Flying with the birds again
A cold sea wind buffets us around as we wheel and soar with the seagulls. Here, above the coastal lake of Shokkar, the air is seldom still for very long, but we are used to it – the seabirds of the Nali planet are no strangers to the natural elements. It’s early morning, and the cloudy sky yields a pale silvery light that gives the expanse of water below us a steely hue. It’s not a lake per sé, more a deeply inset bay, separated from the ocean to the east by an isolated rocky plateau whose vertical cliffs stand tall above the breaking waves of the sea. Cracks in the grey rock are speckled white with nesting seabirds, who take it in turns with their partners to plunge into the icy depths of the water and catch the fish that live beneath the surface.
At the heart of the dramatic Shokkar coastline lies the small fishing port of Nalipal. The only outpost of civilisation here save for the aged ruins atop the island that now lies behind us, the east-facing settlement of Nalipal consists of about thirty-or-so old stone buildings orbiting the town’s open harbour square. Stacks of pallets, wicker baskets and lobster pots adorn this roughly surfaced area. From the square extends a small stone pier, tied to which are a few small rowing boats that bob up and down in the gentle swell of the sheltered lake.
As a town, Nalipal is wider than it is deep, constrained by high-sided cliffs on its three landlocked sides. Beyond the town, a narrow valley heads inland, before forking off to the left and right. A well-trodden dirt road follows the main valley, whilst the narrower canyon that climbs upwards to the left supports only a narrow dirt footpath through the grass and boulders leading to some unknown destination.
Nalipal is sleeping now as we fly above it. The cobbled lanes are deserted and the lanterns that light them of an evening are extinguished, and there is no sign of life save for a lone four-armed figure standing atop the cliff to the north. This figure is Kew the elder, the oldest denizen of Nalipal and one who can tell many tales of the planet’s past occupation by the bestial, lizard-like race of the Skaarj – but the Nali planet is now a free world once more, and it has been over a year since those terrible creatures set foot on Nali land. Kew stands surveying the town below him, leaning with his lower right hand on a gnarled wooden staff that he uses to help him travel around. Kew is an elderly man now, and it is cold up here unsheltered from the wind, but still he wears nothing more than a loincloth about his waist and wrist and ankle wraps. When a Nali male comes of age he gains his religious tattoos, and the Nali faith dictates that these must not be covered up, lest the gods be offended.
We follow Kew’s gaze and survey the settlement below. At the far end of town is a raised area of land on which a small church and a few cottages stand proud. From here, steps and a wider sloping alley lead down to the dirt space that is the harbour square, either side of a large market building. On our side of the square, an inn sits at a slight angle to the waterfront, while beside it stands a large building of some importance that could be a town hall. Behind the inn and town hall, the land rises again and below us we find another raised area of town a couple of houses deep. Behind these small houses begins a long flight of steps that climbs the cliffs to the plateau where we now stand with the elderly Nali, looking out over the sleeping town.
Leaving the old Nali to his contemplations, we flutter down towards the rooftops below and settle on the ridge tiles of a cottage near the foot of the long cliff staircase. From our perch, we look across towards the sea and observe that our friend on the cliff top is not the only individual who has risen early in Nalipal this morning. For here, on a small paved terrace between a well-tended stone house and the sea, a young Nali is sitting on a picnic bench, elbows resting on the table and chin in his hands, gazing out towards the distant island. At only twelve years of age, he has no tattoos, and wears a sleeveless brown leather jerkin cross-tied over his chest, and a pair of short thigh-coverings held up by a handmade belt. It is this individual whom we must now follow, for he will soon have a tale to tell…
Luca liked the dawn. It was this that got him out of bed early every day; he would sit himself here as the first traces of light hit the sky, and gaze out over the lake to the east and watch the twin suns rise over the distant bluff of Shokkar. As the red orbs rose over the tall cliffs of the island, casting dramatic reflections upon the lake, the tower of the fortress ruins could just be seen silhouetted above them.
Once the suns had fully risen, Luca would stay at his bench until the town began to come to life. His mother would arise and they would eat a simple breakfast together. If it were the seventh day of the week, they would follow breakfast with a visit to the church across town for a service with Father Thalitha. Too young to be apprenticed to one of the local tradesmen, Luca would normally spend the rest of the day with his closest friend, a girl a couple of months older than him by the name of Halil. Luca and Halil would stroll around the town and get up to mischief, or if their elderly friend Philona had a particularly good catch coming in, they would help him unload and gut the fish he had caught on the lake. Sometimes Halil would also rise early and join him here, but until then Luca would often just sit alone, gazing at the bluff of Shokkar and contemplating the events of the past.
Six years ago the human Kira Argmanov, known to many as the Avenging Angel of the Nali, had passed through Nalipal on her last mission for the Nali people. The bestial Skaarj race, having been driven from the planet’s surface by Kira and her followers once before, had returned to the Nali world and landed on the bluff of Shokkar. Nalipal had been a tense and apprehensive place for several days, until on one night of terror a Skaarj party had passed through their harbour. Nali were running around in all directions, streaming out of the inn and the market. Luca, who had been only six years of age at the time, had been swept helplessly along by the crowd until he was rescued by his mother Matharil. She had taken him home, and Luca and his parents had hidden together for the rest of the night with the lights low and the shutters closed.
The morning after the Skaarj had first passed through their town, the people of Nalipal were excitable and talkative, and many told conflicting stories – but one fact was retold by many, and that was that the Skaarj had returned later that night with a captured Nali in tow, whom they had taken back across the water to the bluff of Shokkar. Town life was further disrupted later that day as Kira herself arrived in Nalipal with one of her followers, seeking to rescue their friend. Kira didn’t linger long enough for the word of her arrival to spread, but Luca had himself glimpsed her from the safety of his terrace as she and her friend negotiated with the locals. Eventually Kira had borrowed a boat from a somewhat bewildered Philona, presenting him with a gold coin, which he proudly showed the young Luca when they met in the harbour the following day.
Kira herself had never returned from the bluff of Shokkar. The evening after they had first crossed to the bluff, Kira’s two exhausted followers had returned from the island. Together, they said, they had defeated the Skaarj invaders, but Kira had been killed at the last minute by a single Skaarj survivor. With some sombre help from the tradesmen of Nalipal, they had returned to the bluff with a coffin, in which they then took Kira’s body away to be interred on the sky haven of Na’thali.
The distant island had intrigued Luca ever since then, and it was this that kept him sitting here long after the sunrise had ended. It was said that no Nali had set foot on the bluff of Shokkar since that day, out of respect to the Avenging Angel and her legacy.
Luca idly scratched an itch on his lower right arm, and then glanced at the curtained cottage window to the right. There was no sign of his mother rising yet. He looked briefly at the rough planks of the tabletop below him, but was soon distracted by the sound of a cracked voice humming a cheerful tune behind him. He looked over his shoulder and grinned as he saw Kew the elder making his way gradually down the long flight of steps from the cliff top.
Luca swung his legs out from below the picnic table and hopped into a standing position. He scampered barefoot over to the low stone wall that bordered on the paved lane and swung over it, then ran past the next house and stood beaming at the bottom of the steps, his hands held behind his back. Kew, who had made it most of the way down the steps already, fixed him with a wink and a smile from the depths of his own wrinkled face, and then continued humming and hobbling down the steps at his usual pace.
Luca rocked up and down on the balls of his feet and maintained an innocent look on his face as Kew reached the bottom of the lengthy flight of steps and ceased humming, leaning heavily on his cane.
“Good morning, master Luca;” The elderly Nali croaked, “a pleasure, as always.”
“Hello, sir.” Luca replied brightly.
“What manner of mischief are you up to today?” Kew asked, regarding Luca with a crooked smile.
“Nothing at all, sir. I was just wondering…” Luca began.
“Wondering what, young sir?”
“Don’t you get tired walking up and down those steps all the time?”
Kew drew himself up to his full height and replied haughtily “Those steps, master Luca, are the key to my continued longevity and rugged good looks.”
Luca fixed Kew with a wide smile at that point, which caused the elderly Nali to sag back onto his stick and utter a chuckle.
“You’re a good lad, Luca. I’ll never let it be said that you’re not trouble with four arms, but you’re a good lad none the less.”
Kew began to stroll down a lane to the left that led towards the town hall and the centre of the village, with Luca in tow. Luca was about to ask the old Nali where he was headed when they rounded a corner and were greeted with a cry from ahead of “Hey! Luca!”
Halil was at the far end of the lane, waving at Luca. Luca waved back.
“It seems you have company.” Kew said, raising an eyebrow.
“Yes. Have a good day, sir.” Luca replied hurriedly, before setting off at a run towards his friend.
“You too, son.” Kew nodded as Luca scampered off. With a shake of his head and another chuckle, the elderly Nali made another left turn and set off towards the town hall.
Luca drew to a halt just before his friend at the corner of the lane. Halil, who was dressed in the type of brown fabric smock that was the traditional garb of female Nali, greeted Luca with a smile and a cheerful “Hi”.
“Hi Halil” Luca replied. Here, a low fence bordered a small vine orchard to the right that stood between them and the cliffs. Luca sat down on the metal bar and Halil followed suit, both of them glancing up as a seagull flew overhead with a sudden call. Halil spoke up, recapturing Luca’s attention.
“I was on my way to the terrace. But I saw you talking to Kew.”
“Yeah.” Luca replied, “He was on his way somewhere. I saw him coming down the steps.”
“Why do you think he gets up so early?” Halil said.
“I’m not sure… maybe watch the town wake up.” Luca replied, “Or…”
“Or what?” Halil enquired.
Luca grinned and whispered, “I heard he’s quite keen on the innkeeper’s daughter. Maybe he goes down to the square so that he can peer in through the upstairs window as she’s getting up.”
Halil giggled and shoved Luca on the arm, admonishing him to “Stop that!” Luca grinned again and stood up, taking Halil’s hand and helping her into a standing position.
“Let’s get back to the terrace.” He said, “My mum will probably be up soon. She’ll get us breakfast.”
The youngsters walked companionably back along the lane towards Luca’s house. As they walked, one of the two suns found a gap in the clouds and bathed the town in a warming glow. The two Nali squinted slightly in the glare as they rounded the kink in the path past the bottom of the cliff top steps. As they passed the adjoining house and approached the terrace wall, Luca’s mother could be seen standing in the back doorway that opened onto the terrace. She smiled as she saw them. Halil waved a greeting.
“There you are,” Luca’s mother said, “I was starting to wonder where you had got to.”
Luca and Halil climbed over the low wall and entered the dappled shade beneath the vine that hung over the crazy-paved terrace. They followed Matharil into the house, where she had already laid out the breakfast things on the solid wooden table at the centre of the small living area. A ray of sunlight shone in through a window that faced out to sea, lighting motes of dust that danced in the air. An oil lantern flickered from a chain above the table, all but drowned out by the newly emerged sun. In the warmth from the sunlight, the room was scented pleasantly by the natural oils used to protect the leather seat coverings.
“I thought you might be joining us, Halil.” Matharil said to Luca’s friend, indicating the three earthenware bowls she had placed on the table.
“Thank you.” Halil said with a polite smile.
Luca and Halil took their seats as Matharil dished out three bowls of steaming oatmeal and placed a jar of golden honey on the table. Luca used his spoon to place a dollop of the sweet substance in the centre of his bowl before passing the jar to Halil, who did the same. The two youngsters tucked into the warming meal as Matharil helped herself to a further dollop of honey.
