Dark Skies 1

Dark Skies

Book I

Chapter 1

Marnie skidded to a halt. Gravel crunched under her boots as she crouched in the shadows, waiting, watching, listening.

Closing her eyes, Marnie focused every fibre of her being on her senses. Eventually her quarry would reveal themselves, she just had to wait.

Waves crashed on the rocks far below. Gulls called to each other over the bustle of the town in the late afternoon.

Everything melted away until it was only her and the beating sun on the earth and the sea-scented breeze.

Air rushed in and out of her lungs as she calmed her breathing. Her heartbeat slowed.

In between beats, she heard it – a crunch on the gravel. Her eyes fluttered open.

It was coming from behind the half wall where she was crouched. Another step: they were coming closer. Marnie shifted her weight, readying herself for the attack. She’d have to be swift. Before they had a chance to flee.

Just as she was about to seize her moment, a flash of red caught her eye. Marnie frowned as her target leaned into view two levels below her. From her position on the mezzanine, she could see him peering around the side looking out across the rooftops – looking for her.

But if he was down there…who was furtively shuffling around on the other side of the wall?

Marnie had a split second to react. Her attacker launched himself over the wall, slamming a fist towards her chest. She dodged underneath, her crouched position offering an advantage. Rolling on the gravel, she hissed as it bit into the sensitive skin on her shoulders.

Then she scrambled to her feet. And swayed as her attacker dealt another blow and missed – but only just. Stifling a curse, Marnie swung around and hurled herself across the rooftops at a run. Hurried footsteps told her he was not far behind.

A gap loomed ahead, a thin alley between the stone houses cut into the cliff face. Marnie leapt it easily with a quick blast of momentum from the jets in her boots. Then immediately changed direction, pelting down the rows of houses towards where she’d seen her quarry.

The footsteps fell away behind her. Marnie grinned knowing he couldn’t compete with her agility and would’ve had trouble changing direction that quickly.

He’d surprised her. But now he was at a disadvantage. She was faster in the turns – she didn’t have to outrun him for long, just long enough.

Determination hardened inside her as her legs pumped towards where she’d last seen her target. He couldn’t be far. She’d find him.

There was a flash of movement ahead. Marnie smirked as she rounded the next corner. She had him.

Then she stopped, looking around in confusion. The alley was empty.

Fighting the undeniable realisation that she’d made a mistake, Marnie backed up a step. She had to get out of this dead end. Before her pursuer caught her here and-

“Tag! Got you!”

Marnie jumped away but it was too late. She turned to face him, a pout already forming on her lips.

Alvir was standing there, chest heaving from the run, a smirk plastered on his smug face.

Another young man dropped from above, landing like a cat on the gravel before them both. Owen adjusted his bright red hairband, an easy smile pulling at his cheeks. “We got you so good,” he laughed.

“You tricked me. You cheated!” Marnie accused, bristling at their teasing.

“So?” Alvir cocked his head to the side. “That’s not against the rules.”

Pleased with their success, Alvir and Owen clasped each other’s hands in mutual congratulation.

Marnie grumbled but it was half-hearted. She had to admit – she was impressed. They’d teamed up to catch her. She was the faster jetter. But between them, they’d overcome their disadvantage.

A smile tugged at her own lips. “Alright, you got me,” she conceded.

“Now you owe us sweet cakes at the market,” said Owen, reminding her of her obligation.

Marnie rolled her eyes. She hadn’t had to pay for sweet cakes since…well, she couldn’t remember the last time. At least it would only be this once. She’d not be caught that way again.

Owen and Alvir seemed to know this as the three of them broke into a run, heading for the market. They joked back and forth about their technique, making comments that Marnie was losing her touch. She weathered their good-natured teasing in amused silence.

Once they reached the market, Marnie reluctantly paying for their cakes, they loitered by the overlook at the edge of the square and gazed out over the cliffside town.

The bay stretched away from them, little islands dotting the distant horizon. Wayfarer vessels bobbed down at the docks, their holds brimming with fish caught in the shoals around the archipelago. A sea-scented breeze wafted up from the cliffs, carrying the sounds of the town’s afternoon activities. Hawkers called in the market and bells tolled the turn of the tide, calling the wayfarers to dock. A gull called to its mate nesting in the cliff face.

Owen licked the last of the sticky cake from his fingers. “Ah the sweet taste of victory.”

“Don’t get used to it,” said Marnie darkly, the humorous sparkle in her eyes taking the sting out of her words.

Finishing off his own cake, Alvir said, “Same time tomorrow?”

Marnie nodded absentmindedly while Owen replied, “I have a comms shift now. See you guys tomorrow.”

