The day Tinaz went to join the Pterosaur Corps, her mother came with her to the centre, still trying half-heatedly to dissuade her.
“It’s not the sort of thing a girl should do,” she said. “Now if you’d wanted to be a doctor or a teacher, or even a scientist, it might be different. It would be a pinch, but I’m sure your father and I could manage to find the money...”
“Mum,” Tinaz said patiently, for at least the seventeenth time by her own count, “this is what I want to do with my life, all right?”
“But it’s not the job for a girl,” her mother persisted. “No girl’s ever joined the Pterosaur Corps –“
“It’s time one did, then,” Tinaz said, doing her best not to sound exasperated. “Mum, please stop trying to persuade me. Listen.” She turned and put her hands on her mother’s shoulders, realising suddenly with surprise that she was now taller than the older woman. “Would you be happy knowing that I’m working at something that made me miserable, just because you wanted me to?”
Tinaz’ mother sighed. “No,” she admitted. “But this isn’t really the same thing, is it? It’s a hard job, and you’re a –“
“A girl. I know.” Tinaz shook her head. “You know I passed the aptitude and physical tests. I couldn’t have done that if they thought I couldn’t handle the job, mum.”
“Next,” the uniformed guard at the door called, looking at them. “It’s your turn, miss.”
“I’ve got to go, mum.”
“I’m sure you’ll do very well.” Tinaz’ mother smiled, though her lips were trembling. “All the best, darling.”
Tinaz smiled and raised a hand as she turned to enter. “See you in a while, mum.”
As she climbed the steps to the recruitment centre, past the guard, she paused a moment to look up at the sky. High above, in the burnished blue, a speck soared on pointed wings. She stared at it until the guard cleared his throat. “Miss?”
“Sorry,” she said, smiled at him, and went in through the door.
Tinaz had wanted to be a Pterosaur Rider as long as she could remember.
She still remembered the first time she had seen one of the riders, swooping low over the town on the back of one of the gigantic beasts. The pterosaur’s wings had momentarily eclipsed the sun as the giant animal had passed overhead, its pointed jaw cutting through the air like a knife. She had been only four or five then, standing in the garden in her pink dress with the frill and holding her favourite doll. She’d looked up at the pterosaur and waved, and the man on the creature’s back had leaned over and waved back.
At that moment, she had known, with total and absolute certainty, what she would do with her life.
She remembered that moment now, as she walked to the pterosaur pens behind her instructor for her first introduction to the creatures. Over the last week she had grown to know him well, and had begun to develop a crush on him, though he was over twice her age. He grinned at her over his shoulder, his teeth very white below his dark moustache.
“No...no, sir,” Tinaz stammered. “I’m all right.”
“I told you not to call me sir. My name is Jamshid.”
“I’m all right, sir...Jamshid.” Tinaz didn’t know whether to be more nervous about the pterosaurs or her proximity to the handsome instructor. “I’ve been waiting for this many years, you know.”
“Yes, I read it on your application.” Jamshid glanced at her, arching an eyebrow. “This isn’t a romantic vocation, you know. It’s a job, a hard job.”
“Yes...Jamshid. I know that.”
“Just saying it once to make sure,” Jamshid said. “Don’t worry, it’s going to be all right.”
The wall around the pens was very high, and topped with barbed wire. The guard read their identity cards before unlocking the gate.
Even decades later, Tinaz never forgot her first close look at a pterosaur. The huge beast was as tall as a big building, so tall that she had to tilt her head back to take it all in. It saw them too, and came knuckle walking across its enclosure, the immense crested head cocked on one side. Despite all she’d been told, Tinaz felt a momentary flash of fear.
“This is Fuad,” Jamshid said. He reached through the wire and gently scratched the enormous animal’s snout. “He’s one of our best and most experienced animals.”
“You’ve flown on him?” Tinaz asked, looking up at the immense animal in awe. It seemed impossible to believe that such a huge creature could actually fly. “What was it like?”
“You’ll find out yourself soon enough,” Jamshid chuckled. “Not on Fuad’s back, of course. He’s not for trainees. Now come over here.”
