It is forbidden for women to steal the wings that allow a select group of runners to carry messages and goods between colonies. It is forbidden to cross the wastes with a sand storm on the horizon and it is certainly forbidden to share the secrets of the windrunners with those who spend their entire lives in the biospheres.
But what choice does she have?
Windrunner's Daughter is a science-fiction young adult novel of 320 pages.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.87(d)|
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By Bryony Pearce
Xist PublishingCopyright © 2016 Bryony Pearce
All rights reserved.
Elysium Mons was littered with the bones of Runners. Most, but not all, were bleached white. There was always something for the Creatures on the flats below the cliffs.
Amongst the corpses lay the Runner's wings. Half buried they shone like fallen stars; heartbreakingly beautiful, even broken and twisted. There were so many shattered wing-sets down there that after the biennial mega-storms the dust sometimes shone silver for days, until the sand blew back over them.
Wren squinted over the desert, her O canister light on her back, barely aware of the mask that rubbed against her cheek as she turned her head. Ignoring the bone-yard beneath her, she was seeking the tell-tale glimmer against the rosy sky that would warn her a Runner was flying in.
Despite the warmth of Perihelion she shivered. The Runners had never gone this long without contact before. The Patriarchs were meeting at Convocation, but that left plenty of Juniors still flying; someone should have arrived from one of other colonies by now or, if there was a problem, sent a message over the central communicator in Elysium.
When the sky remained empty Wren's heart sank. She glanced back at the Runner-sphere on the cliff edge. Avalon, as the Runners called it, looked like a low mollusc, clinging to the rock, as close to the Running platform as practically possible. But she wasn't heading home; if the Runner's weren't coming in, she would have to send a message out. She needed someone to fly for her.
Turning her back on the sphere she started to run. She had to talk the Councillors of Elysium into letting her into their coms room.
The path curved along the cliff edge, so close that each step sent red-brown stones flying past the marker-posts into the desert, kilometres below. The few who walked the path from Elysium to the Runner-sphere, Avalon, did so with care, looking over their shoulders to see how close to death they stepped.
Wren sprinted down the trail as though Creatures were on her heels. The rattle of kicked gravel followed her footsteps and her long black hair flew from her scarf.
As the green-belt came into view with its low slung gingko trees and clinging ferns, she put on another burst of speed. A rock slid under her foot. Her ankle twisted but the sharp pain vanished when she realised what was about to happen. Frantically she wind-milled her arms, but there was nothing to stop her from falling; her whole world tilted towards the sky.
Wren spit curses as her right hand slammed into a marker post. Instinctively she grabbed hold and her whole body swung; her fall arrested. Closing both hands around the creaking pole, Wren looked down. Below her feet the branches of a spindly bush clawed the sky. Beneath its browning leaves a sheer drop plummeted towards tendrils of cloud then finally, the bone yard, kilometres below.
A hysterical giggle bubbled through her mask.
There was no point calling for help. Even in normal times visitors from Elysium were few and with no incoming Runners for the Council to interrogate there would be no-one taking the path. Even if there were ... Wren closed her eyes. There were those in the biosphere who would happily watch a Runner fall.
Sweat began to prickle on Wren's hands; she was running out of time.
With a swift exhalation she pulled herself higher and wrapped her elbow around the post to secure her grip.
Wren was lucky to be on Mars; on dead-Earth such a move would have been impossible. Baring her teeth in a humourless grin, Wren swung again and, moving her legs from side to side, made a pendulum of herself.
Finally her right leg reached high enough that she was able to hook her ankle over the cliff top, halting her swing.
Dragging her body back onto the path, Wren lay for a moment with her arms clamped around the post that had saved her. Then she pried her fingers free, sprung to her feet and limped into a run once more.
She had to get to Elysium and back before her mother woke up.
Inside the line of gingko trees the path began to meander. Wren narrowed her eyes and glanced at the sun. "No time for the scenic route."
She plunged into thick ferns, her boots scraping carefully cultivated lichens and algae from the rocks. The Green-Men would be furious, but what choice did she have? At least she wasn't in the GM soya fields.
Deeper in the green belt the ferns were at shoulder height. Dense, damp tendrils clutched at her clothes and hair and a thin mist blurred her vision: O being synthesised moment by moment. Wren had a strange, suicidal desire to rip off her mask and inhale the fresh made oxygen.
All around her, ferns absorbed the sounds of Mars; the howling of far away dust storms, the hissing of the air filters in the biospheres, the eerie distant shrieking of the Creatures. Here the rustling of ferns and creaking of branches filled her ears; even the buzzing of the pollinators was muted, their tiny wings brushing against her cheeks, surprising her and making her jump. She ran her fingers through the hair-like greenery, then shook her head and pushed on, directly towards Elysium's dome.
Hexagonal, dust-pocked solar panels covered the top two-thirds of the biosphere and thick plastic storm proofing ran around the bottom. Wren staggered to a halt in front of the airlock. Vast farms of cyanobacteria kept the air inside breathable and, once through, she would be able to remove her mask. She never did, Wren felt naked without it. The feel of air on her lips was terrifying, like falling.
