Chapter 9 — Greenhouse, part 2

9 09 2009

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Ash is holding court at dinner.  Zabe sees him from across the room, sitting at one of the tables, surrounded by the other Year Sixteens.  He’s at the centre of whatever they’re saying: he’s laughing, and so are they.

She moves forward into the room, taking a plate full of food from the Year Thirteen who is dishing it out, and approaches the table.

Ash looks up at her, and his entire face transforms with his smile.  Zabe raises her eyebrows at him.

“Where have you been all day, Zabe?” he asks.

The others are looking at her now.  She feels intensely self-conscious, like a deer sharing a watering hole with a wolf.

“Just out skiing,” she says.  “What did you do?”

“Dug a big fire pit with Betsy and Toby,” Ash says.  He shoves his plate to the side and motions for her to sit at the cleared space.  She steps around the table and squeezes into the seat, now crammed between Ash’s friendly body on one side and Toby’s ambivalent one on the other.  She starts to eat, silent and nervous, as around her the rest of her year jokes and chats.

“We’ll light it up after dinner,” Ash says to her.  “Want to come with me?”

“I don’t know,” she says, thinking of Orri.  “I have… other stuff to do.”

“Don’t worry about school work now,” Ash says.

“I’m not,” she replies.  “I just don’t know if a bonfire would be any fun.”

“Come on, Zabe,” he says.

“It’ll be fun,” Toby says.

“We’ll miss you,” says Jemma.

Zabe wants to say I don’t know about that but holds it in.  “I guess so.”

Ash puts an arm around her shoulders and gives her a quick squeeze before retracting the arm clumsily.  They are sitting too close and Ash almost falls out of his seat.  There’s a lot of laughter and Zabe eats faster.

After dinner, they bundle up and head out to the new fire pit.  Ash keeps close to Zabe as they walk, talking fast about nothing.  She can feel the others behind them, their eyes digging into her back.  She doesn’t know why she ever told Orri that she wanted to lead these people.  She just wants to leave and run to him.  Camaraderie through enclosed spaces is the order of the day here, but she wants out.

“Mr. Wu told me that we needed to burn all of the broken down furniture, so I thought that it would be fun to have a bonfire, and he agreed…” Ash is saying.  Zabe ignores him and looks for the fastest way to exit the scene.  She likes Ash alone; she likes Ash unhappy, when he’s plotting and gathering information and adding it up, when he’s so depressed that he’s reached breaking point and can’t rest until they find out more… not this fast-talking, manic Ash, the one who comes out more and more as they get older, popular with everyone and surrounded by laughing friends.

The fire pit is in the meadow, halfway between the stream and Lady Vallance’s office.  With flourishing hand gestures, Ash lights the dry planks with a flint.  Students from all years are gathering around, or wandering off, or dancing and singing in the soft pink glow of the snowy night.  Zabe breaks away from the rest of Year Sixteen and moves subtly north, seeking her chance to disappear into the snowy night, but Ash tracks her to the edge of the bonfire’s warmth.

“Is it really that awful?” he asks her.

“What?”

“My company.”

Zabe shakes her head, wondering how he can ask that.  “I like you, Ash.  You know that.”

“But you’re trying as hard as you can to avoid me.” He sounds like he wants to make a joke out of it, but it isn’t convincing.

“I just don’t like big crowds,” she says.

“There are about thirty people here, Zabe.”

“I know.”

“So… this is hardly a big crowd.”

Zabe shrugs, hates herself for it, and says, “I just don’t like it, Ash.”

“Ok,” he says, “well, let’s go somewhere else.”

“But this is your bonfire.”

“And you’re my best friend, and I want you to be happy.  You’ve seemed really sad lately.”  He makes a face at her.  “I don’t want a sad Zabe!”  He reaches out and puts his hands on her shoulders.

Zabe hesitates.  “I’m really sorry, Ash.”

“For what?”

“For liking you better when you’re unhappy.”

He frowns at her and lets her go.  “Do you?”

“You talk to me more when you are.”

“Sorry about that,” he says softly.  His hands return, but his touch is light.  “You’re the only one who wants to listen when I am.  Everyone else likes me when I’m happy, but they don’t want to see me any other time.”

Zabe shivers.  The night air is icy at her back even with the insulation of snow clouds.  “Would you understand if I had to go see someone else?” she asks.

“Can I come with you?”

“No.”

His voice sounds angry when he speaks again.  “Are you going to see Orri?”

“How did you guess?”

“Who else would you be seeing?”

“Please don’t be angry with me.”  She realizes that she’s been asking that a lot today.  “He’s just… easier to be around.”

“Why?” Ash demands.  He steps back.  “What am I doing wrong?”

“Nothing,” she says.  Despair settles over her; she doesn’t know how to make Ash understand.  “He’s just… we have a lot in common.”

Ash makes an angry noise and says, “Fine, well, I guess you’d better go.”

“You are mad at me,” Zabe says.  She gets mad at him then, for throwing words around without meaning them.  “Why do you hate Orri so much?”

“Because he’s some guy who lives underground!  And you like him better than me!  He’s obviously working for Dr. Levi and Lady Vallance!”

Zabe remembers Orri’s confession, that Lady Vallance is his mother.  She imagines her years ago, coming into a hospital in some distant, icy land, and taking him, just one of the many children she kidnapped from parents they loved.    Perhaps Orri was the first.  Young, scared, trapped and kept by her… just like Ash, just like all of them.  She wants to make Ash understand but doesn’t want to give away Orri’s secrets.  She says, “Please believe me, Ash, he doesn’t have any love for them.”

“I don’t care what he has for them.  I’m more worried about why he’s so interested in you.”

“He’s lonely,” she says.  “I understand that.”

“Two seconds ago you said that you didn’t want to be around people!”

Zabe groans.  “You just don’t get it!” she snaps.  “And I’m tired of explaining.  I’m going!”

“Wait, Zabe,” Ash starts, but she turns away from him and runs into the darkness.

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She wanders around the pines at the north edge of the valley, past the hot springs where several students are swimming, until she circles around to the small space beneath Lady Vallance’s office.  She has avoided it every day since she first met Orri for fear of drawing suspicion, but now she crouches low and crawls to where she knows the trapdoor is without hesitation.  The snow is thin upon the ground here, just what can be blown in, and she crouches over the door and taps on it lightly.  Then she draws back and lurks in front of the rock face.

Nothing happens.  She waits for several minutes, and then knocks again, a bit louder, but still nothing happens.  She sits in the cold, not sure what to do but wait, until she hears someone moving.  She freezes against the rock face, fully exposed and cursing herself for not knowing what to do.

“Zabe?”

“Ash?”

He appears before her, his face pale and framed in his black rabbit fur-lined hood, and says, “Are you waiting for him?”

“He’s not coming,” she says. Her throat burns with the effort of trying not to cry.  “I don’t know where he is.”

Ash reaches out a hand and says, “Let’s get away from here before we get caught.”

“Ok,” Zabe says.  She takes his hand and allows him to tug her away from there and back up towards the trees.

“I came after you but I lost you at the woods and then I saw someone taken away,” Ash says once they are in the safety of the forest, “into Lady Vallance’s office.  A boy, older than us, but really skinny and pale.”

“That sounds like Orri,” Zabe admits.

“Something was wrong with him,” Ash says.  “He was being carried by Mr. Wu and Mr. Johnson.”

Zabe’s breath hitches.  Now she knows he didn’t ignore her, but this is worse.  “Did you hear or see anything else?”

“No, unfortunately,” Ash says.  “Except he seemed sick.  He was sort of twitching and moaning.”

Zabe stops and stares at the trees, mouth open.  “The visions!” she says, horrified.  “He warned me…”

“What?”  Ash stops too and turns to look at her.  His hand is still tight on hers.  “What kind of visions?  What did he warn you about?”

“There’s a way to induce visions in people.  It’s a drug that you can give them and it–”

“A drug?” Ash interrupts.  “What kind?  What does it look like?  What does it do?”

“I don’t know!” Zabe says.  Her teeth start chattering uncontrollably.  “I used to see people… when they had visions…”  She stops talking.  Ash looks scared but all she can think is that her past is coming up again.  She wants to tell herself what she said when they brought her to the school: that everything that happened before is immaterial, but she can’t deny that this is important.

“When I was a child,” she starts, and Ash’s eyes widen.  “When I was a child,” she says again, her voice stronger, “I saw many people who suffered these visions.  They took this drug… and then it would happen.  Sometimes the visions were blessed.  They foretold things that would happen.  Some people were better than others at seeing the truth of the future, or at interpreting what they saw.  Children were best, because their visions were very clear.  Parents would give their children the drug so that they could sell their visions.  Knowing the future was very important, where I’m from.  But the drug only works for so long, and further visions require more doses, and higher doses than the first – and it would just get into a cycle, they would need money to get more drugs, need more drugs to get money… and after so many doses, the number isn’t always the same for everyone, but there are very few people who seem immune to it… after a certain number of doses, then they wouldn’t be able to stop having visions.  Even if they never took the drug again.  And it would get worse and worse.”

“And having the visions themselves is painful?” Ash asks.

“I think it must be,” Zabe says.  “People would fall down in the street.  And Orri said it was.”

“So his parents gave him the drug too many times…”

“His mother did, yeah.”

Ash looks away.  “That’s terrible,” he says.  His voice is quiet.  “How could she…”

“His mother is Lady Vallance,” Zabe says.

Ash looks back at her.  “Really?”

She nods.  She feels sick with worry for Orri.

“Zabe…”

“Yeah?”

“What do the drugs look like?”

