“What do you want to be when you grow up?” his parents asked him.
Sid crossed his eyes in consternation. It was not as if he did not have a perfect and well-planned and passionate answer ready. Rather, he was caught off guard by the timing of the question. It was customary to ask this of a child the day before they were to be sent off to school. But Sid was not to begin for another two days.
“I want to be a famous scientist,” he said proudly. His mother sat quietly, slowly spooning cabbage and potatoes into her mouth, nodding in unconditional approval. His father rubbed the stubble of his chin critically, grumbling, eyes squinted down as if the light perturbed his thoughts. His brother just sat there quizzically, trying to make sense of Sid’s answer.
His father was a carpenter, his mother a seamstress, his brother a cobbler. Only elders concerned themselves with matters that could be called science, and only writers, playwrights, and actors were anything close to famous. But Sid was very good with math and science and was practically obsessed with the taxonomy of their backyard.
“Perhaps,” his father began, “a clockmaker. Or a stargazer.” Stargazers spent lonesome nights atop mountains meticulously tracking the positions of stars and planets. Fascinating work, except that the level of detail required was so incredible, that it was exhausting just to record all the necessary information needed by the astrologers. Only elders could take on the responsibility of predicting eclipses, comets, and alignments.
“No, Dad. I can’t do that. I have to be in a place where I can share my discoveries.”
His mother laughed. “You and your discoveries.” Her tone was nostalgic, as if he were already gone. “I will miss them.”
“I spoke to the botanist,” he continued. “Did you know that there’s a sixth variety of fig on our block that no one seems to have ever known about?”
There was no response. “Son,” his father began, “I can understand your excitement, but the sad truth is that it does not matter how many varieties there are. A fig is a fig. As long as the botanist knows which plants on our block are poisonous and which are healing, then he is doing well for himself.”
“But there are other things. Like my Theory of Flotation or my Proof of the Infinity of Primes. And what about my design for a Flying Machine?”
“You are very bright, son. But you will learn in school that there are certain things that the world needs in order to function. Society produces and schools children to provide these needs until they are ready to pass on. Once they have passed their skills on to a successor, they may retire and indulge less useful functions, like long hours of study or theory.”
“But I want to change the world!”
His father rubbed his stubble some more and retorted with a light in his eyes, “What’s wrong with it?”
He didn’t know. He shook his head.
“Put your faith in the Directive. You will learn in school, son, that there can never be perpetual motion, nor eternal life. But the Directive ensures the perfect interlocking, self-checking, even self-modifying society needed so our species may live forever.”
He was getting a little frustrated. Why did they have to ask if they weren’t going to listen to his answer? Then his mother started in with it:
“One Man, one Woman, one House. Two children for a House. School from age eight until release. Upon release, one Man, one Living. Upon release, one Woman, one Family. There is nothing new under the Sun. East to West, Birth to Death. Upon Death, one Man, one Grave. Upon Death, one Woman, one Grave…”
“Stop it!” he screeched, slamming his hands against the table. He took them all by surprise, including himself. The anticipation of school approaching had made him act strangely lately and think strange thoughts. He supposed it was normal, but he still could not control his emotions.
The Directive was a tall stone temple in the center of town, scrawled with antlike text crawling down in a spiral motion, a seemingly endless thread of rules, guidelines, laws, punishments, and truths. It had been made long before the city and told nothing of its own creation, nor anything of science, math, or the world around them. The stone was harder and of different color than any that could be found in the land surrounding. No chisel could alter it, nor rain or fire or stone befoul it. It was perfect. It was unalterable. It was unquestionable. The Directive literally directed the goings-on, the traditions, and the laws of the city. It even told when to plant, harvest, and store crops. It was not written in verse or chaptered out or annotated with stories. It was only a long stream of rule and reason. Though his mother recited its first few sentences, it was too long to recite in prayer or before dinner. It ended, without warning or explanation or consequence, with the statement: Never leave the city.
After dinner, Sid helped his mother with the dishes. “I’m sorry I yelled at you, Mom.” She didn’t respond, just handed him plate after plate to dry. “I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you very much,” she said back. “You’ll be so different. Your whole life up to now will seem like a dream, a faint memory. I’ll be so proud. But I will miss the old you.”
“I don’t understand why there has to be a new me. What’s wrong with me?”
“There is nothing wrong with you. All children are born with an instinct to question and change and break. Once schooled, this instinct will be controlled, in fact deleted, and you will be ready to join and contribute to the city. You will be given a place, and the role you play will influence every person in the city, as you will be influenced. The world will breathe because of you, and it will permit you to breathe in turn. It is as close a thing to perpetual motion that the world will ever know, and thus it is the most beautiful thing in the world. It will -”
“Mom!” She stopped and looked at him. “I love you! I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to come back. I’m afraid of what they’ll do to me. I’m afraid of who I’ll become.”
“Dear son, there is nothing to be afraid of.” She knelt down. “We all feel this way. We all go through this doorway. I did, and you still love me. So how can it be that bad? Don’t change the world. Let your world change you.”
He gave her a big hug and cried. Later that night, he lay in bed far from sleep. He crawled over to his brother across the room and shook him awake.
“What’s it like?”
“What’s it like? The school?”
“I’ve told you a million times.”
“Tell me again. I still can’t feel it.”
“Alright. Then you let me sleep.” He shifted up in the bed. “On the other side of the mountain is a great black lake. To swim it, they say, drains the spirits so horribly that no man could make it even half the way from one shore to another. In the center is a great ship, like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The thick wooden planks of its walls are so solid that it would take weeks to dig through it, should one try to escape. The only way to and from it is a small raft manned by the oldest, creepiest, crippled elder the city has to offer.
“When you go, the elders greet you by stripping you of your clothes, bathing you immediately, and redressing you in green pajamas, which you will wear until you leave. Then they lead you to the children’s bedchambers. It’s a huge honeycomb of rooms stretching from the floor of the inner hull of the ship all the way up its sides. The whole thing is webbed with ramps and stairs and ladders, and there are no windows or doors. It’s quite incredible. The only thing you get to call your own is a bed, a pillow and a copy of the Directive in book form.
“The teachers are kind but cruel. They are sworn to answer any question asked of them, and to always tell only truth. But they rule with an iron fist. They have their own Directive you must follow. One child, one room. Breakfast at first light. Class from dawn to noon. Directed play until sundown. Supper and bed. Never leave the bed at night, else a lashing and binding the following day. It goes on and on, though not nearly as long as ours. It tells of all the rules, the punishments, what you’re supposed to learn, and what will happen to you if you don’t. It ends with: Never leave the ship.”
He paused for a moment. “Go on,” Sid urged. His brother lay in bed stiffly, breathing steadily as a clock. It was perfectly dark, but Sid could tell that they were looking into each other’s eyes. His brother lashed out and grabbed him by both shoulders, mouth hissing into his face. “Never disobey an elder. Their rule is absolute law.” He looked side to side as if there were someone watching, then brought his lips to Sid’s ear and whispered, “There is a pool in the belly of the ship. A pool full of horrible things. Some say it is alive and feeds on children’s hearts and minds and souls. No child can ever muster the strength to jump in. Every six months, they lead you into the room and make you walk the plank. If you leap into the pool, you’re a man and are free to leave the school. It’s all over. Otherwise you continue your schooling. If you haven’t taken the leap by your thirteenth birthday, you never leave. You can never escape. But they don’t school you anymore. They banish you to another world. There it is said you wander until the ends of time, unable to grow old, unable to return. Meantime, they pretend you never existed. They tell your family to have another child to replace you, and they never speak of you or think of you ever again.”
