Chapter 1

The line stretches away into the desert: enigmatic, questioning, older than anything the pilot has ever seen or found. The guide, walking in front, stops every few paces to crouch and move a tiny piece of rock back to its given location. He proceeds with soft, cautious steps, as though he cannot bring himself to place too much weight upon the ground. The pilot follows a short distance behind, letting the guide set the pace. She has mapped this line from the air, but to walk it is a different feeling than to see it, a deeper feeling, and a stranger one.

The civilization that created these phenomena had no known method of flight, yet the spirals and glyphs that remain reveal a geometrical precision that astounds the pilot. She can see now how they were made; the reddish pebbles of the desert’s upper layer have been cleared to expose the pale, pink-tinged earth beneath. The cleared rocks are piled up at the edges, delineating the boundary between the line and the darker desert floor that stretches out on either side.

The guide comes to a halt and points ahead, and the pilot sees where the line begins to trail away. She takes a piece of paper from her pocket. The co-ordinates tally with the sketches she made in flight.

‘Two kilometres,’ she says.

‘And once, it continued here for another kilometre, or further,’ says the guide, pointing further ahead. ‘But the erosion has done its work. As you see, the lines were never very deep. The rest of this one is lost.’

The pilot squats where the little piles of rock begin to peter out. She does not remove anything; that would be disrespectful at a sacred site. But she presses her palm lightly against the earth, listening. It is warm to touch. She can feel the same heat through the soles of her boots. Looking in the direction where the line should have run, she imagines she can still see its path, as if it has left some paranormal trace that glows through the arid earth.

The guide watches her – appraisingly, or to check that she does not disturb anything, the pilot is not sure. She thinks how perspective shifts between ground and air. A thing up there is not the same as a thing down here, though the eyes of the person seeing them are unchanged.

‘Could the lost lines be restored?’ she asks.

‘Perhaps,’ says the guide. ‘But what would be the point when another event could destroy them all over again? It needs to be an ongoing restoration.’

The pilot stands, shading her eyes to scan the plateau around them. At eleven o’clock, it is thirty-three degrees and rising. She can feel the short bob of her hair sucking in the sun’s heat and she replaces the wide-brimmed hat, taking some relief in its meagre shade. The desert is still and silent and empty. She cannot imagine clouds swelling in the skies, or shifts in the lie of the land. It does not seem possible that those things could exist in such a place. But they can, they have. For centuries, perhaps for millennia, the Nazca lines lay undisturbed, but the guide says that over the past three hundred years there has been a steady deterioration, with fragments of the glyphs lost each year.

She walks a little further into the desert where the line disappears. The guide watches her.

‘A proper project would require funding,’ he says. ‘Workers. Supplies. This is the outback. All we have is a single House, and five acolytes. This country venerates the teachings of the Nazca and yet every year the heritage site declines a little more. One day, there won’t be anything left and this place will be empty desert. It’s not right.’

‘You do good work with the little you have,’ she says.

‘Not enough. You work for the government. Can’t you say something, now you’ve seen it for yourself? It was they who wanted the maps, wasn’t it?’



The pilot is touched by the sincerity of the guide’s passion. She does not want to tell him what she suspects is the truth: that this project is nothing more than an exercise in public relations. She has noticed, more and more lately, the way the Nazca creed is co-opted into the speak of politicians, as though a single reference will endorse whatever ludicrous new taxation policy they have dreamed up. To meet someone who has dedicated his life to conservation is refreshing. This is a man who loves the desert, both its history and its future.

‘I can say what I’ve seen, of course, but I don’t have any influence. I’m just a cartographer.’ She looks back at him. He looks dubious, perhaps intuiting, rightly, that there is more to her job than that. She relents. ‘And a carrier, sometimes.’

‘You’ll take a message, then?’

‘Write me what you think you need. I can deliver a petition, but I make no promises they’ll do anything. Really, I wouldn’t get your hopes up. I’m sorry.’

‘You know the Neons made plans to preserve the animals,’ says the guide. ‘Misguided, but I suppose we have to presume their intentions were good. They built a dome over the monkey. Of course it was removed, a long time ago now. If the lines cannot see the sky then they serve no purpose.’

‘The monkey couldn’t breathe.’

