The Air War

Adrian Tchaikovsky | 29 mins


Nobody built cities with aviators in mind, and that was a cursed shame, in Taki’s opinion. That those cities had generally been planned before flying machines had been thought of was a poor excuse. She had taken her Esca Magni over to Princep Salma to have a nosy around, seeing a great blank grid of streets where the buildings themselves were still nothing but plots or foundations. A glorious opportunity, she had thought, to get the place properly designed for flight, but no, they had all sorts of ideas about how the place should look, and had set aside one dirty field on the outskirts for any luckless pilots who happened to come calling.

Backward thinking, that’s the problem, she told herself. Now Solarno, her beautiful city beside the Exalsee, had at least made a game try at adapting itself to aviation. There were a dozen private airfields, and the city itself was set into a rolling hillside so that all a flier had to do to get airborne was simply pitch off the edge. The houses immediately beneath such jump-off points were always up for sale, she recalled. She couldn’t imagine why.

She had flown into a lot of cities in her time, especially after the Wasp Empire’s crawling tide of conquest had encompassed her home, driving her thence all the way along the western coast to Collegium. This, however, was a new experience for her, and her heart caught in her mouth at the sheer daring of it.

But she lived for daring. What else was a pilot for, after all?

The Esca Magni was handling beautifully today. The new clockwork was as smooth as butter, measuring out its prodigious stored power with an unprecedented ease and response. It broke her heart to admit it, but her previous machine, the nimble and much-mourned Esca Volenti, could not have matched her new Magni for speed, distance or agility in the air. If there was a machine to challenge her in any contest, she had yet to find it, though the Collegium artificers were constantly nipping at her heels to provide one.

The thought still caught in her like a hook: recalling her poor faithful Volenti’s brutal fate. It had been during the retaking of Solarno, her band of mercenaries and air-pirates against the Empire’s new-fledged air force. She had duelled their best pilot – dragon-fighting, they called it around the Exalsee, after the fierce aerial battles the Dragonfly-kinden loved. He had been very good and, although she would not acknowledge him as her better, he had met her and met her, time and again, even though his black-and-yellow striped Spearflight had not been equal to her Volenti.

And at the last, with her machine torn and mauled and its rotary piercers jammed, she had taken advantage of his fixation on her, and baited him in too close, leaping from the cockpit before their two fliers crashed and tangled, removing herself from the fight. She had watched, her own wings ablur, as the conjoined machines tumbled and fell – and felt as though she had killed her best friend.

The Esca Magni was some consolation after that. The original design had sprung from the best of Collegium artifice and her own unparalleled understanding of the simple business of flying, and never had there been a more demanding mistress for the artificers than te Schola Taki-Amre, known as Taki to her friends. Even a month ago, she had still been making minute changes to perfect the new flier’s handling. The Esca Magni, as originally built, had surpassed the Volenti by a small but measurable degree – and there had been a great deal of measuring, for the Collegium Beetles were fond of that.

Then had come the new clockwork – or the ‘New Clockwork’, to reflect the reverent way that the artificers talked about it. It involved some mad innovation in metallurgy from somewhere across the sea, some Spiderlands place or other, and it was not exactly common but there was a steady supply of the improved spring steel seeping into Collegium. An artificer called Gainer had begun using it for some boat he was working on, and shortly afterwards one of Taki’s mechanic disciples had brought it to her attention.

The level of precision required to take full advantage of the New Clockwork was formidable, but at around the same time, and apparently from the same source, Collegium began to see machine parts crafted to a frightening exactness, perfect in every tooth no matter how small. The resulting engines were lighter, smaller and considerably more powerful than anything anyone had seen before, and Taki had kicked an awful lot of shins in the College – and got up the noses of a great many ground-bound Beetle-kinden – before she secured a supply for the flying machines. Thankfully, by then, she had her supporters: her students and a ragbag of Collegiates who shared her passion for the air.

She had run the Esca Magni through a lot of paces since then: distance trips and mock-duels, up and down the coast, hops over to Sarn and Princep, even back to her old home of Solarno to show off to those of her friends that were still among the living. This journey was different, though.

She had thought to make it in one long leg, gliding where she could, hitching a ride in the high air currents and testing the New Clockwork to its logical conclusion. She had made good progress at first, but eventually minute changes in the engine’s ticking and a sluggishness in the controls had convinced her that reality was going to fall considerably short of her ambitions – and that was without any hard weather or, most demanding of all, actual air combat. She resolved to try and kick her tame artificers into working on something even better.