“So are you two going to get up to today?” she asked. Luca glanced at Halil, who glanced back and shrugged.
“I don’t know,” he said, “we might go fishing off the pier.”
“Good idea.” His mother replied, “But make sure you don’t get in the way of the fishermen. I don’t want to have them banging on my door again, claiming that you got under their feet all day.”
“Don’t worry, we don’t.” Halil replied, “And if we see Philona, we’ll help him load his boat.”
Matharil smiled. “I’m sure you will. You’re good friends to the old man; I know he values your friendship. He never had a family of his own.”
When breakfast was concluded, the youngsters left Luca’s house and headed to the left along the lane into town. Luca was carrying two fishing rods in his left hands. Halil, walking on his right, carried a small clay pot of live bait and a wicker basket for any fish they might happen to catch. The town was beginning to wake up around them as they walked; beyond Luca’s house they passed the small restaurant owned by a plump chef called Putanuuri. Putanuuri himself, who was laying out tables on the restaurant’s patio, tipped them a wave from beneath the creepers that hung from wooden frames above the eating area.
Beyond Putanuuri’s place, Luca and Halil descended a flight of steps that led at an angle behind the inn down to the harbourside. They walked along the quay past a few empty mooring bollards and observed the harbour square, where a few early risers were shifting crates of vegetables and wicker baskets of fish in and out of the big market building on the far side of the open space. As they reached the square, Luca paused and nudged Halil’s arm, gesturing inland at the town hall. Kew was seated on a bench outside the building, leaning on his staff and gazing vaguely upwards towards the inn. Luca grinned as Halil was struck by a fit of the giggles so hard that it shook the pot of bait she was carrying. A couple of the mealworms fell out and wriggled hurriedly across the ground towards the nearest stack of lobster pots. Luca put an arm on his friend’s shoulder and led her onwards towards the pier while she stifled her laughter.
Luca and Halil settled down on the end of the paved pier and hooked mealworms onto the ends of their rough fishing lines. The two Nali, who had passed many a morning this way in the past, were deft with the rod and flicked their bait easily into the water.
“I’ll bet I catch more than you.” Halil jibed. Luca looked at her appraisingly.
“I’ll take that bet,” He replied.
Halil raised an eyebrow. “What’s it worth?”
Luca grinned mischievously. “The loser has to run up the cliff top steps and back down again, twice.”
“You’re on.” Halil replied, “I hope you’re in the mood for a climb.”
The youngsters sat on the pier and chatted as the mealworms floated in the water before them. The fish weren’t tremendously forthcoming today, but they rarely were, this close inland. As they fished, Luca heard the fishermen begin to arrive and load their boats behind them.
It was some time later, with the wicker basket still empty beside them, that Halil’s rod gave a sudden jerk, startling the two Nali out of their conversation, which had turned once again to Kew the elder’s supposed peeping habits.
“I’ve got a bite!” Halil exclaimed, pulling back on the rod. Whatever it was she had hooked, it wasn’t coming without a fight, and the rod gave several more violent jerks forwards that threatened to pull Halil off the pier and into the water.
“What is it?” Luca asked excitedly.
“I don’t know – help!” Halil was interrupted as a particularly strong tug on the line pulled Halil briefly up off the ground.
“Hang on – “ Luca said, lunging quickly forwards and grabbing onto the handle of the rod above Halil’s hands. “Pull!” he called.
Together, Luca and Halil put the full force of their bodies into countering the force on the line. The two Nali fell backwards as a large and oily-looking black fish flew out of the water with a slurp, thrashing about in an attempt to rid itself of the hook in its mouth. The fish landed on the paving behind them and began leaping around madly. Luca twisted himself onto his front and leant on his arms to see what they had snagged.
“A devilfish!” he said in surprise. He and Halil recoiled as the fish lunged towards them, teeth bared. Water flew up from its fins and Luca protected his face with a hand. He heard Halil yelp in pain from his left.
“It bit me!” she said, “How do we stop this thing?”
Luca reached for his belt and grabbed a knife that he carried there. Uncovering his face, he saw Halil attempting to ward off the fish, which was lurching around beside her. In a flash, he lifted himself up and pounced on the thrashing creature. He brought the knife down, burying it in the back of the fish’s skull. The fish slumped down, pinned to a crack in the paving by the blade.
Luca lifted himself up to look at his friend’s injury. A gash on one of her left arms was oozing red blood.
“Are you okay?” Luca said between heavy breaths, concerned.
“I think so.” Halil sounded a little shaken, “I don’t think it got me that badly.”
Luca put a hand on her uninjured arm. “Stay here. I’ll go and get a bandage.”
Halil nodded. Luca turned to the dead fish and pulled the knife out of its skull. It was a simple but keen blade. Luca kept it on his belt at all times, and today was glad of it. Luca’s father had presented it to him when he had gone to join the resistance during the second Skaarj occupation. He had never returned from his last battle, and Luca kept the knife with him to honour his father’s memory.
Luca stood and wiped the knife off on his jerkin, before reattaching it to his belt and jogging across the square towards the inn. He passed through the double doors on the end of the building and entered the cosy gloom within. Navigating his way between the tables, pillars and chairs, he approached the long bar on the left where the innkeeper, Tari, was drying some glassware. He looked down at Luca quizzically.
“Young master Luca! What can I do for you?”
“I need a bandage, sir.” Luca replied, “My friend has had an accident.”
“Of course…” Tari replied. He rummaged around under the counter, shortly producing a roll of bandages and a pot of powdered healing fruit, which he handed to Luca. “You know what to do?”
“Yes.” Luca replied, “Thank you, sir.”
Luca took the items and sprinted back out of the inn, jogging across the corner of the square to the pier, where Halil was nursing her wound and looking downwards at a single boat tied to a bollard. She looked up as Luca knelt beside her and started to apply a small amount of the powdered healing fruit to her wound. She gave him a quick smile. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” Luca smiled back. He took the bandages and started to roll a stretch around the injured part of her arm. When he had applied enough pressure, he cut the bandage off the roll with his knife and pinned the segment he had attached to her arm back onto itself.
He made to stand up so that he could return the bandages to the innkeeper, but Halil took his arm and stopped him. She pointed at the boat she had been looking at, and Luca realised that it was Philona’s.
“He hasn’t been out today.” Halil said, “Do you think he’s okay?”
“I don’t know…” Luca replied, “we should check on him after we’ve taken these back.”
Once Luca and Halil had returned the bandages and powdered fruit to Tari, they set off across the square towards the market, their earlier bet forgotten. Luca carried the rods, while Halil carried the bait and the basket as before but with the addition of the devilfish, which glistened darkly within the container. Once they had crossed the square, they skirted the market on the waterside along a cobbled lane with pavements to either side. The lane turned up a slope beyond the market’s rear entrance, before turning another corner and delivering them to an attractive cobbled square with a centrepiece of palm trees and benches. Across the square to the right stood the church. The youngsters went in the other direction and started down a flight of steps that led back down to water level, before making a left down the short paved lane that led to Philona’s modest waterfront habitation. Luca glanced at Halil and knocked on the door following a nod from his friend.
A croaky response greeted them, “Come in.”
Luca pushed the door open and the two youngsters entered the shuttered single-room cottage. Halil closed the door behind them, leaving them bathed in the glow from the open fire that burned to the right. Philona himself was lying on his bed in the far corner beneath the curtained window. He glanced over at the new arrivals and gave them a smile.
“Luca! Halil! It’s good to see yeh both.”
“Hi Philona,” Halil began, “Are you all right? We were worried.”
“We saw that your boat was still tied up at the pier.” Luca added.
“Aah yeh – ” the elderly Nali nodded, “put me back out unloading me fish yesterday. No harm done, but I can’ take me boat out today. It’s good of yeh kids to be concerned, mind.”
“It’s no problem.” Halil shook her head, “Here – we brought you this.”
Halil unshouldered the wicker basket and presented it to the elderly Nali. He sat up with a wince and looked down at it from his position on the bed.
“A devilfish? Did yeh kids catch this by yerselves?” he asked, impressed.
Luca nodded. “Yeah. It jumped around all over the place. It got Halil with its teeth.”
Philona glanced at the bandaged wound. “Yeh. Happened to me many a time. Nice bandagin’ job tho’ - did yeh do that yerself, Luca?”
“Did yeh put some healin’ powder on it?” the elderly Nali added.
“Yes.” Luca replied. Philona nodded approvingly.
“Nothin’ doin’ then. It’ll be healed in no time.” Halil gave the old Nali a small smile.
An idea hit Luca, and slotted itself into place within his brain.
“How long will it be before you can go fishing again?” he asked the fisherman.
“Ah – I should be better in a week or so. There’s nowt much yeh can do with a thing like this except sit it out.” Philona replied.
“I was wondering…” Luca said, “Could Halil and I borrow your boat?”
The Nali looked surprised. “Well, yeh… I should think so.” He nodded. Halil shot Luca a look that said ‘What are you planning’? Luca replied with a glance that said ‘Trust me’.
“Take good care of it tho’… and of yerselves o’ course.” The fisherman said.
Luca nodded reassuringly. “We will. You can trust us.”
Philona grinned. “Of course I can… well, this ol’ Nali had better get a bit o’ rest now. I have to go to the market later. But this devilfish’ll be well tasty grilled.” He relieved Halil of the container.
“I’ll return the basket in a couple o’ days, if that’s al’right.” He said. Luca and Halil nodded. “It was good to see yeh both.”
Luca nodded. “You too. Goodbye, Philona.”
“‘Bye Philona.” Halil added, before turning for the door with Luca.
The youngsters shut Philona’s door behind them and walked back along the lane. As they reached the junction with the steps, Halil asked, “Why do you want to borrow Philona’s boat?”
Luca paused at the junction and looked towards the lake down the lane to the left. In the distance, the bluff of Shokkar could be seen rising above the sea. He allowed himself a slight smile.
“I want to row out to the bluff.” He replied to Halil’s look of surprise, “Are you up for it?”
It was early the following morning that saw Luca and Halil arrive together at the pier. For the first time in many a week, Luca had not watched the sun rise from his terrace. Instead, he had been busying himself in the kitchen making preparations for the day to come. He had put together a couple of well-filled sandwiches made of thick chunks of homemade bread, salad and cured rabbit meat, and had taken a canteen of fresh spring water from the store. Staying as quiet as possible so as not to wake his mother, he had stowed the provisions in a rough haversack and hurried out onto the lane, where Halil had been waiting anxiously for him beside the terrace wall. After a hushed mutual greeting, they had crept in silence through the deserted lanes of the sleeping town until they reached the harbourside.
It was chilly today. The air was heavy with salty moisture, and as Luca looked out to sea the distant bluff of Shokkar was shrouded in a light fog. He shivered, and tightened his jerkin against the cold.
“I’m not sure this is a good idea.” Halil said nervously, looking out towards the distant misty cliffs.
Luca looked at her. “We’ll be fine.”
“Won’t your mother worry?”
Luca shook his head. “I left her a note. She knows we’re taking the boat out.”
“But she doesn’t know we’re going right out to the bluff of Shokkar – right?”
“Right.” Luca replied.
