Chapter 2 — Thirty-six hours and counting

10 04 2009

As they stand on the pitted tarmac, waiting for the helicopter to land, he manages to read the red-haired man’s watch.

Thirty-six hours: that’s how long has passed since he opened the door to the house and found the red-haired man sitting at the kitchen table, elbows crinkling his mother’s half-finished crossword puzzle, waiting to tell him the news.  Thirty-seven hours ago he was sitting in class as Miss Beverly explained that x was five and y was seven for the equations given in problem eighteen in chapter seven.  The page was one hundred and thirty two.  Divisible by two and four, but not by eight.  Just like thirty-six.  The numbers loop back on themselves and resolve and he’s left with his big empty brain again.  He fills up that space with sequential numbers: he counts the pebbles in the asphalt.  The landscape here is so dead that he’s running out of things to count.

The helicopter descends and probes the ground on fly’s feet, with a nervous touch.  The red-haired man grabs his hand and leads him into its shaking black body; the rotors never stop spinning and almost before his left foot has left the ground, they have lifted into the air.  Someone slides the metal door shut as the red-haired man ushers him through the body of the helicopter to an interior door.  He is shunted through and inside – it is too loud to hear what the red-haired man is saying, unbelievably loud in fact inside this vibrating metal machine – and then the door shuts and his senses have to reorient themselves.

The only sound in the room is a low, echoing hum.  Dusky light barely makes it through a thick glass window on one side.  Millions of dust particles float in the still air and collect around a single still figure in a seat beside the window.  Two more seats have been bolted to the floor alongside that one.  The helicopter is shuddering – he doesn’t know why – but he’s going to fall down if he doesn’t sit down, so he moves towards the empty seats.

The figure swings its head up before his eyes have fully adjusted to the light and says, in a strange voice, “Did they send you in here to convince me?”  The accent is heavy, to the point that he can barely understand it, and there’s a lag behind her speaking and his brain translating.  The speaker is unmistakably a small girl.  He sits down beside her.

“I don’t think so,” he says.  “If they did, I don’t know what I’m supposed to convince you of.”

She squints at him.  Her hair and shoulders and torso are, as far as he can see, tightly wrapped in a brown gauzy material.  Her legs are drawn up beneath her and so have disappeared in the cloud of fabric.  Her arms are wrapped in tight black bandages that go down as far as her hands, where they twine around the palms and the first joint of each finger.  Thick rings of rope are wrapped around her wrists, one on each armrest, and hook somewhere underneath her  seat.  He looks from her bound wrists up into her eyes, suddenly scared.

“Are you a prisoner?”

She rolls her eyes.  They are very dark.  “Only of my own making,” she says, or something like that anyway.  Her next sentence sounds, he thinks, like a quote.  “They will release me as soon as I accept their version of the truth.”

“Well, um, I can untie you, I guess.  I can try.  Do you want me to?”

Her eyes go wide now.  They seem to be the only part of her face that varies in expression.  “Where are you from?”

“Me?  Why?”

“You talk funny.”

He’s a little bit insulted by this.  “You sound a lot funnier than I do.  You sound like you learned the Language last month.”

“I don’t.”  Her voice generates its own ice field.  “And I didn’t.  Untie me if you want but you’re not going to convince me.”

Having nothing better to do but start brooding again, he bends over the armrest and sets to work on the knots.  They aren’t particularly difficult, but they are tight.  “Convince me about what?”

“That everyone here is telling the truth.”

“Who, the red-haired man?”

“Who’s that?”

“He brought me here.”  He bites his lip and focuses on shoving the end of the rope up through the knot.  It is very dry and splinters his hand.  He hopes her arm bandages are thick.  “This is so tight.  I hope I can get it.”

She makes an affirmative noise.  Then she says, “They didn’t want me to run away again.”

He looks up, startled.  “Run away?  From where?”

“From them,” she says.  “Who else?”

“Why would you run away from them?”

“Because they were lying to me.”  Even with her accent, her scorn is palpable.  He looks away and goes back to the knot, and after a minute she continues.  “See, first they came up to me and were so sympathetic, they were so kind and nice, and I told them to go to hell, so they came back a little while later, and weren’t so nice, and I got away again, and then they eventually chased me back to where I was staying and took me from there.  They kept telling me to ‘accept the truth’.  And they kept saying they were going to protect me.  But I don’t need anyone to protect me, I can protect myself.  And I don’t trust anyone who says they want to protect me but isn’t asking for food or gold or something.”

This speech has been delivered at incredible speed, but he thinks that he’s gotten the point.  He shoves the end through another loop and the rope goes slack around her wrist.  Immediately she yanks her arm upward, but the rope catches it an inch above the armrest and cuts straight through the black bandage.  She hisses and jerks her arm again, harder.

