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.





chapter 7 coming soon

18 06 2009

Chapter seven, “There’s a first time for everything”, should be out some time this weekend.  Just a minor warning: it’s about fifteen pages long in MS word (size 11 font) and it seems to be composed almost entirely of dialogue.  Ah, how I love writing dialogue.





Chapter 6 — Looking Out, part 2

12 06 2009

The emotional impact of Perry’s story creeps up on Ash over the next few weeks until it’s so huge inside his head that he can’t see beyond it. He wants to feel for Perry, but mostly he is caught up in feeling for himself. He remembers Dr. Levi at his own kitchen table, the helicopter in the garden frightening the sheep and destroying the wintry remains of the vegetable patch. His parents were nowhere to be seen, but now he starts placing them into the image, moving them around and seeing if they fit.

One day, he and Zabe arrive at the lookout to relieve Betsy and Jemma and he sees something that makes him think that if he doesn’t say anything he’ll explode. He is bringing their cold dinner outside so they can eat and watch the sunset when they see them.

As always, to Ash, the view is breathtaking. Blue and then grey mountain peaks stretch as far as the eye can see in all directions from the lookout, fading in color as they recede in distance. It gives Ash the impression that they are cresting on a sea of stone. He has a memory from childhood of being at the top of a mountain and looking away to the distance, where the sea reflected back in a solid silver sheet like the reflection of sunlight on a platter. He doesn’t remember how he got to the top or why he was there, but he can picture this single scene perfectly: the ocean, and the towns strung along the coast, and the sails of hundreds of ships blowing majestically back and forth.

“Come look,” Zabe calls. Ash turns away from the view and rounds the stone wall of the lookout. Zabe’s hand shoots out and stops him. “Shh,” she whispers. “Don’t startle them.”

Ash peeks around the corner and sees a mountain goat and her two offspring. The young ones are covered in fur the color of cream and their horns are downy nubs. Their mother grazes on scraggly weeds while the babies frolic among the rocks. They have a way of leaping straight into the air with their legs very straight that makes them look like they are bouncing on a trampoline.

Ash feels frozen in place, terrified that if he moves he’ll scare them and the babies will clatter down the steep mountainside. But something startles them anyway, or the mother grows tired of the tiny weeds that grow at this altitude, and she trots over the side and down the slope with her babies following behind bleating.

Ash exhales slowly and sits down on the wooden steps that lead to the flat slate roof and its lightning rod. “Think they’ll be all right?” he asks Zabe. “They seem small for how late it is in the season.”

“They’re mountain goats,” Zabe replies. She sits beside him and takes her bowl. “They’ll be fine.”

“I guess,” Ash says, strangely unconvinced. “What if wolves get them?”

“Then the wolf pups will have something to eat.”

Ash rolls his eyes. “You’re philosophical today.”

“I’m philosophical every day.” She performs the standard Zabe shrug.

“Ugh,” says Ash. He holds up his spoon and lets the beans gloop off of it. “I wish we could light a fire and heat this up.”

“Yeah,” Zabe agrees.

“Yeah,” Ash says. “Uh.” He keeps staring out at the view, and the seemingly endless ranges on the horizon, and thinking about that image in his mind of the sails out at sea.

“What?” Zabe asks. “You disagree?”

“Huh? Oh, no, I’m just distracted.”

“By what?”

“What was your life like before you came to the school?”

It’s the first thing that comes into his mind, and he regrets it immediately. Zabe’s face freezes, her lips become a narrow line, and she when she speaks her voice sounds like it’s stretched thin. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Ok,” he says quickly, “sorry, I mean, I don’t want to pry. I was just curious. Because, uh, I talked to Perry and he told me a really weird story.”

“Oh.” Zabe has her head turned slightly away from him.

“And it reminded me of… lots of things. About before I came here. And that kind of thing. And I guess that I wanted to talk about it a little bit, and that when I have problems, it seems like, well, it seems like I talk about them with you.”

“That’s only because you’re stuck in this lookout alone with me for 24 hours a week.” She turns back to him and offers him a little smile. “Right?”

“No,” Ash says, though he’s not sure if he’s telling the truth or not. “You usually, not always, but usually, have something interesting to say.”

She rolls her eyes. “Charming.”

“I’m being honest.”

“I know,” she says. “Really. I’m a bitch sometimes.”

“No…”

She raises her eyebrows at him.

“Ok. Yeah, you are.”

They eat in silence for a long time. Finally Ash says, “Look, can I tell you about something that happened before I came to the school?”

“Sure,” Zabe says. She sounds carefully noncommittal.

“I don’t even know if I’m really remembering it right or not,” he starts, “but I have this really clear image of standing on top of a mountain, being very young, and looking out at this big port town and seeing the ocean and a lot of ships with big white sails going along the coast. And I think about it a lot when I’m here at the lookout. And about going to the mountains in general.”

“Well,” says Zabe, “I remember that when I first met you, you mentioned the mountains and going skiing in them.”