She clapped her palm on the lock and waited, stamping impatiently, for it to cycle green. Then she stepped inside, allowing it to hiss closed behind her.
For a moment she hesitated, getting her bearings: she had come in at the South entrance. Ahead, low buildings ran in long diagonal terraces; workshops on one side dwellings on the other. Generations old gingko trees clustered where gusts of wind would have collected on the lee side of each structure.
They had been built to be battered by winds but had never been exposed to them. Now bunting dangled between each building and colourful flags hung, breathless. Snatches of music twisted through the eaves and gathered in the Dome's apex while shouts of laughter burst like seed pods. Wren stared, how had she forgotten what day it was?
A small boy ran from the nearest house squealing and waving a tiny space shuttle. "Happy Kiernan's Day," he shrieked when he saw her.
His mother loped after him, her face flushed, her arms spread wide. When she saw Wren she stopped as if she'd run into the Dome. Then she grabbed her son, all humour erased from her face as if it had never been. "Leave my son alone!"
Wren sighed. "Happy Kiernan's Day," she offered.
"Not for the likes of you." She snapped. "Damned Runners."
"Captain Kiernan sacrificed himself to save everyone on Mars," Wren reminded her coldly. "Runners and Grounders alike."
The woman snorted and pushed her son towards the house. "The Originals might have fought and died for all. But if they could see you now ..." Her voice faded into disgust and her husband appeared in the doorway.
His eyes widened when he saw her. "Clear off, you." He gripped the doorframe.
Wren didn't stay to watch mother and son hasten back inside the house.
"Kiernan's Day," She whispered, rolling the words around her mouth, as if she'd never spoken them before. If the others had been at Avalon they would have been celebrating, but left to herself she had completely forgotten.
Soon the dust storm season would begin. She had less time than she had thought. "I can still get a Runner to fly, if I can use the Communicator," she muttered.
There was only one man in the colony who might take her request seriously and even on Kiernan's Day, he and the other Councillors would be in the Council building.
Unlike the Runners, who were governed by a single Convocation presided over by the High Patrions and centred around the votes of the Patriarchs, the Grounder colonies were all run by annually rotating Councils of six. It was easy to tell who was Councillor in a given year because each wore two weighty pendants: one white and one black.
Wren drew close to the squatting Council building and pulled her shoulders back. The entrance gaped before her; she merely had to walk in, but she froze. Now, in this moment, there was hope. Her heart fluttered. They had only to say yes: just one little word. She wasn't asking for Phobos, just for five minutes on the communicator.
Yet words popped like bubbles in her gut: clear off, you.
With stiff legs Wren marched through the open door and into a short corridor made of slowly rusting shuttle panels. The waiting area was empty, but still a mechanised voice asked her to 'take a number and a seat'. There were no seats. A tab with the number '001' dropped into a waiting basket. She picked it up and rubbed the indented plastic with her thumb. Ahead of her a second door slid greasily open. She dropped the tab back into the basket, hid her shaking hands behind her back and stepped forward.
The Council building was low ceilinged. There was room enough inside for eighty or ninety colonists to gather, more if everyone stood, but the tallest would have to duck their heads. Wren had been inside only twice in her life. The room featured in her nightmares.
In the centre a raised dais; on it a table and six chairs. Five were occupied. The sixth sat askew, achingly empty, a missing tooth in an adult mouth.
"Where is he?" Wren blurted, unable to stop herself.
A thin man, his features twisted like twine, raised his eyes. Beside him his flat chinned companion gawped. "It's one o them Runners," he sputtered. "What's he doin' out of Avalon?" He lurched from his seat, slab feet slapping on the panelled floor. "It's Kiernan's Day," he snapped. "Have some respect!"
"Are you blind Hawkins? That's no he." One of the Councillors was a woman. Wren blinked, surprised. "It's one o their Sphere Mistresses."
"No - too young," Twine-face suggested. "A nothing then. Too female to be a Runner, too young to be a Sphere-Mistress."
"What're you here for?" The woman leaned forward and raised her voice to speak slow and loud, as though Wren were deaf, or stupid. Her pendulous breasts squashed against the table top. "Want to petition to get into the Women's Sector?" Her chuckle shook the chair beneath her.
The men around her sniggered. "Would you let her in, Tee?"
"No–one would have her to wife, but we always need fertile wombs for the exchange programme." The woman smiled. "Is that right, Runner-girl, are you sick of running errands for fly-boys, do you want to come and join Tee's noble girls?"
"Shut up!" The words, flung into the air, seemed to float between them, shocking red. Wren's eyes widened. "I mean, please, I do have a petition, but not that."
"And why should we listen?" A third man spoke, his voice rasping, like tearing skin. "Send your Patriarch, or your Sphere-Mistress." He turned his back on her, as if she'd already left.
