Chapter 8 — Beyond the Boundary, part 2

16 08 2009

*************************************************************************************

They summit the ridge at sunset.  Nothing is moving to either side of them, as far as they can see, which only increases Ash’s sense of foreboding.  The glacier blocks their movement south, but it has not cut them off from the valley where they are to meet the helicopter – they simply need to descend its north side, skirt around the icy lake beneath it, and then walk south for a few miles to be in the right place.  They start down the slope, but the travois keeps shoving them faster than their legs can move.  Eventually they modify it so that it has a tightly-tied cover and push it in front of them.

When they reach the bottom of the valley, Ash is at the end of his strength.  The steep wall of the valley blocks out what little light is left in the sky and the landscape is grey and desolate.  They stop to tighten the travois and Ash stares into the distance.  He doesn’t focus on what he sees for a few seconds, and then he realizes that he is staring at a beautiful house.

“Zabe…?”

She looks up at him.  “What’s up?”

“I think I’m hallucinating.”

“What?”  She straightens and turns to look where he is looking.  Then she takes out her binoculars and stares through those for a few seconds.  “That building there?”

“It’s a house,” Ash says.  “It looks like… it looks like a house from home.”

“Are you serious?” Zabe asks.  “Maybe you are hallucinating.  I think it’s abandoned, but I can’t tell.  It’s not falling down or anything but there’re no lights and I can’t see anything through the windows.”

Ash shivers, and not just because of the icy wind coming off the glacier.  “This place feels haunted,” he says.

“Haunted?” Zabe repeats.  Her skepticism is apparent.

“Like ghosts are here,” Ash says.

Zabe raises her eyebrows.  “That seems unlikely.”

“Yeah, thanks, I know,” Ash snaps, “but doesn’t that house just seem really creepy?”

Zabe shrugs.  “It seems like it might be a good place to stay the night.  It could give us some shelter from this wind.”

Ash stares at her.  “You want to go over there?”

“Stop being an idiot,” Zabe says.  She picks up her side of the travois.  “It is really, really cold here.  I don’t want to spend the night exposed and there aren’t any trees as far as I can see.  So stop imagining things and let’s go.”

“Are you actually human?” Ash mutters, but he knows she’s right.  The cold is piercing and only getting worse.  Together, they drag the travois across the valley towards the house.

As they approach, it becomes obvious that it is abandoned, but is in strangely good condition.  The walls are stripped bare, just exposed wooden planks, and all of the window frames are empty, but the house has all four walls standing and a roof.  Ash’s sense of foreboding starts to dissipate when he realizes that it is empty, but still he is struck by how similar the design appears to some of the houses in the town where he was a child.  It’s almost as if the people who built this house were deliberately copying those houses.  All attempts to make Zabe understand this, and why it is freaking him out, meet with disdain.  By the time they reach the house they are barely speaking.

Zabe drops her half of the travois and storms around the back of the house, leaving Ash alone beneath its gaping bay window.  The house is set into a hillside and so the front is propped on story-high stilts.  A minute later, Zabe appears in the window and says, “It’s not haunted, so come up here.  The floor seems solid.  We can stay the night and we’ll be sheltered from the wind.”

*************************************************************************************

Ash is sound asleep when the house creaks.  He sits upright in his sleeping bag and claws his head and arms free, convinced that the house is falling down around them.  Outside, the wind has gotten stronger; he can hear it whipping around the corners of the house and whistling at the edges of the bay window.  The house creaks again and Ash lies down and curls into a ball.  He’s relieved that his memory seems to be intact enough, despite the pills, that he can remember the architecture of houses from his childhood, but he wants this night to be over.  He doesn’t know where the rest of his class or Mr. Wu is.  He misses his music lessons with Mr. Wu and wishes he knew why his teacher was so sad.

He sits up again and looks to the side.  His senses had registered that Zabe’s sleeping bag is empty when he first sat up, but now his brain has caught up.  He listens, but doesn’t hear anything except the house quietly shifting in the wind.

“Where are you, Zabe?” he mutters.  “I really don’t want to go look for you.”  All he wants is to sleep again.  His exhaustion is so deep that the thought of getting out of his sleeping bag actually makes him feel sick.

“Zabe!” he hisses.  It’s no use.  Shivering, he crawls out of the sleeping bag and stands up.

There is an inside wall in the house, and it separates the room he is in from a staircase that leads to nothing – the upstairs floor has disappeared.  Ash walks around the inside wall and finds Zabe sitting halfway up the stairs, the tiny box that Orri gave her in her hands.  Ash despises this box, because Zabe pays a lot of attention to it when they are places that they can’t be monitored.  He knows that she talks with him, the mysterious boy who lives underground, whom Ash hates for helping Lady Vallance and Dr. Levi work against the students.

The screen illuminates her face and makes her look like a ghost.

“Boo,” he says.

She rolls her eyes.  “Hi.”

“What are you doing?” he asks.  “Chatting with Orri again?”

“No,” she says.  “He told me not to try to get on the network outside of the school, otherwise someone besides him might notice.”

“I don’t know what network would be out here,” Ash says.  “It would be interesting to try.”

“No.  It could be incredibly dangerous.  And it could get Orri into big trouble.  If I got caught with this box…”

“Convenient,” Ash mutters.  He doesn’t want to have another argument with Zabe over Orri but he can’t help himself.  Everything the other boy says is completely suspect.

“What do you want?” Zabe asks.  “You seem like you’re in a bad mood.”

“I want it to be morning,” Ash hisses.  “I want to find out what happened to everyone else in our year.  I want this mission to be over.”

Zabe shrugs.  “There’s nothing we can do right now.”

Ash takes a deep breath to stop himself from shouting at her.  “What are you doing with the box?” he asks.