Tinaz followed him past several other pens in which titanic pterosaurs sat, walked around, or squawked greetings at them as they passed. Once or twice Jamshid greeted them in turn, touching a wingtip through the wire or rubbing a snout. They passed the main line of pens and almost to the wall on the other side before Jamshid stopped in front of an enclosure.
“Here’s your pterosaur.”
Tinaz’ mouth fell open as she looked up at the creature inside the wire. It was perhaps not as huge as the animals they’d already passed, but its snout seemed even sharper, and its eyes glowed even brighter amber as it looked back at her. And unlike the brownish-grey of the others, its crest was brilliant red and its skin a startling white.
“This is Sabira,” Jamshid said. “She’s going to be your mount. Say hello to her. Go ahead.”
Tinaz looked at Sabira and the pterosaur looked back at her. “Hello, Sabira,” she ventured.
Sabira seemed to think about this a few seconds and then knuckle-walked to the wire. She bent her immense head, till her snout touched the wire mesh. At Jamshid’s nod, Tinaz reached out and touched her.
She was touching a pterosaur for the very first time. It felt dry and warm, and when she rubbed the skin, Sabira moved her head back and forth. Tinaz realised that the pterosaur was rubbing her hand back.
“She likes you,” Jamshid said approvingly. “She doesn’t do that to everybody.”
“And she’ll let me fly on her?” Sabira asked.
“Eventually,” Jamshid said, and began unlocking a gate inset in the wire. “Well,” he asked, “are you coming?”
Tinaz glanced at the open gate, looked up at Sabira, licked her lips, and followed.
From high above, the earth was a whirl of tawny desert, green lines of trees, and the glittering spangle of houses in the town.
It was her first time in the air alone, and though she had taken many flights with Jamshid over the last few days, Tinaz felt as though she had never been up before.
“She knows where to go,” Jamshid had told Tinaz. “Let her find her own way. She’ll take you round and come back. Just relax.”
So Tinaz sat with the reins slack in her gauntlets, and tried her best to relax. But the more she tried, the more she felt herself tense up. The muscles in her back began throbbing, and she winced.
“Take deep breaths,” a voice in her mind said, clearly audible despite her leather flying helmet. “Take a deep breath and let yourself go slack in the saddle. Don’t worry, you won’t fall.”
“What?” Tinaz said aloud. “Who’s this?”
“Who do you think?” The pterosaur twisted her head enough to be able to look back at the girl with a sardonic eye. “Who else is here?”
“You can talk?”
“I suppose you could put it that way.” The pterosaur banked gently into a thermal, and the ground below began falling away. “You’re going to tell yourself that you imagined this, aren’t you? They all do.”
“Who’s they?” Tinaz asked blankly.
“The trainees I talk to. Most can’t hear me. The few that do – they all persuade themselves that they imagined it, once they’re off my back. The second time up, they’ve shut off their mind so completely they can’t hear me any longer.” Sabira glanced back at Tinaz again. “You’ll be the same.”
“I – I don’t understand. How can you communicate with me?”
“The same way as you can communicate with me, I suppose. Do you think it’s a unique ability?” Sabira seemed to be laughing. “Well, let’s go back home now, so you can start sealing your mind off and telling yourself you imagined it.”
“I’m not going to!” Tinaz said.
“That’s what they all say too,” Sabira said drily, as she banked again and set course for home.
“Can pterosaurs talk?” Tinaz asked.
Jamshid looked up from the forms he was going through. “What? Of course not.”
“But you talk to them all the time, and you encourage me to, as well.”
Jamshid sat back and looked at her oddly. “That’s different from them talking back, isn’t it? Where did you get the notion?”
“It’s nothing,” Tinaz said. “Just an idle fancy.” She remembered what the pterosaur had said, about people closing off their minds, and wondered if Jamshid had closed off his. Of course, perhaps it was she who was imagining the whole thing. “I just returned from the flight,” she said, unnecessarily.
“Everything went off all right? Leave it to Sabira, she knows what to do the first time up. Next flight onwards, you’ll have to start taking charge.”