Marnie waved goodbye to her friends and stayed for a moment more, watching the tide slowly approach the town.

A thought struck her, and she wondered if Jon had returned yet. A quick scan of the docks revealed his boat moored on its own at the end. Hoping to reach him at the end of his shift, Marnie dawdled her way through the market and down the steep steps, munching on her cake as she went. She approached Jon’s boat, spying his tanned face moving about the sails on deck.

 

***

 

“Do you ever feel like you were meant for something more?” Marnie called.

Jon looked up from his work. His craggy face peered over the edge of the railing. “More than what?”

“More than this.” Marnie gestured vaguely to the end of the dock where his wayfarer vessel was listing gently in the evening tide. Jon finished tying the twine and dropped it in the crate with the other spools. The wooden boards of the dock creaked as he vaulted the railing and landed lightly in front of her. 

“Are you having dreams of travelling beyond the Wall?” His lips curved into a smile.

Marnie huffed at his teasing. “I just mean that maybe I don’t want to be right here, doing this for the next sixty years.” Nimble fingers fiddled with a stray strand of hair, as they always did whenever she was thinking about something important. Something that mattered.

Jon licked his lips and tasted the salt clinging there while he considered her words. “Why not?” He gestured behind him at the stunning view of the bay and the Northern Terraces rising to meet the shimmering colour of the evening sky. “Where else you would want to be?”

But Marnie wasn’t listening. “I had a dream last night.” She was looking at him, but her eyes were glazed, unfocused. “In the dream, I was on the roof of a tall building. It was night time and it was raining. Storming, really. Suddenly, there was a huge crash of lightning and the scene was lit up and I could see everything spread out below me.”

Her face became grim, and her eyes glistened, reflecting the sunlight so it twinkled back at Jon. It was as though he could see it taking form there, in the miniature stars in her eyes – what she was about to say.

“A huge city,” she breathed, barely a whisper. “Bigger than anything you could imagine, spread as far as the eye can see.”

Jon cocked his head. “You had a dream you were in Everport?”

Marnie blinked at him, not wishing to answer or admit to anything.

Jon nodded, understanding. “You had best forget it happened at all.” He made to push past her, heading for the stairs leading to the main docks and then paused, turning back. “These things are not worth dwelling on,” he offered gently, lowering a hand to her shoulder. Jon was nearly ten years her senior and wouldn’t miss an opportunity to bestow his wisdom upon her, even if it was unsolicited.

Marnie sighed but said nothing as her green eyes skipped away from Jon’s creased brow, out to the bay. The water was throwing the light from the sun setting on the horizon. Brilliant blades of pink and orange danced across Marnie’s face, eventually getting lost in her jet-black hair.

Reading his friend’s silence as dismissal, Jon turned and briskly began the ascent, leaving both Marnie and the small dock behind. But his thoughts remained firmly centred around his raven-haired friend and her various eccentricities.

Marnie was always in trouble as a child, a trend that had continued well into her early adult years, manifesting a wild streak in her that could not be tamed – though many had tried. She’d had broken more hearts than most her age, many due to ignorance on her part of that attachment’s existence. She claimed she didn’t wish to waste time with ‘those sorts of engagements’. It was not an unreasonable statement given she spent a good portion of her spare time jet-running the Northern Terraces – all the way to the Point and back again. 

Jon smiled to himself, recalling a memory. He’d asked her why she enjoyed it so much after she met with him one morning in the square. She had come up behind him, rushing breathlessly into his personal space with flushed cheeks and half the town’s dust and leaves landing in her wake. At his politely posed question, she’d laughed and closed her eyes as if recalling the thrill of that morning’s run, still fresh in her mind. “Because,” her eyes had snapped back open and locked with his, “it makes me feel like I have the wind in my heart.”

That was one of the last times he’d seen her carefree.

Marnie had been acting strangely for weeks now. Normally charmingly boisterous and headstrong, she’d been distant and uncertain, seemingly wrapped in her own thoughts, only coming up for air to work or to eat. Conversations had been one sided, with him having to repeat himself more than once because she hadn't been listening.

Jon forced his thoughts of Marnie away. When she was ready to share with him, he would be there to ease the shadow in her mind. 

“There will be time. For now, let her be,” he mumbled to himself as he continued his journey home, the coming night draining the colour from the sky.

 

***

 

Marnie shook the hair out of her face as she contemplated her friend’s words, his footsteps receding up the steps behind her. 

It’s different for him, she thought, he has a family, a second child on the way and a job that keeps him busy. He has an anchor; something keeping him here.

Marnie didn't have what Jon had. She had her mother, but her father had been Taken when she was a child, and she had no siblings. Her mother was expecting her to finish her bookkeeper training and continue in the family’s footsteps – maintaining the vaults in the great Library on the Point.