“I was just trying to plot a map of where we’ve been,” she says, “so that I could figure out how long we have to walk in the morning.”  She turns the screen to show him.  “I’m not sure how accurate it is.  It’s all just guessing.”

“It’s good,” Ash concedes.  He hates Zabe when she does this to him – when she makes him think that she doesn’t care about anyone or anything and then, once he’s gotten angry at her and made himself look stupid, she reveals that she’s actually been doing the best course of action possible all along.  It’s even more infuriating when what she’s done is something that he didn’t even think of doing.  When they’d gotten inside the house he’d helped her stow the travois at the top of the stairs and then he’d gotten out his sleeping bag, curled up, and gone to sleep.

“Well, I hope it’s right,” Zabe says.  It sounds like a concession.  She looks up at his face with her big brown eyes and he recognizes her contrite face.  “I think we don’t have too far to walk.  Maybe four miles.  We can do it in an hour.  I’m not sure when the helicopter will get there but if we’re there by mid-morning, I think we’ll be fine.”

Ash nods.  They go back to bed, crawling into their sleeping bags beside each other and saying goodnight.  The wind intensifies, and a freezing rain starts to come in the window, but they are far enough inside the house that it does not touch them.  Ash falls into a liminal state where he’s sure that he’s not sleeping, but time disappears in great chunks and then slows to a crawl as soon as he becomes aware of it.  He twists in his sleeping bag, thinking of nothing, and watches the sky start to lighten, grey-green and then simply grey.  It is the coldest part of the day, the few moments before the sun begins to warm the land and night seems unending, when he finally falls asleep.  Zabe wakes him what feels like seconds later, into a grey morning.  Thick snow is falling outside the window.  He sits up and immediately regrets it.

“How did you sleep?” Zabe asks.  She is bundled in her winter clothes, sitting cross-legged beside him and eating dried fruit.  Ash can tell that’s frozen.

“Badly,” he groans.  “Cold morning, huh?”

“Yeah,” Zabe says.  She sounds worried.  “It’s going to make the hike to the helicopter a bit harder.”

“How thick is it?”

“A few inches?  Maybe?  I haven’t been out.  At least the travois will slide.”

Ash packs up his sleeping bag and puts on the warmest clothing he has.  He knows he’ll regret it once they get moving but he’s so cold now that it doesn’t matter.

Outside the house, he stops and looks up at it.  The snow has softened its edges and dampened the wood, making it stand out sharply from the white landscape.

“Thank you, house, for the shelter,” Zabe says.  Ash glances at her and she smiles at him.

“Thanks for not being haunted,” he adds.  “That was nice of you.”

Together they go, leaving it behind, the last standing evidence in the valley that humans ever existed.

*************************************************************************************

The helicopter does not touch down; instead, Mr. Wu leans out the open door and throws a rope ladder down to them while its rotors thump and whip the powdery snow into a storm of ice crystals around them.

“Hurry!” Mr. Wu shouts.  “We have to go before this storm gets worse!”

“What about the travois?” Zabe calls.

“What?” he calls back.  He seems very distant.

“The supplies!” she screams.  “They’re here!”

Ash sees that it is hopeless.  He undoes the twisted cover and starts pulling the cans out, ready to stuff them into his pack.

“Leave them!” Mr. Wu yells.

“We can save them!” Ash says to himself, but something tells him that they can’t.  Some of the cans are badly dented.  One is leaking a noxious green fluid.

“Get in the helicopter now!  Leave them!”

Zabe looks back at Ash and he shrugs at her.  He sees her face harden.  “You go!” she says to him.  “I’ll stay with them until someone can come back for me and them.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Ash says.

“They never wanted them,” Zabe snarls.

Ash hesitates.  “I have no idea.”

“Well, I’m calling their bluff.  You go.”

“This is pointless,” Ash says.  Sudden despair threatens to crush him.  They’ve been used again.  “Stop it.  They won’t be able to come back for you in this weather.”  He grabs the bottom of the rope ladder as it swings past in the wind and takes her hand.  He clamps it around one of the rungs and says, “Let’s go.”  She shakes her head and starts to yank her hand away, so he says, “This is not worth dying for, Zabe.  Who knows what’s really happening.  Come with me.”

Zabe hesitates, and then puts her other hand on the rung.  Ash grabs it too and calls, “We’re ready!”  The helicopter rises, their feet dangle in space, their packs yanking them downward, and then the rope ladder rises too, and they are hauled inside of the metal body.  Ash peels off his pack and lies on his back as Mr. Wu slams the metal door shut, and there is sudden quiet.  Dr. Levi is there too, and she rushes to them and kneels beside Zabe.

“Are you all right?” she asks.  “No frostbite?”  She seems anxious, but Ash thinks that there’s anger there too.

Zabe stands up, shrugging off her pack.  “We’re fine,” she says coldly, “but a little confused as to why we’ve just dragged a massive amount of cans full of spoiled food up and down a mountain.”

“They were spoiled?” Dr. Levi asks.  “How do you know?”

Zabe looks like she’s about to start shouting.  Ash steps in and says, “One of them broke open.  But it makes sense.  Some of them were a bit swollen like there was gas trapped in there.”

“I’m sorry,” Dr. Levi says.  “We never meant for you to do a pointless task.”

Zabe snorts and tosses her head, but Ash has more important things on his mind.  “What happened in the town?” he asks Mr. Wu.  “Who put up the flare?  Why?  Is everyone all right?”

“Sean and Moko encountered some wolves,” Mr. Wu says.  “They got trapped inside a building and needed help.  We had to shoot two of them, but we did get the pelts, so all is not lost.”

“Everyone’s all right?” Ash repeats.  Relief is an intense rush.

“Yes,” Mr. Wu confirms, “and you two acted with immense skill and courage.  I thought that the two of you would be the ones advanced enough to survive in those conditions, and you proved me right.”

