by Michael Arram
THE GREAT UPRISING
Henry slid into a seat at the polished table next to Damien, while Rudi took one next to his wife, the Queen Regent. Maxxie sat at the end of the table between his parents, balanced on a fat cushion. Tommy Entwhistle was perched behind the king, making notes.
Harry opened proceedings. ‘Let’s start by being formal. Damien, I’m offering you recognition as king of the avians, and within these walls you are entitled to royal address and protocol. How will that be, your majesty?’
‘I’m getting used to it, Harry,’ the young man said. ‘Hear that, Uncle Henry?’
‘That’s a necessary first step to opening negotiations,’ Harry resumed. ‘King you may be, Damien, as true a king as ever has been, according to the way such elevations occur. You are manifestly king dei gratia. But you’re not a sovereign monarch. You rule over a people and law with no territory. The way I understand things, your people are getting more and more desperate about this. Your people already include children, and you yourself will soon be a father. Your children will be born avian, and will never have a human body to return to. We have to find a place for you all, and Kaleczyk can only be a temporary refuge.
‘I think we’re agreed that the world cannot know of your existence. Is it ready to deal with a human hybrid species with uncanny power? Not yet, I think, if ever.’
‘I’m sure too that many humans would want to be like you, given the chance,’ Rudi added. ‘Then what? A struggle between humans and avians over this world’s limited resources? It’s a scenario which disturbs me.’
Henry intervened. ‘I’ve laid down some rules about bringing humans over. Neither Damien nor Lance can now do it. Only Maxxie. The question for me is why?’ He turned to the boy. ‘Why did you start increasing the avians, sir?’
The boy shrugged. ‘It was time, Uncle Henry. There were lots of people who needed help, so I gave it them. Now they have friends and family they never had before. They’re loved and needed. Being avian is so cool. You know why this has to be, Uncle Henry.’
‘I do now. The Dead made it clear that humanity has to split and go down two paths before rejoining many years in the future. Not everyone can follow the avian path, because it’s not just a physical transformation but a moral one and many lack the qualities that can make an avian out of a human. Then the avians in turn have to help the Satan’s angelic people to evolve. Salvation isn’t just for humans: the angels too need saving, and for it to happen they must grow and change. So in days to come the plan is that the blended avian people – human and angel-born – will return to help those humans they left behind on Earth. I hope they’ll find their cousins worthy.’
Rudi raised his eyebrows. ‘I did not realise this. So there are wheels within wheels in the politics of the World Beyond. And the seraphs are the losers?’
Henry nodded. ‘They certainly picked the wrong side, as conservatives tend to do. There is no growth without change, and the erelim fought a dirty war to prevent it because they thought they knew best. Now they too have to be redeemed, and it won’t be easy. They’ll be the hardest to bring back into the fold.’
Maxxie perked up. ‘But Toby showed the way. When he became a human, it made him a way better person, because he had to change so as to be a person!’
Henry agreed. ‘I really do need to look that boy up soon. He may have ideas about what to do with his fallen people, and he may still have influence with them.’
‘So what of humanity and this world?’ Queen Harry asked. ‘What about us and everyone else left behind on earth? What’s the plan for the billions of us?’
Henry leaned back in his chair and spread his arms. ‘That’s the hardest thing. The avians and the angels will have their challenges, but they can be left to get on with their own evolution with the leadership they have. Humanity needs a lot more help, which is why the Dead manoeuvered things so that the Elphbergs, Toby and I are in place. The human race must learn to run its world in a different way, so it can evolve at its own pace. First morality must change, then politics, and with them human society will change, for the better I hope. But we have no more than three decades to do it all. It’s for me and the Elphbergs to accomplish. Physical evolution must happen too, and that’s for Toby our ex-seraph to mastermind.’
Damien quirked a smile. ‘None of this alters the problem of where we’re gonna be avian. It bothers me as much as it does your dad, Maxxie.’
‘There’s Eden,’ Henry mused. ‘I could take you back.’
‘We thought of it, but it’s not a place for mortals. We know that ‘cos Lance took us there. It’s comfy enough so long as the elementals keep away from you, but there’s no new life in Eden and no growth, change or death. I wonder if our babies would even come to term there.’
Maxxie shook his head decidedly. ‘Can’t go back. A lot of the seraphs have been exiled there anyway. It’s their punishment for helping Tobias do the wicked things he did when he was a psycho.’
Henry stared. ‘Really! I thought I said you weren’t to go back there?’
