Chapter 5 — The wider world, Part 2

27 05 2009

Two weeks after the equinox
Ash and Zabe stand in Dr. Levi’s office, their hands behind their backs, their rifles slung over their left shoulders.  Dr. Levi is sitting in her desk chair, her legs up on her desk, muddy boots hung over the side and dripping into a bucket.  Zabe wonders where the mud came from; it was snowy, not muddy around the back of the water tank.

“Well?” Dr. Levi asks.  “You didn’t follow orders.  Explain yourselves.”

Zabe wishes she could talk to Ash alone about this.  She doesn’t know what to say.  She feels like a total failure.

It seems that Ash doesn’t.  “You ordered us to execute you,” Ash snaps.  “You ordered us to do something that was completely… completely… we weren’t ever going to do it!  You knew it before you even told us!”

“Are you accusing me of something, Ash?” Dr. Levi asks.

He rolls his eyes.  “I’m accusing you of lying to us.  As per usual.  You come up with orders that you know we won’t do and then you have a great time yelling at us for not doing them.”

“I didn’t come up with any orders,” Dr. Levi says.  “And contrary to popular belief among the students, I do not enjoy yelling at you – please note that I have not ever raised my voice to a student, not once – when you did not do them.  I am debriefing you about a situation that you created.  That is a pretty standard practice.”

“Standard where?” Ash demanded.  “Whose standard?  You and the other twenty adults who run this school?  Or standard somewhere else, in the outside world?”

Dr. Levi tilts back even further in her chair.  She’s the picture of relaxation.  “Standard in the practice of having a trained army, Ash.  You’ll read about it in a few years, when you begin to study various theories of war.”

Ash yanks his gloves off and stuffs them in his pockets.  “Oh right, and you guys, the last survivors of civilization for thousands of miles just feel the need to–”

“Ash,” Zabe says, “shut up.”  He’s talking to Dr. Levi about things that she thought were theirs: their ideas about what was going on, their years of speculation and piecing together facts, their secrets.  “Dr. Levi,” she says, feeling urgently that she needs to fix this by talking over him, “you’re right, we disobeyed direct orders.  I think I can speak for us both when I say that we were not prepared to execute you.”

Ash snorts.  “She knew that, or she never would have let it go ahead.”

Dr. Levi smiles, directly at Ash, and says, “I didn’t know that, because I didn’t give the order to do it, but I do know that we loaded your rifles with training rounds.  Drills will always be carried out with training rounds.”

“But you wanted us to make a moral choice,” Zabe says.  “And we did.  We couldn’t execute you.  You’re our teacher.”

“But someone else told you to kill me.  That someone gave you an order.  I didn’t want you to make a moral choice at all – I wanted you to make the right choice, which was to obey the orders you were given.”

“We don’t even know who gave us the orders!”  Ash looks ready to explode.  “Why would we obey them?”

“Who was speaking into your headpieces?”

Ash shrugs.  “Command station one.  Realistically?  A Year Sixteen.”

“And you don’t trust command station one?”

“I don’t know command station one!”

“But you know it was a Year Sixteen.”

Zabe interrupts.  “It was Dago.  I recognized his voice.”

“So you know it was Dago.  Yet you didn’t trust him enough to obey him?”

That, finally, shuts Ash up.  He stands there, arms at his sides, mouth half open.  “I do trust Dago,” he mutters, but it’s clear that Dr. Levi knows she’s won the point.

“Everyone else in the drill followed orders,” she says.  “Everyone else in Year Fourteen made the right choices.  Only you two decided that you weren’t ready to trust your fellows and follow their orders.  Now why was that?”

Zabe thinks she understands in a sudden flash.  “We didn’t believe in it enough,” she says.  “We didn’t think it could possibly be real.”

“And what if it had been real, Zabe?”

Ash makes a move beside her and starts to say something so she speaks quickly.

“We made the wrong choice.  It would have had terrible consequences.”

Dr. Levi nods.  “And?”

“And…” Zabe swallows before she says it, to make sure she means it.  “And it won’t happen again.”

Mr. Wu and the piano

The beginning of Year Fourteen is full of things that make Zabe think, but none more so than Ash’s strange relationship with Mr. Wu.

Off from the big room where everyone eats meals, there is a smaller room with a huge fireplace and lots of places to sit.

This is where the older students and some of the teachers tend to congregate after supper, where they drink bitter tea brewed from the small trees kept in the furthest corner of the greenhouses.  In one corner, there is a small piano and it is understood from the earliest days of Year Fourteen – when they are first allowed into this room, on one night of the week only – that this piano is not to be touched.  It is ancient, and fragile, and doesn’t like the dryness or the altitude.  It belongs, nominally, to the school, but Mr. Wu is the only one who touches it.

For Zabe, prior to Year Fourteen, Mr. Wu was just the math teacher.  She is completely indifferent to him; she enjoys math and he teaches it well, but he is a quiet man and does not fraternize with the students.  Sometimes he comes and plays the piano, usually melancholy, slow sounds, and everyone will stop talking and listen, because he is very good and they are unaccustomed to music.  Then he’ll close the lid and leave the room.

The second time that Zabe witnesses this – after three weeks of being in Year Fourteen – Ash leans towards her and whispers, “I wonder what happened to make him so sad.”

Zabe shakes her head.  She hasn’t really considered it.  “I wonder where he got the piano from,” she counters, but she can tell that Ash isn’t listening.  He has a look on his face suggesting that he is not interested in the mechanics of piano acquisition.  He’s watching Mr. Wu.  Then he stands and goes over to the piano.

Ash waits until Mr. Wu has finished playing and then asks, “May I play a little?”

Conversation has started up in the rest of the room, but Zabe is more interested in watching this.  She trails after Ash.

The question has clearly caught Mr. Wu off guard, but he stands and offers the stool to Ash.

What happens next is the talk of the school for the next week.  Ash sits down, apologizes to the room in general that he has not played in several years and will likely be very bad, and then proceeds to play something so beautiful that Zabe, standing with her arm lying along the piano’s wooden lid, can’t stop her heart contracting from the vibrations she feels moving up that attached limb and into the rest of her body.  The strangest part of the entire scenario is that Ash, who often gives the impression of having the weight of the world on his shoulders, plays such dancing music, full of deep sonic folds of incredible joy.

After that, Mr. Wu offers Ash lessons, to be given every morning before breakfast.  Zabe wants to tag along, because she has never experienced music before and secretly likes the way that it moves her into a different emotion every time she hears it.  Most of the time she’s monoemotional – one boring hum of mediocre feeling, with no recognizable highs or lows – but Ash’s music puts her into other spaces with little regard to her actual circumstances.  At first she simply ambushes him outside the boys’ room and tells him that she is coming, but then, when Ash tells her no, she pleads with him to let her come and just observe.

“I won’t bother you or anything,” she says.  “I can be really quiet when I need to be.”

“No,” Ash says firmly.  “Mr. Wu wouldn’t like it.”

Eventually Ash wins and Zabe storms down to the kitchen to help the rest of Year Fourteen prepare breakfast.  It is their turn on the cooking rota.  She doesn’t know why she’s upset about it, but she is upset about it and she wants to let the world know.  She chops up the last of the far-gone summer apples, excising the brown bits from under the skin with precise flicks of her wrist, and throws the slices one by one into a big metal pot.  Each one clangs with her anger but everyone studiously ignores her.  Typical, she thinks, and she slings them even harder.

Months pass.  Spring’s thaw rushes down the river, which floods the meadow for the first time in years, and Zabe finally realizes why the school is built on stilts.  She thinks about how spring comes on, the first few signs and then a rush and suddenly the snow is melting and the grass is green beneath it, ready to spring up and replace it.  Mr. Bernard has Year Fourteen out in the northern rim of the meadow every morning where he’s teaching them how to build shelters out of a variety of materials: rock, wood, sod, stone.  Their soggy snow huts, leftovers from their first assignment, subside into the ground.