Halil looked out to sea again. “They say that no Nali has set foot on the bluff since the Avenging Angel died.”
“That was long ago.” Luca replied, “It won’t do any harm, us being there… and I want to see it.”
Halil looked at Luca. “You saw her, didn’t you, six years ago? You want to see where she died.”
Halil smiled. “You’ve stared out at that island almost every morning since then. I suppose if I had seen her all those years ago too, I would want to do the same.”
Luca brightened. “So you’re coming?”
Halil smiled again and nodded. “You think I’d let you go over there all by yourself? I’m coming all right.”
Luca grinned. “Great!” He turned and walked down the pier towards Philona’s boat, with Halil at his side. When he reached the mooring, he lowered himself down into the small boat and helped Halil to do the same.
Philona’s boat was no more than a simple rowing boat, but as Halil untied the boat from its mooring Luca gamely took the rope-wrapped handles of the oiled wooden oars and began to row. The boat pushed away from the harbourside, bobbing slightly on the water’s uneven surface. It was a long way to the bluff of Shokkar, but Luca had a good deal of youthful endurance, and made steady progress against the gentle waves of the lake. He sat facing his friend and kept the boat on course while Halil watched the buildings of Nalipal recede behind them.
The journey to the bluff of Shokkar was known to take about an hour, and it was half an hour or so later that Luca and Halil found themselves half way between Nalipal and their destination. Although the bluff of Shokkar had been getting gradually larger as they approached it, the visibility did not seem to be improving. The cliffs of the bluff were still shrouded in mist, and did not seem to be getting any clearer – if anything, they were becoming harder to see. Luca continued to row for as long as he could, but the fog was getting thicker and soon the cliffs had receded completely into a white mist. Luca lifted the oars out of the water and rested them in their holders, bemused.
“Drop anchor.” He said, “I think we’re going to have to sit this one out.”
Halil bent down and picked up the small anchor Philona used while fishing out at sea. She dropped it over the side, and the boat shifted as the rope tightened and they ceased drifting.
“How long do you think it’ll last?” Halil said, looking around at the all-enveloping whiteness.
“I don’t know.” Luca replied, “I guess the sun will clear it eventually.”
Halil shivered. “It’s creepy.”
Luca looked around at the nothingness surrounding them. It was a very lonely feeling, shrouded in silence except for the water lapping on the sides of the boat and waves breaking on the far side of the distant bluff, both sounds given a hollow quality by the moist air around them. A loud call from overhead made both youngsters jump, and signified the passing-by of another seagull. Luca laughed sheepishly at his reaction.
“Yeah. It is creepy.” He said, “Cold, too…”
“Here…” Luca said. He climbed off the plank he was sitting on and moved over to join Halil, who shifted along her seat to make room. He sat down next to his friend, bumping shoulders with her in the limited space. Leaning forwards, he grabbed his haversack and opened it, handing Halil a sandwich and the canteen of water. “I made us lunch.”
Halil looked at Luca curiously. “It’s not lunch time yet. We haven’t even had breakfast.”
“I know.” Luca replied with a cheerful grin, “I just fancied a snack.”
Halil smiled. “All right, then. Thanks.”
The two Nali set to work on their sandwiches. In between mouthfuls, Halil took a drink from the canteen of spring water before handing it to Luca, who did the same. They munched in companionable silence until the sandwiches were finished. Luca replaced the water canteen in his haversack and returned to his own seat, squinting into the fog. Halil did the same, turning and scanning the view over the bow.
“I can see the bluff!” she said suddenly.
“Where?” Luca asked. He hadn’t spotted it yet.
“Over there.” Halil pointed into the fog. Looking hard, Luca realised that there was indeed a vague grey shape discernible in the mist.
“Nice work. Let’s go.”
Luca and Halil tugged on the anchor rope until they felt the anchor part company with the lake floor. Once they had hauled the dripping object back into the boat, Luca grabbed the oars and began to row.
With a thump, the small rowing boat came to rest alongside an old stone landing stage that had been built onto the base of the cliffs that now towered above them. Luca leant out of the boat and grabbed a heavy waterlogged rope that dangled from a rotten wooden post beside the jetty, which he tied firmly onto the nearest oar holder with a little help from Halil. Once the boat was secure, he shouldered his haversack and clambered out onto the old stonework. The rock was slippery with green seaweed and Luca nearly lost his footing, but he secured himself by grabbing onto the cliff wall. He turned and stuck a left hand out to help Halil.
“Be careful. The seaweed’s tricky.” He said, as Halil gripped his hand and pulled herself onto dry land.
“I’m okay.” She replied, “Where do we go from here?”
Luca looked upwards. The sheer grey cliffs of the bluff towered above them, streaked white with guano from the seabirds that nested in the fissures in the rock. There was a slightly fishy smell that reminded Luca of the empty lobster pots in the harbour square. The fog had largely cleared, but there was still plenty of moisture in the air that gave his skin a cold, clammy feel.
From their location, a narrow, slippery-looking ledge climbed the bluff in a clockwise direction. Luca regarded it critically.
“I guess we climb.” He said.
“Lead the way.” Halil replied.
The ledge was hard going to begin with, but as they climbed they were offered good views back across the lake towards Nalipal, which looked small and insignificant from this distance. After a while, Luca found himself getting into his stride, and the fact that Halil was keeping pace easily behind him suggested that she was in a similar state. The climb was a long one, but as they went the water continued to drop away below them, and the cliffs above them began to look a little less daunting. Luca made the climb with great anticipation; soon he and Halil would be walking on the ground where Kira had fought her last battle for the Nali – an experience he had often wished for in the years since she had passed through Nalipal on her final mission. And so it was with a sense of achievement that Luca led the way along the final stretch of the rocky ledge and stepped out onto the exposed grassy plateau that was the bluff of Shokkar.
The winding ridge had brought Luca and Halil out on the southern side of the bluff, and they now stood facing northward as they surveyed the surroundings. The ground atop the island was remarkably flat, and covered in the kind of tough, scrubby grass one only found in exposed coastal regions. A chilly breeze had sprung up since the fog had cleared, giving the wavy grass a rhythmic movement. The tail of Luca’s jerkin fluttered slightly, and Halil shivered despite the pale sunshine that had begun to break through the clouds.
“It’s cold.” She said. Luca nodded.
Around the edges of the bluff lay the sporadic remains of the fortress that had once stood here, the crumbling stone structures evoking the age of the site. To the far left stood the greatest indication of the fortress’ former grandeur in the form of the decaying northwest tower, upon which Nali warriors had once stood watch in days of yore.
To the near left, a fragment of wall stood beside a worn stone staircase that led underground; into some kind of dungeon, Luca presumed. Beyond the entrance, a crumbled gap in the wall offered a view over the lake to the distant town. The other side of the island showed a few more ruined walls, whilst in the centre of the plateau stood an oddly shaped boulder that was streaked white with guano from top to bottom.
Luca strolled slowly onto the grass, with Halil following just behind. So this was where the Avenging Angel had fought her last battle – it was an unremarkable place really, Luca thought, but it had a kind of hallowed feel to it that he supposed was natural at the site of a famous battle.
“No bones.” He said at length, examining the ground. Halil looked at him curiously.
“It’s strange…” he continued, “Kira killed several Skaarj here. Why are there no bones?”
Halil looked out to sea. “The townspeople came back for her body. They probably buried the dead Skaarj.”
Luca nodded. “Of course… yeah, they would have done that.”
Subdued, Luca and Halil walked together towards the gap in the wall and glanced back over the lake towards their home.
“What really made you want to come here?” Halil asked at length.
“I don’t really know.” Luca replied, “I guess I just had to see it – so I could see how Kira’s mission ended for myself.”
“So do you understand it now?” Halil said.
“Yeah. I think I do...” Luca replied. He broke off, and looked around the ruins in puzzlement.
Luca frowned. “Where’s the ship?”
“What?” Halil said.
“The Skaarj landed on the bluff.” He replied, “They must have had a ship.”
Halil’s brow creased as she scanned the plateau with her eyes, but then her face cleared as her eyes settled upon the guano-covered object in the middle of the plateau. Luca followed her gaze with his own, and his jaw dropped as he realised what they were looking at.
“Do you think…?” Halil began.
“That’s it!” Luca said excitedly, jogging towards the object. Under closer examination it did indeed resemble a craft like those he had seen fly overhead during the second Skaarj occupation, with a large overhang at the front and a wide section where two wings slanted down from its streamlined bodywork – but it was so covered in guano and lichens that he and Halil had at first taken it to be nothing more than an oversized boulder.
Stopping beside the object, Luca reached out and ran two fingers across the guanoey surface of the main bodywork. His fingers came away white, revealing a patch of dulled metal that glinted in the pale sunlight. Luca stood still, amazed, as Halil caught up to his right.
“It’s still here. The Skaarj ship that landed here six years ago.” He said.
“After all this time?” Halil said.
Intrigued, Luca began peering at the mucky bodywork and trying to locate the entry point. There was nothing visible above the wings, and so Luca moved round to the overhanging section, but that was too shallow to hold a door of any kind.
“Can you see the entrance?” he asked, flummoxed.
“I see something under the bow…” Halil replied, pointing to an ill-fitting panel below the overhanging section of the craft, “is it damaged?”
Luca glanced at her, and then walked over to the area his friend had noticed. Looking up at the panel as Halil joined him, he saw a black gap around three sides of it and realised what he was looking at.
“It’s not damaged,” he replied, “it’s an entrance ramp. It’s jammed partly open, see?”
Halil nodded. “Yeah. I see.”
Luca put his fingers around the end of the ramp and tugged downwards, but to no effect as ramp refused to budge. He tugged harder and thought he felt it give slightly, but it didn’t respond.
“Give me a hand here.” Luca said to Halil. He moved aside, allowing Halil room to get in beside him and fit her own fingers round the end of the ramp. “Now pull!”
The two youngsters thrust their combined strength into pulling the ramp downwards. Luca felt the ramp give and realised that it was working, just before a terrible grinding of gears issued from within the lowering mechanism. Startled, Luca and Halil jumped back. The ramp sagged an inch and Luca thought briefly that the mechanism was going to fail, when several fragments of crushed rock fell out of the hinges and the ramp began a shuddering descent. Luca turned to Halil and raised an eyebrow.
“Ready for this?” he asked.
The cockpit of the Skaarj ship was dank and dark and smelled faintly of leaf mould as Luca and Halil climbed the metal access ramp. It took Luca’s eyes a few seconds to adjust to the gloom, but as they did he began to get a sense of what was around them.
The ramp they had climbed led upwards to a metal door at the back of the cockpit area, but it was sealed shut and he could see no handle attached to it. The low level of illumination in the cockpit came from a small amount of sunlight that filtered through the heavy layer of guano and lichen that caked the exterior of the large windscreen in the front end of the craft. This window, which followed the curvature of the ceiling, was situated beyond a large and complex control panel that was coated in a thick layer of dirt, and in front of the panel were two seats for a pilot and co-pilot to sit in. A large control stick was located between the seats, designed for manual control of the craft, Luca presumed. After the racket the ramp mechanism had made, the craft seemed silent, the only sound to be heard being the muffled sound of the distant waves coming in from outside.
