This was not his nightmare. As he found himself behind the controls of an unfamiliar aeroplane, Chamus Aranson instinctively recognized where he was. This was the nightmare that plagued his grandfather’s sleep; every detail was exactly as Grandad had described it. He was reliving the plane crash that had crippled the old man fourteen years ago.
It was a routine flight; he was testing a new design, a sleek new monoplane. His route had taken him over the border of Majarak, in the Fringelands. No sooner had Chamus become aware of where he was than he felt the snapping of bullets passing through the fuselage. Somebody was shooting at him from the ground, two hundred feet below him. The engine suddenly spat oil and smoke from its vents, and he heard a harsh knocking in the cylinder that told him a piston had been damaged. The engine coughed and stalled. And then the stick went loose and Chamus discovered he had no elevator control. One of the cables must have been cut by a bullet. The powerless aeroplane, weighed down by the heavy engine in its nose, dipped slowly forward and slipped down through the air, plummeting towards the ground, wind tearing at the edges of its wings.
He woke with a gasp, the image of the ground tilting up towards him still filling his vision. His hands were trembling as he sat up and waited for the disorientation to fade. He remembered how his grandfather often said that it was not the memory of the crash itself that haunted him. It was discovering after the crash landing that his legs were trapped by the buckled firewall that separated the cockpit from the engine compartment. It was the sight of orange flames erupting from the engine cowling and the heat and the smell of burning oil. It was the knowledge that his, like all modern aircraft, was made of resin-impregnated wood. It was the certainty that he was going to burn to death.
But Thomex Aranson had not died that day. He had been pulled from the crumpled body of the plane by two Majarak farmers, who had seen the aircraft go down. His legs were crushed and he suffered some burns to his hands and arms, but he survived. He never found out who shot at him or why, but it was probably some Fringelander with a chip on his shoulder who liked taking pot-shots at Altima flyers.
Chamus looked at the alarm clock on the chest of drawers beside his bed.
He was late; he must have knocked the alarm off in his sleep again. He rolled out of bed, threw off his pyjamas and pulled on his school uniform, jamming his feet into his shoes as he shrugged his blazer on. On his way out of his room, he saw his grandfather’s bedroom door was slightly ajar and he peered in. Thomex was rolling from side to side, the old man’s face twisted in fear, and Chamus wondered if his grandfather was living through the same nightmare that he had just escaped. He watched for a minute longer, wishing he could do something to ease his grandad’s fears. A hand softly clasped his shoulder and his father reached from behind him and closed the door.
‘You’re going to be late for school,’ Kellen said. ‘Where are your things? I’ll give you a lift to station.’
‘Shouldn’t we wake him up?’ Chamus asked.
‘He barely sleeps as it is. Besides, do you want to be the first person he sees when he wakes up?’
Chamus shook his head. Grandad in a bad mood was not a pretty sight. He grabbed his cap and coat and swung his bag over his shoulder. His mother shoved a bacon sandwich into his hand as he ran for the front door. She never let him leave the house without some kind of breakfast. He took a great big bite out of it once he was settled in the passenger seat of his dad’s car. His father grinned at him.
‘What have you got today? Flying?’
‘Commander Ellese is going to take us up,’ Chamus said around the mouthful of sandwich, referring to one of the school’s founders, a revered war hero. ‘That’s if the weather’s okay. Otherwise we’ve got history.’
Kellen glanced up at the sky above the roof of their large, red-brick house; it was a clear blue with wisps of cloud. Perfect flying weather. He started the engine and pulled out onto the road. Kellen had left the air force to take over his father’s small business, designing and building planes, and knew his son was itching to get airborne. The Benaldon Preparatory Flying School in Victovia combined pilot training with normal lessons and its students were considered among the elite, destined for the key flying positions in Altima. Kellen hoped that Chamus too would get into the family business, but he knew the boy had his heart set on flying fighters – like every other boy at the school.
They missed the train and the next one was not for twenty minutes. Chamus looked up at the station clock and swore loudly. If he were late he would miss the briefing, and if he missed the briefing he would not be allowed fly.