“Yeah,” Ash agrees, “I did mention that. I forgot that I told you.”

“So tell me about them.”

“Hm,” Ash says, “well, we went there for a few weeks every winter.”

“Who’s we?”

“My parents and I.”

“Your famous mother.”

“Right. That’s why we went. We would sail to one of the university towns and my mother would speak there for a few weeks. And then we would sail to the mountains. My mother had friends who would meet us at this university town along a big mountain lake. There were huge mountains all around us there. They were different mountains from these. Like, they looked different. They were more jagged, and there were little towns in every valley, and we travelled between them on gliders. My mother’s friends lived in a little village and we would ski all day down the mountain behind their house.”

“What was the skiing like?”

“It was fast. There were no trees to slow us down. We would hang onto these tow ropes that dragged us up the slope with gliders and then we’d go sliding back down.”

“I can’t imagine just skiing down an empty hill,” Zabe says. “Without skins or anything?”

“Exactly,” Ash replies. “It was just incredibly fast. And so, so scary.”

“Why scary?”

“Well everyone I skied with was probably ten years older than me. All of my parents’ friends’ kids were much older because my parents had a special dispensation, so I was always the really young one in the group. They looked after me, but not very well.” Ash remembers the older kids towing him behind them, consistently bringing him higher up the slope than he wanted to go. “I guess they didn’t remember what it was like to be a little kid.”

Zabe cocks her head. “What do you mean your parents had ‘a special dispensation’?”

“Oh, well…” Ash laughs. “This is funny.”

“What?”

“When I was talking to Perry, we ran into the exact same problem. He kept talking about things from home that seemed totally obvious to him but that to me didn’t make any sense. Where I’m from, we have very strict laws on reproduction. Parents over a certain age can’t have children without pleading their case and getting a special dispensation from the government.”

Zabe frowns. “Why not?”

“Well, because it would be irresponsible to wait until you were over thirty to have children if your average lifespan is forty-five, right?”

“I guess… but it seems unenforceable.”

“What do you mean?”

“How do you stop people from getting pregnant?”

Ash blinks. “Like… actually, physically getting pregnant? Like the cows do?”

“Uh, as far as I am aware, humans do it too…”

“Well I know that we’re biologically capable but…” Ash shakes his head. “Wow. Well at least where I’m from, we’ve gotten away from doing anything that barbaric. We grow our babies in hospitals and the parents come to collect them when they are the correct age.”

Zabe raises her eyebrows. “Are you sure that isn’t just a story your parents told you to avoid an awkward conversation?”

Ash isn’t sure about that, but he’s not going to let her know. “Look, anyway, everyone has to have their child before they are twenty-eight or they need special dispensation. My sister Marcella died before I was born and my parents were just over the age limit, so they applied for another child.”

“Huh,” Zabe says. “Go on.”

Ash does go on, recollecting every family trip to the mountains and the tiniest details: what color his snowsuit was, what the candy in the villages tasted like, where they stayed and what they ate and what brilliant and witty things his mother said at dinner parties.

“Ash,” Zabe says eventually. “It’s a nice story and all. Really. It sounds great. But…”

Ash sighs. “But you want me to get to my point.”

“Do you actually have a point?”

“Yeah, I actually do.” He sighs again. “You know that kid Perry?”

“The little Year Nine who we saw arrive on the helicopter? Yeah, why?”

“I had a really disturbing conversation with him the other day.”

Ash relates Perry’s story to Zabe. She sits, listening and chewing on her lip, for the entire thing. When he comes to the end, and to Perry running away from him, she shakes her head.

“That wasn’t really fair to you,” she says. “I mean, you were just trying to be nice.”

“Yeah, but I was also just doing exactly what Dr. Levi told me to do. It’s like you said about how we’re constructing this reality. I don’t want to be an advocate for it. If I thought I could go back home…” He pauses. “I mean…”

“What?” Zabe asks. “Would you really?”

“I don’t know.” Ash is having a thought and he doesn’t want to share it with her. It feels like something trying to break out of its shell.

She’s insistent. “I want to know!”

“I don’t care,” Ash snaps. “I don’t have to tell you everything.”

Zabe glares at him, stands up, and walks inside the lookout tower. Ash sits for a few minutes and tries to unpry the bits of the eggshell off his thoughts one by one. Then Zabe emerges, dragging her sleeping bag behind her.

“Where are you going?” he asks.

“I’m sleeping on the roof,” she says.

“Really? What it if rains?”

“Then I’ll get wet.”

Ash can feel the disdain radiating off of her like heat. “Um,” he says, “sorry I said that to you.”

“Yeah, well,” Zabe replies, and then she swings the sleeping bag up onto the flat roof and hoists herself up beside it. “Goodnight.”

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

“Ash,” Zabe says. “Ash, wake up.”

He opens his eyes. He’s sweaty inside the dark cavern of his sleeping bag and he feels uneasy but can’t remember why. He squeezes his head out into the freezing dawn air and remembers: because he slept on the roof. Also, because Zabe is mad at him.