She put down in Helleron, and paid for the use of a winding engine to re-tension her flier. She felt bitterly disappointed about having to break her journey, for all that it gave her the chance to eat something that hadn’t been dried half to death.

Taki was the first recorded pilot ever to make the trip from Collegium to Helleron in a single journey in a heavier-than-air machine, but she had failed in her original plan, therefore it still seemed like second prize.

She had managed the flight from Helleron to here in another single bound although, had the political situation been tenser, she would have expected to have to fight her way past half the cities that had glided past below her. She had worried about her navigation as well, and whether she would even recognize her target when she saw it, but her charts and her compass were in agreement, and the view could have been nowhere else on earth.

Capitas, the heart of the Wasp Empire.

This city had not been built with aviators in mind, either, but at least it was planned out by an Apt kinden that could fly, and so she spotted a half-dozen open spaces that looked to be ideal for landing her Esca, and several large fields outside the city as well, mostly attended by louring barracks and presumably given over to the innumerable soldiers of the Imperial army.

She brought her flier in low as she neared, knowing that every city provided a free updraught for the canny flier. She was determined not to end up somewhere on the outskirts: that would be a failure of daring. Besides, the city looked rather flat and, while that detracted from its scenic value, it was a gift to a pilot coming in low.

She revised her assessment of the place very quickly, because she was still coming in low – dangerously low now – and she had not quite reached the sprawling outskirts. Right, so it’s just a little bigger than I thought. She pulled up on the stick, inching a little more height, and then the first suburbs of Capitas were speeding beneath her, close enough that she caught the pale flash of faces peering up. And we’ll see how good that cursed invitation was, too. The spectre of a dozen combat Spearflights lifting straight up from one of the airfields loomed large in her mind.

The sheer number of aircraft she saw was proof positive that she was not here on false pretences, however. Every airfield was cluttered with them, and the sky above Capitas was lumpy with airships and spotter balloons.

When the invitation had arrived, her fellow aviators at the College had thought it was a hoax or a trap, depending on how suspicious their minds were. None of them knew that she had been corresponding sporadically, secretly, with the Wasp capital for over a season. Not even Stenwold Maker was aware of that. In fact, he probably topped the list of people Taki had no intention of telling.

Capitas saw itself as the heart of Aptitude, and it was keenly aware of the longer pedigrees of Collegium and Helleron. Taki had a vague understanding that there had been some changes here in the Empire since that woman took over, but they had held no interest for her until now. Capitas was hosting a grand exhibition of aviation, and notables from the entire known world had been invited. After all, the war was the past, as everyone knew.

Her face abruptly set, Taki slung her Esca Magni past the long flank of an ascending airship, seeing the square ports all the way down the side of its hull. She knew what they were for. The Starnest, which had been the linchpin of the Solarno invasion, had been three times as long, but it had used the same method for dispersing its complement of soldiers across the city: the Wasps simply throwing themselves out of the hatches and gliding down on their Art-fed wings.

But the airships, even the great war-dreadnoughts, had a shamefaced and sheepish air: the Starnest had been unseamed and had fallen from the sky; the Collegiate Triumph had burned. The age of the airship as a great tool of war was done. The air now belonged to the heavy fliers.

Ahead she saw one of the city’s parks, which had been converted to an airstrip. There was precious little space there, but she reckoned she could touch down the Esca without too much jockeying.

A score of different fliers had landed in haphazard rows, most of them looking completely unfamiliar to her. Even as she slowed and banked, achieving a jittery hover over the field, she found herself facing a solid rank of black and gold. One entire edge was composed of a line of Spearflights hunched beneath their folded wings. For a moment she was inclined to touch down in front of them, just to show them how cursed daring she really was, but something in the uniform discipline of their positioning broke her resolve, and she hauled back and had the Esca Magni circle a little, as nonchalantly as she could manage, looking for other lodgings. Capitas was a city dominated by ziggurats, the characteristic form of Wasp architecture. Some were grand and some were squat, and all were surrounded by lower buildings with flat roofs. After a pass around the field, Taki spotted a rather inviting prospect that was probably some mid-ranking official’s little kingdom, and she slid the Esca through the air, folding down the craft’s three legs so that they ghosted across the stone, the entire flying machine poised momentarily, almost still in the air, the tilt of its wings exactly cancelling out her lateral movement, before she let herself drop, with the legs bowing to catch the strain.