“Glad we could perform well in your little game,” Zabe says from the corner.  Ash turns to look at her and almost winces; he has never seen her so coldly furious.  Even Dr. Levi suddenly looks nervous.  “What if we hadn’t?”

“It wasn’t a game,” Mr. Wu says quietly.  “I promise you that, Zabe.”

“But it wasn’t what you said it was,” she says, equally quiet.  “It was something else entirely.”

“Getting the food was important…”

“Not particularly,” Dr. Levi interrupts.  Mr. Wu looks at her and she gives a little shrug, as if to say, well, they already guessed.  “Mr. Wu had to do other things in the town,” she says to Ash and Zabe.

Zabe rolls her eyes.  “So he needed nine fifteen year olds as cover?”

“Yes, he did,” Dr. Levi says.  “Nothing bad happened this year, but in previous years things have been different.  Getting supplies is secondary, at this point, due to how long the town has been abandoned – but in the early days of the school, I can assure you, the things that we salvaged from that town were very important to us.”

“So what is so important that you have to go to this town every year?” Zabe demands.  The second she says it, Ash can tell that she’s gone a step too far.

“For one, it’s a good exercise in discipline,” Dr. Levi snaps at her, “something that you continue to lack no matter how many times we try to teach it to you.  You’ll never be the leader you so obviously want to be if you don’t learn to take orders without knowing the entire situation.”

“How am I supposed to judge what’s best to do without all the information?”

“You are supposed to trust us, the people in charge of you.  Sometimes giving out all of the information is dangerous.  Imagine if we had an enemy who could capture you, and torture you.  If you knew everything, think of what they could get out of you.”

“Is that a danger here?”

“It might be in the future.”

The two of them are face to face, speaking in civil voices, but Ash can feel the underlying violence in the air.  He glances at Mr. Wu and sees that his teacher is similarly riveted to the spot by this battle of wills.  Ash suspects that Zabe will be a formidable opponent in a few years time, but now she is no match for Dr. Levi.  Her anger is too obvious, too undisciplined, compared to Dr. Levi’s ruthlessly tactical fury.

He steps between them and says, “Look, Dr. Levi, I have to tell you that Zabe is the one who obeyed orders the best when we were in the field.  She practically dragged me away when I wanted to go back and help out the people who’d shot off the flare.  If it wasn’t for her, I would have directly disobeyed Mr. Wu because I wasn’t thinking clearly.  I think that now we’re both just upset about losing the supplies because we were worried that the school needs them and because we worked so hard to bring them to you intact.”

Ash can almost feel Zabe’s glare eating through the side of his face.  He hopes that she’ll thank him later.

Dr. Levi prolongs the tension for a few moments before she nods her head and says, “Thank you, Ash, I’m sure you’re right.”  Just like that, Ash sees her anger dissipate.  She turns away and pours them both cups of something hot from a thermos.  Ash watches the steam rising from the cups and his hands start to ache with cold and the desire to touch them.

Dr. Levi turns and hands them each a cup.  Ash sees that Zabe’s hands are shaking as she takes hers.  He wonders if she’s thinking about throwing the boiling liquid in Dr. Levi’s face.

He guesses that Dr. Levi is thinking the same thing.  Smiling, she says, “Now, let’s go back to the school,” and walks out of the main compartment of the helicopter and into the cockpit.  Mr. Wu gives Ash a look of exaggerated relief and follows her.

The conversation is over.





Chapter 8 — Beyond the boundary, part 1

16 08 2009

Ash sits cross-legged on his bed in the infirmary and cups the single pink and green pill in his hand.  He’s wondering how much it cost, where it came from, and how it got to the school.  The pill is a microcosm of everything that obsesses him.  He remembers Zabe saying that Lady Vallance travelled to the outside world frequently.  Of course some of the other teachers – the ones who brought the children to the school – must do so as well.  Then there is the matter of spies, somehow communicating back to the teachers about which children are the right ones to take, meaning only the ones they considered gifted.  There is a Year Seventeen named Nan who has a twin that the teachers had not even bothered to look for the morning they came for her.

Ash often thinks about the timing of the day they came for him.  According to the news report they’d shown him on the box, his parents had died in the morning, victims of catastrophic political violence, but no one in his school had come and taken him out of class to tell him.  It’s possible, he reasons, that they simply did not know.  Maybe no one had been paying attention to their boxes that day.  They might not have identified his parents as the ones killed until later in the day.  He’d waited to be picked up in the playground, nearly twenty minutes, before Miss Beverly came out and asked him if he wanted to wait inside.  It was raining.  He’d lied, “Oh, no, I see my father now,” and raced away from her, around the corner.  He didn’t want to wait anymore.  At the corner he’d paused, stuffed the little case with his box in it down his shirt so it wouldn’t fall, and then ran all the way home.  And then, in the middle of the afternoon, he’d come to the cottage, and walked through the garden gate, and inside.  And the red-haired man had been there, and he’d delivered the news that broke Ash’s life open, and then the helicopter had landed and they’d taken him away.

So how, Ash wonders, did they get the helicopter there that quickly?  Are there two helicopters?  More?  And where do they get their fuel from?  And how do they pay for it?

The question of money looms large now, because he has a feeling that these pills must be expensive.  They had pills where he was from, but they were tiny capsules full of crushed herbs.  These were proper pills, of a kind that he had only seen once, in the spotless white hospital they had gone to in the mountains when one of his parents’ friends had gotten sick.  Whatever he had had, the doctors had come in and explained to him that they could not fix it, and then they had given him one pill and he had fallen asleep and died.  Afterwards Ash remembers his mother going to the doctor and giving him a lot of money, and saying that it was to cover the cost.  The doctor had been almost embarrassingly grateful.

Ash puts the pill back in its small bottle and stands up.  He’s wasting his time here, locked away from the intellectual life of the school by his own stubbornness.  He knows that the timing of the day they came for him is all wrong.  His parents may or may not be dead but if they are, someone connected to the school killed them.

