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The Carmenta Trilogy
Escape into Danger
Chapter One

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 melodramatically.

Aleck’s mother knocked briefly and came in.

“You’ve got a visitor.”

“Me?”

“Yes. She says her name’s Emma.”

“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 clinging.

“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?”

“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,” said Timber.

“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 safe.

“What’s happened?”

“I said,” she snapped impatiently. “They’ve got Emma. We’ve got to clear out.”

“When?”

“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 Emma?”

“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 a nuisance.”

“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 forgotten.”

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, not yeomen.”

“Swines?”

“Triple S, the Secret Security Service.”

“I know how to handle them, too.”

“Sorry, Mom. I’m really sorry.”

“You’d better go. I’ll look after Cassie and Mattie.

Say ‘good-bye’ them. And Dad.”

“And Tania, too. Don’t misjudge Tania.”

“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.

“What?”

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, can I?”

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.”

“I won’t.”

Cassie met him at her bedroom door. She was holding out her comms unit.

“I was listening. Can I break it myself?”

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 brilliant.”

“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.”

“Yes.”

“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 ordinary yeomen?”

“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. “Here.”

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, Robbie.”

“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 urgently.

“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 get you.”

“I’ve got to look after them.”

“Adam says we’ve got to go.”

“Fogg Adam.”

“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 far?”

“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. Which way?”

“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 week.”

“Right.”

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 near.”

“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 there.”

“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 visible.

“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 murder.

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 Light members.

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 the thought.

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?”

“No way.”

“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 civilisation.

“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 stopped.

“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 than Emma.”

“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, Robbie.”

“I’m waiting!”

She laughed. “Anyway, I thought you were going to call me Timmie. That’s my private name, isn’t it?”

“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 hear anything.”

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 satisfied.

“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 shore.

“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 the cliff.”

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 head reappeared.

“Good, eh?”

“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.”

 
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