Even as she hopped out, a man had already scrambled up onto the roof through a hatch, a lean Dragonfly-kinden wearing a simple tunic – a house slave, she realized. He stared at the flying machine perched on his master’s roof, and she saw a very small smile twitch at his face because here . . . here was something that he could not possible be blamed for.

She let her wings carry her down the tiered facade of the building and was immediately surrounded by soldiers. They came from all sides, and some dropped from the air onto the building behind her, between her and the Esca. Cursing herself for being too caught up in her daring to keep a basic watch out for trouble, she was reaching for her little knife by instinct, in the face of their stings. Or perhaps she would leap back and try for the sky, trusting that she was swifter and more nimble than they.

She stopped herself, calmed herself. Yes, they were Wasps, but she was already within their city. The protocols were somewhat different.

‘Is this how you treat your guests here, sieurs?’ she demanded, muscling up to the nearest of them as though they were not twice her size. It took physical effort to hold the light smile on her face, because her heart was hammering in her chest and her instincts were screaming at her.

One of the soldiers stepped forward, their sergeant or something. ‘Is this how you think guests are supposed to behave?’ he demanded, seeing only a lesser kinden – and a woman to boot – but a foreigner and yet not a slave, and so outside of the hierarchy he was used to.

‘What?’ she asked brightly. ‘Don’t tell me these nice flat roofs aren’t meant for landing on?’

For a moment she could not read him, and she was ready for him to give his next order: it was the blessing of opposing a military group, rather than just some band of rogues, that they would considerately tip you off by having to instruct each other when to kill you. Then she marked an extremely grudging smile, fighting for purchase at the corner of his mouth – not unlike the slave’s, in fact – and she guessed that whoever owned this house, he was both well known and not popular.

‘You’re here for the exhibition?’ the soldier asked her gruffly, and yet a certain degree of tension had ebbed away.

By way of reply, Taki gestured towards the Esca Magni. ‘I’m come from Collegium – aviation department of the Great College.’

This did not produce the sort of automatic respect that most College Masters always assumed it would. ‘You have papers?’ the soldier enquired.

She blinked. ‘What, you mean like College accredits? Only, I’m sort of an honorary assistant scholar, and . . .’

‘Papers. Visitor’s papers.’

That seemed too much even for a military bureaucracy. ‘I’ve only just arrived,’ she pointed out.

He took in a deep breath and she saw, with an involuntary spark of sympathy, that the people who had organized the Imperial Air Exhibition – their merchant Consortium and engineers – were not the people who were having to put a great deal of it into practice. She wondered how many obstinate, ignorant, irreverent foreigners these soldiers had so far rounded up.

‘Fly-kinden,’ the soldier addressed her, ‘anywhere between the Three Cities and here could have drawn up papers for you. Most of your fellows procured theirs in Sonn or Shalk.’

She folded her arms and tossed her head back, a minuscule study in pride. ‘That would require me to come down to land somewhere between Helleron and Capitas.’

His expression remained wholly unimpressed, and she realized that he had little understanding of either the distances or the technical feat involved in her journey. She was just a foreigner who was making his life difficult, an invader in the Empire’s heart, and yet he couldn’t do anything about it. She was sure he wanted to kill her or enslave her, or take her prisoner and lock her up. His entire world view was based on that shortlist of responses towards strangers. That he was restraining himself now indicated why he had made sergeant, she suspected.

‘Show me where to go to get these papers, then,’ she suggested, somewhat more meekly, and at last she was behaving as he expected, and shortly thereafter some Consortium clerk had drawn up her visitor’s pass, cautioning her to keep it about her person at all times or she might not be so lucky next time. She bit back a sarcastic jibe about Imperial hospitality, because the truth was that this was Imperial hospitality, the best there had ever been. A hundred or so aviators and several hundred more pedestrians had come from across the Apt world to their capital, absentmindedly breaking their laws, offending their sense of racial superiority and threatening their security, and the Wasps were somehow allowing them to do so without ordering a general massacre. Yet.

Her papers stuffed in the inside pocket of her tunic, Taki strode out into the city of her enemies – or at least they had been her enemies not so very long ago, and would be again soon enough, most likely. She was a striking woman of her kinden, small and slender, her chestnut hair falling past her shoulders. In her pilot’s overalls of canvas, a pilot’s helm of chitin over leather dangling from her belt beside her flying goggles, she would have looked foreign anywhere outside Solarno, but most especially here. Still, there were a great many foreigners being tolerated in Capitas during these few days of the exhibition. The city had gone to some lengths to accommodate them, and still it was an unwelcoming place.