‘Less of that language from you, your mother would have a fit,’ his father said, but he could see the disappointment on his son’s face. ‘Come on, hop in. I don’t have to be in until the meeting at ten. I’ll drive you.’
Chamus kept looking at his watch as the car sped along the road that ran around the outskirts of the city. It was going to be close.
‘Can’t we go any faster?’ he asked, impatiently.
‘This beast can do nearly ninety miles an hour on the straight,’ Kellen told him proudly. ‘These new two-strokes can really hare along …’
‘I meant, can’t you drive any faster?’
‘Yes, Cham. But not fast enough to escape the police. Let’s keep it under the speed limit, shall we? We’ll get you there on time.’
Chamus idly wondered how a man could have the nerve to be a test pilot and still be afraid of breaking the speed limit. He glanced at his watch again, but it was no comfort.
It was a little after eight when they reached the airfield; the briefing would have already started. Chamus thanked his dad, grabbed his satchel and rushed towards the hangar. He had missed roll call, so he would have to go straight to the briefing room, face the music and hopefully still get his place on the flight plan.
‘Aranson!’ a voice roared behind him. ‘Where d’you think you’re going?’
He stopped short and stood ramrod straight, spinning on his heel to face Mr Morthrom, the geography and navigation teacher – a squinty-eyed whippet of a man.
‘Sir! I was making my way to the hangar to join my class, sir!’
‘If you miss roll call, you don’t fly. You know the rules, Aranson.’
Chamus nodded. He had been hoping to bypass that particular rule. But there was no chance with Morthrom.
‘Commander Ellese has your class this morning, but it seems you are to miss the honour of flying with him. Go and inform him that you are here and that you will await your class’s return in the library. I shall give you some exercises to do.’
‘Yes, sir!’ Chamus could hardly keep the disappointment from his face. They had not flown for two weeks because of bad weather during their flying periods. Ellese was notorious for breaking the rules, which made him popular with the students. Maybe he would still let him go up with the class. But Cham did not fancy his chances once Morthrom had made up his mind.
As he trudged the last hundred yards to the training planes hangar, a man hurried past him. He glanced back as he passed, and several expressions seemed to ripple across his face at once, so quickly that Chamus thought he had imagined it. There was a sound like whispering and Chamus stopped for a moment and look around, puzzled, but could not see anyone else about. Access to the hangar was restricted and he didn’t recognize the man, but he looked like a Fringelander. The only ones who worked in the school were caretakers. Cham wondered if this man was new. The stranger was walking very fast and disappeared from sight into the darkness of the big corrugated sheet metal and concrete building. Chamus followed him in and traced his fingertips along the leading edge of the wing of a trainer before making his way to the briefing room.
There were raised voices coming from beyond the doorway. He could hear Ellese demanding to know who the stranger was and what he was doing there. Another voice, one that must be that of the Fringelander, was shouting in a strange language, almost chanting. Chamus walked up to the doorway and peered inside. The stranger was standing in front of Ellese’s desk, with the instructor facing him behind it. The boys of Cham’s class were sitting at their desks watching the spectacle. The two men were glaring at each other, then the stranger became abruptly silent, his head tilted upwards, his mouth wide open, his eyes rolled back. Even as this was happening, the Fringelander blurred and disappeared, and as he did, the walls of the briefing room faded away, the noticeboards and regulation blue walls turning transparent and vanishing from view.
Chamus went suddenly numb. The classroom was disappearing around him. He found himself standing in an open street, surrounded by adobe buildings. Around him, people were hurrying into their houses, but his class still sat at their desks in the middle of the street, staring at the open, grey sky in shock. There was the sound of aeroplanes overhead and he heard the torn whistle of bombs falling. An object plummeted down and struck just where the stranger had been standing before he had vanished. The object was a metal javelin, with a barrel-shaped section at its waist, holes running up its side and fins on its tail. Chamus was bewildered. What was going on? They had been in the hangar. How could they suddenly have ended up in a street he had never seen before? It was as if they were all sharing some vivid, waking dream. Then Chamus realized what the javelin was; his heart leapt into his throat. It was a sireniser.