Maxxie managed to look both virtuous and sly. ‘I asked Mummy. She let me go on a visit before bed yesterday. I went to chat to the angels again ‘cos I worry about them. They’re not happy, they don’t like the seraphs moving in and they don’t want to return to the World Beyond. But they had an idea.’
‘Oh yeah. Thing is, no one ever asks them what they think, and never has. That’s ‘cos of the bossy erelim. But the angels see everything. They had an idea of a place for the avians, and they told me how to find it.’
‘Times like this I wish I smoked again.’ Justin was pacing the carpet of Henry’s Kaleczyk office.
Nathan rolled his eyes. ‘Sit down, grandad.’
Justin flared. ‘I told you! Don’t say that! ‘Sides I may still have a couple of hours of just having fatherhood to cope with, before my grandkids pop out.’
Nathan seemed more relaxed about it all. ‘Think how our Daimey feels about it; the kid was so nervous just now. His wings were definitely twitching.’ He looked over to Henry, perched behind his desk. ‘Nice of you to let him go back to being avian.’
Henry shrugged. ‘I guess it’s time. As soon as the babies are safely delivered, they’ll need their avian dad, cos avians is all they can ever be. Besides that, we’ll all have to get ready for what Maxxie calls the “Great Uprising”. We’ll soon have the trauma of saying goodbye to all our kids ... and grandkids too. That’s the moment I don’t look forward to in the least.’
Henry put his chin on his elbows as he awaited news from the delivery ward. The growing cloud on everybody’s horizon was the impending migration of the avian people. Once gone, there would be no return for them, which for all practical purposes meant their parents and friends would never see them again. It would be a painful parting for them all; not much different from a bereavement. Life without Lance, and his brothers and sister (or sisters, depending on what sex Rafe favoured day to day in avian form), was not something he and Ed wanted to contemplate.
Nathan seemed to read Henry’s thoughts. ‘It’s like the old days, Henry. Parents packing off their kids to the New World or Down Under, watching the sails disappear over the horizon, hoping the best for their kids’ futures but never knowing how it’ll turn out.’
‘It’s worse,’ Henry sighed. ‘There won’t even be any letters coming back to tell us how they’re doing in their new lives.’
Justin sat on his desk. ‘You sure about that?’
‘Not entirely, but I’m not hopeful either. It’s so far away to where they’re going.’
‘And how far is ...?’ The desk buzzer cut off Justin’s question.
Henry picked up the phone, and gave a broad grin. ‘Two boys and a girl, Justy. Congratulations!’
Nathan hugged his gobsmacked partner. ‘The next generation of Macavoys arrives to stun the Universe!’ Then he kissed Justin.
Ten minutes later Justin took the eldest of the triplets from the arms of his son. Damien beamed down at his father. ‘Dad! Say hello to Justin Helenson, crown prince of the royal house of the Petakhij.’
His son laughed. ‘The other prince is Nathan Helenson, and the princess is Anna Damienschera.’ A tired-looking Helen had the other two babies suckling at her breasts as she lay back in the hospital bed, her wings displayed behind her. Her distended belly was still swollen from her pregnancy, but otherwise she seemed to be recovering fast from her labour, considerably faster than a human would. Her own parents were cooing over the new arrivals.
Henry was intrigued at the novel naming practices the avians had devised for themselves. He rather suspected it was Helen’s idea: boys were to take the mother’s name as surname and girls the father’s. The sense of equality behind it was just her sort of touch.
Justin did not even attempt to hide his delight. The avian baby he held was noticeably bigger than its human counterpart would have been. Henry noticed slight bumps or buds at his shoulder blades, but no other sign of the baby’s winged destiny. It appeared that avian children must crawl and walk before they could fly. The skin of Justin Helenson and his two siblings was the same amber brown as his father’s; he and little Nathan both had his father’s dark curls, sharp blue eyes and pointed ears, their sister however was blonde like her mother.
Justin junior was unbelievably cute. A number of cameras were recording the moment of his introduction to the world and his family. Henry did so with a sense of sadness. These pictures would soon be all the memories the grandparents would have. As that thought was passing through Henry’s mind he caught the eyes of Helen’s mother and read the wistfulness there behind the joy of the moment.
Damien and Anton Tsernatov perched on an outcrop opposite Kaleczyk. He had asked Anton to accompany him on his first flight since resuming his avian body. He had brought baby Justin with them. The child needed no covering other than its own avian skin for insulation in flight. Baby Justin had taken the flight with infant equanimity, and was now peacefully snoozing in his father’s arms. Damien kept the baby angled so any episode of urination would not splash back on him. Finding enough avian-sized diapers was an emerging problem, as was keeping them on while in flight.