She seems to have forgotten it, or at least forgiven him. She is sitting up beside him with her sleeping bag drawn up to her neck. One of her arms sticks out of the side, and she is clutching the heavy binoculars to her face one-handed.

“What?” Ash asks. He yawns and slides the bag down to rest beneath his armpits. The cold air feels great. “It’s so early, Zabe.”

“I know,” she says. “Look.” She holds out the binoculars.

He takes them from her and she immediately curls her exposed arm back inside her sleeping bag. He notices that she’s shivering. “How long have you been awake?” he asks.

“Oh,” she says, “a while now. Just watching.”

He raises the binoculars to his eyes with both hands and pans around the landscape. “What am I looking for?” he asks.

“It’s hard to spot,” she says. She stretches towards him and guides the binoculars around so that he is looking almost due north. “Focus far away. Do you see it?”

Ash starts to say no, but then he does see it: a thin dark column. It rises up into the air from within a valley so deep that he cannot see the bottom.

“Was there a lightning strike in the night?” he asks. “Maybe we shouldn’t sleep out here again.”

“I don’t think that’s natural, Ash.”

He lowers the binoculars and looks at her. She’s biting her lip and her eyes look big and strangely black in the dawn light.

“You think someone lit it, you mean?”

“It looks like it’s coming from a chimney. Or maybe a really small campfire,” she says.

“A chimney,” Ash repeats. He raises the binoculars again. “I swear that’s fifty miles away.”

They don’t talk for a few minutes. Then Zabe says, “I don’t think it’s someone from the school.”

“No,” Ash agrees.

The first rays of the sun strike the edge of the lookout and creep up their legs, warming them inside their sleeping bags.The column of smoke disappears from the ground up until just a hazy grey top remains; then the wind disperses that. Someone or something has extinguished it. Ash feels numb.

“I have no idea what to think or do about this,” he says to her.

“Mm.” Zabe chews a fingernail before she says, “I guess the question is… do we tell anyone?”

“Yeah,” Ash says. In a detached way, he’s amazed at how she is continuously a step ahead of him. “I mean, if we hadn’t decided to sleep up here, we never would have seen it.”

“Does that suggest that whoever it is knows that someone is watching during the day and just let a fire go on too long?” Zabe asks. “Do these people know that we’re here?”

Ash thinks about that for a long time. The teachers are adamant that they do not light fires until the first big snow. That’s when any chance of travel over passes essentially ends, which, given that the river is impassable due to waterfalls and current, is the only way into or out of the valley. From the school, they can travel through the tunnel to the valley of the lake, but other than that, snow means they are cut off from any potential attack. Dr. Levi makes no secret that this is why they don’t light fires. But they do have a fairly large impact on the environment and from the air the school would immediately stand out to a careful observer – but it’s almost unthinkable that someone would have a way of flying overhead. Ash wonders how many ridges and valleys away he would have to be before he couldn’t see into the valley any more.

“I don’t know if they know,” he says finally. “What do you think?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t know either. But I don’t think we should tell anyone. This might be nothing, and we’d start a panic. This is probably just a… a pilgrim, I don’t know, someone who was lost in the wilderness and came into these mountains because they were fertile and more protected than the desert plains.”

“Yeah,” Ash agrees, “It was a tiny fire. It was probably just one guy.”

They come back to the lookout for duty for weeks after that, but they never see another trace of their lone pilgrim.

The first snow comes early in September, lookout duty ends, and Ash thinks that whoever he or she was, death must have come by now. He listens to the howling wind of the blizzard outside the windows and knows that no one could survive in this harshly beautiful place alone.

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

It probably takes Ash a while to notice, but near the end of the year, he realizes that Perry is missing.

He asks around, first to a few of the older students and then to Dr. Levi, but they all shrug and say that he wasn’t doing well and so has been sent back. Everyone is careful not to specify where exactly he has been sent to, and, except for Dr. Levi, Ash gets the impression that none of them have any idea. Then he goes to the Year Nines, and ask them, and they come up with a variety of wild theories:

He was eaten by wolves.

Enemies kidnapped him during a drill, which wasn’t actually a drill.

He ran away.

He moved to another school.

He fell into the river and drowned and no one noticed.

Ash gives up on asking and decides to employ what he considers to be his greatest skill: brooding. Up until now, he’s told himself that, while Perry was not lying, he was mistaken about what he saw – but now, doubt starts to chew away at this hypothesis. What if Perry’s mother and sister were still alive? What if Dr. Levi and the other two people had deliberately burned the house, not to mention the town? There were no other enemies mentioned in Perry’s story, no one else who he didn’t recognize, and hadn’t he compared the violence to vids on the box, rather than to violence that he had experienced before?

If that’s all true, what else are the teachers lying about?

Once again, he comes to a point where he has to tell someone. On a wet, blustery, winter afternoon, when anyone in their right minds would be warm and indoors, Ash follows Zabe across the meadow and down to the icy shore of the river. When they reach the water’s edge, she turns on him.