‘Yes,’ says the guide, again with a hint of suspicion, as though the pilot’s answer encompasses things too neatly.

‘I understand.’

It is an indescribable feeling, standing on the lines, even here where the desert has reclaimed its natural state. She can feel the weight of it. Imprints of a thousand footsteps, resonance of a thousand words. Echoes of rites and beliefs. Hope. Despair. As though the lines are a conduit to the past, a place for spirits to gather, watching, whispering about the walkers of the present.

You line-makers were not so very different from me. We all hope for kind weather and clean water and a fair sun. We all love. We all lose.

To the east, a barren dune mountain rises out of the desert. The pilot points.

‘That’s Cerro Blanco, isn’t it?’

‘Yes. Have you made pilgrimage before?’

‘Not yet.’

‘You have less excuse than most.’

She knows that the guide is referring to her plane, and feels the usual jolt of nervousness that occurs when it is out of sight. But she could not have landed in the desert itself, not in a heritage site. In any case, she reminds herself, the chameleon makes it all but invisible. Stop worrying.

It isn’t easy to trust Neon technology. Even after all this time. She runs her hand over her back pocket, feeling the reassuring bulge of the gun. The guide notices, and shakes his head disapprovingly. But he is a good man, with respect for cultural traditions. Others are not. She has to be able to protect herself.

‘How much longer will you need?’ asks the guide.

‘I’ve still got the far side of the plain to cover. I’d say another few days.’

She could work faster, if she is honest, but this is a job she does not want to rush. Tomorrow she might be wading through swamplands or trying to find a pathway down a cliff-face. Today, she is happy to walk the lines of the spider, or the orca, almost alone in this place of contemplation.

‘You should complete your pilgrimage first,’ the guide tells her. ‘It’s important to pay due respect. Make sure you give blood.’

* * * *

It takes the pilot half a day to climb the trail to Cerro Blanco. She is the only one up on the dune, or if she is not, she sees no other people. The sky remains fiercely, clearly blue. In the heat, with her heavy pack, the going is hard, and she stops frequently to take a mouthful of water and massage her aching calves. When she reaches the crest, she finds evidence of recent visitors. Mostly there are shards of pottery, painted and plain, some broken, some still intact. Other offerings scatter the ground: a few yellowing pieces of bone; the skull of a rodent, sand spilling from its eye sockets. The dune must hold thousands of such articles, each imbued with personal yearnings and desires, sinking deeper over time with the shifting of the sands.

The pilot sets down her pack and carefully removes her own offering: a small vase with a pattern of swimming fish. She chose the piece deliberately. The vase for water, the fish for prosperity. Now that she is here she wonders if it is appropriate. What now? Should she break the vase? Should she say something, or sing? Unlike some she keeps no private religion in the theistic sense of the word, only the teachings of the Nazca, instilled since birth, to guide her way through life. She did not ask anyone for advice about pilgrimage, and if she had, she would not have been able to articulate why she came at all.

In the end, she places the vase on the ground next to the other pieces of pottery.

‘Cerro Blanco, please accept this offering. Please bring water back to the deserts. Keep the winds low. Keep the desalination plants safe, and the sea from those on the coasts.’

She speaks aloud. Her words seem to linger for a long time after she speaks. She looks out across the plateau, and feels calmness stealing through her. The guide’s words come back. Well, why not. She takes out her knife and makes a tiny incision across the ball of her thumb. She squeezes out a few drops of blood and watches them seep into the sand. Her thumb stings. Perhaps this is enough, to remind yourself that you are alive, and you have one chance to live it well.

* * * *

As she makes her way down the dune, the scores of the Nazca lines glare white beneath the endless blue sky. Each glyph recalls a childhood story, her mother’s strong, faintly ironic voice. Sweat eases down the bridge of the pilot’s nose and over her upper lip. She saves time by sandboarding down the easier slopes. The ride is exhilarating. She is almost at the bottom when she sees the figure running across the desert floor before her. It is an acolyte of the House of the Nazca, a young woman clad in bleached desert robes.

The acolytes do not run if they can help it, not in the Nazca Desert, not over the sacred lines. The pilot’s first thought is the plane. Her hand goes to her back pocket. She hurries towards the woman.

‘What is it, what’s happened?’

The acolyte is panting, and the words come in short, staccato bursts.

