Zorell woke to the sound of buzzing in her ear. It was light but after a glance at her watch she found it was a still before six in the morning.
"Everything is arranged but you need to come immediately." Rahis's voice sounded urgent.
Zorell was on a bottom bunk beneath Anneke, She could hear her friends snoring peacefully while along the other end of the dormitory, all the men sounded to be asleep,
"Shall I awaken the others?" she communicated.
"No, we can only carry you. Quick, come outside and we'll shut the door behind you."
She slipped into her nearest clothes consisting of a top and shorts but never even had time and climbed off the hovercraft. The hanger door was open. Outside were the long shadows from the rising sun. It was cool but by the look of the sky, going to be another hot day. On the tree branches nearby were bees, hundreds of them.
"This is the third and fourth flights from our home hive," Rahis said from Zorell's shoulder. "With me is Flight Commander Laru. I'll let her explain."
"We need you to see something and the only way is to take you over it," the second bee said. "Our kind are far stronger in relation to our mass than humans. You will be perfectly safe."
"Perfectly safe?" Zorell said using her ordinary voice. "What do you mean?"
"We will fly you out over the desert," Laru said.
"Fly! I can't fly!"
"Come," the bee said.
She saw Laru fly out before her and along the track. They went around a corner where a net about three by two metres in size was lying on the ground. More unusual though, were the two lines of bees sitting on each side of this net. No, they weren't sitting but hovering for their wings were a blur. The net rose on each side but still touched the ground in the middle like a giant hammock she had once played on when she was a child.
"The net has a strength to easily hold your sixty kilogram weight. We have twenty carrier bees on each side, each registered to carry a five-kilogram weight to the height of four hundred metres for an hour before they become fatigued. As long as you don't try something like trying to turning over, you will be safe. There are straps to hold you secure."
Zorell felt her heart race. "You want me to lie on the net and be lifted above the trees?"
"Yes. Lie on your stomach so you can see the ground below with greater ease."
She trusted the bees but they were a different species that were used to flying. What if she swung into a tree branch or couldn't breathe? She now knew about aeroplanes but they were like the hovercraft with the humans carried inside. Mind you, they did have balloons that carried people in a wicker basket back home. This would be like that. She gulped. Perhaps it would be fun!
It was terrifying as she shot straight up in the swaying net with the buzz of the forty bees being the one reassuring thing between her and certain death as the ground and trees shrank beneath her. She was on her tummy with straps across her back, butt, and knees to hold her to the net. Her arms and lower legs were free but she dare not move them.
They continued higher until the trees looked like toys and the valley track that led to the cave disappeared beneath the foliage.
"Relax. You're too tense," said Rahis after she landed on the net just above her eyes and folded her wings as she scurried along one strand, "Turn your head to the right."
The net dug into her neck and chin so it was a relief to turn, Once achieved she did relax a little as she lay back so her hair cushioned her left ear from the net. She could now see over the adjacent hilltop and further out the brown desert that stretched into the distance to rolling parched hills that were completely different from the green ones beneath her.
The whole net swayed and dipped as they turned out towards the desert. She stifled a scream and held the netting so hard the rope cut into her hands.
"Okay we are way above our valley and heading out into the desert, but why?" Above the buzz of flapping wings and the hiss or the wind it was easier to just think the words now.
"See the base of that far hill shaped like a wave in the ocean? What do you see there?"
Zorell squinted in the morning sunlight. There were long shadows that played patterns on the ground but nothing more. Perhaps the bees had keener eyesight than herself!
But what was that! At the edge of one shadow several thin lines of white curled into the air.
"Smoke!" she cried out loud.
"More than that Zorell. It's an army and it is heading straight towards our valley."
"That is what we need you here for. We are from the village where Anneke was enslaved and have not encountered human armies before. We need you to determine whether it is your Pioneer Mounted Constabulary or the Theist Parishioner Co-ordinators from Anneke's homeland."
"How will I do that?"
