All posts by Lane

Theirs Not to Reason Why: Death

A Wednesday

Matteo was informed that he wouldn’t get visitors on his last day. Then he was told he would get a last request, and asked if it could be a dinner guest. The warden sighed and acquiesced. So Nick saw the inside of Matteo’s cell for the very first time. It wasn’t just a cell anymore. It was an inky forest, with tangled roots and squirrels and owls in the branches. There was a river on the floor and a night sky on the ceiling.

“How did you reach all the way up there?”

“Lots of moving furniture around. Also lots of falling down, but it was worth it. I was sure they’d be furious after the first tree, but they didn’t care. In fact some of them seem to like me.” Matteo grinned. “One told me I was all right, because I don’t cause any trouble.”

“That can’t be something you hear often.”

“Absolutely, the literal first time anyone has ever said that about me. So,” Matteo nodded to the table. “Dinner?”

There were two plates of eggs, biscuits and sausages.

“Looks more like breakfast,” Nick said as he took his seat.

“I didn’t count on being very hungry, so I picked more for you. We’d talked about breakfasts you like before, but not dinners. Suppose I should have thought to ask earlier.”

“That’s all right. Steaks would have been a waste. I don’t feel hungry either.”

“I feel bad for whoever cooks these things. They have to put in real effort, because it’s the last meal, but they must know half the time they’ll be tossed straight out. Or at least, that’s what I imagine happens.”

“Let’s talk about something else.”

“Sorry. How are things going with that woman? The one you said brought you here, the first time?”

“Oh, Yessenia. We had another date. Actually sat through a whole movie this time. It was fine.”

“The date or the movie?”

“The movie. She’s nice, but busy with her studies, you know.”

“Good for her. But, sorry for you, I suppose.”

“It’s fine.”

A guard appeared at the cell door, looking a little awkward. A man in black robes and a white collar was standing next to him. The guard gestured helplessly. “The priest is here.”

Matteo rolled his eyes. “I told you I didn’t want one.”

“You’ll forgive me for coming anyway, I hope,” the priest said. “In my experience, many who initially reject religion come to crave it in their final hours.”

“Well, my final hours are here, and I remain apathetic.”

The priest maintained a stubbornly sympathetic smile. “I perfectly understand. But before I go, if you would just indulge me to reflect for a moment on how much you might gain, if an afterlife exists, and how little you would lose, if it does not. God is always ready to forgive.”

“So long as I sincerely confess, of course.”

“Yes. I am happy to wait until your friend leaves, so we may conduct our business privately.”

“No, we can get this out of the way right now. Let’s see, sins. I’m sure I’ve lied thousands of times, because who doesn’t, but none are really standing out. Usually I get in trouble for being too honest, and while that’s socially looked down on, I’ve never heard someone say it counts on the celestial ledger. I’ve never stolen, not because I’m a good person, but because so long as I can eat I can get by without much else. Where I live, food grows on trees. Well, it grows on trees everywhere, but there’s more trees where I come from. Violence… well, that’s a tricky one. I’ve certainly enabled it. I have tricky feelings about that. I believe court records are available to the public, so if God wants to know how sorry I feel, he can always send an angel to the registrars. Blasphemy, frequently. Send the man on high my apologies for that one. I’m sure creating the world is terribly complicated and as a creative type myself I shouldn’t be too harsh on him for his little hiccups. Happens to the best of us. Sexual immorality, ooh, that’s the one that really gets me. Because according to every pastor I’ve ever met, impure thoughts count, and I’ve hardly ever had a pure one. I’m not sure it’s even worth confessing them. As soon as that slate’s wiped clean, I’m sure I’ll have another one. I wouldn’t be surprised if my last thought is impure. I imagine I’ll be sitting in a dark, quiet box, trying not to think about what drowning will feel like, and I think one would need a nice fantasy to take one’s mind off that. As for impure actions, unfortunately there’s not much to report there. Or from your perspective, fortunately. On three separate occasions I was offered a bed in exchange for fellatio, and although none of the men were particularly appealing I took it, because they were miserable nights for sleeping outdoors and frankly I was curious to have some kind of experience. My options have always been a bit limited, you understand.”

“…And you repent of these sins?”

Matteo took a deep, thoughtful breath, and blew it out with an audible huff. “No. No, not particularly. I’m not proud of, well, most of what I’ve done, but I figure I’ve mostly done the best I could, under the circumstances.”

“Well, if you change your mind, God is always listening.”

“Pleased to hear it. Bye now.”

When Matteo turned back, Nick had his hand pinching the bridge of his nose.

“Oh, come on now. That was funny.”

Nick snorted, and his shoulders shook. Then shaking briefly overtook his body, and at the end he had to wipe tears from his eyes. “You’re such an ass.”

“Oh, before I forget,” Matteo held out Nick’s old copy of The Wizard of Oz. “You should take this back.”

“It’s yours now.”

“Right, of course. It’s just that I’ll need someone to keep it safe for me. All that water.”

Nick stared at it as if it could bite him, then took it.

“I liked the paper,” Matteo said. “As you can see.”

Nick opened it curiously, and found the margins filled with illustrations. Bean vines and corn stalks framed the first paragraphs, and turned into tornadoes, poppy fields, winding roads. Toto chased butterflies at the bottom of page 17. Where a chapter break left half a page or more of blank space, Matteo added a more detailed illustration. He seemed especially enamored of the Tin Man. There was study after study of the man, with welded muscles and sad eyes.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Matteo said.

Nick shook his head. “Like you said, it’s your book. I’m just keeping it safe for now.” He stuffed the paperback into his jacket pocket. “So, fellatio? Really?”

“A detail too far?”

“You could say that. But seriously, nothing else?”

“It’s hard to know when to ask! And honestly, given the limited options, and the way some people react – let’s just say I already get punched quite often enough.”

“Right. Guess that makes sense.” Nick looked around, then stirred his eggs in silence. “Oh what the hell.”

He leaned across the little table, put his hand behind Matteo’s nick, and kissed him.

“There,” he said. “Now you’ve had that, at least.”

“Right.” Matteo was pink and smiling.

“Don’t make it awkward.”

Matteo raised his hands innocently. “I’ll take the secret to my grave.”

“Not funny, asshole.”

Less Than An Hour

The absence, once they came to take the dishes and Matteo away, was all encompassing. Nick was allowed to sit behind the spectator’s glass, to watch the execution. At first he wanted to go. To witness. Then, in the hallway outside the door, he chickened out. He stayed, pressing his forehead against the window.

What haunted him was the memory of being kissed back. It hadn’t been that long since he ended things with Cora, but for at least two years before that, he had not been kissed back. She had just accepted his mouth like a tribute, and acted like that didn’t mean anything. After a while, he had begun to pretend that it didn’t. Even after accepting that things were not going to work out, part of him had held onto the belief that those little things had been normal. Acceptable. Not hurtful.

Now all he wanted to do was hold onto the sensation of gentle, returned pressure. The way it had made him feel wanted, down to his core. Not useful. Not kept around. Not accepted. Wanted. Craved.

Everything hurt. Everything hurt, and when he tried to imagine a future where it didn’t, that seemed so impossible that it was tempting to retreat back into empty non-feeling. So he just stared out at the trees and kept on hurting.

A black cab came up the road. That wasn’t strange. Cabs came and went from the prison all the time. But it was a thing that moved, so naturally it drew Nick’s eye. It parked. A weedy young man came out, carrying a shoulder bag with a seal on it. It looked like an eagle on a blue circle, with banners around it. He did not have Ciernik’s eyes, but what sprung into his mind was the presidential seal.

“It’s a pardon,” he said, breathlessly.

He ran to the nearest guard. “Someone just arrived. A courier. It might be a pardon.”

“Hold on sir,” the guard began.

“No, I can’t hold on. There’s no time. They have to stop the execution of Matteo Garibaldi.”

“Because it might be a pardon?”

“Yes!”

“Sir, if it is, he will go through the proper channels, and they will call up.”

“But Matteo might be dead by then!”