‘Come quickly – we need you – an accident.’

They hasten back to the heritage site where the plane is concealed, the acolyte explaining on the way. A young boy at the desalination plant on the coast. A piece of machinery – a terrible accident. His leg – the boy should not have been there. The owner of the plant loaned his parents a truck, and they’ve driven all this way, hearing she was in the area…

The family are waiting at the House of the Nazca. There is a man holding the boy in his arms, a woman with them, both distraught. The boy’s lower leg is bundled in cloth that is soaked through with blood, a tourniquet tied tight around his shin. Blood is everywhere, smeared on his hands and face. They converge upon the pilot.

‘Please take him – please help…’

‘Alé, this woman’s going to get you to a doctor…’

The acolyte hovers anxiously.

‘How far to the nearest hospital?’

The pilot pictures the landscape. Her heart sinks.

‘It’s a day away.’ She drops her voice. ‘Too far. He won’t make it.’

‘Then try the medical station at Titicaca. If you can get him there, he’ll have a chance.’

She nods. ‘I know the one. All right, let’s get him onboard. This way.’

They follow her around the back of the building. The boy’s parents look about, confused, not seeing what she sees, the edges of the aeroplane merging into their surroundings, almost invisible unless you know it is there. She opens the hatch and switches off the chameleon, and the plane’s exterior turns white. They gasp as it materializes.

‘It’s all right, it’s just a cloak. Don’t be scared. Up here.’

The man lifts the boy carefully into the passenger seat. The acolyte reaches up as the pilot straps herself in. She puts a hand on her arm.

‘Thank you, Ramona – go safe.’

She looks at the injured boy and thinks grimly, don’t thank me yet. The hatch glides down and eases shut, encasing her and the boy in the silent bubble of the cockpit. She starts up the engine. The instrument panel lights up and the boy’s sketchy breathing fills the enclosed space. As they take off she sees the acolyte waving to them, her slight figure growing smaller and smaller against the pinkish-brown earth. The desert falls swiftly away.

She pushes the plane as fast as she can, but the boy’s blood is dripping into the footwell and the ground below them seems to crawl by. He is not the first casualty to have occupied that seat. Not everyone has made it.

She guesses the boy’s age: maybe ten, maybe younger. A scrawny kid, but you never see fat ones. The desalination plants this far up the coast are low-grade, independent businesses, supplying small outback towns that cling to the backs of Neon ruins. The people who survive here have refused to go south, despite all their losses and the volatile climate. The boy’s family probably earn their living as labourers on the plant, or technicians, if they have any education. The tiny community will be wholly reliant on passing ships and the traders who take the western desert route up to the Panama Exchange Point.

She can imagine Alé’s life. She can picture him, playing football with his friends and clambering over the crumbling sea defences to comb the beaches for treasures at low tide, daring the storms to catch him. He collects junk from the old city and turns it into objects that have no purpose but to bring him a pleasure that others – adults – would not understand. When he’s not helping his family earn enough income to buy Alaskan grain, he’s cajoled into school, sitting with a group of distracted children, being told about the Boreal States and the Blackout and the terrible dangers of robotics and the teachings of the Nazca, of which the first and most imperative of all the rules is the preservation of water. She can bet he has never seen an electrical display like the one on the instrument panel in front of him. If he were able to focus, the sight of it would make him nauseous. It took Ramona weeks to adjust.

But he can’t see anything. His eyelashes flutter, the eyeballs rolling beneath them. His skin is slack and clammy. Taking one hand off the yoke, she reaches under the passenger seat and pulls out a blanket and wraps it around him as best she can.

Likely he’ll have a couple of siblings, if they’ve survived the plagues. His mother will live in constant fear of losing a child to the jinn or, Nazca keep us, the redfleur, but not like this. Not an accident. Not so sudden and so cruel.

‘Alé,’ she says. ‘Alé, stay awake.’

The boy does not respond.

‘Alé, I need you to stay awake for me. Can you do that? I know all you want to do is sleep, but you mustn’t, you’ve got to stay awake for me. Just until I get you to the doctor.’

He moans. In her pack are one or two shots of morphine, but she is scared it will send him off for good. She reaches out and takes his slick, bloodied hand and clutches it tightly in hers.