"We will fly closer. There is a risk we will be seen but I doubt if either side has weapons capable of hitting us. If they try the third flight are under orders to attack." It was Laru now talking.
Zorell shifted her head slightly and saw a balloon shaped swarm of bees about a hundred metres away. She thought back. She had seen this army before. They were the line of lights she had seen out in the desert when they had spent the night on the hilltop. An ominous feeling hit the base of her stomach. These were the forbidden lands but they were far closer to Theist territory than their own. Huang may have sent a military force out to help her but if he was going to do that, surely he would have told her.
"Take me in!" she said.
If anything, the drop was more terrifying than the climb out of the valley. Desert below appeared to rush up at her and for a second she was certain she was about to crash. However, the land tipped away below and she now had the sensation of desert rolling backwards beneath her eyes. At this lower height the smoke had disappeared below a saucer shaped hill. She moved her chin up and saw a whisk of smoke rise around the far side and she could smell a meal being cooked
"Keep you eyes peeled. We are going in low and fast!" Laru said.
Suddenly the net swung out as they changed direction and she felt as if she was about to slip out. The straps holding her cut into her body but held. But her stomach reacted. She felt violently ill and only just managed to swallow vomit that rose in her throat.
There was no time to feel sorry for herself for in front was a long line of camouflaged brown tents, lines of horses tethered to a line and half a dozen cooking fires with soldiers sitting in circles around them, perfect circles of a highly regimented army waiting for a meal.
The camp whizzed by beneath but not before she noticed a larger tent near one of the fires. The side flap was open and a man stepped out and stared up.
Zorell gasped. He was dressed in military fatigues but she recognised the long beard and narrow face. She was also sure that in that second, his eyes were focused directly upon her and he knew she was in the net flying overhead!
"I know that man! He's the one who placed the splinter in my hand. It's Bishop Cyrano Palas, the enemy!" If it was possible to shout thought out words, she did! "Get away now!"
They rose and swung off to the left. As they did she saw the bishop run out with his arms waving. She was sure she heard a distant shout and definitely heard the report of several weapons being fired. There was a whizz past her ears, the whole net wobbled, dropped for several metres before the bees' buzz became louder and they rose at a phenomenal rate to safety.
"Do you want him attacked?" Laru snapped.
"Will it stop his army?"
"No. We can wound, possibly kill him but many of our fighters will also be killed. There are too any humans there to stop."
"Leave him. I want no bees hurt."
"So be it!" She saw Laru fly off and Rahis circle in,
"The Third Flight would have attacked, you know," Rahis said. "They are still angry about the way Anneke was treated."
"I know but it is more important to get back and warn the others. How long will it take them to reach our valley?"
"They will be there by nightfall."
"And the hovercraft will be ready to leave by noon."
"I believe so."
Zorell watched the land become smaller below and the line of forest come closer. It seemed that they had half a day's grace. She shuddered. Without the bees they could easily have been surrounded and defeated before they even realised the enemy was there. Palas would have achieved his aim of finding the hovercraft and no doubt, all of them would have been killed without one gram of compassion. A cold tremor went though her body at the thought of Anneke's treatment. No, the men would be killed but they would be enslaved and subjected to gang rape that would make being killed the preferred option.
"Thank you, Rahis," she said.
"You confirmed what I suspected but we are not out of danger yet. Patrols will watch them throughout the day and continuous reports will come in. My advice is to get the hovercraft out of there as soon as possible. And one more thing!"
"Our hive in the hovercraft is big enough to hold both of Laru's flights. Would you like them to accompany us?"
"I do," Zorell replied. "I think we will need you all."
She relaxed a little as they flew back and approached the hanger. There in the morning sunlight she saw everyone looking up. Evan pointed up at her net, Anneke waved frantically with both arms while Corban had his eyes shaded against the sunlight and Lei stood back on a little knob with his hands behind his back.
They slowed and hovered above the group who moved back to give the bees room to lower the net to the ground. She staggered to her feet, brushed her clothes down and grinned at them all.
"Hi," she said. "Is breakfast ready?"