Continuing the adventure that began here.

CHAPTER XXIV. Talons of the Roc.

Devil-King-KunThe big bird is coming back,” said Tluxapeketl.

It was completely unnecessary for her to remind us, since the immense wings of the roc now filled the view through the side windows. The thing was approaching us as if it meant to collide with us; but at the last moment it swooped upward and struck us a glancing blow with its talons—a blow that nevertheless made our ornithopter shudder and drop some distance before Kun regained control.

“Go faster, Daddy,” said Miss Kun. “See if we can get away.”

We heard that grinding sound again, and the great wings of the machine began to flap. I could feel my back pressing into the seat as the ornithopter surged forward.

“A remarkable machine,” Weyland reiterated.

“I think it’s a bit show-offy,” said Miss Kun.

“Showing off is nine-tenths of the art of being a successful archfiend,” said her father.

“The big bird is coming back,” said Tluxapeketl again; she had turned to look out the small rear window.

The pitch of the grinding sound rose, and the great brass wings flapped faster.

“Can you go faster than this?” Miss Kun asked.

“Not without stressing the wings beyond the breaking point,” Kun replied.

“Didn’t I tell you an autogyro would be more practical? I distinctly remember telling you that.”

Another impact, and again the machine reeled and shuddered.

“Why is the big bird chasing us?” asked Tluxapeketl as the roc again began to wheel about in front of us.

“Perhaps it thinks we’re another roc invading its territory,” I suggested.

“I’m afraid it’s worse than that,” said Weyland.

“Worse than there’s a monster bird and it wants to kill us?” I asked.

“I don’t think it sees us as an enemy,” Weyland replied. “I think it sees us as a potential mate.”

The roc swooped toward us again; Kun tried to dive to evade it, with the result that this blow was not quite as hard as the previous ones.

“The female Iberian roc is a pale golden brown color, described by the Moorish poet Ibn Alfred as ‘like brass,’” Weyland explained. “I think our ornithopter appears to be a female of his species in the eyes of the roc.”

“You mean these are amorous overtures?” I asked incredulously.

“Can we make it think of baseball statistics or something?” asked Miss Kun. “I don’t think I want to mate with a monster bird. Even I have my limits.”

The roc pounded us yet again, and this time the impact was hard enough that Kun seemed to lose control of the machine for a moment. We turned violently on our left side; Kun soon had us righted, but I wondered whether the ornithopter could take many more impacts like that one.

“We may have a chance,” said Weyland. “It depends, of course, on certain assumptions. The Arabian conquerors established the roc wherever they took up residence, but information on the Iberian subspecies is sparse and unreliable. If we presume, however, that its mating habits are, barring certain local variations, the same as, or at least similar to, the habits of the species as a whole in the rest of its range, then we may be able to—”

“Are you going to do something, Mr. Weyland?” asked Kun. “Because, if we are simply going to die, I should be happy to die without the ornithological lecture.”

The bird swooped in again, and Kun just barely managed an evasive drop that spared us the worst of the impact from its massive talons.

“How maneuverable is your ornithopter?” asked Weyland.

“It took first prize in the Bucharest All-Europe Ornithopter Trials three years ago,” Kun replied.

“Let’s put it to the test. If you can follow my instructions to the letter, we may just have a chance. Start with a hard roll to the right.”

Kun immediately complied, and the machine tilted strongly to the right, nearly tipping us out of our seats.

“Good!” said Weyland. “Now dive, about fifty meters if you can manage it, and then pull up hard and continue about two hundred meters straight up.”

“Wheeee!” cried Tluxapeketl as we suddenly dropped and then just as suddenly pulled up out of the dive. She was enjoying the ride a good bit more than I was.

“Now,” said Weyland, “hard roll to the left, and then again fifty meters down, two hundred up.”

“I hope you realize,” said Kun as the machine tilted to the left, “that all this is using a great deal of fuel, and ornithopter fuel is not cheap.”

“We could have had an autogyro,” said Miss Kun as the dive began again; “but no, you had to have the flashy brass and flapping wings.”

Once more we began to ascend, and again it seemed to leave my stomach two hundred meters below.

“Now,” said Weyland, “do you think you can dive in a clockwise spiral?”

“Do you think I can’t?” Kun asked as the machine suddenly began to spiral downward.

“Now you’ve done it,” said Miss Kun. “Daddy’s a big showoff.”

“Down three hundred meters,” said Weyland, “and then pull out.”

“I do hope you know what you’re doing, Mr. Weyland,” said Kun. “The roc is still out there.”

“I make no guarantees,” Weyland said as we pulled out of the spiral dive. “But at least it has not attacked again. Now we go through the whole thing once more—roll right, dive fifty meters.”

“Ornithopters are such fun!” Tluxapeketl declared as we plummeted through the sky.

“Up two hundred,” Weyland said, and there was that stomach-dropping sensation again as we shifted abruptly from straight down to straight up.

We went again through the left roll, dive, ascent, and spiral dive. This time, once we had pulled out of the spiral, Tluxapeketl pointed out the side window and declared, “The big bird is going away.”

Indeed we could see, off to the left, the roc flying away, and it did not appear to be coming back. We watched it go until it had become an indistinguishable spot in the sky over the distant mountains.

“Well, Mr. Weyland,” said Kun, “it appears that, whatever you had us doing, it worked. I suppose that is a rather impressive accomplishment for a non-Andorran.”

“What did we do?” I asked.

“Like many birds,” Weyland explained, “the roc has a complex mating behavior that is governed by a highly ritualized mating dance. What we perceived at first as its attacks were, in fact, the male’s attempt to initiate the mating dance.  It was thus up to us, in the role of the female bird, to respond to those overtures.”

“How did we respond?”

“Fortunately I studied medieval Arabian ornithomythology in some depth back in my undergraduate days. I simply directed you to give the response that, to use the vernacular, means ‘Amscray, I’m not interested.’ The male thus, though disappointed, retired, convinced that he had been rejected.”

“Poor birdie,” said Tluxapeketl.

“Well, then, we have successfully avoided the roc,” said Kun, “and that is very good news. The bad news is that, in doing so, we have used up all our fuel.”

“What happens now?” I asked.

“The most likely outcome,” Kun replied, “is that the ornithopter crashes and everyone on board dies. Oh, and by the way, Elsie, do you remember how you disabled your ejection seat before we took off?”

“Yes…” Miss Kun replied.

“You may also remember that I didn’t disable mine.”

There was a sound like “phutt,” and Kun was gone. A square hole had appeared in the roof above him, and both the man and the seat he had been sitting in had vanished.

Don’t miss tomorrow’s thrilling episode:


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