Aleck Blackfield’s room was on
the west of the house and a howling gale was slamming rain against
the glass with such ferocity he could barely hear himself think.
Instead, he found himself listening to the faintly obscene gurgling
of the water in the drain below the window. Preparation for his start
at college in only a few weeks’ time was supposed to be demanding
his full attention but the racket outside prevented it and he sighed
Aleck’s mother knocked briefly
and came in.
“You’ve got a visitor.”
“Yes. She says her name’s
“Emma? What’s he doing ...
“He’s a she.”
“Eh? Oh. Emma. Yes. Of
course.” He stared blankly at his mother.
“You’d better come and see,
don’t you think? She’s soaked.”
“Yeah ... Yeah ... I guess.”
Emma, the girl that he always
called by her code name of Timber was standing by the front door,
dripping rain, her hair plastered to her face, her sodden clothes
“Tim ... er ... Emma.
Whatever’s the matter? Come in.”
Aleck didn’t know what to say
or do or think.
“You’d better come in,
love,” said Alys Blackfield, her hospitable nature overcoming her
anxiety at the appearance of this unexpected visitor. “Take that
wet coat off and I’ll get you a drink. What would you like? Coffee?
“Tea would be lovely.”
Cassie, Aleck’s younger
sister, came running in full of excitement. “Is this your
girlfriend, Leckie? I knew you had a girlfriend.”
It was Timber who answered with
a strained smile. “Yes. I’m Aleck’s girlfriend. Are you Cassie?
I’ve heard about you. You’re the one who thinks I’m ugly.”
Cassie studied her. “I didn’t
say that! Well, yes, I did. But you’re not. You’re pretty. Pretty
wet as well. Leckie’s ugly though.”
“I don’t think he is,”
“Cassie, I want you out of
here. Stop talking and go and do some studying or something. Emma
needs a hot drink and, I think, she and Aleck need to talk to each
other without us listening. Right Aleck?”
He nodded, still bewildered.
“Yes. Please, Mom.”
“I’ll get the tea. And you’d
better stay in the hall. Keep out of the living room – you know?”
“Thanks, Mom.” He had no
wish for the ever present securi cam to monitor his
conversation with the freedom fighter he regarded as his boss.
As Alys Blackfield left the
hallway, Timber said. “I had to come. It’s Emma,” she used
George Bayajida’s code name. “He’s been arrested. Adam says
we’ve got to clear out.”
Aleck gaped at her. He had
always accepted that he and Timber and Adam, too, were at risk but,
somehow, he had thought Emma, his mentor in Leading Light, would be
“I said,” she snapped
impatiently. “They’ve got Emma. We’ve got to clear out.”
“Now. They could be here any
time. Adam says there’s no time to lose and it’s taken me hours
to get here in this weather. I couldn’t comm you in clear. I’d
have had no idea what to say to get the message over and we don’t
have a schedule with the special units until tomorrow. Aleck love,
they could be on their way here now.”
“I mean when did they get
“Two days ago. Does it matter?
It was that operation he went on with the other group. It all went
wrong. They caught everyone.” She stopped talking as Mrs Blackfield
brought the tea in.
She tried to sound like the good
guest. “That’s very kind of you, Mrs Blackfield. I’m afraid I’m
“That’s not what I’m
afraid of,” Alys Blackfield answered with an apprehensive frown.
“All right,” she said, when Aleck looked anxious, “I’m going.
But listen, don’t you dare involve Cassie or Mattie.”
“I’ll try not to.”
“I said don’t,” she said
and stalked out leaving them to talk.
Timber gulped down some of the
tea. “Listen, we’ve got to go. Adam says to tell you it’s
orders and you’re not to argue. They’ve had Emma for two days
already and you know what he says, ‘everyone always gives way
eventually – if you can give your mates two days, you’re a hero’
and Adam says Emma’s no hero. A planner and analyst, he says, but
no action man. He reckons he should never have been taking part in
this latest op.”
“He’d never give us away.”
“Two days, Adam says, if we’re
lucky. You do see that don’t you?” she looked at him anxiously.
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess I do. It
takes some getting used to though.” He paused and seemed in deep
thought. Timber watched him. “I’ll have to tell my mother what to
do,” he said.
“She’ll have to tell the
truth – to protect Cassie and Mattie. But we’ve got to go.”
“Right. Keep it simple and
tell the truth, but only as far as far as possible. I’ve not
Now he had made up his mind,
Aleck wasted no time. He went to the door and called quietly to his
mother so Cassie wouldn’t hear. “Mom.”