“Sir-”

The tone in that one word told Nick he did not need to wait around and keep talking to this useless man. He slammed the door to the spectator’s room open.

“Pardon! Somebody just came in with a pardon!”

The room was full of reporters, all of whom were staring at him.

“Are you sure?” one said.

“I think so. Do we have time to wait?”

A glance at the two-way glass told him they didn’t. The execution chamber was empty except for a sealed metal box, and the valve on the hose was open.

“Son, even if you’re right, none of us here have the authority to-”

“Oh for fuck’s sake!”

Nick smashed the glass. He jumped through and gripped the seal at the edge of the box. Power flowed through him, and the iron pieces parted like snow. Water poured out, flooding the floor. Nick pulled Matteo upright and gripped his soaking wet hair. Choking coughs made Nick release a long breath, and together the pair inhaled.

Exhaled.

In.

Out.

And in.

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Theirs Not to Reason Why: Visitations

Sunday

“I miss fire drawing,” Matteo said. “Paper and ink is fine, of course, but there’s something special about making a living, burning picture, right in the air. I’ve always seen normal drawing as practice for that, more than anything else.”

“I get that,” Nick said. “Plus, there’s that left-something-at-home feeling, when the meta turns you off.”

“Yes, that’s exactly what it feels like.”

“It’s creepy enough when it starts. Must suck to feel it all day.”

“I am getting used to it.”

“Do they let you have paper, at least?”

“Yes, thankfully. I can’t get used to the stuff you make, though. How do you make it so smooth?”

Nick laughed. “I have no idea. Isn’t smooth better?”

“I suppose, technically. But it has no character. Every sheet is the same. It used to be, if there was a dent or lump somewhere, that could be frustrating at first, but figuring out how to work around it – that’s what art is really made of. Not being free, but figuring out your way around limitations. This paper is so damn cooperative and I want to crumple it up and throw it at the wall.”

Tuesday

“So, you Strongmen aren’t all equally strong. Is that natural to the power, or is it about practice?”

“I think it’s mostly practice.”

“You think?”

“If you don’t use it, you’re just a normal strong person. My sister never liked sports. She sings and plays piano. Never lifted a weight in her life, and she couldn’t, I dunno, break a rock or pull up a tree or something. But if a mundane challenged her to arm wrestle, she’d win every time. No sweat.”

“I see. And you can break rocks because you practice breaking rocks?”

“Not even that. I mean, some people work out that way, but they don’t get stronger than the rest of us. Sometimes they’re even pretty pathetic. You know, compared to the rest of us. I just work out the same way a mundane would, but it has a different effect on me. It’s like, there’s my body, and then there’s something behind it. Some extra juice that wants to be tapped into, and it’ll break the world in half for you. But it has to go through your body. If you don’t know your body, it’s like that power is trying to tunnel through a clogged up pipe.”

“Oh! That’s not as different from fireworking as I expected. It feels the same. That ability to talk to the fire is there, and it won’t get stronger or weaker with practice. But if you don’t understand exactly how you want to use it, then it might not cooperate so well.”

“Exactly.”

Wednesday. Not the next Wednesday, but a Wednesday

Mr. Eliot shuffled his gaze and his papers. “I’m sorry to say our appeals for a stay of execution have been declined. The decisions are mostly down to the military and the state of New York, and they’ve decided to present a unified front. So, unless the president decides to step in… I’m terribly sorry.”

“That’s all right. I really didn’t have much hope.”

Mr. Eliot cleared his throat. “The rules for executions of Empowereds are somewhat different. I’d like to take a moment to explain the procedure to you.”

“You’d like to?”

“Well, not like so much as legally required to.”

“Right.”

“Each power has a designated method of execution, so the abilities of the condemned cannot be used to escape.”

“They don’t just have a meta follow you to the hanging?”

“Electric chair, nowadays. But no, there’s concern for the trauma that a meta might experience, suppressing a fellow Empowered’s ability during the moment of their death. Um, the first Pyrokinetic to be executed with a chair used his powers to burn through the electric wires and restraints, the moment his powers were restored. His eventual method of execution became the new standard, and, well-” Mr. Eliot cleared his throat three times. “You’ll be placed in an iron box, sealed except for a single hose, attached to a tank of water. Once the meta is clear, the box will be flooded.”

“I see. Well, nice to know there’s a plan.”

A Saturday

“It’s called what now?” Nick said.

“The Bhagavad Gita. You’ve honestly never heard of it?”

“I’ve heard you say it three times, and I still have no idea what you’re saying.”

“Americans don’t read it anymore? What about the Ramayana? The Upanishads? Any of the Mahabharata or the Vedas at all?”

Nick shrugged helplessly.

“Really? The transcendentalists were obsessed with them. They brought cartloads of copies into Arcadia.”

“Well, I guess they didn’t leave any for the rest of us.”

“My god. I sincerely apologize on my ancestors’ behalf, because you’ve been grossly deprived.”

“Right. And of all those words I don’t remember, the one that’s your favorite book is-?”

“The Bhagavad Gita. You’d love it. Very martial and honorable.”

“Well, if you tell me how to spell it, I’ll try to find it.”

A Monday

When Nick arrived for his visit, Matteo looked embarrassed. It was a new expression for him.

“I ruined my paper,” he said.

“How did you manage that?”

“Well, I’ve made my own paper before, naturally.”

“Just a normal Arcadian hobby, I guess.”

“Oh no, it’s a fiddly mess, and if you’re not a teacher or a bookbinder, it’s considered a horrible waste of time that only a useless daydreamer would attempt.”

“So right up your alley, then.”

“Exactly. Anyway, I’m getting used to this smooth paper, which is upsetting. I don’t think anything is quite so depressing as finding something insipidly boring, but getting used to it’s presence anyway. Let me adjust to sorrow, horror, rage and sickness. Anything but boredom. So I think to myself, ‘listen, I might not have to best tools, but I have water, I have fabric, and if I shred this up I’ll have the makings of pulp. So why not make some sheets of real, proper paper?”

“Take it that didn’t work out so well?”

Matteo shook his head. “And like an idiot I kept trying even though it wasn’t working. So now I have no paper.”

“Can’t you just ask them for some more?”

“I suppose. I don’t know if they’d waste that money on someone who frankly won’t be around much longer.”

“First,” Nick reached out and smacked Matteo on the head. “I told you not to talk like that. Second, why the fuck not? Paper’s cheap.”

“Paper is… cheap?”

“Yeah.”

“How cheap?”

“Dirt cheap.”

“Well. No wonder it’s all terrible now.”

A Tuesday

“Couldn’t find that Bhagavad Gita, but,” Nick tossed The Wizard of Oz on the table. “You won’t have read this one. Came out after Arcadia shut the world out.”

Matteo picked it up and thumbed through the pages. “Good?”

“My favorite.”

“It looks well read. Is this your personal copy?”

“Yeah, but you can keep it. It’s easy to find another.”

A Friday

Ouida Nelson was impressed with the president’s evasion. She had known this plan was risky, but she hadn’t thought he could run the clock out this long without enraging his base. To make sure of it, she had started the first petition herself. You could never trust grassroots activists. One day they would make their case with silver tongues and deliver it straight to the appropriate authorities. The next they would dither around, squabbling about word choices that didn’t matter and harassing people who could do nothing. She had started their snowball for them, and it was growing nicely as it sped for its target.

But of course it did need time to grow, and she could only accelerate it so much once it had started. The president was speaking well on the issue. Publicly listening to all sides and implicitly promising to pardon Matteo Garibaldi without saying as much directly. Making his opposition’s stubbornness seem like the real obstacle. Provided he did eventually sign the pardon, these delays would not hurt him. Not the way he was framing them.

He knew. He knew that Matteo Garibaldi made a better martyr than a representative. If he issued the pardon at the last minute, and perhaps there was some tragic delay on the road, this could even turn into backlash against his opposition. She had entirely underestimated the president.

Oh well. She had warned Judge Harris that this was the riskier option. She hoped the president stayed in political life long enough for her to either work for him, or for his opponent. That would be a challenge worth waiting for.

