Monthly Archives: March 2019

Theirs Not to Reason Why: Emerging

They made camp for the night in a cavern that was smaller than the previous one, but still fairly spacious. Matteo predicted that Nick would find some way to push him back into the crowd for dinner again, so he got in line with the soldiers. Nick nodded approvingly, and stepped in behind him.

“You couldn’t have thought of that fire thing earlier?” Trujillo said, handing Matteo a tin.

Matteo shrugged. “Nobody asked.”

“Nobody knew you could do it.”

“You knew I could make fire. I didn’t know how your flashlights worked. Seems pretty clear who had the relevant information here.”

Trujillo gave him a look, and Matteo felt his guts tighten up. Ordinarily, he did not expect to gain any goodwill, so he never feared to drive it away. Now he found himself wondering how far was too far, and anxiety was drowning him from the inside out. He missed sardonic apathy.

A light cuff sung the back of his head, and the soldiers laughed.

“Thanks, Barnes,” Trujillo said.

“Anytime.”

Matteo felt the anxiety drain away, and suddenly he had an actual appetite.

Friday

Now came the part of the trail where the cave sloped upwards. The advantage was that the tunnel widened out and rose up, becoming more like the inside of a massive medieval tower, with all the floors rotted out so you could see clear to the top. Claustrophobia was no longer an immediate concern. The disadvantage was that, as they ascended the walls, heights became more and more of one. here was something of a path winding along the sides, but only just. In many places, it was better to crawl than walk.

For light, Matteo had constructed a vine that glowed like lava. Every foot or so, a morning glory bloomed. Butterflies flitted along the length of it. At the back, the last flower broke loose as Sorenson, the last soldier, passed it, and the petals reformed themselves into the wings of a new butterfly. It followed its siblings up the line, until it reached the new growth of the vine, just ahead of Matteo. There it settled onto a length of bare vine, and turned back into a flower.

“Okay, now you have to be showing off,” Nick said.

“This time? Yes, absolutely, I am showing off.”

Saturday

Due to their need to press on until they left the towering shaft and reached a plain of solid ground, Friday’s night had begun very late. The sergeant had no intention of letting them sleep in, either. They were on a schedule.

After his coffee, Nick took advantage of a large rock pool to give himself something of a bath and shave. It was psychological more than anything else. A day after little sleep felt considerably worse when his face was stubbly.

As he finished the left side of his face and began the right, he heard a call from Ciernik.

“Barnes! Your fucking pet is mouthing off again!”

Nick sighed and put his razor down. After a brief chase, he caught Matteo and slung him over his shoulder. He hauled the scout back to the rock pool, and gave him a thorough dunking. Then he finished shaving.

Sunday

They emerged from the cave, on the western side of the mountain, just in time to see the sun set. It burned the opposite rim of the ring of mountains into a coal black frame for is glory. It lit the green trees below with tinges of gold, and turned the lakes into vanity mirrors. It, the sunset itself, needed no metaphor, because there is nothing you can compare a sunset to that is so unapologetically stunning, except another sunset. Especially to twenty all men who had just emerged from four days in dark tunnels.

Sergeant Powell gave no orders for several minutes. He just felt the air, blowing across his skin in an actual breeze, and felt the men around him breath deeply and be still. Perhaps in another place one of the men would have broken this moment, with a whoop of relief or an impulsive joke, but now that they were officially behind enemy lines, their training for self-preservation also preserved the stillness and the light.

Part of Sergeant Powell regretted this, because it meant it fell to him to bring matters back to business.

“All right men,” he said. “Make your camps just inside the cave, in case someone comes along in the morning. Keep everything quiet, and no fires or lights of any kind. There should be a moon along soon. I’ll assign teams and give orders in the morning, so get a good night’s rest. Dismissed.”

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Theirs Not to Reason Why: Lighting the Way

They marched on for four hours, then broke for lunch on a ledge overlooking a pool. At first Matteo took a perch a ways away from the rest of the men, but Nick caught his eye. He jerked his head towards Trujillo, who was handing out more tins, optimistically labelled soup.

“Eat,” he mouthed, forcefully.

Matteo sighed. He walked carefully around he lines of men, trying not to look but unable to help glancing at their expressions. They ignored him, for the most part. Sorenson especially. He was chatting and cleaning his knife. The closer Matteo got, the more absorbed Sorenson became in the knife, and Matteo could not avoid imagining the sensation of being stabbed with it. Not that Sorenson was cleaning it in a particularly menacing way. It didn’t even seem to need cleaning. It was just a time filling habit, and it just so happened that Matteo’s presence made mundane time filling distractions slightly more necessary.

Matteo got his tin and hurried back to the front of the line. As he approached, though, Nick stood up. He swung his arms back and forth, cracked his shoulders, then leaned against the wall, taking up just enough space to make it uncomfortable for Matteo to squeeze past. Matteo gave him a pleading look. Nick’s only response was to jut his chin subtly at the empty space he had just left. Matteo sighed, and sat down next to a wiry, sharp jawed man with “Sasaki” sewn into the side of his jacket.

Matteo opened his tin, but found i hard to eat for reasons that had nothing to do with the taste. He poked through the contents, and his awareness of Nick’s gaze forced him to occasionally bring a forkful to his mouth, despite everything.

Sasaki was flicking his flashlight on and off. When it was on, the light blinked like a firefly. Sasaki shook it, adjusted the clear plastic bit at the front, shook it again, then sighed and opened it at the bottom. He took a pair of metallic cylinders, replaced them with an identical pair from his rucksack.

“What are those?”

Sasaki looked at him like he was a ghost, then like he was an idiot. “These?” he held up the cylinders. Matteo nodded. “Batteries.”

“What are they for?”

“What are they- shit.” Sasaki looked up at Nick. “How the hell do you explain batteries?”

“It’s a way of holding electricity,” Nick said.

“Ah. And why would you want to do tha?”

Sasaki laughed. “You mean with all this time and all your electromancers, you haven’t figured out electricity’s good for more than just frying the fucking good guys? Damn that’s sad.”

Nick jumped in before Matteo could devise a comeback. “Just about everything you’ve seen, from cars to radios to flashlights, somewhere along there, some kind of electricity is making everything run. And we don’ need electromancers. Just power lines or batteries.”