Mrs Blackfield came in. “You’re
going, aren’t you?”
“I’ve got to.”
Mrs Blackfield was no time
waster either. “I’ll get you something to take with you.”
“No! I can’t let you. They’d
find out and punish you. You’re already involved too much. Anyway,
there isn’t time. We’ve got to go – right now – before they
come. I’m sorry I’ve done this to you and Dad. And the girls. But
we’re going right now. I’m not even changing my clothes. I’m
not putting you at any more risk than I already have. Listen, you
must tell them the truth or they’ll get it out of you. Emma came
and more or less forced her way in. You were frightened but fetched
me. I’ve been so moody lately. You were even bit afraid of me.
Nothing to report, of course, just growing up pains, you
thought. But Emma frightened you. We didn’t say anything. Not even
good-bye. And we went. Can you do that? For Mattie’s sake?”
“I know how to handle yeomen,
Aleck. I don’t need advice.”
“They’ll likely be Swines,
“Triple S, the Secret
“I know how to handle them,
“Sorry, Mom. I’m really
“You’d better go. I’ll
look after Cassie and Mattie.
Say ‘good-bye’ them. And
“And Tania, too. Don’t
“Sorry. Again. Tanny, too. And
now we’re going. ’Bye Mom.”
He turned to go but Mrs
Blackfield said, “You’ve forgotten something.” It was a
statement, not a question.
Mrs Blackfield held out a comms
unit. “This.” She dropped it on the floor and crushed it
underfoot. “Now you’ve broken it, I can’t comm the yeomanry,
He looked at her. “Thanks,
Mom. I still need looking after don’t I?”
“I’d have thought a Leading
Light or whatever it is you are, would have thought of comms units.
You’d better go and smash Cassie’s, too. Don’t frighten her.”
Cassie met him at her bedroom
door. She was holding out her comms unit.
“I was listening. Can I break
He nodded, his eyes shining with
pride. She dropped it on the floor and stamped on it as if trying to
grind it to dust. She looked closely at him. “Terrorists aren’t
supposed to cry, Leckie.”
“I’m not a terrorist, Cass.
I’m fighting for our freedom. Everyone’s freedom.”
Gravely she held her hand out.
“Good luck, Leckie.”
He took her hand and shook it
solemnly. He didn’t know what to say. “Fogg it, Cass, you’re
“You’re not supposed to use
words like that when I can hear, are you? But fogg the bastards.”
She blushed with embarrassment, turned and closed the door after her.
When he returned to the hallway,
Tania was standing there, rain dripping from her coat. He stopped in
the doorway and looked at her, wondering what she had understood and
what she would do. He was suddenly frightened.
“Come on in, Aleck. So Cassie
was right. You do have a girlfriend.”
“But she wasn’t the
secret you wouldn’t talk about, was she? No, don’t answer. I
said before, I’m not sure I’m brave enough to know.” She turned
to Timber, “I don’t know what your name is, but are you the
reason for the squad of Specials down the road?”
Timber gazed rapidly around as
if she expected the squad suddenly to materialise in the hallway.
Forgetting his uncertainty about
Tania’s loyalty to him, Aleck said, “Already?”
Timber said, “I told you.
We’ve got to go. Now. Before they get here.” She grabbed his arm
as if to drag him to the door but he shook her off.
“I can’t. I’ve got to look
after them. I can’t let them take the blame.”
“You’ve got to go Aleck. We
can look after ourselves. We were all right after they killed Stair
and we’ll be OK now.” Tania smiled in what she may have intended
as encouragement but looked to Aleck more like a rictus of terror.
Mrs Blackfield said, “I’m
not having two of you executed. Go with her.”
“What about Dad?”
“I’ll tell him.”
“I’ve got to tell him
myself. I’ve got to tell him I’m sorry.”
Perhaps it was the tension. Mrs
Blackfield snapped at him. “You’re not sorry, Aleck!” Her voice
softened. “And your father won’t be sorry either. You’ve done
what you’ve thought is right – just like Stair. Your dad’ll be
proud of you – but not if you hang around here until the Specials
arrive. You said yourself that you’ve got to go. So go! The longer
you hang about here, the worse it’ll be.”
Tania said, “D’ you want
Cassie and Mattie to see you arrested? I wouldn’t forgive you if
you let them see that again. They had to watch them do for Stair and
they don’t need to see them do for you too.”
“Is it the Specials or the
“I’ve already said it’s
the Specials. They could be here any minute.”