Ash has made his decision.  It’s time to let Lady Vallance think she’s won.

*************************************************************************************

“Lady Vallance.”

She looks up at him from behind her desk, her eyebrows raised.  “You wanted to see me?”

“I’m ready,” he says.  “To stop taking the medicine.  I’m… I feel much better now.”

“Ok,” she says.  She turns back to the papers on her desk.  When he doesn’t move, she asks, “Is there anything else you wanted to say to me?”

Ash’s heart pounds.  “That’s all?” he asks.  “You’re just going to accept my decision?”

“You would know better than anyone else whether or not you’re capable of resuming the normal life of a student,” she says.  “Why shouldn’t I trust you?”

Ash swallows and nods.  “Well, thank you.”

“Mm.”  She waves her hand vaguely in his direction.  “Shut the outer door on your way out, please.”

Ash flees out of her office, out of the anteroom, and into the hallway.  He shuts the door behind him as quietly as he can and stops, facing the long covered walkway that leads out of this building and into the parts of the school where students are supposed to be.  He probes his mind and his memories, feeling for the places that he’s scared have been chemically decimated.

You only took four of the pills before you knew what they were doing to you, he thinks, and only five more after that, the times when you couldn’t avoid it.

He doesn’t know what those five pills touched, or what would be left if he’d taken all of them like he was supposed to, one a night, for over eight months.  He remembers the vague mornings after and the way that everything felt fuzzy around the edges, dreams bleeding at their corners into the day.  The pills seemed to confuse everything he was thinking and mix it all together until fantasy and fact became inseparable – but not in a believable way.  Suddenly everything in his mind lacked the intangible reasonableness that pervades dreams, when logic is broken but the conscious self overrides it.  Everything was untrue.

The thought had been comforting, too.  Every time he took one of the pills because either Lady Vallance or Dr. Levi was there watching, he had been a little bit relieved, because he knew that when he woke up the next morning, he would feel like he was just on the boundary of sleep – like he was inside of the vivid immediacy of a waking dream – and that soon he would be truly awake and not here, but there.

He takes a deep breath and walks across the bridge, heading for the meadow.  It’s a day off, a sunny summer day, the most carefree kind of day in the world – but he can hear the booming report from target practice and he knows that almost all of the students will be doing something directly related to preparing to defend the school.  He walks the length of the valley, goes into the dormitory, to his neatly made bed with its coating of dust – he’s been sleeping in the infirmary since they started giving him the pills – and retrieves his wooden skis.  They need waxing.  He picks up his rifle too, just in case.

This is where I am now, he tells himself, over and over again.  Zabe is here, the rest of our year and the younger ones.  I’ll defend them, not the school.  And when it’s all over, when I’ve defended them as best as I can, I’ll go home.

He walks out into the brilliant sunshine.  It feels good to have a purpose.

*************************************************************************************

Inside the helicopter, everyone is tense.  Their hands are on their ears and their heads are down.  Betsy has her head between her knees and is gulping for air, sick from the motion and the wind and the noise.  Ash hates the helicopter, and he guesses that all of the other students do too.  He looks at Zabe and sees that her hands are balled into fists.  He remembers that she didn’t know how to pronounce helicopter when he met her.  He only knew about them because of museums and history programmes about the industrial age that preceded their own when everyone was supremely wasteful and selfish.  He can smell the nauseating fumes from the helicopter’s engine and it reminds him of being very young and attending a trial of group of men, pirates, who had tried to kidnap people from the southern shore of his country.  His mother had been called upon to testify about his strange machine, and she had led everyone out to the docks to look at it while she explained how it ran.  That part didn’t make any sense to Ash at the time, but he did remember her opening a compartment and pouring out some of the horrible-smelling fuel.

“This is ancient filth,” she had said, her voice ringing out to her audience.  “Even to have brought this near our shores is a crime.  I recommend that this machine be destroyed, and that its captains be banished from the Kingdom and indeed from the Bicycle Republics forever.”

I’m sorry, Mother, Ash thinks, I can’t help it.  Please forgive me.

*************************************************************************************

“Year Fifteen, you are very young for what we are about to let you do,” Dr. Levi had said, “but none of the older classes could be spared from preparing the dam and the power station for the winter.  You have to understand the serious responsibility we are placing on you today.”

Year Fifteen, groggy and roused from warm beds on a cold and early autumn morning, stand and sit around the dining room.  Ash is methodically shoveling warm porridge into his mouth.  There hasn’t been any snow yet, so there aren’t any fires, and the room is freezing.  He can see his breath and the porridge is steaming.  There was frost on the grass when they awoke, delicate translucent tips on each blade that he could see out the window.

“I’m sorry to wake you so early,” Dr. Levi adds.  She glares at Toby, who is performing the classic nod-off-jerk-awake combination in a corner.  “The weather is shifting and we think it is vital that some people be sent out on this mission.  Mr. Wu will be leading you.  He’ll be here shortly, he’s just seeing that the helicopter is ready.”

“What are we doing, Dr. Levi?” Zabe calls out.  She’s sitting across from Ash, a more intense look than usual on her face.  “Are you going to give us details?”

“Mr. Wu will give you most of the details,” Dr. Levi says, “but you are going to an abandoned town with the express purpose of gathering supplies.  These supplies are needed before the winter snows set in and like I said, the weather is turning so it must be done soon.”

“Whose abandoned town?” Zabe asks.

“The people who lived in these mountains before us.”  Dr. Levi frowns at her.  “The same as the miners, Zabe.  You’ll be travelling to their largest town, at least that we know of.  There may be others further away.  But it will be immediately obvious why the town was abandoned.”

“How long ago was it abandoned?” someone else asks.  “Are there going to be dead people?”