Matteo looked closer at the two batteries Sasaki had withdrawn He was writing “bad” on hem, and when he was finished, he tucked them back into the rucksack.

“But they don’t always work?”

“Occasionally you get a bad one,” Nick said. “And eventually they run out of power.”

“So you’re all carrying replacement batteries for your flashlights. And if you’re not careful, you’ll run out.”

“Yeah. Don’t worry about it. We got plenty.”

“You might not have to use as many, though,” Matteo said, suddenly animated. He jumped to his feet. “I need to get past. I need space to start with.”

Nick let him out.

From his ledge, Matteo fixed his eyes on the fireball he had suspended in the cavern. He grew it slightly, then began moving his hands, as if he was sculpting an invisible lump of clay. The fire twisted and elongated, taking on a eardrop shape, then a fluid S, then growing fluttering wings from its sides. The bird shape was honed and refined, its beak growing slim and curved, its tail fanning out into distinct feathers, its wings pulling up like ocean waves before beating down smoothly. When the shape was perfected, Matteo snapped his fingers, and on the smooth orange-red there appeared a spark of searing orange-white. He snapped again, and again and again, dappling it all over the belly, back, wings and tail, leaving on the space below its throat unmarked. He paused, let it flit and turn, then nodded in satisfaction. He brought his hands together as if in prayer, and then separated them, palms facing out. The songbird of fire split in two, each half the size of the original.

Matteo moved his hands from side to side, and the birds followed, swaying side to side, chasing each other at a steady distance. Gradually, he let his motions become more fluid, letting the birds move away and together, but never getting too far, one turning the moment the other turned. He lowered his hands, and without his guidance, they continued their improvised dance. He brought his hands together, and apart, and now there were four birds, even smaller.

Again, he directed their motions, but not for as long before splitting the four into eight. Eight became sixteen, sixteen became thirty-two, sixty-four, one hundred and twenty-eight, each only an inch across. They all moved as individuals, and ye in unison, keeping their space yet refusing to separate. Their motions made a rippling aurora.

“What on earth?” Sergeant Powell had made his way to the front of the line, and he was gaping at this gleaming flock, along with everyone else. Matteo turned back and grinned. With one hand, he summoned the birds, who turned and spiraled to hover over the heads of the line. Several of the soldiers flinched, but in a moment they saw that none of the birds were coming close enough to singe them.

“A murmuration of starlings,” he said. “Now you won’t need your flashlights.”

“Right,” the sergeant said. He cleared his throat and bellowed. “Five minutes until we fall in!”

Lunch was hastily finished, gear was collected, and the march resumed, at an easy amble. The birds kept in line with the soldiers, darting to avoid overhanging rocks, moving in gentle waves and clusters, the last ones keeping pace with the end of the line, the first hovering just over Matteo’s shoulder.

“This feels like showing off,” Nick said, as they walked.

“It’s not,” Matteo said. “I needed them to keep their shape.”

“Yeah, but that shape could have been a ball.”

“Too easy o lose control that way. Fire has a sort of mind of is own. If you just leave it as fire, you have to fight with it the whole time. But if you convince it to be something else, it’s more likely to behave.”

“Yeah?” Nick said, now sounding a little nervous. “How much more likely?”

Matteo looked back, mischievously not answering.

“Dude, don’t mess around! I’ve got gunpowder in… fucking everywhere! I don’t know if you still have gunpowder on the other side, but it goes boom.”

Matteo laughed. “You’re fine. It’s not thinking like fire anymore. It’s thinking like a migration of birds. It’s friendly fire.”

A response came from Sasaki, a little farther back down he lines. “In military terms, friendly fire is not a good thing.”

“He didn’t mean it like that,” Nick said, then raised his eyebrows. “Right?”

“I mean it’s not thinking about finding things to burn. It’s thinking about avoiding obstacles and keeping up with the flock. And yes, we are among the obstacles that it is trying to avoid. Hence detail. Specificity. A life of it’s own. Not showing off.”

“Cool. Consider me reassured.”

Theirs Not to Reason Why: Nick

It took a while for Nick to actually respond.

“Well, this is a bit like hearing about a hit and run and asking what color the car was, but, did you know what that word meant?”

“No, not for months afterwards. My parents wouldn’t talk about it, and I knew not to ask them. Eventually I asked an older kid, and he told me.”

“Was… were your parents okay to you?”

“Course not. Nothing was ever okay again, after that day.” Matteo’s tone was as crisp and simple as a dry leaf abruptly crushed into powder.

“Right. So, you’re bringing us in to kill the people who killed your brothers.”

“Sooner or later, they kill everyone’s brothers. Everyone knows somebody who lost somebody. And those who survive are the ones who learn to do what’s good for them, whether they feel right about it or not, and not cry about the ones who die trying to do something better. So they get to everyone in Arcadia, on the inside or the outside.” Matteo nearly stopped there, but he felt a little more honesty welling up inside him, and it wanted to be vomited out.

“And to be perfectly frank, I’m not entirely convinced that this plan of ours will work. I hope it does. But mostly, I just think this would be a very interesting way to go join my brothers.”

Nick put his hand on Matteo’s shoulder one more time. Matteo realized he hadn’t been able to look the soldier in the face for a while, and had instead directed his story towards the water, and read Nick’s reactions in the reflections. He wasn’t sure why it had felt like a risk, looking him directly in the face. In any case, he took that risk now. There was a slight wrinkle between Nick’s brows. It was not quite enough to be pity, and Matteo felt an unclenching inside him.

“I hope it doesn’t come to that,” Nick said.

Matteo nodded.

Nick took the empty tin from his hands. “I’ll take care of that. Get some sleep,” he said.

He jumped to the ground, and walked back to the camp. Matteo waited until he had disappeared into the shadows before climbing down. He leaned against the boulder, wrapped his cloak around himself, and did his best to sleep.

Thursday

The morning was created by the sergeant’s shouts, followed by Matteo transforming his moon and stars into a glowing sun. The warm coffee smell displaced the cool, watery air in the cavern. Soldiers traded ration crackers and debated whether it was worse biting into them or crumbling them into the coffee. They were similarly divided on whether sleeping on solid rock was miserable enough to make waking up an actual relief. In truth, the text of the morning grumbling did not say much. These men always woke up complaining about something. But there were as many ways of complaining as there were shades of red. These weren’t the bloody minded complaints that came through gritted teeth. Nor were they the jovial sunrise of complaints that were just hopes disguised. They were the bleary eyed stretch of complaints that came most easily because they were what the soldiers were used to.