"I need to use the communicator." Wren called. "It's-"
Laughter rolled through the hall; loud as cannon fire, it ricocheted from the low ceiling and surrounded Wren, mocking her trembling fingers and reddening ears.
"The nothing wants the use the communicator!" Hawkins thumped the table, making the water jug in the middle jump.
"What's wrong? Got a boyfriend you want to talk to? Won't the other fly-boys carry yer love notes?" Tee nudged the frowning man on her left and he barked in acknowledgement of her joke.
"Use the communicator!" The final man, whose beard covered half of his face shook his head as the laughter petered out. "Even if it wasn't a fragile piece of equipment with irreplaceable components that are breaking down, even if we didn't have to save it for essential use only, why on Mars, would we allow someone like you to use it? You're just a girl.
What possible reason could you have?"
Wren opened her mouth.
"That wasn't an invitation to speak." Tee sat straight. "You Godless Runners believe you're more important than us. You think the rules of the colony don't apply to you. If we let you play with the communicator and it breaks down, what happens when an adult actually needs to send an important message? What then?"
"This is important." Wren lurched forwards, her fists clenched.
"I'm sure you think so." The bearded man, who Wren now realised was the colony Smith, nodded indulgently. "Let a Runner take your message, girl. They might not charge you more than a kiss."
"You have to vote." Wren was horrified to find that tears made her voice almost unrecognisable. "That's the rule, you have to vote in response to a petition."
Hawkins sighed. "Let's vote."
"You can't do it without Win. Where is he?"
They ignored her. First Tee, then Hawkins, then all five, closed their fists around their pendants and lifted them into the air.
Black, black, black, black ...
The smith looked at her with something approaching sympathy and, for a moment, Wren's heart rose. His hand closed around one of his pendants, the other remained in his shirt; she couldn't see which he had chosen. He lifted the bulb slowly, his big hand obscuring the colour. Wren leaned forward, her breath solid in her lungs. Then his fingers opened. He held black.
"Five of six, a clear majority, we don't need Win to tie-break." Tee dropped her chain back onto her breast. "Vote's against yer Runner girl. Now get out."
"The decision's been made and recorded." Hawkins was tapping on a sticky keyboard.
Wren clenched her fists. "At least tell me where he is."
"Meeting people a lot more important than you."
Wren backed out, her blood roaring like thunder in her ears. She wouldn't turn her back on them. She flayed the Councillors with her eyes until the door slid closed on the chamber; then her shoulders sagged. What had she expected - that they'd just allow her to use the communicator?
Maybe this was better: she should have asked Win himself to make the request in the first place. She would wait at his door for as long as it took him to come home.
Wren ran past the trees and under the bunting, weaving through stinking shafts of recycled air. She saw hardly anyone. After first worship ended, Kiernan's Day was a family occasion. Warily, she approached the gaping gateway of the large property at the far West edge of the Dome. There she made an effort to slow to a walk, but her knees shook and threatened to tip her forward. She grabbed the gatepost, which was almost as tall as she was, and caught sight of Win. The old man was standing in the garden, speaking earnestly with two Senior Technicians and a uniformed Green-man. The three were gesticulating widely, their voices angry.
"We haven't had a Runner in for three weeks and Tir Na Nog haven't yet replied to our hails-"
"Yet you can see that we are managing perfectly well. The seedlings have taken, we have samples of the last set of drugs being reproduced, so why do we need them? I say we cut ties-"
"Cut ties! What about the baby exchange? Genetic diversity is-"
"We can manage four more generations before inbreeding becomes any sort of problem."
"And what then?"
"By then the Runners will be under our control."
"It's true that they have too much power over trade and distribution ... great hells Win, what's that supposed to be?" The youngest of the Technicians had spotted her.
Wren's ears were ringing; she staggered into the garden where chunks of rocks and coloured dirt formed patterns around the pathway. "You can't be serious?"
"How much did you hear?" Win flew forwards, his jacket billowing. Boney, like a wing-stand, he loomed over her, and long fingers on spidery hands grabbed her wrists.
"You can't be considering cutting ties with the other Nine colonies!"
"This doesn't concern you."
"I'm a Runner."
Win sneered. "Whatever you are, you're not a Councillor, you've heard a tiny piece of a long discussion and drawn your own conclusions. More importantly, you're derelict in your duty. Why are you here, instead of at the Runner-sphere waiting to service incoming Runners? No landings have been reported." He cocked his head, silently demanding an explanation.
"I-" Wren drew herself up, but Win refused to release her, twisting her wrists painfully, so that she had to hunch to keep them straight. She stared as his scornful face, a weathered parody of her mother's, curved into disdainful lines.
Then, as if bored, he shoved her to one side. "Go back to Avalon, Wren, and tell no-one what you heard." He began to stride towards the house.
Excerpted from Windrunner's Daughter by Bryony Pearce. Copyright © 2016 Bryony Pearce. Excerpted by permission of Xist Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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