Dr. Levi laughs.  “No, no dead people.  The town was abandoned, oh, perhaps fifty years ago?  I’m not entirely sure.”

“Liar,” Zabe mutters under her breath.  Ash widens his eyes at her and she rolls hers back at him and says, “She knows.”

Mr. Wu enters the room then, wrapped in many layers.  “You all need your travelling packs,” he says.  “Dress warmly, it’s very cold out.”

“Should we bring our winter packs?” Moko asks.

Mr. Wu hesitates and says to Dr. Levi, “How long did Ben give us on this storm front?”

“Three days,” she says.  “I think you’ll be ok.”

“It would be nasty to be caught out without them, though.”

“Mm,” she nods, “good point.”  She looks at the students.  “I think you’d better take them, but modify them to be as light as possible.  You will be carrying the supplies you retrieve as well, so keep that in mind.”

“How far will we be carrying them?” Zabe asks.

“About fifteen miles,” Mr. Wu says.  “We can’t land the helicopter near the abandoned city, so we have to hike in and out.”

Everyone starts chattering.  They’ve had three training hikes of ten miles with their winter packs, all in sunny conditions with the promise of a hot meal and warm bed at the end, but they still called them “Death Marches”.  The winter packs are bulky and heavy and carrying them for any distance is misery.

“You have twenty minutes,” Mr. Wu says grimly.  “We’ll fly to a rendezvous point, get dropped off, hike to the town, hike partially out, stay the night, hike more, and get picked up.  Understand?”

They had gone to the dormitories.  The boys’ room was a flurry of throwing objects into bags while getting yelled at by other years to shut up and go away.  Ash had been viscerally reminded of his first morning in the school, the drill and Barky and Holt and all the shouting.  Shouting wakes me up three mornings in seven in this damned room, he’d thought, almost missing the infirmary.  Students in their final year have individual rooms because they have to study so much, and Ash fantasizes about those rooms often.

*************************************************************************************

The helicopter dips sharply, yanking Ash back to the present.  He’s noticed a tendency to wander into daydreams ever since taking the pills, and he doesn’t like it.  Beside him, Betsy is shaking.  He puts his hand on her back and rubs little circles there, trying to calm her down as they descend into an unknown valley in shudders and shakes.

Where they land is one of the most beautiful valleys Ash has ever seen.  Waterfalls patter down the rock walls and water pools and swirls in meandering rivers on its floor.  They put on as much wet weather gear as possible – the wind is whipping up a freezing rain and, as Moko says, it’s better to have the gear on their bodies than in their packs – and then stand in a circle around Mr. Wu, adjusting their pack straps and looking apprehensively for the ascent out of the almost vertical valley walls.  Mr. Wu waves to the helicopter, and it lifts into the air and disappears within minutes.  Mr. Wu stands looking at the scenery for a moment longer, until the helicopter is nothing but a distant thumping, and then he says, “Did you all bring crampons?”

Sheepish looks go around the circle.  Their carefully made crampons are notoriously heavy.

Mr. Wu laughs, and surprises everyone, especially Ash.  “I thought not,” he says.  “I only remembered the glacier route when we were in the air.  It would have saved us about eight miles.  Oh well, follow me then.”  He turns and sets off, heading north.

The hike is long and arduous.  After several hours, they crest over the top of the valley and begin to hike along the ridge top itself, still heading north.  The weather is a steady angular freezing rain and Ash silently thanks his pack for being heavy enough to keep him warm.  Eventually they come to a sleep upslope in the ridge, and it leads up to a broad, flat summit.  Clouds had enveloped them before but gaining altitude puts them above the storm and suddenly they can see for hundreds of miles.

“Wow,” Zabe says ahead of Ash.  He’s barely standing, fighting to get air back into his lungs after the final steep push.

“What?” he gasps.

“That’s a glacier,” Mr. Wu says to Zabe.

“No,” Zabe says impatiently, “look!”

Ash pushes himself upright and looks.  He’s seen lots of glaciers; they were the armor-plating on the mountainsides of his childhood.  Even from the lookout tower, they can see some small glaciers to the north and east.  He has no idea why Zabe is so excited.  He follows the line of the glacier down and then he suddenly understands what Zabe sees.

“A town!” Toby says.  “Look at the town!”

Lapped up against the sides of the glacial tongue are the fragmented remains of what must have been a fairly large human habitation.  The glacial lake has flooded part of it – Ash can see rusted steel girders rising out of the water – but intact buildings rise up the mountainsides around it too, and Ash can see a grey strip that must be a road leading away from the town, around the lake by a wide margin, and heading further down the valley than he can see.

Everyone is pointing and talking at once.  Mr. Wu holds up his hands and says, “All of you, be quiet now.  This is a dangerous place and I need to tell you several things before I let you go down there.”

Ash forces himself to look away.  Besides the abandoned mine, it’s the first evidence he’s seen of other humans since they saw the smoke from the lookout – and before that, since he came to the school.  He wonders what Zabe is thinking.

“Listen to me,” Mr. Wu says.  “I know that you’re excited.  But keep in mind what Dr. Levi said: you are a much younger group than we would normally bring to this place.  You need to be alert and prepared to react to anything.  As far as we know, no one lives here, and no one has since the glacial incursion.  We don’t quite know when that happened, but it was a long time ago.  However, there is always danger in a place like this.  You are outside of the school’s protection for the first time.  You all know the danger of wild animals in these mountains, and once we go down there, you will have the added danger of decaying buildings.  You must be incredibly careful.”  He reaches into his pack and pulls out several handheld boxes.  Ash notes that they are much bigger and older than the one that Orri gave Zabe – or any of the ones that he had as a child.