As Nick Barnes drank his coffee (he preferred the crackers dry) and returned to a vaguely human feeling, he noticed Matteo at the edge of the lake, splashing cold water on his face.

“Has he eaten yet?”

Trujillo, who was serving the coffee, shook his head. “Nah, hasn’t fucking been by here.”

“I swear, that guy needs an alarm for his meals or something. Didn’t get himself a thing last night.”

Kaufer, who had made camp next to Nick and was already rolling up his gear, laughed. “Just so long as he drops dead after he gets us through this damn place.”

A few soldiers chuckled and a few didn’t. Nick looked around their circle of bedrolls, stacked arms and packs, and the makeshift kitchen set up, as usual, right in the center of the camp. He drummed his fingers against the side of his cup, then swallowed the last of it. He set it down on top of his roll and walked off.

“Hey,” he said. “We’re heading out in fifteen minutes. If you’re going to eat breakfast, you’d better get on it.”

“Oh,” Matteo said, a little uncertainly, looking over at the camp. “Right. Um, what is it?”

His tone was more of someone stalling than someone curious. Nick sighed, grabbed his tunic just behind the neck, and steered him into camp. He walked Matteo directly up to Trujillo, and raised his eyebrows. Trujillo shrugged, handed him a biscuit and a cup of coffee, and shouted out last call for breakfast. Matteo stood stiffly, the soldiers milling around him, not looking at him in a slightly pointed way.

“Sit down,” Nick said, as he began gathering up his own bedroll. “Eat.”

Matteo bit off a corner of the biscuit. Out of the corner of his eye, Nick saw the same suppressed grimace he had seen last night, when Matteo tried to stomach the “meatloaf and gravy.” After a few more bites, Matteo took a tentative sip of the coffee, and immediately coughed it out onto the ground.

“Oh god! That is the foulest thing I have ever drunk in my life!”

Most of the soldiers in earshot laughed.

“You get used to it,” Nick replied casually. “Sort of an acquired taste.”

“Why? Why on earth would anybody subject themselves to that often enough to get used to it?”

“Wakes you up in the morning.”

“From what? Sheer panic? Does the feeling that your tongue is trying to escape your mouth make you ready to face whatever other horrors the day has in store?”

Nick left his gear and took the cup from Matteo. “Take it you don’t want the rest of it, then?”

“God, please, take it.”

Nick downed it and returned he cup to Trujillo. On his way back to his gear, he smacked Matteo on the back of his head.

“Ow! What was that for?”

“Being cheeky.”

Matteo rubbed his head, and the soldiers began to ignore him again. Nick glanced periodically at him, watching him choke down the dry biscuit as best he could. He timed it so he wrapped up his preparations at about the time Matteo finished his attempt at breakfast. As Matteo went to gather his things, Nick walked to where everyone else was forming up at the exit of the cave, casually happening to escort him out of the camp as he did so.

“Hey,” he said under his breath, just as they were about to separate. Matteo glanced back.

“They like you a little more. They hate a prissy smartass, but they like one who’s willing to take a hit for their crap.”

The beginning of a twinkling smile appeared around Matteo’s eyes. “Really? Has anyone told them that if they hit a little lighter, they might end up liking more people?”

Matteo flinched a the jab to his shoulder, but the smile in his eyes took over the rest of his face.

“Go get your shit together,” Nick said, before rejoining the ranks. “In both senses.”

 

Theirs Not to Reason Why: Matteo

“No, just bored,” Matteo said.

“That’s army life. Hurry up and wait.” He waved a can. “You didn’t get any rations.”

Matteo hadn’t been hungry. Even so, now that food was being offered, he felt desperate to accept it. It was only the second time in as many days that he felt someone had spoken to him like an ordinary person.

“Thank you,” he said.

Nick tossed the can, and Matteo felt immediate panic set in. He fumbled at it with absolutely no belief that he would catch it, which of course was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The flame he had lit sputtered as he dropped the hand he was using to guide it, and as a result he did not see the can at all, just felt it bounce off his wrist before it disappeared into the shadow of the boulder. He heard Nick laugh, and then he appeared, pulling himself onto the boulder beside Matteo. It had taken Matteo a bit of careful clambering to scale this rock, searching for handholds, but Nick had simply jumped, gripped the top, and pulled himself up. Matteo was… not exactly impressed by this. He had grown up with stories of significantly more dramatic feats demonstrating the abilities of Strongmen, and seen people coax flowers into blossoming with their minds, so this was not anything shocking to his view of the world. But he was affected by it. No Strongmen had joined the Arcadians, when they had first claimed the Adirondacks for their own. Just Elementals, and the one lineage of Psychics. Seeing something mildly superhuman, done casually, in a way he wasn’t used to seeing – it was interesting.

Nick held out the can, now slightly dented from its fall. Matteo took a moment to stabilize his flame, placing it just at the edge of the rock, where it cast a soft reflection into the water, before taking it.

“What is it?”

“Trust me, it’s so much worse if you know what they were trying to make it taste like.”

“How do you eat it?”

“Here, just, roll back that tab. That’s it. Now you break off that piece, and it makes a fork. Kind of.”

The contents of the tin were bland and greasy, like something you would scrape from the bottom of your pots and feed to a cat. Still, Matteo made himself eat it.

“So,” Nick said. “I take it you didn’t play many sports as a kid.”

“Good lord no,” Matteo said. “They’d always pick me last because I’d wander off the field and start drawing things.”

“Can’t say I blame them.”

“Me neither.”

Nick gave him a moment to get in a few more mouthfuls before speaking again. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

“Not at all.”

“Why are you doing this? Leading an invasion into your own country?”

“Well, the watchtowers aren’t exactly one way. You can’t get in, but we can’t get out either.”

“You got out. Why not just help other people escape the same way?”

Matteo raised an eyebrow. “You really don’t know, do you?”

“Know what?”

“The Psychics. What they do.”

“I heard there was one telepath who went along with all the Elemental families. I don’t know what’s happened since them.”

“He was the best friend of the Founder. He made sure only loyal soldiers were guarding the perimeter. And then he had children who read minds and emotions too.”

“Oh. I’m guessing they continued the family business.”