“I don’t know, really.  I mean, I know that you put something into hot water and drink it but… other than that, I have no idea.  People would put cups outside of… outside of where we lived and wait for the water to get hot in the sun.”

“So it wouldn’t be a little capsule or anything like that?”

“I don’t think so, no.”  Zabe suddenly remembers Orri holding the bottle of pills.  “No, there are other kinds of drugs too, I guess.  Like what you had.  Orri takes those too.  He says they help him forget bad memories.”

“Yeah,” Ash says, “they do that.  Temporarily.”  He quirks his mouth.  “Vallance is evil, isn’t she?”

Zabe nods and suddenly her burning throat returns and she starts to cry.  “Oh god,” she gasps, “I’m so sorry, Ash.”

“What?” Ash asks.  He reaches out to her and pulls her into a tight hug.  She freezes, his fur hood smothering her, and just wants to escape, but then he moves slightly so that her face is buried in his bare neck and the sudden closeness makes her cry even harder.  She starts to talk and, like always when she’s nervous, can’t stop herself.

“I’m so angry that she did this to him.  I’m so scared that he won’t be all right.  And what they did to you, and what they’re going to keep doing to all of us.  But we need them, too.  They’ve been parents to us…”  She draws in a shuddering breath.  “They’re the only parents most of us have ever had.  I know that’s not true of you but… god, Ash, I’m so sorry for crying.”

“Don’t be sorry,” he whispers.  “It’s going to be ok in the end.  We don’t need any of them.  We’re going to get out of here.”

“Are we?” Zabe asks.  She stays leaning against him, but forces herself to stop crying.  The tears on her face are cold, so she rubs them in his hood.   “Orri wanted us to go, but he didn’t think he would make it.  He thought that his visions would be too severe.”

“Would you have left with him?”

“I don’t know,” she says.  She wonders if Orri would have left with her earlier in the day, if she’d said that they should go.  Has she missed her only chance?  She realizes now that they could have gone to the people who built the greenhouse.  “Ash, I would have come for you,” she says now.  “I told Orri that.  He agreed.”

Ash squeezes her but doesn’t say anything else.  She stands with her head against the spot where his neck meets his collarbone and watches the snow falling through the trees.

She hopes that when she’s older, she doesn’t hate this place, because it’s simultaneously the worst and the most beautiful moment she’s ever experienced.





Chapter 9 — Greenhouse, part 1

9 09 2009

When Zabe opens her eyes, the sky is an anemic pre-dawn grey.  she slips down underneath the blankets and turns on the box that Orri gave her.

It glows to life, warming to her touch like a friend.  She curls on her side and sets it in front of her face so that she can read it.

Please be today, she thinks.  Please be today, please be today, please be today…

A little purple square appears in the lower left of the screen.  A message is here.  She touches it with the tip of her index finger.

“Good morning,” says the message, “I wish I could see you but…”

Zabe ignores the rest of the message.  It’s the same one she’s been getting for nearly eight months.  She pulls the box closer to her and folds out the digipad, then writes with her finger, “We’re going out today or we’re never going out at all.”

There’s a long pause.  Then the purple square appears again.

“I don’t know if it’s safe.”

“It’s as safe as it will ever be.  You have to come today.  After that I’m throwing this box in the river.” She doesn’t know if she means it.  She doubts that she does and hopes that he believes her.

The words come out jumbled, like he’s writing fast.  “Ok Zabe calm down please.  I will come.  You know that I am scared about this.”

“Don’t be scared.  We planned this out.  Everything will be fine.”

It takes a long time for the next message to appear.  Zabe imagines Orri sitting alone in his underground room, surrounded by the glowing boxes, hands shaking as he contemplates his bottle of pills.  She likes to imagine him thinking of her.

He sends, “Meet me at the second pumphouse.”

A map appears on the screen.  The second pumphouse is on the far side of the dam, away from any place where the students have ever gone.  Zabe looks at its location, memorizes it, and then writes, before he can say no again, “I’m leaving now.  See you there.”

She shuts off the box and stuffs it down her shirt, into the little pocket she’s sewn for it there.  Ash told her that that was where they kept boxes in his home country and it seems the safest place for it.  It’s small enough and thin enough that it fits without a mark, but she can feel it nestled against her skin.

She climbs out of bed and picks up her pack.  It’s the same one she has put together every single night before their day off for the past few months.  Before that, she didn’t bother to pack her winter gear.

Around her, all of the other girls are asleep in their beds.  Their breathing has made the room damp but not quite warm.  Zabe leaves the room as quietly as possible.  She doesn’t want anyone waking up and seeing her.

The girls’ room has a sitting room outside of it, and for girls getting up early this is the expected place to do all those noisy things like put on clothes and lace up boots.  Zabe is ready to be alone, to slip into the wilderness mode that will carry her through the deep snow and silence, but someone else is in the sitting room when she enters.

“Good morning,” say Jemma.  Her eyes look dark and tired.  She is sitting in a chair by the guttering fire, a book on her lap and a large stack of others on the floor beside her.  “Where are you off to?”

“Going out skiing and hunting,” Zabe says.  She realizes a moment later that something else is required of her.  “Have you been up all night?”

“Yeah,” Jemma says.  “I couldn’t sleep.”

Zabe pulls her long underwear out of her pack and starts to put it on.  One foot in, then the next.  The silence stretches out and makes Zabe’s skin crawl.  They aren’t close.  Zabe isn’t close to anyone.  Yet they are in the same year, have lived in the same room and been in the same classes and done the same things for almost six years.  A history like that has a kind of enforced intimacy.  Zabe wonders if that is supposed to count for something.

“I’m reading,” Jemma says then, as Zabe puts her arms into the long underwear and straightens up to button them.  Jemma is smiling at her, but she looks exhausted.  “I’ve just been sitting here reading and thinking and going a little bit crazy.”

“What are you reading about?” Zabe asks.

Jemma puts one hand up to her head and rubs her hair.  Zabe dimly remembers that Betsy gave Jemma a new haircut just a few nights ago, and now Jemma has spiky little bursts of hair that stick up in every direction, especially when she’s been wearing a hat.  Zabe wonders if it would be nice to have Betsy cut her hair, which is thick and curly and heavy.  She wonders if Betsy would do it.  All of this goes through her mind as Jemma rubs her hair and sighs.  Then she says, “I guess I’m just trying to figure out… what it was like before the school was here.”

“In these mountains, you mean?” Zabe asks.

“Well, more like, what happened to the people who built the town by the glacier?  Not why did they leave, because we know that, but what were they like before they left?”

Zabe hesitates.  She wants to say something but it’s not something she’s ever brought up before.  She looks at Jemma, her face bleak amidst her pile of books, and says, “There’s legends about them.”

“What?” Jemma asks.  She shuts the book on her lap and frowns at Zabe.  “Whose legends?”

Zabe doesn’t know why she said it.  She hates her past and doesn’t like to think about it, much less talk about it.  The school is all she has, as much as that infuriates her and as much as she wants to find out its secrets and rip them out into the open and see what the consequences would be.  Regretting it already, she shrugs and pulls a shirt over her head.  “Just… legends about people who live in mountains.”

“What do you mean?” Jemma asks.

Zabe shrugs again.  “There’s a lot of stories about them.  That people who live in the mountains are magical, and have all of the answers to the hard questions.  They have as much water as they like and they can go around uncovered from the sun.”

“But we live in the mountains,” Jemma says.

“Yes, I know that,” Zabe snaps, “but these are legends that people who don’t live in the mountains, but who know about them, have.”

Jemma squints at her.  “Are they legends from when you were a child?”

Zabe shrugs again.  She wants to train herself out of shrugging because it’s what people from the Desert Lore do.  It’s a byproduct of wearing the calla and not being able to see anything except broad physical gestures.  It conveys any number of emotions and in her it’s almost reflexive, but she is tired of doing it and wants to learn to have the expressions that other people do.  “That’s where I heard them, yes,” she admits.

“You knew about the mountains?” Jemma asks.  “These mountains?”

“I don’t know, really,” Zabe says, “which mountains they were.  I didn’t travel far… compared with other people, I think… when they brought me here.  So I think they might be the same.”

Jemma looks fascinated.  Zabe feels like a bug with a pin in its back now.  She wants to wriggle away but Jemma is too busy examining her for scientific value.  She pulls on her final layer and picks up her pack, but Jemma says, “Oh please, Zabe, tell me a bit more!”

Zabe doesn’t know what to do.  All of the others have shared their stories.  Jemma is from a place where everyone lives in the shadow of a great civilization now lost, amongst the crumled ruins of massive stone buildings.  They live in tents on land and make their living as fishermen and traders on a gorgeous blue sea.  Jemma was born on a boat in the sea in the middle of a storm, one of nineteen children.  Her parents, she told them, probably did not notice when she fell off the back of the boat as they were leaving a harbor when she was little more than six.  She’d been picked up by Dr. Levi when she was begging in the harbor town not long after and brought to the school.  Her real name was unpronounceable to most people outside of her tribe and so Dr. Levi gave her a list of names and she chose the one she liked best.

That was Jemma’s story and she had told it once, years ago, matter-of-factly.  Like most, she had no particular ties to it, and what she did remember, she had been too young to really understand.  Everyone else told their story too, even Ash, though he left out of a lot of it and Zabe knew that it was more painful for him than most.  Zabe was the only one of their year – and, if it could be believed, one of only two or three in the school – who had not yet told her story.

“But you are your story,” Meera, one of the older girls, had said to Zabe when she was a Year Fourteen and once again refusing to talk about it.  “We know everything else.  You have no other stories here, because there’s no point telling what we’ve all seen.  We’re all the same once we get to the school.  So your story is important, Zabe, it’s what made you who you are.”