Bathed in the dismal light from the filthy window, most of the interior seemed in pretty poor condition. Dead plant matter hung from the roof supports, from plants that had presumably grown here when the ship was first abandoned but had later died when the window had silted up too much to sustain them. The seat coverings, made of a smooth and shiny material that Luca didn’t recognise, were dirty – but they seemed to have survived the years pretty well. The side walls of the cockpit were outfitted with various cabinets and drawers that probably contained heaps of equipment and spare parts.
“Wow…” Luca said at length, once he had taken everything in.
“It looks pretty dead, doesn’t it.” Halil replied, looking around at the filthy equipment.
“The ramp still works.” Luca observed, “My ears are still ringing.” Halil grinned as he massaged the sides of his head and glanced ruefully at the clapped-out mechanism. “I wonder if anything else still does?”
Luca advanced to the pilot’s chair, brushed the dirt off it and sat in it, before examining the filthy control panel. He gripped the control stick and wiggled it about – it was hard to move at first, but freed up after some work – but there was no response from the console.
Halil had joined Luca in the other chair and was looking critically at the dirty controls. She pointed at a black lever that lay protected in a recess in the panel, roughly centrally between the two pilot’s chairs.
“What do you think?” she said.
Luca shrugged. “Let’s find out.” With one hand, he reached out and hooked his fingers under the lever. Caked with dirt like everything else, the lever didn’t budge at first, but as Luca applied more force it freed itself. He pulled it towards himself and snapped it back down into the recess.
Immediately, the control panel whirred into life. Indicators blinked and screens lit up from beneath their layer of grime. The cockpit of the ship was suffused with the hum of machinery, and Luca sprang out of his seat with a yelp of surprise as a field of bright blue energy appeared at floor level and began to crackle its way up the surface of the console. He and Halil watched agog as the energy swept its way up the unit, sweeping the accumulated dirt away as it went and leaving behind a spotless surface that shone like new.
The energy reached the top of the console and fizzled out, but Luca barely had time to catch his breath before a loud hum set in and a similar field began to climb up the interior walls of the cockpit. The field swept rapidly up the curvature of the ceiling, and soon the two Nali were bathed in light as the windscreen was swept clear of the gunge that had built up on the exterior of the ship.
“Chizra’s word!” Luca exclaimed as he stared at the shining interior the electric field had left behind. He leapt to the ramp and ran out into the sunlight, staring at the hull of the ship as Halil joined him.
“It’s clean!” Luca exclaimed, “Like new!”
“How?” Halil said in disbelief.
Luca shook his head and laughed, feeling slightly unhinged. “I have no idea!” He began to run back towards the entrance. “Come on – let’s see what we can do with this thing.”
Halil took one last wide-eyed glance at the spotless hull of the ship, and then followed him up the ramp.
Luca sat back down in the pilot’s chair and examined the panel before him. He turned to Halil and made a face.
“It’s all in Skaarj. None of the labels make any sense.” He said. And indeed, the console was covered in a vast array of controls and information screens, but the angular Skaarj writing that covered every surface made deciphering it impossible. “I’d try a few buttons,” Luca continued, “but who knows what I’d end up doing!”
Halil glanced at the side walls. “Maybe there’s something inside one of these cabinets.”
Luca shrugged. “I don’t know what we’d find that we could use.”
“A guide book with pictures?” Halil suggested hopefully.
Luca smiled. “Maybe. Okay – let’s have a look. You take that side.”
Luca crossed to the nearest set of cabinets as Halil moved in the other direction. Opening the first cabinet he came to, he found what looked like a medical kit equipped with bandages and various salves in small bottles etched with the unfamiliar Skaarj writing. Finding nothing else of interest, he closed the cabinet and moved onto the next one.
The next cabinet contained two shelves. A coil of wire had been placed on the upper shelf, but this had no significance to Luca and he ignored it. What attracted his attention was an item on the lower shelf, where something green glinted in the light from the windscreen.
Luca pulled the item out and examined it. It looked like it was meant to be hung around the neck like a pendant, as it had a loop of black cord attached to it. The object itself appeared to be a circle of a shiny green substance with a spiral of finely etched silver lines embedded in it. At the centre of the spiral was mounted a small flat diamond-shaped object of some hard black substance, and on what Luca presumed to be the underside of the pendant sat a single flat pad of metal. He turned it over curiously, trying to ascertain its purpose.
A sound of metal scraping on metal from behind signified Halil removing an item from one of the cabinets. Luca turned to look, the unidentified pendant still held in his hands.
“What have you got there?” Luca asked.
“I’m not sure.” Halil replied. She turned to face him and indicated the item she had discovered. It took the form of a flat metal tube with a handle at the back and two buttons on the underside. The tube was illustrated with strange lettering and red paintwork. It must have been quite heavy, as it took Halil two hands to hold it. Looking at the object, Luca was reminded of some of the items the resistance fighters had used to carry during the second occupation. When Luca’s father had left to join the resistance movement, he had left in the company of a small band of visiting fighters, many of whom carried such devices.
“I think it’s a weapon.” Luca said at length.
Halil blanched. “Oh!” she replied. Gingerly, she replaced the item in the cabinet and shut the door. Then she turned back to Luca and saw the pendant dangling from his lower left hand.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“I’m not sure either.” Luca replied, crossing the cockpit to show it to Halil. “What do you think?”
Halil lifted the dangling item and moved it around in the sunlight, observing the strange way it reflected the suns’ rays.
“I don’t know,” she said, “but it’s kinda pretty. Shall I try it on?”
Luca shrugged. “Sure. Here, let me get it for you.”
He lifted the item up by the cord and slipped it over Halil’s head, resting the pendant on her chest.
Halil gave a quick twirl and grinned. “How do I look?”
Luca smiled sheepishly, embarrassed, since it was not a question he was used to being asked. “Err – good.”
Halil looked as if she were about to reply, when she frowned. “That’s strange.”
“What?” Luca replied.
“For a second there I’d swear the control panel was written in Nali.” Halil said. They turned to look at the console. To Luca, it was as unintelligible as ever, but Halil bit her lip and started examining the panel more deeply.
“It is written in Nali.” She insisted.
Luca shook his head. “I see it in Skaarj.” He replied.
“That’s weird.” Halil said, puzzled. But then a look of realisation appeared on her face and she lifted the pendant off her chest, breaking contact with the metal pad on the back and looking back at the console.
“Now it’s in Skaarj.” She said.
Luca’s eyes widened. “So the pendant…” he began.
“…is a translator!” Halil finished.
Luca shook his head in disbelief. “How does it work?”
“I don’t know.” Halil replied, “Want to try it?”
Luca nodded eagerly. “Sure!”
Halil removed the pendant and slipped it over Luca’s head, making sure it was the right way up. As the metal pad contacted with Luca’s chest, he felt a brief buzz in his senses and turned to face the console. Gradually, the text swam into focus and changed from Skaarj into Nali. At once, he was able to read the annotations. A bank of large switches in the centre of the console read ‘Engines’, ‘Weapons’, ‘Shields’ and ‘Cloak’. Meanwhile, the smaller controls that covered the panel offered hosts of other adjustments. Luca saw the words ‘Control Assistance’ and ‘Tactical Data’, and many other things that had no meaning to him.
He tore his eyes away from the console and looked at Halil.
“We have to find another of these!” he said. Halil nodded, and returned to her cabinets. Luca returned to his own and rummaged rapidly through them, disregarding anything that didn’t resemble a translator unit, and ultimately coming up blank. After he had searched all of the cabinets, he turned to face Halil, who was just finishing hers, and shook his head.
“Nothing?” Halil said.
“No – how about you?”
Halil shook her head. “No, nothing.”
Luca removed the pendant and frowned as he looked at it in his hand. “Damn.”
Halil looked at the object. “So who gets it now?” she asked at length.
Luca looked at the object in his hand, and then up at his friend. Then he smiled, and handed the translator to her.
“It looks better on you. You can easily translate anything we need to understand.”
Halil grinned and took the object. “Thanks, Luca. You’re the best.” She hung the translator carefully around her neck and tucked it under her smock for safe keeping, then began examining the information screens on the console as she and Luca returned to their seats.
Luca stared at the panel and tried to recall what the controls had said when he had been able to read them. He placed his hand on a slider that he remembered had been labelled ‘interior lights’, and slid it to the right. Immediately, a pair of round lamps set into the ceiling above the console glowed brightly, but did little against the brightness of the sunlight, so Luca returned the slider to its starting position.
Halil, Luca saw, was concentrating hard on one of the information screens. She was frowning as she worked, and periodically touching areas of the screen, causing the contents to change.
“How’s it going?” Luca asked.
“I don’t know.” She replied, “It uses a lot of language I don’t understand.”
“What have you found out so far?” he probed.
“The ship is called the Shrekta’Naaji.” Halil said, “I’m just working on something to help us understand it a little better.”
“Shrekta’Naaji.” Luca said to himself, trying out the feel of the alien word. It wasn’t easy to for a Nali to say.
Halil touched another area of the screen, and a small compartment opened in the front of the console, revealing a tray that slid out of its own volition. Luca watched as Halil removed the translator from around her neck and popped it into the slot – it fit perfectly. She touched a large box that had appeared on the screen, and the tray slid back into the console, leaving just the cord protruding at the front. Luca raised an eyebrow.
“What does that do?” he asked.
“If we’re lucky…” Halil began, but she was interrupted as the screens went blank and the small tray re-emerged, revealing the translator. Regarding the blank screens, Luca was about to ask if the system was broken when they came back to life and blipped up a message in Nali.
‘Attack cruiser Shrekta’Naaji information system rebooting. Please wait.’
Halil smiled in satisfaction and retrieved the translator. She replaced it around her neck and tucked the unit back under her smock. Luca goggled.
“How did you do that?” he exclaimed.
“I recalibrated the linguistic subsystems.” Halil replied, and then to Luca’s uncomprehending look added with a smile, “I didn’t understand it either.”
Luca grinned back and then stared at his screen, which was now showing a large array of labelled boxes. Experimenting, he placed a finger on the box marked ‘Engines’. Immediately, the screen lit up with diagrams and text indicating the state of the ship’s engines and power supplies. Most of it meant little to Luca, but he was able to get the gist of it from what language he could understand.
Following the instructions on the screen, Luca reached to the bank of large switches he had seen earlier and flicked the one that had been marked ‘Engines’ upwards. There was a low rumble from within the ship as whatever powered the vessel came to life. The ambient hum the engines produced made the ship feel much more alive to Luca. As several previously dormant dials on the console flickered into position, Luca realised for the first time the power that he and Halil were now in command of. A shiver of excitement ran down his spine at the thought of flying the ship at speed out over the ocean.
Luca glanced over to Halil, who was reading the screens herself. She appeared to be reading about the ship’s defensive tools, the shield and the cloak. Idly, with one thought still entertaining the notion of piloting the ship off the island, he returned to his screen and pushed a box marked ‘Weapons’. The screen flashed up another page of information, which described how the ship was outfitted with ‘twin type-XII laser disruptors’. Whatever they were, they sounded powerful to Luca. Reaching for the bank of power switches, he flicked the one that had been marked ‘Weapons’ when he wore the translator. A high-pitched whine from the ship’s wings indicated that something had been activated.
Halil glanced up. “What are you doing?”
“Weapons.” Luca replied.