Any other city, and Taki would have looked for wayhouses, tavernas, chop houses, all the necessaries that accompanied trade and travellers. The citizens of the Empire still traded and travelled, of course, although perhaps not quite so much of either as most others, but they were never out of place, not in any Imperial city. It was a humbling, disturbing thought, but everyone in the Empire had their place assigned to them, like it or not. When one of them journeyed to somewhere else within the Empress’s realm they would stay at their Consortium’s factora, or the local garrison barracks, or in guest chambers prepared by the governor. Their way was pre-paved, both easier and less free. Along the road there were inns, although they were regulated and administered by the civic governors. In the cities there were only homes away from home. Anyone left to wander the streets without fitting into this great pattern would soon be obligingly found a place by the Slave Corps.

There were neighbourhoods of Capitas that had been turned into impromptu inns, she found. Canvas had been stretched from roof to roof, and whole streets had been set out as common rooms furnished with simple beds. Dour slaves exchanged food and drink for coin that would only go to their masters in the Consortium. A brief but thriving temporary service economy had been created from first principles. Taki bought herself a square of floor and a pallet bed in one of the women’s districts – the separation amused her – and paid a sergeant of the Imperial Engineering Corps to have her Esca Magni rewound, going into some detail so that he would be able to find her machine back on its rooftop. The engineer was more her sort of person than the street guards had been, and was properly impressed by her feats of long-distance flying.

After that, with dusk looking an hour away at best, she let herself wander over to the exhibition itself, a quartet of civic squares that had been given over to aviation demonstrations and contests. Two score of different models of flying machine had been parked there and anatomized, their workings laid open for public inspection. Here, a Spearflight with its guts out, four wings unfolded and poised as though caught in mid-beat. There, the great, blocky shape of the old heliopters that the Empire had once relied on almost exclusively – and not so long ago at that – which seemed laughably primitive to Taki’s eyes. There was a section of the gondola from an airship dreadnought that visitors could walk through and, beyond it, an ear-jarring racket as a dozen different engines were run against each other in a competition to see which had the most staying power.

Everything was of interest, but nothing quite held her attention for long. There was so little of it that she would count as cutting-edge. It made her feel quite patronizing towards the Empire that they had proffered this display so proudly. What meant more to her was that she was surrounded by other pilots, her peers and fellows, and that was something she had missed since leaving Solarno.

She still received invitations to return to her home city for good, but she had left a crashed flier and a lot of dead friends there and, despite the time that had passed, she found such losses too recent. Besides, she was fond of Collegium – honestly, she was – it was just . . . sometimes she missed having someone on her own level of skill, someone to share the skies with as only another fighting pilot could.

Being free of the demands of the College and being amongst her own kind was all so much fun that she forgot about the Wasp soldiers for whole minutes at a time.

There was not a foreigner there not being watched – watched with the sort of paranoid suspicion normally the preserve of the most insular of Ant cities. They were all potential spies, these visiting aviators and artificers, and everywhere Taki looked were the uniforms of the Imperial army, singly and in small groups, their eyes raking the crowds, looking for the enemy. After a while she decided that at least half of them were watching the citizens of Capitas, in case being around all these foreigners gave the locals any ideas.

After dark, Taki flitted from one canvas-roofed hall to another until she found some faces she knew. Over glasses of some very acceptable brandy, she settled down beside another Collegiate, a diminutive Beetle-kinden by the name of Willem Reader, who had set off considerably earlier than she and yet arrived only the day before. He was an aviation artificer who had authored a number of texts about the New Clockwork, and was now gathering material to present to the College for its next aviation symposium. Across the round table from them was a Solarnese pilot she knew slightly: a man named Shawmair who had been a pirate and outcast for years, but was now back in the city’s good graces due to his part in the liberation. Beside Shawmair was a lean, nervous-looking Ant-kinden with bluish skin, from no city Taki could name. He spent most of his time glancing over his shoulder.

‘You missed a good show this morning, Bella Taki,’ Shawmair declared. ‘They held a contest: teams of fliers against each other. No doubt our hosts were itching to show us how grand they were.’

‘I take it they didn’t succeed?’ she asked cautiously, aware that there would be Imperial ears listening to all of this.

‘Oh, their old Spearflights held up well enough until our fliers came against them. The new Firebugs, Bella, they’ll knock anything else out of the sky. I’d stake them against whatever you’re flying these days, and that’s knowing your exquisite taste.’ He sneered a bit at Reader. ‘No team from Collegium, then? Even your Helleren magnates managed a respectable entry.’