‘Hang in there, Alé. Come on, you can do this. Tell me about yourself. Alé, that’s a good name. What’s it short for – Alejandro?’

‘Yes.’ A slip of a voice.

‘I knew an Alejandro once.’ He turned out to be a selfish bastard, but you can’t know everything at fifteen. ‘How about your family. Do you have a brother? A sister?’


‘Lu. That’s a good name too. What’s that for, Luisa?’

This time there is no answer. She can feel him slipping from her. She keeps squeezing his hand, asking him questions. She has been told that an unconscious person can still hear, or at least can sense that you are there.

‘Shall I tell you a story?’ She thinks. She needs a good one. ‘I’ll tell you one about the city. Have you heard of the city? In the south? It’s a long way from here. Two to three days’ flying, when the weather’s fine. It was a boy like you who went there first. He was a juggler. Have you ever seen a juggler, Alé? This one was very good. In fact, he claimed to be the best in the land. He styled himself “The Great Cataveiro”. People asked him to prove it, of course, so he pitched a tent by a river in a Patagonian valley, and he offered to juggle with the possessions of every traveller that passed. He made a promise – not to drop a single one. Imagine that. And if he did, he said they could ask him to do anything they liked. This was the gamble. So, of course, everyone wanted a go. They gave him all sorts of things. Lúcumas and peaches. Family heirlooms. Lizards, alive and wriggling. He caught them all.’

Ramona stops there, because now she remembers the end to this particular story, and the juggler does not come out of it so well, in any version.

‘If you ever go to the city you’ll see lots of jugglers there,’ she says. ‘Are you awake, Alé? Hey. Wake up. Come on. Don’t you crash out on me.’

The boy is unresponsive. She watches the empty, arid land passing below. The speedometer wavers at two hundred kilometres. The plane is at its limit; she can ask no more of it. When the salt marshes of Titicaca finally glide into view she manoeuvres the plane for as long as she can with one hand, until she is forced to let his go and use both. There is the isolated town and the white roof of the medical centre.

‘All right, we’re landing now. You’ll feel a weird sensation in your ears, but don’t worry, it’s over fast. They’ve radioed the doctor. She’s waiting below. She’s right there. We’re coming down now. Hold on tight. Hold on for me, Alé.’

She brings the plane down as smoothly as she can. She can see a medical team running towards them as she taxies to a halt. They have a stretcher ready. The boy makes no movement. Has she lost him?

The doctors lift the boy from the plane. They are talking – technical terms she does not recognize. They rush the boy away on the stretcher and into the medical centre. Ramona follows slowly.

After a few minutes someone comes out and asks what her blood type is. They take a litre. She watches the needle siphoning it from the crook of her elbow into the clear plastic bag. She asks if he’ll be okay. The nurse says the transfusion is his best chance.

For two hours Ramona waits. She goes back to the plane and mops up the mess as best she can, trying not to think about how much there is, about the injury that must have let out that much blood. She returns to the waiting room. It’s clean and orderly, but everything looks decades out of date. She is the sole occupant. It’s only a small outlet station, with one emergency operating room. The doctors are all Patagonian. Titicaca is clinging on, but the marshes grow smaller every year. From above, you can see the grading of the landscape, outlining what was once a vast lake, and how far it has receded.

When the surgeon comes out she tells her the boy will live.

‘And his leg?’

She says they have had to amputate the foot. The boy was exposed for too long; gangrene was already setting in. They couldn’t save it.

‘Can I see him?’

They let her into the room. The boy is drugged and woozy. He does not know who she is but she sits by the bed and takes his hand and holds it. The nurses have cleaned him up; now his hands have been washed she can see that the nails are bitten very short and the fingertips are callused. The bedcover dips where the surgeon has removed his left foot at the ankle.

The surgeon, hovering, says, ‘Lucky for this one you were in the area.’

Ramona hears the shift in her voice, almost a reverential tone, and she wants to say, Don’t. She looks at the boy and pictures his life now. There won’t be football. He will move awkwardly, using crutches, and the plant that employs his family will have little use for him when he grows old enough to work. His mother will care for him as best she can, maybe resorting to stealing opium when he’s in pain.

But he is alive.

‘You’re a survivor, Alé.’ She squeezes the boy’s hand tightly. ‘Remember that.’