Theirs Not to Reason Why: Bonds

Prisons had receptionists. A stocky, uniformed receptionist, who probably had another job title and would be horribly offended by the word “receptionist,” but still. There was a waiting room, a desk, and a person behind the desk asking about appointments and informing them, in a longsuffering voice, of inconvenient rules for people who had perfectly legitimate reasons to go inside. Nick supposed he shouldn’t really be surprised.

“We do not allow visitors at night,” the not-receptionist said. “Hours are between ten and two, and unless you are part of the prisoner’s legal representation you must arrange the visit at least one day in advance.”

“Could I set up a visit for tomorrow at ten?”

“Yes, sir, that would be perfectly all right.” Although they had only been speaking for a minute at most, the receptionist spoke with the tone of someone who had just gotten through to a simpleton.

Nick gave his name and identification, then tried to leave. He paused at the doors, feeling a restlessness tug at him. “Is it all right if I just wait here?”

“Overnight?”

“Yes. Is that against the rules?”

The receptionist frowned. “It’s… not appreciated.”

“But not forbidden.”

“I don’t know. Honestly, I’ve never heard anybody ask before.”

“So it’s all right,” Nick decided, and slung his jacket on the side of a chair, just to make it clear that unless they could show him something in a rulebook, this conversation was over.

Yessenia raised her eyebrows at him. “You really want me to just leave you here?”

“I really do.” Because she seemed to need more explanation, he added, “it will keep me from chickening out.”

“Well, all right then. I’ll be back for you in the morning.”

“You don’t have to-”

“I’ll be back. For you. In the morning.”

“Yes ma’am.”

He shook her hand, and she gave him a kiss on the cheek before leaving.

Saturday

Nick woke up on a bench, with his room keys digging into his hip and his neck sore from the inadequate pillow he had made from his folded up jacket. The inside of his mouth felt gummy. His stomach hurt. Morning stubble was scratching unpleasantly. The raw disease of waking up this way was a sharp reminder that he had somehow regained the ability to feel things, and even in his groggy daze, he could focus on that little bright side.

The clock on the wall said it was seven o’clock, and part of Nick, most of Nick, wished he could just sleep like a bum until it was time for his visit. But the light was streaming in through the windows and people were coming in and out, so he was better off resigning himself to being awake.

In the bathroom, he scrubbed his face and put his hair under the running faucet. He swished water in his mouth over and over again, until it felt like the inside of a mouth again and not the bottom of someone’s shoe. On his way back to the waiting room, he found a vending machine, and made a breakfast of a candy bar and some coffee begged from the new not-receptionist. Then he found an old newspaper stuffed under a seat, with the crossword only half done. He was terrible at crosswords, which was good, because it was the only thing he had to do for the remaining two hours and thirty-seven minutes.

Time crawled, and then suddenly he was called and it began to spin. More paperwork, lists of rules, searches of his pockets and his shoes, and a long walk through a maze of corridors, all the way to the wing where Empowereds were kept. And then he was alone in a barred room with Matteo.

The funny thing about Matteo’s pointed, elfin face was that every time he smiled, it looked like a different expression. Like his cheeks, trying to find their way around his jaw and cheekbones, never remembered whether they were supposed to dimple once or twice or just create deep lines framing his teeth. His smiles were like lazy schoolboys, interrupted just as they were nodding off in the sun, scrambling to put themselves in order.

“I was hoping it was you,” Matteo said. “I wasn’t expecting to see you again, but when they said I had a visitor, I hoped.”

Nick sat down across from him. “I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner.”

“No, I mean, I really didn’t expect you to. You’d have been perfectly justified if… well… anyway, you didn’t have to come.”

“‘Cause you figure I blame you.”

“It seems to be the popular conclusion.”

“I’ve seen guys with a lot less experience make worse decisions for worse reasons. That’s not the reason I stayed away.”

“Well, what is, then?”

“Because, unlike you, I’m having trouble deciding what to be loyal to.”

Matteo was quiet. Coming from him, that seemed like a statement in and of itself. Nick let himself keep talking.

“I think loyalties make things easier, when nobody is to blame. Or when everybody is a little bit to blame. Or when nobody knows for sure. If you’re loyal, you can decide you forgive everyone on the inside of your circle, and damn everyone outside. It’s not always fair, but sometimes it’s necessary. Blame can tear a team apart. Loyalty lets you put that blame where it binds you together instead. That bond can save your life next time around.”

“I can see that,” Matteo said. He laughed a bit. “Now I see why I always preferred to be alone.”

“And why, sooner or later, everybody wants your head on their wall.”

“Yes, I really must do something about that, one of these days.”

Nick was able to smile a little bit. “Here’s my problem. I’ve lost people. Maybe I’ll tell you more about that someday. For now, let’s just say I don’t make friends anymore. I’m part of the team, but that’s not the same. More like we’re all part of the same body. There’s parts of your body you like and parts you maybe don’t so much. But ultimately, how you feel about them doesn’t matter. You’d fight to keep any part of you safe, and you’d hate to see any part lopped off. Even so, losing a piece of yourself is never gonna be as bad as losing a friend. Not for me, at least. I don’t know if that makes sense.”

“It does.”

“Then you come along. You’re not a part of the team. Never could have been, even if we had all gotten along. The only thing you could have been to me was a friend. And goddamn you, somehow you were.”

Matteo broke into another of those face-shifting grins. “The feeling is entirely mutual.”

“So how can I forgive you, and still be a part of my team?”

Matteo’s face fell, and it broke Nick’s heart. Nick didn’t speak. He’d already expressed more in a few minutes than he normally did in an entire day. It was Matteo’s turn. When Matteo took it, his voice was practically a whisper, but Nick caught it anyway.

“I’d never ask you to.”

Nick sighed. “Well, I’m going to anyway.”

The smile was back, making triple lines around his mouth. Nick returned the smile, smaller and softer on his own face, but without any reservations.

“So, how often do they let you have visitors?”

“I don’t know. None of us thought it would come up.”

“I’ll see if I can come back tomorrow. If not, I’ll come as often as I can.” He began to rise.

“In the interest of being open,” Matteo said. “I don’t know if you’ve heard the news. Let’s just say I might not be a problem for your team for long.”

Nick nodded. “I heard. You worried?”

“Oh, petrified. In a ‘I figured this would happen sooner or later,’ sort of way.”

“Well, you never know. There’s already a petition for your pardon.”

“Is there? That’s genuinely surprising.” He raised a finger. “You had better sign it.”

“You better not die.”

Matteo raised his arms helplessly. “The matter seems more or less out of my hands.”

“No excuses, asshole. Don’t die, or I’ll beat your ass.”

Theirs Not to Reason Why: Yessenia

There had been funerals, and now there were awards. Sergeant Powell was glad it was not the other way around. He was receiving a bronze star. Apparently people thought his quick thinking had prevented the total massacre of the unit. Or maybe they just needed something to celebrate. It had been ages since his dress uniform had gotten this much wear.

During the reception, he accepted congratulations and well wishes, but found himself at work anyway, looking in on his men. The whole team had some leave after the invasion. Some he had seen a good deal of. Others had disappeared into god knows what. In addition to the three lost at the caves, the watchtower teams had lost four. Trujillo looked as though he had been dragged out of a drunken stupor and forcibly cleaned up by Salcedo, who was still hovering over his shoulder, making sure the celebratory drafts were nursed, not drained. Sasaki seemed perfectly proper and militarily dignified to any onlooker, but the sergeant saw there was something a little too stiff about him. He was putting a little too much effort into keeping his chin up. Not in a bad way, though. The way where you stuck with faking something hard, because the longer you faked it, the more real it became. Ciernik had disappeared for a while, and he looked a little tired, but he was moving from friend to friend, making small, ordinary conversations, and each one seemed to warm him up a little bit.

