A Darkling Plain (The Hungry City Chronicles, Book 4)
For Kirsty and Holly,
Sam, Tom, and Edward
1. Super-Gnats Over Zagwa 3
2. Matters of the Heart 13
3. The Mysterious Miss Morchard 24
4. Lady Naga 32
5. A Boy and His Stalker 48
6. Rain-Colored Silk 54
7. Brighton Rocks 65
8. On the Line 74
9. Breakfast at Moon's 85
10. The Black Angel 99
11. Wolf Kobold 113
12. The Sand Ships 129
13. Time to Depart 143
14. General Naga 149
15. The Invisible Suburb 156
16. Fishcake on the Roof of the World 165
17. Storm Country 179
18. That Colossal Wreck 190
19. The Holloway Road 202
20. Children of MEDUSA 209
21. Paging Dr. Popjoy 217
22. Wren Natsworthy Investigates 232
23. The Childermass Experiment 242
24. Manchester 255
25. Theo in Airhaven 266
26. Ruined! 275
27. Strut 13 286
28. Storm Birds 306
29. Fun, Fun, Fun on the Oberrang 318
30. She Is Risen 323
31. The House at Erdene Tezh 336
32. London Journal 343
33. The Test 348
34. Displaced Persons 354
35. Uplink 363
36. Intruders 366
37. Love Among the Ruins 379
38. The Million Voices of the Wind 385
39. Firelight 393
40. What Have They Done to the Sky? 405
41. Back in Batmunkh Gompa 415
42. The Funeral Drum 424
43. Homecoming 432
44. Pillar of Fire 443
45. Harvest 454
46. The Shortcut 467
47. The Battle of Crouch End 477
48. A Voyage to Erdene Tezh 487
49. Newborn 504
50. The Stalker's House 511
51. The Chase 518
52. Last Words 529
53. The Afterglow 544
54. Grike in the World to Come 553
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor hue, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
--Matthew Arnold, "Dover Beach"
A DARKLING PLAIN
1 Super-Gnats Over Zagwa
THEO HAD BEEN CLIMBING since dawn; first on the steep roads and paths and sheep tracks behind the city, then across slopes of shifting scree, and up at last onto the bare mountainside, keeping where he could to corries and crevices where the blue shadows pooled. The sun was high overhead by the time he reached the summit. He paused there awhile to drink water and catch his breath. Around him the mountains quivered behind veils of heat haze rising from the warm rocks.
Carefully, carefully, Theo edged his way onto a narrow spur that jutted out from the mountaintop. On either side of him sheer cliffs dropped for thousands of feet to a tumble of spiky rocks, trees, white rivers. A stone, dislodged, fell silently, end over end, forever. Ahead Theo could see nothing but the naked sky. He stood upright, took a deep breath, sprinted the
last few yards to the edge of the rock, and jumped.
Over and over he went, down and down, dazed by the flicker of mountain and sky, mountain and sky. The echoes of his first cry bounded away into silence, and he could hear nothing but his quick-beating heart and the rush of the air past his ears. Tumbling on the wind, he emerged from the crag's shadow into sunlight and glimpsed below him--far below--his home, the static city of Zagwa. From up here the copper domes and painted houses looked like toys; airships coming and going from the harbor were windblown petals, the river winding through its gorge a silver thread.
Theo watched it all fondly till it was hidden from him by a shoulder of the mountains. There had been a time when he had thought that he would never return to Zagwa. In the Green Storm training camp they had taught him that his love for home and family was a luxury, something that he must forget if he was to play his part in the war for a world made green again. Later, as a captive slave on the raft city of Brighton, he had dreamed of home, but he had thought that his family would not want him back; they were old-fashioned Anti-Tractionists, and he imagined that by running away to join the Storm, he had made himself an outcast forever. Yet here he was, back among his own African hills; it was his time in the north that seemed to him now like a dream.
And it was all Wren's doing, he thought as he fell. Wren, that odd, brave, funny girl whom he had met in Brighton, his fellow slave. "Go home to your mother and father," she had told him, after they had escaped together. "They still love you, and they'll welcome you, I'm sure." And she had been right.
A startled bird shot past on Theo's left, reminding him that he was in midair above a lot of unfriendly-looking rocks, and descending fast. He opened the great kite that was strapped to his back and let out a whoop of triumph as the wings jerked him upward and his dizzy plunge turned into a graceful, soaring flight. The roar of the wind rushing past him died away, replaced by gentler sounds: the whisper of the broad panels of silicone silk, the creak of rigging and bamboo struts.