Dr. Levi assigns them an essay titled, “Where I came from.”  In the library that night, Zabe sits at a desk surrounded by books about human origins, evolution, the first fragmentary bones jutting out of desert sands.  She writes a masterpiece, over one thousand words, a massive narrative told by a stern omniscient being detailing the rise and spread of humans across the globe.

She writes, “The first humans to come to the new land after the glaciers melted would have seen a big empty space.  There was nothing in it except a few animals and plants.  Then they would move across the land and plant things there and build new homes.  Then the new land would become home.”

Ash’s approach to the assignment is different, and, predictably where Ash and ideas are concerned, it makes Zabe want to tear up her own and throw it into the fire.  Ash draws a map of the world, draws a big question mark on it, and writes,

“I don’t know where I came from, because when I was younger somebody took me from there in a helicopter and he didn’t bother to tell me.”

Then one day in late spring, Ash stops going to music lessons with Mr. Wu.  He doesn’t say why – and it doesn’t inspire much comment from anyone else – but it haunts Zabe.
They have a class where they read books that are completely made up — they don’t tell any facts at all – about places and times and societies that Zabe never could have imagined before she read about them.  In a lot of these books the characters demonstrate something that their teacher, a happy older woman who insists that they call her Susie, describes as “introspection”.  In other words, they seem to spend page after page just thinking about what they themselves are thinking about.  Initially this habit baffled Zabe, but no one else in Year Fourteen seemed to find it strange at all.  Now it is a constant source of worry for her: she isn’t thinking enough about her own thoughts.  She’s lagging behind.  She has set aside a ten minute period before everyone else wakes up in the morning to try out this “introspection”.  Unfortunately for Zabe, it hasn’t been going well.

Zabe remembers her first year at the school vividly.  She remembers being wild and having a weird inherited religion that made her say and do and think strange alienating things.  She remembers not knowing how to use utensils or dress herself.  Most people avoided her and people like Barky and Holt and Vanessa took pity on her and tried to help her out but all she ever seemed to do was snap back at them.  She was so angry then.

Zabe thinks she remembers that year so well because she tries so hard not to.  She gets a horrible, sick feeling in the pit of her stomach whenever she remembers herself – not so much how she was, but how she must have appeared to other people.  She was completely exposed.  It’s terrifying to think that almost all of the people she knows now can remember it too, and yet, they still allow her to attend this school and, even more kindly, to sit beside them at lunch.  This is all she can think about: how terrible she was, how she stuck out outwardly, instead of just feeling alone inside of herself.  After weeks and weeks of thought, she thinks that this has something to do with the music, and Mr. Wu, and Ash.  Ash can say and do whatever he likes, like taking music lessons from Mr. Wu, but somehow he does it in such a way that it just brings him closer to other people.  Zabe starts to piece it together, but nothing matches up, she just has this feeling, so then she gives up, and goes to find Ash.

Their exercise this warm spring morning is a run around the northern perimeter.  Zabe knows that Ash hates running, so she stands beside him while they stretch to warm up and lets him complain at her.

“It’s just going to hurt my knees someday,” he groans.  He bends over and touches his toes, holding on for ten seconds.    “And my ankles.  And then what good will I be?”

Zabe makes commiserating noises.  She’s not used to doing this.  Normally she would already be off and running, loping over low hills and between trees.  She’s not really into doing things together, unless it’s just her and Ash and they are trying to figure out the school.

They start running.  She keeps up an easy pace, light enough that she can talk without being out of breath.

“Go on,” Ash says eventually.

“What?” Zabe asks.

“You obviously want to ask me something.”

Zabe is startled.  “How did you know?”

“You’re jogging beside me.”

“Yeah, true,” Zabe admits.  She doesn’t know how to begin, though.

“Got a new theory?” Ash asks.  “About what Dr. Levi said?”  They have been going over and over her words.

“No,” Zabe says, “but I still wish you hadn’t told her that you thought all that stuff.”

“Yeah,” Ash says, “you’re right about that. She’s watching me like a hawk right now.”

They stop at one of the streams coming down from higher slopes and Ash splashes water on his neck and hands while

Zabe jogs in place.  The moss is springy underfoot.  It’s fun to bounce on it.

“So Ash,” she says, bouncing up and down, “whatever happened with you and Mr. Wu?”

Ash splashes too much water on his face and stands up.

“Why?” he asks.  He doesn’t seem angry, just curious.  “And why should I tell you?”

“Um,” Zabe says.  “Is this what it feels like not to know the answer in class?”

Ash’s mouth twitches.  “Probably, yeah.  I wouldn’t know.”

“That’s not fair!”

“I just want to know why you want to know!”

“I’m interested in it!”  Zabe stops jogging.  “I think that if I knew more about the situation, I might know more about other things to.”

“Other things like what?”

Zabe shrugs.  “I don’t know.”


“It’s embarrassing.”

“So?” Ash asks.  “I’m not going to judge you.”

“Why not?”

“You’ve done plenty worse things before.”

She makes a frustrated noise.  “That’s exactly it!”

“What is?”

“How are you so good at being a person?”

Ash looks completely taken aback by this question.

“I mean,” Zabe says, trying to clarify, “what is the difference between you and me?  Why do people like you and avoid me?”

Ash is clearly flustered now.  “What does that have to do with Mr. Wu?”

“I don’t know!” Zabe says.  “But I think that if you told me what happened there, I might have more… I don’t know…”

“More data on the situation?”

“Well, it sounds awful when you say it that way, but yeah, more data.”

Ash sighs.  “What happened was really weird, and I don’t want to talk about it–”  Zabe starts to interrupt but he talks over her.  “—with anyone who isn’t you.  So don’t tell anyone, ok?”

“Ok,” Zabe says, chastened.  She wants to know why he wants to talk only to her about it but decides not to press her luck by asking.

“So I used to play piano when I was younger.  I don’t think I liked it very much then but now I do, because it reminds me of home.  So I guess I am pretty good at it, and Mr. Wu really liked the way I played.  He was very encouraging and made a lot of comments about how he wished there were more instruments so we could all learn them, but that he didn’t really have enough time for it.  Anyway, he had me start learning a pretty challenging piece, and I thought that to surprise him I would sneak out at night and learn it before our next lesson.  So I practiced a few hours each night and then in the lesson I played it for him, and, I don’t mean to brag, but I did a really good job.  He didn’t say anything for the entire piece, and when I finished, I looked over at him, and he was crying.  I mean, really, really crying, like, he had his face in his hands and he was just sobbing.”

Zabe wants to say that she thinks his music could do that to her too, but she doesn’t, because Ash seems to think that it was weird for it to affect Mr. Wu.  Instead, she says, “What was he crying about?”

Ash bites his lip.  “Well after that, things got even weirder.  He kept saying that I reminded him of his son and crying. And I didn’t know what to say, so I asked him who his son was, and he said that his son was dead, and then he got really mad at me and said I couldn’t talk about it to anyone and said there weren’t going to be any more lessons!  And then he practically threw me out!”  His eyes are wide.  “It was so incredibly weird.  I have no idea why it happened like that but I didn’t ever mean to make him upset.  I really like music lessons and I really like Mr. Wu…”

Zabe shakes her head.  This hasn’t been illuminating at all.

Chapter 5 — The wider world, Part 1

27 05 2009

Two weeks after the equinox

Year Fourteen is experiencing its first armed drill.

“Are you in position?” crackles down the line.

Ten index fingers press ten earpieces into ten left ears.  Nine taps.

“Seven, are you…”

Two taps.  Everyone tenses.   Six and Eight shift slightly to provide cover for Seven.  Zabe, now known as Ten, squints and winces as sweat stings her eyes.  She can’t believe she’s sweating like this in the middle of winter.