He must have started running, for suddenly the village faded away and he was in the main part of the hangar again. His classmates were still in the briefing room behind him. He did not think about them. He dodged around the parked training planes, instinctively sprinting for open space. He could only have seconds before the sireniser went off. The door was getting wider, but he felt nothing, heard nothing. He had just made it out the door and looked up to see the big, wide sky, when a wall of sound slammed into him and threw him across the concrete apron. The noise was like nothing he had ever heard, it had no pitch, no quality – it just sounded like the end of the world.
* * * *
Chamus did not know what was going on. His first sensation was a massive headache and then there was a ringing in his ears. As he opened his eyes, he became aware that the ringing was the only thing he could hear. There were men in different kinds of uniforms around him, some wearing ear protectors. He could see them talking to each other, see their mouths moving, but he could not hear a thing over the ringing. Judging by the view, he was lying on his back. He went to move his head, and discovered he too was wearing headgear. He should still have been able to hear something. The headache wanted to stay where it was, so he let it and just lay still.
One of the men, in the uniform of an air force medical officer, noticed he was awake and looked down at him with an expression of concern. He lifted his ear protectors carefully, then took them off and leaned forward to listen.
‘Am I deaf?’ he asked the man, his voice sounding as if he was speaking into the back of his skull.
The man shook his head. He wrote out something on a piece of paper and then showed it to Chamus. His vision was blurred and it hurt to focus on anything, but he could just make it out.
‘Your eardrums are intact and your hearing will come back in time,’ it read. ‘You’re going to be alright.’
He nodded slightly to show he understood, but he could only remember flashes of what had happened. He let his head roll gently to the side and looked at the hangar. It was still standing, but only just. The metal girders of the roof had buckled and collapsed; the concrete walls were teetering under the weight of the rest of the structure. Through the huge doorway, he could see that the shockwaves from the sound weapon had wrought devastation on the aircraft and equipment inside – all the work of a weapon that had seemed to appear out of nowhere, as part of some bizarre vision cast by an unknown Fringelander. He could only remember snatches of what had happened and none of it made sense.
‘The others?’ he asked.
The medical officer shook his head. Chamus closed his eyes and wished the world away from him. He felt a needle prick his arm and then felt nothing more.
Riadni Mocranen’s older brother stopped laughing the instant her shinbone connected sharply with his testicles. Suddenly the sight of seeing her fall flat on her back while trying to mount her horse wasn’t so funny. He folded up and crumpled to the ground with tears in his eyes. Riadni patted the dust off the back of her tunic and trousers, straightened her headscarf and wig and walked back to Rumbler, the old piebald stallion, who waited patiently for her to finish her business. Barra, her brother, had loosened the girth, the strap holding the saddle to the horse’s body, so when she put her foot in the stirrup and swung her other leg up over the horse’s back, the saddle slid sideways, causing the stirrup to slip round under the horse’s belly. She had hit the ground like a sack of potatoes.
Barra would be on the ground for a while longer, though. She tightened the girth and leapt up on Rumbler’s back. The other boys, including her younger brother, Jarin, kept a respectful distance as she rode by. She knew her face-paint would be smeared and her wig dusty, but she kept her chin up and her back straight and looked at them with disdain as she trotted past them, then gritted her teeth and tapped her heels against her horse’s sides for a gallop home.
Rumbler was old, easily the oldest horse in Kemsemet. He had been her father’s favourite mount, but when his age had started to show, her father had given him up for a younger dapple-grey. Sostas Mocranen had planned to make some money out of the old warhorse, using him to cover mares while his seed was still good, and then putting him down. But Riadni had begged him relentlessly to give her the old horse. Sostas would have found the idea of any other girl owning a horse ridiculous, but Riadni did not seem to be growing out of her tomboy ways and she had learned to ride right along with her brothers. And if he could not make her a good daughter, he could at least give her the chance to be a good son. So he had borne the laughter of his neighbours, and given Riadni his old horse. She and Rumbler had taken to each other immediately, and Rumbler, now that he did not have to carry the weight of her father, showed he still had plenty of life in him.