“I know you’re following me. What the hell?”

“I have to tell you something.”

“Ok.” She stands there, waiting.

“Perry’s gone,” he says, feeling like an idiot. “Dr. Levi won’t tell me what happened to him. I think he ran away.”

“Damn,” Zabe says. “Bad time of year to do it. Well, good luck to him.”

Ash doesn’t know what he expected from her. “Doesn’t this bother you?”

“It’s what he wanted, you said so yourself.”

Ash makes a noise of frustration and looks at the ground.

“What?” Zabe asks. “What’s going on?”

Ash takes a deep breath. “I just think… I think my parents are alive. I think the teachers are lying to us. I think they completely lied about what happened to them and about why they brought us here and I bet that your parents are alive too and that if you just went back you could see them again–”

“No,” Zabe says. “I don’t know about your parents but mine are… gone, and I can’t see them again, and even if you offered it to me, I wouldn’t.” Her eyes are fierce in the moonlight. Ash takes a step away from her but she steps forward until their noses are nearly touching and says very quietly, “Why do you want to leave so much anyway?”

“Zabe,” he starts, but he already feels defeated. All the quiet buoyancy that has been lifting him up ever since the thought came to him is leaking out of his body and now he feels deflated and small. “I just want to know the truth,” he says, but he doesn’t. He wants to go home. He wants to be a child again.

“How is leaving here going to show you the truth?” she demands, but he doesn’t know. He shakes his head and she sighs and looks away from his face as if she’s disappointed in him. “Is it really important to you?” she asks.

“Yes,” he says. “It is.”

He can see her considering this. Then she says, “Let’s go straight to the source then.”

“The source of what?”

“Of truth, in this school at least.”

“Dr. Levi isn’t going to tell us a thing about my parents.”

“I’m not talking about Dr. Levi,” Zabe snaps. “Think, idiot. Even she has a boss.”

“Lady Vallance?” Ash isn’t sure what to think about that. Lady Vallance is rarely around the school. She leaves for weeks at a time and he hasn’t spoken with her since the night he first arrived. “Why would she know anything?”

“She’s the one who goes to the outside world all the time,” Zabe says. Ash is silent. “What?” Zabe asks. “Did you think she was out meditating in the forest?”

“I have no idea,” Ash snaps.

“Well, trust me. She isn’t.”

Infuriated, Ash follows Zabe as they trek back across the meadow. He’s coming up with a million remarks to throw back at her, but the moment is long past. Instead of heading for the dining room, where everyone is getting ready to have dinner, she marches them across the West Bridge and then across the wider south meadow. They cross the frozen stream on foot and then move in through the wide wooden door of the Eastern Building. The smell of sawdust rises from the carpentry workshop and Ash can hear the reassuring murmur of voices in one of the classrooms. He follows Zabe as she opens the door to the bridge that crosses over into forbidden territory and then stops at the gateway.

“I’m really not sure about this, Zabe.”

She turns back on him. “You said it was important to you.”

He spreads his hands. “I don’t want us to get into trouble.”

She rolls her eyes. Ash can feel himself getting angrier.

“Do you want to know the truth about your parents?” she asks.

“Do you honestly think I’m about to find it out?”

She hesitates. “No,” she says. “Probably not. But I think that you might put some people on notice that you want to find out, and that you have these suspicions. And who knows. Maybe you will find something out.”

“And why do you care?”

Now Zabe looks peeved. Ash is pleased. “Why do you keep asking me stuff like that?”

“Because I want to know!”

“Don’t people ever… just… I don’t know, help other people?”

“People probably do. Do you?”

Zabe glares at him. “I’m offering to help you right now.”

“I get that. But why?”

Zabe spins around and marches across the bridge, through the door, and into the hallway outside of Lady Vallance’s office. Ash jogs after her and they come to a halt together as the door swings open.

Framed in the doorway is Lady Vallance herself. Ash wonders if she knew they were coming. She probably heard the whole argument.

“You do know that this area is restricted, don’t you?” she asks them.

“Yes,” Zabe says, “but we’ve come to talk to you.”

“Unfortunately that’s not a right I can grant students without some prior warning. Now, I want you to turn around and–”

“I think that my parents are alive.”

Ash feels like he’s just dropped a grenade that has failed to go off.

Lady Vallance says to him, “Well then, I suppose that we can talk.”

“Yes,” Ash says, breathing out. “Good.”

Lady Vallance beckons him into her office. Zabe tries to follow but she puts up a hand and says, “You are not welcome here. This matter is between myself and Ash.”

Zabe starts. “But–”

“Now,” Lady Vallance says, “get out.”

It’s the last Ash sees of Zabe for months: the shrinking sliver of her as Lady Vallance slams the door.