A single tap.  Zabe wants to glance to her right, to Nine, hidden in the bushes by Eastern Building and holding his own new rifle, but she’s too disciplined to take her eyes off the open space in front of the grounds.  She keeps her hands loose inside her gloves.  She keeps her right eye squinting through the scope.  She’s ready.

“Enemy is approaching from the north.  Coming from behind the main water tank.  This is not an STK, repeat, not an STK.  Take down, disarm, identify, and execute.   Repeat, identify and then execute.”

North is in her slice of the circle.  She looks at the water tank through her scope but sees nothing.  Fifty yards away, she sees a movement in the bushes, and then Nine emerges.  He’s camouflaged against the snow by his white jacket, but his rifle stands out in sharp contrast.  Zabe thinks about how this is a pretty unfortunate time to have a drill – high noon on a crisp winter day, when the barrels of their rifles will glint in the sun and the possibility of snow blindness forces them to wear their goggles even though they provide about half the field of vision a bare face would – and watches the way Ash moves.  He’s good with his rifle.  He holds it like it’s an extension of his body.

“Ten,” his voice says in her ear.  “Follow me at a good distance and circle the water tank anti-clockwise.”

She stands and creeps forward, sticking to the bushes.  She isn’t wearing a snowsuit.  When the alarm bell rang, she was sitting in the library, taping the spines of various broken down books.  By the time she made it to the outside door of the Sunset Building, she was as far from her Year’s staging point as it was possible to be, so she ignored her snowsuit and ran outside in her sweater and the low shoes that they all slip into when they are indoors in the depths of winter.  At least she grabbed her goggles , gloves, and gun – but now she can’t blend in to anywhere but dark places, and her feet are wet and freezing.

She reaches the water tank and begins to circle.  She sees Ash sidling around the other side.  She keeps her rifle ready for anything but still she feels incredibly twitchy.    Take down, disarm, and execute.  Focus.

“Ten.”  Ash’s voice is very tense and very quiet.  She reads in it that she should watch out.  She presses herself tightly against the curved wall of the tank, rounds the edge, and runs straight into something.

“Oof,” says the something.  Zabe is doubled over, trying to recover her breath, when Ash slams into its back and knocks it to the ground.  Zabe manages to swing her gun around and press the barrel against its head.

“Don’t try to fight,” Ash says.  His voice is low and hypnotic.  “Drop your weapon and stand up slowly.”

Zabe raises her gun as their captive obeys.

It’s Dr. Levi.

She’s alone and now she’s unarmed.

Zabe glances at Ash.  He blinks at her and she knows.  He can’t do it either.

“Dr. Levi,” she says, and the wall between them collapses.  Dr. Levi ‘s gaze flicks to the side, to look at Zabe out of the corners of her eyes.

“You have an order to follow, Zabe,” she says.

Zabe looks at Ash again, for reassurance.  It’s there, in his face.

She says, “I know we have an order.  But we aren’t ready.”

First day of Year Fourteen classes

Inside a warm classroom, as snow clogs the window pane, Dr. Levi greets her new class without introduction.  There’s no need; her reputation precedes her and she clearly knows it.

“When we brought you to this school, we told you that we would protect you.”  This is the first thing she says to them, ever.  “And we have.  But, as you probably know by now – that wasn’t entirely true.”  She pauses, looks at the ground and then up again.  “We lied to you.”

Zabe sits up straighter in her chair.  She thinks that finally, after three years of classes about seemingly unrelated topics and random drills where the younger kids hide in the cellars and strange oblique comments from the older students, they are about to learn something interesting.

Dr Levi walks around her desk and spends a long minute just looking at them.  Things get uncomfortable, but she seems unfazed.  Eventually, she says, “You must know by now.  You are some of the smartest children alive today.  We selected you, groomed you, and rescued you when the world took your parents.  You must know by now what we promised to protect you from.”

There is perfect silence in the classroom.  Zabe knows it is because not a single one of them has any idea what Dr Levi is talking about.

Midwinter Night

The longest night of the year is when everyone turns another year older.  There are no individual birthdays in the school; instead, on this night, year groups stay together, often alone, and sometime in the winter night they find themselves transformed.

This year, the next Year Fifteens come to the next Year Fourteens as the sun is setting and tell them to dress warmly.

This is really weird; another year group has never come to them like this before.

“You’re doing something interesting tonight,” the Year Fifteens say, and then they disappear out the door and leave the Year Fourteens alone.

Staking out a room of one’s own is crucial on Midwinter Night, and the new Year Fourteens have done well this year.

Sean stole a key from a teacher and gained early access to a warm room high up in Western Building.  It has rows of big windows ringing each side, and in the view from the windows, the entire valley and the tiny school within it lie stretched out between shadow-catching mountainsides.  As a place to spend a night in a ritual vigil for daylight and the coming of a new year, it has a lot going for it.  From those windows, they will see the sun slide down last and rise up first.

The Year Fourteens attribute this luck to getting older.  The best Midwinter Night locations are slowly revealed over a period of years, via collective wisdom.  There is no guide or instruction, only experience and exploration.  As each year comes to know the school’s secrets better, so they can claim a better place within it.  There is a rumor going around – the same rumor that surfaces every year – that the Year Twenties stay the whole of Midwinter Night in a hidden hot springs that no one else knows about, hallucinating about their futures from a unique form of sulphur fumes.  Whether or not it’s true, it’s certainly something to aspire to.

After their Year Fifteen messengers depart, the sun goes down and the cold seeps through the windowsills. Instinctively, the ten of them huddle closer together as the night closes in around them.  No one talks.  School tradition is that Midwinter Night is ascetic – there is fasting, silence, a primitive unity with nature and the night and above all each other.  Zabe knows there were similar nights in the desert, but she doesn’t think about that place and time anymore, so instead Midwinter Night gives her a still, vague feeling of a home she can’t quite visualize.

Hours pass like this.  Zabe lets the hunger of the days’ fasting slip her into a trance.  Beside her, Ash gets restive and then lies down and shuts his eyes.  As hard as the ethos of the school tries to bond its students into a cohesive cultural whole, there are always moments like this when upbringing from before the school shines through.  Ash was not born into a culture where nature had the power to be spiritual, and Zabe knows that he doesn’t understand the hibernatory state that sometimes must be attained to survive a particularly bad season or night.  Then she realizes that she is thinking about Ash and that it is breaking her concentration, so she pushes herself down further into her consciousness and, without quite knowing why, goes hunting inside of herself for a warrior.

First day of Year Fourteen classes

Dr. Levi turns away from them, walks to the chalkboard at the front of the room, and pulls down a world map.  It is very old, torn and curled at the edges and faded.  Zabe is confused by it, because instead of the usual shadings of brown, green, and yellow for the land, there are blobs of color.

“I said that we lied to you,” she says softly, “and for that we are very sorry.  We wish that we could protect you indefinitely.  It’s a common human desire, to protect the younger generation from the horrors that we ourselves have witnessed.  But of course you are all growing up now – almost adults biologically, if not emotionally – and your place in the school, and more importantly in the world, is changing.”  She reaches up to the map and touches a spot in the middle of the mountains on the skinny continent.  Even though it’s in a big grey circle covering roughly two thirds of the continent, Zabe knows this spot.  She and Ash have poured over the maps in other classes and have concluded, based on a number of factors, that this is where the school is.  She glances at Ash just as he looks at her and they raise their eyebrows at each other.

