“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.”
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?”
“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.