Matteo nodded. “They patrol everywhere. They wear these special robes, and headdresses, almost like the old plague doctor masks. They want to stand out, because when you see someone walking around, dressed like that, the first thing you think is the thing you’re most afraid they’ll know. It doesn’t matter if you know what they are trying to do. It still works. In fact, the more you know, the more sure you are to be afraid of them, and the more easily they will pick it up. And there’s no hope that one of them might show you mercy. They all can read each other. They reflect each other. If any of them was less than completely dedicated to their mission, all the rest would know it. Instantly. And their judgment is final. Unquestionable.”

“Makes rebellion from inside a little difficult.”

“Not difficult. Impossible.”

There was a sudden hardness to Matteo’s voice. Nick looked at him, with something quiet and patient in his eyes. At first, Matteo didn’t want to say more, but Nick’s eyes eroded that, like water on the sand.

“I had brothers,” he began. “I’m youngest of four. My parents had a trading station. Most of us try to be self-sufficient, but nobody can do everything. It was like a little store, I suppose. We don’t have money, but we’d accept people’s extras and give them what they needed more of, or try to help them find it somewhere else. A lot of people come in and out of places like that.

“One day, a pair of Psychics come in. It’s not a routine check. They found somebody who had done something wrong, and when they dug deeper into his mind, they found out somebody else had helped him, and somebody else had helped that person, and somebody else had kept the secrets of all of them. Truth be told, I don’t know exactly what happened, or how many people were involved. Once these things happen, the whole line has to come up. Like pulling a weed and digging for roots left behind. Then everyone spared either doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to talk about it. Not just because it’s painful. Because they’re afraid talking about it will turn them into the next weed.

“In any case, their hunt lead them to our little store.” Matteo paused. It would be easy to summarize the story here. Ordinarily, when he talked about it, he kept it in the simplest terms possible. People didn’t want to know. But here he was, sitting next to Nick, stormy blue eyes eroding layers of him.

“They read my parents first. Not just a passive reading this time. Each of them had to sit down with one of the most powerful Psychics, and let him sift through all their thoughts, all their memories, their whole lives. They complied, of course. Nobody doesn’t comply. They were fine. They knew nothing.

“Then it was Elio’s turn. He was twenty. He ran the shop, almost as much as they did. He sat down, he was sifted through, and as it turns out, he had something to do with whatever had brought them there. He was, in fact, the one they were looking for.

“The Psychic came with bodyguards. Lightning workers, most of them. He nodded to one of them, she raised her hand, just to lightly touch Elio. Suddenly, my brother was on the ground, convulsing. And then.

“Well, then I only had two brothers.”

Matteo swallowed. He didn’t want to keep talking, and he wouldn’t have, except that Nick was still listening, and despite how much he didn’t want to keep going, he didn’t want to stop talking even more.

“They had to check everybody. Just to be really tidy about everything. So next came Cos. Cos was, I think, sixteen? And he was my favorite. I know, you’re not supposed to have favorites, but to this day he was the funniest person I ever met, so there you have it. Anyway, Cos liked everyone and knew everything about them. Which, I suppose, included knowing everything about Elio. So he had to go. And suddenly, I only had one brother.

“Luca’s turn. Luca was fourteen. I hated Luca. He got everything that I wanted, and wanted everything that I got, so we fought about everything. He was good at sports, so he’d tease me about my drawings and then I’d run off and draw something rude about him, I don’t know, him with his trousers down or something like that. Luca sat down in front of the Psychic. I suppose he was terrified, because whatever it was he had to hide, the Psychic picked it up fairly easily. And I had no more brothers.”

Matteo felt Nick’s hand on his shoulder, and he wiped his face very quickly.

“My turn, of course. And at this point, I thought I was going to die. I was positive of it. Because I was eleven, and Luca was fourteen, and I couldn’t see how he could have done something so awful, and somehow I was innocent. I wasn’t afraid. I had just felt the worst I had ever felt in my life, three times in a row. I never, never wanted to feel that way again, and I knew that if I was dead, I wouldn’t have to. So that was something to look forward to, at least.

“It’s like… this gray mist settled over me. It didn’t hurt at all. It just penetrated, without disturbing anything. Like being a ghost and having people just walk through you. Only that’s happening deep inside your mind, in parts of you that you don’t even think about. I don’t know how to… you know how you are always thinking about what your hands are doing, but not that worried about your tailbone? Then maybe something hits you right there, and suddenly you’re very aware that you do, in fact, have a tailbone? There are tailbone parts of your mind. I felt this mist passing over all of them.

“Then it disappeared, and I heard the psychic’s voice. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you can keep this one. He’s not a traitor, just a faggot.'”

Matteo stopped there. He could have gone on, talked about what it was like to be sitting there, his brothers’ bodies lying on the floor around the table, in the crumpled postures they had landed in. Eyes open, faces still contorted, nothing left inside them. Tortured nightmare dolls who happened to look like the human beings who Matteo had before never gone a day without seeing. And everyone acting like there was something normal about all this. Most of all the hideously robed man, who was smiling like he had made a joke that he was too classy to laugh at, but was nevertheless ingeniously funny.

It didn’t seem necessary to actually say any of that, though.

Theirs Not to Reason Why: The Caves

Even after the agony of the crevice, the tunnel was oppressive. Powell soon saw why Matteo had been reluctant to start before everyone was gathered. At best, it wound like a corkscrew, but less evenly, so sometimes they were going down at a vaguely reasonable incline, while at others they were fighting not to slide into the back of the man in front of them. At worst, an obvious passage was ignored in favor of one that forced them to duck into a boulder wedged between two walls, crawling once again. Powell had grabbed Sorenson’s gear and gone on with it was well as his own, and he was glad he had. Of course, he could have given it to any of the privates, but then Sorenson would have gotten grief for it. The man had been through enough.

David’s first regret, once they had been marching for a while, was that he hadn’t made a firm plan as to how far they would go before stopping for the night. He had pressed for a good start. He now thoroughly wished he hadn’t.

Once he had, as far as he could tell, been marching with this regret for longer than otherwise, he decided he had enough. He saw the passage widen slightly ahead, and took advantage.

“Halt!” he called.

The line stopped, and he nudged Salcedo aside, moving ahead of him. He made his way past each and every soldier, occasionally negotiating an awkward squeeze, and ended up in front of Matteo.