“This is where we are,” Dr. Levi says, easily, as if this information hasn’t been the hardest information in the world for them to uncover for the past three years of their lives.  “In these mountains here.”  She steps away from the map so that they can see it.  “This is what is known as a geopolitical map.  All of these shapes – all the different colors – those are different polities.  Nation-states, communes, tribal zones, annexed territories, reservations for people of the wrong ethnicity in the wrong spot – all of those things exist in their own non-congruent shape on this map.  The grey areas – like where we are – are no-man’s lands.  When this map was made – which is nearly one hundred years ago – there simply weren’t the resources or population to support life in those areas.”  Dr. Levi lets them all have a long look at the map – Zabe notes that the grey areas hover around the northern and southern tips of the continents and the interiors of the bigger islands, as well as the interiors of the three continents – and then Dr. Levi rolls it up.

“That map, despite its age, tells a story very similar to how the world was approximately forty years ago.  The population had begun to creep up again, people had begun to move into the grey areas in many zones, and there were even a few attempts to reach the Poles and to open shipping lanes to outlying islands – but things were still generally the same.  A map from two hundred years ago would show a very different picture, a more interesting picture in terms of human social evolution, in my opinion, but that doesn’t interest us right now.

“What interests us is the present.  What would a map of the world look like today, if anyone anywhere in the world was bothering to make one?  And why, in these past forty years, has it changed so much?  We’ll be exploring that in this class.  And…” She turns back to the classroom and looks at Ash, who is leaning forward in his seat with an intense look on his face.  “And what, Ash?”

“And how did you lie to us?” he demands.  “And why did you do it?”

She smiles and looks at the next student, Betsy.  “And…?”

Betsy’s voice is quiet.  “What are you protecting us from?”

Dr. Levi smiles.  “Exactly.”

Midwinter Night

In the middle of the night, the Year Fifteens come to them and lead them out of their room, down the stairs, and out into the meadow.  They snowshoe for a long distance upriver, passing beyond the narrow confines of their valley and into another, similar valley.  This one has no buildings in it. Erratics litter the landscape, dropped by glaciers as they retreated up the hillsides, and the Year Fifteens lead them to one of these, a massive piece of granite mottled with pale moss.  One side has crumbled and amongst the rotten stone Zabe sees caches of food and blankets; the smoking char of a campfire is nearby.  She wonders if they have been out in this brutal cold all night long.

The Year Fifteens gather up some supplies and then lead the Year Fourteens to a trailhead.  They cross the frozen stream and begin to ascend the mountainside.  They move slowly in the night under the burden of cold and altitude.

There is a half moon but beneath the boughs of the pines, light is scarce and the Year Fourteens are careful to stick to the trail for fear of falling.

Eventually they emerge above treeline and the view opens up to reveal ahead of them a massive ruin of bleached wood and twisted metal.

Now are the waning moments before dawn, when the stars are just beginning to diminish and the sky is tinting towards grey.  In this ethereal light, the sight of the half-collapsed, hulking wooden building is terrifying.  It is terraced into a steep slope and looms high above them.  The Year Fifteens pause, clearly for effect, and look at the scared Year Fourteens.  Zabe realizes that she has not left the valley – nor has she seen any evidence of human habitation beyond the school – since she arrived.  These colossal remains are a stark reminder of another world.

“Come with us,” the Year Fifteens say, moving towards the ruin.  “Step only in our steps.”

They surround the ten Year Fourteens – there are thirteen of them in total, they are the largest year group in the school – and lead them gingerly over shifting snow.  Halfway up the slope it becomes apparent that they are stepping on snow-coated fallen components of the building.  There are places where the snow sinks away abruptly into caverns whose true depths are distorted by the poor light.  Zabe is a good snowshoer, more intrepid than most of her year group, and she senses how fragile her footing is.

The Year Fifteen at the head of the column comes to the foot of the main ruin and unclips his snowshoes.  He reaches above his head and grasps a metal support bar jutting out of the side.  “You’ve all got to follow me, all right?” he calls, before hauling himself up by his arms and swinging into the darkness inside the wooden building.

“Be careful,” another Year Fifteen advises.  “Don’t touch the wood unless you have to.  Only touch the metal.”

One by one they move into the building, leaving their snowshoes behind.  Inside, there is snow blown into the corners, but the mostly-intact roof is high above and has kept the rusted floor essentially dry.  Zabe joins the group of students sitting on the floor and a moment later Ash sits beside her.  The two of them huddle close, because they know that the cold will come back to them now that they are sitting.

They are in a cavernous space, but someone lights a fire on the metal floor and lets them circle around it, until they are close together and warm.  One by one, the Year Fifteens make small speeches.

“We’ve brought you to this place because this is how we started our Year Fourteen.  We’ve come back here many times in the year since.  The teachers don’t like us going here but they can’t really stop us.  They’ll tell you not to come too, because they don’t want you to remember that there used to be a lot more people in the world.  They also don’t want you to find out what happened to them.  That’s another reason why we brought you here.  In Year Fourteen you’ll start being able to travel outside of the valley, on hunting trips and that kind of thing.  You’ll discover lots of these ruins.  This is one of the biggest but there’s another that’s even bigger.  We don’t know what they were for but we think that people lived in them and mined the rocks in the mountains.  But like I said, the teachers don’t want you to know about those people.  They lived over a hundred years ago but then something really bad happened and we don’t know what it was and the teachers absolutely do not want to tell us about it.”

“This year is going to be really different from the past three years for you.  It was for us, and last year’s Year Fifteen told us that last year too.  It helps to know that big things are coming, we think.  You’re going to start getting let in on lots of things that are kept secret from the younger kids.  You’re going to start drilling for attacks and the teachers are going to start telling you that we’re under threat.  They want to scare you.  We still don’t know if they were right and if you should be scared, but we just want you to be a little bit aware of what the teachers want from you because otherwise you’ll just do whatever they want you to do.”

“Clara just said that you’re going to get let in on things that are kept secret from the younger kids, and I think that the teachers are doing it to scare you.  That’s one reason, but I think there’s another one.  I think that they also want to make sure that we all share some secrets.  We already do, of course, the school being the big one, but they want to make sure that we are all cemented together into this little culture of our own.  I don’t know if that’s good or bad but just be aware of it.”

“Even though we were all really young when they brought us here, and they raised us, now you’re about at the age where you can start drawing your own conclusions about what’s going on.  We don’t know very much yet but this past year I learned so many things that made me think.  Just be sure that you do think about them.  We don’t know what happens after this or really what the school is even for but we all need to form our own conclusions.”

“This sounds like we’re telling you to be suspicious of everything but we’re not.  We love the school and we love the teachers but this past year it became obvious to me that they have some ulterior motives and that they aren’t just taking care of smart kids for their own benefit.  The real problem is that it is also kind of obvious that they know we think about the things that we are telling you now and – stay with me, it’s complicated – so they anticipate these kinds of thoughts and questions and they always have good answers to them.”

“In Year Fourteen you’re going to start doing a lot of shooting.  Take my advice and work on target practice on your own.  It’s really worth it.  Good shooting is essential this year, as are the accompanying arts of tracking, stalking, scouting, that kind of thing.”

“Dr. Levi’s class is going to be just amazing.  She is the best teacher here, by far, though it probably helps that her subject matter is fascinating.  But beware because she demands a lot and also will not hesitate to let you know if you are falling behind.  Do not expect praise, ever, for anything you do for her.”

“The exploration aspect of this year is definitely the best part.  You’ll get to spend some time up in a hideaway type thing looking out for forest fires in the summer and that is just a fantastic experience for seeing the views and realizing just how isolated we are in this landscape.  It’s pretty comforting, in a way.”

“Year Fourteen is a huge year for you.  You will learn more than you ever have, and instead of it coming out of a book – but there’s plenty of that too – it’s going to be based a lot on experience.  Take whatever offers the teachers or older students give you to learn new things.”

“Everyone, Year Fourteen is when the older kids give you a pretty specific talk about sex.”  There’s a lot of nervous giggling here from the Year Fourteens.  “Absolutely take their advice.  You do not want to wind up in a bad situation.  Also, don’t get caught up in who you think is cute or any of that stuff.  It’s a terrible idea and it totally destroys your study habits.”  Jemma nudges Ash and there’s more giggling.  Zabe ignores it.