“Right, you can go home for today. And, Tinaz?”
“Pterosaurs are intelligent, but they can’t talk. Put the idea right out of your head.”
As Tinaz left the room she looked back once. Jamshid was watching her, the odd look still on his face.
“Can you still talk?” Tinaz asked the next morning, as soon as Sabira had taken off from the Corps training ground.
“You can still hear me?” the great animal replied in astonishment. “How did that happen?”
“So you do talk,” Tinaz replied in only slightly less astonishment. “I’d almost decided I was imagining the whole thing.”
“I’d probably have been certain I was imagining it,” Tinaz confessed, “except that when I asked Jamshid if pterosaurs can communicate he was so very emphatic in denying it. I remembered what you’d said about people blocking their minds.” She hesitated. “If you hadn’t replied, I’d have shut my mind off too.”
Sabira lowered a wingtip and headed for a growing thermal. “You didn’t talk about this to your parents?”
“My parents don’t want to hear about my career choice.” Tinaz shook her head. “You can just see the cloud of gloom hanging over their heads.”
“Yes, this isn’t the future they wanted for me. Their daughter, the pterosaur jockey. Whatever will people say?”
“There are worse things to be than pterosaur jockeys,” Sabira told her, as the thermal caught hold and began carrying them aloft. “You could be a pterosaur, for instance.”
Tinaz frowned. “How do you mean?”
Sabira didn’t say anything for a while. The thermal began to weaken. “Where do you want to go today?” she asked. “This is your second solo flight, so you’re supposed to begin guiding me.”
“I don’t know.” Tinaz spotted the spire of the communications tower across the desert valley, a thin upraised finger of stone and metal. “Let’s do a circuit of that,” she said.
“Pull gently on my left rein.” Sabira sideslipped out of the thermal and began a long glide across the valley. “You’ve got to learn how to guide other pterosaurs, not just me.”
“Don’t the other pterosaurs talk?” Tinaz said, surprised.
“Among each other, of course. To you...I don’t know. I haven’t found any other pterosaur who can. But then I don’t discuss it with them either.”
“Why not? Because they’d call it as freakish and unnatural as other humans would call your talking to me. Pterosaurs don’t really like people that much.”
“Of course they don’t. It’s just that they’re so accustomed to working with people that they can’t see any alternative. Besides, they’re conditioned from the time they’re born to think of people as essential to their well being.”
Tinaz watched the communications tower edge closer. She could make out the girders and antennae. “But you’re different.”
“Yes, I’m different. For one thing, I’m not captive bred. I was born wild.”
“What?” Tinaz was so astonished that she almost fell off the saddle. “How could you have been born wild? The wild pterosaurs are an endangered protected species. Everyone knows that trapping them is banned.”
Sabira’s thought resembled a harsh chuckle. “Oh yes, it’s banned. But there are always exceptions to rules.” She turned in a smooth curve around the tower, low enough that Tinaz could see people on the ground, watching. “Pull on my other rein, steadily,” she added. “Slacken off the pull when I come round the tower.”
Tinaz mechanically did as she was told. “How did they trap you?”
“I was very young,” Sabira replied. “Just about learning how to fly, when it happened.” She flapped her wings a few times, and settled down into another glide. “I was born in one of the rookeries to the far north, near the sea. Have you ever seen them?”
“Once, on television.”
“I don’t suppose you’ll know much about them then. They’re noisy, confused places to look at, but really – if you’re a pterosaur – there’s nothing so chaotic about them. Everything has its place, and the mothers know their nesting sites – and their chicks.
“I remember my mother’s smell. She used to cover me with her wings, to keep me warm during the night, even when I thought was quite large enough to take care of myself. I would snuggle next to her and listen to her heart beating, till I fell asleep. And each day I would clamour to go out hunting with her, but she would tell me to wait till I was old enough.”
Sabira was silent for so long that Tinaz thought she didn’t want to say any more. The desert hushed by below the great pterosaur’s white wings as they glided towards the old dried lake which had once provided the town with its water supply.