‘Ah, well, organizing academics . . . what can you say?’ Reader replied mildly. ‘Perhaps next year, if there is one.’ He did not look at Taki, but they both knew that the College’s aviators, the cornerstone of the city’s pilots, were currently training with new machines that were Beetle-sized cousins of Taki’s own orthopter.

‘I remember when Solarno’s strength was its pilots, as individuals,’ she noted. Indeed, a few years ago it would only have been the Empire, and perhaps some plodding Ant city-states, who produced a standard model of flying machine.

‘Past times,’ Shawmair said dismissively. ‘After the retaking of our city, everyone can see how any future war will be won or lost and, with all that riding on it, how can you trust to just some bunch of pilots, and what they may or mayn’t, can or can’t do?’ The former rogue and criminal put on a virtuous face. ‘Solarno needs to know for sure it has a force that can take on the Empire . . .’ Here he stopped and realized at last, even through the brandy, that he had gone too far. ‘Take on the enemy, I mean, and give him a thrashing, without having to worry about whether our people’ll feel like it, or be up to it. And the Solarnese air force has the finest pilots and machines in the world, as this morning’s games have proved. The Emp— other cities may have more to put in the sky, but skill triumphs over numbers any day. We stand on the shores of the Exalsee, and our Firebugs say, “You shall not touch us.”’

He was drunk and talking too loud, and the Ant beside him was growing increasingly worried about what attention Shawmair was attracting. He was a useful diversion, though, so nobody was listening to Taki when she murmured to Reader, ‘You’ve made contact?’

‘He approached me,’ the Beetle whispered back, his brandy bowl close to his lips to mask them. ‘He’ll be here. And I’m nothing to do with it, remember. I barely know you. Some of us can’t just skip off into the sky.’

She had wanted to sit and wait, but Shawmair was still expounding the virtues of Solarno’s new machines, and she was curious. When he offered to show her, she glanced at Reader and he nodded slightly. He had been making notes, she saw, for whatever talk he was preparing to give here.

Shawmair’s craft was standing close by, one of an untidy semicircle of visiting machines scattered about a garden park that was now badly in need of re-landscaping. The stocky-bodied machine was painted red, fading to darker hues towards the tail, which curved sharply down and forward, and its wings, at rest, were vertical, tips touching. She recognized parts of it: oddments of shape that mirrored elements of her Esca, others that had been drawn from fliers she had known or flown against. Her eyes weighed it at once, not needing Shawmair’s commentary, and she felt a tinge of envy – not that she would admit it was better than her Esca, but nonetheless she saw a dozen little innovations she was itching to reverse-engineer.

‘Fuel engine, triple-action, with halteres to balance the wings,’ Shawmair was saying. ‘The beat is four times what a Spearflight would give you, so it just guzzles the mineral oil, won’t keep in the air for all that long, but nothing else has the speed and power. And they reckon those villains in Chasme have an improved engine design if we want to pay their price for it. Four-way rotary piercers from a central drum, and, look, this slide here stops jamming in the bolt-feed . . .’

His voice droned on, but she was aware that she was being watched: a feeling that she had been expecting for some time. From the corner of her eye she marked a dark, thin figure at the far end of the grounded fliers.

‘Excuse me,’ she broke into Shawmair’s bragging. ‘You wait here, and I’ll be right back.’ It was a lie, but he was a bore, so she didn’t feel too bad about it.

She hopped into the night sky, her wings casting herself over the head of her watcher, knowing that he would mark her, assuming automatically that he would be able to plot her course and trajectory, to work out that she would end up with her feet on the ground a street away.

She hoped that this figure was who she thought it was, and not just some Rekef snoop clumsy enough to be spotted.

In the dark street beyond, she touched down, then shrugged back against a wall on hearing multiple footsteps. Within moments, a trio of soldiers passed by, but they did not seem to be acting as city watch, instead talking quietly amongst themselves, and passing a little metal flask from hand to hand. On their way back to barracks, perhaps, or on to some nocturnal assignment.

After they had gone she waited. And then she continued waiting beyond the point when her internal timekeeping, which had always been keen, told her that any watcher should have caught her up. At last she caught a faint shuffle and, after an unexpectedly long gap, the same figure appeared.