Zabe had disagreed loudly then, and she would do the same now, but inside she knows that Meera is right, at least as far as Zabe herself is concerned.  Jemma doesn’t seem like someone particularly affected by her previous life, other than that she is excellent at catching fish in the lake and enjoys swimming; most of the others, too, only have strange, superficial traits that recall their early childhoods.  Few of them even have accents.  But Zabe knows that she is who she is because of the Desert Lore.  She just hates to think about it or admit it.  If she could erase it, she would.

“There’s not much more to tell,” Zabe says stiffly.  “I doubt that it would tell you anything anyway.  People where I am from believe… believed that people from the mountains had blessed lives.  They lived in a magical place where things were very different from where we lived, and as such, they had different… well, they had magical powers.  That were different from the ones that people we knew supposedly had.  For example, in order to become an animal, you had to journey to the mountains and meet its brother or sister there.”  Zabe waves her hand.  “It was all superstitious stuff.  Really stupid.”

Jemma frowns.  “But Mr. Webster says that myths and legends are based in truth.  You just have to look behind the stories to figure it out.”

“Yes, well,” Zabe says, “it’s not hard to see that either.  Where… where these legends come from, were coming from, it’s, I mean, it wasn’t a very nice environment.  It didn’t have many resources and in some ways it felt like the opposite of the mountains.  But both environments are harsh.  Both of them require hard work to survive in.”  Zabe indicates her skis and her winter clothes.  “You see?”

“But what about the animals?” Jemma asks.  “That’s really… interesting.”

Zabe remembers Father Gabriel for the first time in years, telling the foundation stories and reading to them from the holy books.  She doesn’t want to.  She’s still convinced that he’s the one who sold her out to Dr. Levi and the school.  He’s the only one who even knew that she could read.  His words and face are clear in her head now, but she shrugs and lies, “I don’t know.”

Jemma looks disappointed.  Zabe kicks her boot on the floor to make sure it’s tight, and then says, “Well, I want to catch the dawn.”

“Sure,” Jemma says.  “Good luck.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Zabe says.  She walks towards the door.  She wants to be able to turn around and say something else to Jemma but she doesn’t know what she’d say and she’s scared that she’ll look stupid if she does.

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Zabe is skiing through the tunnel towards the lake now, fast and hard and angry with herself.  She’s sweating and slipping on the icy grooves that always form in here.  The tunnel is an immense concrete structure that leads to the valley just above the lake, which they know as the Valley of the Bridge.  It’s the only way down to the lake, as far as Zabe knows, but she doesn’t see Orri anywhere.  She’s frantic.  Her encounter with Jemma has unnerved her and she’s playing it over and over again in her head.  She wants to be Jemma’s friend, she wants to be helpful, she wants to talk to her about what she’s thinking about, but she can’t.  Her secrets rise up like demons and imprison her.

Orri knows them already.  He won’t ask her a thing.  She just hopes that he isn’t too scared to come.

She’s not sure what she could have told Jemma anyway.  Father Gabriel taught them – her, really, she doesn’t know why she includes the other children, because they were all dull and barely bothered to listen – that the animals were the ones to watch.  They were the ones who could move through the desert, or through the mountains, or through the Wastes between, with ease.  The humans had to look at them and learn from them, and, if they were respectful enough and careful enough, then they could become animals themselves and escape from this earthly torment of being human.  Anyone who desired that was sinful and ignoring the true path, but that did not stop some.

It was utter nonsense, Zabe is sure of that now, but as a child the idea had captivated her, despite its blasphemy.

Of course it did, she says now.  Anything was better than there.

And Father Gabriel himself: was he crazy religious fanatic with the misfortunate charitable instinct that drove him to teach children at the Mission, or some secret operative who later would be revealed behind a closed door inside the school itself?

Was he even still alive?

Zabe’s ski sticks in the icy groove as she exits the tunnel, and she falls over and slides into a tree.  Winded, she lies beneath its quivering boughs as snow pours off them and onto her.  She’s felt like an idiot since the moment she saw Jemma, and now she’s an idiot covered in snow with her skis stuck up in the air.  She sits up and breathes deeply – her ribs are fine – and then struggles her way into an upright position.

“Stop it,” she says aloud.  The trees are silent in response, the snow glistening all around.  The scene is beautiful – her favorite in the whole world – and she shakes her head like a wolf and gets the snow off her hat.  “Just stop being an idiot.”

She’s in the Valley of the Bridge now.  She stands and skis across the flat valley, towards the rusted metal hulk that still bridges the river.  Underneath the snow, she knows that there are the remains of a double-lined track along it, with grooves as if something with special wheels had rolled there sometime in the past.  The bridge is the limit beyond which they are not supposed to travel alone.  She skis onto it and then across the river, feeling apprehensive.  The lake is just ahead; she only has to traverse down a steep bit of ground and then she knows that it will appear before her, wide and covering the entire valley floor up to its earthen dam wall.  The engineering class that they started in Year Fifteen spends an inordinate amount of time staring at that wall and talking about ways to maximize the efficiency of the pumps, to route more power back to the school.

She hates the lake, but this is where Orri wants to meet.  She suspects that there is another route to it beginning near Lady Vallance’s office that no one else knows about.

She skis along the dam wall, not looking down at the surface of the lake.  She can’t shake the belief that if she looks into the water, she’ll see more than her reflection.

As the valley walls close around her, she comes to the grove of trees that she remembers from Orri’s map.  They are almost too regular, all the same height.  She wonders why she’s never noticed them before.  She skis cautiously into them and there it is: the second pumphouse.  It’s a small wooden building hidden among the trees.

She unhooks her skis and walks towards it.  She remembers Orri talking about it and as she hears the machinery moving she once again marvels at all that they hide from the students.  This pumphouse is bigger than the other; it must supply even more power.  She wonders if it all goes towards the maintenance of those boxes beneath Lady Vallance’s office.  She knows from charging hers that individually, they don’t run off much power, but…

Suddenly she remembers her box, nestled safely beneath her shirt, and the feeling of hitting the tree.  Frantic, she opens layers of coats and sweaters until she reaches it, but it doesn’t matter: the box is cracked.  She pulls it out and stares at it, then tries to turn it on.  Nothing.

“Zabe?”

Orri’s voice startles her.  She looks up and sees him staring at her from the door of the pumphouse.

“This…” she says, holding it out to him.  “I’m so sorry.”

“What happened?” he asks.

She hasn’t seen him since the first day they met.  She feels out of breath, but it isn’t bad.  She says, “I’m really sorry.  I fell on my way here and it broke.”

“Oh,” Orri says, “that doesn’t matter.  I’ve got more.  Come inside.”

Zabe hesitates.  She feels like an animal caught out by a hunter.

“Please,” Orri says.  “It’s warm in here.”

The spell is broken.  She walks through the heavy snow to the door, which he swings open so that she can pass him.  She takes off her boots and looks around at the cramped interior, then back at him.  She’s forgotten how thin and pale he is.

“How did you get here?” she asks.  “I didn’t see you in the tunnel.”

“No,” he says, “I came another way.”

“I figured,” she says, looking around.  “How?”

“Just another tunnel,” he says.

They stand together in silence for a few seconds.  Zabe doesn’t know what to say to the boy she’s been communicating electronically with for over a year.  They’ve been planning to meet for so many months, but she somehow never imagined what it would be like when they did.

“Why today?” she asks.

He shrugs and looks at the floor, but his eyes come back to hers almost immediately.  He’s smiling.  “You threatened me.”

“You shouldn’t give in to negotiations like that,” she says.  She raises her eyebrows at him to let him know she’s making a joke, but he’s still smiling.  She likes that.

“It’s hard not to, when it’s you.”

“Have you been watching me?” she asks.

“When I’ve been at the school, yes.”  He hesitates.  “I’m not sure if that’s weird or what.”

“I like to think that you are,” she admits.

They’re staring at each other hard now.  Zabe’s heart is beating so fast that she feels light-headed.  For a few seconds, there’s almost unbearable tension in the room.  Then Orri looks away and points at a pile of snow gear in the corner.

“I brought that,” he says.  “You said you wanted to show me around.”

Zabe steps over to it and looks through the collection.  To call it motley would be kind, but there’s a pair of workable skis.  She picks them up and says, “Let’s wax these and go.”

“Where are we going?” Orri asks.  He sounds nervous.  “I haven’t skied in so many years… not since I was a child.”

Zabe glances back at him.  The way he says it, he sounds like an old man, but she knows that he’s only a few years older than she is.  “Where did you ski?” she asks, wondering if he might be from somewhere near to Ash’s family.

“Oh, I’m from a very snowy place,” Orri says.  “An island close to one of the poles.  I haven’t been back in years… my mother was exiled you see…” He stops and looks stricken.  Zabe raises her eyebrows at him.

“Your mother?”

“Yes,” Orri says quickly, “she was.  It was too bad.  And so I was thrown out too, and had to make my way on my own.”

“What happened to her?”

“That’s another story.”

Zabe shrugs.  “It’s funny you should mention your childhood,” she says.  “I don’t want to bring up anything painful, but I was thinking earlier how lovely it is that you already know all about mine, so you never have to ask.”

“Do the others ask you often?”

“Not so much anymore, but they used to.  Now they know I won’t talk about it.”

Orri nods.  He’s smiling again.  “The past is past, anyway.  Let’s forget it for today.  What are you going to show me?”

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

They ski for hours through the trees.  Zabe has never felt so calm or at peace as she does when Orri is beside her.  He isn’t a good skier, and though he still has some technique he seems to lack any natural athletic ability.  Zabe loves him for it.  Unlike with Ash, there’s no competition between them, or even really any them at all: there’s just the snow-laden sky and the dark trees and the muffled ground, brought into life by their suggestion of movement.  They are like hidden humble gods, the illuminating spark in all this creation.