“No!” Sid cried, drawn into the nightmare. He shook free of his brother’s grip, ran to his bed, and leapt under the covers, weeping.
His brother came over, sat down, and rubbed his back soothingly. He had never told Sid this last part before. He wasn’t sure what made him share it now. Everything about them was just a little bit different, knowing he was about to leave. “It’s okay,” he tried to reassure. “I came back when I was eleven. Everyone comes back.”
“Well, most everyone. Only the evil and disobedient and wild at heart are cast out. But you’re not like that. You’ll be fine.”
“I don’t want to go to school. It sounds horrible! Class! Directed play! More Directive!” He emerged from under the covers, tears stinging his cheeks. “I’ll be the bravest one they’ve ever seen. I’ll leap at the first opportunity. I’ll show them that I’m ready, and I’ll come home to Mother before anyone else they’ve ever schooled!”
“No one leaps the first time. You’re very brave. But it has nothing to do with bravery. It has nothing to do with choice. It is a matter between your soul and their Directive. The only thing you can do is obey unconditionally. Think as they teach you to think. Act as they teach you to act. And do it wholeheartedly. Not just pretending.”
Sid did not answer. He just lay there letting his brother hold him.
“I’m sorry I scared you. Let’s just get some sleep.”
But Sid did not get a wink all night.
Marx closed his eyes and leaned his head against the tree. “Thirty!” he yelled and everyone scampered off. “Twenty-nine!”
Vance and Bas headed off toward the orchards. Val ran in the direction of the old water wells. Sid ran into town.
“Twenty-eight! Twenty-seven! Twenty-six!” His voice trailed off as Sid neared the edge of town. It was an extremely foggy afternoon. Usually the thick blanket of white retreated and evaporated by midmorning. But it was a cloudy day, drizzling and threatening to rain. His mother gave him a short lesson this morning and let him go out and play earlier than usual. Mothers were in charge of “primary” education, things like colors and words and grammar, along with basic science and arithmetic. Secondary education was the elders’ turf, which occupied Sid’s mind all this past week, for this was the very last day to play with his friends before school began.
It was the last day of September, and every child with a September birthday was to be escorted by their families to the shore of the black lake at first light of the next morning. Bas was the only one of his friends that he would be joining tomorrow, along with a girl he only faintly knew named Jen. The first few classes, he knew, would be just the three of them. Only after the first month or so would they begin to mingle with the other students.
Faintly behind him, Sid heard Marx’s shout of “Here I come!” and its consequent silence. He walked down the cobblestone street slowly and quietly, knowing that the seeker would be at an enormous disadvantage today. Down the street, the stone-keeper reached his long pole to light a fire on the lamp above. In the fog, he was only a shadow under a floating light, but Sid knew what it was. They must have given up on the fog clearing. The stone-keeper was responsible for the integrity of every street, building, and well in the city, and could be seen ritualistically at every dawn and every dusk, keeping the lamps.
Sid heard the sudden rout of footsteps down at the end of the street and turned. But sound carried farther than light today, and if Marx was trying to check the street, he would not find much. Quietly, Sid crouched down and lay flat in the middle of the street. The safest place to hide was the place least likely to be checked. He faintly heard the steps creep along the side of the street and lay perfectly still. He was nothing but a shadow or a puddle of water in this fog. Off toward the trees, there was laughing. Marx jetted away, missing Sid by a few paces. When the footsteps trailed off and stopped, Sid stood.
He was the best at this game. No one ever found him. The seeker would sometimes sacrifice everyone else in pursuit of Sid. If they guarded the tree, he would wait indefinitely in the surroundings. If they left the tree, he would be waiting for them when they returned. And as a seeker, he knew never to leave the tree unless he knew exactly where to find someone. Sid walked calmly in the opposite direction as Marx, toward the square. You never ran in this game, not if you were smart. Not if you knew what you were doing. He walked all the way to the square, and craned his neck at it: the Directive.
Twice the height of any building, yet no wider than a bench at its base. He approached it with usual wonderment. Only this time it was more pronounced. As if entering the school was like shaking the Directive’s hand and introducing oneself to it. He could almost hear it calling, claiming him. He put a hand on its cold surface. When he did, something flashed in his mind, and he pulled away. He laid a hand on it again, and his entire arm went cold. He felt distinctly as if he was spinning and the statue was spinning along with him. It seemed to open up and envelop him, and inside was a pit of darkness. He saw the black lake. He saw the school floating in its center. He saw it in a great tumultuous thunderstorm and could hear the sounds of shouting and whipping. Lightning cracked and he saw, horrifyingly, a face in the water, smiling, trying to swallow up the ship. As he shivered before the sight, he felt a creature stalking him.
“Gotcha!” Marx screamed, pulling Sid’s arm off the statue and sending him sprawling against it. The seeker had a stupid grin on his face.
“I wasn’t playing,” Sid growled coldly, massaging his arm.
“Don’t be sore. You lost to me. Admit it.”
“No! I wasn’t hiding. I lost you at the street and got bored, so I wandered into town.”
The rest of the boys ran over and crowded around. “Liar! You’re just sore that you lost for once.”
“What’s going on?” Val asked. “You caught Sid?”
“What are you doing?” Bas asked.
“I got bored playing this stupid kid’s game. I was waiting here for you guys to be finished, so we could go somewhere else.”
“Well that’s what I was just asking the Directive before Marx interrupted me.”
“We’re going to the black lake.”
There were protests and squabbles, but in the end, they headed toward the mountain. There was a single narrow road that led out that way, about an hour’s walk. So they ran it in a half an hour. Only when the road began sloping upward, and the peak of the mountain seemed more to the side than right in front of them, did they begin to slow and grumble. Bas and Sid seemed to lead the pack, dragging and taunting the rest along. Perhaps it was because they were oldest, or simply because they were drawn to the place they would be going to in less than a full day now.
When they crested the path, they stopped to rest. This was really just the halfway point of the path, the point where one could actually see the lake spread out below from the high slope of the mountain. There was a clearing at this point, through which one could also stretch one’s gaze up to the peak of the mountain, not altogether distant, and imagine climbing up in one straight shot. They were above the fog at this point, but it was still not sunny, only a bit clearer. Looking down, they could see little black fingers and toes of the lake inching out from under the thick white blanket of fog. In the very center, like a toy, sat the school. There were faint hints of motion zipping about the deck, but the hull was completely enveloped in fog.
A big green cloud hung over the lake, showering it with cold sheets. Sid and Bas sat on a couple of rocks, staring down below, feeling the cool breeze coming off the lake, entranced. The younger ones ran about, playing and hiding. Eventually they grew bored and began prodding at the older ones. Everyone decided to turn back except Sid and Bas, who resolved to move on. They knew it would take another hour to reach the shore, but they didn’t care. Something deep inside was calling.