Anton was intently watching the wheeling and joining of a flock of mixed avians in a myelhei going on above Kaleczyk. Damien knew that Anton was one of the most energetic participants in the mass copulations, and that he was as happy to join with males as females when he took flight. As yet Anton had found no exclusive partner and, despite having a daughter and foster-son, was not apparently looking to find one.
‘Anton?’ Damien mused.
‘Yes, lord?’ The Bulgarian’s response was in flawless Rothenian.
‘You were the oldest human so far converted.’
Anton nodded. ‘I was forty-four.’
‘I asked Yuri to examine you to look for any clue as to whether your human age was duplicated in your new body. You’ll be glad to know that the results show little difference between your mental and physical capacities and those of a twenty-year old avian. Judging from the way you’re working through the avian population, that’s hardly a surprise.’
The man grinned. ‘I fucked a meledh just come into zharpulavnij yesterday. Came seven times up the kid’s ass till he broke off, and they’re supposed to be insatiable.’
Damien grinned. ‘You’ll soon have more pressing concerns than chasing tail, so enjoy the demand while it lasts. But I have a question for you. It looks like the physical change in mutating humans more or less rejuvenates a changeling. You’ll likely live as long as a teenager mutated at the same time as you were.’
‘That’s great, lord!’
‘But there’s the other side of it. You carry over your human mind and experience. For us this means that you bring over your skills and your judgement, which is great. But it also means you have to give up leadership to people like me … kids. Don’t you find that hard?’
Anton shook his head, and when he spoke again it was with a measured solemnity. ‘Majesty, you and Queen Helen are no ordinary youths. You have the royal mark upon your arm. I bow to you and I love you as my lord and king, I would follow you anywhere and do your every command.’
The sentiments and the suppressed passion behind them made the breath catch in Damien’s throat. To think that he inspired such love and devotion in a mature male, himself an admirable man, was both moving and alarming.
Damien responded as a king must, by accepting freely the homage of devotion. ‘I appreciate that and love you for it, Anton. The question for me is whether other mature humans will feel the same way in the same situation.’
Anton shot his king a keen look. ‘There’s a point behind this question, lord.’
‘There is indeed. My Helen’s parents are in their fifties and they have only her. They cannot bear the separation when we make the Great Uprising, and it’s not just them. A score of other parents of avian teenagers have petitioned to join the Petakhij and will bring their younger children too. Henry has approved the requests.’
‘It would be cruel to deny them.’
‘Maybe so. But – call me selfish – I see problems with mature adults and parents joining our avian party. It’s their nature to want to take control.’
Anton barked a laugh which echoed back from the surrounding hills and startled birds in the pines below them. ‘In-laws … you’re scared of your in-laws!’
‘Knew you’d laugh … thanks.’
Anton mused in turn. ‘There is this. Our people fuck like mayflies but, as Yuri the Healer has discovered in her investigations, we will breed just the once, after two years of the rutting frenzy, the zharpulavnij. Females are primed for it at eighteen, but the mature changelings will be no exception to our life cycle; they have no choice. As soon as your newly rejuvenated in-laws get their wings they’ll be up in the sky, cock in fanny. They’ll not be able to stop themselves breeding. Your mother-in-law will be pregnant within days. That’ll solve your problem. She and your father-in-law will have their own majalath to distract them, and little Justin will have uncles and aunts younger than he is.’
Damien’s eyes widened. ‘Bloody hell! You’re right. I hadn’t thought of that.’
The long convoy of cars reached the checkpoint for Kaleczyk. The soldiers sprang to attention and saluted when they observed the occupants. Rudolf, marshal-prince of Elphberg, directed the motorcade to proceed at speed to the hill. The cars wound into the pass of Andreshalch and stopped at the base of the Kaleczyke Horja. When Henry checked the morning sky above, it was clear and empty. Not an avian was to be seen.
The party unloaded and started the trek up the peak. As they neared the summit, they began encountering avians, who surveyed them curiously with their glowing eyes. For some it had been over six months since they’d seen a human. They were at work, carrying burdens to the mountaintop. None were coming down.
The whole community in their many hundreds was at the peak, gathered in a crowd where previously Henry’s garrison had stood to hear his commission read. The base of the monument and its obelisk, newly repaired, shone white in the summer sunlight.