They stop in a meadow and wait for half an hour, Orri watching in silence until Zabe shoots them a rabbit, and then they construct a fire and sit around it waiting for the pungent meat to cook.  They don’t speak until they’ve eaten their fill.  It is nearly afternoon now, and the sky has gotten darker and snow has begun to fall.

Orri speaks first.  His voice is very quiet.  “Zabe, I’m sorry I was scared to come to you.”

“Don’t be,” she says.  She feels generous now that she has him here.  She barely remembers all those months of waiting and disappointment for the day when they would go together, alone into the trees.  “Why were you scared?  Did you think you’d get caught?”

He nods.  “I still am,” he says, “but I forget when I’m with you.”

“What will happen if you do?”

“I can’t imagine,” he says.  “I don’t want to.  But I don’t… I wouldn’t have gone out if there was even the most remote chance.  I made sure of that.  I was just being paranoid.  But it’s more than just being scared of being caught.”

“How so?”

“I’m scared of the outside.”  He looks down at his hands.  “I have dreams… they’re like visions almost… and sometimes I can’t separate them from the real world.”  He looks at her.  “Do you think I’m crazy?”

“No,” she says softly.  “Where I’m from, there are many people who have visions.”

“But you never did?” he asks.  “Are you sure?”

“Never,” she says.  “My mother… well, she once said she wanted to be sure that I didn’t.”

He seems relieved.  He looks away from her, at the snowy log he’s sitting on.  “My mother was the opposite, you see.”

Zabe is almost holding her breath now.  It seems that history can’t stay dead today.  “I’m sorry,” she says truthfully.  She remembers the people with visions – there were so many of them in the Desert Lore – and how terrible and painful they seemed to be.

“It’s all right,” Orri says.  “Nothing can change it now.  But it makes going outside difficult sometimes.  I think that I’ll get one and fall down and be lost forever.”

“Not when you’re with me,” she says.

“No,” he agrees, “not when I’m with you.”

They look at each other.  Their words hang like a promise between them.

“What does Ash think of me?” Orri asks abruptly.

Zabe hesitates.  “He doesn’t like you.”

“I figured.  Why do you have to tell him everything?”

“He’s my best friend,” Zabe says.  “And I don’t tell him everything, not by a long shot.”

Orri glances at her.  She’s sitting on the log beside him and they are very close.  She leans forward on an impulse and puts her lips lightly on his, then draws back.  “I won’t tell him anything about this,” she says.  “Or about today at all.”

Orri smiles at her.  “Thanks,” he says.  Then he puts his arm around her shoulders and draws her in close.  They sit in front of the fire for a long time, until it burns out and the snow has fallen thick upon their backs.

Zabe is the first to stand.  She looks up into the swirling sky and says, “Maybe we should head back.”  She doesn’t want to, but she knows how winter storms come, and this one is settling in towards blizzard.

“Wait,” Orri says.  He stands too.  “I want to show you something.”

“Ok.”

“We have to ski to it.”

“Is it far?”

“Not too far,” he says.  “Please, Zabe, this is important.  I really need to show this to someone else.”

“Ok,” Zabe says.  The mood is suddenly oppressive.  She just wants them to hurry and be on their way.  She straps into her skis and he does the same and then she follows him up the slope until they come to a small ridge.  In the shadow of some rocks, they look down onto another valley.  The snow is starting to fall thickly, but not so much that visibility is bad; Zabe can see down to the valley floor.  It is very wide and treeless.  Nestled into the landscape so that it receives as much sunshine as possible, there is a small, low, glass building.

Zabe stares at it.  “Is that a greenhouse?”

“I think it must be,” Orri says.  He sounds worried.  “It’s new.”

“How do you know?”

“Because we saw it last night when we flew in.  Lady Vallance did.  She didn’t know I was looking out the window too.  I’m not supposed to, you see.”

Zabe reaches into her pack and pulls out her binoculars.  “Orri,” she says a moment later, some unidentifiable emotion rising in her stomach, “there’re plants in there.”

“Are there?” he asks.  He doesn’t sound surprised.  “Dr. Levi said this would happen.”

“What?”

“That other people would come.”

Zabe lowers the binoculars and turns to look at him.  “Why would she think that?”

“I don’t know.  It’s a good place to be, I guess.”

“What aren’t you telling me?” she demands.

“Nothing!  I don’t know anything more than this!”  He looks at her and shakes his head.  “Honestly, Zabe, all I have is these little tidbits of stolen conversation… I’m not supposed to know a thing!”

Zabe looks down at the greenhouse with her stomach churning.  She knows, looking at it, that war is coming.  “I want to go see it.”

“What?”

“Let’s go,” Zabe says, and she shoves off with her poles and navigates her way down into the broad valley.  She knows that Orri can’t catch up with her to stop her, and that makes her go faster, though she turns back to look at him periodically because she is scared that he will collapse with a vision.

She reaches the greenhouse.  It is so warm that it has melted a foot-wide strip of snow around itself.  She leaves her skis behind, stepping onto the soft, damp grass.  Orri catches up to her as she stands with her nose pressed against the glass, staring in at row after row of vegetables.

“How is it so warm?” she asks him when he arrives.

“Geothermal, I think.  This valley is full of hot springs.  I’m guessing they pump it in through the floor.”

“How did the school not see this being built?” Zabe demands.

Orri shakes his head.  “I don’t know.  It’s not on a usual flight pattern, so there’s that.”

Zabe is unreasonably angry with Lady Vallance and Dr. Levi for letting these people come here and ruin their peace.  She’s not ready for battle yet.  “Let’s burn it down,” she says.

“What?” Orri asks.

“Burn it down,” she repeats.  She turns to him and spreads out her hands.  “If we destroy it…”

“It’s too late,” he says softly.  “She already saw it.”

“Is it the first sign of other people?”

“That I know of.”

Zabe walks around the building until she finds a door.  It, too, is made of glass.

“Where did they get this material?” she demands.

“Scavenged it, is my guess,” Orri says.  “It’s expensive stuff.”

Zabe kicks the door in with her boot and the glass shatters.  She hates it.  “Come on,” she says.

“Zabe…”

She ignores him and stalks inside, ready to rip out the plants with her bare hands.  Some of them have fruit hanging from them, heavy but unripe.  It is obviously well-tended.  She turns to look at Orri, who is following her.  “Do they know about us?”

“I don’t think so,” he says.  “They don’t seem to have discovered the lake yet.  At least, none of the boxes in the pumphouses show anything unusual.  And there’s no guard around this place.”

“What should I do?” she asks him, pleading.  “Should I destroy it?  Or leave it be and let it destroy us?”

“Why does it have to destroy us?” Orri asks softly.  “And if you think it’s that inevitable… how does destroying this one building save us?”

Zabe squints at him.  “What do you want to happen?”

“I want things to change,” he says.

“Change how?”

“I want to take you and run away and never see any of this again.”

They look at each other for a long time.

Orri says, “If you destroy it, they might not have enough food to make it through the winter.”

Zabe exhales loudly into the still air, then turns and walks out of the greenhouse.  The die is already cast, but she doesn’t know yet what roles she and Orri and Ash will play.

“Let’s just go,” she says, and Orri nods.

They put on their skis and leave the valley, skiing to the ridge and then re-tracing their tracks back to the second, hidden pumphouse.  By the time they reach it, it is late afternoon and the snow is still falling.  Orri shuts the door behind them and Zabe notices for the first time that the wind is starting to howl.  She has a heavy feeling that they have left things too late and the journey back will be treacherous, but she wants to say what’s been percolating in her mind since they left the greenhouse.

“We can’t leave,” she says to him.  “The school, I mean.”

“It’s impossible,” he says quickly, “I mean, how would we ever find our way out of the mountains?”

“I think I could probably do that,” Zabe says slowly.  “Now that I know about the town at the foot of the glacier… I think I could figure it out.  In summer, we could do it.  We could live off the land and hike out.  We would be in the Waste, then, I think, unless you know differently. “

“No, we would be,” Orri says.  “You’re right about that.”

“But with luck, we could survive that too,” Zabe says.  She thinks of the animals.  “I think I know how.  It would be possible.”

There’s a long pause.  Then Orri says, “Then why do you say we can’t leave?”

Zabe remembers Dr. Levi’s words on the helicopter: “You’ll never be the leader you so obviously want to be.”  She sighs.  “We can’t just leave them all behind,” she says.

“So we’ll get Ash.”

“Not just Ash.  All of them.”

“Why not?  You’re not friends with them.”

Zabe hesitates.  She knows that what she’s about to say is going to reveal something about herself that she should probably bury as far down as she can.  It’s something she’s barely been able to acknowledge to herself.  “Because the school… the teachers… they know what they’re doing.  They’ve got the right group of people and they’re training them the right way.  I believe that.”

Orri stares at her.  “The right group of people getting the right training for what?” he demands.  He sounds disgusted but she forces herself to follow her thoughts to their logical conclusion.

“For… whatever war they want us to fight.  And I don’t know if they’re on the right side or not, but they are training an army.  I’m going to figure out what the sides are and which one I should be on, and then… with Ash, and with you, too, I hope… then I’m going to lead them into the fight.”

Orri turns away from her.  “You’re turning into them,” he snaps.  “I can’t even stand to look at you, you know.  I just want to get away from you.  You’re turning into my mother and Dr. Levi and…”

“Your mother?” Zabe repeats.