Damn, the kid was small. No wonder he had managed that trip so easily. Lucky bastard probably didn’t know how good he had it.

“We should pick a spot to make camp soon,” he said.

No snark this time, just a nod. Then Matteo glanced behind him, back at the line of men.

“Is Sorenson all right?”

Damn, of course word of the reason for the delay would have rippled up the line. Soldiers were worse gossips than any church lady. No one would give him any grief, Powell assured himself. It hadn’t been an easy squeeze for any of them, and the men could always be counted on to figure out where the line was.

“He’s fine. He’s a tough guy.”

“Ah, yes,” Matteo said. “I remember that about him.” Then, in a softer voice, he said, “there’s a little cave not far, but if we press on past that, there’s a whole cavern. They’ll have room to stretch their legs a little.”

Powell looked at Matteo in surprise, and felt a little grudging approval.

“Let’s make for the cavern,” he whispered, and restarted the march.


Matteo let them file slowly into the cavern, expanding his little flame slowly to illuminate the space. As they realized they had room to move away from each other and the walls, the dawning relief on their faces made the grubby mess of men almost beautiful. Matteo smiled to himself, and stepped away from the crowd, a hand raised to guide the floating ball of fire before him. The light illuminated the edges of a lake, clear and still as a sliver of ice. It reflected Matteo’s fire without the slightest distortion or ripple. You could hardly expect a mirror to be more perfect.

At the edge of the lake, Matteo transformed the ball into a rising spire, shooting up for ten, twelve, fifteen, twenty feet, and still more. He heard startled shouts behind him, and the fire illuminated pillars as tall as cathedrals, sheets of stone that were gossamer thin, and walls piled with sugary looking crystals. At the roof, his column of fire arched into a spinning ring, displaying stalactites that were as tall as any of them were. He glanced over his shoulder, and grinned at the line of frozen soldiers, stooped halfway through unpacking their rations and bedrolls. Satisfied, he wandered away, to leave them to their evening preparations. He climbed onto a boulder that overlooked the lake, and sat cross legged on it.

He loved these caves. He loved them to the point of pain. They had been an early escape, and more than that, they had been peace, refuge, a place to be himself, and above all, astoundingly beautiful. Matteo had grown up in a very beautiful place. Splashing brooks, spring flowers and ivy drenched trees were not things that grew less lovely with familiarity. But the limestone caves were something else entirely. They were like the manifestation of some old god come down from the stars, oblivious to the affairs of humanity but in no way malevolent towards it. They were austere. They were fey. They made him, the least reverent person in any room he had ever entered, feel like prostrating himself in worship. Not the worship that plead for favors or expected salvation, but the pure submission of someone who knew he was in the presence of something older, mightier, and beyond all human silliness.

As he looked away from his cavern, and back at the little army, something in him sank. They had been awed, of course, but they were not captivated. They were making camp, opening tins of rations, and occasionally punching each other’s arms. Four had begun a game of cards. Nothing was wrong with that, of course, but… if they were not awed by these caverns, what would they think when they emerged into his world of trees and blackbirds? He expected them to destroy, of course. They were trained destroyers. And he had his agreements with the generals and the politicians. But in the end, it was they who would decide what to do to his home. It was they who would make the decision, to cut off the diseased branches or fell the whole tree. How could he expect them to make that judgment if they did not even properly look at the tree?

“Hey!” a shout came from below. It was the sergeant. “I need these guys to get some sleep. Can you turn that thing down a bit?”

Matteo sighed, and shrunk the fiery ring to about a tenth of its original size. The stalactites disappeared, except for the tips of the very oldest and longest ones. The sergeant moved on without thanks, and Matteo leaned back on the rock, looking up at the fire. He tried to imagine what the sky was like this time of year. The moon was a waxing crescent. He remembered that easily enough from earlier tonight. He raised a hand as if smudging at a blackboard, and a chunk of the ring disappeared. With a few pinches he directed the remnants into the right shape. Then he snapped, and a little spark lit up in the recesses of the stalactites.

Matteo gave it a little attention to sustain it, and then snapped another into existence. Gradually he replicated the constellations, sometimes doubting whether or not he was remembering them correctly. Occasionally he extinguished a spark, only to relight it in nearly the same space.

“Are you showing off?”

It wasn’t the sergeant’s voice, but it was familiar. Matteo made a little lantern flame appear, hovering over his cupped hand, and illuminated the space below his boulder. It was the soldier from last night, Nick Barnes.

Theirs Not to Reason Why: The Passage

Wednesday

The sergeant did yell at the unit, though he had only been promoted from among their ranks a few months ago, and part of him still flinched at having to inflict discipline. He thought of the old rising sergeants who had seemed to change their personalities overnight, suddenly overconfident and smug. Some days he envied them. Other days he feared that they had all felt this way deep down, and that to his men, he now looked just like one of them. Sergeant David Powell, just another big-headed man aiming to stick his head up above the rest of them.

The rant that he gave was rote and general, recobbled from words he had blustered and heard blustered before. The bluster had been better on other days. In a moment of faltering silence, he decided to begin the briefing for the mission. He knew how the briefing was going to end, and he didn’t know how to conclude the lecture. That was how he made his decision; what would let him escape this chore with some dignity. It surprised him, just how many of his leadership decisions were guided by that.

He paced along the line of men. He looked better than he felt. He was a man with a slight build but quietly regal posture. His skin was the deep reddish brown of a chestnut shell, and he had recently grown a small mustache that suited him. As he walked, he would periodically lock eyes with a soldier. When he could not hold a former comrade’s eyes anymore, he would glance quickly to another’s face, without looking up or down. Hoping nobody saw a flicker of uncertainty in between. Nobody did.

“In fifty years, Matteo Garibaldi is the only defector to reach us with credible, useful intel. To provide us with information, he has been making use of a series of caves, which he believes the Arcadian patrols are unaware of. He will be leading us through those caves. The journey will take the better part of our week, but it will let us out at a point near a trio of watchtowers. The Elementals posted at these towers have overlapping ranges with each other. By taking all three out, we will create a gap in their electromagnetic defenses. Our planes will be able to fly through, straight to the heart of their capital. The success of this plan, from the journey through the caves to the attack on the watchtowers to the ultimate destination of the plane, relies entirely on information supplied by Matteo Garibaldi. So if you aren’t willing to trust him, fall out now. You’re not welcome with us.”