“One day,” Sabira said, “I grew tired of waiting in the nest for my mother to return. I had just begun flying – not far, but I could flap about for short distances. I thought I would fly down from the rookery to the shore, and back again. This was something my mother had specifically told me not to do, unless she was there. But I thought I could easily do it and come back again before she returned.
“I still remember how free the wind felt on my wings as I flew down to the shore. It was a cool, cloudy day, and I didn’t plan on staying down on the beach long. I intended to land, see if I could find a few mussels to eat, and then fly back. But I never did come back again.”
Undirected by Tinaz, she made a slow circle over the dried lake and turned homewards. “The trappers were down on the beach, of course, waiting for such unwary chicks as me. They threw their nets over me as soon as I’d touched the ground. The next thing I remember, I was wrapped so tightly I could not move my wings and so accidentally damage myself. The tied my snout, too, so I couldn’t bite.”
Tinaz began to say something, but no words came.
“I still don’t know how my mother felt when she returned and found me gone,” Sabira said, as she circled down for a landing. “Sometimes I sit on my perch at night and I wish I could tell her how I was, and where.”
Tinaz still couldn’t say anything.
“Well,” Sabira said, sinking on her belly so Tinaz could step off, “we didn’t really do proper training today, did we? Next flight, we’d better not talk so much, don’t you think?”
“Why do you talk to me anyway?” Tinaz asked, finally finding her voice.
“Would you rather I didn’t? I won’t if you don’t want me to.”
“I didn’t mean that at all,” Tinaz said, turning away and fumbling at her flight goggles. “Excuse me, there’s something in my eye.”
“Mum,” Tinaz said that night, “I’d like to ask a question.”
“Yes?” the older woman said, a note of surprise in her voice. Tinaz almost never talked to her these days. “You know you can tell me anything you want. Is it...”
“No,” Tinaz said, smiling wryly. “I’m not involved with anyone and I’m not sick, nor am I getting second thoughts about my work. I just need to ask, um, a hypothetical question.”
“And that is?”
“Just suppose I was still a child, and you’d gone out leaving me at home...” Tinaz hesitated, trying to decide the exact words in her mind, “...and some, shall we say, slave traders came and took me away, and you never found out what had happened to me. What would you feel?”
For a moment she thought her mother would faint. The older woman actually swayed. “What made you think such a thing?” she asked eventually. “Don’t even mention it again, do you hear me?”
“Sorry, mum.” Tinaz kissed her mother’s hair. “It’s just a thought I had. Don’t worry, everything’s all right.”
But her mother’s eyes told her that everything was not all right, and for the rest of the evening, Tinaz felt her staring at her. And that night, after she’d gone to bed, her mother came into her room, something she hadn’t done in years.
“Mum?” Tinaz asked, feigning sleepiness. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” her mother said. “I was just thinking.”
“If something like what you’d said had happened...” Her mother hesitated. “Are you talking about someone in particular?”
Tinaz thought about Sabira, her shining red crest and milk-white skin. “It’s nothing, mum. Don’t worry. It’s really nothing at all.”
“Why don’t you just fly away?” Tinaz asked suddenly.
They’d been flying for hours already, Sabira insisting on Tinaz learning to guide her properly. “You aren’t going to be a trainee forever,” she’d admonished. “If you don’t learn this you won’t get to stay in the Corps.”
At first, Tinaz had been clumsy. Sometimes she’d pulled the reins too hard, or too softly, and sometimes she’d simply not been navigating by the landmarks below, so she missed her waypoints and had had to go round again. Sabira had been, by turns, patient and annoyed, but at last she’d fallen silent. It was then that Tinaz asked the question.
“Don’t you want to go back home again – to your mother?”
Sabira turned her head enough to look at Tinaz from the corner of an eye. “I thought we weren’t going to talk about that,” she said. “But it isn’t really up to me, anyway.”
“Why not? You could just fly off. Nobody could stop you.”
“You think so?” Sabira flew on for some minutes silently. “I don’t have a choice in the matter,” she said at last. “You think it’s easy, but it isn’t. For one thing, I’m never in the air by myself. There’s always someone on my back. For another...”