Of all the survivors, the one who worried Sergeant Powell most was Barnes. To anyone outside their unit, it would have been nearly impossible to explain why. Barnes was drinking, but not too much. He was not mingling, but he spoke pleasantly enough to anyone who approached him. He was inexpressive, which was easily read as his normal stoicism. Barnes always smiled at the corners of his eyes and hid his worries in a single line between his brows, but if you knew where to look, he was a river of expression. Now there was truly nothing. Sergeant Powell would prefer to see Barnes staggering and screaming slurred profanities than this emptiness.

Worry resolved into dread at the bar. Sergeant Powell had simply happened to stand next to Barnes while getting a refill of his bourbon, and Captain Taylor came to offer his congratulations. They had both known Taylor as Sergeant and then Lieutenant Taylor. He had been one of their better commanders, and the one to convince Powell to seek his own promotion. Of all the niceties he had received tonight, Captain Taylor’s nod and handshake filled him with the most genuine pleasure. It bordered on giddiness. On the inside, of course. On the outside, he returned the handshake with a firm grip and equally firm nod.

Once he released Sergeant Powell’s hand, Captain Taylor turned to Barnes and asked about his plans. Barnes, as always, replied that he did not know.

“Better make up your mind, soldier. Do your duty, then move up or move out.”

“Thank you sir,” Barnes said, and returned to his drink. After a moment of silence, Captain Taylor gave Sergeant Powell another nod of acknowledgement, and then moved along. When the captain disappeared into the crowd, Sergeant Powell turned and studied the back of Barnes’ head.

Thank you, sir.

That was the wrong response. All three of them knew it. “Thank you, sir,” was a non-answer. A polite dismissal of his concern. The right response was, “just don’t do the other thing.”

This was a problem.

Sergeant Powell turned the problem around in his head. It felt staggeringly unsolvable. So he did what he had done with Sorenson in the caves, and with the attack in Arcadia. Among the murky morass of futures, he reached for the solution that was solid, tangible, and actionable right now. Then he acted on blind faith that it would fit the problem he had.

He wandered through the crowd until he found his sister. He badgered and cajoled her until she gave him a number. Then he asked the bartender if he could use their phone.

“Hello?” The voice on the other line was familiar, though a little more refined and adult than he remembered. He hadn’t heard it in three years.

“Is this Yessenia?”

“Yes, who is this?”

“David Powell. Judith’s brother, remember?”

“Oh, hello! Congratulations on the medal. I’m so sorry I couldn’t make it to the ceremony. Judy wanted me to come with her, but I’m pulling an all nighter on a paper.”

“Listen, I need a favor, and there’s no one better to do it. Do you have a free night this weekend?”

“Depends on what for.”

“One of my soldiers. He’s having a rougher time coming back than usual, and he could really use a night out.”

“And I’m the best person for this because?”

“Because you’re local, single, and frankly exactly his type. Far as I can tell.”

“I’m also not available to be rented out.”

“God, no, nothing like that. He’s a good guy. The take him home to meet your folks type. He’ll probably wait three dates before he kisses you good night.”

Yessenia sighed. “Listen, I really do have a lot of work to do. I’m applying for a research fellowship soon, and I can’t afford to get behind.”

“Just..” Sergeant Powell spotted today’s newspaper stuffed under the phone desk. He had read it already, and it gave him an idea. “Do you have a copy of the Times lying around?”

“What?”

“Today’s edition. Did you get it?”

“I think so.”

“Go get it. I’ll wait.”

A long pause. “All right, I found it.”

“Page 6B. There’s a story about me.”

“I see it.”

“See the picture of the unit? Second face from the left.”

“Left… David, you wouldn’t happen to mean the one hand sculpted by angels, would you?”

“Your words, not mine. But yes.”

He got some details from her, thanked her profusely, hung up, and returned to the bar.

“Private Barnes. Any plans Friday night?”

“No Sarge.”

“Good.” He slapped down the paper with Yessenia’s information on it. “Now you do.”

Friday

Nick’s sense of manners dictated that he should pick a woman up, but Yessenia Ruiz drove and he did not. So he took a bus to her apartment, knocked on the door, and escorted her to her own car. She had long, glossy black hair and the kind of effortlessly regal posture that made five feet and four inches feel statuesque. It also made him feel underdressed, even though he had rented and pressed a suit and she was in an everyday skirt and blouse.

On the drive to the movies, he asked about her studies. it had always been easy for him to keep people talking about themselves. She studied anthropology. He asked about anthropology. Her gracious smile turned to a grin as she said words like heterogeneous, matrilineal and syncretism. She had a good sense of when he did not understand a word, and inserted explanations in a practiced manner, too everyday to sound condescending. He smiled appreciatively and felt nothing.

They arrived at the theater. He bought tickets. He bought popcorn. He lead the way to their seats and then let her slip into the aisle first. He felt nothing.

He wondered if he would laugh at the cartoon reel. He didn’t. Yessenia did. He smiled at her, to indicate that he did not find this childish. She smiled back, to indicate that she didn’t particularly care whether he did or not, but she approved of his approval all the same.

Then the newsreel came on, and it was talking about them. Arcadia, the attacks, the trial. It was not new information. Too many people were talking about it, and too much information was in the headlines, and too much had been lived. Still, Nick had avoided any real, in depth discussions of what had happened. He exposed himself to updates five seconds at a time. This newsreel was five minutes.

Nick first noticed the feeling when he reached for some popcorn, hoping for an excuse to look away more than anything else, and the idea of putting that handful into his mouth made him sick. Actually, physically, viscerally sick. Even the smell of it made him worry that he was about to vomit, and that made him notice the smell of butter was everywhere, that he could not get away from it as long as he wanted to breath. And as agonizing as the nausea was, part of him luxuriated in it. In the diseased, tortuous presence of some kind of feeling.

Nausea was followed by rage at the voiceover. How could he have said “four other soldiers died in the assault on the watchtowers” and not speak their names? McKendrick, Van Amelvoort, Mikkels, Harford. In this interminably long broadcast, would that have been so hard? The omission kept Nick boiling through the monotonous, sing-song recounting of the battles. The popcorn problem was solved when the kernels crumbled to greasy dust in his hands and fell through his fingers.

Then began the part about the trial, and Nick felt the emptiness return. And that was the worst feeling of all, because after weeks of blankness, the torture of skin on fire and a stomach that tried to climb out of his own throat… they had been relief. Sweet, sweet relief from a sense of total inhumanity. He could not go back to it.

“Excuse me,” he whispered, and left without waiting. Not just the auditorium, but the whole theater. He walked for the nearest alley, pressed his head against a cold brick wall, and cried. Sadness. Sadness was good. Better than nothingness. It came with some shame and self-loathing, but that too was something.

He had no desire to abandon his date, but even less to go back inside and try to stop feeling bad. This crisis was resolved when Yessenia Ruiz came out to find him.

“I’m sorry,” he said, when he noticed her watching him. “You should go back in and finish the movie. I still need a minute.”

“Hang the movie,” she said lightly. “It’s not as if I had to pay for it.”

Then, in a softer, more serious tone, she said, “Do you want to go get a drink? Somewhere quiet?”

He shook his head. “No, no I don’t think I can be much fun at all tonight.”

“You don’t have to be fun. We could just talk.” The light tone came back. “I am an anthropologist, after all. The study of human behavior is fun enough for me, even the depressing parts.”

He smiled a little but shook his head. “I don’t want to talk. I’m sorry for wasting your time.”

“Well, will you let me do something for you, at least?”

“What?”

“I don’t know. Anything. Whatever you need.”

“That’s kind of you, but-”

“Stop being so chivalrous and give me something to do.”

It was an order. Nick sighed.

“I guess you could give me a ride.”

Theirs Not to Reason Why: Judgment

Judge Harris declared a recess to consider his verdict. The spectators filed away to stretch their legs and speculate. Among then, Ouida Nelson, the sharp eyed woman, mingled with the crowd just briefly before slipping away to the judge’s office.

“Well,” Harris said, as she closed the door. “That was certainly interesting.”

“Indeed it was.”

“What will the public make of him?”