Above the beat of the horse’s hooves, she heard a droning noise and lifted her head to see a group of aeroplanes flying high overhead. Altimans. She and her brothers had come out to the far side of town to where Brother Fazekiel, the local priest was leading a protest against an Altiman-owned factory that was pumping noxious clouds of gas out over the area. It had been fun to join in the shouting. She had never met an Altiman, but her father and his friends talked about them all the time. She often saw their aircraft, however, sometimes in groups like these, sometimes alone. They lived in the region of plateaux to the northwest and her father said they did not like to travel down into Bartokhrin; they flew over it because they thought it dirty and primitive. From up there, the people of Altima could look down on their neighbours without having to consort with them. She slowed Rumbler to a walk, so that she could watch the aircraft. She thought that there was something godlike about them, the way they had conquered the skies, the way they did not need to walk on the ground anymore. There were eight of them, each with two engines, mounted on the wings. The lead plane turned into a dive and the others followed, flowing as one, like a flock of birds. They were closer now, nearly over the village of Yered on the other side of the hill and she could see details, their black tops and silver undersides, the sharp things on the front where the propellers would be if they weren’t going too fast to see, the glass windows where the pilots looked out, the hatches open in their bellies …
She pulled gently on the reins, bringing Rumbler to a halt. There were things falling out of the planes. Her breath caught in her throat. Yered was being bombed. It was less than a dozen miles from home. She had never seen a bombing before; somehow it did not look as dramatic as she had thought it would from all the stories she had heard. There was a mountain ridge between her and the village, but even so, she was surprised that there was no smoke or fire visible. She felt sorry for the people in Yered, but excited too. It was too far away to affect her family, but what a story to tell over dinner! She considered riding out there to see the damage and perhaps even help if she could.
But one look at the sun told her she was already late and Rumbler was tired. Her wig was hot and heavy on her head and she pulled it off to let the faint breeze run its cool breath through her dark hair. It was forbidden for her to remove her wig in public, or even to leave home without her face made up, but she had little time for tradition and ‘forgot’ whenever she could get away with it. She flicked the reins and Rumbler started walking again towards town. She wanted to get home before Barra and Jarin. Just so they didn’t blab the story to anyone at home about her falling off the horse before she could tell it her way.
It was summer and the road was dusty, the green grass in the fields either side beginning to burn to an arid yellow. The air was dry and the rocky hills hazy in the evening heat. Riadni pulled a water canteen from her saddle and gulped some down. It was warm but still refreshing. She poured some into her cupped hand and sprinkled it on the back of Rumbler’s neck. There was a rattle of hooves on the road behind her and she turned, expecting to see her brothers giving chase. But it wasn’t her brothers; there were men racing towards her on powerful warhorses. With a start, she realized that she was not wearing her wig. She quickly pulled it on and straightened it as best she could, flicking the braids over her shoulders and patting the curls back into place.
The horses were being ridden hard. Their coats were lathered and froth dripped from their mouths, their hooves drumming the dust into a cloud that trailed behind them. There were eight men, all armed with rifles or muskets, swords and knives, all riding with a sense of urgency. In the middle of the group was a man she recognized, a friend of her father’s, Lakrem Elbeth. The others rode in a circle around him so as to shelter him. Riadni steered Rumbler off the road to get out of their way and they rushed past, losing her in their dust cloud. She tasted grit, swilled some spit around her mouth and let it fly. It was a beauty. Her mother would have slapped her good and hard for that one. She let the dust settle and continued on her way. She was hungry now and eager to get home.
* * * *
The eight horses were waiting for her, tied to the rail outside the two-storey, plastered adobe house. They were still panting and their heads hung with exhaustion. Kyumeth Mocranen was straining tea through a cloth when Riadni trotted into the yard. She saw her daughter through the kitchen window and waved her inside. There was a man she didn’t know sitting in the corner of the kitchen. He looked up when Riadni came in and took off her boots, then went back to reading the Kes, one of the three books of Shanna.
‘Were you riding the horse or carrying it?’ her mother snorted. ‘You look a mess. Clean yourself up quickly and help me serve supper. We have guests.’
