Extract from Aquila 2 by Andrew Norriss
New York was very big.
Tom and Geoff had known that before they got there, of course, but, even so, when you actually saw it – when you were floating in the air three hundred feet above the waters of the Hudson, with the island of Manhattan directly in front of you, every inch of it sprouting buildings of an impossible size – it still took your breath away.
For several seconds, neither of them spoke.
‘Well . . .’ Geoff was the first to recover his voice, ‘we did it!’ He turned to his friend and grinned. ‘Well, you did!’
Tom was the one who had done the navigating and he was, though he did not say so, rather pleased with himself. In the weeks since he and Geoff had first discovered Aquila, in a cave back in England, they had flown it over half a dozen countries, but crossing the Atlantic had been different. Flying over land, you had roads and rivers to help guide you to where you wanted to go, but crossing an ocean there was nothing beneath you but three thousand miles of water.
Tom had worked out how to do it though. He had found out about lines of longitude and latitude, learned about the minutes, degrees and seconds of co-ordinates, given the right ones to Aquila and now . . . now here they were, floating in the air alongside the raised arm of the Statue of Liberty.
That was quite big as well.
‘Have we got time to take a look around?’ asked Geoff.
Tom looked at his watch. The flight that afternoon was only supposed to be a test run, and he had promised his mother he’d be home by four . . . but it was only two thirty, so they had half an hour in hand.
‘Fifteen minutes,’ he said. ‘But after that, we need to go straight back, OK?’
‘OK!’ His hands lightly on the controls, Geoff took them down over Ellis Island and towards the city. If anyone had seen them, they might have been surprised to see an object about the shape and size of a small power boat floating through the air with no visible means of support – but nobody did see them, of course. Tom had already double-checked that the yellow light that made Aquila invisible was turned on.
Geoff took them neatly across the water and into one of the vast glass and concrete canyons of Manhattan. Flying down a six-lane thoroughfare, a few metres above the traffic, the buildings rearing up on either side of them looked even bigger.
‘If you want Central Park,’ said Tom, looking up from the map he had brought, ‘it’s straight ahead.’
But New York was far too exciting to steer anywhere in a straight line. Although it was Sunday, the main streets were teeming with people and Geoff flew them randomly up one road and down another, past theatres and cinemas, past outdoor markets and museums, past shops selling more things than anyone could possibly want, past cafes with tables and chairs set out on the pavement . . .
And then Geoff decided he wanted Tom to take a photo. He always got Tom to take a photo when they went somewhere new, to put up on the wall when they got home.
‘We don’t really have time –’ Tom tried to say, but Geoff was not listening. He had turned Aquila to the right, brought it down to a spot just in front of the pavement and was already climbing out.
Only one person seemed to notice – an elderly man in a dark suit – and you could see the startled look on his face as, from his point of view, a boy appeared to step out of thin air and cross the pavement in front of him. But as Geoff took up his position in front of the imposing doorway of a department store, you could see the man deciding he must have imagined it. After all, people don’t suddenly appear out of nowhere, and the man shook his head and moved on. Tom could never quite believe it, but that was how it happened every time.
He took out his mobile and was so busy taking Geoff’s picture that he almost didn’t see the taxi until it was too late. The yellow cab was heading straight for him and, as Aquila was invisible, the driver had no idea he was there. It was only at the last second that Tom reached out and banged his thumb on to the up button.
Aquila was controlled by four buttons, arranged like the petals of a flower between the handlebars that steered it. One sent you up, one down and the other two took you forward and back. The harder you pushed them, the faster you went and, although Tom had his thumb on the button for less than a second, by the time he released it, he was several thousand feet up in the air.
It was better than the taxi crashing into him though. The impact would not have hurt Aquila – you could drive Aquila through a brick wall without scratching it, as Tom had proved on more than one occasion – but the collision would have been disastrous for the taxi and its driver.
His heart pounding in his chest, Tom pushed the down button, a little more carefully this time, and gently descended between the vast buildings until he came to a halt a few metres above the ground.
That was when he realized, as he looked around, that there were hardly any people, that there were no shops or cafes and that the buildings on either side were mostly houses and hotels. He thought he had gone straight up and then straight back down again, but this was clearly not what had happened. Looking around, he could see he was no longer in the same street.
Tom tried not to panic. He began by flying Aquila backwards and forwards in case the place where he had left Geoff was somewhere further up or down the street, but there was no sign of him. Then he tried hopping over the buildings to the streets on either side to see if one of them was familiar but there was still nothing he could recognize.
Then he panicked.
He knew what had happened. Or thought he did. In the rush to avoid hitting the taxi, he must have touched either the forward or the back button at the same time as the up – or maybe his arm had brushed against the handlebars that swung Aquila’s nose to the right or left – it didn’t matter. What mattered was that, instead of going directly up, Aquila had gone forward or sideways as well. So that when he came down he had landed in a different street and with no idea how far he might have travelled or in which direction.
This was not good.
It was not good because, somewhere in New York, his friend Geoff was standing on the pavement, waiting for him – and Tom had no idea how to find him. They hadn’t bothered to notice which streets they had been moving along as they cruised around the city. Looking at the people and the sights had been much more interesting and now, ten minutes after he had shot up into the air to avoid the taxi, Tom tried desperately to think what he should do.
If he didn’t find Geoff, the whole Aquila adventure would be over. If he wasn’t home by four o’clock, then his mother would ring Geoff’s parents to ask where he was, Geoff’s parents would say they thought the boys had gone to the park to play football, Tom’s mother would call the police and then . . .
And then the truth would come out.
