This page will print nicely in black and white. The background image will vanish when you print it.

The Other Side of Dawn (extract)

The Tomorrow Series
by John Marsden

The noise of a helicopter at night fills the whole world. Your ears rattle with the sound. Your other senses haven’t got a hope. Oh of course you can still see, and smell, and feel. You see the dark shape of the chopper dropping like a huge March fly, with just two thin white lights checking the ground below. You smell the fumes of the aviation fuel. They go straight to your head, making you dizzy, like you’re a little drunk. You feel the blast of air, getting stronger and stronger, blowing your hair then buffeting your whole body. But you hardly notice any of that stuff. The noise takes over everything. It’s like a turbo- charged cappuccino machine. You’ve got your hands over your ears but it doesn’t matter; you still can’t keep out the racket.

All sounds are louder at night, and at three in the morning a helicopter is very, very loud.

When you’re scared it sounds even louder.

In the middle of the bush you don’t normally get loud noises. Cockatoos at dusk, tractors in the paddock, cattle bellowing: they’re about as noisy as it gets. So the helicopter did kind of stand out.

There wasn’t much we could do about it. Lee and Homer and Kevin were at different points around the paddocks, on high spots overlooking gates and four-wheel-drive tracks. We’d scrapped our first plan, which was to leave Kevin and Fi in Hell to look after the little kids. We’d decided at the last minute that we needed everyone we could get. We were so nervous, not knowing what to expect. So Kevin came with us and Fi had to do the babysitting on her own.

I agonised over that decision. That’s what this war seemed to be all about, agonising over decisions. We called it right more often than we called it wrong, but the consequences of mistakes were so terrible. It wasn’t enough to score ninety-nine per cent in the tests of war; not if the other one per cent represented a human life.

If we’d called this one wrong we’d lose Fi, Casey, Natalie, Jack and Gavin. Pretty bad call. A few days ago we would have felt confident leaving Fi there. Not any more. Not after the gunfight of twenty-four hours earlier. Not after spending the morning burying the bullet-torn and chopped-up bodies of the eight soldiers we’d killed.

So, the boys were watching for more enemy soldiers, but at best they’d get only a few minutes warning of anyone approaching. There were too many different ways the soldiers could come. Plus, we didn’t know exactly where the chopper would land. Last time it had been about a kilometre and a half from its target, which was pretty good, considering how hard the navigation must be, but if it was that far out again our sentries were useless.

Actually the pilot did well. He didn’t go where we landed last time. He came down where we should have landed last time. But that was OK, because it was still in the area we’d marked out. In the excitement of watching the great black shape dropping onto us, and with my ears deafened by the clatter of the blades and the roar of the engine, I forgot for a moment about the dangers of gatecrashers.

Through the dark perspex of the chopper I could see the glow of the dashboard lights and the green light on the navigation table. The storm of dust and leaves meant I couldn’t see the people, only a few dark heads. I was hoping the pilot would be Sam, the guy who’d brought us over last time, because I liked him, and admired him. For a guy I’d met only once, and so briefly, he’d made a big impression. But there was no telling who was flying this helicopter.

It settled, like a pregnant cow sinking to the ground, and the side hatch dropped open straight away. A figure in dark clothes leapt out, then he turned to help bring down a large container. I ran forward. Two other people, in uniform, jumped through the hatch, and the four of us, without a word, arranged ourselves in a line, passing out a heap of boxes and barrels. I found myself panting, like the effort of doing it was full-on exhausting; I guess it wasn’t, but it felt that way.

Less than three minutes later, the first soldier, putting one hand on either side of the hatch, levered himself back up and disappeared inside; the next one followed, and at the same moment the helicopter lifted off. If Sam had been at the controls I’d have had no chance to see him, let alone say hello.

Anyway there was no time for anything really, not even thinking. I’d registered that with two people back in the chopper we still had one on the ground, but we also had a heap of stuff. There’d been no warning from Colonel Finley of what to expect, just that we’d have a visitor for twenty-four hours. My curiosity was running at maximum revs.

There was no time to satisfy it. The man and I started carrying the boxes towards a pile of rocks a hundred metres to the west. It was the nearest cover. We wouldn’t be able to get all this stuff into Hell in one trip, and there wouldn’t be time to go there and back before dawn. I heard a slippage of stones and turned around in time to see Lee coming up the slope, out of the darkness. For a moment it seemed he wore the darkness, was dressed in it, but he was moving so quickly that he was with me before I had time to think about that.

‘How’d it go?’ he whispered, looking around all the time, like he was having a bad trip and thought spiders were crawling all over him.

‘Is it safe?’ I asked, more worried that he had left his lookout post than I was about answering his question.

‘No, what do you bloody reckon?’

We were all on edge. But I didn’t like the way he kept looking around.

‘Well, is he here?’ Lee asked.

‘Yeah. With a heap of stuff.’ I nodded at the crate I was dragging along. ‘Grab the other end will you.’

We carried it between us, then went back for another one. In the meantime Homer and Kevin had arrived, so by the time they took a couple of crates, and the man got a second load, Lee and I could take it easy.

Suddenly the night was peaceful once more. The helicopter had long gone—the noise just a memory—and the air was clear and sweet. It was hard to believe in a war, or enemies, or danger. With the stuff safely stowed we found ourselves standing in a little group on the edge of the escarpment.

And we were all embarrassed. Well, I don’t know about the others, but I was, and they looked it. It had been so long since we’d met any strangers. Apart from the feral kids—and I couldn’t really count them—we’d been on our own a long time.

The man looked about thirty. He was dressed in camouflage gear, but without a cap. From what I could see in the moonlight he had black hair and quite a dark face; heavy eyebrows that met in the middle. Ears that stuck out a bit and an unshaven chin. He smelt like a smoker. That was all I had time to notice. We got engaged in a rapid-fire conversation that rattled along like an automatic rifle.

‘How far’s your hide-out?’

‘Three hours.’

‘Will the stuff be safe here?’

‘Should be.’

‘We could leave a sentry,’ said Lee.

‘But a sentry couldn’t do anything against a patrol,’ Homer said.

‘We’re a long way from anywhere,’ I said.

‘If they tracked the chopper...’ the man said.

I realised what he meant. The helicopter might have been picked up by radar or something. If a patrol had been sent from Wirrawee, they could arrive in two or three hours, long after we’d left the area.

‘Damn,’ I thought, ‘we’ve got some hard work ahead.’ But out loud I said: ‘We’ll have to move the whole lot.’