Orri is almost crying.  “Don’t you see how you’re using people?” he demands.  “This training is terrible!  It’s designed to make you totally obedient to them!  And you want to be just like them!”

“I don’t,” Zabe says quietly.  “I want people to choose me as their leader.  I want them to see that I stand for the side of good and then they can decide whether or not to follow me.”

“Oh yeah?” Orri demands.  “So you’ll let the teachers do your dirty work and then you’ll swoop in and take advantage of it.  Where did you get this overdeveloped sense of morality, huh?”

Zabe winces.  “From watching the world, I guess.”  She spreads her hands out.  “I can’t explain it.”

“And what if it turns out,” Orri gasps, because he is crying now, in huge horrible sobs, “what if it turns out that they’re right?  That my mother, Lady Vallance, is right?  That her side deserves to win?”

“Does it?” Zabe asks.  She feels hollowed out.  She’s scared that she’s ruined the powerful connection she had with Orri.  She looks down at the box, her old box that he gave to her once a long time ago and that he had left on the floor of the pumphouse this morning before they went out into the woods and the silence and the peace together.  It’s been her lifeline.  It’s a good thing it’s broken.  She doesn’t think she could stand to see it cold and unresponsive because of this.

“I don’t know,” Orri says, “but I do know that my mother was exiled because she did terrible things.  She deserved to be exiled.  And I wish that she’d left me behind.  Instead, she kidnapped me from the hospital and took me with her – I hadn’t seen her since I was a baby – and I’ve been with her ever since and I hate it, I hate her, I hate all of this.”  Orri sits on the floor and puts his head in his hands.  Zabe stands apart from him, unable to reach out as his shoulders shake and heave.

Eventually he raises his head.  His eyes are red and accusatory.

“You sound exactly like her.”

“I don’t want to sound like her,” Zabe says.  “Orri, please, I don’t.  But I can’t stand back.  I can’t run away.”

“You don’t even know what you’d be running away from,” Orri snaps.  “There’s so much that you don’t know about… the horrible things that people do to each other…”

“I know a lot of things,” Zabe says.  She feels impossibly old to be only sixteen, and yet she’s felt this old for years.

Her words seem to calm him.

“Do you care what I think?” he asks.

“More than anything,” she says, and for the first time her voice breaks.  “Really, Orri.”

“Then listen to me,” he says.  “Don’t become her.  Don’t think that just because you’re smart you deserve to be in charge of other people.  Everything they tell you in this school is designed to make you feel like you’re chosen for some special purpose because of what you did before you came here, but you aren’t.  You’re chosen because they chose you.  This isn’t about how smart you are and it never has been.”  He wipes his eyes with the backs of his hands, a strangely childlike gesture.  It makes Zabe’s chest ache.  “Trust me, Zabe, and just leave when you can.  Take whatever chance you get and just go away from here and take Ash and forget that this school ever existed.”

“What about you?” she asks quietly.

Orri shakes his head.  “That’s just a fantasy.  It won’t work.  I’m ruined anyway.”

“What, because of the visions?”

He nods.  “I can’t stop them,” he says.  “And they get worse as I get older.”

“You’re not ruined,” she says gently.  “Not to me.  And I want you to come with me too.”

Orri shakes his head.  “It’s impossible.”

She crouches down beside him but he moves away from her touch and puts his head back against the wall.  They listen to the sound of the wind until she can’t stand it anymore.  She says, “We should go back.”

“I know,” Orri says.  He doesn’t move.

“Now,” she says.  “The storm is only going to get worse.”

“I came another way, remember?”

“Can you go back that way?”

“No,” he admits.

“Please come with me, Orri.  I can lead you back.”

He looks up and finally accepts her hand.

Together, they struggle through the snow back to the tunnel, using his box as a compass.  The only words that pass between them are words of direction and caution until they are safely back in the valley with the school.  They come to a place where they have to part and stop, looking at each other.  They’re in the eaves underneath one of the buildings, sheltered from the storm.

“I’m sorry that we had a fight,” Zabe says.

“Me too,” Orri says.  “I’m sorry if I seemed… intense.”

“It’s ok,” Zabe says.  “You were right.”

“I think I always do, though.  Seem intense, I mean.”

“It’s ok,” Zabe repeats.  “I do too.”

“Yeah,” Orri agrees.

They stand together and watch the storm.

“If I don’t go to dinner,” Zabe says finally, “they’ll miss me.”

Orri sighs.  “I figured.”

“Can I come see you after?”

“That’s really dangerous.”

“Please?”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

She can sense that his resolve is wearing down.  “I don’t mind,” she says.  “I have to go now but I want to make this better.  I want you to not think I’m a terrible person.”  He doesn’t speak, so she reaches out and takes his gloved hand in hers.  She can just barely feel the shape of his fingers through the thick fabric.  “Please, Orri.  It’s really important to me that you… well, that you like me.”

“It shouldn’t be,” he says.  “Trust me, I’m not worth your time.”

“Don’t… you don’t mean that.  Do you?”

“Yes,” Orri says, “I do.  Now, I’m going to go.  You know where to find me but… please be careful.”

“I will.”

They look at each other again.  Zabe remembers the kiss, their first kiss, and when she kissed him in the forest.

“I’ll see you later,” he says, and then he turns away from her and the circle of light and warmth beneath the building and leaves.  To Zabe, he looks like a lone wolf separating from the pack and returning to solitude.  She aches to follow him but knows that she can’t, so she counts the seconds until too many have passed and then she turns around and walks through the door.





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.”





Chapter 7 — There´s a first time for everything

28 06 2009

Zabe is shocked by how much she misses Ash.

He misses Midwinter Night. He disappears after every class. He doesn’t eat with them, he doesn’t do outside work with them, he doesn’t exercise with them or hike up to the north valley with them in their free time. When Zabe sees him – which is rarely, because he doesn’t seem to attend any classes except Dr. Levi’s – he’s subdued. He doesn’t look at her and when she tries to sit next to him, he quietly asks her to please move. When she doesn’t, he stands up and goes to the opposite side of the room.

Not even the other Year Fifteens, who have the voracious tendency to gossip that every small group with a minimum of true drama does, seem to want to touch on Ash’s strange behavior. They talk about it in hushed circles, far beyond the realm of the school, up in the hills and away in the north valley. Zabe does not share with them what she knows about the situation, but they somehow know that she was there. Her silence sets her even further apart from them than before, and just when she thinks that she should be old enough not to be hurt by it, her loneliness intensifies. It cuts through everything else and leaves her exhausted at the start of every day.

Finally she gives in, and seeks out Ash, following him after he leaves Dr. Levi’s classroom until she corners him outside the school’s carpentry workshop. It feels weird, to be back so close to Lady Vallance’s office, but when he turns and sees her his face freezes and she knows that she won’t be able to get him to talk to her anywhere else.

“I’m not supposed to talk to you.”

They’re the first words he’s said to her in months. She steps towards him and asks, “Who says?”

“You know,” he replies. “The powers that be.”

“Well, I don’t care. Why are you avoiding me?”

For a second, Ash looks exasperated, but then it’s gone and is replaced by a kind of resignation. “I just told you,” he says, more gently. “I’m not supposed to talk to you.”

“Well, can’t we talk anyway?”

“No,” he says, “I’m sorry, but we can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I’m already in a lot of trouble. I’d prefer not to be in any more.”

Months ago, Zabe would have gotten angry and waved her hands in the air and told him to stop worrying and stop being scared of trouble and authority and teachers. Now, however, something in his attitude chills her. “Ash…”

“What?”

She tries her last gambit. “What about your parents?”

“What about them?”

“What if they aren’t dead?”

He shrugs. “I don’t really care either way.”

Zabe stares at him. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“I mean,” he says, looking at the floor, “I don’t think they are dead. But really, really Zabe. I don’t care.” He shifts his weight, fiddles with the books in his hands. “I’ve got to go.”

He disappears down the corridor, and once again Zabe is left alone.

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

So Zabe goes detecting She wants to break into Lady Vallance’s office and find Ash, but she knows that she needs to find a roundabout way. One night after dinner, when there is only a thin slice of moon to give light, she goes scouting around the outside of the building where Lady Vallance’s office is. Like most of the buildings in the valley, it is built on log stilts, high enough above the ground that an adult can stand beneath them by hunching. Unlike any of the other buildings, however, this one extends backwards into the face of the rock that juts out from the particularly steep mountainside behind it. The trees have been cleared away to create a firebreak and the ugly scar where the log sides of the building meet the stone face of the mountain is a white streak of some stretchy mortar. Zabe approaches from the outside, rather than from the bridge, and looks at the scar, hoping for a way inside.

Zabe notices, then, that even though the building is raised up on stilts, there is a part of it that is below the bottom line of the bridge. She creeps forward and sees a low-slung extension set into the rock. Unlike the log and stone upper floors, this is matte black, with the occasional tiny, star-like glint. She crouches down and crawls along the ground until she comes to its base. It appears to be nothing more than a wall of tight wire mesh, painted black but worn in places, with no doors or windows.

Something creaks, and Zabe stands in panic. She knows that no one standing in the meadow can see her – she’s below their line of sight – but she is standing in a large subterranean space and feels exposed. She backs up against the mesh and then leaps forward as the ground suddenly opens in front of her.

It’s dark enough that she can’t quite tell what’s happened – just that a hole of harsh, greenish light seems to be hovering near her feet – until someone’s head appears in the hole. It’s a boy, maybe a few years older than her. They stare at each other for several seconds before he says:

“Zabe?”

“How do you know my name?”

“Look, come down here, ok? I promise I won’t turn you in if you do.”

He sounds as unsure and scared as she feels. She thinks she could make a run for it, but she doesn’t know where she’d go. Plus, she’s intrigued. She’s never seen him before, and in a valley this small, that’s almost more startling than where they are.