They did not speak much on the way down, for some reason completely wrapped up in thought as the peak grew above them and the fog swirled all around, swallowing them down the breezy path. The lush greenery on either side was intimidating in an odd way. It was obvious that no foot had violated this path on a regular basis, and the leaves overhanging it seemed to turn discernibly, as if curious of these two creatures’ presence. The fog and drizzle condensed on the foliage, causing an ever-present drip-drop sound that blended into an orchestra of wind and thunder and rustling.
It took a little more than an hour to reach the edge of the trees, where the path opened up to a small rocky beach, and though they had exchanged hardly a word, they felt distinctly refreshed, as two friends would, after having finished an hour of dialog. The beach had the effect of being trapped inside a bubble whose walls were a blurry painting of the world beyond them. To their rear, the path was an ominous black hole slithering back up the mountain. The beach to either side gave out after about twenty paces, the white veil gobbling up the distance. And the lake - it too had an ominous feel. Like a sea monster rhythmically inching its black tentacles up and down the beach, it spread out before them, weighed down by a white blanket of swirling cloud.
Sid knew the lake was black, but the depth of its blackness surprised him. He imagined it having the consistency of water stained black by some mineral or soullessness. It was instead like mercury, twisting and turning by some conscious force, an opaque inky black. As each ripple of a wave washed up, the lake seemed to grab a hold of the rocks, and as the wave receded, its fingers dug in between them, not wanting to let go. They behaved almost as the heads of a hundred little snakes poking about. He walked to the very edge of the surf and knelt down, extending a hand over the black water.
“It’s okay,” he assured, turning back to his friend.
He let the tips of his fingers hover above the surface. Little ripples gathered around, leaping and licking at his palm. Then gently, he slid his hand into the water, up to the wrist. It was vastly colder than he had imagined, sending a shiver through his entire body. His eyes closed impulsively in a peaceful, draining feeling of surrender. The surface about his wrist began to swirl slightly and crawl up his arm. He felt as if all the lost souls of those who’d perished in this lake sensed him, a newcomer, and came flocking to plea to him. He felt his heart slow down as the cold flowed into his body through his arm, pouring like a river and filling his heart like a waterfall. The lake clung to his wrist, tentacles creeping up and around his arm, pulling him in. He felt almost totally enveloped in it.
They said that the lake drew its blackness from the souls of those who had drowned in it over the many long years. In turn, those souls conglomerated into one single entity, occupying the lake as their individual souls had once occupied their bodies. And now, as ever, they had to feed. It was known that there were no fish in the black lake. Not even seaweed. No animal great or small nested here, nor drank from it, if they knew better. No bird could be seen flying over it, lest it be drawn in, flap its wings desperately, and screech as the lake sucked it down and under. Nor could any man make it from one shore to the other, without his heart giving out from melancholy. Thus, none could invade or escape the ship in its center without certain death.
Sid felt pressure on his other arm, squeezing and pulling and clawing. Annoyed, he turned his head and opened his eyes. It was Bas, pulling him out. He was almost completely sucked in, up to the shoulder and tilting off balance. He kicked his legs and pounced away from the black monster, catapulting Bas and sprawling out on top of him. The churning foam he pulled out of settled down and spread out, like a wolf having lost its prey. They both stood and dusted themselves off.
Down the beach Sid saw what looked like a person perched on a rock. He could barely make them out, but signaled to Bas and approached the figure. As they neared, it became clear. It was a girl, no older than them, sitting and gazing over the blackness. They came right up behind her as she sat there dreaming.
“You’re Jen,” Sid greeted.
She turned her head and smiled slightly, having known they were both there. Her eyes were piercing blue, her hair blonde, and her skin light and smooth. She looked them both over briefly, sizing them up against their reputations, and turned back toward the vista.
“Are you ready?” she asked. The two friends looked at each other. They did not really know.
They stayed out here all afternoon, skipping rocks, digging holes, peeling the bark off trees, anything to pass the time in this strangely intoxicating place. It felt like they were waiting for something, like an angel or a messenger was supposed to meet them here and reveal some divine secret. But no one came, only the breeze and the faint odorless fragrance of the lake.
It was a long walk back, and they all arrived home late, though it hardly mattered the day before school. Their stomachs grumbled as they went home to mildly worried families and cold dinners. There was something about Jen, something Sid could not place. It was a feeling as if they’d been childhood friends a very long time ago, before either could remember. Perhaps it was a manifestation of realizing that the next six months of his life would be inextricably tied to her and Bas. The two boys had grown closer as the date of their departure fell upon them. Now, on the eve of their journey, they felt like brothers.
Someone shook him awake. In his dreamy state, interrupted an hour before official sunrise, his groggy mind painted a silly picture of his surroundings. He pictured his mother pulling him up out of bed by the ankles and shaking him violently as he clung to the covers, trying not to get dizzy. When he awoke fully, he realized he was horizontal in bed, not vertical, and his disorientation took several moments to dissipate. When it did, he saw his mother, father, and brother all hovering over him as he peeled his eyelids open.
He looked over at the window. A faint pinkish hue radiated in, announcing first light of the day. He yawned, stretched, and sat up, moving the covers. He nodded soberly. Standing up seemed harder than usual, as if he had weights on his shoulders. There would be no breakfast this morning. In two hours time, he’d be eating on a ship in the middle of a lake, surrounded by strangers. He hoped he’d recognize some friends who were already at school. It felt odd, leaving his room like this. It was clean, but it was taken. You didn’t take a single thing to school, not a stick or even the clothes on your back, which would be confiscated when you stepped aboard. So he walked out empty-handed, his family in tow to escort him.
They walked a lot slower than usual, so it took the full hour to reach even the halfway point where you could see the lake. The school was nothing but a few faint masts and lines sticking out of the fog in the distance. The morning was cold, and the mist swirled around them magically. His father’s hand never left his shoulder the whole trip. It was so quiet and peaceful this morning. The sun could barely penetrate the leaves and fog, so the entire sky took on a pink glow, yielding to a brilliant golden hue as it rose. The only sound was their breathing and the squishing of their feet in the wet ground. Little animals in the trees and foliage off the trail scurried fleetingly and watched them, wishing them luck, seeing him off.
They descended the leeward side of the peak and at long last came to the opening of the cove at the beach. It was beautiful. It looked as if they were floating in a cloud, suspended in golden light, the beach stretching out before them like a tongue, leading them deeper. They walked along the shore, the whole while, little black waves reaching out for them and receding, trying to capture them. Up ahead, they saw figures standing like tree stumps, the other two families. He nodded to Bas and Jen, and they stood and waited. Within minutes, the ferry arrived.
They could hear the faint swishing of the oar, and make out the shadow of a man standing in a boat. When it neared, it was moving faster than expected, and the man was more foreboding. He had to be the oldest living being in the city. He wore the standard black cloak of every elder, hood drawn, perhaps simply to mask his hideousness. His skeletal hands clung to the oar as if they had fused into one entity. The raft scraped against the rocks and halted.