Halil watched as Luca reached for the large control stick and placed a hand around its ridged grip. With his thumb, he felt for the red button he knew to be located on the back of the handle and squeezed it. Two pulses of bright red energy streamed out from the wings to either side of the ship. The right hand bolt hit the ruined fortress wall, knocking several bricks off the end in a burst of dust and smoke. The other bolt found no target and flew off out to sea, disappearing into the distance.
Luca sat where he was, his mouth hanging open. Wide eyed, Halil reached for the weapon power switch and flicked it back down.
“I don’t think we want to play with those.” She said weakly. Luca nodded, closing his mouth and swallowing with a gulp.
The weapons had given Luca a shock, but they hadn’t quelled his urge to fly the ship. He found his eyes straying back to the control stick. Remembering another label he had spotted, Luca punched another control, causing the access ramp on the cockpit floor to hiss shut.
“Have you found anything else interesting?” Luca asked Halil, glancing again at the control stick.
“Yes.” Halil replied, “The ship can protect itself from attack with its shields, and can make itself invisible with its cloak.”
Luca’s eyes snapped back up to Halil.
“Invisible?” he repeated.
“Yes. Completely invisible.” She replied.
“That’s all I’ve read for now.” Halil continued, “What about you?”
Luca grinned broadly. “Want to find out?”
Reaching for the control stick, Luca lifted it vertically as per the instructions he had read on the information screen. Immediately, thrusters whistled into action underneath and the ship rose unsteadily into the air, giving Luca the exhilarating sensation of having left his stomach behind on ground level. Luca adjusted the control stick until they stabilised.
Halil looked at him, wide-eyed. “Are you sure about this?”
Luca looked over at Halil and grinned again. “Never surer.”
Halil smiled apprehensively and then turned to look out of the windscreen. Luca turned back to do the same and then gradually depressed one of the two foot pedals beneath his side of the console. There was a rising whistle as the engines kicked into full effect, and then the ship shot forwards over the grass of the bluff. Luca accelerated further as they cleared the fortress walls, and soon they were flying at high speed over the sea. Luca whooped as the lightly crested waves rolled out below them.
“Now this is fun!” he exclaimed. Halil seemed to have got over her initial misgivings, and was gazing out of the windscreen in equal delight. Luca pulled the control stick towards him and the ship banked to the left, gradually turning until they were headed out to sea. He centralised the stick and they levelled out again. He pushed the stick forwards slightly and the ship moved into a gradual dive.
“Stop it!” Halil yelped as the waves drew nearer, smacking Luca on the arm. Luca laughed and pulled the stick back so that they began to climb again. He flew towards a seagull, which wheeled hurriedly out of the way as they passed.
“Where do you want to go?” Luca asked.
“Take us inland.” Halil replied.
“Okay.” Luca nodded, and banked the ship round in a curve until they were headed westwards.
“We’d better go cloaked.” Halil said. She reached for the power controls and punched the switch for the cloaking system. There was no noticeable change inside the cockpit.
“Did it work?” Luca asked.
“The screen says it did.” Halil replied, glancing at the console. Luca shrugged.
“Then I guess it has.” He said.
The ship was fast approaching the mainland. Banking again to the right, Luca flew the ship along the coast to the north. The cliff tops rolled by beside them, the rugged terrain dotted only by the occasional tree or boulder. Seeing Nalipal harbour approaching ahead, Luca depressed the second foot pedal. The ship slowed down, and they were able to see the buildings of the town cruise by below them, townspeople like ants in the harbour square. Luca even saw his own terrace, currently unoccupied. Then the town was behind them and they passed Kew the elder’s small cliff top home, surrounded by patches of Tintsaea and Rye grain crops.
“Let’s take another pass.” Luca said. He took the ship in a banking course back round to the south, preparing to make a circle.
“Can I have a go?” Halil asked.
“In a minute…” Luca replied, steering the ship as they passed the cliffs of the bluff, “let me get on course.”
Luca completed the arc, flying them parallel to the coast. Once they were following its line, he turned to Halil and released the control stick. She placed her hands around it and looked down at the foot pedals as Luca explained them.
“The left pedal accelerates,” Luca said, “and the right pedal slows us down.”
Halil nodded, but then looked up and gasped. Luca’s eyes snapped up to the windscreen. In looking at the pedals, the ship had slipped off course. The cliffs of Nalipal were fast approaching, and they were on direct collision course for Kew’s cliff top home.
“Quick! Steer!” Luca cried. His hands flew to the control stick Halil was holding and tugged it to the left. Halil released the stick and cringed as the ship grazed past the stone wall of the house by a hair’s breadth, but then cried out openly as she saw what now lay ahead.
“Stop! Stop!” she shouted. Ahead of them, an elderly figure was bent over a bed of tintsaea plants with a pair of cutters. Luca already had his foot hard on the deceleration pedal, but soon realised that there was no way they could slow down in time. Hearing the sound of the ship, Kew straightened up and looked in their direction, but stared blankly as if there was nothing there.
“The cloak!” Luca cried. Halil reached for the switches and clicked it off, but it was too late. Kew had time to widen his eyes in shock, but then Luca screwed his own eyes up tight as the decelerating ship hit the elderly Nali with a sickening ‘crump’. The ship skimmed the ground for what seemed like an eternity, before finally coming to rest in a hover. Tears of anxiety forming in his eyes, Luca lowered the control stick.
“Oh, Chizra… Oh no… Oh no…” Halil repeated quietly from Luca’s right as the ship sank to the ground. Dreading what they might find outside, Luca pushed the switch on the console that made the access ramp descend. Barely waiting for the ramp to hit the ground, Luca and Halil leapt out of their seats and sprinted down the metal panel.
Kew was lying spread-eagled on the ground where he had fallen, some distance away from where the ship had hit him. Luca ran over to his location, with Halil in hot pursuit, and knelt down beside the old man.
Kew wasn’t breathing. Luca could tell that straight away. He checked the old Nali’s pulse; there was none. Mercifully, Kew’s eyes were already closed.
Luca looked at Halil, who looked back, her own eyes wide.
“He’s dead.” Luca said, “We killed him.”
Halil shook her head, and said raggedly, “No…”
There was a scuffle of running feet to the left. Three Nali had arrived at the top of the cliff steps. Luca recognised the Nali at the centre as Lo’juura, the leader of the town. Flanking him were Halil’s father Latana, and a third Nali whom Luca recognised but couldn’t name.
“What has happened here?” Lo’juura thundered.
“It was an accident… we didn’t mean to…” Halil stammered.
Lo’juura advanced on the two Nali and looked down at Kew’s body. He shook his head in disbelief.
“What have you done?” he said.
Lo’juura drew his two companions a short distance away, where they had a hushed conference, leaving Luca and Halil sitting humbly by Kew’s body. As the adults talked, Latana glanced over at his daughter. His expression was unreadable.
“What do you think they’ll do?” Luca whispered.
“I don’t know.” Halil replied.
Lo’juura finished his discussion with the others. He broke from them and strode across to where the youngsters sat.
“I think it is best that you return home with your parents.” He said.
“What about Kew’s… body?” Halil asked.
Lo’juura glanced sadly at the crumpled figure before replying, “I shall get the matter dealt with.”
Latana strode over to his daughter and stuck out a hand.
“Come, Halil.” He said sternly. Obediently and, Luca thought, nervously, Halil stood and took the proffered hand, allowing herself to be led back down the cliff top steps. Lo’juura nodded to the third Nali, and strode off after Latana and Halil. The Nali approached Luca and stuck out a hand, much like Latana had done.
“Come with me, Luca.” He said calmly, “I must return you to your mother.”
Luca took the Nali’s hand. The Nali helped Luca up from the ground, and then led him over to the cliff top steps.
“I’m sorry, sir.” Luca said as they descended the steps. The adult looked down at him.
“I know you are, Luca.” He replied.
“I never meant to hurt anyone.” Luca persisted.
“I know, Luca.”
Luca looked at the stone steps for a moment before speaking again.
“Excuse me, sir, but how do you know my name?” he ventured.
The adult allowed himself a slight smile. “I knew your father.”
“You knew him?” Luca asked.
“We fought together to the last.” The Nali replied. “He was a good friend. He died to save another.”
Luca was about to ask the Nali’s name when he caught sight of his mother. Matharil was standing at the foot of the steps, talking to Lo’juura and wringing her hands anxiously. She looked up at the sound of their footsteps and hurried up the steps to meet them. She took Luca by the arms and spoke to him anxiously.
“Luca! Are you all right?”
Luca nodded glumly. “Yes, mum. I’m fine.”
Saying a quick “thank you” to the Nali who had led Luca down the steps, Matharil took Luca’s hand and led him swiftly downwards in the direction of their house. Luca glanced back as they went, and saw his companion watching them depart.
Matharil opened the front door as they arrived. She ushered Luca into the living area, and spoke for the first time since they had left the steps. When she did address him, she sounded distant.
“Take a seat, Luca. I’ll get us some lunch.”
Obediently, Luca sat on one of the wooden chairs. While he waited, he looked vaguely at the blue sky visible through the window.
Shortly, Matharil returned with two bowls of soup she had warmed in the kitchen range. She placed the bowls on the table and sat down opposite Luca, handing him a spoon. Luca pulled the nearest bowl towards him and began listlessly sipping small spoonfuls of the soup into his mouth. Normally he enjoyed his mother’s vegetable broth, but his heart wasn’t really in it today.
“Why did you do it, Luca?” she said at length. Luca looked up.
“Why did we go to the bluff?” Luca queried.
Matharil shook her head desperately. “Why did you pilot that accursed Skaarj ship?”
Luca looked back down at the table. “I don’t know – I only wanted to have fun.”
Matharil put down her spoon. When she spoke, it was with a harsh edge.
“You shouldn’t have done it.” She said, “There are reasons why we have forsaken the alien technology. The ship is a tool of evil! Don’t realise that?”
Luca dropped his spoon and put his head in his hands. His chest heaved.
“I know. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I’m sorry!” he sobbed. A few tears splashed into his broth.
Matharil sighed regretfully and rose from her seat. She put an arm around Luca’s shaking shoulders and held him close.
“I know you didn’t, love.” She said, more gently, “It was a terrible accident.”
Luca put his arms around his mother’s waist and hugged her back.
It was an hour or so later when Luca slipped out of the front door of his house and onto the lane. The afternoon sun shone over Nalipal, giving the air a pleasant warmth. Luca, however, who would normally revel in such an afternoon, was not uplifted by the weather today. He wanted to find Halil, to see how she was holding up.
Luca followed the lane past the cliff top steps and walked towards the vine orchard where he and Halil had met on the previous day. Here the lane headed back towards the town square to the left, but Luca continued along a narrower lane that led between the vineyard and the two-storey building that was Halil’s house. As he reached the cliff at the back of town, the lane followed it round to the left in the shade from the steep rock face. Luca turned this corner and knocked on Halil’s heavy wooden front door. After a short pause, the door was opened by Latana, who looked impassively down at Luca.
“Excuse me, sir,” Luca said, “is Halil in?”
“Halil isn’t feeling well.” Latana replied.
Footsteps coming quickly down the wooden stairs within the house indicated Halil’s arrival.
“I’m okay.” She said to her father. Latana shot her a look, but then stood aside without comment and let her leave, closing the door behind her.
As Halil emerged into the daylight, Luca saw that an ugly bruise had formed on the side of her face. His eyes widened.