“Ok,” she says.

She walks to the hole. He offers her his hand but she can see that he’s standing on a table, so she motions him out of the way and then drops herself down. As she lands, she feels the table wobble, and he reaches out and grabs her arm.

“Hop down, quick, I don’t think this thing is meant to be stood on.”

She puts a hand on his shoulder and steps down into a coil of wires. She looks along the floor and sees wires everywhere, multi-colored, fat and small, snaking away from the small room she’s standing in and out through a narrow corridor.

“What is this place?” she asks. “Why is there a trap door with no ladder?”

“It’s the emergency escape,” he says. “No one’s supposed to go in or out of it.” She watches him climb up onto the table and bring down the door. He’s skinny – she might even go so far as to say scrawny – and his wrists sticking out of his sleeves are knobbly with bone. She guesses that he’s seventeen or eighteen, but if he’s a student, she’s never seen him before. His face and hands and the bare feet that peek out from underneath his trouser cuffs are pale.

“Except in an emergency,” she says.

“Yeah, well,” he hops down from the table with a “huff”, “there’s not supposed to be emergencies.” He brushes his hands off. His eyes are on the floor and his head is turned away from her. “I’ve got to go up top and fix that now, I’ll be right back, ok? Please just stand here and don’t touch anything.”

Zabe rolls her eyes. “You know my name, so chances are that you know I’m not about to follow your orders, either.”

“Please, Zabe,” he says. “I promise, when I get back – which will be in just a few minutes – I will show you everything you want to see. Just please don’t go walking around without me. We could both get in big, big trouble if you do.”

“Oh fine,” Zabe says. She plops down on the table and crosses her legs, the picture of boredom. He gets the picture and leaves, following the wires into the narrow corridor. She hears a shuffling noise and there’s a rush of cold air, and then something heavy shuts and she’s all alone.

She’s in what must be an anteroom. It’s tiny and the walls have gleaming white tiles on them. The greenish light that she saw when the trapdoor opened comes from the long tube of lighting on the ceiling reflecting off of all those tiny tiles. She’s never seen a tube of light before, and she doesn’t know how the fire inside of it is getting its oxygen. She theorizes that it’s mixed with another gas that also gives it that greenish color, but it’s kind of a scary thing to look at and she doesn’t like it.

All around her, there’s a subtle electrical hum. It’s like being in the pump station at the lake, but so much quieter that it’s almost a background thought. She looks down at the thick coils of wire and sees that they all disappear underneath the table. She hops down and bends over, following them with her eyes into a hole in the mosaic wall. She crawls forward and sticks her hand into the hole, but all she can feel is the wires, receding away from her.

“I don’t know where that goes,” the boy’s voice says. “To the pump station, in some cases, but as for the rest of it, I have no idea.”

Zabe emerges from underneath the table and faces him. “What is this place?” she asks, fascinated.

“Oh,” he says. He’s looking at the floor again. “It’s sort of like… the information center for the school, I guess.”

“What’s down the hall?” she asks. “What were you doing outside? How do you know my name? Who set this up? Where do the wires come into the pump house? I’ve seen the pump house, I didn’t see any places where the wires would come. Anyway if they’re drawing power off the dam, they must go through somewhere else…”

“There’s two pump houses,” he says.

Zabe blinks. The thought that there might be two pumps houses – two places taking power from the dam – well, she doesn’t know what to think about that. “Where’s the second one?”

“I’m not sure. I can just see the interior.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh,” he says, “I mean, that’s where the camera is focused. There’s no camera on the exterior.”

Zabe stares at him. “Camera?”

“Yeah.”

“You’ve never been there.”

It’s not a question, but he answers anyway.

“No…”

“Do you have cameras in other places?”

“Oh, yeah, everywhere.”

Zabe feels like her world is shifting around and falling on its side – or, more specifically, like it is falling onto the side it was supposed to be on in the first place. “Show me them,” she says.

“I… well, I really…”

“Hey,” she says. He finally looks up at her and she steps forward until they are very close together. She’s gratified to see that they are nearly the same height, since she’s wearing her snow boots. “I’m down here now. You just told me all about it. If you don’t want me to talk about it…”

He winces. “Please don’t.”

“What’s my incentive not to?”

“Well,” he says, “I could tell Dr. Levi. Or even Lady Vallance. And then you would be in really, really big trouble.”

Zabe frowns. “Like I’m scared of them.”

“You should be,” he says. “They’re not… well, they wouldn’t care about taking you out into the wilderness and leaving you behind, if you know what I mean.”

“I could survive,” Zabe says. “And you’re not very good at threatening me, you know. What’s your name?”

“Orri,” he says. “But don’t tell anyone about me, or about this, please Zabe, I mean it. They’ll take you out and shoot you, don’t you understand?”

“Would they do that if they knew I knew about it?” she asks. “Or just if I told?”

He shakes his head. “Come with me.” He leads her out of the room and down the corridor. The white tiles give way to a rough stone wall, and they walk for several yards before the wires along the floor branch away and they enter another room. This one is much larger, and much darker, with an entire wall of black and white shifting images.

“This is where the camera outputs go,” Orri says.

Zabe is floored. Her only experience with boxes is the big ones in the library that barely work. Ash claims that they don’t do anything that boxes are supposed to do, and all they ever do with them is put numbers into them with pens and wait while they perform calculations. Now she’s confronted with this wall of hundreds of tiny moving, changing images and the blink and hum of boxes so advanced that she’s never even read about them. She steps forward and touches the wall with her hand – it’s cool to the touch – and she realizes that it’s just another white tile wall, and that the images are being projected from above her. She looks up and sees a line of boxes on a shelf two feet above her head, with narrow beams of light spilling out and onto the wall from their narrow ends.

“You’re from the Desert Lore, aren’t you?” Orri asks quietly. “You’ve probably never seen boxes like this.”

“No,” she admits. She forces herself to turn away and look at him. “How do you know so much about me?”

He pulls a tiny box out of his pocket and sticks it onto a digipad. Taking up the pen, he writes her name and then draws a sharp line across it. The hundreds of tiny images fade and in the centre is a picture of her, aged eleven, standing by the ruined apartment building in the middle of the desert. Beside the picture it says her full name, and then there’s row upon row of smaller text below that, but when she squints at it, she sees that it is written in a non-Standard language.

“What does it say about me?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” Orri says. “I can’t read it either.”

“What is it written in?”

“I don’t know.”

Zabe rounds on him. “I have about a thousand questions right now, Orri.”

He pulls out a chair and offers it to her. “Shoot.”

“But are we safe?” she asks. “Can I be down here?”

“No one ever comes down here,” he says. “And on the off chance that someone does – because occasionally Lady Vallance or Dr. Levi might, but we really try to keep people from coming in and out of here because of the delicate equipment – this little screen here will flash.” While he’s been talking, her image and information has faded away and the tiny images are back. He touches the lowest one in the right column. “It’s good to have a bit of warning,” he adds.

“Do you live down here?” she asks.

“Sometimes. When Lady Vallance is here. I go wherever she goes.”

“Why?”

“Um, just do. I work for her.”

“How did you get the job?”

“I just did. I’ve had it for years.”

“But you’re not that old.”

“Well, I guess I’ve had it for eight years.”

Zabe is shocked. “How old are you?”

“Seventeen,” he says. “But it’s not too tough. Just monitoring things. Taking down interesting information. The boxes do most of it anyway.”

“But who ever looks at this stuff?”

“No one, unless they need to.”

“How would they know they needed to?”

“Well, the data gets analyzed to see who speaks with whom, who spends the most time with whom, where people spend their time, all that kind of stuff. Patterns build up. And then when new patterns emerge – or anomalies – that’s when someone has to start looking at it. So I do that. And if the anomalies are too weird, well, then I call in Dr. Levi.”

“Give me an example of an anomaly.”

“Oh, I guess… when you and Ash had that fight on the bridge. It wasn’t anomalous that it was you and Ash together – that was a normal pattern until a few months ago – but where you were was extremely anomalous. Students are not supposed to be there. So alarm bells started ringing and I took note of where you were and alerted Lady Vallance, who then dealt with the situation.”

“Where are the cameras set up?”

“Oh, all around the school. All over the valley really. On the inside of the lookout, at the pump houses, at the solar panels, and at various places around the lake. I tried to put one in the abandoned mine in the north valley but the wind took it down so I gave up.”

“Why have one inside the lookout? Why bother to have a lookout at all, in fact, if you have these cameras?”

“Well, they’re not very high resolution. It could detect a large wildfire, but not smaller things.”

Zabe plays dumb. “Like what?”

“You know, human activity in the valley.”

“What kind of human activity?”

“Other people, of course,” Orri says. “People from outside the school. Come on, you must know they’re out there.”

Zabe did not know they’re out there, but now she does. “Is that what the Year Nineteens are monitoring in the winter?”

“I guess,” Orri says. “I’m not sure. No one really tells me anything. I just figure stuff out based on what I see.”

“So you’re not up there with Lady Vallance or Dr. Levi.”

“No,” Orri says. “I’m just a tool. Just like you.”

“Thanks,” Zabe says. She looks back at the images. “So most of your stuff is inside. So you can’t see the meadows very well, or anything else wild.”

“Right. The cameras are much better up close than they are far away. I’ve experimented building a camera to monitor the big meadow areas, but it’s not very good. Also, there’s nowhere really unobtrusive to mount it.”

“So what about the stuff that we do when we are outside? How do you monitor that?”

