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.
Excerpted from A DARKLING PLAIN: Book Four of The Hungry City Chronicles © Copyright 2011 by Philip Reeve. Reprinted with permission by Eos/HarperCollins, Inc. All rights reserved