Chapter 6 — Looking Out, part 1

12 06 2009

After the smoke-grey clouds have crowded in, and solidified into a bulbous, low-hanging mass, the lightning starts. It’s long after noon, late for a summer storm to come in, but Ash is starting to be able to tell when it’s going to be a big one, and this is going to be a big one.
“This one looks big,” Zabe mutters. It’s the first words either of them has spoken since last night, and her voice is hoarse.
Ash opens the trap door in the centre of the lookout’s floor and grabs the binoculars, his books, and the little pack of matches. He clambers down the ladder and lights the big lantern that hangs from the cellar’s ceiling. He listens to Zabe scraping around upstairs and then the first wave of thunder comes and the entire lookout shakes.

“Do you have the record book?” Zabe yells down to him.

“It’s in the box!” he calls back, swinging around to the metal box bolted into the stone wall and opening the lid. He pulls out the record book and sits at the table with it. “Come on down here!”

“Do you have a pencil?”

“Doesn’t matter, get down here!”

There’s a huge flash of light from above and the entire building shakes. Zabe storms down the ladder a second later, flushed and panting. “I can’t…” she yells and then the thunder crashes in again and Ash has to watch her mouth move in the shadowy light.

“I have a pencil,” he says calmly. “It was in the box, too.”

“Oh,” says Zabe. She shuts the trap door and then sits down in the other chair. Their knees bump together. They’re squeezed into this tiny cellar: her, him, table, two chairs, and a foot square metal box protruding from the wall. The lantern swings two feet overhead, throwing light. “Ok, I think we need to record that that fire is still burning to the east.”

“Did you figure out its position for today?” Ash asks.

“Yeah, but it looks the same as before.” Zabe unfolds the topographic map she’s been carrying all morning and shows him the position. “I think it’s running out of fuel.”

“Yeah, it’s smaller than it was yesterday,” Ash says, scanning yesterday’s records. “God, Toby has the worst handwriting I’ve ever seen. Is that a six or a q?”

“Based on context…” Zabe says and Ash grins and nods.

“What are we putting down for potential danger?”

“Well, if there’s an avalanche, then those trees are heading straight into the lake.”

“Yeah, good point,” Ash says. “I’ll write, ‘could lead to timber clogging in lake’.”

“That would be bad news,” Zabe says. She’s watching him write. “Add something about ‘potential avalanche threat’.”

“Got it,” Ash says. He writes for a minute more and then puts down the pencil. In the meantime, Zabe has opened her books and started to read. Ash opens his own books, slotting them into the spaces hers have left atop the table, and gets to work. He wishes, as he always does when he is taking notes, that he had his box

An hour later, they emerge up the trap door into a new world. The air feels new in their mouths and the floor-to ceiling windows of the lookout reveal a cloudless sky stretching as far in all directions as they can see. They are perched atop a mountain, lower than many of the mountains around but high enough that they have commanding views. Zabe takes up the binoculars and looks out to the northeast, where the storm has extinguished the wildfire that threatened the lake.

“Is there a lot of damage?” Ash asks, looking out at the grey hillside.

“I’m not sure,” Zabe replies. She passes the binoculars to him. “It didn’t go high enough up the slope to form an ideal avalanche chute, I don’t think…”

Ash squints through the viewfinder at a forest of ashen tree skeletons. It’s late in a relatively dry summer – or so the fifteen years of records taken by the school suggest – and the landscape looks parched, especially above treeline, where the alpine tundra is brown in the sun. They seem to have escaped disaster today, but at least once a week, lightning will ignite a new wildfire within a fifty mile radius of the school. The entire surrounding forest is a tinderbox and the school itself looks tiny and vulnerable even with the protective firebreaks and trenches dug around its edges.

Year Fourteen has lookout duty during the summer wildfire months. A much higher year – Nineteen, Ash thinks – regularly makes the journey up the north face of the school’s valley in the winter months to have a look around the surrounding area, but whatever they find there has never been reported in Ash’s hearing. For Ash, lookout duty – two people, one day and night a week, arriving late in the evening after a two hour hike and leaving late the next evening for a one hour descent – is the highlight of his week. He likes the solitude and the open freedom of the mountaintops.

Zabe is his lookout partner. He doesn’t mind the long silences and odd conversations too much, but he understands why everyone else in their year shied away from duty with her. Zabe in close quarters can be intense.

“What do you think?” Zabe asks from beside him. He is acutely aware that she has been watching him as he makes his scan of the area.

“No idea,” he admits. “I can see what you mean about potential for an avalanche to take the burned debris down to the lake and, worst case scenario, rip through the net and overflow the dam, but…”

“Ugh,” Zabe says. “Since you don’t seem capable of making a decision, as per usual, I’m going to look through the records for any previous wildfires in that area.” She plops down on the floor, crosses her legs, and reaches for the logbook.

Ash is two synapses firing away from saying to her, “This is why no one wants to have lookout duty with you,” but he manages to hold it in and instead broods on the best possible way to deliver the line for maximum devastation while panning around the circumference of the lookout’s view again.

