Perry held on tight even though she was secure in the carry harness, trying not to look down. Kree’s immense wings were spread wide to catch the updraft. The injured Hraff had been lifted this way, in a sling between two able warrior Fri.
“How do you get to the Aerie if there’s no updraft?” Perry yelled, hoping Kree would hear her amidst the noise of rushing air.
The Fri’s enormous head turned slightly, and the gravelly stage-whisper of a voice responded, “Harder. Wait if we have time, climb if not.” She banked her body slightly, and they slid from a dying air-column to a building one. “Take days either way.”
The mountain was a great towering spike that loomed over the intermediate plateaus where prey animals ranged; Kree and Perry orbited it in serene circles as they gained altitude. Perry knew they were being watched: an enemy approaching in this manner would be easy prey for Fri diving at bullet-speed from their perches above.
It was the first time she had flown since asking Hraff to dive closer to the mist so that her instruments could get better samples of the thick, wet air. Since a long, thin tendril of something had reached up and whipped at Hraff with a snap and a crunch of bone. She shuddered, remembering the fall, the branches tearing at her arms and face, the sudden sickly thud of a stop.
“All right?” Kree must have sensed her discomfort.
“I’m fine, I’m ok.”
“Almost there. Hold tight, won’t fall.”
Good advice. At some point she must have given up and closed her eyes, imagined herself somewhere else, somewhere safe. Back on Earth, sitting in a café, drinking expensive coffee and eating a pastry.
When Perry opened her eyes again, she found they were nearly even with an outcropping marked with feather-flags and carvings on the stone; Kree angled towards it and beat her wings to push them across to where she could grab the rock-edge in her powerful talons. She stepped forward out of the wind and they were landed.
“Can let go now.”
Perry unbelted herself from the harness, climbed down from atop her friend.
Kree led the way. There were enclosures between the rocks, sophisticated domed nests made from branches and Chulf bones and hides, woven together with the dried mat-vine that grew near the Mesa’s edge: all rare materials, all carried up in a Fri’s claws.
The largest of these was the clan hall, and it was impressive: a hundred meters across with a ceiling perhaps fifty meters high, there was room for dozens of Fri to assemble comfortably, even given their distaste for tight spaces. In a corner, near an open hearth, lay Hraff on his feather-and-straw recovery bed.
He was better than the last time she’d seen him, bloody and limp and in the process of being rolled into the carry harness: now he lay on his belly, wings stretched out across the bedding, head raised up to watch the goings-on around him. “Hraff!”
Kree was already waddling over to him. She nestled down beside him on the edge of the bed, nuzzled her nose into the feathers of his neck.
They don’t need words; I remember what that’s like. Perry waited at a respectful distance while the pair bonded.
Eventually Hraff noticed her, and raised up a little. She could see where Jorge and the others had applied medical cement to the wound; the dressing appeared almost ready to drop off. “How is Perry?”
“She’s… I’m fine. Still shaking from the ride up.”
“Jorge said you stay on ground.”
“I told him I wasn’t going to fly again. I was…” she trailed off, shrugged, sighed. How do I explain post-traumatic stress to an alien whose brain might not work the same way, when Jorge doesn’t even truly understand? “When I thought about flying, I thought about crashing. When I thought about other things, I thought about crashing. Every loud noise was the thing that hit us. I was afraid. But I had to come see you. I’m just sorry it took so long.”
“Afraid, you come anyway.” Hraff bobbed his head from side to side, a Fri gesture of understanding. “Not many humans come to Aerie. Have to earn place here. You three, maybe four, including Jorge.”
Jorge, lately sleeping on the couch. Not his fault. “Thanks.” Perry sat on the bare rock next to the hearth. “I’m glad you’re doing better.”
“Hraff is strong.” Kree breathed without raising her head.
“What are you… do you know what the Fri plan to do about the things that attacked us?” They didn’t even have a name in their language for whatever the sessile creatures were that knocked them out of the sky — killing Cole — and spent the next two days trying to grab them through the thick jungle growth.
“Do? Do nothing. Fri stay out of mist.” Hraff added, quickly. “Unless humans want more science?”
“No,” she said, quickly. “At least, I don’t.” The others — the other scientists, Weng and Berelli in particular — were already talking about building drones to carry instruments down into that soup to learn more about the environment, and about the creatures they now knew lived in it. But they wouldn’t risk asking another of the native flyers to take them.
“Then Fri do nothing. They have mist and jungle, Fri have mesa and mountains.”
“Hraff is wise,” Kree added, her voice sleepy. Hraff turned to rest his head against hers, a sleeping posture. Perry silently withdrew, to give the pair their privacy.
The Aerie was mostly deserted, and she wandered back the way they’d come, to where Kree had landed.
Perry stood at the edge, and looked down. Only on a low-gravity world could she have ever seen this view: down the rugged face of the mountain, across the vast mesa plain, right to the sheer drop-off and the mist below. Some strange part of her she couldn’t name wanted to leap from the outcropping even as her knees demanded she flee backwards to safety.
I climbed out of Earth’s gravity well on a rocket, I let a space-drive push me outside of the Universe and back again, I fell through the flame of re-entry behind a seven-centimeter-thick heat shield, and I’ve flown on the back of a four ton alien bird. Twice. What am I afraid of? She sat down, feet dangling from the edge.
Somewhere down there was Jorge. Perry had a lot to tell him, eventually, that she hadn’t been able to before. He would listen. He always had before.