But Marnie had bigger dreams. She didn’t want to spend the rest of her life combing, dusting, and cataloguing the musty volumes. A stance she had made public by advocating more than once for approval to scribe everything to holo-vid. A request that was, to Marnie’s disgust, repeatedly declined by the Council.

Pacing to the end of the dock, Marnie brushed her hand against the stern of Jon’s wayfarer vessel. Smaller than most vessels, the little boat was one of the fastest in the bay. And Jon was the best wayfarer ever born. He possessed a unique talent that allowed him to read the turbulent currents around their archipelago with unparalleled accuracy. It was said that the tides and current flowed through his very veins. He could read the screens on the radar and location equipment in his wayfarer, turn his face to the wind, and know the quickest path through the islands and around the shoals to the best schools of fish. Constantly in high demand, every fishing crew in the bay wanted him under their employ.

The currents in the eddies around the islands changed daily, sometimes hourly, constantly pulled back and forth by the erratic orbits of the planet’s two moons. Their small bayside community experienced unpredictable king tides. If it wasn't for the wayfarers, they’d be completely unprepared for the periodic shoreline flooding.

All the islands in the archipelago were uninhabited due to the high tides. Their town was situated on the mainland of the continent, cut into tall white cliffs on a crescent moon shaped bay. From above, the green pastures of the mainland levelled out into the balconies, terraces, and walkways of the town. From the side, large bridges and arches branched between different levels and complexes. The cliff face was littered with windows, ventilation outlets and private balconies. There were only two free standing buildings, the Library on the Point, and the Administration Hall on the top of the cliff. 

Marnie lived with her mother in a modest home in the middle of the Northern Terraces, the district sprawled on the arm of the crescent. The Library at the end of the Point cast an impressive silhouette, a huge dome capping the top of the building. In the evenings, it was the last thing the sunlight touched. Night fell quickly once the last rays had dipped behind the dome.

Marnie shivered at the chill in the air and pulled her coat tighter around her body. The light was fading, and jet-running was especially dangerous in the dark. If it got too late, she’d have to walk – like a normal person.

In her mind, she flashed back to the vision from her dream. Her father had been Taken to Everport and never returned. Marnie once toyed with the idea of traveling there and trying to find him, but that was a death sentence – no one came back from Everport. 

Not them, nor anyone they knew had visited and returned to tell the tale. But everyone had seen the images of the black city of glass on the holo-vids. Seen the highest skyscrapers on the planet race up into the dirty, polluted cloud cover that seemed to hang around the city like a haze. The eternal seat of power for their civilisation, it was known as a place of despair and spoken about in hushed whispers behind closed doors.

Everport.

City of Fear, they called it. City of Darkness.

A light breeze lifted the hair from her face as Marnie pulled herself back to the present. Maybe Jon was right. She should stop getting lost in the unknown.

This restlessness in her heart was not new. Marnie had always felt the call of something greater, even since taking her first steps. When she discovered the thrill of jet-running, she thought she’d found what she’d been looking for. There was something about racing over the terraces that gave flight to her soul. Taking a leap of faith over a gap too far to jump, only to activate the jets at the last second. To feel the lift and fall into a roll landing, only to quickly right herself and sprint into another leap. She was addicted to the feeling of falling, of letting go and trusting the fall. Years ago, her friend, Owen, had suggested she give jet-running a try, almost pushing his old boots into her hot little hands. And she hadn’t looked back. Not since the first jump.

She’d been racing the Northern Terraces ever since, joking frequently that she could do it with her eyes closed. It was nothing but a boast from a fiery young woman – one she’d never genuinely attempt, mainly because her mother would chastise her to no end.

There on the end of the small dock, she stood, wrapped up in her coat against the evening chill. From some inner pocket she fished out black gloves, donning them in a swift, practised motion. Then she clicked her heels together, activating the jets concealed within the soles of her boots. She savoured the sound of the quiet whirring, the jets heating up, ready for the run.

A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth as she reached up to tie her hair back.

Coat whipping in the wind, she turned away from the water.

Tomorrow could wait.

Tonight, she would race the light home.

 

***

 

High up on the cliff, a solitary figure in a heavy cloak and hood was looking down upon the small dock where the lonely wayfarer vessel was moored. The figure had their arm raised, a small spyglass held up to eye level. They had seen the raven-haired woman speak with the wayfarer and then watched when he left.

Now, they stood with bated breath while the woman remained on the pier, gazing out to sea and then after a while, having made some internal decision, raced up the steps to the main dock.

The figure lowered the spyglass and stood for a moment more, suddenly turning to melt into the darkness settling over the town.