Deryn is sitting in her cell, cursing herself up and down in every language that she knows, when there’s a BANG! of air like a gunshot and she whips around just in time to see a girl about the same age as her appear out of thin air.
Deryn knows she’s a girl because of her long red hair, pulled back in a ponytail, and because her diddies are more than just a suggestion, but beyond that all resemblance to a proper girl stops. This one’s dressed in trousers, strange canvas shoes, and a shirt that leaves her arms bare, and for a moment Deryn thinks, Alek’s wrong, there is someone in the universe more daft than me.
The girl brushes herself off, then notices Deryn watching her with an expression of unrestrained shock. “Uh,” she says. “Hi.” Her red hair and freckles had Deryn expecting to hear an Irish drawl, but while the words that come out are in English, her accent has more in common with Eddie Malone’s. What on earth is an American teenage girl dressed in trousers doing in a Clanker prison? And more importantly, how on earth did she get here?
“What are you doing here?” Deryn asks, her voice coming out in a squeak.
“I’m not entirely sure,” the girl says. “Where are we?”
“We’re in a barking Clanker prison!” Deryn shouts, before realizing that the sudden appearance of a strange girl in her prison cell is probably not the kind of thing she wants to draw the guards’ attention to.
The girl’s brow furrows. “Clanker?” she says.
Deryn feels her eyebrows raise. “Have you been living under a barking rock for the last fifty years?” she asks.
The girl offers up an apologetic half-smile, then bends down to pick up something on the floor behind her, and Deryn takes a step back. The girl’s holding something that looks like a cross between a miniature walker and some kind of monitoring equipment. The thought strikes Deryn that perhaps she’s working for the other side and she’s been sent in to trick her into giving up military secrets. But then why would she expose her Clanker technology?
The girl looks up, sees her startled expression, and says, “Oh—sorry. This is Spot. He’s...my computer.”
“Computer?” Deryn repeats, sounding just as confused as the other girl had a minute before when talking about Clankers. This is dead strange, and getting stranger by the minute. Were the Clankers experimenting with mixing hallucinogens into their tranquilizers?
The girl taps at the bottom half of the display, and looks to be reading something on the machine, before saying, “Ah.” She closes the device back on itself and turns to face Deryn. “Sorry,” she says, “I seem to have made a mistake. I was trying to get to New York.”
“If you’re trying to get to New York, how d’you end up in barking Germany?” Deryn asks. This can’t be some Clanker scheme. It’s too confusing for them.
“It’s…kind of a long story. I’m Dairine,” she says, holding her hand out. Deryn’s surprised for a moment, not just because of the similarity between their names, but because she isn’t used to ladies giving handshakes. Then again, she also isn’t used to ladies showing up out of nowhere in the middle of prison cells, or wearing trousers and seeming not to mind one jot.
“Dylan,” she says cautiously, before taking her hand and shaking it.
Dairine raises an eyebrow. “Dylan?” she says. “But—I mean, you’re a girl.”
Deryn is dumbstruck. “What?”
“I mean—you are, aren’t you?”
Deryn covers her face with her hands. “Yes,” she says. “But how’d you know that? The Clankers haven’t even figured it out yet!”
“I suspect,” Dairine says, “it’s because they’re not expecting it.” She glances at Deryn’s clothing, her hair cut short, her face smudged with dirt. “But where I come from, there’s plenty of women with short hair, even more who wear pants instead of skirts...” She looks down at her own trousers and shrugs. “Sorry?”
Deryn signs. Nearly two years of keeping her secret from almost everyone, and this strange girl who she’s only just met can tell just by looking at her. Not a particularly good sign. She glares at Dairine. “It’s lovely to meet you and all, but d’you mind telling me how you ended up here?”
Dairine bites her lip, thinks for a second, and then says, “Magic.”
Deryn rolls her eyes. “If you don’t want to tell me, fine,” she says.
“I did tell you,” Dairine says, sounding frustrated. “Magic. Well, actually, wizardry, to be more precise. I’m looking for a friend of mine—she got lost doing an interplanetary transit, and all signs pointed to her being here, in this universe’s New York.”
Deryn’s eyes go wide. As if being stuck in a Clanker prison wasn’t bad enough, she was stuck with a mad American lassie who knew her secret.
“I know it’s a lot to swallow,” Dairine says. “But you have to believe me, if you want to get out.”
They get out. The Clankers have prepared for a lot of things, but a barking wizard certainly isn’t one of them. Deryn was skeptical of the strange red-headed girl in the strange trousers, who said she came from an alternate future and that she could get them out of this Clanker prison, but sure enough, the mad lass retreated into a corner of the cell, muttered a few words that made Deryn’s hair stand on end, and then proceeded to stick her arm straight through what had been a very solid wall.