“Are you all right?” Luca asked, concerned. Halil glanced down at the ground and brushed at the bruise in shame.
“My father was angry.” She said quietly.
“He’s never hit you before.” Luca persisted. Halil looked up at Luca.
“Not hard.” She replied.
“Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
The two Nali walked slowly down the lane towards town. At length, it turned into steps and they descended between the cliffside and a recessed garden below them. Luca watched as a Nali rabbit took a sip out of the garden’s small pond, and tried to remember what it was like to be that carefree.
At the foot of the steps, the path led them to the left past Kuri the blacksmith’s shop. Kuri lived in a small village a little way out of town, but brought his wares into Nalipal to sell. The shop was shut at the moment, the wooden door closed behind the display of ironworks Kuri kept outside to entice passing trade. Today, a leaf-trimmed metal chair sat on the doorstep, with a decorative lantern and chain resting on its wooden seat. Kuri himself, Luca presumed, was up in his village working on a new batch of metalwork.
The lane led the two youngsters on between a couple more houses, before jinking round a couple of corners and leading them out to the harbour square between the town hall and the boathouse, where the fishermen could take their vessels when they were in need of repairs.
It was an average afternoon in Nalipal. Townspeople passed by, going in and out of the market, the inn or the town hall. Several of the Nali who saw Luca and Halil as they passed by scowled before looking deliberately away and continuing with their business. Luca did his best to ignore it. It was obvious that news of their escapade had spread – rarely was gossip slow to travel in Nalipal.
“I don’t like this.” Halil whispered.
“Me neither.” Luca muttered.
Luca glanced across the square at the market, and then gestured towards it. Halil followed as he crossed the dirt floor between heaps of lobster pots, and then they entered the large square building.
The market was fairly busy, with townspeople exploring the wares on offer and dickering over the price. A couple of fishermen had big catches in already, and were boasting large wicker baskets full of glistening fish of various sizes and colours, all neatly sorted into different types. One stall was selling large numbers of locally grown vegetables. Another was selling neatly decorated pottery, while a smaller stall in one corner was selling pot plants and seeds. Luca and Halil weaved between the stalls, looking at the produce and trying to be inconspicuous – but they were attracting more of the dirty looks they had seen outside. Several Nali who saw them pass paused to have hushed conversations between themselves.
“Shameful,” Luca heard a Nali mutter to another, “piloting that ship. I’m surprised more Nali weren’t killed.”
Not wanting to be the focus of attention, Luca and Halil headed for the rear entrance, past a stall where a grocer was selling meat products and milk, and stepped out onto the cobbled alley that led up to the church square.
“That was horrible.” Halil said, “They must all hate us!”
Luca nodded. “Let’s go and see Philona.” He said, “Maybe he’ll still be glad to see us.”
Together, they walked the familiar route past the church to Philona’s waterside house. Apprehensively, Luca knocked on the door.
A muffled voice floated out from inside.
Luca pushed the door and stepped inside, followed by Halil. The elderly Nali looked up from his reading table, where he had been sitting staring out of the window at the lake beyond.
“Oh. Luca, Halil.” He said.
“Hi, Philona.” Halil said uncertainly, “We wondered how you were.”
“I’m okay, thankyeh.” The old Nali said, “Me friend Netarani gave me some balm to rub on me back. It’s helped no end.”
“Oh!” Halil replied, “So will you be back out on the water tomorrow?”
Philona nodded. “Yeh. Jus’ as soon as Netarani fetches me boat back from the bluff. He said he’d do it fer me – he’s a good fella.”
Luca’s heart sank. He and Halil exchanged glances.
“I’m sorry, Philona.” Luca said, “We completely forgot about it.”
“Yeh.” Philona said, “I guess yeh did. Understandable, mind, after what the two of yeh have been up to.”
Halil put a hand on Luca’s arm and spoke to Philona.
“Maybe we should go.” She said, “I’m glad your back’s better. Maybe we’ll see you around.”
Philona nodded. “Yeh. Maybe.”
The two Nali turned to go and stepped back out onto the lane. As Luca closed the door behind them, Halil shook her head.
“Can we mess things up any more than we already have?” she said desperately.
Luca glanced at the floor. “I don’t know. Come on, let’s go somewhere where we can keep out of everyone’s way.”
Luca led the way along Philona’s lane. Instead of climbing the steps back up to the church square, they followed the lane to the left. It led to the waterfront and then weaved between a couple of houses, eventually reaching the cliff at the south end of town. Here there was a small green that Luca liked to come to when he wanted to be alone. It was only a small grassy space, sandwiched between the last house and the cliff wall, and not much bigger than Luca’s terrace. There was a wooden bench beneath a palm tree, where a Nali or two could sit in the dappled shade of the palm fronds and look out to sea.
Luca and Halil did this now, and gazed towards the bluff of Shokkar, distant and unattainable once more as the crickets chirped nearby. Luca recalled the journey out to it in Philona’s boat that morning – how long ago that now seemed – and how he now wished that they had never made it in the first place!
Halil must have been thinking similar thoughts, because they didn’t exchange a word. She sat to his right in silence, staring out to sea – until after a few minutes she glanced at the sandy grass and burst into tears. Luca felt a pang of sorrow, and put an arm awkwardly around Halil’s shoulders.
“I just can’t handle it any more.” Halil sobbed, “Why did it have to end this way?”
“I don’t know.” Luca replied.
“Will they ever forgive us for what we’ve done?” she managed.
Luca wasn’t sure what to say to that, but was saved the trouble as he heard footsteps from behind. He looked up to see who it was.
It was the Nali who had walked him down the cliff top steps. He stood where the lane met the green.
“Hello again, Luca.” The Nali said in surprise.
“Hello, sir.” Luca said, “Do you want us to leave?”
“Not at all, Luca.” The Nali replied, “It does seem that the two of you have become less than popular of late – but I don’t want you to leave. In fact, I’m quite pleased to see you both.”
The Nali walked over towards the bench. Luca released his arm from Halil, whose sobs seemed to have subsided, and the two of them moved along the bench so that the Nali could sit down beside them.
“Why did you come down here?” Luca asked.
“I live nearby.” The Nali replied as he took his seat, “I was just out for a walk, and I happened upon the two of you.”
“Excuse me, sir,” Luca said as Halil watched, “but what’s your name? I didn’t catch it before.”
“Motanisha.” The Nali replied.
“You said you fought alongside my father during the second occupation?” Luca asked.
Motanisha nodded. “That’s right. We fought together under the leadership of a Nali called Huratha. As a group we roamed the planet, destroying any Skaarj installations we could find, until the Skaarj were driven from our planet once again.”
Awed, Halil asked, “You defeated the Skaarj all by yourselves?”
“Well, no…” Motanisha replied, “We came across other fighters as we travelled. Most of them were splintered from Kira’s original band. There were more Nali who were willing to fight for their freedom than you might think.”
“Were you with my father when he died?” Luca asked.
Motanisha nodded. “I was. He died a hero’s death.”
Luca looked glumly at the floor. “I suppose you think he’d be disappointed in me.” He said.
Motanisha smiled. “Lit’harani was a wise and forgiving Nali. He would have been upset, yes, but he would have understood, and ultimately he would not have loved you any the less.”
Feeling better, Luca smiled slightly for the first time since the crash. He glanced at the bruise on Halil’s face, and then looked back at Motanisha.
“Halil’s father hit her.” He said, “Do you think the same is true of him?”
Motanisha looked over at Halil, who looked back with glistening eyes. “Your father may be angry now, Halil, but given time I’m sure he will come to terms with what happened. It was a terrible accident, and he would be foolish to hold it against you.”
Halil smiled slightly at this, and looked less distressed. Luca turned to Motanisha and spoke.
“Thank you, sir. You’ve made us both feel better.”
Motanisha nodded. “Understand, Luca, that flying that ship was still a mistake. But I believe that you never meant to harm anyone, and that accidents, however terrible, will happen. You have upset many of the people of Nalipal today – Kew the elder was greatly loved – but, given time, they will forgive you.”
Luca and Halil nodded. “We understand.” Luca said.
Motanisha stood up. “Now, I shall leave you to it – I got the impression when I arrived that the two of you were feeling the need for some time alone.”
“Thank you, sir.” Halil replied.
Motanisha turned to leave, but then halted and looked back, puzzled. Simultaneously, Luca heard a distant rumble rise over the sound of the water lapping against the sea wall. He looked up into the sky, trying to pinpoint the source of the noise. The rumble grew louder, but still Luca couldn’t trace it. Motanisha and Halil were also scanning the horizon and the sky, trying to find the source of the sound. Then, in an instant, Luca’s jaw dropped as three Skaarj ships streaked overhead from over the cliff top. The convoy passed by in a flash, and the Nali were left staring at the vapour trails the ships had left behind.
“Merciful Chizra!” Motanisha gasped, “I must report this to Lo’juura at once.”
Luca and Halil were left watching as Motanisha set off at a sprint in the direction of the town hall. Luca glanced at Halil, who looked back with her jaw agape.
“What’s going on?” he said.
Luca ran up the steps to the church square with Halil in hot pursuit.
“We have to get to the Shrekta’Naaji.” He panted, “Maybe we can find out what’s happening.”
“Are you sure about this?” Halil asked as they rounded the corner into the church square, “Maybe Lo’juura can deal with it.”
Luca looked back at Halil as he ran. “What can he do about it? We have a ship. He doesn’t.”
The youngsters descended the lane past the market and sprinted across the harbour square. They jinked around a couple of alarmed-looking locals as they went, and ran up the steps behind the inn. As they reached the Putanuuri’s place at the top, they were waylaid by the plump restauranteur.
“Where are you two going in such a hurry?” he called. Luca and Halil scrambled to a halt and looked at the Nali.
“You’re not going back to that ship, I hope?” Putanuuri continued.
“Oh… no… sorry, sir… we have to go.” Luca panted, before setting off again. He and Halil rounded the corner and began to climb the cliff top steps. Luca was glad there was nobody else around to stop them, although climbing the steps they would be plainly visible to anybody in the lower town.
Hearts pounding, Luca and Halil made it to the top of the cliff and approached the ship, whose ramp descended to greet them. As he approached the vessel, Luca just had time to notice that Kew’s body had disappeared. He supposed that Lo’juura had arranged to have it removed.
When the ramp had fully descended, Luca scrambled up it and into the cockpit, plonking himself down in the pilot’s chair. Halil joined him in the other seat to his right as he pushed the switch to raise the ramp.
“What can you find?” Luca asked. He and Halil were studying the information screens, now of course displaying their information in Nali.
“Tactical data.” Halil replied, pushing the appropriate label on the screen. Immediately, the screen filled with red lines that Luca soon realised formed a map of the immediate area. Once Nalipal had been fully mapped out, three thick green lines streaked across the map on the path the incoming ships had followed.
A red light blinked on above a switch on Luca’s side of the console. He exchanged glances with Halil and shrugged, then pushed the switch. The two youngsters jumped as a guttural voice filled the cockpit from a source somewhere on the console.
It was the voice of a Skaarj. Luca strained his ears and listened to the nonsensical words, but then looked at Halil, nonplussed. Halil, meanwhile, still wore the translator and was listening with wide eyes. She turned to her screen and began pressing buttons rapidly. Shortly, she gestured at Luca’s screen, where words had begun to appear. Luca read the translation.