I should have thought. He was not as she remembered him, but then she could have predicted that, had she only put her mind to it. The newcomer was a Wasp, lean and bundled in a greatcoat that had been standard Imperial issue during the Twelve-year War with the Commonweal. For Taki the Capitas night was mild, spring already well under way, but it seemed that winter still clung to this man. Or perhaps the coat was simply to hide what was beneath, for one of his shoulders was higher than the other and there was a terrible lopsidedness to all of him, inherent in the very way he stood. His gait, as he stepped onto the street, had been an uneven limp, with one leg stiff as a stilt.

She approached cautiously because, if he was like that, what would his reaction to her be? Had this all been a trap, a plan for revenge? Even crippled as he was, he could still sting.

She coughed to draw his attention, ready to trust to her wings at a moment’s notice.

His face, as it turned to her, was shiny with burn scars. ‘Bella Taki?’ came a coarse voice. There was no hatred or hostility in it.

‘Sieur Axrad,’ she named him, and then, ‘Lieutenant Axrad, I mean.’ She approached cautiously, less from fear of him than a reluctance to see what she had made of him. He had been the Empire’s pre-eminent pilot in Solarno and, when she had flown during the liberation, it had been against him. His Spearflight had crashed and mangled into her Esca Volenti. She had assumed he had died.

It was a long time later when his first letter reached her, a halting missive reintroducing himself, stiffly offering his congratulations on her victory over him.

They had exchanged a few letters since, and she had read, between his words, that he was lonely. The Empire might be a fierce and Apt state, but it lacked the pilot’s society of Solarno, that exclusive and peerless fraternity of those who could. Axrad had more in common with her than with his own.

His face was blank as he gazed at her, but after a while she noticed that his eyes looked as though they should be smiling, and realized that the burn had left him without much range of expression.

‘Come with me,’ he rasped, and went limping off without another word, leaving her to patter after him, still not convinced that it wasn’t all a trap.

He took her to a Capitas drinking den – not like the place that Reader and the other foreigners had been guided into, but the real thing. It was in the cellar of a squat, square house, almost twice the size of the cramped ground floor above. Everyone else there was Wasp-kinden, and all men, some of them in uniform. All were drinking, and most of them seemed to be there for nothing else, save for one huddle playing cards on the floor. There were a few tables available, and she saw that Axrad was known because they cleared one for him. By the way he levered himself painfully into a chair it was plain that sitting on the floor would not have been possible for him.

There was no other chair. She sat on the table, close to him and keenly aware of the baleful looks she was getting: wrong kinden, wrong gender, wrong nationality. Still, nobody had bolted out of the door to tell the Rekef, just yet.

‘So, how . . . ?’ She could not ask the question, stupid as it was. She knew from his letters that he was bitter and frustrated. She had known he was unable to fly, although he had not been clear, in his writing, just why. Asking him how he was getting on now would be sheer insult. ‘Still “lieutenant”, though?’

His nod was jerky. ‘Don’t assume that I asked you here to catch up on old times,’ he told her. ‘Though I’d like to. They’re all I have. But I wouldn’t call Collegium and Solarno’s greatest pilot all this way just to indulge me.’ He sounded like an old, old man, and moved like one too. He was probably only a few years her senior. ‘You wonder if I’ve lured you here for the Rekef?’ Without needing an answer he went on, ‘I wonder if you’ve come here as a pilot or a spy. Are you here with your Stenwold Maker’s blessing?’ His eyes were still mobile and young, as he probed her face.

‘No, and for two reasons,’ she told him. ‘One, he’s so twitchy about your lot he’d try to stop me coming at all. Two, if he couldn’t stop me he’d give me all sorts of other rubbish to be doing here that would get me arrested or killed, or both. So, no, just me. The pilot.’

‘I will tell the pilot things that the spy would kill for. I was a pilot, Bella Taki. I was a pilot.

She stared at him: of course he had been a pilot, but she saw his hand clamp on the table rim, the fingers white and shaking with all the emotion his mute face could not show.

‘No longer,’ he said at last, his eyes alarmingly wide. ‘This? Oh, this.’ He made such an offhand gesture, dismissing the ruining of his body as though it was a shaving scar. ‘But, even if I were whole, nothing for me. Men who were my equal, the best in the aviation corps – denied the new machines, sidelined, even taken from combat duty and reduced to supply runs, civilian freight or sent in old Spearflights to terrify the savages in the most backward part of the Empire. Or made to teach. They had me teaching.’

She didn’t want to confess that she had been doing exactly the same at Collegium. Secretly she agreed that it was a poor second to actually flying, but she owed the College a great deal.