They’ve escaped the facility now, and are making their way as quickly as they can through the wilderness on the border between Germany and Russia. If they can just make it back across the border, they’ll be under the protection of Russian armed bears...provided that the bears don’t assume that two scrappy-looking teens making their way across the border aren’t poorly-disguised Clanker spies. Deryn suggests this potential to Dairine, and the other girl laughs. “I think,” she pants, “I can handle a couple of bears.”
Deryn raises an eyebrow, and is about to retort that bears where she comes from must be very different from the bears Dairine is used to—but then she remembers the girl has powers she can’t possibly fathom, and Deryn stays quiet.
They talk intermittently while they walk, when the terrain allows. It’s rough going, nothing like the paved sidewalks Dairine is used to, and she spends most of her energy just trying to keep up with the boyish figure bounding ahead of her. She knows that Deryn is a girl, but the more she watches her move, the more she understands how others might not notice right away. She doesn’t look like a girl if a girl isn’t what you’re looking for. She seemed so shocked when Dairine guessed her true identity that Dairine can’t help but wonder what caused her to put on this disguise. From what Dairine can pick out, it seems to have something to do with flying—Deryn’s pride and delight in her work as an airshipman comes through strong, even in their brief conversations—but Dairine doesn’t know quite what.
They keep moving through the afternoon and into the night, not setting up camp until false dawn arrives and finds them nearly to Russia’s border. Deryn builds a small fire, and they hunker down next to it in silence.
“Magic,” Deryn says after a while, still sounding a bit skeptical, though she’s seen Dairine walk through a solid wall.
Dairine shrugs. “Magic.”
Deryn’s nose scrunches up, and Dairine hears her mutter, “Barking spiders, Doctor Barlow would have a field day.” Then she looks back at Dairine. “It’s just—it’s not particularly rational, is it?”
Dairine raises an eyebrow this time, surveying the girl dressed as a boy, in full Air Service uniform, in front of her. “No,” she says, voice dripping with sarcasm. “Not rational at all.”
Deryn looks down and blushes. “Oh,” she says. Then, “What’s it like?”
Dairine remembers the way that the girl had talked about the time she’d spent on that airship of hers, the frustration at being grounded, and she smiles. “It’s like flying,” she says, and hopes Deryn will understand.
There’s silence between them for a few moments. The firelight plays around Deryn’s face, shadowing her hollowed cheeks, and Dairine doesn’t see her as a girl or as a boy, but as a soldier.
“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to,” she says, “but why are you dressed like this? Is it spy stuff?”
Deryn eyes her for a moment, sizing her up—probably deciding if she’s a spy for the Germans. Clankers. Whatever. But after a moment she shrugs and says, “It’s a long story. But it started on account of me wanting to fly. This was a few years ago, now. Girls aren’t allowed to join the air service, but I didn’t see any other way of getting up in the sky. So I told my mum what I wanted to do and she sighed and said that if it was what would make me happy then she couldn’t stop me, though she really wished I wouldn’t.”
There’s defiance in those eyes that makes Dairine take a step back, and then stumble so she has to refocus her attention on where she’s going. The intensity of Deryn’s gaze reminds her of no one quite as much as herself, the way she used to feel before wizardry: wanting to do something, knowing that it was out there but impossible to grasp, refusing to accept that impossibility for what it was, because it wasn’t, it couldn’t be. “That’s brave,” Dairine said. “And that’s amazing that your mother let you. When I told mine I was a wizard, she hardly let me out of her sight for the next month.”
Deryn laughs sheepishly. “I suspect my mum was just happy to see me being happy about something, for once,” she says. “I’d lost my da about a year before—he was a civilian airman, I guess you could say, and I wanted nothing more than to keep on in his name after—” She shrugs, her shoulders tense. “So my mum might not have approved, but she understood.”
Dairine feels her own heart tightening in sympathy with the other girl’s pain. “I lost my mother, a couple of years back,” she says. “It was terrible. I was a wizard, and there wasn’t anything I could do to stop it. Things were...pretty bad for a while. But without wizardry...I don’t know how I could have managed.”
Deryn turns back to look at her, a new expression of respect in her eyes. “Aye,” she says. “Flying saved me. Flying, and the people I met along the way.”
Dairine feels a stab through her own chest, because the look on Deryn’s face makes her think of nothing so much as the look she’s never dared to wear on her own: the look of deep devotion, mingled with desire, for someone who must share her feelings, for her to be so confident in expressing them. Dairine clears her throat and tries not to think of alien princes and strangely glowing gemstones and foreign stars. “Then wizardry,” she says, “is a lot more like flying than I thought.”