Maxxie let go his mother’s hand and walked amongst the avians, grinning and greeting them by name. The humans took the other side of the monument. The Atwood family was there with Ed and Mrs Willerby, as were Reggie’s mothers, leaning into each other for support. Nate, Justin and Sunni looked morose, the girl in the end having chosen to stay human, but still clearly torn about the decision.
The avian colony had acquired new members other than their first brood of babies. Several dozen parents and siblings had chosen to join the Petakhij rather than suffer that day’s inevitable parting. Helen’s parents now stood beside her, pale like her, but vibrant and youthful with new avian life. A powerful and squat new avian was drawn up next to Mike and Marky, who were leading a squad of warriors armed with long pikes over five metres tall. Their new aide was an enthusiastic Theo Lobowicz, who had joined the avians with Radu, his Rothenian partner.
Finally, Maxxie climbed up to the platform and motioned Henry to join him. ‘Before we part,’ called out the boy, ‘we give you gifts to remember us by.’ He grinned. ‘Over to you, Uncle Henry.’
Henry held up his hands. ‘Those of the World Beyond, who long planned that this day should come, have sent by me a gift to consecrate it; a treasure to be passed down the ages so that their purpose and your struggles will always be remembered. Davey Skipper, you have been chosen to be the first bearer of this great token!’ A golden light flared between Henry’s hands, and when it passed a long staff of ivory, gold and wood was held there, rather bigger than he could comfortably hold up for long, but of a size to match an avian’s physique.
Through an avenue of avian warriors stepped Davey, his great blue wings spread. He knelt before the step on which Henry was standing and took the staff. They kissed as he stood again.
‘This is to be the symbol of office of the High Chancellor of the avian race!’ Henry declared. ‘But it is far more than that. The greatest amongst the Dead have fashioned it so that within it can be found deposited all the knowledge of all the cultures of humanity: its history, its languages, its literature, art and philosophy. The avian chancellor and his council will be able to summon any and all of this to view, and in time they can store within it the achievements of their own culture, though they live in a world without human technology and web servers.’
Davey stood to one side and bowed low as the king and queen of the avians then approached, hand in hand, to stand in front of their people. Behind them followed Helen’s parents with their grandchildren nestled in their arms. Without being told, the royal pair knelt before Maxxie.
Looking round Maxxie declared, ‘It’s time to say our goodbyes, but Daimey and Helen want me to do a thing first. I have another present for them!’
Henry gave Maxxie an object wrapped in silk, which he took out and held up. It was an armlet fashioned of platinum, silver and diamond, the counterpart of the one on Damien’s arm. He gave it to Damien, who smiled and passed it to Helen. She herself clicked the armlet on to her right bicep, where it shone and glowed with a white light.
‘Only the partner of the avian ruler can wear this,’ Maxxie declared. ‘It’s a sign that Daimey and Helen are now married in our sight; they’re the mother and father of their people, the Petakhij, the Great Family. Long live the King! Long live the Queen!’ the boy shouted in his high, clear voice, and all their people cheered.
‘And now we have to say goodbye, because they’re leaving us for good and all their people with them. Where they’re going there’s no return, but we know they’ll always remember and love us as they build their kingdom. One day, though, in a place beyond imagination, we’ll be together again, in our common home, human and avian both. Until then, we’ll be together in our prayers and dreams.’
All fell silent. Maxxie took Henry’s hand and stared up at the sky. Everyone looked up. Henry felt power passing out of him to be channelled through the boy. For a while there was nothing, but eventually Henry caught a shimmer in the air high above the peak. The shimmer sparkled and a rift opened in the sky, a blue light shafting out of it in irregular pulses.
Damien and Helen stood. He looked at Maxxie and asked, ‘Is it now?’
‘Now,’ the boy confirmed.
Damien shouted his orders and the avians rose slowly into the air. The most powerful males combined to haul many cargo containers suspended on ropes, while the meledhij carried the flightless fledglings in their arms. All the rest were heavily laden with bags slung across their bodies, even the females well on in pregnancy. They climbed in their flights, the king and queen following last of all.
Mike and his warriors were the first to reach the rift. He signalled Damien and the armed squad entered it, flight after flight disappearing after him. Eventually only two couples were left: the king and queen, Lance and Reggie. They gave one last wave to those gathered below, before they too were gone. The rift flared briefly blue, then the morning sky was once again clear. On the Kaleczyke Horja there was only the sound of subdued weeping from women and men alike.