“Um, one thing that I learned this past year that absolutely shattered my worldview is that… Lady Vallance started the school twenty years ago.  So that means that, with an average of ten people per class, there are something like three hundred and fifty people who have gone through here.  If you believe their story about how we all came to be here, then that implies that they keep tabs on a massive number of children all over the world, and that we were chosen by virtue of being orphaned from a huge pool.  I’m not saying I don’t believe them, but it does strike me as being some facts and numbers that need to be… looked at.”

“Basically we are trying to tell you that Year Fourteen is going to be most intense year ever.  It’s also the only year, that we know of, when you get any hints from the people who came the year before you.  That’s because you need to be prepared for how much you are going to learn.”

The last person to speak is a skinny boy with very large glasses.  His name is Billy.  When it is his turn to talk, all of the Year Fifteens turn to him and look directly at him in a way that makes Zabe take notice.  Everyone else’s speeches had a prepared quality, as if the speakers had thought about them beforehand.  Not Billy, though.  He speaks fast, in freeform, like his thoughts are literally bursting out of his brain and into his mouth.

“This ruin was really scary when I first saw it.  I didn’t know what to think or what it meant.  The idea that there once were so many people in these mountains – which are pretty uninhabitable in terms of raising your own food and living all year round, I mean, think about how hard we work for that and we still don’t have a lot of things and rely on outside sources for others – but so if there were that many people living in these mountains, think about how many other people must have lived between here and wherever they grew food and all that.  That’s the first part that is really scary.  There used to be so many people in the world that living in these mountains was easy enough for lots and lots of people to do it.  And then you see how much they actually mined and you think about how many people must have been getting all that stuff they mined who lived somewhere besides the mountains, and that also gets scary.  So then I started thinking about how something really, really terrible must have happened to all those people and all those supply chains and traders and that stuff, and then I started wondering if something that terrible couldn’t happen again.  And then I started to think that maybe that’s what the teachers are training us up for.  To prevent something like that from happening again.  But then that doesn’t make sense, because otherwise they would give us all the information.  They would say what happened.  So then I concluded that what they’re actually training us for is survival.  That’s why we live in this remote place, that’s why we get taught all these skills.  They’re training us so that when it all happens again, we’ll be this little band of people, totally loyal to each other – and totally loyal to them – who will come back here and just… survive.”

“Oh my god,” Zabe says, without meaning to speak out loud.  Everyone looks at her, especially Billy, who meets her stare and raises his eyebrows.  Zabe’s mind is churning and she forgets that anyone else is in the room.  She looks up from her boots and meets his gaze.  “I think you’re right,” she says.

“Thanks, Zabe,” he says.  He puts his fingers on the bridge of his nose and adjusts his glasses.  “Your vote of approval is valuable to me.”

The weird part is, he doesn’t sound sarcastic.

First day of Year Fourteen classes

“The world is at war.”  Dr. Levi announces.  “Some of you might even remember what that means.”  It is the first mention of their previous lives ever by a teacher.  Out of the corner of her eye, Zabe sees Ash stiffen.

“Then again,” Dr. Levi says, looking directly at Ash and Zabe, “you were almost certainly too young.”  She turns away and walks towards the window.  “We’ve brought you here under the premise of protecting you from a world full of violence.  We told you that you were safe here in this school, in this valley, in one of the most remote places in the world.  That was the lie.”  There’s a rustling in the classroom.  Zabe thinks of the drills and the older students and the rifles.  This isn’t about hunting elk for dinner.  She feels betrayed: the very bulk of the mountains was supposed to protect them.

“We have many enemies,” Dr. Levi says.  “We’re surrounded on all sides by them.  Just because they haven’t found us yet does not mean that they won’t.  When that day comes, we must be prepared to defend ourselves.  Now that you are older, you must all take part in that.  That is what happens in Year Fourteen.  You stop being the protected, and you begin to become the protectors.”  She smiles at them.  “This is when you find your strength.  Now do you have any questions?”

Ash calls out, “You didn’t answer mine from before.”

“What was that, Ash?”

“Why?” he asks.  “Why did you protect us?  Why choose some random smart kids from all over the world and bring them here?”

“Oh,” Dr. Levi says, her eyes wide, “that’s easy, Ash.  We want our side to win.  Any other questions?”

Zabe is ready.  “Who are our enemies?  Why are they our enemies?”

“You’ll learn more about this later, but very briefly… Our enemies are those who disagree with us,” Dr. Levi says.  “This is a global conflict, and we have a very large number of enemies.  They live in every corner of the inhabitable earth.  They are people who promote ignorance and fear in order to keep other people oppressed.  They exploit poverty and degradation for their own gain.  Most of all, they are collecting people like us – the highly intelligent, the well-educated – and placing us into camps in the hopes of using us to do things like build superweapons like they had two hundred years ago, or engineer solutions to environmental obstacles.  So we are taking you at an early age and training you to fight, so that our enemies cannot capture you, and even if they do, so that they can’t use you to destroy the world.”  She stops and looks temporarily flustered.  “It sounds so silly and dramatic when I say it that way but… well, it is what it is.  That’s our mission here.”

Chapter 5 coming in two parts, pdfs?

27 05 2009

Somewhere along the way, chapter 5 ballooned into just over 8000 words — so I’ll be posting it in two parts, in about ten minutes.

Would anyone of my sudden new readers find it helpful to have pdfs of the chapters, instead of just reading them from the blog, or the RSS feed, or however?  I don’t mind providing them if anyone wants them.  Alternately I’d be happy to email them to you!

A similar project — “Pittsburgh Storm”

25 05 2009

A fun sci-fi and fantasy blog that I read recently had a post on another free novel online — “A Pittsburgh Storm” by David R. O’Keeffe.  I’ve read the first two parts and they are great!  It’s post-apocalyptic, just like Ash and Zabe.  It seems that a plague has killed nearly all of the women on earth — or at least in Pittsburgh — and now the narrator is attempting to survive in a newly devastated civilization.

Also interesting to me is the different process that O’Keefe has employed to publish a novel online.  He’s obviously written his in advance and is actively trying to get it published by Harper Collins.  This is almost certainly a better-thought-out plan than mine, which is to start writing, publish a chapter at a time, and see what develops.  Also he has a Creative Commons license, which I really need to look into getting. I think that his is a blog I will definitely be watching.

One of the things that I learned from O’Keefe’s blog is the existence of Authonomy.  This thing is seriously amazing.  It is online talent scouting for Harper Collins, using a community-based ratings forum.  What a brilliant idea!  I am almost certainly going to sign up and submit Ash and Zabe to it — though I really need to come up with a better title.

delay and future additions

25 05 2009

Sorry for the long delay in posting chapter 5.  I am actually writing these as we go along — though I’d really hoped to have the opposite of a backlog (not sure what that word is) turns out that that was overly optimistic — so unfortunately there will be some unscheduled delays.  I am experimenting with a new chronological structure in chapter 5 and I’m not entirely sure if it works or not so I am showing it to a few people to see what they think and then I’ll post it…

Also I am hoping to put up some image files this week, specifically a map of the school and maybe some artwork to set the scene a little bit.  I’ll be adding a new page, “artwork”, once I have some stuff ready to be scanned.

Finally, I want to post at least through chapter seven before I head off to Iceland (on 27 June) because, although I will have limited internet access there, it is doubtful that I will have the time to post.

Chapter 4 — In the shadow

4 05 2009

Ash wakes up in a room full of whispers.

