Authors: L J Adlington
never wanted to fly. That was Cousin Zoya’s bright idea.
‘Everybody’s doing it,’ she said. ‘I’ve been up five times already.’
‘You’re not going,’ Mama told me straight off. ‘You’re too young. What if something happens to you?’
‘Nothing’s going to happen to me, Mama,’ I said. ‘Nothing ever does.’
Mama looked at Papi.
‘It’s far too dangerous,’ he agreed quickly. ‘You can’t even tell left from right, let alone up from down or sky from ground.’
‘What did I miss? What’s dangerous?’ Our neighbour Pedla Rue is always scuttling over from her apartment to ours to spread gloom and gossip. Alert to an argument, she said, ‘Are you talking about the lift being broken again? I’ve reported it to Aura a dozen times today already.’
Mama folded her arms and explained about my plan to sign up for the Air Cadets.
‘Flying!’ snorted Pedla. ‘Don’t let her try anything like that. It’s not normal. My husband always used to say, if we’d been meant to fly we’d have wings, and then we’d be no different from wi—’
‘Hush!’ we all said in one voice. You never know who’s listening.
Papi and Mama quickly backtracked. ‘If Zoya looks after you and Aura agrees, you can fly,’ they said. Anything not to go along with Pedla or her stupid, superstitious husband.
Which is why I’m here, trapped in the sleek, white shell of a People’s Number Fifty-nine Tutor Plane. I’ve got a parachute strapped to my rear, a control stick between my legs and an instructor yawning at my side. I’ve also got Zoya breathing enthusiasm down the back of my neck.
‘Told you you’d love it. It’s easy, isn’t it, Pip?’
‘Focus on the flying, Pip,’ says the instructor.
I want to say
My name’s not Pip, it’s Rain
, but Cousin Zoya calls me Pipsqueak – Pip for short – and I don’t like to make a fuss.
The instructor doesn’t care what my name is. He’s clearly bored out of his skull doing cadet flights in the empty skies above flat foodlands and featureless towns. I’m not that excited myself. Aura streams calm instructions into my head from the keypad at my side and everything’s so smooth we might as well be in a simulator. I can’t feel the air or the sun.
‘This is my sixth time,’ Zoya tells the instructor. ‘Everybody says I’m a natural. I’m not normally in the back seat. As soon as we’re old enough me and Pip are going to join the Air Force and fly with Marina Furey.’
The instructor rolls his eyes. Marina Furey is Rodina’s greatest and most glamorous pilot – the first person to fly solo round the world. We’re just kids in drab blue overalls.
I interrupt. ‘I’m getting course corrections from Aura to keep clear of the cloud that’s building up ahead. Should I try a turn?’
The instructor nods. ‘You have control.’
I tell the plane to bank left. There’s hardly any sensation of movement. I find my mind wandering. School again tomorrow. More tests. Project work’s finished at least – a
Survey of Biofood Yields in the Lim Lands of West Rodina
– boring, but a big percentage of this term’s grade. My bedroom’s already tidy so that’s one less thing to worry about, and . . .
‘Keep her steady,’ the instructor warns as the plane dips suddenly.
I blush. ‘That wasn’t me . . .’
‘Just a bit of turbulence. Perfectly normal. Aura says wind speed is increasing.’
The plane jolts some more. The instructor stays calm. ‘All right, that’s enough for your first trip, Pip. I have control now.’
‘You have control,’ I echo, as I’ve been taught.
Behind us, Zoya’s just started chewing on a snack bar, but her mouth drops open as she picks up a new message.
‘Er, is this right? I’ve got reports of other planes in our sector.’
The instructor frowns. ‘There are no scheduled flights in . . .
’ The plane lurches badly as something large and dark passes over. Everything shudders. Is this normal? A hole appears in the tinted windscreen. Sunlight pokes through.
that?’ shouts Zoya.
The instructor is silent.