“Break into pairs,” Mr. Wu says.  Zabe gravitates toward Ash and he smiles at her as the others pair up around them.  “Good,” Mr. Wu says, and he hands each pair one of the boxes.  “These don’t hold charge very well, so you have about six hours of battery life in them.  Each has a map to a different part of the town, and it will tell you that you are to gather a different group of items.  This town has served us well for a number of years at supplying things that we cannot make ourselves.  Now, watch the time on the boxes carefully.  We are going to be hiking back out this evening.  We cannot camp in this valley and I want us to be summiting the ridge by nightfall, otherwise it will be too dark to be safe.  That gives you about two and a half hours to get into the town, find and gather what you need, and be back at the rendezvous point, which is indicated on the map on your boxes.

“Now,” Mr. Wu says, “this plan sounds easy, and this should be easy, but we should have another plan in case something happens.”  He reaches into his pack again and hands each pair a flare.  “It would be better if we had one for each of you, but these are quite hard to maintain, so we don’t.  You know how to expose them, of course?” he asks, and runs through the usual drill with them.  Then he says, “If you see a flare, you need to come immediately to the source to assist your fellow students.”  He looks around at them, and then points at Ash and Zabe.  “You two.  If something bad happens, it’s your job to make it back to the rendezvous point with the helicopter.  Do not come anywhere near where the flare is.  Do you understand?”

They all nod, suddenly serious.  Zabe is looking disappointed and Ash suspects that she feels sidelined from a chance for bravery – but he also suspects that Mr. Wu chose them for reasons that have nothing to do with Zabe.  He smiles at Mr. Wu but doesn’t get a smile back.

*************************************************************************************

They descend into the town, following the line of the glacier.

On the hike down, Ash finds himself walking next to Jemma.

“This is crazy, huh?” he says to her quietly.  “I can’t believe this town is here.”

“Yeah,” Jemma says.  He can see her scrutinizing the side of the glacier, now only fifty meters to their north.  An icy wind comes off of it.  “Look at the ground,” she says.

“What about it?” Ash asks, looking down at the glacial rubble beneath their feet.

“Notice anything weird?” Jemma asks.

“Not really…”

“No moss,” she says.  “The glacier’s retreating.  And it happened recently, otherwise there would have been time for moss to grow here.”

“Don’t glaciers fluctuate all the time?” Ash asks.

“Yeah, but look how big the moss-free zone is,” Jemma says, pointing to the south.  “I think that it’s retreated a lot in the past few decades.”

“Which is weird, since it destroyed the town…”

“Maybe an avalanche or something really destroyed the town,” Jemma replies.  “I mean, we learned that there can be floods and things like that that come off of glaciers suddenly.”

“True,” Ash agrees.  He looks at the strip of road again.  He is dying to know where it leads.  “Where do you think that goes?”

Jemma shakes her head.  “No idea,” she says.  “Out of the valley, but where after that…”

“I wonder if anyone from the school has followed it,” Ash asks.

Zabe catches up to them.  “I was wondering the same thing,” she says.  She has a pair of field binoculars that she won in a competition to race to the lookout, and she’s holding them now.  “It’s all cracked and parts are sticking up, so you couldn’t really walk along it easily.  But the helicopter…”

“Yeah, but Mr. Wu said we couldn’t fly near here,” Jemma says.  “Maybe the winds off the glacier are dangerous.”  Ash and Zabe look at each other, silently agreeing not to say anything more, but Ash knows that they both suspect that the helicopter doesn’t fly here because there might be other humans in the area.

They stop a hundred meters above the first buildings and Mr. Wu tells them to meet there in two hours time.  Then he sets off, alone, walking towards one of the larger buildings.

Ash and Zabe power on their box and immediately a map of the town flickers onto the screen.  There is a red point flashing on the northwest side of town, and a route towards it that goes far away from the bottom of the glacier, skirting the lake.  Other pairs consult their boxes and leave, heading in different directions.

Zabe purses her lips.  “Seems silly to keep carrying our packs,” she says.

“Yeah, but if something happens, you and I have to run for it, remember?” Ash says.

“Ugh,” Zabe replies.  “I’d rather shoot it out.”

Ash shakes his head.  The others have left them and they are alone on a windy ridge, in the rain.  “I think that whoever comes here might have more advanced weapons than we do, you know.”

“Like what?” Zabe asks.  “Do your people have things that are better than rifles?”

“I’m not really sure,” Ash says.  “We don’t have any… battles, or war or anything.  But we have a defense shield.  I don’t know what it’s made of though.”

“Probably just soldiers,” Zabe says.

“No,” Ash says.  “No soldiers in the Kingdom.  We have some ritualized violence in festivals and things, but not real fighting.”

“Weird,” Zabe says.  “Should we go?”

“Yeah,” Ash says, just now thinking how very weird that is compared to the constant martial spirit of the school.  “We’ve got far to go.”

The first buildings they pass are sparse.  They are very large wooden cabins, all their windows and doors gone, mere shells of living space.  Zabe speculates that they must have housed ten families, for their size, but Ash wonders if they, like the helicopters, are relics of the decadent past that his home country so abhors.

Then the buildings become thicker, and smaller.  They pass down what were obviously streets, the pavement ripped to shreds by frost and earth upheaval.  They come down into a part of town where the buildings were made with something that was neither stone, wood, nor brick, but a strange material that mimics stone.  Neither of them has ever seen it before.

Now they are close to the lakeshore, and they can see that the town continues into the water.  Ash can tell that Zabe doesn’t like looking at it, so he tells a story about when the town he comes from flooded and his father pushed him through the streets on a raft.  He feels like it’s easier to think and talk about his childhood now, though he’s not sure why.

“I just don’t like to think about that much water,” Zabe says as they skirt one of the dozens of narrow streams coming from the glacier to the lake.  “It’s a little scary.”

“Snow is water… glacier’s are water…”

“I know,” Zabe snaps, “but it’s different.”