‘Orders from fleet commander.’ It read, ‘All units prepare for immediate colonisation. ’
Luca looked up at Halil. “Where is it coming from?”
Halil shook her head. “I don’t know. We’ll have to follow the ships.”
“Done.” Luca said. Reaching for the console, he flicked a switch and sat back as the engines rumbled into life. He placed a hand on the control stick and lifted it up. As he did so, the ship lifted gradually into the air. With a slight grin, he looked over at Halil.
“Ready for another ride?” he said.
The Shrekta’Naaji was cruising over the landscape of the Nali planet. The ship wasn’t travelling at a great speed; the accident with Kew had taught Luca a thing or two about flying too fast. Plus, darkness was beginning to fall, and visibility was limited. Luca wanted to be absolutely sure that they didn’t fly into a hill, a tree or some other obstacle.
Steering the ship with the cockpit lights on low, Luca kept a moderate altitude. Passing over small Nali houses with firelight flickering in the windows and lanterns hanging outside still gave Luca a slight feeling of awe. Halil, her eyes fixed on the passing land, seemed to feel the same way.
“Are we still on course?” Luca asked. Halil glanced at her screen, where three parallel lines still stretched across the chart of the land that moved below them, and nodded.
“Yes, and I think we’re getting closer.” She said.
“They must have landed somewhere.” Luca replied. Then Halil raised the question Luca had been asking himself ever since they left.
“What are we going to do if we do find them?”
Luca looked downwards in silence, before glancing back up at Halil. “I don’t know. Use our weapons? Destroy them?”
“Think we can do it?” Halil asked.
Luca looked directly at her. “Maybe.” He said, hopefully.
“What if we lose?” Halil asked, although from the sound of her voice she already knew the answer.
“If we lose, the Skaarj will rule our world again.” Luca said, “But if we win, maybe the townspeople will forgive us.”
Halil nodded. Luca could tell she knew it was true.
After that, the conversation lapsed into silence. Luca piloted the ship through the gathering gloom, and the map on Halil’s computer continued to unfold. It wasn’t until it was fully dark and Luca was flying the ship over a rugged, mountainous region that Halil gasped and said suddenly, “We’re there!”
Luca looked at Halil’s screen, and saw that the three lines that they had been following came to an abrupt halt in a crater a short distance away. He looked up at the windscreen and saw the crater looming up ahead in his view.
“Here goes.” He said. He bit his lip, and piloted the ship towards the sharp drop-off in land.
With a roar, the Shrekta’Naaji flew out over the cliff of the crater, and the rocky floor unfolded beneath them. Looking down through the bottom of the windscreen, Luca was able to see the activity below.
The three Skaarj ships had landed in a cluster in the centre of the clearing. Visually, the ships resembled the Shrekta’Naaji, but were of a sleeker and shinier design. Luca supposed that they were a more recent model of the same sort of craft. The landing party had wasted no time, and several Skaarj were already in the process of constructing some kind of large metal dome in the light from the ships’ headlights and bright lighting units that flared atop several large wheeled gantries.
“What are they doing?” Halil said.
“I don’t know…” Luca began as he examined the view, “Wait, something’s wrong…”
All activity on the building site had stopped. Luca saw the Skaarj who had been patrolling the perimeter pause and look up into the air. Then, one of them ran to a ship and entered it. A searchlight beam soared through the air and shone directly at them, lighting the inside of the cockpit.
“The cloak! We’re not cloaked!” Halil cried. She reached for the control and flicked it on, but it was too late to be of any help. An alarm went off on the console and several lights illuminated as four bright red energy bolts sizzled past within a hair’s breadth of the windscreen.
“Shields! Hit the shields!” he said, steering the craft as more energy bolts soared up into the air from the ships below. Halil flicked the switch hurriedly, and there was a slight gold flash within the cockpit as the ship’s defences sprung up around them. Luca steered the ship in a circle, trying to escape the red bolts that were flying up into the air. One of them hit the ship and there was a fizz from the shields, but the ship seemed unaffected.
“We have to get out of here.” Luca said, “I don’t know how long these shields will last.”
“Go! Go!” Halil nodded frantically, staring wide-eyed as another barrage of energy bolts was launched from the crater floor. Luca yanked the stick to the left and steered the ship out of its circular motion, heading for the edge of the crater. A barrage of energy bolts flew past the ship again, catching the ship a glancing blow that knocked it slightly off course. Then the ship juddered as another barrage found its target. From somewhere in the ship’s hull there was a muffled explosion, and a red light came on above the cloak control. Halil screamed and Luca accelerated in panic, but they were already clear of the crater, and the barrages had ceased.
There were no signs of immediate pursuit. Luca exhaled heavily as the crater receded behind them. He flew the ship onwards on their present course until the mountains receded to rolling foothills. As the hills shallowed out, he decelerated and set the ship down in a moonlit grassy hollow. Switching off the engines, he lowered the access ramp.
“Come on.” He said, glancing at Halil. He rose from his seat and Halil followed, then the two of them descended the ramp and stepped out onto the moonlit grass.
Luca walked a short distance from the ship and then slumped to his knees. He rolled over onto his back and lay staring at the stars, breathing the night air deeply. Halil knelt beside him.
“I don’t want to go back there.” Luca said at length.
“You look exhausted.” Halil said, “Let’s rest here for a while.”
She stuck out a hand, which Luca took gratefully, allowing her to lift him once more into a standing position.
“You collect some wood.” She said, “I think I saw something on the ship we can light a fire with.”
Luca nodded, and set off across the grass. The terrain was fairly devoid of trees, with only a few slender flowers breaking up the grass. But then Luca came upon a dead bush, at which he kneeled, and began to break pieces off with the help of his knife.
Shortly, Luca returned to the landing site with an armful of twigs and branches. Halil was arranging a ring of pebbles to build the fire within, and had deposited a small heap of items beside her. As far as Luca could tell, it consisted of a couple of blankets made of some finely woven fabric, and a small red tubular device of uncertain purpose.
Luca knelt beside Halil, and together they began arranging the wood within the ring of stones. When they were done, Halil reached for the red device.
“What is that?” Luca asked.
“It’s a flare.” Halil replied. Picking the device up, she pulled a rough cord that protruded from base of the device. Luca jumped as the other end of the device burst into flame. Halil grinned at Luca, and dropped the flare into the middle of their pile of branches and twigs. Soon, the fire was ablaze, giving off welcome warmth.
“I checked the computer.” Halil said as they huddled together before the flames. “The cloak was damaged when we were attacked. But it’s already repairing itself.”
“Repairing itself?” Luca asked, somehow unsurprised.
“It said it would take a few hours.” She replied, “It’ll be ready by tomorrow afternoon.”
“What shall we do now?” he said.
Halil shrugged, and handed Luca one of the blankets. He felt it; it was smooth to the touch, but not unpleasant.
“Get some sleep?” Halil suggested, “Rest until the ship is repaired?”
Luca nodded. “Good idea.”
Luca took his blanket and wrapped it around himself, then lay down near the fire. Halil wrapped herself up in her own blanket and joined him, lying close to Luca for warmth. Feeling comfort from his friend’s nearness, Luca closed his eyes and was soon asleep.
That night, Luca dreamt of the Skaarj. They attacked he and Halil while they were sleeping by the fire. The two Nali were herded back up to the Skaarj landing site, where they were taken to separate cells for interrogation. Luca extended his hand and cried out as Halil was dragged, crying, in the opposite direction. Then there was pain, and Luca was restrained as a huge Skaarj bombarded him with questions asked through a universal translator, hurting him with an electric prod whenever he failed to cooperate. In the distance, he heard his companion screaming…
Luca’s eyes snapped open, and he looked around, trying to get his bearings. Dawn had risen, and the grassy hollow was bathed in a pale early morning light. The fire has gone out during the night and a light dew had fallen, dusting the soft grass with a light silvery sheen.
Luca sat up and looked over to his right. Halil slumbered peacefully on, and Luca was immensely relieved to see her beside him. Gradually, he began to shake off the horror of the previous night’s dream. Gently so as not to wake his friend, he discarded his blanket and walked over to the Shrekta’Naaji, whose hull seemed in pretty good shape, barring a small scorch mark across the bow where an energy bolt had grazed past them the previous night.
Luca ascended the access ramp and examined the information screens. The computer was reporting good progress on the automatic repairs to the cloaking system, stating that seven more hours were required. Halil had been right about the ship being ready by the afternoon.
Luca emerged from the ship again and looked apprehensively at the mountains to the right. Soon, he knew, they would have to return to the crater – not a prospect Luca greatly relished. Adventurous he may be, but Luca had his limits; and now, he felt, those limits had been reached.
“Luca?” came a voice. Halil was sitting up, blinking the sleep out of her eyes.
“Hi.” Luca said, with a smile that looked more cheerful than he felt. Halil stood up and meandered over to him, rubbing her eyes in the pale sunlight.
“I’m starving.” She said.
Luca rubbed his stomach, which growled back at him. “Me too. I’ll find us something to eat.”
Luca set off across the grass like he had the night before. He wasn’t sure what he’d find, but felt that he’d be prepared to eat anything – even if it meant killing a wild animal. Thankfully, he was spared that necessity, as he came upon a clump of fleshy litha plants. Knowing them to have an edible root, he stuck his knife into the ground and dug around the plants until the soil crumbled away.
Shortly, Luca returned to the campsite with a cluster of succulent white tubers in his arms. He handed some to Halil, and the two Nali munched on them companiably. The tubers were plain in flavour, but gave them much needed water and substance in their stomachs. Luca felt less sick with anxiety as he ate, but his worries about what was to come still nagged at his mind.
Halil must have sensed his preoccupation, because as Luca sat staring at the ring of stones where the fire had been, Halil sat close beside him and spoke.
“What’s wrong?” she said. Luca looked at his friend.
“I don’t want to go back to the crater.” He replied.
“But we must,” Halil said, her eyes wide and shining, “or the Skaarj will take us over again. You told me that yourself.”
“But that was before!” Luca said, “We almost died there last night. I don’t want to go through that again. I… I just don’t think I can do it.”
Luca looked at the ground, ashamed at his admission.
“You can do it.” Halil said quietly, “I know you can do it.” Then, she did something totally unexpected. Taking Luca’s lower hand, she leant over and kissed him quickly on the cheek. Luca looked up slowly, stunned.
“Do it for me.” Halil said, “Do it for your parents. Do it for everyone in Nalipal.”
Luca looked at the ground again, fighting his feelings, but when he looked up his expression was resolved.
“You’re right.” He agreed, “We have to do this.”
Halil smiled, and Luca felt himself go slightly red.
“We can check the tactical on the ship.” Halil said, “Maybe we can figure out how to beat the Skaarj.” She stood up, and offered Luca a hand. “Are you coming?”
Luca nodded, and took the proffered hand. Helping him into a standing position, Halil led the way back to the Shrekta’Naaji.
The sunny afternoon hours had arrived again as the Skaarj ship Shrekta’Naaji lumbered into the air once more. The youngsters had spent the morning looking at the tactical readings the ship had gained the night before and, after a lunch made from a Nali rabbit Luca had ensnared on the plain, they had spent a brief period of time resting in the hollow, and trying to be as carefree as possible given what they had to do.
Now, as Luca held onto the control stick for the third time, Halil was going over what they had determined in their studies of the tactical data.
