Authors: Naomi Foyle
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by
Jo Fletcher Books
An imprint of Quercus Editions Ltd
55 Baker Street
7th Floor, South Block
Copyright © 2014 Naomi Foyle
The moral right of Naomi Foyle to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN 978 1 78087 634 4 (TPB)
ISBN 978 1 78087 635 1
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
‘The Sixth Night
’ from the poem cycle ‘The Seven Nights’ by Bejan Matur, translated by Ruth Christie with Selçuk Berilgen and published in
How Abraham Abandoned Me
(Arc Publications, 2012); quoted here by permission of author and publisher.
Also by Naomi Foyle
In a garden
of forgotten innocence
O human creature
when the circle is completed
‘The Seven Nights: The Sixth Night
Her name floated up to her again, rising on the simmering spring air through a dense puzzle of branches, light and shade. But though Hokma’s voice rasped at her conscience like the bark beneath her palms, Astra pretended – for just another minute – not to hear it.
Gaia had led her here, and all around her Gaia’s symphony played on: ants streamed in delicate patterns over the forest floor, worms squirmed beneath rocks and logs, squirrels nattered in the treetops and birds flung their careless loops of notes up to the sun. Immersed in these thrilling rhythms, alert to their flashing revelations, Astra had discovered the pine glade. There, craning to follow the arc of a raptor circling far above, she’d spied a branch strangely waving in a windless sky. And now, just above her in the tip of the tree, was the reason why: five grubby toes, peeking through the needles like a misplaced nest of baby mice.
Yes. She hadn’t been ‘making up stories’, as Nimma had announced to the other Or-kids last week. It
the girl. The infiltrator. The spindly Non-Lander girl she’d seen slipping behind the rocks near the brook, wild-haired and wearing nothing but a string of hazelnuts around her neck. The girl had disappeared then, as sinuously as a vaporising liquid, but today she was rustling above Astra in the tree, dislodging dust and needles, forcing Astra to squint and duck as she climbed higher than she ever had before. The girl was real: and nearly close enough to touch.
The girl probably thought she was safe. Thought the dwindling pine branches couldn’t support Astra’s sturdy seven-nearly-eight-year-old body. That Astra would be scared to climb higher. That she, the skinny
forest child, could just wait, invisibly, her arms wrapped like snakes around the trunk, until Astra – hungry, overheated, tired of hugging the prickly tree – had to descend and go home.
But if she thought any of that, she was wrong. Dead wrong. Tomorrow was Security Shot Day, and Astra wasn’t scared of any kind of needles. Nor was she too hot. A bright bar of sunlight was smacking her neck and her whole body was slick with sweat, but she’d filled her brand new hydropac with crushed ice before leaving Or and she watered herself again now through the tubing. Refreshed, she reached up and grasped a branch above her head.
Keeping her feet firmly planted on their perch, she hung her full weight from this next rung in her tree ladder. Yes: thin but strong; it wouldn’t snap. She eyed another likely hand-branch, slightly higher than the first – that one, there. Good: gripped. Now the tricky bit: looking down. Careful not to focus on anything beneath her own toes in their rubber-soled sandals, she checked for a sturdy branch about level with her knees. That one? Yes. She lifted her left foot and—
A pine cone thwacked Astra’s right hand, ricocheted off her cheek, and plummeted out of sight. For a terrible second, Astra’s knees weakened and her fingers loosened their hold on their branches.
But though her hand stung and throbbed, and her heart was drilling like a woodpecker in her chest, she was still – praise Gaia! – clinging to the tree. Breathing hard, Astra withdrew her left foot to safety and clamped her arms around the trunk. The crusty bark chafed her chest and, like the steam from one of Nimma’s essential-oil baths, the bracing sap-scent scoured her nostrils, clearing her head. At last her pulse steadied. She examined her hand: the pine cone hadn’t drawn blood, but there was a graze mark beneath her knuckles.
The Non-Lander had inflicted a wound
, possibly a serious injury, a crippling blow. One at a time, Astra flexed her fingers. Thank Gaia: nothing seemed to be broken. She’d been aiming to kill or maim, hoping to knock Astra clean out of the tree, but the untrained, undisciplined girl had managed only a superficial scratch. Hostile intention had been signalled, and under international law, an IMBOD officer was permitted to retaliate. Cautiously, Astra glanced up.