‘Teaching the junior pilots I knew from before we went to Solarno, though? No,’ he spat out. ‘Listen, Bella Taki, we don’t have much time. Listen to me. They have me teaching clerks and slavers, factory overseers, men plucked from the Consortium or the Light Airborne – oh, lots of the Light Airborne. Have they any flying experience? No, almost without exception: clueless, hopeless, and yet they are the new pilots, the next generation of combat fliers rushed through training, hours and days in Spearflights and whatever else is to hand, More training in a few months than most trainees get in a year.’ His voice sank lower. ‘And there’s something wrong with them,’ he whispered. ‘They sit there . . . like machines. They watch, they learn. Not a twitch, not a shared joke with their classmates: men of all ages, all backgrounds, and yet . . . by the end, I had begun to fear them.’ His hand was shaking again. ‘Then one of their own – he had been a pilot, the only one that had been – took over the teaching. I was no longer required. I have been cast away. All the men I knew, the Empire’s pilots, are being displaced by these . . . freaks.’

‘Well, it doesn’t sound as though the Lowlands or Solarno have much to worry about, then,’ Taki tried, dismissively, but Axrad’s eyes flared, and he had her by the wrist before she could pull away.

‘I’ll show you,’ he threatened, lurching to his feet. In actual fact there was pitifully little strength in that grip, but there was a warmth to his palm that frightened her, because one sting and he could take her hand off.

As he hauled her out of the drinking den, the looks on the faces of the other Wasp men were mostly approving. At last she was being taught her place, apparently.

Axrad started stomping haltingly away, and he could not hold her, his fingers weakening and loosening his grip after only a few steps. ‘I’ll show you,’ he said again, less of a threat now. He did not even look back to see if she was following.

She wanted very much to return to the other foreigners now. She wanted Axrad to come along with her and talk about old times. Her daring had abandoned her without warning. Still, to go now would be to show fear in front of another pilot, for all that he would never fly again. She was the greatest pilot that either Solarno or Collegium had ever known. She had bested the Empire’s own best. This is what she told herself whenever she met life’s obstacles. If she fled now, she would never quite recover that iron self-confidence.

Axrad was making surprisingly quick progress, his hoarse breath showing that he was pushing himself painfully to do it. She kept pace without difficulty, could have gone twice as fast without resorting to her wings but, even so, his grim determination scared her. Here was a different man to the earnest pilot she had met in Solarno.

Crashing in flames and becoming a burned cripple will do that.

‘Axrad,’ she did not want to raise the issue but it was unavoidable, ‘you should hate me.’

‘For Solarno?’ he panted. ‘You were the last person to treat me as an equal. As someone who mattered. I save my hate for others.’

He took a sharp turn, hissing with sudden pain, and they were at the edge of an airfield, a narrow strip easy to overlook, since the city was strewn with more inviting spots. With a start she realized that they were towards the edge of the city here. They had come further than she thought. Beyond the strip lay a rabble of small houses and two or three big sheds – no, hangars that had been storage sheds not so long ago.

This can’t be a secret airstrip. We’re right in the capital. We’re surrounded by buildings. And yet she guessed that the locals kept their mouths shut and, besides, it was night. The Wasps were not a nocturnal people. They did things by day for preference. Night was for stealth and subterfuge.

‘They call them Farsphex,’ the Wasp breathed, and then stared down at her as though he had forgotten she was with him. ‘Hide yourself,’ he snapped. ‘Just watch.’

She blinked at him, then flitted up to the roof of the nearest building, but the flat roof made her feel exposed, so she darted down again, finding a narrow alley that had been fenced off where it met the airstrip. With a little scrambling and balancing she had found a roost tucked into the shadows where the fence met the alley wall. By then, her ears had already registered the sound.

It was a familiar drone, which she had lived with all her life: the sound of a fixed-wing flier coming in to land. After a moment she had identified it as a twin-propeller vessel, small enough to be a fighting pilot’s, but bigger than the Esca Magni even so.

She saw figures moving out on the field. Abruptly there were fires out there: bright white chemical flares in a triangle, illuminating some hurriedly retreating Wasp-kinden, throwing their shadows in long strips of night reaching all the way to the field’s edge. She caught a glimpse of Axrad, his face given a fishlike pallor by the light. His expression was fixed, fatalistic.