Ash loves the mountains: the long vistas and the fractal, pyramid horizon, the feeling that he gets when he surmounts a particularly rough summit. He’s making a map in his free time up here in the lookout that depicts in excruciating detail as much of the surrounding panorama as he can take in from his binocular view. It is like writing the most precise love letter of all time.

To pass the time until they are relieved by the next pair this evening, he sits on the wood floor opposite Zabe, props the binoculars on a crude stone tripod, takes out the map he has labeled “NorthWestern Views”, and begins to draw.

They sit in silence as the sun bakes the wood floor and they shift around to avoid it. In a reverie of artwork, Ash broods further on what he would say to Zabe if he thought she would listen. For weeks now, ever since it happened, he’s been replaying the conversation he had with her about Mr. Wu and the music lessons over and over again.

Zabe asking him, “How are you so good at being a person?”

Him, deflecting her.

He doesn’t think that he’s particularly good at being a person, as she put it, but he guesses that from her perspective – which to him seems to veer wildly between complete oblivion and awkward self-consciousness – he must seem like a social god. It feels bad to think that, but he remembers her snapping at him earlier, so it also feels kind of good. He glances up at her and sees her biting her lip in concentration, reading whatever she’s been writing. Out of the nine people closest to him in life, she was the only one to ask what happened with Mr. Wu. And somehow that made her the only person he wanted to tell.

“I think that one is at more of a slope than this,” Zabe says. Ash jumps and drops his pencil. Zabe is suddenly looming over him, kneeling and staring down at his drawing. She points, her finger hovering a millimeter above the paper. “Right there,” she says.

“Uh, you sure?” Ash asks. He rechecks through the binoculars and yes, it’s annoying, but she is right. “Ok, good eye.”

Zabe hovers over him until he has finished correcting it. He gets uncomfortable and twists around to look up at her.

“You ok?” he asks, for want of a better thing to say.

“Oh,” Zabe says, “you know.” She shrugs and looks at her hands.

“Did you figure anything out from the records?”

“It was interesting, but ultimately pretty useless,” she says. There’s something philosophical about her voice, and the statement, that makes him like her more. “I mean, we’ll see if it breaks the dam or not in the winter, won’t we? Numbers won’t change that.”

“Yeah,” Ash agrees. “Though if something breaks the dam we are all, as I believe several people have pointed out before, completely stuffed.”

“We could go to straight solar power.”

“No way to convert it, really, is there? No way to store it but in the pumps.”

Zabe starts to say something, but is cut off when they hear a far-off sound like something beating rhythmically through the air.

“The helicopter!”

They scramble to their feet and run to the windows.

“Coming in from the west!” Zabe points.

Ash raises his binoculars and squints along that line. “Yeah, a bit south too.”

They watch together as the helicopter swings in, flying low past the lookout. The side door is open and Dr. Levi, her short hair whipping around her face, waves to them. Ash waves back as the helicopter moves down into the valley. Crosswinds buffet it until it is held in the shelter of the hills; then it falls into the wind shadow and settles down lightly in the meadow.

The rotors wind down and leave the massive landscape in silence. Ash is suddenly aware of Zabe breathing beside him. Helicopter buddies tend to be a special kind of friend within Year groups. Year Fourteen came in three bunches – five when they were seven, three when they were eight, and then Ash and Zabe, three years too late, forever to be set apart from their peers by virtue of that simple arrival. Ash isn’t sure if he resents Zabe for that or not.

“Who did they bring?” Zabe asks. “How many?”

Ash raises the binoculars again. “Um, looks like four. Three girls and a boy.” He squints and shifts his focus, because lots of people are crowding around the helicopter now and he can’t quite see. Then he catches sight of the boy, who is doubled over. Dr. Levi is crouching beside him, her hands on his hunched shoulders. “Something’s wrong with the boy.”

“Let me see,” Zabe says. She takes the binoculars. A moment later, she says, “He’s ok. He’s standing up. But he’s definitely been crying.”

Poor thing, Ash thinks, but he’s learned not to say it aloud.

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

A few weeks later, Dr. Levi holds Ash back after class.

“Have you met the new Year Nine?” she asks him.

He shrugs. “I’ve seen him around and introduced myself to him. Not much more than that.”

“I would really appreciate it if you talked to him,” she says. “He’s not adjusting to life at the school very well.”

Ash takes her hidden meaning – that he probably will understand better than most, because he didn’t at first either – and shrugs again. “I’ll see what I can do,” he says, “but it’s probably just going to take time.”

He walks away from her classroom with the distinct feeling that he’s about to get into trouble. Teachers don’t often ask for favors and this is a weird one to have asked for. Dr. Levi is probably the only teacher in the entire school who even dares to think that some of the students might need more than a brief adjustment period. They’re supposed to be so young when they’re taken that whatever they felt for their previous families can be swept away in the strangeness and constant closeness of this new family. Ash wonders if there’s a period in every student’s life, once he or she leaves the school, when it becomes obvious just how brainwashed they’ve been.