The row of toes was still visible. So was the ball of the girl’s foot.
. Her assailant couldn’t go any higher. Maybe Astra couldn’t either, but if
she was a Boundary constable now, charged with the sacred duty to defend Is-Land’s borders from criminals and infiltrators, one way or another she was going to win.
First, she needed to gather strength and take her bearings. Arm curled around the tree, she surveyed the terrain.
Her face was taking a direct hit of sun because, she saw now, for the first time ever she’d climbed above the forest canopy. Below her, a turbulent ocean charged down the steep mountain slope, pools of bright spring foliage swirling between the jagged waves of pine until – as if all the forest’s colours were crashing together on a distant shore – the tide plunged over the escarpment into a gash of charred black trunks and emerald new growth. The fire grounds were a slowly healing wound, a bristling reminder of Gaia’s pain. At the sight of them splayed out for acres beneath her, Astra’s breath snagged in her throat.
A Boundary constable couldn’t afford to contemplate the past; a Boundary constable had to live in the present, fully alive to its invisible threats. Astra shaded her eyes with her hand. Below the forest Is-Land’s rich interior shimmered out to the horizon, an endless, luxurious rolling plain. For a moment, Astra felt dizzy. From Or the steppes were either hidden by the trees or a distant vision beyond them; here they sprawled on and on like … she regained her focus … like the crazy quilt on Klor and Nimma’s bed, stuffed with a cloud-puff sky. Yes, the fields below her were like countless scraps of gold hempcloth, chocolate velvet, jade linen; fancy-dress remnants stitched together with sparkling rivers and canals and embroidered with clusters of homes and farms, the many communities that worked the steppes’ detoxified soil. She’d once asked Klor why the interior was called ‘the steppes’ – the gently sloping hills didn’t climb high, and the mountains were far more like stairs or ladders. ‘Ah, but these hills, fledgling,’ Klor had replied, ‘are stepping stones to a new future, not only for Is-Land, but the whole world.’ Now at last, as the steppes beckoned her into a vast lake of heat haze, she could see exactly what he meant. Klor also called the interior ‘Gaia’s granary’. The Pioneers had risked their lives to cleanse and replant Is-Land’s fertile fields and no true Gaian could gaze on them without a sense of awe and gratitude. The steppes, Astra realised, gripping tight to the tree, were a vision of abundance that made the firegrounds look like a tiny scratch on Gaia’s swollen belly.
But even the lowest-ranking IMBOD officer knew that the safety of Is-Land’s greatest treasure could never be taken for granted. Somewhere
beyond the faint blue horizon was the Boundary, and pressed up behind it the squalid Southern Belt. There, despite decades of efforts to evict them, hundreds of thousands of Non-Landers still festered, scheming to overrun Is-Land and murder any Gaian who stood in their way. Nowhere was safe. Above Astra, higher in the mountains but only an hour’s trek away from Or, was the start of the off-limits woodlands, where the reintroduced megafauna lived, protected by the IMBOD constables who patrolled the Eastern Boundary. Twenty-five years ago, before the bears arrived, the off-limits woodlands had swarmed with infiltrators: cells of Non-Landers who had secretly journeyed from the Southern Belt, swinging out into the desert then up into the mountains where the Boundary was less strongly defended. Shockingly, they had succeeded in penetrating Is-Land, establishing hideouts in the dry forest from where they’d made surprise attacks on New Bangor, Vanapur and Cedaria, and even as far as Sippur in the steppes. IMBOD had fought back, jailing or evicting the infiltrators, blocking their tunnels and increasing the Eastern constabulary. When the dry forest was safe again, Gaians had established more communities in the bioregion: Or had been founded then, to show the Non-Landers that we weren’t afraid of them, Klor and Nimma said. But there hadn’t been an attack from the East for nearly two decades now and many Or-adults seemed to have forgotten the need for evergreen vigilance. That negligence, Astra feared, would be Or’s downfall.