Sergeant Powell waited. In his head, he heard rebuttals, the kinds that would never be uttered in line, but saved until they fell out and he was out of sight. Most of them would revolve around good reasons to distrust him (he’s Arcadian, why is he doing this, how is it that no one else has found these caves before him, how do we know this isn’t a trap) and fun suggestions for what they could do to him if he did betray them.

Of course, nobody fell out. Of course, nobody trusted the scout.

“Very good. I’m glad to see I can rely on you all. The cave entrance is in the middle of no man’s land. It can be crossed at night. Take only what you need. And try to get some rest this afternoon. You’ll need it.”

The desert that the Arcadians had created extended for two miles. Across the first mile, the elementals in the watchtowers allowed the military to retrieve their dead and wounded. If their invasions passed that points, the rescuers would soon need rescuers themselves. By now it was easy to see the point of no return. It was littered with shattered jeeps, melted tanks, downed planes, fragmented weaponry. You could find a bone here and there. No skeletons. The crows and vultures scattered bones as they picked them clean. The unit crossed without lights, in a stooped, single line. In the distance, lights flickered in the watchtowers, where the night guards kept their eyes on the perimeter.

The cave’s entrance was just a little slit in the stony earth. Sergeant Powell thought for a moment that Matteo had simply taken cover behind a low boulder, then wondered why he had stopped for so long. Then Corporal Ciernik tapped him on the shoulder, and moved him a few inches closer. Ciernik’s gift included sharpened senses as well as enhanced strength, and what was invisible to David was clear to him. As he looked closer, Powell saw that one shadow was not a shadow. It did not move with his vision.

“Jesus Christ, that’s small,” he muttered. Ciernik nodded. Powell took a deep breath.

“Stay behind until all the men are through. Make sure everyone can see it.”

Ciernik nodded once more, and Powell dove into the crevice.

Powell was not normally claustrophobic, but this was not going to be pleasant for anybody. The boulder that partially covered this entrance was an iceberg; a little bit poking above, a swollen mass below. The rock dipped and rose, forcing him to slither back and forth to avoid unpleasant bumps. And, though it might have been his imagination, the uneven slope of the ceiling averaged downwards faster than the floor did. The space was small, and it was getting smaller.

Ahead, a right light flickered. Matteo had a little ball of light inching along with him. Behind Powell, a soldier clicked on a flashlight to make his way forwards. Seeing the size of the narrow gap made Powell’s stomach wrench more, not less. He pushed on.

The gap opened up all at once, dumping Powell down into the floor of the little chamber. The passage ahead, just big enough to walk through with shoulders barely brushing the walls, looked roomy compared to what they had come through. A few moments of waiting in silence, and then Loman, the first man who had been in line after Ciernik, rolled out. Barnes came next, followed by Warren. The chamber was getting crowded.

“Start the march,” Powell said.

Matteo shook his head; a gesture that pricked some immediate annoyance in Powell. Intellectually, he knew the man was a civilian, not trained into military discipline, nor required to follow it. But emotionally, a scrawny kid who nobody liked was undermining his authority.

“We have a long way to go, and we won’t all have room in here,” Powell pressed.

“We’ve all got to stay in sight of each other. It’s twisty, and there are a lot of forks you don’t want to take.”

Dammit, he had a point. Meanwhile, Gladwin emerged, increasing their number to five, not counting Matteo.

“So stay together. If the man in back can’t see the man in front of him, pass up the word to halt. I’ll wait until we have a full count.”

Matteo accepted this, and began to lead the way. Powell’s men filed through, and back through the tunnels, he heard the periodic call to halt. He quickly repeated the instructions to each soldier as he emerged. Kaufer came through sixth, and he repeated, “Kaufer, six, Kaufer, six,” in his head until McKendrick came out and made seventh. Every now and then, Powell felt a panicky sense that he had skipped or repeated a number. He reminded himself that whatever the number, Ciernik would come through last.

When Salcedo, number eighteen, came through, Powell began to relax. Sorenson would be nineteen, then, if he hadn’t made a mistake, Ciernik would make twenty. Either way, at least he would know.

Moments passed. He heard Salcedo call halt, and without looking, he could easily imagine him waiting in the hall, waiting anxiously as Powell himself.

Then the call came from Ciernik. “Help! We need help up here!”

“Stay put!” Powell shouted, to Salcedo and Ciernik equally. He dropped his pack and dove into the crevice. It was better without his gear, but it was still miserable. He made for the two points of light that were Ciernik and Sorenson’s flashlights.

Ciernik was paused by Sorenson, whose bulk was obviously giving him even more trouble getting through the gap.

“I can’t fucking move, sarge,” he said.

For a moment, time fell into a sickening vacuum. Powell reached for options to get him through the narrow pass, and imagined there might be none.

He swallowed.

“Is it your pack?” he said. “Is your gear hooked on something?”

Sorenson shook his head. It wasn’t even on his back. Like most of the soldiers he had dragged it along with one hand. Still, Powell wasn’t willing to give up on the possibility of a problem that was more easily solved.

“Let’s just try getting it out. Ciernik, haul it the fuck out of here.”

“Sure, sarge.” Ciernik’s voice sounded artificially light.

They pried the gear out of Sorenson’s hand, and Powell heard Ciernik shuffle past them.

“Okay, let’s try again.”

“I can’t fucking move, sarge,” Sorenson repeated.

“Well, all fucking right then. Let’s back you the fuck up and give it another shot.”

“I. Can’t. Move.”

Damn. Damn damn damn god fucking damn it.

“Listen,” Powell’s tone took on a soft, half mocking, half cajoling tone. “You got the fuck down here, right? So stands to reason you can move one way or another. So pick a direction and get the fuck going.”

“I can’t fucking move!”

“Don’t you use that tone with me, soldier!” Powell snapped back, and Sorenson’s face took on a new look; that shocked out of himself look. The military, ready for orders look. If he could keep Sorenson in that space, maybe they had a chance. He scanned the space they had left to clear.

“Do you think you’re thicker than my arm is long, soldier?”

“Sarge?”

Powell held his forearm out, fingers rigid. “Do you think you’re thicker, from your ass to your belly, than here,” he touched his elbow, “to here?” he touched the tip of his middle finger.

“I- I don’t think so, sarge.”