“Only three?” he croaked. They all looked about and nodded. “Very well. We will take three.” He spread an arm, beckoning. Sid tried to do the math in his head. Three seemed a reasonable number of children born in the city within a month of each other. It wouldn’t matter if the number was thirty, the skeleton would have issued the same surprised, disappointed question. They were hungry for students.
Bas escorted Jen by the arm, and climbed in himself, followed by Sid. He stopped halfway, ran back, and hugged his mom. For some reason, he was not able to let go as quickly as he’d planned.
“Come on, son,” the creature summoned.
He released and walked backward to the raft, saying goodbye with his eyes as they stared assuredly. They had done this too. Five years, he thought. I’ll be the first one out, I promise. He stepped aboard and sat down as close to the stern as he could. As they pulled away, he whispered a soft goodbye and, just as the fog wrapped around him, held his hand up in a wave. Only his brother returned it, and within a minute, they were gone. He turned back to the others and looked into their eyes.
The only sound was the steady sucking swish of the oar in the water. Sid lounged just in front of the rower, elbow over the edge, watching the surface of the water. When the oar was drawn on Sid’s side, he stared at it fixedly. Each time it entered, the water lashed a tentacle around it, and each time it left, the tentacle stretched tight before giving up its grip. Sid wondered how often and how long the wretched lake had tried swamping this old raft, undoubtedly older even than the man inside it.
The trip passed slowly, or perhaps the children were just particularly alert. Bas cradled Jen against his shoulder, and she did nothing but breathe heavily, staring at Sid. Their eye contact was a rich channel of communication. He could see into her mind and felt his own mind naked before her. His hand hovered over the surface of the water. Even without looking, he could sense the tongues of black liquid lapping up at him, never quite catching him. He felt as in touch with this lake as he did with Jen. Somehow it was like finding a lost twin. After the journey, their exchange would be fizzled and forgotten like a dream upon waking. During, though, their exchange was fierce and deep, forgetting they were two people in two bodies. Just so, he felt a part of this lake. Sid wondered about the significance of it. He did not know how or why, but his very immediate future seemed inexorably linked to both Jen and to this lake. The black bowl of sludge was to be a powerful ally.
“Aaaaayyyyyiiiiihhhhhaaaaaaa!!!!!” screeched the boatman. He slammed the oar across the raft, bent down, and grabbed hold of Sid’s hand. Without paying attention, the boy had let it slip below the surface. It felt oddly numb, submerged to the wrist and digging deeper. The elder wrapped cold wiry fingers around his arm and hefted it away, back into the boat.
Bas and Jen jumped at the outburst.
“Never let the waters of this lake touch your flesh. It’s evil. It will suck you in. It will rob you of your soul. Do not be deceived by its allure. It will lie to you. We will teach you to sieve truth out of the world.”
“Yes, Father.” What does that tell of the old men who built a school upon it, he thought bitterly.
Sid held back tears of an unknown source. He was not exactly frightened, nor embarrassed, nor angry. Rather, it was some odd concoction, a melting of the entire spectrum of human emotion. He missed home. He feared the unknown. He felt nostalgia and regret and excitement all at once. He sulked in the raft, concealing anticipation with anger, when at once, they were upon it. He knew it was there before ever looking up. A shadow rose ever higher, ever clearer through the fog. The hull of the ship presented itself quite dramatically and ominously. The raft thudded to a halt along its base, and the old wretch tied it off. A rope-ladder fell before them.
“Up you go, children.”
Sid climbed up first. He was taken by the sheer hugeness of it all. He had seen it from the mountaintop several times, but had forgotten the deception involved in the scale of things. This was no mere watercraft, not a toy or a prop or an elaborate house. This was a small city built in a thick wooden bowl set upon water. At the top, the party was met by a semicircle of robed elders, hoods laid down to reveal the faces. Man and woman blended together in this state of shriveled, dried out, frizzled age. They were elders, not people. Guardians of immortality. Their wisdom taught not how to live life necessarily, but to do it in a manner preserving the status quo and continuing the existence of the species. They were machines, ancient clocks dressed in human bodies.
“For each new wild one, a bath, for childhood is a dirty thing,” the receiving elders intoned uniformly. Sid stood with Bas and Jen, frightful but still. “How many?”
“Three,” the boatman answered, and retrieved the ladder.
“Three baths,” the center elder ordered. At which point, three of the others approached the children with gnarled hands outstretched. Sid’s heartbeat quickened.
“Do not fear, little wild one,” one whispered, grabbing hold of Sid’s collar. In one swift motion, his shirt was off, chest exposed to the chill morning air. Before he could react, his pants were at his ankles. The elder stepped on them and lifted the boy by his armpits, leaving his pants and shoes on the ground. Beneath the surface of fear and senseless hate, Sid dumbly admired the swiftness with which he was unclothed.
A shriek escaped Jen’s lips as the same was done to her and Bas, clothes scraped into a heap. In less than a second, all three were naked as the day of their birth, instinctively clutching their privates as they were marched along the ship’s deck and into a small cabin. In it was a large basin of clear bathing water set into the floor, several trays of heated stones, and a half dozen elders stripped of their own clothes, scrubbing cloths ready. Sid set a toe into the basin, and thankfully it was warm. But there was no walkway or stair to descend into it. He tried to make solid contact with the basin floor, but slipped into it with hopeless abandon. His arms flailed as gravity sucked him underwater.
No sooner did his chin touch the surface were old hands all about him, clutching at him, lifting and moving limbs, turning him every which way. Old rags scraping his skin. Bas and Jen were pushed in behind him, kicking and flailing against him as the old wretches did their work. Every time Sid could get his mouth to the surface to take a breath, a hand pushed him under and violently ripped a cloth through his hair. Or a hand would grab at an ankle and pull with all its might. Or Bas would find his shoulder and desperately push him under, instinctively trying to push himself up. This was not a bath. This was not for the sake of cleansing the dirt and grime from their flesh. This was to rob them of their composure. This was a simple child’s nightmare, acted out to instill fear and humility. One had to break a wild animal before it could be tamed.
All at once, the hands were gone. The clawing, clutching, grabbing hands retracted and left the three children alone to flail and grapple with water and gravity to right themselves. The base of the pool was deeper than their feet could reach, so they treaded water, desperately climbing over each other to keep their necks above the surface. Jen’s shrieks did not cease, as panic slowly drained from Sid, to be replaced with logic. This was just another test. They had to crawl out on their own, with no help. Through the ripples, Sid could see the bathers sitting on the ledge where they had been before, dripping, watching.
Sid held his breath and pushed himself underwater. He swam to the bottom where his feet touched. He crouched down below Jen’s thrashing feet. He took hold of them. She resisted at first but soon understood. He managed a firm grip of her knees and kept pushing her up toward the surface. Balanced, she pulled Bas up as well, and Sid walked as best he could underwater to the edge of the basin. He pushed her up until he could feel that they had both made contact with the edge, and let her go. Somehow or other, this expenditure of energy left him empty inside. When Jen was safe, he closed his eyes and sank back under. Only a few seconds of peace passed before a hand grappled after him and pulled him up against gravity.