“He will be polarizing. He said things that people will strongly like and things that people will strongly dislike. Half the people will pick out their favorite parts and rewrite their least favorite to fit in with it. The other half will do the opposite. Mostly they will do this to fit whatever they already believed. Then they’ll judge your decision accordingly.”

“So whatever I choose, I’ll be half popular, half unpopular.”

“So be careful who you piss off.”

Ms. Nelson went to his liquor cabinet and poured herself a finger and a half of whiskey. Judge Harris hated when she did that; helping herself when she knew damn well he never partook himself when in the middle of a trial. But he kept quiet about it.

“The way I see it,” she said after a sip, “you have a safe way to neutralize all this, and a risky way to turn it to your advantage.”

“Tell me the safe option first.”

“Please nobody. Choose a sentence that’s too heavy for the ones who will like him, and too light for the ones who will hate him.”

“That sounds more like the risky option. It will make everyone hate me.”

“Voters don’t care about you. They care about picking fights with each other. It’s fun to fight when one side got what they wanted and the other did not. But when everyone is disappointed equally, the subject becomes boring. This will make Matteo Garibaldi disappear from the public eye, and you will find some other victory to run on in two years.”

“He might come up again in the race.”

“I think the prospective governors of New York will have more interesting things to talk about. Besides, to criticize your choice, they will have to take a stand on whether you should have been more or less punitive, and they know either option will make some voters very unhappy.”

“Tell me the risky option.”

“Turn him into a Trojan horse.” Ms. Nelson took another long sip, making him wait and wonder what on earth that could mean. He hated it when she did that as well. “The president has pulled off what New Jeffersonians thought impossible: resolving the Arcadia problem without alienating their own base. If they can patch over any further problems with the fallout, the whole party will have an advantage going into the election. Including your opposition, whomever that will be. But if Matteo Garibaldi stays in the spotlight…”

She took another sip, and lingered with the glass in her hands while she looked out the window at cars passing below. Judge Harris bit down on the impulse to hurry her to the end of her sentence. Respect mattered more than pay to her, and he was positive she deliberately tested her clients’ patience. He focused on the image of her running to his future opponent.

“He’s the worst thing a party politician could ask for; a divisive figurehead. He complicates matters enough to sow discord among his friends, and irritates his enemies enough to unite them. And he won’t keep quiet about any mistakes that are made in the reconstruction of Arcadia. He’s a patriot, and not an American one. Not in his own mind. There will be mistakes, and he won’t let them go unnoticed. Force the New Jeffersonians to claim him, and he will destroy them from within.”

“And how do I do that?”

“Easy,” she said. “Sentence him to death.”

Theirs Not to Reason Why: Trial

Another Day. Wednesday or Thursday or Friday. People Who Aren’t Matteo Keep Track For Him

The presiding judge was an old general who looked just like one of the three images generally summoned by the word “judge.” Specifically, the overweight but extremely dignified one. His name was Archer Harris, and he was keeping an eye on a woman in a soft navy blue suit.

In some ways this was not a difficult case, but in the few ways it was challenging, it was so in ways he was not used to. Most of his hard cases were puzzles. Complicated events, webs of deception, or intricate legal codes to decipher. But once the questions were resolved, the answers presented themselves, and it was only a matter of explaining those answers from legal language to something more understandable to the jury. In the case of Matteo Garibaldi, the facts were straightforward, and the morality was not, and there was no jury. Judge Harris had to decide for himself what he, and he alone, thought was right. Then he had to justify it to the world.

The world was not an exaggeration, given the number of reporters in attendance. The story was national at a bare minimum.

He was doing his best to ignore them, and kept glancing at the woman. She was sitting among the spectators, not involved with the trial itself. She had sharp eyes, sharp cheekbones, and a deceptively soft mouth. She met his eyes without giving any other sign of acknowledgement.

What was most interesting about the case was how briefly Matteo Garibaldi himself was placed on the stand. The postcognitive woman gave her report, as did the sergean and the officials who had put the invasion plan together. The defendant himself did barely more than confirm their stories, which made Judge Harris more interested in hearing from him than anyone else. So in the end, he called him back to the stand, to speak directly to him.

“Mr. Garibaldi, I have been repeatedly informed that you regret the loss of life at the caves. Knowing what you know now, and given the outcome of your actions, what do you think you would have done differently?”

“I’m sorry?”

Judge Harris repeated the question.

“Are you asking me how I would have chosen if I had been precognitive?”

“No, Mr. Garibaldi, I am asking what you now wish you had decided, with the benefit of hindsight.”

“God, that’s an astoundingly useless question.”

Stunned laughter emerged from the crowd, and Judge Harris made use of his gavel. “Mr. Eliot, would you kindly ensure that your client understands the meaning of the phrase ‘contempt of court’?”

Mr. Eliot took Matteo Garibaldi aside and whispered to him. There was a good deal more back and forth than was expected, and then Mr. Eliot approached the bench.

“Your honor, my client is still in a state of relative shock and grief. I regret to inform the court that he may not be in the best state to answer in his own best interest.”

Judge Harris eyed the defendant. Then he glanced to the sharp eyed woman. Her face was full of interest. She raised a finger and subtly turned it. Let this go on. 

“Mr. Garibaldi, do you understand the implications of being in contempt of court, as they have been explained to you?”

“Yes, I think so. It seems to me that, like most people I have met, you do not like being sassed. You are among the smaller number of people I have met who can get me into considerable trouble for it. Have I grasped the essence?”

Judge Harris turned to Mr. Eliot. “He seems perfectly competent to me. Overruled.”

Mr. Eliot sat back down, with the resignation of someone who has done enough that they would not blame themselves for whatever happened next.

“Now will you answer the question, and leave the opinion of usefulness to me?” Judge Harris continued.

“Before I answer, may I go over what the outcome actually was, in order to clarify my own thinking?”

“Of course.”

“Because I kept the child’s appearance to myself, we were caught off guard by Arcadian soldiers. That could have turned out very badly, but Sergeant Powell put a good plan together. They were eradicated, and we lost three.”

“You could not have known how quickly Sergeant Powell would have reacted.”

“I’m sorry, was I supposed to be analyzing this situation based on what I know now, or what I knew at the time?”

“Do you need a reminder about contempt of court?”

“You mean the thing where I, a person in very serious trouble, could conceivably get into slightly more serious trouble? No, I think I have the general idea. Now, I’m imagining the conversation, if I had decided to report her presence. Hello soldiers, I just saw a little girl and let her run off. You’re all right with that, aren’t you? Or do you want to hunt her down and kill her before she talks? No, you’re right, people would just come looking for her and we’d be back in risk of discovery. Kidnap her? No, no, same problem again. We could kidnap her and all hide together… wait, no, we need to keep an eye on the road. We are already as hidden as we can be, and still fulfill our duties. Honestly, seems like we’re in exactly the same situation as when I hadn’t told you, except now we are having a conversation about a real person as if she were an inconveniently abandoned bit of trash. That’s terribly fun for me. Oh, and by the way, this is the most rational and reasonable version of the conversation that I’m imagining right now. I liked the soldiers. I wanted them to get through this all right. But there was only one of them who I would have trusted to weigh that girl’s life the same way he would have weighed one of a kid from Detroit.

“Let’s see,” he continued. “I could have decided not to go fishing in the first place. But you know, I really did have to do everything I could think of to stay in good standing with the soldiers. They gook an immediate dislike to me and, with only one exception, did nothing to correct their own negative first impression. No, for the success of the mission I had to do everything I could think of to make them like me. Or rather, not dislike me simply for being an Arcadian within arms reach. And if you don’t think fishing was going to help with that, you’ve never had fresh caught yellow perch after a week of military field rations.” He snapped his fingers. “I’ve got it! In order to avert the disastrous outcome, I should have checked on my fish trap ten minutes earlier. I can say, without any insincerity or exaggeration, that such an action would have completely averted the tragic loss of life, and if I could turn back time I would have already done so.”

“Mr. Garibaldi, I am unsure whether you are being deliberately obtuse, or have somehow failed to understand the aim of my question. For the purpose of sentencing, it is essential for me to understand the degree to which you regret the lives you endangered.”