“Good.” Powell put his elbow on the ground. His fingers brushed the ceiling, and he suppressed a shudder. “Now, this is more than your fucking size, and frankly, soldier, your fucking flab is a lot squishier than my fucking bones. So if I can get all the way back with my hand like this, you can squeeze after me. Right, soldier?”

“I guess so, sarge.”

“I said, right soldier?!”

“Yes, sarge!”

“Good. Now, let’s get going.”

Powell started wriggling backwards. For a moment, Sorenson remained frozen. Then his right arm moved ahead, and he pulled on it. He budged, just a bit.

“That’s it. Get a move on.”

The move was agonizingly slow, and sometimes Powell had to weave to fit his whole arm in. Sometimes they kept moving for five or ten seconds together, but most of the time they moved in shorter spurts, Sorenson wincing in pain.

“That’s it. Don’t worry about losing a few goddamn buttons. There’s not gonna be a fucking fashion show on the other side,” David said.

Please don’t get stuck. Please make it. Please don’t get stuck, Powell thought.

Time disappeared into a rhythm of squeeze, wiggle, freeze cajole, rant, squeeze again. Words stopped having meanings. They were just leftover globs of grease, thrown onto the walls.

Then, the space behind Powell’s feet opened up. He kicked a little to make sure, then grinned.

“We’ve made it, Sorenson.”

Once Powell had rolled out and Sorenson had reached the opening, Ciernik and Salcedo gripped his arms and pulled him the rest of the way out. They clapped his back and teased him while he gasped for breath. He looked pale and shaky, but he was fine. For a second, Powell let himself feel elated.

“Right,” he said. “Enough delay. Let’s move out.”

Theirs Not to Reason Why: The Scout

Tuesday

Of all possible postings for an empowered soldier, there was something exquisitely forboding about the Adirondack Bases. They formed a ring of encampments around the namesake mountains, and looked out on a tidy two mile ring of dry, flattened, utterly devastated earth. Every here and there were the ruins of past invasions. Halted tanks that had been twisted like a giant hand had reached down and wrung them out. Airplanes downed by electrical storms that had been conjured out of nowhere. Bones. Far too many bones. Often the occupants of the mountains would not even allow people to go in to retrieve their dead. They were all empowered families of the Elemental lines, and they had claimed the mountains as their Arcadia.

In the best case, a soldier stationed to one of these bases spent months or years training and watching before moving on. On seven occasions over the past fifty years, the powers that be had decided they had a perfect plan for finally ridding America of this rebellious blight, and reclaiming the mountains. These missions tended to be short on survivors.

But still, the Adirondacks were officially part of America, so every now and then, the soldiers would wake up to find they were part of the latest mission. True surrender of this goal was political suicide. Even the bases were a peculiar compromise between temporary and permanent; a handful of metal barracks and training rooms, but mostly tents. Even in winter. Why go on record as the one who proposed a plan for more long-term structure? That did not go well with career advancement.

The generals were currently project confidence that their new asset would guarantee victory, a week from next Thursday.

The asset was an Arcadian guide. Nobody had seen an Arcadian since they had first laid down their border of wasteland. He looked displaced from time. Handwoven, undyed flannel trousers, rough rusty red tunic, and a cloak dyed woad blue. His escorts into camp spread a rumor that he did not even own another set of clothes, but instead just washed and rewashed the same pair. He used a basin in his own tent, and a bar of hand soap.

He was a short man of about twenty, with thick black hair all over his ears and eyebrows. Even if it was not for his clothing and grooming, he would stand out by the way he walked; not solid and purposeful like the soldiers. He moved like a ferret or a squirrel, with attention that flitted from subject to subject while retaining sharp clarity of focus, and poised feet light enough to seize a prize or flee a threat at a moment’s notice. At dinner in the canteen, he sat alone with a bound leather notebook and scribbled notes with one hand, eating with the other.

On top of the track record of previous invasions and the obvious allegiances of the young man who had their lives in his hands, the word “distraction” was floating around. Nobody knew whether its source was credible or not, but it affected the mood all the same. Soldiers did not like hearing that they were going in as a distraction. Best case scenario, they succeeded with all the risk and none of the glory. Worst case scenario, they were intentional cannon fodder.

It was Private Sorenson who turned the whispers into action. Because of course it was Sorenson. The powers that be might provide the recruits, the assignments and the contacts, but it was Sorenson who judged their worth. The strength of an army was in its unity, and when those on high could no longer inspire faith and determination, the Sorensons of the world stepped in. Whether his test was a fistfight, a bit of banter, or just a night on the town, that test counted for as much as all the arms and supply lines combined. It wasn’t even that Sorenson’s judgment was particularly good. It was more that he knew how to look for all the things that nobody in charge thought to look for. The things that made no difference to the people writing the plans, but every difference to the people carrying them out.

Even before the test began, though, there was something different about Sorenson’s approach. His face was tense, his fists already clenched. The little wrinkle that usually marked his eyes, that newbies missed but that old friends knew to look for, was not only reduced, but completely gone. Today, the canteen audience looked without looking like they were looking.

“Hey,” Sorenson said, towering over the scout. “I got a fucking question for you. Been bothering me for a fucking while now. If your people are such fans of simple living and nature and green shit, what the fuck is with the goddamn desert you made?”

Sorenson was, of course, impossible to ignore. He was leaning over the table, his shadow cutting a circus wrestler outline across the plate of the Arcadian. Even so, the Arcadian made a show of slowly taking another forkful of canned beans and instant potatoes, replacing the fork on the plate, and following the bite with a sip of water before taking a look.

“Well, you keep driving tanks over that particular area, and you must admit it’s a little easier to see them this way,” he said. His voice was surprisingly soft, especially given that his tone was not. He had that deep, old fashioned New England accent that could almost be mistaken for an original English accent. Perhaps that was how all Arcadians spoke now.

Sorenson gave a low, almost gleeful whistler. “Now, of all the fucking answers you could have given, that was not one of the smart ones.”

“Listen, since this is clearly a test of some kind, can we just get to the part where I find out if there’s an answer that will actually pass? Because, and I say this with considerable experience, this is not feeling like one of those conversations that I can get out of without being punched.”

“Sure you fucking can. You can admit your crunchy ideals are all a bunch of hypocritical bullshit.”

“Well, in my experience, any sufficiently large group of people gets hypocritical about something.”