There once was a small grey bird who lived in the apple tree in his family’s garden, and who one day flew into the kitchen while his parents were outside.  It had been a nondescript little thing, remarkable only in his memory because it had killed itself by smashing repeatedly into a window while he stood by, too terrified by the intensity of its purpose to open the window or even scream for help.  The memory always makes him ashamed and sad, and as he thinks of it now, he puts his hand on her arm and says, “Wait, just wait, I can get it.”

Before she can shrug him off he unknots the final loop and the rope falls to the floor.  He reaches across her and unknots the other one much more quickly, for the knots are identical.  When he is finished, she snatches up both pieces of rope and stuffs them into an inner fold of her garment.

“Might make a weapon for later,” she says.  “For when we want to get out of here.”

They look at each other for a long moment.  Her skin is darker than his, a sort of dusky brown, and there is a thick line of freckles stretching from one cheek across the bridge of her nose to the other.  Her lips are cracked and there are deep circles beneath her eyes.  She is so tiny that he guesses she cannot be more than seven or eight years old, but he thinks that she must be really smart for her age, to talk the way she does.

“Look,” she says, “are you sure that they didn’t send you back here to convince me?  That you’re not just being nice to trick me into saying something or believing something?”

It dawns on him that in all this time – all thirty six hours of it – that he has spent trying to remember long-gone intangibles like what his mother was wearing when he last saw her or what his father last said to him – she has been thinking about her situation – which is now his situation too – and it also dawns on him that she perhaps has been using her time better than he has.

“Would they do that?” he asks quietly.

She shrugs.  “I don’t know what they said to you to get you to come with them, but they’ve obviously been nicer to you than they were to me.  It just seems to me that this is, well, that it’s bad.  That we’re in big trouble.”

Panic starts to bloom inside his stomach, big and red.  It’s what he’s been keeping at bay by counting ever since… for the past thirty-six…

“What did they tell you?” she wants to know.

He looks away from her.  He’s scared that he’ll start crying.  “They told me that my mother and father were… well… I mean, they showed it to me on my box and everything…”

“You have a box?” she says.

“Yeah, of course.”

“Really?”

“What, is that weird or something?”

She nods her head.  “I’ve never even seen a box, I’ve just heard about them.  I didn’t know people still had them.”

“Everyone I know has at least one.”

She shrugs.  “Not where I’m from.”

There is a little pause.  Then she says, “So they… showed you, I guess that’s how a box works… they showed you on the box that your parents were…”

He takes a deep breath.  “Assassinated.”

One eyebrow goes up.  “Really?”  He nods.  “Were they really famous?”

“My mother’s Dr Farinson.”  There’s absolutely no recognition in her face.  “You know, like the really famous one,” he prompts.  “She advises the queen.”

The girl purses her lips.  “I knew you were from somewhere else, but now I’m thinking maybe it’s really far away.  I haven’t ever heard of anyone having a queen except in books.  And I haven’t heard of a Dr Farinson.”

“Books?” he repeats.  “Do you read those?”

“No box, remember?”

“Yeah,” he says, “but books are really rare and valuable.  Do they just let you touch them?”

“Yeah, no one cares where I’m from,” she says.  Another shrug.  “What’s your name?”

“Ash.”

“Weird.”

At least that’s a normal response.  It is a weird name.  He’s happy to keep talking, because it means that he’s not thinking, and not panicking, not even thinking about panicking.  “Yeah, kind of.  It’s like the tree.”  It is, in fact, exactly like the tree: the church where his parents were married has a grove of them dangling over its wall that is famously beautiful.  His mother threw her bouquet from underneath their branches.

“Have you ever seen one?” she asks.

“An ash?”

“Well, yeah, or just a tree.”

The panic leaps in his stomach.  “You’ve never seen a tree?”

“I’m from the desert,” she says.  “Where would I see one?”

“The desert,” he repeats.  The only desert he knows of is to the south, but he’s almost certain that he’s been travelling steadily west for the duration of his journey.  Maybe a little south, but mostly west.  He takes a shaky breath.  “I have no idea where we are right now.”

“They took me east for a while,” she says.  “I know because the sun was coming up right in front of us.  Then we set down on the ground and waited for a long time.  All day almost.  They put me back here and sat around telling me that everything was for my own good.  And after a while they got sick of me and they tied me up.  Then we lifted off again and flew for about an hour, picked you up, and flew off really fast.  I guess we were in a bad territory or something.  I think we’re going back west now, though.  Maybe a little bit north.”

“Good job,” he says.  He’s genuinely impressed by how well she’s paid attention.  “I just wish I knew where you started from.”

“About ten miles outside of the city.”  She gives him a little smile, the first he’s seen from her.  “Not helpful to you, I bet.  It’s the city in the center of the desert.  I don’t know of any others, not real ones that exist.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well sometimes people leave or come back and say they went to this or that place, but it would be impossible for them to travel as far as they say they went.  I mean…” She trails off.