“Ok, sure,” Ash says, rolling his eyes.  He looks at the lakeshore out of the corner of his eye.  It is a little scary, to think of what happened here.  He wonders if the people knew that the lake would rise up and engulf their homes, or if they had a chance to move down that road when it was freshly paved and escape.  He wonders if they noticed the glacier’s slow movement down the mountainside and simply decided to abandon the place, or if the glacier had moved quickly – as they had been taught they could, as difficult to believe as it was – and trapped people and places beneath it.  He wonders if they could find out by going closer to the tongue and looking for buildings that had been crushed when the glacier was bigger.  He suggests this to Zabe.

“They’re probably all ground up,” Zabe says, “or they got washed into the lake.”

“Yeah,” Ash agrees, “you’re probably right.  But some things might remain.”

Zabe shrugs.  “I don’t know,” she says.  “This place is really creepy.  I don’t like it.”

“It’s a natural thing,” Ash says.  “Why is it so creepy?  The people probably saw what was happening and left.  Their descendants are happy wherever they are.”

Zabe shakes her head.  “Not all of them,” she says.  “I bet that a lot of people wouldn’t leave.  This valley is beautiful, and lush, and those houses were nice and probably really expensive.  And maybe their families had lived here for generations.  People don’t just up and leave when there’s a disaster.  Some do, but a lot of people choose to stay with their land and see if they can stick it out.”

“Not when the disaster is this bad,” Ash says.

“Even when the disaster is worse,” Zabe replies, but she won’t say any more about this pronouncement and they come to the red spot on their map in silence.

It’s a giant building made of the strange material.  Zabe puts her hand against its gray side and pushes, but nothing crumbles away.

“I guess it’s safe,” she says, not sounding convinced.  “Honestly though, I don’t like to go in old buildings that haven’t been kept up.”

“I’ve never been in an old building that hasn’t been kept up,” Ash says.  He looks at Zabe, feeling that he was onto something about her past, but she ignored him and started walking around the building.

“C’mon, let’s find an entrance.  We’ve only got an hour.”

“Yeah,” Ash says.  “But how will we see if someone sends up a flare?”

“I think they linger for quite a while,” Zabe says, her voice muffled.  Ash follows her and finds her standing just inside of a gaping hole in the building.  The edges are square, so he guesses that it was deliberately cut.  Inside, it’s very dark.  Ash reaches for his headlamp and ignites the fire behind the glass, then puts it on over his head.  He shines the light inside but sees only shadows.

“Ok, you’re right, this is creepy,” he says.  The hair on the back of his neck and arms is standing up in anticipation of going further inside.  “What are we looking for?”

Zabe holds up the box.  “It says we need to go about twenty meters this way,” she says, pointing.  “I think we should do it without headlamps.  Let our eyes adjust.”

“Is there enough natural light?” Ash asks.  He loathes the idea of going into this dark, cavernous building.

“Yeah,” Zabe says.  “I think there’s a part where the roof is open further ahead.”

Ash blows out his headlamp but keeps it close to hand.  Then he pulls out his rifle and snaps the stock into place.  “I hate this, you know,” he says to her.  He wants his voice to expand to fill the space.

“Me too.”  She holds out the box.  “Ok, follow me.”

They pass through an area with hardly any light, then round a corner and find themselves inside what must have been an atrium.  The skylights lie broken on the ground, and the subsequent exposure to the elements has destroyed much of the roof overhead.  Crumbling building material and tiles lie everywhere and they pick their way across it gingerly.  Glass crunches beneath their thick-soled boots.

“Here,” Zabe says, stopping on the far side in front of a wide, open doorway.  “This is where we’re supposed to go.”

Ash exhales, not aware until this moment that he’s been holding his breath.  He takes off his pack and lays it on the ground.  “How much stuff are we getting?” he asks.  “I don’t have much room.”

“No,” Zabe murmurs.  She’s playing with the box.  “It says to get all of them.  All of what?”

Ash steps through the doorway, rifle ready to fire.  “I hate this,” he repeats.  Light from the atrium illuminates a small rectangular room with two bare walls and then a third with shelves.  Sparse cans with faded pictures of food on them are lying, some on their sides, along the shelves.  “Canned food,” Ash says.  “Come in here, there’s not too much.”

They load up the empty spaces in their packs, but when they put them on they discover that they have become incredibly heavy and that they can barely move underneath them.

“Let’s go outside,” Zabe pants, “and make a travois.”

“Good idea,” Ash says, and they shuffle through the abandoned building, moving as quickly as they can.  Sweat trickles down his back and from his forehead, and his shoulders and thighs feel like they are being squeezed in iron bands, but Ash makes it outside and then leans against the wall and manages to lower his pack slowly.  Zabe bursts out of the building behind him and collapses onto her back.

“Oh god, that was awful,” she says.  She starts to laugh.  “I’m stuck!”  Ash staggers over and unclips her waist and shoulders and helps her pull her arms out of the straps.  “This is the worst mission ever,” Zabe says.  “We’ve never done anything so awful.  I thought the roof was going to fall in on us.”

“Really?” Ash gasps, plopping down onto the ground beside her.  “I thought that something or someone was going to jump out and kill us.”

Zabe starts to giggle again.  Ash pulls all of the cans out of his pack and then says, “This seems sort of mundane, huh?”

“What do you mean?”

“All this work for some canned food.”

“Yeah,” Zabe agrees.  She starts pulling out her cans too.  “I didn’t think our food situation was that precarious, I guess.”

“Me either,” Ash says.  “Imagine in a snowy year, it must be almost impossible to get here.”

Zabe nods her head.  Ash sees the abstracted look on her face and knows that she’s thinking hard.  “Do you think other people are getting similar things?”

“I have no idea,” Ash says.  “I mean, I thought we were pretty self-sufficient.”

“Well, what about boots and rain jackets and sleeping bags and things like that?” Zabe asks.  “That’s all provided for us.  And it’s in our sizes too.”