“Not mine.”

“Really? Tell me, on this side of the mountains, what do they say happened in 1776? Something about choosing to leave a parent nation?”

Sorenson lifted the scout and threw him to the ground. The scout was knocked breathless for a moment. He coughed, raised himself halfway, brushed some dust off his shoulder, and sat back at his meal.

“Now that you’ve got that out of the way, can I assume we are done now?” he said, nodding towards the book.

He was struck in the face, and toppled back into the ground. His upper lip was split and pooling blood onto his teeth. With a sigh, he pulled himself back up into his seat.

“Is your hand all right? I think you got my teeth there.”

Sorenson shrugged, and held up his fist. There was a cut on his knuckle, but the skin pulled itself together and sealed the wound without so much as a mark. He gave a maniacal grin, one his friends had never seen. If someone had suggested that the ghosts of the unburied dead soldiers had swooped in to possess him, half the camp would believe it, and the other half would pretend to be more skeptical than they were.

“Oh, good,” the scout said, even more dryly than before. “We’re all fine then.”

Another strike put him back in the dust, and this time, Sorenson did not give him a chance to get up. The scout had to roll quickly to avoid another strike, and wriggled under the table. Sorenson grabbed him by the ankle and dragged him out. He pinned the scout by the chest, and raised his fist.

“Enough!” A sandy haired soldier grabbed Sorenson by his collar, easily hauling him to his feet despite being nearly a head shorter.

Sorenson pushed him back, but the soldier shoved him back harder.

“Enough, I said. You really gonna kill our only scout to make a fucking point?”

“Maybe if I make the fucking point, bastards on high will find one who isn’t a goddamn crunchy,” he muttered. But his shoulders had already taken on a deflated look, and he stomped back to his meal.

The sandy haired soldier sighed and held his hand to the scout.

“Come on, let’s get you to the clinic.”

“I’m all right,” the scout said, but took the other man’s hand.

The soldier put his hand on the scout’s soldier, and muttered in a low voice, “Trust me, you want to clear the room for a minute.”

The scout nodded, and reached back to grab his notebook before letting himself be lead away.

“I’m Nick Barnes,” the soldier said, when they had left the tent. Sunset was now just a reddish smudge on the horizon, and the first stars were coming out.

“Matteo Garibaldi.”

Nick Barnes did not say nice to meet you or anything of that nature, but he gave a nod, and the two walked on. Under his hand, Nick could feel a slight tremor in Matteo’s shoulder. There was no external sign of it. Matteo’s face was as carelessly unfazed as it had been during the entire fight (if something so one-sided could be called a fight). But the shaking was there, and the evening was too warm to account for it.

“He’s not usually like that,” Nick said.

“Oh? What is he usually like?”

Nick tried to decide whether he was being mocked or tested. He could not make up his mind. “He’s always rough around the edges, but he’s pretty friendly. Kind of like a big dog, you know? He’s got a sense of humor.”

“Not usually quite so murderous, then?”

“I don’t think he really would have killed you. Might have cracked a rib or two though. When you spend all your time around people who can crack a rock one handed, you forget what a normal person can take.”

“Funny. I’ve never forgotten that most people are flammable.”

“You’re pyrokinetic?”

Matteo nodded.

“Oh. Still, it’s not like Elementals can’t burn.”

“Not my point.”

“Yeah… all right, it was a lousy excuse. We’re all just pretty tense right now. It’ll get better in the morning.”

The medical tent was nearly empty. The cots were unoccupied except for one private who had broken his ankle yesterday. He had stepped in a gopher hole while playing baseball. The nurse on duty was dozing in a canvas chair. Nick went straight to the supply cabinet and pulled out some wraps and ointment.

“They don’t like most of the guys doing this,” he said. “But I can get away with it.”

“You do this a lot?”

“Just with the guys who throw a fit letting the nurse look at them. So long as I leave the big stuff to the pros and put everything back where I found it…”

Nick ran some hot water through a cloth. He put a hand to Matteo’s neck to tilt his head up, and clean off the blood and dust.

Having nowhere else to look, Matteo studied Nick’s face. It was a nice one, almost too nice. It was one of those faces people put on propaganda posters and advertisements, because it was exaggeratedly just how faces were supposed to look. It almost looked fake. His eyes mitigated that somewhat by not being the ideal piercing sky blue, but just a watery, grayish blue. You had to look closely to notice they really were blue, and not gray or hazel. Matteo liked them for two reasons. First, they made him look a little sad and much more real. Second, Matteo himself had vivid, grass green eyes, but a sort of odd, elfin face, made up of parts that should look nice individually, but somehow didn’t quite belong together. He had gradually come to like it, but only by telling himself that it was charmingly homely rather than actually ugly. This made Nick’s face a sort of perfect reversal of his own, and Matteo liked the symmetry of that.

“All right, it’s not bad. Just bled a lot at first,” Nick put the cloth down and picked up the antibiotic ointment. “Put a bit of that on.”

Matteo cringed at the smell but obeyed. It didn’t sting. Even felt soothing.

“Cut up anywhere else? Anything feel like it’s swelling?”

Matteo shook his head. “Just bruises, I think. I’ve had worse.”

“All right. Just head back to your bunk. Sarge will yell at everyone in the morning, and they’ll leave you alone.”

Part of Matteo wanted to bite back again, but most of him felt done with snark for the evening. He also felt he should say thank you. It was hard to explain what made him start to leave without saying it. Maybe it was the matter of fact way Nick was already cleaning up, like he was just doing some perfectly ordinary duty, and to thank him would be embarrassing more than anything. Even so, before he reached the entrance of the tents, Matteo turned back and said, “Thank you, by the way.”

Nick looked startled, then looked back down and nodded a brief acknowledgement. Matteo started to walk away, but paused again at Nick’s voice.

“I can get you some fatigues,” Nick was saying.

“I’m sorry?”

“You know, like what we’re wearing.”

“Oh, that’s all right.”

“Just thinking, maybe part of the issue is that they think if you’re still dressed like that, maybe you can’t be trusted. Like if you’re still in their clothes, part of you is still loyal to Arcadia. Not logical, but that’s people for you.”

“Actually, I am completely loyal to Arcadia. If there was anything else I could do for her, I would do it.”

Matteo waited to see if Nick expected more of an explanation. But it did not seem that he did.