“For the past year, I have done nothing but regret the lives I endanger. Arcadian and American both. When I helped plan an invasion, I knew Arcadian soldiers were going to die. I knew politicians were going to be assassinated. And, despite bargaining, despite ensuring the most surgical plan I could guide you towards, despite gaining every promise to leave the common people unharmed, I knew I could not guarantee the safety of every innocent bystander. But there is a difference between making that calculation, and personally jeopardizing the life of a person who, based on probabilities and speculation, happened to be highly inconvenient to the mission. And frankly, I don’t understand the point of a liberation mission where the lives of children are allowed to be cheap.”

“I’ll warn you, Mr. Garibaldi, that to some this would sound as though you were using our young men as merely a means to an end.”

Matteo Garibaldi made a sound like a scoffing laugh, but with a hint of raw rage in the back of his throat. “No, but I’m not so sure your lot weren’t.”

The sharp eyed woman was smiling.

“Please, elaborate.”

“I made no secret of my agenda. I came to you as a man in need of help. I negotiated on my people’s behalf, a negotiation which, by the way, did not include any promise from your government to allow us our continued independence. Merely that our lives would be respected. I betrayed my government for my people. After a year of spying and proving myself and working with your government, I still have no idea what is so special about Arcadia that you all want it back. Natural resources? Not as far as I can tell, and you have been doing quite well without it. Strategic location? No. It’s just a pretty little circle of mountains. Fifty years ago, a sad troop of farmer philosophers said, ‘we like this place. We want it to be ours now, and the rest of you can all leave us be, thank you very much.’ You picked a fight with them over that, and despite all your guns and cannons and horses, you lost. You lost to controlled storms and moving trees and living fire. You kept fighting with tanks and machine guns and grenades, and you kept losing to nature animated. You only won in the end because one man, myself, saw how ugly things were getting on the inside. Saw how we corrupted our own paradise. Decided enough was enough. Time to lance the boil and see if there’s enough healthy flesh left for this to heal. I asked you to be my lance. Your reasons for agreeing to death of your own men… they were your own. Was there more to it than nursing a fifty year old grudge? Because if there is one, I have yet to see it.”

“Have you finished talking.”

“Almost never, but I think I’ve answered your question.”

“As a matter of fact, you didn’t.”

“Oh. Well then, I would not have done a single thing different. Not because I don’t regret every single life that was lost, American and Arcadian. Just because I can’t see a reason why, among all the lives that were inevitably going to be jeopardized, a child should have been one of them.”

Theirs Not to Reason Why: Confession

After leaving him to his work for nearly two hours, Nick went to check on Matteo. They had dragged the three bodies into a small side cave, and emptied three ammunition boxes to serve as temporary urns. Then they had left him to his work. None of them knew how long this would take. Not even Matteo.

As Nick approached the glowing cave, he heard Matteo shout, “wait!”

There was a panicky desperation in his voice. The glow inside abruptly dimmed and sputtered down, and for a moment Nick stood in total blackness. Then a smaller red orange light emerged, and a quieter voice said, “all right.”

Oppressive warmth lingered in the walls. Inside there was just enough light to see Matteo, crouched with his hands on his knees, and the three boxes beside him. His face was streaked with soot. On top of each box was a carefully folded set of fatigues, with dogtags glinting on top of them.

“I thought I’d put the ashes on the bottom, then the clothes over that. Then tie the dogtags around the handles.”

“You’re not done yet?”

Matteo shook his head. He was trembling slightly. “It takes ages, and I don’t want them to get mixed up with each other. I think I’m nearly done with Gladwin.”

Nick unslung his canteen and handed it over. Matteo gulped it down, bits splashing out the sides of his mouth and soaking his collar. He gasped with relief.

“Why’d you make me wait?” Nick asked.

“The bones don’t burn all the way,” Matteo said, hollowly. “They just get brittle. Enough to – to break them down small enough to fit. It takes a long time to get there. I’ve just been staring at Gladwin’s skull, eyes all fiery and mouth hanging open at me. You don’t deserve to see that.”

“You know you don’t have to do this.”

“I should. I really should.” Matteo took a deep breath. “There was a kid. At the stream. Nice girl. Terrible fisher. Then Sorenson came. He startled us. I made her hide. I think I terrified her… I was terrified and I think that scared her. After he left, I tried to reassure her. I didn’t tell her anything about our plans, just that he was a friend. I think – I didn’t believe she would – I asked her to keep quiet. I hoped she would keep quiet.”

“And you knew that if she ran into a Psychic, whether she believed you or not wouldn’t make a damn difference.”

“Arcadia isn’t like America. No radios, no newspapers, just people walking around spreading the word. There were only a few days, and news travels so slowly on this side…”

“You still should have told us.”

“I know.” Matteo began crying, in a raw and violent voice. “I know, and I’m so, so sorry.”

Nick felt nothing. Absolute, eroding, inescapable nothing. There were so many things that would make sense to feel. Anger, sorrow, grief, forgiveness, understanding, sympathy, betrayal, rage. All of these feelings fit Nick’s idea of what this moment should be, and none of them were able to take hold of his mind. They were all chasing each other away, or fleeing in the face of each other, or hastily backing out to make room for the other. In their wake was pure vacuum. He waited in the dark for one feeling to realize there was space for it, and to rush in and take over. But none of them did. He was just empty.

“I’ll tell the sergeant,” he heard himself say. “Finish your work.”

And he left the cave.

Thursday

In the pre-dawn hours, they were all awoken by the zoom of airplanes over the quiet Arcadian sky. Cheers came up from Ciernik and Sasaki. Nick and the sergeant watched quietly, but shared a nod. The mission had not been jeopardized, and rescue was coming. Matteo sat in the back of the caves, his hands tied. It was more for form’s sake than anything else. It reassured everyone that he was under some sort of arrest, and nothing more needed to be done. Of course, he could undo them with a spark if he wanted to.

He didn’t want to.

A Week Later

Matteo sat facing a wrinkled old woman in a blue suit, with a white floral blouse pushing a frothy collar up against her neck. She held out her hands to him.

“Come on then dear,” she said. “It helps with the connection.”

He took a deep breath and took them. To the right of him, his appointed lawyer, Mr. Eliot, cleared his throat. “Now, postcognitives aren’t like telepaths. She will begin with a memory, then trace its impact back through the past. If we can establish a chain of events quickly, she will not need to access any further memories. If not, she will keep sifting through anything relevant. Do you understand these terms as I’ve explained them to you?”

“Yes.”

“If you attempt to fabricate a memory, she will know immediately, as she will not be able to trace the events of the memory to any real world effects. If you do this, a charge of obstruction of justice will be added to dereliction of duty.”

“There’s no need to worry. I intend to cooperate.”

“Well then,” the woman said, “let’s begin.”

She closed her eyes, and after a moment, Matteo did as well. He went back to the stream, picturing the yellow perch, the splash as the girl entered the water, the sudden footfall of Sorenson. He saw the girl running away, and then felt something slip out of his mind, something that he had not even felt listening in until it was gone.

“I see the girl,” the woman said. “She’s running for home. She reaches her door. Her father is home, mending the fence. Deer got into the beans again. Her mouth is opening, closing. Soldiers by the stream. Not ours. The father does not believe her. He thinks she must be mistaken. But he is also thinking, if we keep this secret, and there’s something to it…”

Matteo let go of her hands and pressed his fiss against his temples.

“Well, he doesn’t need to know all the details,” Mr. Eliot said. “Have you gotten all you need, Ms. Runge?”

“There is a clear trail.” She rose. “I will confirm the details with the surviving soldiers, but I think the explanation is fairly straightforward.”

He shook her hand. “Thank you for your assistance.”

When he sat back down, he said, “Your case is not so bleak as it seems. Firstly because the mission could never have been possible without you. Secondly because your reasons were fairly sympathetic. And thirdly because of your consistent cooperation. I think odds are quite good that you will receive lenient sentencing.”