Riadni filled a basin from the pitcher on the table and took it upstairs to her room. She stripped off her riding clothes and washed using the basin, then sprinkled some perfumed water from a jar onto her bare feet. There weren’t many dresses in her cupboard, and the ones she had were worn and uncared for. She slipped into a long, light, loosely fitting, raw-cotton dress that covered her from neck to ankles and sat cross-legged in front of the mirror on the floor to paint her face with the stylized make-up, a white face with sharp, curving eyebrows, heavy eyeliner, high, rouged cheekbones and deep red lips. Apart from her father and her brothers, the next man to see her without this religious mask would be her husband (whoever that would be) on their wedding night. The Bartokhrians worshipped the she-god, Shanna, and Shanneyan women had always to be dressed, coiffed and painted in the image of Shanna, for her image would protect their virtue. Riadni had started wearing the wigs and make-up when she turned fourteen, almost a year ago, and she still hated them. Taking her dress wig from its stand, she arranged it carefully on her head and stared at herself in the mirror. Some day she would rid herself of this nonsense.
Lakrem Elbeth was with her father in the large gathering room at the back of the house. Sitting protectively around him were six more men with lean bodies and hard eyes. She noticed with disgust that they had not taken off their riding cloaks or boots. Even their wide-brimmed hats still hung down their backs. She was the one who would have to clean that floor this evening, after they had left and taken their bad manners with them.
‘Ah, young Riadni!’ Elbeth turned to her as she walked in with a tray of tea and honey pastries. ‘How enchanting you look in a dress! And here I thought it was a boy wearing a hairpiece that we passed on the road.’
There were some loyal chuckles from the other men and her father smiled uncomfortably. Riadni bowed, but remained silent. She laid the tray on the low table in front of Elbeth and left the room. But once out of sight, she hung back by the doorway to listen to what was being said. Her mother saw her, but said nothing. Riadni was old enough now to start learning about the world of men – provided she was discreet about it.
‘So, you see, old friend,’ Elbeth was saying, ‘with the attack on Yered, the Altimans have shown us that they have no mercy for those who speak out against them. Our old camp has become too dangerous; we need a safe place to stay, to plan and to train our new recruits.’
‘I understand, Lakrem,’ she heard her father say, ‘but you said it yourself. They laid waste to Yered. You say they used the flail bombs, the ones that scar all those who survive, so that they are marked for life. In Jermanya, it was the killing sound; they had to desert the village and the wounded until it died away. These weapons they use against us don’t know the difference between men, women and children. And Brother Fazekiel tells me that every village that harbours rebels is targeted. If it was just my own life you were asking me to risk, you know I wouldn’t hesitate. But my family …’
‘I know, I know, Sostas,’ Elbeth said soothingly, ‘but it will only be for a while, until we find a more permanent base. Fazekiel is an alarmist, he means well, but he is weak-willed. He thinks that protest marches and negotiations can win the peace, as if the politicians would have anything to negotiate with, without our operations against the cities. We need somewhere with cover, where their aeroplanes can’t see us – somewhere we can keep horses and store weapons and supplies. It won’t be for long, I promise you. And you won’t even know we’re there.’
Riadni glanced up at her mother and thought about what she was hearing. So those planes that had bombed Yered had been after Elbeth! The thought frightened and thrilled her. They had been after Elbeth and his men and now he wanted to set up camp on her father’s land. She knew that Elbeth had saved her father’s life once, long ago. The older man talked as if he did not expect any more argument from his host, and yet Riadni’s father was not a man to be pushed around. Lakrem was an important member of the Hadram Cassal, a group of rebels that fought against the Altimans’ control of Bartokhrin. Having them here would be exciting. Riadni might get to learn some riding techniques, or even how to shoot or use a sword. Many of the men in Hadram Cassal had travelled to other lands, some even to the cities in Altima and she ached to hear the stories of life there. But she was sure that her father would not allow Elbeth to do anything that would put his family in danger.
‘Alright,’ Sostas Mocranen sighed, ‘you can set up camp in the caves in Sleeping Hill. But only for a few weeks. Every day you stay here is a risk to us all.’
‘You have my word, Sostas,’ Elbeth’s voice smiled. ‘We’ll be gone before you know it.’