I start to panic. ‘I can’t get action-requirements from Aura – there’s nothing . . .’
The instructor leans forward. The plane begins to dive. Why’s he letting it do that? I flick a glance at him. He’s got a small red spot in the centre of his forehead. The headrest of his seat is dark with blood and worse.
Dead. Shot. How?
‘Go up!’ Zoya screams as the ground rises to meet us. She’s yanking at the instructor, trying to get at his controls, but he’s too lumpy to move. I abandon the keypad and seize my control stick with both hands. Somehow we stagger into open sky. Bullets spit into the fuselage behind us.
Zoya shakes me instead of the instructor. ‘Someone’s shooting at us! Do something, Pip! Shoot back!’
‘I don’t know, just get away from it!’
I can’t even blink. As I try to heave the plane away from the bullets all I can think is,
Flying’s easy after all
. . .
Wonder what landing’s like?
voice whispers –
Why move? I’m toasty warm in bed, wrapped in heavy covers, wondering whether to bother brushing snow off my face.
Snow? No snow in bed.
I open my eyes. No bed, just the broken bioweave of a wrecked wing. No covers, just heavy fluff tickling my nose. Not fluff – what’s the word?
. This fur is stretched over sharp bones. It has a strange face with bright silver-black eyes, clouds of bad breath and teeth strung with half-chewed meat.
What . . . ?
Then it comes. A memory so old it’s worn almost to pieces. In the memory I’m nestled in my mother’s arms staring at a picture being streamed on the screen at the end of the bed. ‘
look what sort of monsters are waiting to eat girls who go wandering off into the woods. Be good, and they won’t get you.
I go utterly rigid with shock. The wolf gives a low growl.
‘Get away!’ I shout, though my voice is more of a croak, deep in my throat.
Amazingly, the wolf shakes itself and walks off into the big white, leaving me lighter, colder and covered in fine silver hairs. That’s when I realise it’s been curled up with me, keeping me warm.
I struggle upright and look around. Say ‘
’ but no lights come on. This is not Sea-Ways City. This is bad. I’ve never been in a place without lights – big, bold, lovely lamps, so warm all snow melts before it can settle. Here there are no lights, no walls, no windows with a cityscape view. Just snow, trees and mist, all monochrome. I reach up and feel a flying visor on my head. Smell charred bioweave, corroded circuits and burned feathers.
Hundreds of glossy black feathers still fall all around, mingling with snow, some landing on the plane wing, some nestling in the pawprints the wolf made. My eyes are suddenly so sharp I can count every snowflake, every needle on every spindly, silver-bark tree. This isn’t normal!
Quickly I fumble for my keypad to ask Aura what’s going on. Nothing. No familiar comfort of connection. No
welcome rain aranoza
. Not a whisper.
Come on, come on, tell me what to do next!
Not being able to connect is like finding your body’s suddenly disappeared, or that the world’s been whisked away and replaced with grey.
Like this place.
A sound cracks the silence – a rough bird-croak from high above.
I start to flounder in the snow, scattering feathers and flakes. What should I do? Trust my instincts.
How can I have instincts when there’s almost always been Aura to tell me what to do, or Mama, or Papi, or Cousin Zoya . . .
No sign of her in the snow. Which way should I go? Bone-white branches block all ways but one – a tunnel of trees that seem to part to let me pass. The trees thin. I fall into open air and find myself standing, barely breathing, on a shore of frosted stones. The sky is sunless and grey. Still, grey water stretches to a hazy, grey horizon.
It’s a dead place. No, a place that seems to be waiting for death.
Bits of aircraft are scattered in and out of the water – pieces of our People’s Number Fifty-nine Tutor Plane. There’s a body at the edge of the lake, boots submerged.
Even as I run towards her I swear the water rises without rippling, swallowing her legs . . .
I grab her overalls and heave her out of the clinging water. Is she dead? A hole opens in my heart. She can’t be! Sweet relief – she gasps and coughs.