“But that comes from the outside world, everyone knows that,” Ash says.

“I bet it comes from here,” Zabe replies.

“How would it preserve?  Things break down quickly when they get wet.”

“I don’t know.  Maybe they came and put some chemicals on stuff years ago.  But that makes more sense than thinking that they can go to some super-advanced place in the outside world and buy things like this for a large number of people without getting asked a lot of questions.”

Ash shrugs.  “Just another mystery, I guess,” he says.  “We’ll see what other people bring.”

“Yeah,” Zabe agrees.  She pulls out the well-oiled skin that she wraps her sleeping bag in when she’s sleeping outdoors.  “This should work as a travois, right?”

“Yeah,” Ash agrees.  “Here, we can double it with mine in case it gets a hole in it.”  He pulls his out and then walks towards the lakeshore and, using one of the knives that they were all issued with – something else that, like the binoculars, and the parts for the pump house, he knows must have come from somewhere outside the school – he cuts down two white-barked saplings and returns to her.  Together they lash the travois together and fill it with the cans.  Ash gives one of the sapling trunks an experimental tug and it slides well.

“We’re going to have a hell of a time getting it over the broken road,” Zabe says.  “Any chance we could skirt that?”

“The lakeshore, I guess,” Ash replies.  “But there’s lots of broken stuff there too…”

Ash is looking at Zabe’s face, framed by her jacket and her rabbit fur hat, and so he sees her eyes go wide a second before he hears the sound.

A flare.  He turns around and sees its arc, high over the glacier, originating close to the lakeshore.

“What…?” he asks softly.  He starts forward without thinking, but Zabe calls out.

“We have to go,” she says.  “That’s our duty.”

“I know,” Ash says.  “Right now?”

“That’s not all that far away,” Zabe replies.  She takes the other trunk and says, “Let’s pull together.”

“Where are we going?” Ash asks.  “We’re cut off from getting to the rendezvous unless we go right under the glacier.”

“We can’t,” Zabe says.  “There are too many streams to cross there.  Especially carrying all this.”

They both turn and look around the building.  They are near the edge of town, nearly a half mile north of the glacier.  Not too far away is a dense pine forest heading upslope.  They will have to cross fairly open ground to get there, but Ash judges that it will only take them a few minutes if they work hard.  “Does that route look good?” he asks her, knowing that she is looking at the same thing.

“I don’t know,” she says.  “I guess we can follow it up but we’ll have to cross the ridge above treeline and then we’ll be on the wrong side of the glacier and maybe not even in the right valley to meet the helicopter.”

“I know,” Ash says, “though I’m guessing that if we get to the top of the ridge, we’ll be able to at least see the way to the right valley, if we’re not looking down into it.  And it seems like our only way.”

Zabe takes a deep breath.  “I feel really exposed going up that slope.”

“Me too,” Ash says, “but I don’t think the town is safe.”

Zabe looks at him.  “Why not?”

“A weird feeling?” he suggests, not entirely sure himself.  “I can’t explain it.”

“It’s ok,” she says, “I’ve got the same thing.  I think you have to be right on this.  There’s no other way.”

They start moving, dragging their load behind them.  They have to ease it over rough patches of ground and it seems to take forever, but they come to the trees within ten minutes and then collapse, gasping for air, on a dense carpet of fallen pine needles.

Eventually Ash asks, “Should we climb a tree and try to see what’s happening?”

“Climb one of these trees?” Zabe replies.  She reaches out and pulls one of the thick, prickly bristles down to eye level.  “I don’t think it’s possible.”

“Yeah…” Ash says, twisting his neck and looking up at the trees.

“We should move,” Zabe says.

“I just feel weird leaving them,” Ash says.

“That was what Mr. Wu told us to do,” she replies.  She stands up and stretches.  “We’ve got a major climb ahead of us with all this.  We’d better get moving.”

“Since when are you Miss-Always-Obeys-Orders?” Ash asks, but gently.  He doesn’t want to set her off.

“Since we started doing things that pertain to real life,” Zabe snaps.  “Mr. Wu knew something bad was out there.  He warned us off for a reason – and not just because you’re his favorite student.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ash says wearily.  He’s worried about everyone left behind and he knows the hike ahead is going to be rough.  He doesn’t want to fight with Zabe.  “Let’s just go.”

They spend the next hour aiming for the ridge.  Ash thinks he has never worked so hard, and beside him Zabe is silent and grim as they trudge uphill.  They break through treeline and then have to haul the travois across scree, but they make the ridge while the sun is still in the sky.  For what feels like the hundredth time that day, Ash doubles over and tries to catch his breath.

“This is killing me,” he gasps.  “Got your binoculars?”  He looks at Zabe and is gratified to see that she looks as bad as he feels.  Wordlessly, chest heaving, she hands them to him.  He turns and looks down at the town.

“Maybe we should get off the ridge,” Zabe says.  “They might be able to see us.”

Ash drops to his chest and she crouches beside him as he scans the lakeshore.

“See anything?” she asks.

He can’t.  Sweat is dripping into his eyes and stinging them.  He wipes it away and tries again.  Nothing looks unusual, but he can’t see any movement either.  “Nope.”  He passes them to her and watches her look through them for a long time.

“I don’t see anything either,” she says eventually.  “Weird.”

“Yeah…” Ash says.  “I hope they’re all right.”

“Yeah, me too,” Zabe says.  She stands up, and he sees her gauging the position of the sinking sun.  “Come on.  We’ve got to hurry.”





Back in the UK, chapter eight coming soon

4 08 2009

I am now back in the UK.  I see that I have had a few readers in my absence, which is nice to note.

Chapter eight should be coming soon.  My fieldwork was too intense (one day off in a month!) to write and my internet connection too bad to post anything I might have written, so here we are.