The approaching flier was closer, but something was wrong, and Taki seized on the anomaly quickly. That triangle was a landing spot, but fixed-wing craft could not land on a point like that, not reliably. They could not manage that last-minute arresting of their momentum, that second’s hovering which would allow them to drop neatly to the ground.

Her eyes – better than the Wasps’ at night – caught a glimpse of the machine as it made a pass, plotting its descent, the long, low turning circle that she would have expected, but then abruptly it was upon them, dropping out of its turn sharply enough to make Taki catch her breath.

She had been wrong, she realized with annoyance more than anything else. An orthopter, not a fixed-wing. The sound of the propellers had gone, and there was a moment’s silent glide before its wings were backing, thrashing at the air, tilting the whole machine back and fighting to hold its place, before dropping slightly off the mark, a few yards to Taki’s side of the triangle.

Immediately the ground crew rushed forward to douse the lights, but she had a good chance to study the machine before they did.

Farsphex, Axrad had said. Bigger than the little air-duelling craft she knew, perhaps enough to carry two at a pinch, but with sleek, elegant lines for all that, its wings folded at an angle, back along the curved sweep of its body and tail. But there were the two props, whose drone she was sure she had heard, where the wings met the body and, now she looked, the styling of the hull was not quite an orthopter’s, concessions being made to other design imperatives . . .

Instead of the cockpit glass hinging up, a hatch popped in the flier’s side and the pilot scrambled out. Two other Wasps were coming to meet him, striding across the field in a way that suggested this clandestine exercise was over. She expected voices, but not a word was exchanged.

Taki stared at that flying machine once again, trying to appreciate what she had been brought here to see, trying to reconcile what she had heard with what she now saw.

But of course. She started with the revelation, understanding coming to her at last. Perhaps it was not quite enough to justify Axrad’s manner, but still . . . the technical challenge alone was remarkable, but what could the Wasps hope to do with it?

Then they spotted Axrad. One of the ground crew challenged him, and the sound was all the more shocking because of the utter silence of the men up to that point. Taki saw the crippled pilot step forward.

‘Lieutenant Axrad,’ he threw back, ‘Aviation Corps.’

The two men who had gone over to the flier were storming towards him now, and Taki saw that they were also dressed as pilots. One of them growled something, but too low for her to hear what.

Time to go. But she stayed, nonetheless, watching.

For a moment Axrad was angrily dismissing them, pulling rank, facing them down, but then their eyes, both sets, both at once, were turned on Taki.

She could not understand how she had been detected. The two of them had not even been glancing around them.

Abruptly they were moving, and Axrad tried to get in their way, stumbling forward into their path, hands reaching out for them – to grab or to sting, she would never know. She saw a fierce flash of gold, fire leaping from one of their hands, and Axrad was down the next moment, just a crumpled dark heap.

In the next moment she was standing on the ridge of the fence, wings springing from her shoulders. She had a brief glimpse of the flying machine – of its pilot, his goggles turned her way, silent but with a palm directed at her.

She kicked into the air and flew, and knew for sure that they were behind her.

She was faster and smaller, and their night vision was not the equal of hers, but if she had needed to head for any of the usual airfields, she was sure they would have caught her. She spotted three of them in pursuit, but she had the feeling that the city was bristling with other eyes, that there were hordes of them converging on every likely spot. She concentrated on sheer speed, zipping across the city with no clear destination: just putting distance between her and them, then doubling back, reading the web of streets with a navigator’s eye, just as she would if she were piloting over the city, and getting her bearings by long-honed instinct.

There had been not a shout when they took off after her, not an alarm bell or warning cry.

She found the Esca and dropped straight onto it, throwing open the cockpit and almost falling into her seat. One lever disengaged the wing safeties, nudging gear trains in so that their teeth meshed. Another—

A sting blast crackled from the roof beside her craft, a long-range shot. She thought, They’ve found me, but she felt a horrible certainty that whoever was shooting at her was not one of the men from the airstrip, but some new enemy, brought down on her by . . . what?

No time to ponder that. She threw another lever and all that stored power in her Esca’s springs slammed the gears into motion, slapping the wings down, throwing the entire craft vertically up in the air. Then the oscillators were hammering with their comforting rhythm and the wings were ablur on either side of her, thrusting the flying machine forward between the buildings of Capitas and the stars.

It had been a short visit, she reflected, but instructive, and she had made sufficient impression that she guessed the locals did not want her to leave. She slung the Esca sideways in the air until her compass read south, and decided to play dodge over a swathe of the South-Empire, to lose any other machines, before turning east for Collegium and what these days counted as home.