‘Zoya – wake up, please!’
Her eyes open. They go so wide I swear I can see my face reflected in them – my thin, frightened face, black hair hanging all round it. She shrinks back.
‘Where am I? What are you?’
‘Ssh, idiot, it’s me. You know me.’
‘Pip?’ She frowns and sags a bit. ‘Back then, I thought, I mean, I saw . . . That plane came after us, then there were birds. Black ones. Hundreds of them.’ Straight away she’s reaching for her keypad. ‘
I can’t connect.’
‘Me neither. There’s no Aura here.’
‘Don’t be stupid, how can there not be Aura?’ She keeps pressing and pressing the keypad, then she squints at the grey all around. ‘Where is
? Where’s Sea-Ways? This isn’t normal. It’s not Rodina.’
I barely dare say what I’m thinking out loud. ‘Do you remember Pedla Rue used to tell us about a place beyond the edge of Lim lands? A forest called the Morass?’
Zoya shakes her head violently. ‘Don’t be stupid! We can’t have landed in a place that’s just from stories to scare kids.’
‘Actually, I think it was more of a crash than a landing. We’re lucky to be alive.’
‘If we don’t freeze to death. Aren’t there any heaters? Haven’t you got a coat?’
I almost laugh – it’s as if she expects me to produce warmth from thin air. Then I see the pad of her parachute.
‘Unclip yourself.’ I fumble with straps and buckles, tearing the parachute pack open to let the fine biofabric spill out. Quickly Zoya bundles it around herself, still shivering. That’s when I wonder how I wasn’t wearing a parachute when we crashed. Shouldn’t I be a mess of broken bones and bruises? I feel . . . I feel . . . strange. I’m wondering if a bed of black feathers broke my fall, or if that was all part of a dream.
Zoya blows on her hands and squints past me. ‘Shift out of the way a bit. What are those lights on the water?’
‘Don’t look at the lights!’ My words tumble out too quickly to stop. ‘I mean, in the stories there were
in the forest that hung lights in the air – not proper, real, technology lights, but witch-lamps made of fire-flowers – to trick victims into coming closer.’
These lights are glowing where the mist is thickest – pretty little bobbing things, like toys above a baby’s cradle. A whisper glides over the grey water of the lake.
Welcome, Rain . . .
‘Honestly, Pip, are you sure you didn’t bang your head in the crash? They’ll be lights from a rescue squad, obviously. Can’t you see them?
Hey – over here! Help!
’ Her voice falls dead to the ground.
‘Ssh! We don’t know who’s listening. We should move. Are you OK to walk? Hold on, let me help you up . . .’
‘Ow! Careful! I think I’ve sprained something.’
‘You’re probably stiff from the cold. Lean on me; I can take your weight.’
Zoya snorts. ‘That’s a laugh – you’d snap! I’m staying right here till Aura sends someone.’
This is not good! Can’t she feel the ground trembling? Can’t she hear the whisper of wolf fur snagging on twigs? The faint scrape of feathers high up in shadowy branches? The sound of someone stepping oh-so-carefully through the snow?
‘There are three rules,’ Pedla Rue used to tell me, when I had to go and wait in her apartment after school, before Mama and Papi got home from Glissom’s Gun Factory. Pedla scared me with all sorts of Old Nation tales until Papi found out and told her to keep her tongue behind her teeth. ‘Three rules,’ Pedla said, ‘if you want to stay safe in the woods.’
I like rules. I want rules. What were the rules? I’m sure I can remember them.
Be very careful
be very careful
something else and . . . Got it!
Rule Number One –
Be very careful who you meet
. . .
I swallow fear down. ‘I can hear footsteps . . .’
‘Those lights have got to be the rescue squad,’ says Zoya. ‘If the water’s shallow enough we could wade out to them . . .’
She squelches in sodden boots back to the water’s edge. The lake laps greedily at her toe caps.