Timber said, “They’re right,
Robbie.” She used their private version of his code name. “We’ve
got to go. We should have gone ages ago not spent time yattering here
about the rights and wrongs of it. We’ve always know it could come
to this and now it has. So come on.” She grabbed his arm again with
more determination and this time he didn’t shake her off.
“If you’re sure, Mom?”
Tania didn’t wait for Mrs
Blackfield's response. “Of course, she’s sure. So, good luck. And
take care of your stupid self.” She held out her comms unit.
Aleck felt a deep shame for his
mistrust of Tania. “You do it, Tanny. After we’ve gone. And –
I’m sorry. For everything.” It was all he could do to make
amends. The tear that had been threatening to overflow since he had
spoken to Cassie, now ran down his cheek. He swallowed, trying to
regain control of his emotions.
“I’m sorry, too, Leckie. It
wasn’t all your fault. We’re all to blame. We all submit to
Command, don’t we?” She dropped the comms unit and trod on it.
“You needed to see me do that. Or at least she did.
You’d better go before it’s too late, Leckie. Go and fogg
Command, and good luck. Give them one for me ... and Stair.”
She walked slowly towards him
and held her arms out. He hugged her to him. “It’s for us all,
Tanny.” He paused and then whispered so the others couldn’t hear,
“Look after them all for me.” He pulled away, not ashamed of the
tears that were now coursing down his face.
Tania turned to Timber, “I
don’t know what your name is, but look after him for me. I think he
needs you.” She turned and was about to leave the hallway when she
stopped and came back. “And you look after her, too, Leckie. Don’t
come back until you’ve fogged the bastards.”
It was still raining as Timber
and Aleck left the house. Mrs Blackfield had never heard Cassie or
Tania use that word before. But, desite her fear, she smiled.
“I’ve got good kids, Tanny.
I’m proud of you all.”
A hundred meters along the
track, Timber, too, was impressed. “You’ve got a good family,
“I know. I wish I’d known
before just how good. Especially Tanny.”
“You took a big risk, saying
destroy it after we’d gone.”
“I’m afraid I didn’t. I
might have trusted her with my safety but not with yours. There was
no way I was leaving the house if that thing had still been working.
I think she knew that.”
“I think she did. They’re
good people, Robbie. The thing to do now is to survive and help make
the world safe for good people.”
“Shut up,” Aleck spoke
“What? I only said ... ”
“Shut up. Listen.” He
pointed back down the lane.
They stopped and looked towards
the house. There were headlights coming up the road and, listening
carefully, they could hear the sound of engines.
Aleck said, “They’re coming.
I’ve got to go back.”
“Don’t be stupid. They’ll
“I’ve got to look after
“Adam says we’ve got to go.”
“You’re mum says you’ve
got to go.”
“I’ve got to go back.”
“Two days, Robbie. That’s
all. It’s for all of us. Your mum knows what to do. It won’t help
them if they know you’ve been taken.”
But he stayed watching until
there was no doubt and he saw the cars stop outside the white house
with its verandah and pitched roof, and the garden with the feeder by
the steps for flyers, and his mother’s flower and vegetable garden
he had helped to look after ever since he was a kid.
He turned and slowly followed
Timber up the road towards the forest.
She said again, “We’ve got
to make the world safe for them. Safe for everybody.”
“Right. Before we do that,
I’ve got to get my grab bag.”
“Grab it, you mean! Is it
“No. Five minutes.”
By the time they had retrieved
the grab bag, it was dark and Aleck was as soaked as Timber.
“But it’s no good changing
now and getting everything else wet as well. I’ll wait until we
find somewhere dry and change then.” He paused, “But what about
you? Have you got a grab bag as well? You’ve come without it?”
“Yes. I’ve got one but I
didn’t think I had time to get it before warning you.”
“Well, let’s get it now and
then we’ll find somewhere to lie up until we decide what to do.
“Up to the pool and down
towards Franklin. We’ll have to go carefully when we get there.
It’s not far from the town and, if they’re searching already, we
don’t want to run into them.”
“Keep our fingers crossed that
they don’t like wet weather. Let’s hope we’re not so important
to them as we’d like to think.”
“Is that logical?”
“Probably not.” He laughed.
“It’s funny, but I feel safer now we’re on our own. No one
to compromise us. Or are we supposed to contact Adam?”
“No. We’re on our own until
we can contact the safe house operator – and that’s not for a
It was a miserable but, despite
the near complete darkness, a straightforward walk to the pool in the
forest where they had first met and where Timber had introduced him
to the pleasures of skinny dipping. Aleck’s indoor clothing wasn’t
designed to cope with the floods of water coming from the sky. At
first he could feel it percolating under his collar. A little later,
he knew exactly what ‘soaked to the skin’ really meant as the two
of them slopped their way through puddles and mud. The water ran down
his back, down the inside of his thighs and eventually found its way
into his shoes. There it overflowed and ran away to join the rest of
the rain on the forest floor.
