Chapter 8 — Beyond the Boundary, part 2

16 08 2009

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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.

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