Cautiously I step further along the shore to a scattering of debris too strange to be from our crash. I make out the skeleton of a plane, still nailed with bits of . . . what – fabric? Not a shred of bioweave anywhere. One piece shows two slashes of white in a diagonal cross – a Crux emblem. What are Crux doing anywhere near our Nation? Filthy, god-rotten Crux should stay behind their own borders, where they belong, not come corrupting Rodina!
‘Over here!’ I call to Zoya.
Reluctantly she tears her eyes from the lights. She’s waded into the water up to her boot-tops. ‘What is it?’
‘A plane – maybe the one that attacked us. Looks like it’s Crux. Why are you paddling?’
Puzzled, she looks down, then quickly splashes on to dry land and limps over to me. ‘There aren’t any Crux in Rodina,’ she says, but she’s still craning her neck to look at the lights.
be.’ I kick against a broken section of plane with dials showing needles that point at numbers. I pick up harsh smells – fire and crude fuel. ‘It’s not bioweave; it must be wood.’
‘You know, like the trees. I did a project on it once. People used to build houses out of wood and stone.’
‘Shows how backward things were before Aura. How can a plane made of wood even fly?’
‘Unsuccessfully, judging by this.’ Splinters of memory are pricking my mind. A Crux plane. A sky-wide chase. A storm-cloud collision. Black feathers.
Zoya yelps. ‘Ugh – look in the lake!’
I look. If there are any fish, they’re lurking far out from the shore in deeper waters. I see only strange distorted shapes beneath the surface – sodden leaves, lumps, spikes, spines, bones and wrecks. Nothing alive – all dead. A white-grey hand rises up, one finger beckoning. We both scream and stagger back. A body floats. It’s wearing a Crux uniform with navigator’s wings stitched to the collar.
The footsteps crunch closer.
‘Please, Zoya, we really should get away from here. I can hear someone. It’s not . . . not how a rescue squad should sound.’ I hear engines too. Weird ones, not smooth like bioweave at work. This is a rough racket of tracks turning. I’m itchy to move move
but Zoya rolls her eyes.
‘I told you the rescue squad would come. Aura knows we were out on a flight.’
‘But Aura doesn’t know where we’ve crashed. That we’re . . . here.’
‘You’re not scared of the forest, are you?’ she mocks, coming all older-cousin on me. ‘If this
the Morass, it’s just empty wilderness, everyone knows that. All that story-trash about witches and wolves – it’s only kids’ stuff, Pip. Things people made up before Aura got them educated.’
She’s right. Stories are kids’ stuff, for kids like me – little Pip. Little Pipsqueak – the tiddler. Smallest girl in school. ‘
,’ Papi always said, although I’ve never been ill in my life. ‘
Keep an eye on Rain
,’ he told Zoya when we left for Air Cadet camp. Zoya nodded. ‘
Sure. She’s only little.
Right now I’m wishing I was small enough to creep under a frosty pebble to hide until everything goes back to normal again.
‘We could at least get away from the lakeshore, so we’re not so exposed.’
‘I guess. Away from that disgusting dead body at least.’ Zoya hobbles to the tree line, half an eye on the lights I refuse to look at. ‘
– my ankle really hurts. Maybe I should rest first.’
No time to rest. The air brings scents of gunmetal, sweat and dirt.
Thunk, thunk, click.
I know that sound from shooting lessons on the school firing range.
A People’s Number Five Glissom Gun is being loaded.
Time stretches. I twist round to try and block Zoya with my body – a crazy idea, when she’s so tall and I’m so slight. We freeze.
There’s a boy in the trees. The most beautiful boy I’ve ever seen. Bright eyes, dark hair.
Friend or enemy?
No question from his expression he’ll shoot to kill. No question he’ll hit me.
Our eyes lock. He lowers the gun a fraction. His voice, when he speaks, is the clearest sound I’ve heard since coming out of unconsciousness.
‘You?’ he asks. ‘You again?’
I’ve never seen him before in my life.