“Are they alive? The girl and her father?”

The postcognitive woman had nearly left the room, before realizing she was being addressed. “Well, they worked with the Psychics, so there was no reason for them to be hurt.”

Matteo nodded. “Thank you.”

Theirs Not to Reason Why: Battle Ends

As the Elemental attacks had tapered off, Nick and Sorenson had begun moving downhill, picking off the depowered Arcadians one by one. Nick was scanning the hill from behind a stump, while Sorenson found a new position. They were moving in sight of each other now, keeping silent. Sorenson ducked behind a boulder, and raised a hand to wave Nick on.

The gun in Sorenson’s hands twisted backwards, and stabbed him in the gut.

Nick threw his weapons as hard as he could into the trees. Branches came crashing down as they whipped through. Then he ran to Sorenson. The inside of his mouth turned bitter with adrenaline.

The dying man raised a finger towards the caves. A flight of fiery birds was pouring out. “That’s… got to be… a fucking SOS. Borst down.”

Nick took a deep breath, and nodded. “I’m sorry.”

He left his friend, and ran for the caves.

Two men were standing over Matteo. One was striking him with lightning, sending him into convulsions. The other was catching the occasional bursts of fire Matteo managed to send at them, and sending them back down on him in showers of sparks. Nick scooped up a rock, and put his full power behind crashing it into the electrokinetic’s head. The pyrokinetic directed a burst of flame at Nick, but Matteo arrested it, just before Nick swung the rock again.

With both Arcadian soldiers dead, Nick looked around for Borst, and saw the slumped body against the wall. His fingers were twitching, like he was trying to grasp for something out of his reach.

“Hey, hey buddy. It’s okay.” Nick put his hand on Borst’s shoulder, and the other against his back. “Relax. You did good. We got a whole fucking lot, Sorenson and me. And you know Ciernik had to be showing off, over on the other side.”

Borst seemed unable to talk, but his lips twitched.

“Just do what you can. Don’t worry about the rest. We got this, okay? You did good. You did real fucking good.”

The cave was filled for a while with ragged breaths and gentle words. They took on a rhythm together, like a lullabye. Inside, Nick became quiet, as he anticipated something he had felt before. It came eventually. A shudder, then stillness, eerie in its completeness.

Matteo crawled to Nick’s side. His clothes were peppered with singed holes, and the skin below was blistering. Gingerly, Matteo reached Nick’s shoulder. But Nick was not in a mood to be comforted. He jumped to his feet, opened his canteen, and rinsed his hands off. Then he dug out a handkerchief, and wetted it.

“Come on, let’s get some of that cleaned off before it gets infected.”

“I think you’ll need more water than that.”

“Just…” he sighed, and picked Matteo up. “Help me find the stream back there.”

 

Ciernik, Sasaki and the sergeant found them by the water, Matteo newly clean and trying to gently pat the sores dry with the handkerchief. Nick was ankle deep in the water himself, splashing his face and hair over and over again. There was no dirt on it. As horrible as everything about the past hour had been, this was the worst of it. Seeing Nick move with a deadened repetition. Thinking how, if seeing Borst die was painful for Matteo, how much worse it must have been for Nick. Wondering who else Nick had lost. Wondering what it was like to see enough friends die that, in time, the reaction was not to cry about it, but to fix up whoever was left, and then mechanically wash your face, long after it was already clean.

The arrival of the two remaining American soldiers brought confirmation that the battle was over, and somehow they had won. The grenades had taken out a dozen or so, Ciernik’s aim had accounted for nearly thirty, and the other soldiers had done the rest. As Ciernik, Sasaki and Sergeant Powell had combed the woods for survivors, they had found both Gladwin and Sorenson’s body. Both were now lying in the front cave, next to Borst. The bodies of the Arcadians had been removed deeper into the woods. Matteo did no want to think about where. Thinking about that made him imagine coyotes and crows, and that made the soldiers stop feeling like the ones who had kept him locked in Arcadia and just tried to kill him. It just made them feel like human bodies that weren’t moving anymore.

It wasn’t something he could change by thinking about it, so it wasn’t worth the thought. Besides, the Arcadians would be along to gather their own dead, sooner or later. The Americans were talking about the problems their own dead caused, in a roundabout way. They were wondering whether the mission as a whole had failed. Were planes still coming? Should they run before another wave came? Or should they wait, in case stragglers from the attacks on the watchtowers were coming back? And in the back of all those questions, the unasked one. Better to bury the bodies now, or wait to see if the mission was still on and rescuers would come to carry them and their dead back?

One would waste valuable time for rest and healing, strand the dead far from their homes. The other would risk leaving them unburied entirely.

“I can cremate them,” Matteo said, staring at his hands as he broke into the conversation.

The soldiers stared at him.

“I’m no saying I think we should. Just that it’s an option. It would make it easier to carry them home, if you have to leave in a hurry.”

“All right,” the sergeant said. “Do it.”

Theirs Not to Reason Why: Engagement

Matteo and Borst sat next to each other, leaning against the cave side. The opening had been covered by brush, and they were both crossed by a lattice of shadows. They had been inside while the soldiers assembled it. Matteo wondered if the result would be convincing to someone familiar with Arcadia’s landscape.

They waited in absolute silence. Matteo felt gagged. People sometimes mistook him for a nervous talker, but real trepidation was like a stone in his throat. Scenes circled in his mind. In too many of them, he had no idea what to do. He tried to find a stillness inside himself, to let his mind go blank and time disappear. Mostly he failed to find it, but keeping his body helped somewhat.

Borst, meanwhile, drummed his fingers like a troop of line dancers.

“Hey, can I ask you a question?” Borst said, after a few minutes.

“All right.”

“So, my great uncle had these wild stories, and he’d always try to convince us kids they were true. Mostly we wised up, but there were some that he never admitted were fake, and I’m pretty sure they were, but they never stopped bugging me. Anyway, one of the stories was that he and his buddies used to go poach trout, and they’d catch them by tickling. That’s nonsense, right?”

“It’s true.”

“Really?”

“If you rub them under the belly, they freeze. Then you can pluck them straight out of the water, and they won’t even notice.”

“No shit. How do you get that close to them?”

“Very, very slowly.”

“Right.”

Borst went back to drumming his fingers.

“He also never gave up on watermelon seeds growing in your belly if you swallow them.”

“That one was bullshit.”

“Right, I figured, just…”

Borst took a line of string out of his pocket, and began twisting it around his fingers. Matteo resumed his stillness.

“Okay, but what about this one-”

An explosion interrupted him. He leapt to a crouching position and peered through the cover.

“Anything?” Matteo said.

Borst shook his head. Another explosion followed. Matteo flinched, but now Borst was entirely calm. He closed his eyes, raised a finger between his eyes, and waited. The focus Matteo had sought was completely apparent on Borst’s face.

Moments snuck past, pounced on here and there by the booming noises that came steadily closer. Matteo counted them and wondered how many each one had taken. There was the tenth explosion. How many men would each grenade take care of? If each one took out five, and there were approximately fifty, the fight was already over. If they took out no more than one, there were still at least forty men coming their way. Military technology… he was still scared to ask too many questions about how far it had come.

There was an eleventh explosion. Matteo guessed that meant these weren’t taking out five at a time.

Then the first lightning bolt arched past the leafy screen, followed by the first gunshot. Matteo tucked his face into his knees, and gritted his teeth.

 

Nick held his ground, while Sorenson moved to a new position. A ball of fire spiralled up o Sorenson’s former position, and Nick took a shot at the flame’s origin. Then he ducked low, tensing for a returning shot.

“Move?” he called.

“Move,” Sorenson confirmed, and Nick moved.

 

Borst grinned. “I got one,” he whispered. Then he wrinkled his brows. “He’s stopping. He already knows. Damn.”

Matteo moved closer, so he could hear even Borst’s softest tone.

“There’s another. Nope, he moved out of range. They’re testing it. They’re finding the edge of the field. The two of them are spreading out.” He swallowed. “I think, in a minute they’ll start triangulating us.”

