ONE-HUNDRED, 2.0

Leonard helped Velox  to her feet, and she held him tightly. That was just what Leonard had been hoping for since he watched her fall fifteen minutes ago, a sign of life, a signal of trust. The Law of Gravity, ignored by many at the time, was in full effect. Yet there were still those determined to push back against the restrictions of nature.

But as Leonard brought Velox around the corner and out of sight from the Sky Soldiers, he knew that all of his efforts, all of his work, would not go unpunished. He carried her into his small boarding room at the bottom of what he called his Land Castle.

Made of clay and sealed with a Spanish mud, Leonard had planted himself in this castle on his third expedition below the clouds. Six years to the day when he first touched down. The castle was towering and jagged with broken rocks underfoot. The feeling of dirt and dust between his toes reminded him of his childhood, when he’d drag his feet through the clouds against the advice of his mother. At night, he’d return home with his tiny feet covered in droplets of rain and snow. The clouds back then were little wisps of solid freedom, an enchanting gift that was frowned upon by the King’s constant fear-mongering and his ever-present Sky soldiers.

Leonard set Velox to the floor. He tugged a dish of bacteria from under his chest plate. He carefully peeled off the lid, watched the bacteria spread to a soft bubble, and handed the dish to her. She looked up at him with distrust, weakly pushing the dish away. “You expect me to eat that after you’ve kidnapped me?”

“I haven’t kidnapped you. You fell. I’m trying to help.”

“I didn’t fall. I was clipped, by a Sky soldier. A clumsy Sky soldier with a hole in his wing. A wonder that he’s even able to fly at all.”

Leonard self-consciously covered his right wing, which was indeed full of wide holes with jagged edges. “I can explain –”

“Stop.” She stood up, crossing her arms. “You should learn to fly with whatever hindrances your wings are given –” She stopped herself, looking at her feet. She wiggled her toes, the dust on the floor curling up and around her ankles. She dropped her arms, shifted her feet back and forth.

Leonard noticed she was smiling. “Yes, you can stand here.” She looked up at Leonard, eyes wide with wonder, her mouth slack and open, words ceasing to escape her tongue. Leonard offered her the dish once more. “This is what I’ve come to call the bottom.”

“You’ve come to call — how long have you known about this? Where are we?” She took the dish, suddenly hungry, and ate in swift, practiced movements out of the palm of her hand after scooping up the clumps of protein-filled bacteria.

Leonard led her to the far wall, where a stream of light shone across the floor. He pointed up at the window. Velox took one look, and immediately ducked. The soft tap of talons trickled along the bottom of the window. A Winged Creature, no larger than Leonard’s hand, came into view. He smiled, first at the Winger, then down to Velox. “It’s alright.” He stretched out his hand, and the Winger hopped into his palm, tweeting wildly. Suddenly, feathers puffed out, and the Winger was no more. =Leonard looked in devastation at the soft feathers drifting to the floor.

Velox threw the dish across the room. She raised her crossbow aimed at Leonard, her next arrow already loaded and ready to fire. “Another move like that and I’ll have your eyes as trophies.”

“Velox, please, you don’t understand. We don’t have to fear them.”

“Don’t try to convince me of your plot, heretic. I’m taking you to the King, and then, after he’s laid you out to trial, I’ll kill you myself. Let’s go.” Her wings fluttered, lifting her off the floor for only a moment until she smashed back down.

Her left wing was split in two. Her crossbow flung in the air, Velox reached for it, only to find Leonard’s hands had already snatched it. He eyed the weapon, gesturing to Velox that he had the upper hand. Then, he handed it back to her.

“Why would you –”

“Velox, you need to follow me.” He walked to the doorway of his room, then looked back at the girl who sat still on the ground. “If for no other reason, I can repair your wing.”

She stood slowly, noticed a tickle at her feet. A feather had come to rest on her little toe. Velox leaned over to pluck it off, but stopped herself. She wiggled her toes instead, flicking the feather to the side and giggling. Holding her crossbow at the ready, she dashed out after Leonard, a bond of trust already growing, one that would spread over three lifetimes.

Leonard Cohannes, an aging sky warrior, left his unit twenty years ago when his feet accidentally touched the earth. This was when his mechanized wings were stunted by his desire to fly lower than any of his counterparts. When he walked on the surface of the earth, the first to do so in hundreds of years, he realized that there was an entire world below the people of the sky, and something called land.

Perhaps, one day, he dreamed, they could touch upon land for good and release their wings. He’d lost his wife and children years ago when they drifted too far towards the sky and were taken by the Heavens. Since he could remember, Leonard’s people have existed with mechanical wings attached to their metallic chest plates. Their feet never touched down — they lived in floating castles with no floors, slept upright, like astronautical birds. They fought predators from the clouds below, winged creatures, most of them small, who tried to reclaim the castles as their own.

Leonard is a Stifle. He keeps watch over the small plots of cloudless air below the castles, and arms himself against winged invasions. As a boy, he’d flown through the clouds and at once realized that there were a handful of  winged creatures who were harmless.

Like Velox.

He’d fly beside them, braving the bullets and violence of Sky soldiers. Any of the Wings who could crash through the cloud flooring were worthy, in Leonard’s eyes, of the land below, and would help him populate this new world.

Velox Gradior, a young female Sky Citizen, was determined to break the speed record for any sky citizen, in order to prove her weight as a warrior. Then, one time, she’d gone too fast, breaking the sound barrier and falling to the land below. Her wings were automatic and were able to keep her afloat enough to pad her fall.

Below the clouds, she became an outcast from her own society. All of this was told, and word spread, and the two populated the land below with others they met along the way. The great statues, of bronze and earth-dirt are monuments to our ancestors, the very first to lay their feet upon this solid, sacred ground.

The Natural Law of Gravity must be obeyed, it must be celebrated. No longer will our people be relegated to the sky alone. We are now free to walk, free to run, free to roam and rest upon the ground.

Velox would come to realize this, in time. When she finally broke her crossbow upon her knee, she did so with a smile. Leonard watched and clapped for her, and together they took to the sky, just under the clouds, to await new Wings who might grow curious, or fall. Sky soldiers, to this day, have not found our land.

But one day, they might, and when they do we’ll teach them all to walk.

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