“There’s the chip, of course. You didn’t know about the chip? The Corps can track any of us at any moment. It gives out a signal. If I tried to fly off, I’d have a squadron of pterosaurs from the Corps after me in less time than it takes to tell it. Some of them are specifically trained to intercept runaways.”
“There must be a way of getting away,” Tinaz said. “Perhaps we could...”
“Forget it. I’ve more or less accepted my condition. It’s not so bad, is it? At least when I can find someone to talk to.”
“But your mother...”
“No more on this topic,” Sabira said. “Now pull on the left rein, hard, or we’ll miss this waypoint again.”
It happened on the last day of Tinaz’ training.
She had not talked to Sabira on the topic of running away again. Though she’d broached it once or twice, the pterosaur had refused to discuss the subject, merely reminding her that the training period was running out and she still had much to learn. So over the weeks she’d learnt how to navigate when unable to see the ground, how to fly low over rough terrain, how to carry heavy loads and put them down exactly where required. Even Sabira had admitted grudgingly that she had been a good pupil.
“Though you could have been better, of course,” she’d added, “if you hadn’t spent all the time talking to me about things that don’t matter.”
Sometimes Jamshid would accompany them, flying on another pterosaur, issuing commands over the radio and watching as Tinaz did her best to obey. At these times Sabira never spoke, nor did she make the slightest move to do anything spontaneously. She responded to Tinaz’ orders like an automaton.
“You’re doing well,” Jamshid had said that morning. “We’ll move you on from basic training tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Tinaz had replied blankly. Though she’d known the day would come, she had felt she’d been stabbed in the chest. “Already?”
“Yes, you’re ready. Is something wrong? Normally nobody can wait to be out of basic training.”
“No, I’m fine. So I won’t be flying with Sabira any longer from tomorrow?”
“No, of course not. She’s got other pupils to train.” Jamshid had pointed at a map. “Now, for your flying today, this is what I want you to do...”
Tinaz had listened automatically with part of her mind, while the rest was in turmoil. She had still not figured out what to do when she was perched on Sabira’s back and flying out over the desert.
“Sabira...” she said finally, “I need to tell you something.”
“That you’ll be moving on? That’s obvious. There’s nothing more I can teach you. You’ll do excellently, Tinaz, as long as you keep your mind on your job.”
“No buts. You’re...”
Tinaz’ radio beeped then, with a warbling note she’d never heard before outside the classroom. It was the emergency notification.
“Emergency,” the voice of the ground controller said. “There’s a cable car out of control. All units are to respond immediately. Emergency!”
“Where is it?’ Tinaz asked.
The controller read off the coordinates. “Is that you, Tinaz? You’re the closest. You’d better hurry. The car won’t last much longer.”
Sabira had already turned sharply, unprompted, and was descending in a long swooping glide, so quickly that the ground blurred by underneath. Peering over her long neck and crest, Tinaz saw the cable car, a red blob suspended between two hills. Even from this distance she could tell something was wrong.
It became shockingly clear how wrong it was. The car was tilted, hanging at a steep angle to the ground, and swaying from side to side. She saw frantic arms waving from the windows. Most of the hands were small. Children.
“Sabira,” she said, putting her hand on the great animal’s neck, “what shall we do?”
“We can’t take them all off at once,” Sabira said, twisting her wings so that she came to almost a dead stop in the air. “I’m going to fly past as slowly as I can, past the door. Don’t lose your grip on the saddle when you lean across.”
Tinaz saw a woman’s frightened face, looking out over the heads of several children. “Open the door,” she shouted. “As I’m coming by, hand me one of the kids. Did you get that?”
The woman said nothing, but stepped away from the window. A moment later the door opened, and she appeared with a child in her arms. It was a little girl in a pink dress. Sabira dipped a wing sharply, so that it passed below the car. Tinaz had only to reach out to gather the girl in the crook of her arm.
“I’m coming round again,” she called to the woman, wedging the wriggling little body before her on the saddle. “Get another for me to pick up.”