He’s suffocating under the heavy blankets and a flannel sheet, because he’s kept his head under them all night so no one could hear him crying.  Now his head throbs with every breath and his nose is stuffed and sore.  He wants to go back to sleep but the whispering is too insistent.  There’s rustling, too, and the sound of many socked footfalls on a wood floor.  He inches the blanket down from his eyes and sees, through the sheet, sunlight streaming in through the window beside his bed.

His head throbs again.  There’s no going back to sleep now.

He pushes the blankets off his head and sits up in the cold, clear morning light.  There’s frost on his breath and he can make out the figures of boys putting on heavy clothes and boots.  The older-looking boys are scrambling, throwing on their clothes and stamping their feet into their boots, while the younger ones – some even younger-looking than Ash – move slowly, hesitantly, like they’re not sure what they’re doing.

“Alert five-six-one!” calls a deep voice.  The younger boys freeze and the older ones grab everything they can and run together to form a rough crowd near the door.  “Five-six-one,” the voice repeats.  “Alert!”

“Loud and clear, Barky!” someone yells from the crowd.  Ash focuses on a tall guy wrapping a bright red scarf around his neck.  “Quit yelling in an enclosed space.  We can all hear you just fine.”
“Is this the real deal or what, Barky?” someone else asks.  “It’s so early.”

“Can’t answer that,” says the first voice.  Ash sees him now: a remarkably skinny kid holding a long brown and silver stick.  Barky?  The name sounds too ridiculous to be real.  “So shut up.”

“Oh come on…”

“I don’t know, ok?  They don’t tell me anything.”

“Yeah, right,” says red scarf.  Ash notes that the littlest boys are all looking at this one with close-to-open-mouthed awe.  He gestures with his own brown and silver stick.  One end is big and squared off, but the other tapers to a fine silvery cylinder.  “Move out?”

“Move out!” Barky confirms, and the older boys stumble and shove their way out of the door.

Red scarf hangs back until the rest have gone and then looks directly at Ash.  “You’re the new kid?” he asks.  “Ash?”

Ash manages to keep his voice relatively strong and deep.  “That’s me.”

“Boys,” red scarf says to the rest of them, “you look out for your new brother today.  He’s from across the waters.”

“He doesn’t look like it,” says a dark-haired boy.  “I’m from there.”

Red scarf rolls his eyes.  “How do gravity and orbital rotation shape bodies in space, Trong?”

“Holt!” calls another boy.  “I know the answer, Holt!”

Red scarf – Holt – doesn’t stop staring at Trong.  “Ok, tell me, Rob.”

“It makes them into rough spheres!”

Holt is so cool that he doesn’t even directly acknowledge this.  “And Trong, now that Rob’s let you off the hook, why don’t you answer my next question,” is what he says instead.  “If the Earth’s a sphere, and we’re on land, and we go directly west across a lot of water, and then hit another landmass – but that landmass isn’t connected to the land we’re on right now – then what do you think is to our east?”

Trong shrugs.  “More big waters, and then more land, I guess.  Whatever.  But that guy looks just like he’s from the coastal cities or something.”

Holt rolls his eyes.  “Dispersal of peoples in times of plenty,” he says.  “Basic rule of civilization.  Look jerks, I’m going.

Try not to get into trouble while we’re out.  Get yourselves down to breakfast and don’t kill anything on the way there unless it is absolutely begging you to kill it.”  He starts out the door and then half-turns and looks at Ash again.  “Don’t let these guys drive you nuts, ok?  Check in with Vanessa at breakfast.”

Ash nods his head and watches Holt go out the door.  The other boys are moving around, putting on clothes and picking up stuff.  Ash climbs out of bed and puts his feet on the freezing floor.  He remembers a phrase from a series his mum liked to watch on the box: “This is the first day of the rest of your life.”  He’s never been really sure what significance it could have – after all, wasn’t every day the first day of the rest of your life? – but all of a sudden he has the feeling that he knows exactly what it means.

This is the first day, and there’s no point counting anymore, because this is the rest of his life.

It’s the worst realization he’s ever had.

Ash meets Vanessa at breakfast, and she brings a little girl with her named Daisy who is going to show him around to his classes.  As the days go on, he doesn’t know why Vanessa bothered – they are in the same year group of lessons and all of the children in that group travel in a pack all day anyway.  There are nine of them, six boys and three girls, and all of them go out of their way to help Ash and make him feel welcome.  Daisy gives him extra cake at dinner and on his sixth day there Sean and Toby show him the sort-of top-secret route to the geothermal springs where everyone likes to bathe on cold days.

Weeks and then a month pass.  Ash barely knows that time is passing; instead every day blends into the same numbing routine as the day before: rise at sunrise, small meal, exercise outdoors, breakfast, classes, late lunch, work outdoors or at indoor chores, small meal, classes, dinner, time to do any work leftover from classes and also hobbies, bath time, forty-five minutes with candles lit in the dormitory intended for non-school-related reading, sleep.

Ash usually spends those forty-five minutes staring up at the wooden slats of the bunk above him and thinking about his past life.  Sometimes he thinks about a particular room at home, and sometimes he tries to remember a specific event.  He’s memorizing every tiny detail, filling in colors and sounds that he might have missed the first time around.

Ash isn’t making any friends; instead, he’s struggling just to keep his head above water.  Sometimes Holt will come into the library when he’s working and ask Ash if he wants help, but Ash always turns him down.

There’s something dangerous about Holt – he’s charismatic and slavishly worshiped by the other eight kids in Ash’s year group, and Ash is scared by it.  He’s never seen Holt do anything bad – he, Barky, and Vanessa are the obvious stars of the school from Ash’s point of view, because they look after the younger kids with a mix of affection and annoyance that is absolutely winning – and that makes it even worse.  He wants to trust them so he has to keep telling himself that he shouldn’t.  Ash hasn’t seen Zabe since that night in Lady Vallance’s office, but he thinks a lot about the conversation they had on the helicopter and he doesn’t want to be a fool again.  He’s not going to trust anyone at the school except her if he can help it.

So Ash works, and works more, and never seems to get ahead, and never talks to anyone even though they all still act like they want to talk to him.  He broods and sleeps too much and when he’s doing anything that doesn’t require full mental power – when he’s repairing the fence that protects the livestock from wild animals, or standing in the river in waders fishing, or cleaning the baths, or shaping wax into candles, or doing any of the other hundreds of tasks that constitute afternoon work and that keep the school going – when he’s doing anything but classwork, basically, and sometimes when he’s supposed to be doing that too, he just opens his mind and remembers everything that came before that day when the rest of his life started.

Zabe comes to him one evening as he’s sleeping in the library, his head on the desk and his essay on solar power underneath it.  She’s wearing normal clothes with a badge for the youngest year group and she looks unbelievably healthy compared to how she looked when he first met her.  Ash sits up when he sees her coming and feels his stomach lurch.  She’s going to know what he’s been doing, he’s sure of it, and she’s not going to approve.  Zabe – the best friend he’s built up in his mind version of her, anyway – would never brood.

She sits down next to him and props her chin up on her fist.  “Ash, how are you?” she asks.  She’s still got that crazy accent.  He’d forgotten about that.

“I’m all right,” he lies.  “I haven’t seen you in ages, Zabe.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve kind of been in trouble a lot.”  She shrugs.  “Just testing out the rules around this place.  That kind of thing.  You know?”

Ash does not know.  “How are the rules?” he asks.  “Besides well-tested.”

“Pretty strict,” she says.  “There’s so many places we can’t go, and we have to follow the schedule, at least until we get older.  I mean, they’ve really got the place locked down.  You try to escape and go into the hills and they’ll have you back before you even get to the river.”

“Do you want to escape?” Ash asks, startled.

“Not particularly,” Zabe says.  “I don’t think there’s anything for a thousand miles in any direction.  Vallance said that the first night, remember?”

Ash nods.  “But you tried anyway.”

“Sure,” Zabe says.  Another shrug.  “I’m not happy here, Ash.”