“Well,” Orri says, “Most of the watching has to go on when you’re younger. After Year Sixteen, you all start spending too much time in the wilderness and away from the cameras for us to actually monitor you well.” He pauses and then adds, “You could do anything then, really.”

“It seems like you don’t really like them, Orri,” she says.

“Oh,” he says quickly, “I’m not sure about that. I don’t think like is really the way… well, it’s just not how I would describe it. But I guess that I feel a lot for the students. I mean, I watch you guys all the time. I can’t help it.”

Zabe shivers. It’s warm in the room but what Orri’s saying is creepy and weird and also intriguing. “So is that why you know who I am? That and the file?”

“Yeah.”

“And there’s a camera up there, near where I was scratching around?”

“Right.”

“So why didn’t you alert Lady Vallance? I assume that’s code red.”

“Oh.” Orri blushes and looks at his hands. “I guess I just wanted to talk to someone.”

Zabe’s not sure what to say to that. She changes the subject. “So what’s up with the wall out there? It’s made of really weird stuff.”

“It’s for attenuation,” Orri says. “We want to block anyone from knowing we’re here. Unfortunately, in the design for this room, part of it had to be above ground. That wasn’t my design and I think I could do it better now but that’s all right.”

“Who did design it?”

Orri hesitates before he says, “I don’t know.”

“Liar.”

“I can’t tell you.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s weird,” he says.

“Orri,” she says, leaning forward. “You live in a hole in the ground with a bunch of really advanced boxes. You’ve been watching me brush my teeth and get dressed for four years. Isn’t that already kind of weird?”

“There’s no cameras in the bathrooms,” Orri says. He’s blushing more. “Really, I guess it is kind of weird, but it’s just… well, it’s what I do. Like you’re a student. Lady Vallance and Dr. Levi get me to do it and I’m good at it so I do it.”

“Ok,” Zabe says. “Don’t worry about it.” She tugs off her coat and boots and folds her legs up underneath her. “It’s really warm in here.”

“You should feel it in summer,” he says with a smile. “Boxes give off a lot of heat.”

She turns her head and looks at the wall of images. She figures out where most of them are quickly, but there are a few that she doesn’t recognize. In one of them, she can see big wall with writing on it, and a lot of people moving in front of it. “Where’s this?” she asks.

“You’re not supposed to see that,” Orri says. He sounds nervous.

“I’m not supposed to see any of this,” she reminds him. “So where is it?”

“I really can’t tell you,” he says.

“Why are there limits to what you can tell me?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “Because I’m scared of getting in trouble.”

“You said it’s just a job for you.”

“But something terrible could happen to you. And anyway, it’s not like the kind of job I can get fired from.”

“Why do you care what happens to me?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “You seem nice.”

She laughs. “No one’s ever said that to me before.”

“Well, I see you when no one’s watching.”

“That’s really kind of creepy,” Zabe says.

“It’s not my fault,” Orri says. “It’s what I’m supposed to do.”

“But if you don’t like it, why do you keep doing it?”

“I have to,” Orri says. “Please, I can’t explain it to you right now.”

“Fine,” Zabe says, “whatever.”

They sit in silence for a few minutes while Zabe scans through all of the images, noting down how many of them are unfamiliar. Her eyes are constantly drawn towards the one with all of the people. She wants to read the writing but too many people keep standing in front of it. Then she finds an image she recognizes: Ash, lying in a bed in a room that she doesn’t know. He looks asleep but his arms are strapped down. She remembers what she forgot in the excitement of finding this place: that she’s here to rescue Ash.

“What’s going on here?” she demands, standing and pointing.

Orri does something with the digipad so that the image of Ash expands to cover half the wall. “He’s being medicated.”

“With what?”

“I don’t know,” Orri says. “I think it’s this stuff that regulates his moods.”

“What?”

Orri reaches into a container sitting on the ground and pulls out a bottle of tiny colored capsules. Zabe takes it and opens it, spilling a handful into her palm. They are green at one end and pink at the other. “What are these?” she asks.

“They’re pills,” Orri says. “You swallow them and they do something to your body.”

“What do they do?” Zabe asks.

“Well, different pills do different things. These make you forget things that make you unhappy. They’re not nice, but sometimes things just get too much and… people need them.”

Zabe touches the pills with her finger. They feel slightly clammy. “Can you hear things with the cameras?”

“Some of them. Why?”

“Did you hear what Ash and I were arguing about before you turned us in to Lady Vallance?”

“I didn’t turn you in…”

“Yeah, but did you hear?”

“He thought that his parents were still alive.”

“Exactly. And when I saw him earlier today, he told me that he didn’t care either way but that he didn’t think they were!”

Orri shrugs. “That’s what the pills will do to you.”

Zabe gets upset. “So they’re stealing memories from Ash!”

“Probably,” Orri admits. “But if he’s happier…”

“He’s not happier! He’s nothing! He has literally no emotions!”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Orri says. “That’s what happens with the pills.”

“Do you take them?” Zabe asks.

“Only sometimes.”

“Why?”

Orri shrugs. “Sometimes I just want to forget things.”

“Things you see?”

His glance strays towards the wall of images. “Sometimes, yeah.”

Zabe crouches down in front of him. “Hey, Orri.”

He looks down at her. “What?”

“You don’t have to keep doing this.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you could help the students instead.”

“Oh,” Orri says, suddenly uncomfortable, “no, I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“I just… I can’t.”

“But I came here looking for help.”

“You didn’t know you’d meet me.”

“No,” Zabe agrees, “but I was desperate. I didn’t know where I’d get help from at all. It’s good luck that I met you.”

“Is it?” Orri asks. “But now you know some of the secrets of the school.”

“I was going to find them out anyway,” Zabe says softly. “Now, Orri, will you help me?”

He hesitates. “How can I help you?”

“No one will let me speak to Ash,” she says. “We’re forbidden. I don’t know where he is when we aren’t in classes because he’s being sent somewhere strange. I just want to talk to him about these pills. That’s all that I want. Please tell me how I can do that.”

Orri glances up at the images again and winces. “I’m really not supposed to.”

“Let me do something for you,” Zabe implores. “Can I bring you anything? Do you want someone to show you to the lookout? You look like you never get out.”

Orri looks at her. “It would be nice to go outside.”

“Ok,” Zabe says. “Let’s go outside.”

“Right now?” His face is suddenly panicked.

“When else?”

“I don’t know. Not right now.”

“Why not?”

Orri looks around the room. “I don’t know.”

“How do you get here?”

“On the helicopter.”

“And you come straight down here?”

“Yes.”

“Well you’ve got to see it then. It’s beautiful.”

Orri shakes his head. “I can’t go outside,” he says. “Not right now. Wait a while. Come back and see me.”

“That sounds like a trap,” Zabe says, standing up.

“Wait, please,” Orri says. “I promise it isn’t. I’m just… I can’t go outside. Not right now.” His hands are shaking and he reaches out and takes the pill bottle back from her. “I’m afraid of it.”

“Only because you’ve never been out there before,” she says.

“No,” he says. “I don’t think so. I can’t tell you why now.”

She waves her hand. “Oh, this again.”

“Zabe…”

She gets impatient. “Then tell me to do something else. Whatever you want. I’ll do it. Just tell me where and when I can talk to Ash without being watched.””

Orri places the pill bottle back in the container very carefully and looks up at her. “I know what you can do.”

“Ok.”

He takes a deep breath. “Kiss me.”

Zabe raises her eyebrows at him. “That’s it? Just a kiss?”

Orri’s eyes widen. “Yes.”

“Just one?”

“Yes.”

“Promise?”

“Yes!”

She considers, then shrugs. “Ok. How?”

Orri stares at her. “I thought you weren’t supposed to.”

“We can kiss each other,” Zabe says, rolling her eyes. “We can do lots of stuff. There’s only one thing we can’t do, and that sounds stupid anyway.”

Orri clears his throat. “Ok. Really? Are you sure? I don’t want to make you.” He pauses and watches Zabe’s face. “I mean, I’ll probably tell you where you can find Ash anyway.”

Orri’s nice to look at, Zabe thinks. The second she thinks it, her heart starts pounding in her chest. “Well, you asked for it,” she says, feeling inane. “Don’t give away your information too easily.”

“Ok,” Orri says. He licks his lips. “I mean, I’d like to kiss you anyway.”

“Ok,” she agrees. She’s still standing there, and she doesn’t know what to do. Should she bend down to him? Should she put her hands on either side of him, on the arms of his chair, and push him back against the wall? She wants to, but it seems like it might be kind of weird. She might slip. “So… I think you should stand up.”

Orri stands up. He steps on her foot a little bit and mumbles, “Sorry.”

“It’s ok,” she says. She puts a hand on each of his arms and pulls him closer to her. He smells nice, she thinks, for someone who lives in a dark room underground. She’s not sure what she expected him to smell like. “You smell nice,” she says.

“I didn’t know I’d get compliments too,” he says. He sounds out of breath. “Is this how I should stand?”

“Yes,” Zabe says, not wanting to admit that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. “That’s how people always stand when I kiss them.”

“How many people have you kissed?” Orri asks. His face is so close to hers, she can’t focus on both of his eyes at once. “Have you kissed Ash?”

“No,” she says.

“Why not?”

“Shh,” she says. “I’m going to kiss you now.” She shuts her eyes, puckers her lips, and moves forward for what feels like an eternity.

And then, just when she thinks that she’s going to have to stop and start again from a shorter trajectory, their lips touch, and give way to mouths, and they stand for a long time like that, barely moving, breathing together. Zabe opens her eyes and looks at Orri’s fine-veined eyelids, the line of his nose and the pale skin across his cheeks. Then he opens his eyes and she steps away from him and drops his arms. They stand facing each other for a few moments before he says, “That was so… good.”

