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Imaginary Planes

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Readers and critics must come to their own conclusions regarding my identification of the Glain family’s inspirational and mysterious Flier as Beryl Markham. There is, of course, no conclusive evidence that Beryl ever visited Hav. Certainly the Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke was a regular at Casino Cove and one of a group of enthusiasts who proposed to train a Nandi tribesman for the Roof Race (a plan forestalled, alas, by the Second World War), but again the proof that he was there in 1936 is minimal; an illegible signature on a bar bill and a few sentences in one of Hemingway’s letters that could equally well refer to a number of similar drinking companions. For Beryl there is only proof by absence: a missing stamp on a passport, a page torn from a notebook.

Those who rely less on proof will also prefer the more bizarre explanations. The tall, inhumanly beautiful figure (there are no gender-specific pronouns in Kretev, further complicating attempts to identify the visitor) in unrecognisable garb seen on the sea-cliff that night could, indeed, have been an alien, passing on the secrets of the technology that would become the FC Stardrive for their own ineffable reasons. Stranger things have occurred in Hav.

I cannot disprove their theory and I cannot prove my own. The mystery remains unsolved.

(from To The Stars with Hav; the Early Years of the Glain Dynasty, by Dzhan Maurice. Foreword.)



“Of course there’s no landing strip at Hav,” the Italian official said, his lips pinched tightly together in disapproval. The customs office was small, close and hot, and the dusty electric fan on the desk added nothing more to the thick air than a whining hum. Official fingers flicked through our papers again, pausing on the stamp from Cairo. “You must return via exactly the same route. Exactly.”

Blix grinned at me over the official’s bent head. “Of course,” he said, his voice soothingly acquiescent. “It was only a suggestion. We couldn’t possibly land without an airport.”

I murmured in demure agreement. Blix, who not a month earlier had spent two nights and days cutting a notional runway out of dense jungle for me to drop onto, and had seen me land on a variety of equally impromptu surfaces, made a few more comments about our lack of experience, our heavy reliance on the officer’s expertise and our total dependence on the vast resources of the Italian army and the Regia Aeronautica. Our papers were reluctantly relinquished and approval given for our dawn departure.

Outside was a full moon and a hot night that stank of jasmine and petrol. Blix strode swiftly along the pavement. I paced him easily.

“So?” I asked. I already knew the answer.

“Sod their route,” Blix said. “I’m not going through Benghazi again. We land at Hav - there’s a lovely set of salt flats to the north, practically red carpets - and I have a friend at the Casino who’ll sort us out. I'll telegraph tomorrow. Then a short sea hop to Cairo. Your friend Balbo will be back from inspecting his desert and will want nothing more than to send you on home.”

“Red carpets.” I could easily tell Blix no, that I had no intention of defying the Italian military, and he would have gone along with it. It was my plane. Once in the air, I could go anywhere.

But Blix knew how much I’d disliked Benghazi on our trip over. This was, I suspected, his way of apologising.

“Relics, no doubt, of the once-great Ottoman Empire,” Blix added.

“Flying carpets,” I said. Hav it was.


I brought the Avian from the south just after noon, her frame jouncing as the sea cross-breeze caught at her wings. The entrance to the port was hard to see against the glare bouncing off from the waves and the metal scaffolding of the bridge, but I could make out the scooped bowl of the port behind, and the bright sails of a few fishing boats that had either missed the morning tide or abandoned their catches early. The rocky outcrop of the prison island San Pietro jutted up from the centre of the blue.

Blix tapped the window next to him to draw my attention. “They run the roof race there,” he said, pointing over to the knot of buildings left of the port. I kept one eye on the altimeter as he named the course’s key features, familiar to him (from the ground) from a previous visit. Even from this height, the jump over the open space of the Grand Bazaar looked vast. I felt my muscles tense in involuntary sympathy as I considered the challenge. The Kipsigis had taught me to jump my own height upwards, but this was across, and far greater. How would arap Ruta have tackled this human steeplechase?

Past the Medina, the weathered turrets of the castle (the Hav flag flying gaily) and the quick flash of tamed water from the canal. I could see the railway line stretching out beyond the city, a black ant trail to the looming bulk of the escarpment. The salt flats were on the left. Blix knocked again - “The House of the Chinese Master”- but I could only spare a brief glance enough to get an impression of one of those spikes used by accountants for sorting papers, this one hung instead with draperies of black lace, geometrically precise gardens clustered at the bottom. And then a patchwork of buildings that ran out abruptly, leaving nothing but the railway line and the wrinkled white surface of the salt flats, the unmade bedsheets of some absent giant.