“What?”

“Well, I guess if they had a, a, um, helly-cop-ter.”  She rolls her eyes.  “I’ve only read that word, I don’t know how to say it.”

“Kind of like that.”  He wants to encourage her.

“I’m just thinking that if they had helly-copters then they could get away from the city really fast.  And maybe go to those other cities.  So all that Desert Lore that we learn – which is all about how to survive in the desert for a long time – well, that wouldn’t really be useful in a world where you can just fly around in a helly-copter.”

“But you can’t,” he says.  “Not normal people.  I don’t know of anyone else who has ever even seen a helicopter.”

“What do you think is happening to us?” she asks suddenly.  “I mean, people who kidnap kids – even if their parents did just die, even if they are really just protecting us – but that’s not… normal.  And it’s not… it’s not good, either.  And then they have a helicopter and everything…”

“Maybe they really do want to protect us, but they had to do whatever they could to get us to safety,” he suggests.  He’s not sure who he’s trying to comfort but it doesn’t seem to work.  They’re both still thinking, and he finds that now that he’s started, he can’t stop.

“They might want to protect you,” she offers, “but not me.  I haven’t got a famous mom.”

“You sure?”

She nods her head.  “Definitely.”

“What’s your name?”

“Zabe,” she says.  “It’s short for Izzabeth.”

“Um.  And you think I have a weird name.”

She gives him a little smile but it disappears fast.

They both stare out the window in silence now.  Night has almost come but there’s still a glow reflecting grey on cloud tops to the west.  Ash is thinking about the helicopter.  He knows what one is, but he also knows that mechanical flying machines like this are almost entirely extinct.  The ones that are left occupy museum vitrines as relics of a decadent past that no one living remembers.  Yet someone here obviously knows how to fly the machine – and it has been kept up – and this implies both immense resources and a desire for arcane knowledge that are, as Zabe has suggested, a bit sinister and a bit scary…

“What’s that?” Her nose is nearly on the window.  “Do you see that?  I thought they were clouds, but…”

Ash leans across her and looks out the window.  The clouds have resolved themselves, as they have drawn nearer, into snow-mantled mountain peaks.  They are pale blue in the rising moonlight and seem to float above the hulking dark blue shapes that he realizes are tree-covered slopes beneath.

“You said you’d never seen trees before,” he says quietly, “but now you have.”

“Mountains,” she breathes.  “Real mountains.  They’re so big.”

He’s silent.  There is only one mountain range, with peaks big enough to have snow on them now, that has a bulk to match this one – but that one is dotted with the warm lights of villages, illuminated all night to lead in snow-weary travellers.  He’s visited twice, with his mother and father, who have friends in a village in the shadow of a sharp peak.  Below him now, there are no lights, just granite and trees and the occasional flash of moonlight on full riverbed.

Zabe’s thoughts have clearly moved along the same trajectory.  “There are mountains that are… well, they’re important in the Desert Lore,” she says.  “They’re far to the north – no one could walk to them, they’re so far away, and across the Waste.  This must be them.”  Her voice sounds strange.  “I’ve always wanted to see them.”

He glances at her as they summit a jagged pyramid of stone.  Where the slope is steep, the black rock has punched through the glacial armor on its flanks.  Her eyes follow the peak and stay with it as they move forward.  “What do people say about them?” he asks.

“Lots of things,” she says.  “People who are magic live there.  And people can get magical powers if they travel there.  There are so many different totem animals…”  She breaks out of her reverie and looks at him.  “I don’t know if I believe in that stuff,” she says, as if he had suggested that she did.  “I’ve only seen one person… and I wasn’t even sure if he was real.  That’s just what people say.  But people are pretty stupid sometimes.”

There’s a lurch and then the helicopter is dropping fast out of the sky.  Ash grabs for the armrest and catches her arm but she shakes her head.  “It’s landing,” she says.  “It did this last time.”  He feels it jerk, and when he looks out the window again he can see that they are approaching a narrow valley, with a meadow in the middle of it.  A thin strip of silver river meanders in wide curves through the center of the meadow.

The interior door opens and the red-haired man is there, together with a woman dressed entirely in black.  Ash watches the man’s eyes travel to Zabe’s wrists, but he says nothing.

“Come with us,” says the woman in a kind voice.  “I think you’ve missed dinner, but we’ll find you some food.  You must be starving.”

“Where are we?” Ash asks.  Beside him, he can feel that Zabe is rigid, waiting for a signal to move.

“Come along,” the man says, “don’t keep Lady Vallance waiting.”

“Where are we?” Ash repeats.  He won’t move until someone tells him.  He’s already been too nice to them, given in too easily, and he won’t do it again.  He has a strong sense that he and Zabe are in it together now, whatever that means.  It makes him bolder.  “Tell us.”

“That doesn’t matter right now,” the woman says.  “All that matters is that you’re safe.”

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