The diagram on the screens showed the configuration of ships they had seen the night before, and the outline of the dome the Skaarj had been constructing. At the centre of the diagram were three cylindrical objects.
“These canisters contain the liquid fuel for the construction equipment.” Halil said as she pointed to these objects, “The computer says it’s highly flammable. If we can destroy these canisters, the explosion may destroy the whole site.”
Luca nodded. Two days ago, most of these words would have made no sense to him. It was funny how quickly one could learn, under pressure.
“Are you ready for this?” Luca asked with a nervous smile. Halil took a deep breath, and then nodded.
“Engage the cloak.” Luca said. Halil pushed the switch, and the cloak sprung up around the ship, hiding them from any outside view.
“Shields.” Luca continued. Halil pushed another switch, and the ship’s defences sprung into life.
“Activate weapons.” Luca said. Halil nodded and pushed a third switch; a light above it glowed.
“Let’s go.” Luca said. He squeezed his foot on the accelerator pedal, and the ship began to cruise towards the mountains. Aware of a great feeling of inevitability, Luca navigated the ship back the way they had come. And soon enough, the crater loomed darkly ahead of them.
Biting his lip, Luca flew the ship over the crater and halted, hovering above the site below them. The lack of response from below indicated that they had not been detected. He and Halil peered out through the windscreen, trying to see the state of things.
The Skaarj had been busy since the night before. The dome had been completed, a hulking metal object covered in pipes and supporting girders. The three ships were positioned as they had been before, while behind them had been constructed two further domes, both slightly smaller than the first.
“Are the fuel canisters still there?” Luca asked, peering out through the windscreen.
“Yes.” Halil said, “There.” She pointed at the centre of the site, where three grey cylinders lay in a large metal rack. Luca nodded.
“I hope they’re full.”
Luca moved the ship forwards again, piloting it upwards and outwards. When he was at his chosen distance, he turned and angled the ship towards the gas rack.
“Here goes…” he said. Squeezing the accelerator pedal, he began to accelerate towards the canisters in a dive. The canisters rushed into view, and at the last second, Luca squeezed the red button on the back of the control stick. Twin red beams pulsed forth from the front of the ship, soaring down towards the gas canisters. Seeing the pulses on the right course, Luca pulled out of the dive just as the pulses hit the canisters and – absolutely nothing happened.
“What went wrong?” Luca said frantically. Skaarj were already running across the site in the direction of the three grounded ships, and a claxon was blaring from somewhere on the site.
“A shield! The canisters have a shield!” Halil gasped.
“Damn!” Luca said. He brought the ship around into another dive, and prepared to attack again.
“What are you doing?” Halil said, “We have to get out of here!”
Luca shook his head. “We have to finish this, now.”
The Shrekta’Naaji dived again, and Luca winced as several energy projectiles whisked past their bow from the Skaarj ships. Halil watched with a hand to her mouth as Luca fired again, with the same lack of success.
A shot from a Skaarj ship hit their starboard wing. Luca and Halil’s ship rocked as the shield absorbed the force. Luca pulled up and headed out to make another dive, as the ship took another hit and juddered further.
“The shields are weakening.” Halil said anxiously, “We can’t take much more of this!”
“One more dive.” Luca replied, “We have to try.”
Luca brought the ship round for another charge and accelerated again, hoping against hope that the weapons would penetrate the defensive shields this time. Sweating, he piloted the ship directly towards the canisters and put his thumb on the red button.
“Chizra give us strength.” He prayed, and then squeezed the trigger. For the third time, the red energy bolts streaked down towards the canisters – and for the third time, the energy was absorbed.
“NO!” Luca cried. He pulled out of the dive, and the ship shuddered viciously as a volley of energy ripped into the stern. There was a ‘fizz’ from the control panel as sparks and a puff of smoke emanated from the main switchboard.
“Luca! We’ve lost the cloak and the shields!” Halil gasped, “We’re a sitting target!”
The ship was lurching, unresponsive. Luca yanked the control stick backwards and the ship pulled back into a half-hearted climb as the Skaarj energy bolts streaked around it.
“The engines – they’re damaged.” Luca panted, “I’m hardly even in control.”
Luca squeezed the accelerator pedal and the ship limped upwards and outwards.
“Luca – we have to stop.” Halil said, “Weapons are out, and we have no power. One hit and we’re dead.”
Luca looked at Halil and shook his head. “We still have one weapon.”
“What?” Halil asked frantically.
“The ship.” Luca replied.
“Luca – no!”
“We can fly into the canisters.” He said, “The shield can’t protect them from that.”
“You said you didn’t want to die!” Halil snapped.
“How many more will die if we don’t?” Luca asked.
There was a pause. Halil looked at the floor. “You’re right.” She said.
Luca nodded sadly and made to turn the ship around.
“But wait – “ Halil said, her eyes snapping back up.
“We can do this.” She said, “But nobody has to die. Open the hatch.”
Uncertainly, Luca pressed the hatch control. Beneath them, the hatch whirred open, revealing the rushing wind below. Halil darted out of her seat, her clothing fluttering in the rapidly moving air, and wrenched one of the wall cabinets open. A backpack fell out as the ship banked, which she grabbed and slung over her shoulders.
“Set our course,” She said, “and then grab onto me. Don’t let go, and trust me when I say ‘jump’.”
Obediently, Luca turned the sluggish ship to face the canisters as the Skaarj fire sizzled upwards from below. Then he squeezed the accelerator pedal so that the ship began to move.
“Come on.” Halil said. She was standing by the open entrance hatch, poised over the open air. “Grab onto me!”
Luca vacated his seat and hurried over to Halil. He flung his arms around her waist, hooking his fingers around the straps of her backpack, and feeling the wind whipping around his jerkin from below. Whatever they were about to do, it was insane.
“Now jump!” Halil commanded. Before Luca could react, she pushed herself out through the hatch, and they were freefalling.
The air whipped around them as they tumbled, and Luca felt a sense of great exaltation. Although he was falling to his death, the sounds of Skaarj gunfire all around him, he had never felt so free. Still, he held tight to Halil, and she held him as tight as she could with three arms. With her fourth arm, she was reaching for a cord suspended from her backpack, and Luca had time to wonder briefly what she was doing, before she yanked it hard and a huge white sheet began to unfurl from the backpack.
The sheet snagged in the wind, and Luca felt a great jolt go through him as their downward momentum slowed, but managed to hold on to Halil. He looked up, and saw the sheet spread out above them. He laughed crazily.
“This is fun!” he yelled.
Halil grinned back and looked downwards. Luca followed suit and blanched as he saw the grassy cliff top looming up to meet them – but then they touched down softly, and Luca realised that he had survived the fall without injury.
His head still reeling from the experience, Luca became aware of the sounds around them once again. He spun himself over to look, and Halil did the same, disentangling herself from the straps of the parachute. What Luca saw made his heart leap to his mouth.
The Shrekta’Naaji was lurching down to the crater floor, but had gone off-course. It was no longer directed at the canisters, and was on a collision course for the ground beyond instead.
“It’s going to miss.” Luca said in dismay.
“It can’t…” Halil protested.
But it could, and it was, Luca realised. Their only chance to destroy the Skaarj had been lost.
The Skaarj were still firing on the out-of-control vessel, but somehow it had survived unscathed. Luca watched as the red bolts streaked towards the Shrekta’Naaji – and then one of them hit its target. The port wing was shattered into a million pieces, and the ship began to lurch around madly, before entering a spinning dive, headed right for the –
“Duck!” Luca yelled. He and Halil flung themselves to the ground as the ruined vessel ploughed into the gas canisters in the centre of the crater. At once, an ear-ripping explosion shattered the air and Luca looked up, his ears ringing. A huge fireball, surrounded by a pall of black smoke, rose into the sky from the centre of the crater and dispersed among the clouds above.
Luca gazed into the crater as the smoke began to clear, dreading that something might have survived the explosion unscathed – but as the visibility improved, the twisted bits of metal that littered the floor of the now deserted crater proved his fears groundless.
Luca looked at Halil, who looked back, wide-eyed.
“We did it.” He said, breaking into a grin, “We did it!”
Luca and Halil whooped and smacked their hands together.
“We are the champions!” Luca yelled.
“We rule!” Halil shouted.
The two young Nali rolled over onto their backs and laughed at the afternoon sunshine. Then they just lay there for a while, allowing the tension of the past few hours to drain out of them. Their mission was accomplished.
“What – it’s young Luca and Halil!” came a voice. Luca awoke from his doze and sat up on his haunches. It was early evening, by the looks of the sunlight; he and Halil must have dropped off.
Halil was sitting up now, too, and looking down the hillside from the cliff top where they sat. Four Nali were running up the slope towards them, weapons held at their side. Luca raised both eyebrows in surprise as he recognised Motanisha in the lead. He was followed by the chieftain Lo’juura, and two fishermen Luca didn’t know by name, but recognised by sight.
“What are you doing here?” Motanisha panted as he arrived at the cliff top, kneeling down in front of Luca and Halil. The youngsters exchanged glances.
“Saving the world, sir.” Luca replied with a smile.
The adult Nali exchanged puzzled frowns, before Motanisha glanced over the cliff edge and his eyes widened in shock.
“Holy Chizra, what happened here?” he exclaimed as he saw the scorched ground and twisted metal fragments that littered the crater.
“It’s like he said, sir,” Halil chipped in, “we destroyed the Skaarj for you.”
Lo’juura looked askance. Motanisha shook his head in disbelief, and then laughed in bafflement.
“I think you two have some explaining to do.” He said.
The journey home took two long, dull days of travel. They traversed the mountains on foot, but once they reached the foot of the hills, they got onto a dirt road and were able to travel by cow cart. The bumpy ride was slow, but at least it was not exhausting. Luca and Halil welcomed the rest, and were quiet for the duration.
Once the cart reached Avenati town, Luca began to recognise where he was, and from Avenati town the travellers walked the rest of the distance, following a mountain pass that took them through Kuri the blacksmith’s village. It was not far from there to Nalipal, and Luca was relieved to see the old harbour square appear ahead of them as they descended the last stretch of the grassy canyon and join the main road into town.
What followed was a long and tearful reunion with his mother, during which Matharil got extremely weepy and Luca got extremely wet. His mother showered him with kisses, food and clean clothes, and it was not until darkness was falling that Luca managed to get some time alone with Halil on his terrace.
The two Nali sat at the rough wooden table, staring out at the bluff of Shokkar where their whole misadventure had begun.
“How was your dad?” Luca asked his friend.
Halil laughed. “He gave me about six dinners.”
Luca grinned. “So we’re forgiven, then?”
“I think so.” Halil nodded with a smile. Then her smile faded.
“They’ll come back, won’t they.” She said.
“Who’ll come back?” Luca queried.
“The Skaarj.” She replied.
Luca looked soberly down at the table. “Yeah. They probably will.”
“I guess so.” Halil replied. Luca looked intently back up at her before speaking his final words.
“But next time, maybe we’ll be ready.”
All text herein is © 1998-2004 Michael Wilberforce. All characters, events, place names and creatures, barring those previously appearing in the work of and priorly © to Epic Games, Digital Extremes and associated authors, are also © 1998-2004 Michael Wilberforce unless otherwise stated. The text herein may NOT be reproduced for any form of distribution without the prior written consent of the author.