I put the Avian into a swooping turn, shedding height as a duck sheds water; studied the ground and brought her down just at the edge of the salt flats. Turning off the engine produced the familiar oppressive absence of noise, too definite to be a silence, but in seconds our ears adjusted and I could hear the high-pitched singing of some local insects, the drone of a distant farmer’s tractor and, almost simultaneously, the low purr of an open-topped Rolls Royce Silver Ghost drawing up next to us, and the shouted “hoy!” from the man waving cheerfully at Blix and me from his seat behind the uniformed chauffeur.

The Casino at Hav could have been anywhere, or anywhere at least with unspeakable amounts of money. We had drinks, took a short promenade along the fine white sand of the cove (“Imported,” Blix’s friend Chevallez said. “Nothing but rocks and limpets were here originally. Twenty tanker loads to start, and we have to bring in two more every year after the autumn storms scour us out.”) more drinks and then an excellent dinner on the verandah (the sea urchin soup, a local specialty, was particularly fine). No dancing; the jazz band they were famed for were, regrettably, booked for a private function elsewhere that night. Unenthralled by the prospect of gambling without horseflesh, I made my apologies as Blix headed for the Casino. Iwas shown by smiling white-clad staff to a clean room with a soft bed and smooth linen. Nothing more different from our trip over (iron beds in brothels!) could be imagined.

I fell asleep quickly. At a quarter past two am by my wrist watch I was wide awake again, all drowsiness gone, and after a few vain attempts to find sleep I got up and padded through the corridors for distraction.

Back on the verandah, I leaned out over the rail. The moon, still full, had a friendlier face in this more benign sky, and the delicate scents of the night blooming flowers of the Casino gardens overlapped and mingled to make something truly wonderful. The waves lapped gently below against the foreign sand. Dark water, the same as all the oceans I’d flown over.

A boat chugged into the cove and tied up at the dock. It was a stout practical launch, not like the elegant shapes of the yachts that belonged to the Casino habitués. About twenty people got out, the full moon showing them all to be wearing the Casino uniform, and behind me roughly the same number came out of the Casino, talking in low voices, laughing and carrying bags. Change of shift.

A short flight of stairs at the edge of the verandah brought me down to the dock. The ferryman spoke good English and was easily persuaded to add one to his load, especially as the flight jacket I’d grabbed in lieu of a dressing gown before leaving my room had two pound notes folded in an inside pocket. The rest of my dress - silk pyjamas and the flimsy slippers issued to all Casino guests - was less satisfactory. In the end we struck a deal. He would drop me at the mouth of the port, beside the Conveyor Bridge, and pick me up again a few hours later on his way back to the Casino with the first fruits from the morning market. This would, we agreed, provide me with some fraction of the tourist experience while protecting Hav and its more conservative inhabitants from the spectacle of a less than perfectly dressed female visitor. I had no concerns for my safety or desire for company - if that were so I would have stayed at the Casino - so this seemed ideal.


I lifted my hand in salute to the ferry as it clattered away towards the lights of the port, and I followed the moorland track up to the ridge, pulling my jacket tighter. It was a perfect night for an expedition, no cloud cover to speak of, and for a moment I regretted not attempting to track down Blix and bring him along. Then I caught a glimpse of a black shape blotting out the light ahead, and the moment passed. A few more minutes of walking took me to the front paws of the Iron Dog, the tips of his claws gleaming in the moonlight.

The statue is six feet tall and we stood face to face, his mouth half open and tongue lolling in the way that dogs do. For all the weight of metal he seemed poised and alert, waiting only for the right signal to break free of the sculptor’s constraints. When I put my hand on the curve of his jaw it was warm.

Dogs and horses have never betrayed me. I thought of Buller, who would have waited for me til the ends of the earth if I’d asked him, who would wait now forever under the cairn of stones I’d made, and tears pricked the back of my eyes.

“For whom do you wait?” I asked the Iron Dog, and a voice from the ground behind him said, “Dirleddy?”

I leapt half a dozen steps backwards and said a few of the phrases I usually saved for the stables. A figure unfolded itself from the ground and resolved into a young woman of perhaps twenty wrapped in a large black cloak, rubbing the sleep from her eyes and staring at me with equal shock.

She did not look remotely threatening. I apologised, but she spoke over me. “Boat?” she said. “Dirleddy have boat? Here?”

“I have a plane,” I said. Her face remained blank. “Boat, yes,” I said. I pointed in the direction of the Casino. “Boat from Casino. Plane to Hav.”

But as soon as I said yes to boat she flung herself at my feet, pleading and weeping in a storm of incomprehensibility. Eventually she slowed somewhat, a little more composed, and I managed to make out a few phrases and guess at more. She was running away from something, or someone. Her boat hadn’t come. Now I had appeared, a possible alternative. (“Boat Saranda,” she said. “Boat Pireus. Boat Alexandria?”)