He tries this question out on Zabe later that day. It’s hot outside and the Year Fourteens are puttering about the meadow, theoretically checking on fish traps but really shoving each other into the river and running around yelling. Zabe is lying in the grass with her feet draped over the edge of the bank, but she sits up to laugh at him.

“What?” Ash demands. “I don’t see how brainwashing is funny!”

Zabe shrugs with the ultimate condescending languor. “Your family brainwashed you too, Ash. Everyone is brainwashed into thinking that they should belong to a certain group in society.”

“Don’t start with me,” Ash mutters. Dr. Levi has been teaching them social theories and how to manipulate an enemy mind by constructing false realities. “I mean, really, this school is doing the exact same thing to us that Dr. Levi says we should do to a prisoner of war!”

“Not really,” Zabe says. “We’re constructing our actual reality, you know.”

“Oh, shut up,” Ash says. He leaves Zabe to her intellectualizing and goes in search of the new kid.

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

Perry is his name. Ash has met him once before, on his first night at the school, when he sat hunched over his food like a terrified mouse at the table with the Year Nines. Ash had come over to introduce himself, along with everyone else in Year Fourteen, and then they’d left the Nines to it and had gone back to their own table. Ash hasn’t noticed anything about him since. He tracks Perry down after dinner and asks him if he’d like to come for a walk.

“I don’t know if I’m allowed,” Perry says.

“Oh, if you’re with me, it’s fine,” Ash replies.

They walk out into the meadow and sit by the river, in the same spot where Zabe was earlier in the day. It’s a beautiful place and remarkably lonely in the midst of the school.

Ash doesn’t know how to have the conversation that Dr. Levi wants him to have. He wishes that Holt were here, to show him how.

“So Perry,” he tries, “Dr. Levi told me that you were having a hard time adjusting to life at the school. Can I help you in any way?”

“No,” Perry says. Ash senses that he is suddenly on his guard. “You can’t help me at all.”

“Are you sure?” Ash asks. He’s not really sure what else to say.

“You can’t help me,” Perry repeats. “I want to go home to my village. I don’t want to be in the school. And you can’t fix that.”

“No,” Ash says, “I can’t.” He’s cautious. He knows that he can’t give Perry what he wants but no one else can either. This is about what Holt taught him to do: about lowering his threshold for happiness. “You’re right, I can’t fix that. But… I guess that you have to learn how to work within the realistic limits of what we can do. You have to learn how to be happy within the confines of the school, if you know what I mean.”

Perry shakes his head violently. “That’s not going to happen. I can’t be happy outside my village. I’m going to escape.”

Ash frowns. “Believe me, Perry, there’s nothing within a thousand miles of this place. Zabe – she’s a girl in my year – thinks that there’s a big desert surrounding the mountains to the south, west, and maybe east. The north would be too cold. You can’t just escape from it.”

“I don’t want to be here,” Perry says. “And I’m going to leave if I want to!” He turns to stare out at the meadow and Ash sees his chin start to quiver.

So he tries a new tactic. “Why don’t you want to be here? Maybe we can fix what’s wrong with here.”

“I don’t want to be here because my mother and my sister aren’t here. I want to be with them!”

Ash hesitates. “But aren’t they…”

“Oh,” Perry rolls his eyes, “sure, Dr. Levi says they’re dead.” His voice cracks there and he gulps a little air before he continues. “But I know they aren’t.”

Ash gives up on being sensitive. Now he’s interested. “How do you know?”

“I saw them,” Perry says. “When we were in the big flying thing. The helicopter. We came off the ground and my house was on fire and I saw them running away into the fields.”

Ash flops onto his back and stares up at the darkening sky, considering. “Will you tell me the whole story?”

“What whole story?”

“About what happened when they came for you in the helicopter.”

“Ok,” Perry says. “Are you going to believe me?”

Ash wonders this himself. Eventually he says, “I don’t have any reason not to.”

“Are you going to tell Dr. Levi what I say?”

Ash props himself up on one elbow. “Look, Perry, we’re both students here. I’ll always take your side against the teachers. I’m not going to tell her anything except that I cheered you up and you’re ready to be a functioning member of the school.”

Perry frowns. “She’ll know you’re lying.”

“Then I’ll say that I did all I could. Whatever you want me to say.”

“Ok,” Perry says, “I guess I’ll tell you. I don’t even care if you tell her, because I’m going to be gone really soon anyway.”

“I hope that’s not true,” Ash says, but he feels the obligation in it.

Perry ignores him. “So this is what happened:

“I was at the market. It’s in the center of our village. My mother has a stall there where she sells the fruit that we pick. My sister is older so she was helping Mamma out with the money and I was sitting on the stool in the back sorting out the different kinds of berries into baskets. Then there was this big loud noise. It was just like in a vid on the box, everything shook and the front of our stand fell over. Mamma grabbed me and Sis and she took us down to the river. Everybody was getting on the big canoes and was going to sail out to the big island in the middle of the lake and wait for the danger to pass like whenever the Red People come over the hills to raid our village. That’s just where we go, we’ve got big watchtowers there and when I get older I’m going to be a lookout on a watchtower and watch the hills so I can see the Red People coming.