When all three of them lay in a huddled, shivering mass on the floor, a large blanket draped over them to dry with. They warmed themselves against it and scraped the horrible icy water off them. They put on the clothes tossed to them when they were finished, and stood in a line, glowering, clean, and shaken to the bone. Another elder led them across the deck to another room at the very bow of the ship. This one contained a simple burrow in the floor, a long tongue of a stairwell whose passage appeared cramped and steep, following the curve of the hull. They descended, feeling the slightest sway of the ship all around them. As they neared the bottom, light and sound trickled in from the passageway. Sid’s imagination raced as he went back to all the stories he’d squeezed out of his brother.
When they passed through, what lay before them was beyond imagination. The atrium easily filled half the belly of the ship. It crawled along the bottom of the vessel and arced upwards to the right and left. Tiling the interior of all sides was a giant honeycomb. A hexagonal pattern spread out below them, stretched above them, and spanned both sides, wrapping all the way to the far wall. In each, children were just stirring for the light of the morning. No natural light graced these walls, on second look. A series of chandeliers hugged the ceiling, bathing the room in yellow. The combs on the floor were like pits dug in the ground, small quarters from which one climbed out, walkways running between. On the walls, the combs were vertical, forming hexagonal windows opening into a small cave. Balcony walkways ran all about these, giving everyone access to an exit. The walkways fanned out from a central nexus on the far side of the room. Another entrance, far taller, opened opposite them.
An elder descended from behind, swiftly escorting Jen to the left, ushering her along, across the horizontal walkways weaving back and forth, and up the slope along the spider-webbed catwalks to the girls’ combs. Their own elder did the same for Sid and Bas, rushing them along to the right, nipping at their heels, shooing them into their respective chambers. They were high up, enough to intimidate the faint. They would need time to adjust. They were nearly neighbors, assigned on the same “level,” only a few combs apart. He’d tried to keep his eyes on Jen, but lost her in the confusion.
His little cave consisted of a hammock draped across the center, a pile of blankets in one corner, and a bedpan stuck in the other. A thick leather book every child recognized sat on the floor at his feet. The ceiling was only inches taller than him, the cave no deeper than it was tall. Its hexagonal shape made it slightly awkward. It was difficult to stand except in a single spot, but the slope of the floor made convenient “chairs.” Behind him, the blinding yellowness of the honeycomb spread out majestically, children bustling about like bees, forming a vague static hum. He picked up the leather-bound book. Its inner page proclaimed its simple title, “The Directive.” He flipped through it, skimming the seemingly endless unbroken chain of words and letters and sentences. Instinctively, he tossed it aside with disgust. But he remembered his brother’s words. Think as they teach you to think. Act as they teach you to act. And do it wholeheartedly. Not just pretending. He knew that the sooner he committed the contents of that book to memory, the sooner he would leave.
Children raced by the opening of his comb. He crawled to the edge. Everyone all at once emptied out of their combs and scampered down the walkways. Sid joined them. The walkways themselves were less than a single stride in width, intimidating for the height and the frantic hopping and skipping of other boys. There was no rail, and vertigo gripped Sid immediately. He walked slowly, hugging the inside edge of other combs. Even though there was barely enough room to walk single file, others behind him shoved him inward and hopped around him. Other walkways above them dumped onto this one, the entire mess of it sloping all the way down to the mouth leading outside. He felt grateful to be on the “ground,” though he knew that on a boat over fathoms of water, floors were what they defined them to be.
He followed the mob through the great mouth opposite where he’d first entered. The room just outside the honeycomb was just as wide but slightly shorter in length. Above him, he could see all the way up five or six levels, like barracks, dozens of ladders nailed to the outside connecting them. Ladders had been laid across the gaps to form bridges. The whole thing was like a deck of cards cut in half and pulled apart, the ladders like threads keeping each half tied to the other. He did not have much time to register all this before the mob pushed him through another doorway. This one opened to what was undoubtedly a mess hall. Tables and chairs were scattered all around, and lines formed at a dozen posts all around the outer edge, each serving food to hungry children. He took a place in one of these lines and waited, all the while looking out for Bas and Jen.
After a few minutes of waiting, he reached the front of the line, received a bowl of porridge, a biscuit, a goblet of milk, and a shove out of the way. Happy birthday, he thought. He made his way to an empty seat, keeping a lookout for a familiar face. They all seemed faintly familiar, for they were all children of the town before their eighth birthdays cast them away to this place. He took a seat, set his plate down, and realized that he was ferociously hungry. He gobbled up the goopy porridge, gnawed at the hard biscuit, and slurped up the cold slimy milk. He finished the meal quickly, not because it tasted the least bit good, and wondered if he could get away with seconds.
A boy sitting next to him watched him devour his meal with a sense of puzzlement and humor. “First day?” he asked.
“Yeah. Do they give you seconds?”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” the boy said, pointing to a post where they were already cleaning up, shooing away bystanders.
“What do we do with -” He held up his empty plate.
The boy pointed to a group of children standing before three large basins of water. “I’m fourth walk.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Fort.”
“No, not my name. I’m in the fourth, you know, walk. Name’s Tim.”
“Walk of the plank.”
“You’ve walked the plank four times.”
“No, I’ve walked it three times. Getting ready for the fourth. I don’t know if I’ll make it this time, but I’m definitely making progress.”
Sid did the math in his head. “So you’re ten.”
“About to be. Two months. It’s not so bad here. You’ll get used to it.”
Sid could tell they were empty words, a canned greeting for a - first walk, he figured they called him. He nodded and rose with his plates. “Where do we go after -”
“You go home.”
“After breakfast,” he corrected.
“Oh. Through that door, to the classrooms. First walk, first room.”
He walked off toward the dishwashers, and headed for the exit.
“Happy birthday!” Tim called behind him.
“Thanks,” he muttered.
He made his way out of the room with the throng of early finishers, heading out to the classrooms. The exit contained a stairwell. Climbing it, he came out one level above the mess hall, staring down a hall with many open doors. He entered the first one, empty except for an elder leaning back in a chair with a book he could only assume was the book.
“Welcome, wild one.”
He sat quietly for many minutes, until Bas and Jen found their way as well. The classroom was a small enclosed space with a half-dozen chairs and a podium at the front, a public speaking chamber, no more.
The elder rose. “Three?” he asked, seeming to know the answer.
They nodded, and he went to shut the door. He slammed the book on the podium, composed himself, and enumerated the title of their first lesson: “What is the Directive?”
Sid’s head ached. He’d stayed up most of the night reading the school Directive. Only the first quarter or so of the book, but dizzying nonetheless. They were to have it memorized by the end of their first month. It was simple enough. One child, one room. Breakfast at first light. Class from dawn to noon. Directed play until sundown. Supper and bed. Never leave the bed at night, else a lashing and binding the following day. And on and on and on. It prescribed every punishment to every possible misdemeanor, from sneaking on deck without elder accompaniment - punishable by sleep the following night in a bag tied down to the deck in the cold outside night - to spilling your bedpan - one week’s scrub duty. The degree of the crime reflected the degree of the punishment. Thus all crimes, from the spilling of a bedpan to the desecration of the Directive, were all equal in a sense. If scrub duty seemed less harsh than a lashing, then the crime resulting in that consequence could be perceived as less violent.