When he was younger, Theo had often brought his kite up here, testing his courage on the winds and thermals. Lots of young Zagwans did it. Since his return from the north, six months ago, he had sometimes looked enviously at their bright wings hanging against the mountains, but he had never dared to join them. His time away had changed him too much; he felt older than the other boys his age, yet shy of them, ashamed of the things he had been: a Tumbler-bomb pilot, and a prisoner, and a slave. But this morning the other cloud-riders were all at the citadel to see the foreigners. Theo, knowing that he would have the sky to himself, had woken up longing to fly again.
He slid down the wind like a hawk, watching his shadow swim across the sunlit buttresses of the mountain. Real hawks, hanging beneath him in the glassy air, veered away with sharp mews of surprise and indignation as he soared past, a lean black boy beneath a sky-blue wing invading their element.
Theo looped the loop and wished that Wren could see him. But Wren was far away, traveling the bird roads in her father's airship. After they had escaped from Cloud 9, the
mayor of Brighton's airborne palace, and reached the Traction City of Kom Ombo, she had helped Theo find a berth aboard a southbound freighter. On the quay, while the airship was making ready to depart, they had said good-bye, and he had kissed her. And although Theo had kissed other girls, some much prettier than Wren, Wren's kiss had stayed with him; his mind kept going back to it at unexpected moments like this. When he kissed her, all the laughter and the wry irony went out of her and she became shivery and serious and so quiet, as if she were listening hard for something he could not hear. For a moment he had wanted to tell her that he loved her, and ask her to come with him, or offer to stay--but Wren had been so worried about her dad, who had suffered some sort of seizure, and so angry at her mum, who had abandoned them and fallen with Cloud 9 into the desert, that he would have felt he was taking advantage of her. His last memory of her was of looking back as his ship pulled away into the sky and seeing her waving, growing smaller and smaller until she was gone.
Six months ago! Already half a year.... It was definitely time he stopped thinking about her.
So for a little while he thought of nothing, just swooped and banked on the playful air, swinging westward with a mountain between him and Zagwa; a green mountain where rags and flags of mist streamed from the canopy of the cloud forest.
Half a year. The world had changed a lot in that time. Sudden, shuddering changes like the shifting of tectonic plates, as tensions that had been building all through the long
years of the Green Storm's war were suddenly released. For a start, the Stalker Fang was gone. There was a new leader in the Jade Pagoda now, General Naga, who had a reputation as a hard man. His first act as leader had been to reverse the Traktionstadtsgesellschaft's advance on the Rustwater Marshes, and smash the Slavic cities that had been nibbling for years at the Storm's northern borders. But then, to the astonishment of the world, he had called off his air fleets and made a truce with the Traction Cities. There were rumors from the Green Storm's lands about political prisoners being released and harsh laws repealed; even talk that Naga planned to disband the Storm and reestablish the old Anti-Traction League. Now he had sent a delegation to hold talks with the queen and council of Zagwa--a delegation led by his own wife, Lady Naga.
It was this that had driven Theo to rise at dawn and bring his old kite up into the high places above the city. The talks were beginning today, and his father and mother and sisters had all gone to the citadel to see if they could catch a glimpse of the foreigners. They were excited and full of hope. Zagwa had withdrawn from the Anti-Traction League when the Green Storm took power, appalled by their doctrine of total war and their armies of reanimated corpses. But now (so Theo's father had heard) General Naga was proposing a formal peace with the barbarian cities, and there were even hints that he was prepared to dismantle the Storm's Stalkers. If he did, Zagwa and the other African statics might be able to join again in the defense of the world's green places. Theo's father was keen for his wife and children to be at the
citadel for this historic moment, and anyway, he wanted to have a look at Lady Naga, who he had heard was very young and beautiful.
But Theo had seen all he ever wished to of the Green Storm, and he did not trust anything Naga or his envoys said. So, while the rest of Zagwa crowded into the citadel gardens, he swooped and soared on the golden air and thought of Wren.
And then, below him, he saw movement where nothing should be moving; nothing except birds, and these were too big to be birds. They were rising out of the white mist above the cloud forest, two tiny airships, envelopes painted in wasp stripes of yellow and black. Their small gondolas and streamlined engine pods were instantly familiar to Theo, who had been made to memorize the silhouettes of enemy ships during his Green Storm training. These were Cosgrove Super-Gnats, which the cities of the Traktionstadtsgesellschaft used as fighter-bombers.