“But when we got down to the lake, our paddles were gone, and there was no room for us in any of the other canoes. Mamma said that we had to go back for the paddles because she must have left them at the house. So we went back to our house. It’s near the hills because we are poor so it was a long walk from the lake. The whole time there were all these explosions. Somehow I got separated from Mamma and Sis so I ran back to the house. There were people sitting inside. Dr. Levi was one of them and then two men who I don’t know. They told me that my Mamma and Sis were dead and they showed me on the box!”

“Wait, what?” Ash comes out of the reverie of listening. “What did they show you? I thought you said they were alive.”

Perry nods his head emphatically. “They are alive. I know it. But they showed me on the box them getting blown up and they said that it just happened, just then, so I was really lucky to be alive.” He pauses and takes a deep breath. “I didn’t know what to say. It was really scary but it didn’t feel true. People in my village have a strong connection and like the last time that the Red People came, I knew that my Sis was in trouble because she made me feel it!”

“You can feel it?” Ash is confused. “Like… how?”

“I don’t know. You just can.” Perry shrugs. “It’s because of the sparker.”

“What’s a sparker?”

Perry pulls his hair off his neck and shows Ash a tiny scar just above his collarbone. “That’s my sparker,” he says. “It’s how I got born.”

Ash shakes his head. “I don’t get it.”

“I know,” Perry says, nodding. “You’re not from my village. You can’t get born the way I can.”

Ash smiles. “But here I am.”

Perry shakes his head. “Here you are, but you aren’t alive. It’s ok. No one else is, just us, not even the Red People and they’re our nearest neighbors. We were Chosen.” He pauses and glances at Ash. “Whatever. It doesn’t matter. I’ve got this connection and I know when they’re in trouble, just like they do for me. Except it doesn’t work this far away. So they might think I’m dead, but when I get close to them, when I get out of here, they’ll know it.”

“So Dr. Levi said that they were dead and she showed you this vid on the box to prove it,” Ash says. This conversation is starting to seriously creep him out. “Was it a high-quality vid?”

Perry shrugs. “I don’t know what that means.”

“Oh,” Ash says, “it has to do with what type of vid it is. Never mind. It doesn’t matter. So then what happened?”

“So then they said they were going to take me away and look after me. I wasn’t happy about it and I kept yelling and saying no but they took me right out of the house and put me in the big flying bird – the helicopter – and then there was another explosion and our house lit on fire! And then we took off and were flying up into the sky, straight up, not like a bird, and I looked down and saw my mother and my sister! They were running away from the house and into the field where we grow our fruit. And the whole village was on fire and the canoes were out in the lake paddling for the island. Everybody must have been really scared of the helicopter because we’ve never seen anything like that before and some of them kept stopping and staring at us. And I kept screaming for my mother and Dr. Levi kept telling me I was making it up because I was sad. And then they brought me here. I think they made me eat something that made me sleep for a really long time because I don’t remember the in-between part.”

Ash feels bleak and washed out. “And you think Dr. Levi is lying to you?” he asks.

Perry sighs and twists around to look back at the meadow. Ash follows his gaze to the lit-up windows of the dormitory.

“No one’s watching us,” he says. “We’re fine.” It seems like the right thing to say.

“I feel like I’m being watched,” Perry mutters. “You try being unhappy here.”

“I was,” Ash says. He’s startled when he admits it, because it feels so far away. “I was for the first six months I was here. I wanted to go back to where I grew up. I spent every minute I had trying to remember what I left behind. Then I got a talking to from an older student and I figured out that…” He trails off.

“You figured out what?”

Ash hesitates. He doesn’t know how to put it. Eventually, he says, “I figured out how to… well, I guess how to manage my emotions so that I wasn’t always thinking about what I lost.”

Perry is non-plussed, and Ash can tell. It’s not a good answer. “So you think you’re going to be that older student for me? Teach me how to ‘manage my emotions’ so I do what they want me to do?”

“No,” Ash starts, but he realizes that this is almost certainly what he thought he was doing. Holt on the porch, telling him to forget what was behind him. A person to aspire to be.

“Well go to hell,” Perry says. He stands up. “I shouldn’t have told you anything. I don’t want your help.” Without another word, he turns and runs across the meadow, away from Ash. Ash watches him run unevenly through the long grass until he reaches the lit-up circle of the dormitory and disappears from sight.

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





Approach to the Lookout Tower, by Ash

1 06 2009

Corresponds to Part 1, Chapter 6.  This is the first view of the Lookout Tower at the top of the North side of the valley, as seen by Ash.

Approach to the Lookout Tower, by Ash

Link to the full size here.





Map of the School, by Ash

1 06 2009

This is a map of the school, hand-drawn by Ash (as will be almost all the artwork around here).  Scanned in and perhaps not the greatest quality, technology is a bit dodgy.

Ash's first map of the school

You can see a larger, full version of the map here.