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.”

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