Matteo closed his eyes, took two deep breaths, and began opening and closing his fists, making little flames appear.

“We’ve got a few minutes before that yet.”

Matteo exhaled, and dug his nails into his palms.

“You looked so relaxed a minute ago,” Borst said.

“That was a clever ruse, to fool you into thinking I know what the hell I’m doing.”

“Does anybody, really? Or are some people just better at faking it?”

Matteo found it easy to smile at that, just as Borst’s face went solemn again.

“They’re moving in.”

Waiting.

Waiting.

Waiting

Waiting.

Waiting.

Waiting.

Waiting.

Waiting.

Waiting.

Footsteps.

Not outside the screen, not yet. No shadows cast by those feet. Just steps, two pairs, close enough to be heard in the spaces between gunshots.

Matteo gestured to the back of the caves and mouthed, “hide?”

Borst shook his head. “Range,” he mouthed back, moving his hands out like a circle, then holding up six fingers.

“You’re holding back six now?”

Borst nodded, and waved his hands for Matteo to shut up. Matteo shut up.

Now there were shadows. A silhouette over the leaves.

Then it moved away. Matteo did not let himself exhale.

There was a sound of a snapping branch. It was strange, now, to realize how much that sounded like a gunshot. Not exactly like, but hearing the two so close together was eerie. It made the lines between the mundane and the terrifying feel far too thin.

There was a sound of leaves rustling. Underbrush being pushed back and forth.

The green splintered end of a stick gently pierced the screen, between Borst and Matteo.

It nudged a branch aside.

Was this too early to strike?

A hand followed, and Matteo struck it with a fist sized cluster of sparks. A voice shouted and hissed. The hand was withdrawn. Then an entire body burst through.

Matteo hit him with another burst of fire. The Arcadian soldier caught it with his wool cloak, looked back and forth between the two of them, and smiled. In a moment that felt strangely detached from the rest of the universe, Matteo saw himself, measured through the man’s eyes. Both of them were coming to the same conclusion, Matteo from the inside out, the soldier from the outside in. Fire hurt, but it was a slow killer, and the soldier was more willing to endure pain than Matteo was to take life.

Borst sat, his eyes closed in concentration, and his fist clenched as though holding reins on every soldier entering his radius.

The Arcadian soldier attacked.

Matteo jumped on his back, spreading fire through the man’s tunic. They were ringed together in flame, Matteo making it as hot as he could stand, while the soldier put his hands around Borst’s neck, and smashed his skull into the cave wall.

From behind, Matteo felt a bolt of electricity tear through him.

As he flopped limp to the ground, he wondered why this strike was not lethal. The Arcadian soldier and his companion stepped over him, eyes full of bile. He realized the question was silly. He was a traitor, and there was no one in charge to hold them back. He was being spared for pain.

Theirs Not to Reason Why: Enemy Position

Wednesday

Day had dawned on Private Leroy Gladwin’s watch, closely followed by the arrival of Sorenson.

“You’re fucking late,” Gladwin said.

“Had to make a stop along the way.”

“Too much morning coffee?”

“The way Ciernik makes it, you have to chug the whole damn pot before you stop sleepwalking.”

“I hear that.” Gladwin got up and cracked his limbs, while Sorenson settled in under the fallen tree. “You know what I miss?”

“What?”

“Eggs. Even the goddamn powdered crap back at the base was something.”

“Shit yeah. You know, plenty of fucking birds around here. Bet we could raid a nest?”

“You think?”

“Give it a try this afternoon?”

“It’s a deal. See you back at the fucking base.”

As Gladwin turned, he heard Sorenson mutter. “Holy shit. Hold up there.”

He stepped back to the tree and peered over. Arcadian men were emerging from the path, lead by a robed man in some kind of eerie bird mask. They walked in two straight columns behind the masked one, and the line kept coming. Matteo had told them to look out for groups of five or six at a time. This was more than that. Gladwin counted down one line, (five, six, seven, eight) and doubled it (ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen). More were still coming.

Then the line stopped. The man in he bird mask turned his head from side to side, and raised his fingers as though testing the wind. Then he lead the lines off the path and into the woods. He was leading them straight for the caves.

“He’s like Trujillo,” Gladwin said. “Fucking clairvoyant.”

“No way. Trujillo could never fucking locate someone this far out.”

“I have a goddamn feeling this guy is better.” Gladwin resumed his count. There were at least fifty men headed their way. “Sorenson, get back to camp, now.”

“Where are you going?”

“To take that Psychic out. If you can’t take cover, you don’t have a chance.”

As Gladwin ran down the hills, he wondered how the hell he was going to find them without getting lost in these woods. Then he mentally laughed at himself. He didn’t need to find them. They would find him. The clairvoyant would lead his pyrokinetics or electrokinetics or aerokinetics or whatever the hell he had down there. He would come straight to Gladwin, and they would probably get him long before he could get a shot at them.

What he needed right now was a tree. Something tall, that could make them reach a little farther for him, and increase his shooting range just a little.

Actually, all the trees might work.

He crossed the strap of his rifle in front of his chest, and took a running stance. He felt his gift tense inside him, ready to bend the rules of physics, to convince them to ignore the limits of human muscle. He jumped. And jumped, and jumped again, turning the tree branches into stepping stones. He would reach them, and he would already be in position when he did.

 

Sorenson’s report froze Sergeant Powell inside. He had plans for attacking reinforcements headed to the watchtowers, but none for defending his base. Rookie mistake. No, the time to berate himself was later.

“You four. Grenades and tripwires, now. Rig traps. Get as many of them as we can on their way up.”

He turned to Borst, as the others took action. In his head, tactics played out in diagram sketches. Borst had a sort of field around him, and once the Arcadians stepped inside it, he could neutralize their abilities. But he couldn’t affect the powers until that line was crossed. Until then, they could lob lightning bolts and fireballs and god knows what else, just like a knight hopping over a pawn.

“You’ll have to stay here,” he said. “We will go uphill to draw them in.”

“Right sarge.”

Sergeant Powell swallowed. “And I’m sorry to say it, but you’ll be safer without a weapon. We’ll cover you.”

Borst was already unholstering his pistol. Sergeant Powell nodded, and gathered the gear the other soldiers would need.

Matteo stood at the mouth of the cave and watched Nick, Sorenson, Ciernik and Sasaki laying the traps through the trees. It was like a strange dance, how they moved just fast enough to look a little uncanny, how boulders they’d normally clamber around were cleared with easy hops, how close they looked to simple mundanes doing ordinary tasks, but sped up in some kind of surreal dream.

“I should stay behind too,” he said.

The sergeant looked at him.

“You don’t want him armed because the stoneworkers could sense the metal and turn his weapons on him. They won’t sense me, and I can make my own weapons.”

“Right.” He stepped in closer. “Stay hidden. You’re a last resort. His best defense is if they never know where he is.”

“I understand.”

The sergeant held out his hand, and Matteo squeezed it. Then the sergeant grabbed his own load of grenades, and joined the other trap setters.

 

From up in the trees, Gladwin saw the flash of a red robe. He swung his rifle around him, but before he could aim it, he saw a glowing finger of fire stretch out to him. Quickly he jumped for another tree. The bolt ignited the tree, and spread quickly down the wood. Gladwin jumped again, narrowly avoiding a bolt of electricity.

Fire hit again, this time not aimed at him, but the tree to his side. They were surrounding him, trapping him in the trees or forcing him down. If he was going to get a shot in, he needed to take it now.

As he took aim, more fire filled his vision. He closed He closed his eyes against the brightness, and fired. And fired, and fired, and fired again. Fire licked his uniform, and the branches below him broke.

On the ground, he opened his eyes, and tried to get a look at the robed man in the bird mask. All he could see in front of him was a boulder, swelling up from the moss and leaves like a pustule. Gladwin crawled to it, and pulled himself to look over. The robed figure was standing, but staggering. His men were clustered around him. Gladwin pulled his rifle around for a final shot, and saw the man fall.

“Gotcha,” he said, just before a bolt of lightning stopped his heart.