“Me either,” he confesses.  It feels like a big thing to say.  “Everyone else is though.”

“I don’t know about that,” Zabe says.  “I guess they were younger when they came.  They got used to it faster, maybe.  But I don’t think everyone is.”

“Well, I’ve been feeling pretty alone,” Ash says.  He’s not really sure why he says it and it sounds stupid when it comes out of his mouth.  “I mean, just because everyone’s already such good friends.  Brothers and sisters and all that.”

“Yeah,” Zabe says, “well, that’s what everyone wants us to believe.  And some of them believe it so much that they make it come true.”  They pause for a few seconds and then she shrugs again.  “Anyway, like I said, I’m not happy here, so I tried to escape.  But not really, because I knew it was stupid.  So when I came back I kind of… re-evaluated my situation.”

“What does that mean?”

“I thought about it again, except different this time.  I thought that running away would make me happy but then I realized that it would just make me dead, which I don’t think would really be happy at all.  There’s the virtue of dying young but it only applies when the death has a meaning that’s good for many of the people.  So says the saying of… well, I won’t bore you with that.  Anyway, so then I thought about what was making me so unhappy and I realized that the thing that is the worst – I mean, absolutely the worst, totally unbearable – is that I’m in with this group of kids who are so much younger than me.  And I know that I’m smart enough to be in your year group, and that it’s not really my fault that I’m not.  So anyway, I thought that you could help me.  Can you help me?”

Ash pauses and lets his brain try to decipher what she’s said.  Finally he says, “How can I help you?”

“I’ve been reading all of the books up to this year – Vanessa got a list for me – but I don’t get the math at all.  I’ve never taken a math class until now.  Holt said that you could probably help me because you’re really good at math.”

Ash is fairly sure that he’s the worst in his entire class but his mind is churning over other things.  “You’ve been talking to Vanessa and Holt?”

“Yeah.  Why?”

“Do you trust them?”

“Well, they’re being nicer to me than Vallance was.”

“What do you mean?”

“I asked her if I could move up and she said absolutely not.  Then I got Vanessa and Holt to talk to her and she said that if I sat this exam in a month and I passed I could.  Then Holt suggested that I talk to you.  And he and Vanessa aren’t lying to me.  They both say that they don’t think I can do it but that they want to help me.”

“I just don’t know if I trust them, that’s all,” Ash says.  “I mean, all the little kids worship them.”

“Aren’t we technically the little kids?” Zabe quirks her head and smiles at him.  “You’re not out of afternoon classes yet.”


“When we’re sixteen we’ll get let out of afternoon classes so we can do other things,” Zabe explains.  “Things like hunting and exploring.”

“Oh,” Ash says, feeling stupid, “well, I guess I haven’t really been paying attention.”

Zabe rolls her eyes.

Ash hesitates.  “I was really… sad.  I mean, I am.”

“So why didn’t you try to change it?”

He raises his eyebrows.  “It’s not that easy!”

She shrugs back at him.  “Why not?  If something makes you sad, fix it.”

“I can’t…” he pauses, looks around, and lowers his voice.  He knows enough to know that this isn’t something you admit to around here.  “I can’t make my parents not dead.  That’s not something I can fix.”

Zabe is silent for a long time.  Finally she says, “No, I guess you can’t.”

“But I want to remember them,” Ash feels the need to explain.  “I never want to forget what it was like before this.  So I’ve been spending all my time just trying to remember.”

“Why do you care so much?”

Ash is aware that they are whispering fiercely, their faces inches apart.  The conversation has gone from normal to intense in about ten seconds.  “I don’t know,” he hisses at her.  “Why don’t you?”

“Because it doesn’t matter what happened back then.  We’re here now,” Zabe says.  “We can’t escape.  And my plan is to be the best at everything here.  And then people will like me the way they like Vanessa and Holt, and I’ll get to do what I want.  I’ll get to know everything.”

“So why are you hanging out with me?” Ash asks.  “I’m the exact opposite of that.”

Zabe does the shrug again.  It’s a strangely elegant gesture for an eleven year old: a cock of the head, a roll of the shoulders, her hands still on the table in front of her, all synchronized.  “I didn’t know that, did I?  Anyway, you’re the first person I ever met here.  You untied me on the helly-copter.”

“And I can help you move up to my year,” he says, not sure if he’s bitter or what.  His perception of Zabe wavers between transparency – her actions are all stated up front, her motivations laid on the table – and a dark opacity where her real character theoretically lies.

“Yeah, well, I hope so. If you’ll do it.”

Ash sighs.  “Ok, I guess so.  I could do with the practice too.”

“Ash.”  He looks up at her and she darts out a hand and just touches the edge of his sweatered arm, just for a second.  “Thank you for the help,” she says in the stilted grammar of the formal Standard tongue.  “With all of the stars above the Golden Mountain, may I help you too, so that you are no longer sad.”

It’s a strange thing to say, but Ash figures it’s the most sincere she can be.  He lets it pass.

She finds him every day after that, and yanks him unceremoniously out of whatever mood he’s in and headlong into her world.  Zabe speaks in erratic bursts of thought, like water from a broken fountain.  Then Ash has to spend several minutes deciphering what she’s said, while she sits in silent contemplation of her work.  It’s a strange routine, but it keeps him occupied.

At first he’s not sure how to teach her – she can barely count, as far as he can tell – so he tries practical lessons.  Zabe displays a remarkable ability to get herself wherever she wants to be, whenever she wants to be there, and suddenly the youngest group seems to be doing a lot of chores in the same place as Ash’s group.  Within a few minutes, Zabe will sidle up to him and they’ll start doing chores together and he’ll know that it’s lesson time.  He starts off by having her figure out how many new stock animals will arrive in the spring if all of the females get pregnant with two babies; she resorts to counting on her fingers.  He teaches her about multiplication and she quickly grasps division, but it takes an additional week for him to realize that she has no idea about addition and subtraction.  They move beyond natural numbers – “if two portions of the fence need mending, and there are eight sections in total, then what percentage of the fence will need new barbed wire?” – and Zabe works diligently, memorizing tables and methods seemingly overnight.  She starts to ask him about the way that other things work too, things in books that they are reading.  He explains the geology of the valley and why they have geothermal springs and why there’s a big covered pit in the ground near the Western Building – the people who were here before mined for gold – and Zabe comes back every day with more questions, so many that Ash has to spend his free time each night before bed researching the answers.

The end result of all this enforced learning is that he suddenly starts to succeed in the school.  Each group has a solidified stratigraphy of intellectual and technical rank for every subject and practice that they do, and Ash was at the bottom in everything, but suddenly, across the board, he’s moving up.  Now teachers ask him what he thinks, and he surprises himself by having opinions.

Midsummer comes, and daylight holds onto the edge of the valley for as long as possible, following the reflective band of the river and flowing west towards an unseen sea.  Ash knows that he and Zabe came to the valley in spring, because he remembers his first day, standing outside and learning about the animal pastures, stroking the soft, grass green buds on the pine trees.  They’ve become dark, prickly needles.

Zabe’s month of grace ends, and she goes to sit the test in Lady Vallance’s office.  Ash waits for hours, but doesn’t see her.  It’s a hot day and it fades into a surprisingly warm night.

Then Holt comes to him and invites him to go shooting.

“We don’t normally take out the little kids,” Holt explains, “but you’ve really been standing out, and we thought it would be a good opportunity to get to know you better.”

“Why do you want to know me?” Ash asks.

Holt whistles.  “You’ve been hanging out with Zabe too much, my friend,” he says.  “That girl could be suspicious of a rock.”

Ash refuses to be swayed by the Holt charm.  “The question stands,” he says.

“I guess it does,” Holt agrees.