Aleck said, “I know you’re
dying for a swim but I think I’ll give it a miss this time – even
if I’d like to ... ”
“Shut up, Robbie.”
“Yes, leader, sir.”
For a little while, the path
continued to head upwards but, in half a kilometre, they topped a
rise and saw the lights of Franklin below them.
“I hadn’t realised it was so
“It’s shorter through the
forest than by road. That’s what made it possible for me to get up
here so easily. If I get a move on, it only takes me an hour there
and back. And it’s a decent track most of the way, until you get
close the pool.”
“It’s been a good thing it’s
so well hidden. I don’t suppose many people even know it’s
“I wouldn’t skinny dip if it
wasn’t well hidden.”
“Not even with me?”
“Especially with you. Now, be
quiet. They’ll have accoustiphones. They’ll be able to pick us up
before long. Just follow me. I’ll lead. I know where to go.”
They walked in single file about
twenty metres apart as they’d been trained to do in ‘enemy’
territory. It was still quite dark but, although the rain had eased
and there were a few stars, neither of Carmenta’s twin moons was
“Searchers will have lights,”
Timber had said, “unless, of course, they’re just waiting to
switch them on when we come crashing into their hunting ground.”
As always, Aleck was content to
follow Timber’s lead. He kept alert, casting around constantly for
signs of danger but, nevertheless, allowing his thoughts to drift
back over the last weeks since he had been forced to watch while they
executed his brother. It was nearly impossible to believe that so
much had happened. He smiled at the recollection of his first meeting
with Timber when she had secretly followed him through the forest to
‘his’ pool. She had befriended him in his misery following his
brother’s death. He hadn’t know it then, but her mission had been
to persuade him to become a Pathfinder and join Leading Light, the
freedom fighters who were dedicated to overthrowing Command, the
tyrannical government whose rule had led to Stair’s execution for
sedition. Timber, only a little older than Aleck, had known how to
beguile a young lad – he grinned with pleasure at the memory.
During the weeks that followed, their friendship and trust in one
another had developed and, he now knew, had turned into love.
But most of his recollections
were less happy. He had unknowingly become involved when Leading
Light had assassinated the local governor and he had been
interrogated by the Special Yeomanry. Aleck scowled at the memory
and, even now, he didn’t know whether the assassination was right
or wrong. Adam, had said that the governor had caused the deaths of
innocent people including Stair, that he had been a threat to Leading
Light, and that he had deserved to die but Aleck was struggling to
come to terms with his involvement in what his father had called
The assault on the nuclear
development facility had been different. Adam had said that Command
was planning to use nuclear weapons, banned on Carmenta for
generations, against the Leading Light headquarters and that, if the
research programme was allowed to continue, thousands of people would
be killed. The guerrillas had been at pains to avoid the deaths of
innocent people and Aleck’s rôle had been merely one of
look out but the assault had led to the deaths of two Leading
And then there had been the
worst episode, worse because Aleck had gone into it with his eyes
wide open acting solo as a Leading Light operative – a sort of
trainee operative, he smiled wryly. Despite Leading Light’s
aversion to assassination as a political weapon, he had broken into
the house of the new governor to leave a message purporting to
threaten the governor with death – Emma had said that part of their
strategy was to make Command fearful of them – but he had been
captured and tortured by a member of the Triple S, the Secret
Security Service or ‘Swine”. He had succeeded in killing the
Swine and escaping but he still had grim memories of that awful
night. The death of the Swine had affected him a lot more than the
torture he had had to endure.
But he knew that Command had to
be defeated. What was it Timber had said? ‘The thing to do now is
to survive and help make the world safe for good people’. Well,
that was his mission and if a few Swine died ... He didn’t continue
They reached the cache where
Timber had hide her grab bag without problems, retrieved it
undisturbed, and headed away from the village.
“Where now?” asked Aleck.
“Do you think we can risk the hut?”
“The cave, then? That’s
better hidden and we need somewhere dry to sort ourselves out. At
least for the night.”
“Not the cave either. At least
not that cave. I’ve got a hide out that no one knows
about but me. It was only intended for one but I can squeeze a friend
in. We’ll probably have to lie up all day tomorrow, as well, and
Adam’s cave would be far too risky.”