“We’ve got to put them down,” Sabira said after Tinaz had picked up the third child, a frightened-looking boy, and turned towards one of the hilltops, closer by far than the desert floor below. “Let’s hope the car holds on a while longer.”
The car was swaying even more as Tinaz made the second trip, dropping three more children. Now there was only the woman.
“It’s not going to last,” Sabira said quietly, as she flew back up towards the dangling red cabin. Even Tinaz could tell that. The car was swinging even more than before, and she could hear ominous cracking noises. “We won’t have the time to go down again before it crashes.”
“What should we do then?” Tinaz asked.
“I’m going to fly past under it. I hope you have strong arms.”
Tinaz looked up at the bottom of the car. It seemed huge, bulking gigantically against the sky. The woman looked very tiny in the doorway.
“It won’t hold,” she shouted. “Jump!”
The woman shook her head. She looked paralysed with terror.
“It’s going to fall,” Tinaz yelled. “Jump, I tell you!”
Eyes squeezed shut, the woman jumped.
A moment later, the cable parted and the car came hurtling down.
Later, they tried to give her a medal.
“You’re a heroine,” Jamshid said. He’d arrived on Fuad just in time to see the cable car smash into the ground. Sabira had already been heading for the nearest hill to put down her passenger. “If it hadn’t been for you, they’d all have been killed.”
“No medal,” Tinaz said firmly. “I don’t want any medal.”
“What do you want, then?” Jamshid asked, mystified. “A reward?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Tinaz said. “I want freedom.”
“Not for me,” Tinaz said firmly. “For Sabira.”
From a distance, the rookery looked like a barren cliff. It was only when they flew closer that Tinaz was able to make out details, including the heaped rocks and grass that made up the nests.
“You’re crazy,” Sabira said for at least the fifth time. “This will ruin your career. The Corps won’t forgive you for robbing them of me. You’ll never get promoted beyond the basic level.”
“I don’t really care about that,” Tinaz said. “It’s strange, really. Once I used to daydream of glory, and imagine what I’d do if I became famous. And you know what? I don’t really find anything interesting about it at all.”
“But your career...”
“I’ll still be able to fly, won’t I? That’s enough.”
They were close enough to the cliffs for Sabira to slow herself down for landing. “It’s almost time for egg-laying,” she said. “I...”
Something hurtled down from above. It came swooping down almost vertically, wings folded against its gigantic body, and as it came, its cry shivered down Tinaz’ spine all the way to her toes. Sabira called back, her cry and the other’s mingling together, and she turned sharply, her wings beating.
Mother and daughter, who had never thought to meet again, came together in the air, and Tinaz watched, unable to speak.
“You’ll come to see me sometimes,” Tinaz said.
“Not only will I do that,” Sabira told her, “I’ll bring my chicks along. They need to see the crazy woman who’s responsible for their existence.”
“I’m going to put an end to the wild trapping,” Tinaz said. “If there’s nothing else I can do, there’s that.”
“It’s easier said than done.” Sabira pointed with her snout at the beach. “There are a lot of people involved, people in high places. I heard a lot while I was in the pens. But your supervisor, Jamshid –“
“Jamshid is involved in it?”
“No, he’s clean. I don’t think he even knows about it. You’ll still have your work cut out for you, though.”
“I have nothing to lose.” Tinaz grinned. “As you said, I’ll never advance in the service anyway. And I have everything to gain.”
Sabira looked up at where her mother waited, perched on the cliff edge. “You know something, crazy woman?”
“If there’s anyone who can do it, it will be you.” She touched Tinaz’ head gently with the tip of her snout. “You’ve got depths I don’t think you know exist.”
Tinaz nodded. “I’ll be seeing you, Sabira.”
“There is absolutely no doubt about that, young woman.” Sabira turned her head. “There come Jamshid and Fuad to fetch you. Go.”
From the saddle behind Jamshid, as Fuad flew for home, Tinaz looked back at the rookery. The cliff was already a brown blur in the distance, but she thought she could still see a white dot, and a grey one.
“Jamshid,” she said, “there’s something I think you ought to know.”
Tinaz took a deep breath, leaned forward, and began.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014