They sit in silence for a few minutes.  They’re out on the porch of the building where the students live – the girls live upstairs, in a bigger room, because there are slightly more of them – and even though all the windows are wide open and most people are inside getting ready for bed, the river is still the loudest thing they can hear.  The silence isn’t tense – in fact, Ash thinks he might go so far as to call it companionable – so he lets it go on for a little bit.

Then Barky comes out onto the porch and says, “What’s the verdict?”

Holt shakes his head.  “Our man Ash here is undecided.”

Barky sits on Holt’s other side, picks up a rock that was lying on the porch, and starts playing with it.  “What, are you anti-violent or something?” he asks.

“What do you mean?” Ash says.

“Well, why don’t you want to learn to shoot?”

Ash is startled.  He hasn’t really connected shooting with violence.  He doesn’t really know much about the silver and brown sticks at all.  They aren’t something he remembers from his home.

“He wants to know why we want him to go shooting with us,” Holt explains.

“Oh,” Barky says, “you’re thinking like Zabe.”

“Do you spend a lot of time with Zabe?” Ash asks.

Holt and Barky exchange a glance but Ash can’t read it.  Barky says, “Zabe is a little firecracker, if you know what I mean.  Somebody’s got to look out for her, or she’s going to get into serious trouble around here.”

“Why’s that?” Ash asks.

“Because she hasn’t quite figured out how to filter herself yet,” Holt explains.  “Zabe is not doing so well right now.  She annoys her teachers and makes Lady Vallance want to throw her out of the school.  So we’ve been trying to watch out for her, make sure things go easier for her with the people who think they’re in charge.”

“You mean the teachers and Lady Vallance.”


“Aren’t they in charge?”

“Sure, in lots of ways they are.  But this school doesn’t run without people like me, and Barky here, and Vanessa, and a few of the other students.  Keep that in mind, Ash.  You have to make yourself indispensable.”

“Either that or just be so smart that they would be idiots to throw you out,” Barky adds.

Holt grins.  “But that’s not us.  So we’ve just made ourselves useful to everyone, and that way we can break the rules a little bit and not get in trouble.”

Ash thinks about this.  Finally he asks, “Do you want me to go out shooting with you because you think I could be like you?”

Holt gives him a rare smile.  Ash pictures his entire year group swooning but manages to keep it together.  “Something like that,” Holt says.  “Don’t get cocky.”

Ash looks at the rock in Barky’s hands.  Barky is rubbing at a smooth spot on it.  “What about Zabe?” Ash asks.  “Do you think she’s like that too?”

Barky laughs and tosses the rock off the porch.  It lands in the dirt and buries itself in a cloud of dust.  “I think Zabe’s one of the smart ones,” he says.  “But she’s annoying the teachers so much that they’re trying to ignore it.”

Ash is vaguely insulted.  “I taught her most of what she knows,” he says.  “She’s pretty smart, but…”

Barky laughs again.  Holt says, “Don’t worry about it, Ash.  If I were you, I wouldn’t want to be smart like Zabe is.”

“Why not?”

Holt shrugs.  “Lots of people are going to want to pull her in lots of directions.”

“When she grows up, you mean?” Ash asks.


Ash hesitates, and then asks a question that has been worrying him for some time.  “What happens here, after?  When we grow up, I mean?  Do students just become teachers?”

“No,” Barky says.  Holt is looking at the ground, so Barky, not usually the talker of the pair, continues.  “We reach a certain age – usually around twenty-one – when the teachers think that we’re done, and then we leave.  They give us a placement somewhere – you don’t get to find out where, usually, until you’re on your way – and that’s… it.”

“It’s like the people who leave are dead,” Holt says.  “They’re gone and then we’re not allowed to think about them anymore.  Most age groups leave together for that reason.”

“How old are you?” Ash asks.

“We’re twenty,” Barky says, and Holt adds, “One more year to go.”

“When you get out, where will you go?” Ash asks.

“Wherever they send us,” Barky says.  There’s a sharp edge to his voice but Ash doesn’t know why.  “It’s not really something we can predict.”

“I’ll go home,” Ash says.  “I don’t care where they send me.”

There’s a short silence.

Then: “You can’t ever go home again,” Holt says.  “But I think you’ll figure that out.”

Ash looks up at Holt, but his face is blank.  “What does that mean?  Did something happen to my home?”

“I don’t know anything about where you’re from, Ash,” Holt says, “and I have no idea what the geopolitical or for that matter environmental condition of the place is.  But you can’t ever go home again doesn’t mean physically.  Somebody famous said it.  Even if you could travel back there from here – which is a pretty big if, in some cases – then when you got there, it wouldn’t be home anymore.  Ten years will have passed.  Everything will be different.”

Ash shakes his head.  “I don’t care if it’s different,” he says.  “My parents are dead.  I could go to their graves.  The graveyard would still be there.”  On the last sentence, his mouth goes wrong, and then his throat aches for tears.

Barky looks away from them but Holt doesn’t hesitate.  He puts one arm around Ash’s shoulders and pulls him in close, so that their sides are touching.  “Hey, Ash,” he says, “listen to me, ok?”

“Ok,” Ash says, miserable and trying not to get snot all over Holt’s shirt.

“I’m sorry they’re dead, ok?  I remember.  But you have to stop feeling like this.  You’ve barely been a functional human for as long as I’ve known you because you’re too wrapped up in being, well, in having grief.  And it’s not helping your future.  You have to give yourself something new.”

Ash takes a deep, shaky breath against Holt’s shoulder.  “I don’t have anything new.”

“You know, Ash,” Holt says, “they brought us here because we would have died in the outside world.  That’s why the school did it.  We would have been picked up by a government or a gang or someone else with bad intentions and used until we were dead.  People like us – people who are smart in the right ways – are not very common outside of this school, and the people in charge know that we’re necessary assets if they want to get ahead.  But the school can’t protect us forever.  You have ten years, and then you’re being thrown out in it.  Holt sounds angry.  His fingers dig into Ash’s shoulder.  “Stop wasting your time and learn as much as you possibly can.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Ash sees Barky stand up.  Holt releases him and stands up too.  They are both staring at something.  Ash wipes his eyes and nose on the back of his sleeve and puts his head down on his crossed arms.

“Zabe!” Holt says somewhere to his right.  “Give me your hand!”

Ash sits up, bleary-eyed, and focuses on Zabe, who is trying to scramble up onto the porch.  Holt and Barky each grab a hand and haul her up before dropping her unceremoniously onto the wooden floor beside Ash.  Her hair is half down and swells behind her ears in big curling clouds.

“Well?” Holt demands.  “What happened?”

“I watched her mark it,” Zabe says, sitting with her legs crossed.  “So she could not cheat.”

Barky and Holt wince.  “I’m sure she appreciated that,” Holt says.

“She did not wish to discuss it with me,” Zabe says.  “But at the end, she had to admit that I belonged in another year group, at least, in her words, ‘in terms of scholastic ability.’”

They ask her about the test for a while, and then Vanessa comes and they have the conversation again, while Ash sits with his chin resting on his arm and watches Zabe talk.  He’s thinking about what Holt said about Zabe: that she’s one of the smart ones, but that she needs looking after.  As little as Ash wants to admit it – he’s always been able to explain away a bad grade by telling himself that if he’d just tried harder he could have easily done better – he suspects that Holt is right about her, and about him as well.

Ash waits until there is a lull in the conversation, and then he says, “Holt.”


“I will come with you,” Ash says.  “Shooting, I mean.”

Zabe looks startled.  “You’ll take him, but not me?” she asks.

Holt rolls his eyes.  “I doubt that Ash here has even held a gun.  Am I right?”

“Um, we don’t have them where I’m from.”

“You’re from here now,” Vanessa says, but then she smiles slyly at him.  “But… almost everyone here is originally from a place where shooting is pretty common.”

Ash glances at Zabe, who nods.  “Well,” he says, “then I guess someone should teach me how to shoot.”