“I ought to have thought of my
own hide out. But I think you’re right about tomorrow. Move by
night and rest by day, I think.”
They continued up through the
forest and, as they left the vicinity of Franklin, were able to walk
side by side again. It started to rain once more. Not so hard as
before but quite enough to have soaked them again had they not chosen
to keep their wet clothes on. Occasionally, they heard one of the
rare, nocturnal animals or, perhaps, they themselves disturbed and
frightened daytime animals. Once a larger animal crashed across their
path reminding Aleck of the quadeer that had so startled him on his
way to the look out point when Leading Light had carried out the
assault on the nuclear plant. A lot had happened since then. As they
climbed higher, the track deteriorated and it grew noticeably colder.
They continued to talk quietly although they were so far removed from
“There’s snow up here in
winter,” Timber said. “It’s worried me a bit, well quite a lot,
really. I found the hide early last orbit and didn’t think at first
about using it in winter. My tracks would have been like an airport
runway if I’d had to use it.”
“What about tracker dogs?”
“Wait and see.”
As the trees began to thin out
with the increased altitude, the path finally disappeared but the
ground was rocky and Timber led the way with confidence. Then she
“See that star? The extra
bright one just to the left of the Warrior?” She pointed to a
well known constellation. “And, then, below it, a couple of
centimetres or so, there’s that slightly reddish one? Draw an
imaginary line between them. However the stars seem to rotate, that
line always points to the northern star, that faint one on its own.”
She paused. “I’ve got a secret name for it. One day, when I know
you better and I’m sure you won’t be shocked, I’ll tell you.”
“I won’t be shocked.”
“Well, you ought to be. I
don’t know that I want to associate with people who wouldn’t be
shocked at my secret thoughts.”
“Swap you your secret thoughts
for my secret thoughts?” Aleck offered.
“If I’m going to share a
tiny cave with you for a day or two, you can keep your secret
thoughts to yourself, Aleck Blackfield.”
“I still don’t know who
you’re talking about.”
“I’m afraid code names are a
bit out of date now. But I’ll call you Robbie, if you like.”
“I do like. There’s only you
who’s ever called me that. And I like it. And Timber’s better
“That was a mistake. I make my
family call me Cat. When we met, I was so intent on not saying Cat
that I stumbled and called myself Emma.”
“Cat. Dire cat. Timber.
Timber wolf. You choose some savage names.”
“I am savage. Grrr! Bite you,
She laughed. “Anyway, I
thought you were going to call me Timmie. That’s my private name,
“You said if anyone called you
that, they’d see just how dangerous timber wolves can be.”
“You’re not anyone.”
The talk disguised their very
real anxiety about the future but, after walking for more than two
hours, they came to a mountain lake and Timber said, “We’re
nearly there. I’ve been keeping a good lookout and I haven’t seen
anything but I want to stop here for a bit and just listen. See if we
It had stopped raining again and
Big Moon appeared from behind the banks of cloud, casting a pale
light across the lake. It was eerily beautiful. They stood a few
metres apart, ears alert for the slightest sound. At last, Timber was
“OK. Shoes off, unless you
want wet feet all day tomorrow.” She stooped and started to remove
her own and then stood erect again. “What’s the point? We
couldn’t get any wetter.”
She stepped into the lake and
waded out into the shallow water before turning and following the
“Tracker dogs can’t track in
water. We go to the little island over there, tramp around a bit to
confuse the scent, and then we head for the cliff. I’ll show you.”
Nowhere was the water very deep
and they reached the island with little more than wet ankles.
“The dogs’ll get to the
water. The yeoman or Triple S or whatever will take them along
the shore. That’ll take a while because it’s the best part of
four kilometres and they’ll think they’ve lost us. Then some
bright spark will wonder if we’ve gone to the island and they’ll
all paddle out here. The dogs’ll pick up the scent again and go
daft, and they’ll rampage all over the place and they won’t find
us. They’ll think they’ve lost us for good.” She stopped.
“Let’s hope they’re right.”
“Now,” she said, “Head for
It was nearly three hundred
metres. Even if dogs couldn’t find their scent on the cliff top,
there seemed to be no way to climb out of the lake. Timber led Aleck
right up to the cliff face.
“What d’ you think?”
“Should I think anything?”
“It’s not that well hidden.
Hold this.” She passed him her backpack. “Now then. Bye bye.”
And she slipped between two buttresses of the cliff and vanished. Her
“It’s marvellous. We could
live here for months.”
“Well, it’s possibly a bit
... compact ... for that but come and look. Welcome to Timber Lodge.”