I did not need a list of all the seaports of the Mediterranean. What sympathy I felt for her was drowned out by the knowledge that I would have enough trouble showing up at an Italian military base after an unscheduled detour - Blix’s confidence in my friendship with General Balbo aside - without adding a stowaway.

“I am staying at the Casino,” I said. “I came to Hav by air. I have no boat. I cannot take you as a passenger.”

“Air?” she asked. She spread her hands, empty, and looked at them and me in apparent bafflement.

“Aeroplane.” I put my arms out as wings and tilted them in a brief salute, a child’s mimicry. Then I pointed at the sky. “Aeroplane.”

It didn’t seem to help.

“I can’t take you,” I said, exasperated. “Look - “

My flight jacket held only one remaining pound note, promised to the ferryman, but it also had the small notebook I used for fuel calculations. I tore out a page and took the miniature pencil from the notebook’s spine. I drew a quick sketch; two stick figures by a cartoon dog. An arrow led one stick figure to a unseaworthy looking craft and thence around the coastline to the Casino, which I represented with two yachts, a clutch of buildings and a pound symbol. The stick figure then took to the air in a dotted arc with a stick aeroplane at its apex. I added a small round moon for emphasis.

“Me.” I tapped the figure in the aeroplane. “Dirleddy.” I held her gaze. Eventually she nodded, reluctantly.

“Right,” I said, and flipped over the page to start writing. “Now, if you take this to the Casino -“

I meant to put a request for money - Blix’s account could handle it - and possible assistance - but when I looked up again she was gone. Vanished. I checked all around the Iron Dog, and called out - the moon was lower in the sky now, but it was still light enough that I didn’t see how I could have missed her - but nothing.

The whole event had been most peculiar. I leaned back against the Iron Dog’s left hindquarter, appreciating its solid reality.

“Dogs and horses,” I said to the empty air. The Iron Dog said nothing.

I would be leaving this city at daybreak, just like all the other cities I’d left behind me.

When I was in the air I didn’t have dogs or horses. When I was on the ground I didn’t have the freedom of flight. In both spheres, however, I had myself.

My pocket knife was back in my room with the rest of my things, but after abandoning any attempts at the curves required by a “B”, I scratched a rough “M” with the point of the hotel room key on the underbelly of the Iron Dog, where the tusks of the warthog had ripped deepest into Buller. The sky was beginning to lighten and in the distance I could hear the faint sound of music - a trumpet? A bugle?

It was time to move on.




We passed over the peninsula for the last time this morning, just after dawn. White streaks of cloud blurred the tawny bulk of the escarpment, but everything south of that was clear. When I was at school my classmates and I would turn the map upside down and make it into a Hav bear, paws clasped and held up in a plea for survival, the blue water of the port one tear-filled eye. This time, I saw the bear in a position of strength: paws up, waiting.

Fifty years ago the echoes of the carillon playing the national anthem would still have reverberated through the buildings below. Fifty years before that, you could have heard the dawn trumpeter lament the death of a musician almost a thousand years before. Here, I listen to the hum of engines and sip my miso soup through a straw to avoid the effects of a lack of gravity on liquids.

In five hours all the preparations will be complete.

I wish you could be here, Grandmama. This is your project. You turned a vision of dubious provenance into a quest for the stars. You were practical and romantic all at once, and an indefatigable worker despite all limits; your abilities, money, the Myrmidons’ harsh censorship that cut off all access to external help. You defeated them all.

My mother, also romantic by nature, never really believed a visitor from the stars had spoken to you by the Iron Dog, telling you that the escape you sought had to be far greater than all your dreams, that you had to find a way not just out of Hav but off Earth entirely. She thought that maybe you met someone, maybe not, but either way the dream was yours, not someone else’s. But I am practical by nature and I think - why not? Why make up such a story? And what does it matter, now that we have the drive?

Most of your ashes are scattered on that sea coast, besides the Iron Dog, but I have five grams in a small resin cube in my personal items lockbox.

You told me once that there is no true escape, only transformation. When I activate your drive we will all be transformed, transported - 20.4 light years away to the fifth planet in a red dwarf system, a planet with water, an atmosphere and biosignatures of life.

You never left Hav. I wish I didn’t have to go either, but I believe as you did, that I cannot really leave. I carry the city with me, its impossibilities and its realities. Its history.

In the hydroponics bays are two beds of snow raspberry, the original strain rather than the insipid commercial variety. In my lockbox, next to your ashes, a trumpet made from microlatticed brass and ceramic, featherlight but with a true clear sound. The sun of Gliese 581d is fifteen times closer than the sun of Earth. I will stand there as it ascends in the sky, that first morning, and play for you.

It's time to go.