It was only their second day. Study was considered an acceptable form of directed play, so he spent all his first day reading, skimming, and reciting the school Directive. He also skimmed a bit through the city Directive, which he knew would be committed to memory as well. It was pure drivel. Not that it was lunacy, necessarily. Rather it was quite sensible. Murder punishable by death in the same manner, or the victim’s next of kin could opt for painless execution. Theft of minor punishable by isolated confinement, theft of major punishable by the severing of a hand. It all made Sid queasy, all these detailed rules and laws and punishments that never had to be invoked, not that he knew of. Murder, rape, theft, barbarism, cannibalism, these were things of animal cultures, not human. All these things had to be committed to memory. Sid noted very well that if he ever indulged in his brother’s flesh then he would be hanged by the ankles from a tree over a pit with his hands tied, as hogs three days unfed were released upon him - just long enough so that he would survive.
On the second day of class, Sid sat in his chair, head bowed, eyes squinted shut, fists clenched. He shook with the effort of concentration, mumbling and rocking back and forth. He’d skipped breakfast and come right here. The elder sat idly, watching him a bit, probably curious or concerned for the child. He’d made a decision last night. He was going to do something special. He was going to dazzle them and blow them all away. That tiny little booklet, with its thousands of words and letters zipping about, detailing the petty little rules and punishments of this place, became his world. He immersed himself in it. He cleared his mind and took it in, like drinking buckets of water after crossing a desert. At long last, Bas and Jen entered, the elder closed the door, and Sid stood. He climbed on top of his chair, towering over the room, spread his arms, and began:
“One child, one room. Breakfast at first light. Class from dawn to noon. Directed play until sundown. Supper and bed. Never leave the bed at night, else a lashing and binding the following day. Never go on deck without an elder, else a sleeping in a tied bag on deck the following night. Never sit in another classroom, else a hazing by its occupants. Never lie, else a binding to silence for a fortnight, mouth completely tied except during solitary monitored meals…
“An elder is a master of the ship. The ship is a master of any child’s life. Respect the word of an elder. Never disobey an elder, else a slinging by the wrists over the side. Never enter an elder’s chambers, else a lashing to the elder’s bedpost every night for a fortnight. Never taunt an elder, else a stripping of all clothing the following day. An elder is bound by Directive to answer truth to any question asked of them. Never doubt an elder, else a week’s servitude to them. Never accuse an elder, else the punishment of such accused crime shall be turned on the accuser…
“Six months, one walk of the plank. Only one in ten generations will succeed their first walk. Ten walks, and outcast. Upon success, graduation. An outcast child never existed. A graduated child shall never want…”
He took a deep, victorious breath.
“Never leave the ship.”
As Sid recited the school Directive, Bas and Jen stared at him, mouths dropped to the floor. The elder crossed his arms and chewed his lip in full attention. It took an hour to make it through the entire thing, and he felt as if he’d dropped something very heavy when he finally finished. He collapsed in his chair, breathing heavily and unevenly, heart beating strangely. The elder scratched at his neck, then spoke.
“Six sentences omitted. Forty-seven sentences besmirched by phrase order. One hundred and twelve incorrect verbs. Seventeen confusions of ‘hanged’ with ‘hung.’ Twenty-one confusions of ‘them’ with ‘him.’ Two instances of repeated passages…”
The elder listed his mistakes like a robot, never breaking eye contact. He should have known he could never impress these creatures. This was the Directive incarnate. He was a leaf floating on a river all the same as the rest. A leaf that could swim, whether upstream or down, was only a nuisance. After the elder listed his mistakes, he issued the closest thing possible to a compliment.
Bas and Jen were still dumbfounded. They wouldn’t emerge from their stupor for days. Sid had just announced himself a prodigy. He would be the talk of the school. He’d done a month’s work in one day. He would certainly have the entire city Directive committed by month’s end. He’d go home his first walk. He would be the one, they knew it. A wave of realization swept over them. He wanted it badly enough, and he was nothing short of a genius.
But on the inside, Sid’s blood boiled. Somehow deep inside, he imagined that once he recited it that one time, he could forget it forever. Once he crossed one hurdle, he would never have to look back. Now he understood that it was a task of another kind. They tossed a weight in your arms. As soon as you could find your bearings, they tossed another. And another. And another. No rest, no sleep, no breaks, no softness or mercy. He was imperfect. They would whip him into perfection. Once perfection was attained, it must be repeated for authenticity, then tested periodically for consistency. There would be no margin.
Sid screamed with despair inside his head. He clawed his face apart. No relief. No reward. Only test upon test until - but no. The walk. That was his one chance to free himself, his one chance at redemption. This was where all the tests ended. The boatman would show him home. And then the botanist or the stargazer or the metallurgist he was to become would never be tested again. He would put them to the test. He would revolutionize, question, change. He would infuse meaning into people’s lives and the world around them. He would challenge the status quo, and shake things up a bit. But first, he had to survive the tempering process of this place.
As the teacher lectured, Sid made a decision. No matter the cost, he would be the first out. He would bury this flailing sense of ambition deep inside; he would throw himself headlong into the Directive and its lessons; he would play out the prodigal persona whose glimpse he’d just created, and reap the rewards. He’d just planted the seed for a new beginning, and now he must very carefully grow and cultivate it. When it came time, he would reap it. But all along, little would anyone know, he’d carry a secret. He’d carry with him a tiny ember of the flame they seemed intent to snuff out. He would sneak it out of this place.
In class he heard his first “Bad Jack” story. It seemed very simple. Bad Jack was a conceptual character that navigated the boundaries of the Directive. Bad Jack snuck out of his room one night to play with his friend, but Good Jeff saw him and told the elders, and Jack was lashed and bound the following day. Bad Jack accused the elder serving his breakfast of putting a hair in his porridge, and Jack was punished as if he had tried to poison another - his tongue was doused in acid. Bad Jack tried to hold courtship with a girl and was bathed with sandpaper and horse brushes. Bad Jack tried to swim away from the ship, and the blackness enveloped him, his soul swallowed up, and his body washed ashore to his parents’ feet.
At dodge ball, the last to fall was Bad Jack. At billiards, the one to sink the “Jack eight.” At darts, Jack’s eye. It was not an official part of the Directive, but a delightful interpretation of it. They could have written a children’s version involving only the failed exploits of Bad Jack. His one thousand and one deaths and disfigurements for various misbehaviors. Had it not been blasphemy, they might have.
At directed play, Sid walked on water. Jen and Bas had spread the news of his performance this morning, and all were awed by how young and new and fresh he was for such a fast learner. Sid was truly good with storytelling. All the children grouped around a speaker, who crafted as dramatic and complex a story as possible involving Bad Jack, his evil exploits, and his downfalls at the hands of Good Gene or Frank or Jess or Sue.