“Was it?” she asks. She suddenly feels shy.

“Zabe,” he says, stepping forward. He catches her arm and moves to kiss her again but she darts away.

“Just one kiss,” she says, not sure why she’s stopping him. “You promised.”

Orri steps back. “I did.”

“And you’re the creepy boy who lives underground, and watches me brush my teeth.”

“You have beautiful teeth,” he says to her, “but I never see you brushing them. No cameras there, remember? You can find Ash when he goes to have his shower tonight. I’ll let you know when.”

She looks up at him, wide-eyed. “How will you let me know?”

He hands her a tiny box. “I’ll send you a message on this,” he says. “I’ll let you know which shower, too.”

“Thank you, Orri,” she says.

“Can I talk to you other ways with it?” he asks her. “I get so lonely down here.”

“Ok,” she says. “I should go now, though. I’ve been down here for an hour.”

“I know,” he says. “You’re right.”

She puts on her coat and snow boots, and he leads her into a different, shorter corridor, and to a door. There is a complicated security pad next to it and he punches in a code too fast for her to see. The door opens and snow starts to blow in, onto his bare feet. “Goodbye, Zabe,” he says to her, and she ducks out into the snow. A storm is starting, fitfully blowing the old snow up to her chest and bringing with it a bitter wind. She turns to look at him as the door shuts and he smiles at her and raises one hand in a wave.

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

When she gets back to the dormitories, she sticks the tiny box underneath her sheets, undresses, and crawls into bed. With the heavy blanket over her head, she touches the screen and instantly two messages slide up, one from immediately after she left and the second from just a few minutes ago:

“Thank you for the kiss.”

“I think I’m in love with you.”

She rolls onto her back and tries to stop her heart from pounding again. She feels lightheaded and sick to her stomach. She can still feel his lips on hers and it makes her feel like she has a secret so powerful that her whole body must be glowing. She doesn’t want anyone to see her, because it must be written across her skin.

She holds up the box and, fumbling with the tiny built-in digipad, writes with her finger:

“You’re silly. Hardly know me. When should I come see you again? Have to return this thing for its charge.”

He replies, “I have to leave again soon. Keep it off and only turn it on at bedtime to get messages.”

And then, a second later:

“Ash is on his way. He’s going to the shower by the ugly statue.”

Zabe knows exactly the one. Lights are off in the dormitory now, so she stands, wraps herself in her coat, drops the box into her pocket, and creeps out of the room. Once outside, she runs down the corridor in bare feet. They’re allowed to be out after hours now that they’re in Year Fifteen but it’s still a strange novelty for Zabe. She comes to the statue – it’s a bronze guy in a funny hat on a horse, and it is just ugly – and stops in front of the showers. Someone is definitely in there. She pulls out the box. There’s already a message:

“I can’t see, you’re standing in front of the camera. It’s in the hat.”

She twists and looks at the statue. She can’t see anything strange about the hat.

“I can’t tell. Where is it? And is that Ash in there?”

“It’s in there. The cameras are tiny, of course! That’s Ash.”

“Thank you.”

“I still think I’m in love with you.”

She reaches out and touches the brim of the hat, stroking her hand down it. She doesn’t know if that accomplishes anything, but she needs to touch something. Then she turns and opens the door to the shower room.

“Somebody’s in here,” Ash calls out.

“I know,” she says, “because I’m looking for you.” She shuts the door behind her and stands in the space in front of the shower curtain. Ash’s clothes are in a bundle on the seat and his towel is hanging on the back of the door. The room is steamy. She takes off her coat and sits on the seat in her underwear.

“It’s hot in here!” she says.

The shower curtain opens slightly and Ash peeks out. “Zabe?” he asks.

“Of course,” she says.

“Are you naked?” he asks.

“Self-evidently not,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I said it was hot in here.”

“You’re not supposed to be in here.”

“I know.”

“Then why are you?”

“I’m worried about you.”

“Yeah, I got that earlier today. But aren’t we just going to get in trouble?”

“They can’t see us here,” she blurts out.

Ash shuts off the water and says, “Give me my towel.”

She hands it to him and a moment later he steps out of the shower wrapped in it. She starts to feel self-conscious in her underwear, but the room is oppressively hot and humid. She pulls her coat on anyway.

“What do you mean ‘they can’t see us here’?” Ash asks.

“They’ve got cameras,” Zabe says, “everywhere in the school, watching us. But not here. I found out.”

Ash exhales. “Thank god,” he says.

That is not the response Zabe was expecting. “What?”

“I knew they were watching me somehow, but I didn’t know how. Cameras make sense, but I didn’t know they had the technology for it. I guess I should have known.” He sits beside her. “Damn. Well. How did you find out?”

“I went digging around,” she says. The new information she knows is bursting to come out of her; she feels bold and a little bit crazy. “I went and looked underneath the building that Lady Vallance’s office is in. I was trying to look for a way to break in during your session with her. Instead I found this secret room built underground. It’s got all of these boxes and they’ve got cameras and everything.”

“Didn’t you get caught, or in trouble, or something?” Ash asks, horrified.

“Yeah, sort of. But it wasn’t bad.” Zabe frowns. “Look, I’m dying to tell you about it. Are you going to turn me in?”

“To whom?”

“Dr. Levi. Lady Vallance. Whoever.”

Ash gives her a sad smile. “It’s too bad you have to ask me,” he says.

“Yeah, well, are you?”

“No,” he says. “I don’t tell them anything but what they want to hear.”

“How can I trust you?”

Ash hesitates. “I’m not sure how much I can say right now. I’ve been feeling like… well, like the teachers have a way of… I don’t know, a way of monitoring us. So I’m not sure what I can tell you.”

“You’re right,” Zabe says grimly. “But not here. We can talk here.”

“How do you know?”

Zabe tells him about Orri, and the underground room, and the boxes and the cameras.

“Who could this Orri person be?” Ash asks. “This is so strange.”

“I know,” Zabe says.

“And why did he help you out?”

“Oh,” Zabe says. She hesitates. “Well, I kissed him.”

Ash turns to stare at her. “You did what?”

Zabe gets flustered. “I kissed him,” she repeats. “He said he would tell me when I could talk to you if I did something for him, so I kissed him.”

Ash turns away and looks down at his hands. “Huh,” he says. “What was it like?”

“It was nice,” Zabe says truthfully. “I liked it.”

“Oh,” Ash says. “Ok.”

“But I mean…” Zabe suddenly feels like she’s done something wrong. She doesn’t know how to explain it. “He’s a nice person. He thinks I’m a nice person. It’s not as weird as it sounds.”

“Good,” Ash snaps, “because it sounds really weird.”

“Well fine,” Zabe says, “but I did it for you, you know.”

“You kissed some other guy for me?”

“I was worried about you!” she says. “He told me that they made you take pills that would make you forget things!”

“I know,” Ash says. “I could tell they were. So I started hiding the pills, and not taking them, but I was pretending that they were working. And I knew they were watching, so I was pretending when you talked to me before.”

Zabe hesitates. “So you’re fine?”

“I guess so,” Ash says. He sighs. “I mean, I just… I think that they’re lying to us about so much more than we even suspect. I still think my parents are alive. I wish we could get some time alone, when we knew we weren’t being watched.”

“I could ask Orri,” Zabe says. “Maybe he can turn off the cameras or something.”

“You’re going to see him again?”

“Yeah, he wants me to…”

“Fine,” Ash snaps. “Whatever you want.” He stands up. “I’m going to bed.”

“Ash…”

“I’m really tired.”

“I don’t get it,” Zabe says. “Are we friends?”

Ash turns away from her and pulls on his clothes. “I don’t think you’ve ever said that to me before, but yeah,” he says. “We’re friends.”

“Then why are you mad at me?”

Ash turns back to her and sighs. “I guess because you went and had an adventure without me.”

“But I was worried about you!”

“I know.”

“So what was I supposed to do?”

“No,” Ash says, “you’re right.” He smiles at her, but he looks tired. “I’m sorry. It’s been really rough around here these past few months.”

“I know,” Zabe says. “For me too. I want to make it better.”

“Because we’re friends?” Ash asks.

Zabe nods. If she’d known that Ash wanted her to say the obvious, she would have said it long before. “You’re my best friend.”





Chapter 5 — The wider world, Part 2

27 05 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who was speaking into your headpieces?”

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

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

“I don’t know command station one!”

“But you know it was a Year Sixteen.”

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

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

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

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

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

“And what if it had been real, Zabe?”

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

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

Dr. Levi nods.  “And?”

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

Mr. Wu and the piano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go on,” Ash says eventually.

“What?” Zabe asks.

“You obviously want to ask me something.”

Zabe is startled.  “How did you know?”

“You’re jogging beside me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not fair!”

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

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

“Other things like what?”

Zabe shrugs.  “I don’t know.”

“Liar.”

“It’s embarrassing.”

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

“Why not?”

“You’ve done plenty worse things before.”

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

“What is?”

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

Ash looks completely taken aback by this question.

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

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

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

“More data on the situation?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Chapter 4 — In the shadow

4 05 2009

Ash wakes up in a room full of whispers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh come on…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It makes them into rough spheres!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ash nods.  “But you tried anyway.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What does that mean?”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.  Why?”

“Do you trust them?”

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

Zabe rolls her eyes.

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

“So why didn’t you try to change it?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why do you care so much?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess it does,” Holt agrees.

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” Ash says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why’s that?” Ash asks.

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

“You mean the teachers and Lady Vallance.”

“Yeah.”

“Aren’t they in charge?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

“How old are you?” Ash asks.

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

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

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

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

There’s a short silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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