But what were they doing here? Theo had never heard of the Traktionstadts sending ships into Africa, let alone as far south as Zagwa.
And then he thought, They are here because of the talks. Those rockets that he could see shining like knives in the racks under their gondolas would soon be lancing down into the citadel, where Naga's wife was; where the queen was. Where Theo's family was.
He was going to have to stop them.
It was strange how calm he felt about it. A few moments ago he had been quite at peace, enjoying the sunlight and the clear air, and now he was probably about to die, and yet it all
seemed quite natural, another part of the morning, like the wind and the sunlight. He tipped his kite and dropped toward the second of the Super-Gnats. The aviators had not seen him yet. The Gnats were two-man ships, and he doubted they were keeping much of a watch. The kite took him closer and closer, until he could see the paint flaking from the ships' engine-pod cowlings. The big steering fins were emblazoned with the symbol of the Traktionstadts-gesellschaft: a wheeled and armored fist. Theo found himself almost admiring the daring of these aviators, who had flown so deep into Anti-Tractionist territory in their unmistakable ships.
He kicked the kite backward and stalled in midair, the way he had learned to do when he was younger, riding the thermals above Liemba Lake with his school friends. This time, though, he came down not into water but onto the hard, curved top of the airship's envelope. The noise of his landing seemed horribly loud, but he told himself the men down in the gondola would have heard nothing over the bellowing of their big engines. He freed himself from the straps of his kite and tried to tuck it beneath the ratlines that stretched across the surface of the envelope, but the wind caught it and he had to let go to stop himself being pulled away with it. He clung to the ratlines and watched helplessly as it went tumbling astern.
Theo had lost his only means of escape, but before he could worry about it, a hatch popped open beside him, and a leather-helmeted head poked out and stared at him through tinted flying goggles. So someone had heard him after all. He threw himself forward, and he and the aviator
tumbled together through the hatch and down a short companionway, landing heavily on a metal walkway between two of the airship's gas cells. Theo scrambled up, but the aviator lay unmoving, stunned. She was a woman; Thai or Laotian by the look of her. Theo had never heard of easterners fighting for the Traktionstadts. Yet here she was, in one of their ships and one of their uniforms, flying toward Zagwa with full racks of rockets.
It was a mystery, but Theo hadn't time to ponder it. He gagged the aviatrix with her own scarf, then took her knife from her belt and cut a length of rope from the netting around the gas cells, which he used to bind her hands to the walkway handrail. She woke while he was tying the last knots and started to struggle, glaring out angrily at him through her cracked goggles.
He left her writhing there and hurried along the catwalk to another ladder, climbing down between the shadows of the gas cells. Engine noise boomed around him, quickly drowning out the muffled curses from above. As he dropped into the gondola, the light from the windows dazzled him. He blinked and saw the pilot standing at the controls, his back to Theo.
"What was it?" the man asked in Airsperanto. (Airsperanto? It was the common language of the sky, but Theo had thought the Traktionstadts used German....)
"A bird?" asked the man, doing something to his controls, and turned. He was another easterner. Theo pushed him against a bulkhead and showed him the knife.
Outside, the city was coming into view beyond a spur of the mountains. The crew of the leading Super-Gnat, with no
idea of what was happening aboard her sister ship, angled her vanes and started to swing toward the citadel.
Forcing the pilot down into his seat, Theo groped for the controls of the radio set. It was identical to the radio he'd had in the cabin of his Tumbler bomb during his time with the Storm. He shouted into the microphone, "Zagwa! Zagwa! You're under attack! Two airships! I'm in the one behind!" he added hastily, as puffballs of anti-aircraft fire began to burst in the sky all around him, and shrapnel rattled against the armored gondola and crazed the window glass.
The pilot chose that moment to try and fight, lurching out of his chair and butting Theo bullishly in the ribs. Theo dropped the microphone, and the pilot grabbed his knife hand. They struggled for control of the knife, until suddenly there was blood everywhere, and Theo looked and saw that it was his own. The pilot stabbed him again, and he shouted out in anger and fear and pain, trying to twist the blade away. Staring at his opponent's furious, clenched face, he did not even notice the leading airship vanish in a sheet of saffron flame. The shock wave came as a surprise, shattering all the windows of the gondola at once, and then the debris was slamming and jarring against the envelope. A torn-off propeller blade sheared through the gondola like a scythe. The pilot went whirling out through the immense gash where the side wall had been, leaving Theo with an afterimage of his wide, disbelieving eyes.