time Emron reached the mountains, Silver was nowhere to be seen, likely blown far off course. He found himself hoping that the craft hadn't been driven downwards and crashed. It would have been a pity for such a fine piece of machine to be destroyed, never mind the nasty assertions of the engineer that designed it.
Even with Emron's calculations, the remaining climb wasn't easy. His craft shook and shuddered as it rose to meet the rock castle near the peak of the closest mountain. Skycastle was built into the mountain; a manmade triumph. A makeshift landing way had been hastily uncovered the night before.
As he approached, he saw that there was already an aerocraft to the side of the landing way. He blinked in disbelief.
It couldn't be.
Silver had made it to Skycastle before Emron.
The peak where the small glider landed was the last outpost defying the sky's dominion. The sun's escape at the end of the day dragged up the warmth of the land and left it to trail behind in a play of uncapturable pinks, yellows and oranges that tasted both of promises and goodbyes. From the west, climbing above the jagged peaks of the Clou mountains, the night had begun its star cloaked vigil.
Emron Krapft may have been only one young man in Aeryoine, but he was a damn handsome one, courtesy of the capricious enchantress from which he hailed. Additionally, he had enough charm to land him a princess if he wanted, thanks to the modelling of his politically minded father.
Tonight he was dressed in a fitting grey suit, accented by a bright blue cashmere scarf that paled in comparison to the vivid hues of azure and midnight in his eyes. His dark blond hair was cropped short on the sides, long at the top, windswept across his brow.
Emron reached up to greet the dusk, imagining that his fingertips brushed against the hem of infinity. As much as he enjoyed the thrills of society, he treasured these rare moments of solitude more.
Skycasle was a short distance below. Warm light glowed from within and the chatter of many guests was carried on the cold wind. The peak was a precarious place; buffeted in every direction by sudden, strong gusts. Emron had been told by the host that it was impossible to land there. He agreed. He did it anyway.
Emron arrived at Skycastle after the night had begun in earnest, acquiring more than a few scrapes upon his polished shoes. He thought to surprise everyone by entering from one of the high set windows, close to the terrain outside, but high set in the wall of the main hall due to how the castle was dug into the mountain.
Unfortunately, at the same time as he made his entrance, there was a commotion on the other side of the hall at the entrance. There were shouts of surprise followed by the parting of the thick crowd as a sleek, silver aerocraft of sorts slid into the hall. Emron caught a glimpse of it as he dropped down from the window ledge. From the glimpse he caught of the craft as he dropped from the window ledge, he was sure that he had seen nothing like it before. The pilot inside had a distinctive red mop of hair, but his eyes were hidden behind dark flight goggles. Emron had a feeling that he knew the pilot, but he couldn't be sure. There weren't many aces out there who had the skill and the courage to fly like that, and Emron was sure he knew all the good pilots in Aeryoine.
He found himself unnoticed at the back of the hall, trying to peer through the crowd that had gathered around the pilot who dared. After a few futile attempts to gather more information, and not wanting to seem so desperate as to elbow his way through the crowd, he allayed his burning curiosity and stalked over to the buffet table. He would have to wait until the crowd dissipated enough. Oh, if only he could be sure that it would happen before the night's end!
It seemed like an age before the crowd around the aerocraft dispersed a little. A tight knot of people separated with the red-haired pilot as he moved through the hall. Emron immediately abandoned his shrimp cocktail and, trying not to look too eager, made a beeline towards the silver aerocraft.
But seeing the aerocraft up close only made it worse. It was a prototype, immaculately executed, with a sleek, sexy fuselage and a wind structure he'd never seen. The cockpit was packed with all the latest in instrumental flight.
"Do you like it?" said someone who had come to stand beside him.
Emron dragged his eyes away from the craft and was surprised to see that it was the pilot who had spoken. Standing next to each other, they were about the same height. Except while Emron stood with his shoulders back, the other pilot had rounded shoulders and the slight hunch of someone whose posture his parents never quite bothered to correct. The dark goggles he wore covered up half his face. What was visible was pale and freckled. His hair was a bright red, like a shade that could be found in one of Emron's beloved sunsets. They might have also been of similar age, but there was a stubborn challenge about the pilot that made him seem younger.
"The craft?" Emron played indifference with a shrug. "It's hard to judge without flying it."
They should have run in the same circles, Emron and this red-haired pilot, yet Emron still couldn't place him. Something tugged at his mind, but each time he tried to approached the thought, it disappeared.
The pilot nodded. "It doesn't need a pilot."
"-What?!" Emron's eyebrows snapped together. "Impossible."
The red head shrugged. "It's the way of things. With the pace at which flight technology is advancing, pilots will be obsolete."