This time the speaker was a girl, perhaps a year or so older than himself. “Bad Jack woke up in the middle of the night and snuck up to the deck to meet the love of his life, Bad Jill. But Good Sue saw Jill sneak out and remembered her talking about her new courtship at breakfast the day before, so she told an elder. They went up on deck and found them courting and called them out. Bad Jack and Bad Jill ran to the edge of the ship and jumped overboard!” The entire audience gasped in awe and fright. “They tried to swim away but the blackness of the water pulled them down. The lake swallowed up both their souls, but the elders threw a net and captured them and brought them back aboard. Both were lashed and bound together the following day. Everyone threw rotted food and shoes at them.” The audience proceeded to ooh and ahh and whoop for joy at the notion. “That night they both slept in bags on the deck with gags over their mouths to keep them from talking in the dark! The next day they were both bathed with sandpaper and horse brushes! But the soulless children had become soft of the flesh after losing their souls, and their skin flaked off like sand.” The audience clapped. “From that day forward, they could not touch another human being or object without horrible pain, and the two soulless children missed their last walk and were cast into the Fall of Imaginings to be tortured by beasts until the end of their days!!!!”
She got a standing ovation. This was the best story of the week. The elder in the corner mulled over this with his arms crossed. Sid knew what he was thinking. There was nothing in the Directive about skin turning to sand or skinless soulless children in this school or throwing food at the bound children. With pure intentions, the girl let a dangerous thing inside her flare up. Sid couldn’t put his finger on it - creativity, childishness, innocence, passion. It was not one thing, and yet it was solitary and small. It hid in everyone and would have to be stomped out before they could join the world outside.
Sid took the stage. He had an idea. Everyone fell to silence. The audience grew threefold from bystanders turning their attentions to the prodigy. A dozen pairs of elders’ eyes narrowed on him - as he wanted. It was time to perform.
“One morning, before first light, Good Jen slept soundly in her bed. An elder shook her awake and told her to follow. Although tired, she did not disobey and was not slung over the side by the wrists. She followed him into the kitchen, where he fed her before first light. Although this was unusual, she did not doubt him and thus did not serve him for a week. After she finished eating, she was fitted with an apron and told to wash the dishes of the other children. At first light, all the boys and girls in the school ate and drank and tossed their dishes into her basin, and she washed them all one by one. She then went off to class where she paid extra attention, answered every question, and did her assignments for the next day. A boy next to her called her a dirty name, but she told the elder, and the boy’s mouth was stuffed with soap, and he sat next to the teacher the rest of the day, to fetch his pens and papers. She went to directed play and performed well in all her favorite games and helped her classmates better themselves. Good Jen retired early to her room to study the Directive for two hours before supper. Then she ate supper and crawled into her hammock and dreamed of her family. She did not leave her bed in the night and was not bound and lashed the next day. She woke up the next morning and did it again, and on her ninth birthday, she passed her second walk. Good Jen went home and hugged her mother and her father and her sister and became a quilt-and-curtain-maker and lived forever.”
There was a very long silence. Sid became uncertain for the first time. Elders glared at him with shocked expressions. They were deft not to betray emotions, but for the moment expressed a brief stupid surprise. But whether it was admiration or condemnation, he could not tell. Then, breaking the silence, Jen applauded. Bas joined her followed by the rest of the crowd. They jumped up and down with glee, hailing him master storyteller of the entire month. The elders conglomerated, whispering, eyeing him. Yes, he imagined them whispering, perhaps he is the one. We must take care not to act too hastily. He is a prodigy, a genius. He could overtake even us if he is not managed carefully. Sid imagined them shaking a bit at the notion, a slight tremble in their voices. Yes, he will walk at the first. But we must help prepare him. He is special, and must be treated specially with a special accelerated course to make him feel special.
He retired early to study the city Directive. He must have it completely memorized, even if imperfectly, by the end of the first month. That was his goal, his second great feat, even greater than the first. It took most past their first walk to get it down. He wanted to out-prepare everyone so grotesquely that the elders held a special tribunal to rule whether it was appropriate to just let him go ahead and walk three full months early and go home to his mother where she would be waiting with a fireplace and cookies and a life outside this place.
However, another reason he retired early was that something he’d heard bothered him that day, something the other girl had said in her story. She said, “…cast into the Fall of Imaginings,” as if it were a real place. The Directive merely said that a child was outcast after their tenth walk. That if, by their thirteenth birthday, they still had not embraced the beauty and power and symmetry of the Directive, they could never again set foot in the city. Was the forest surrounding the city the “Fall of Imaginings”? He did not know. But that thought made him see a vision of one possible future. They catch me. They find me out. They burn the secret out of me. And I am cast out forever. He imagined wandering alone for the rest of his days, where life was a game of survival, and death was as pointless as killing an insect. To be tortured by beasts until the end of his days. She knew something.
After supper, Sid found an elder and pulled him aside. “May I speak to you alone for a moment?”
“Of course.” They made it a habit to ignore his prodigal status, at least out loud.
“After ten walks, a child is outcast. Where do they go?”
“They fall forever.”
“But do they land?” He was growing annoyed. Sworn to tell the truth, he sneered to himself.
“They fall with their imaginings. You see, the only threat to the Directive is change. Change is brought about by changers, whether by good intentions or evil. Changers are characterized by a childlike wildness. They are untamed wild ones and, if let upon the city, could damage or destroy our very essence. It is our job to separate a child from its natural wildness, to remove its flailing imaginings as quickly as possible. Walking the plank is an unbeatable test that no amount of acting and performing can outdo. To pass means a child has purged their own imaginings by their own will. The child goes one way, the imaginings another. But if by their tenth walk they are unable to let their imaginings go, they fall alongside them, disappearing forever.”
“But where do they go? Do they starve? Drown? Do they wander alone? Are they tortured by beasts?”
“Whichever one they feel they can torment themselves with the best. An outcast child is a failed attempt at humanity. We do not know what becomes of them past their own torment, because it is self-inflicted. Such logic does not fit with our plan. It does not matter. They are part of another world.”
Sid took all this in, tried to sift through it to separate the fact from the story tying fact together. “I will pass my first walk.”
“So we shall see.”
Sid lay in a coffin, sleeping steadily, hands and legs tied, eyes blindfolded, mouth gagged. The coffin had a small door at his head, and the door had a small hole to the outside. In that hole was a voice, a constant stream of sound injected directly into his ears, a voice in his head. It had a certain hissing cadence about it. It was so constant, so direct, so inescapable, that it ceased to take the form of words and sounds and moving lips. To Sid, the voice was not a voice but a tentacle, reaching and weaving and worming around in him, searching. This was the most advanced course the school had to offer. The last class, the highest grade level. Sid lay in his “room” and accepted the lesson being poured into him to prepare him for his tenth and last walk.
Every now and then, when his pain was most extreme, he wondered if he would wake up from this nightmare in his hammock, cry out, and realize thankfully that he was in the honeycomb working on his third walk. But he never woke up. There was no night, no day. No difference between awake and asleep. Baths came violently, sporadically. Feet marched outside, the door tore open, hands grabbed his shoulders and ripped him from his hole in the wall, spilling him on the floor. A bag was thrown over his head, his bindings and pajamas pulled off, and he was carried onto the freezing icy deck and plunged into the coldest water imaginable. He was scrubbed fiercely while hands kept his head pinned to the rim of the basin, eyes and mouth bagged shut, in permanent blackness. The worst part was that this physical pain brought no mental vacation, for the voice followed and accompanied the bath, never tiring, never ceasing, never changing its mood or intonation.