From the first day they had found Aquila – before they knew what it was or even much of what it could do – the boys had known that, if they wanted to keep it, they would need to keep their extraordinary discovery a secret. That, they had agreed, would have to be Rule Number One. No one else must know about it. Because, if they did, the one thing you could be sure of was that they would not allow Aquila to stay in the hands of two twelve-year-old boys.
He needed to do something and to do it quickly, Tom thought, but doing things quickly had never been his strong suit. If only New York wasn’t so big . . . If only he had some clue where Geoff was . . . If only there was someone who could give him directions and . . .
And then he remembered that there was one person who might be able to do exactly that.
Well, not a person exactly . . .
In front of him in Aquila, along what would be the dashboard if he was sitting in a car, stretched a row of coloured lights. Tom reached forward and pressed a small green light over to the left. The words ‘HI! WHAT CAN I DO FOR YOU?’ appeared in the air in front of him.
Aquila could speak in nearly twenty-eight thousand languages – though perhaps ‘speaking’ was not strictly accurate. Its vocal generator had been destroyed some six thousand years before, but it could still communicate with words.
‘I’m looking for Geoff,’ said Tom, ‘and I need to get back to where I left him. Do you remember where that was?’
‘OH, YES.’ The words flashed up in the air. ‘I REMEMBER IT WELL.’ And then, above the words, there appeared a picture of Geoff, standing outside the department store.
Tom felt a surge of relief. ‘And could you take me there?’
There was a pause, before Tom remembered that Aquila only actually did anything when you gave it a specific instruction.
‘I want you to take me back there now,’ he said. ‘OK?’
Aquila was rising through the air even before he had finished speaking and, when it was above the height of the surrounding buildings, its nose swung round to the right, it moved forward a hundred metres or so and then it descended again to the level of the road. On the pavement in front of him, Tom could see a rather worried-looking Geoff peering anxiously up and down.
‘Geoff!’ Tom hissed, trying to speak so that only his friend would hear. ‘Straight in front of you!’ And he put out the stick.
When you’re climbing into something invisible, it helps to know where it is, and that was why they had worked out the system with the stick. As soon as Geoff saw it, he walked directly across the pavement, swung himself into Aquila and pulled the stick in after him.
‘Where on earth have you been?’ he demanded. ‘I’ve been standing there for ages. I thought you’d had an accident or something.’
‘I did sort of,’ said Tom. ‘Sorry.’ He moved Aquila quickly upwards so that another taxi didn’t run into the back of him. ‘I got lost.’ He reached out and banged the blue button on the far left. It was the one that told Aquila to take them back to Stavely as quickly as possible and, a split second later, Aquila shot up into the sky, turned east and headed towards England.
On the flight home Tom explained what had happened – the lurching into the air to avoid the taxi, the finding himself in the wrong street, the panic as he realized he had no idea where Geoff was – and how he had eventually found his way back by asking Aquila.
‘What we need,’ said Geoff thoughtfully, when Tom had finished his story, ‘is for me to get a mobile. That way, if one of us gets lost or anything, he can call the other one and find out where they are.’
Tom had had a mobile since he was six, but Geoff’s parents had always resisted the idea. They had told him, on more than one occasion, that if he wanted one, he could save up and buy it himself.
Tom agreed that Geoff getting a phone would be an excellent idea. There had been several occasions in the last few weeks when it would have been useful.
‘But you’d need to get one of the ones that works anywhere in the world,’ he added. ‘And I would as well.’ He paused. ‘I think they cost a lot more than ordinary phones.’
Forty minutes later they were still discussing how expensive a mobile that worked in Europe and America as well as England might be, and where they might get the money to buy one as Aquila began to descend and, soon after, parked itself neatly in the room at the top of the old water tower in Stavely. It was three minutes to four, and outside it was raining.
‘I’ll fly you home,’ said Geoff. ‘You don’t want to walk in that.’
He took the controls and steered Aquila out of the window, over the treetops, and flew them down to the southern end of town where Tom lived. In less than a minute, they were hovering outside Tom’s house where there was a large, expensive-looking car parked in the driveway.
‘Looks like you’ve got visitors,’ said Geoff as he manoeuvred Aquila under the porch so that Tom could climb out without getting wet. ‘I’ll leave you to find out about the phones, shall I? And I’ll think how we can get the money.’
‘OK,’ Tom agreed, and he waited as Geoff flew off. Although Aquila was invisible, if you looked carefully, there was a sort of bubble in the rain that told you where it was. It was an interesting effect.
He was reaching into his pocket for his key, when the front door opened and his mother appeared.
‘I thought I heard you,’ said Mrs Baxter. ‘Come along, I want you to . . .’ She stopped, staring at his clothes. ‘Have you just arrived?’
‘Yes,’ said Tom. ‘Why?’
‘You’re all dry.’ Mrs Baxter’s face wrinkled in puzzlement. ‘How did you walk through the rain without getting wet?’
‘Geoff was with me,’ said Tom. ‘He has an umbrella.’
‘Oh.’ Mrs Baxter peered out at the driving rain and then back at Tom. If she had been in a different mood, she might have asked why even his shoes were completely dry, but at the moment there were more important things on her mind.
‘Come along,’ she said. ‘There’s someone I want you to meet.’
She led the way through the hall to the sitting room, where a cake and some tea things had been set out on the table and a short, broad-shouldered man in a blue suit was sitting in an armchair.
‘This is Alan,’ said Mrs Baxter. ‘We were at school together. Alan? This is my son, Tom.’
‘Hi, Tom.’ The man called Alan stood up and extended his hand in greeting. ‘Good to meet you.’
And, sometimes, that is how the really big adventures in life begin. Not with getting lost in New York, or travelling across the Atlantic at speeds of more than a mile a second, but with a man in a suit standing in your sitting room holding out his hand and saying, ‘Hi.’