His words stung Emron more than anyone could have known. Emron glanced around at the milling crowd. Some were eyeing the conversation with interest, but no one dared join it.
"So you're saying that a machine could match a pilot's instincts? Best it even?"
"And where would that leave you then?"
Another noncommitting shrug. "I'm an engineer. Machines break. Machines need updating. There'll always be room for me in the skies."
An engineer? Emron couldn't believe and he couldn't forgive the insolence! Yet, he felt the nagging sensation again. What was it? What was it about this man and this argument that was strangely familiar?
"It doesn't matter what you think."
Every word the engineer said ruffled Emron's feathers. He wasn't one to act so hotly in front of a crowd, but tonight he couldn't seem to help himself.
"Oh yeah? How about we put it to the test then. You're an engineer. Don't all good engineers test their unfounded assumptions?"
The engineer's eyes narrowed. He crossed his arms over his chest. "So if you win…"
"Then you eat your words," Emron said. After a pause, he added with a smirk and a nod to the silver craft. "Also, I get to keep your aerocraft."
A flicker of doubt crossed the engineer's eyes. It hardened into a glare at Emron's smirk.
"In return," the engineer said, "when you lose, you lose the right to call yourself a pilot."
Emron nodded. There was no room for doubt. He extended his hand.
"You have yourself a deal."
There was a loud thud as Emron fell out of the bed, ungraceful and tangled in his sheets.
He sat up and took in the scene around him. His four-poster bed with its thick, soft mattress loomed over him.
It was all a dream.
It was all a dream?!
The realization came with a wave of relief. What on earth would he have done if he could no longer fly? What a stupid bet.
He peeled the sheets off him and noted with disgust that he was drenched in sweat. Dream or not, the thrill had been real.
As he showered and dressed in his Academy uniform, a fitting brown coat with gold trim and matching trousers, he thought of all the reasons why he should have recognised that it was a dream early.
It was ridiculous that his entrance didn't capture the party.
That the only person he had talked to was a male when there were many beauties that he could have approached.
That he didn't win the race.
Emron scoffed at his own stupidity. When had the skies ever failed him?
He had a hot breakfast with his father, Phelan Krampft, the current Minister of Defence, who not-so-subtly hinted that Emron's application for the space cadetship was progressing well.
After breakfast, Franz, one of the house staff drove him to the Academy in Phelan's hovercraft. Hovercrafts were a very recent invention, powered by mysterious black fuel.
"Franz, do you think that one day all this will be automated?" Emron asked.
Franz blinked. The sudden question must have caught her off guard. "No. Why?"
At the Academy, Emron was greeted by his usual flock of adoring young women. He was gladder than usual for their attentions.
The day passed in the usual way.
After class, Emron headed the main hanger as usual for an afternoon of extra flight practice. Desmond had beat him there and had already taken off the engine of a small aerocraft to run some tests.
As Emron approached, he realised his friend wasn't alone. A short, stocky first year with red hair and a sour expression pottered nearby, mumbling to himself.
"Hey Desmond," Emron said on approach.
"Hey yourself." Desmond didn't look up from his work, but extended a hand for a high five. Emron's palm met Desmond's with a satisfying clap.
He continued around until he could see what the first year was working on.
"Hey Berhard. Berhard. Earth to Berhard."
Emron was familiar with the little rednut due to several mutual acquaintances. The boy lacked social graces.
He had to be peering over Berhard's work bench before the first year looked up.
"Oh, it's you," Berhard said in way of greeting. "What are you doing here?"
"What am I doing here? What are you doing here? First years aren't allowed in the hangers you know."
The red head shrugged. He couldn't even muster up a façade of embarrassment. His work, it seemed, was all he really cared about.
"I need to be here for my work," Berhard replied simply.
"Well, what a coincidence, so do I." Emron liked the boy, he really did. He liked anyone who was serious about their work.
A thought occurred suddenly to Emron.
"Berhard, have you ever thought of designing an aerocraft that could fly itself?"
The question earned him a pained look from Berhard.
"Why would I bother with that?" he asked.
Emron nodded and patted the boy's head.
A Note from Augie
This was written for the March 3K Short Story Competition on the Labyrinth Forum. The challenge was to use symbolism in the story, though I think I veered to metaphor. If you liked the concept, and you want to read some great stories, head on over to the 3K Short Story Thread on the Labyrinth Forum. Between April 1 - 7 you can read and vote for your favourite story.
Emron is a character from some of my other stories. If you like him or you like the world, and you like yourself a bit of romance, the stories in which he appears are Birthday Present and The Heart of Fin, both available for now on fictionpress.
As always, I hope you enjoyed the read as much as I enjoyed frantically writing it the last few hours. I started my entry three-four times before I got to this one.