Food came even more sporadically. The door opened and his gag was released for his mouth to open. If he screamed or issued any discernable word or blasphemy, a clod of mud was inserted and the gag retied. If he opened it silently, a crust of bread was inserted and the gag retied. Water was poured on the gag itself and had to be sucked out of the cloth. Excretion was a rare and painful occurrence, less frequent than the baths themselves. It had been months since he’d uttered a single word or saw a pinpoint of light or stood on his own feet. It fascinated him that the body and mind were capable of surviving such a state for so long. He knew that his term here would last exactly six months, but he had no way of tracking the progress of time. His biological clock had literally stopped. The only barometer of time he had was the voice itself, words and sounds coming out of human lips moving with a human speed. But his mind was so far gone he could barely tell a word from a sentence or an animal utterance. It was difficult even to distinguish his own thoughts from it.
His greatest fear, as his mind wandered through this black timelessness, was that only an hour had passed in what felt like months. That everything, from the baths to the food to the voice, was a nightmare within a nightmare, and upon waking he would find himself at the beginning again. As his mind wandered, the voice crawled about like a spider, weaving elegant cobwebs in every corner of his mind, laying roadblocks, trying to capture that one last thing he was hiding, the one thing they hadn’t gotten to yet.
After he failed his first walk, he was horrified. Not because he would have to spend another six months in school, but because all his hard work had come to nothing. After all that studying and memorization, all that slyness and acting, he stood on that plank, staring into the maelstrom of water in the basin below and froze. His thoughts stopped, his nerves hardening like concrete and turning his little electrical impulses away.
He snapped. He went wild. He damned the Directive and the school, ripped out its pages. He picked fights with the other children and cursed the teachers. He snuck out of bed at night, raided the elders’ chambers, attempted elaborate escapes. He became the worst discipline case they had ever had. And he swallowed every punishment, ate the soap, slept on deck, spent days lashed to a board, and then did it all over again. He had followers, weak-minded firsts and tempered fifths and sixths. They never lasted. Their plans for escape never got them even close to the edge of the deck. The closest they ever got was chained down in a bag, shivering in the cold, praying for sunrise. He became Bad Jack. Bad Sid, at it again.
There was no second walk. He was so far off track that it was merely a formality. He walked to the edge of the plank, froze stiff halfway out, and turned back. This was the wall he confronted, the pinnacle of challenges, that holy grail of escapism: how to fool the walk. He did not believe it could be done, and he only had eight more chances to try. He once again embraced subtlety, playing the prodigy, the saint, even the common drone, while playing for an escape. Walk after walk he failed, exploded for a brief time, and then rejoined the crowd. First, he put all his ideas and ambitions in a box and locked them up in his mind, swearing never to think of them until he was out. He trained himself. Concentrating, every time his mind indulged something scientific or artistic or philosophic, he uttered a mental word “in time” and forced his thoughts away from it. He encapsulated it all, wrapping it all up with a mental word “treasure,” thinking about it constantly, making deposits, but never allowing himself to think about its contents. As such he was able to “forget” his ambitions and not just play the saint, but actually be the saint.
His seventh walk was the most successful, when he advanced the farthest before locking up. It took longer for the maelstrom to find his “treasure” because it was so deeply buried, nearly forgotten by Sid himself. Afterwards, rather than damning the establishment all over again, he fell to his knees and praised it for not letting him succeed while still impure. He hailed it for letting him know he was so close. Before his eighth walk, he dared something new. He wrote down all his ambitions and ideas and inventions on a tiny piece of parchment: infinity of primes, flying machine, underwater breather, astrological calendar, and on and on and on. He rolled it up into a tiny stiff worm, doused it in alcohol he’d stolen from the medic, and inserted it just under the skin on the inside of his thigh. It stung for days but healed beautifully and could hardly be noticed even by him. Now it was safe to truly forget his “treasure” entirely, let it slip out of his mind, embrace this place with full honesty and earnestness. He could always dig it out later.
But now he lived in fear, constant fear that he had been found out. That with a little surgery, they could purge him of his secret forever, that he had merely helped them along by pushing his “treasure” out of his mind completely and into his leg. Out of the frying pan, but into the fire. So he couldn’t let it go. His creativity, his instincts, his fascinations, and inquisitiveness, so long woven into every fiber of his being, now lay not in the back of his mind, in a little locked box, but way down in the muscle of a leg. The “box” in his mind was merely a cable, a memory that something special and pure and unforgettable lay there. He couldn’t let that cable go, not now, not ever, lest he lose it forever. When he got out, he imagined himself living his entire lifeless existence having forgotten the bump on his leg. Or finding it, unrolling it, and its words blurred into black spots. Worse, that the words were still there, but so foreign, so meaningless, so distant, that he threw the parchment away as a piece of trash, or held it forever in the blind hopes of discovering its meaning.
Only now, lying here, mind devoid of anything resembling thought, did he appreciate the beauty and power of the school. It was a fire, burning low at first and then hotter and hotter until a critical point was reached. Children were born a brick of ore and had to be smelted, tempered, purified and smoothed over. The flaws, the imperfections, the changers in them had to be burned out. It was a crucible, heating ever so much. And Sid, trying to salvage these impurities, these flaws that made him unique in the world, failed to fool the metallurgist. He was clinging to something, and they would exorcise him of it by the end or discard him. It surprised him that his fear of the “fall” never overcame his fear of losing his “treasure.” What was it in a human being, that even a child would rather perish clinging to his deepest passions than renounce them and live a life of submission?
As Sid lay in the wide dark world, he felt the voice weave around inside him. Lecturing, taunting, luring, deceiving, bargaining. Trying to identify the weak spot, the hiding place, like a snake worming around in an endless labyrinth, looking for its silent, hidden, invisible prey. Sid was afraid at first, fearing that the voice would indeed hypnotize him, brainwash him, convince him of his wrongs and his silliness, and he would emerge a blind saint. But he realized now that the effect was the opposite. The harder they pushed, the deeper they dug, the deeper they drove him underground. They would never find it, not in a million years, if he didn’t want to give it up. The tentacle stuck in his mind, weaving and winding about, blindly searching every nook and cranny, and so far off the scent that there was no hope for it whatsoever. All he did was lay there watching it, mildly amused but mostly bored, sitting on his lockbox, his “treasure,” waiting for the game to end, the clock to stop.
The light was blinding. The world was so white that it took him a very long time just to realize that he was out of the coffin. Lying on the floor. No blindfold, no bindings, no bag over his head. He lolled about on the floor like an amoeba, lethargically flailing his limbs, dry heaving as his voice tried to operate after a six-month silence. Seven figures stood about him like statues, reserved and divine, watching him come out of his coma. It took a long while for his body to reacquaint itself with the concept of movement. It took his mouth a long while to remember speaking. It even took his brain all the longer to remember thought, and that eyes and ears and fingers could feed and drive that thought into a logical process and paint a picture of the world.
When he finally came around, when he was a conscious human being lying on the ground instead of a dying flapping fish, they spoke to him. When his cries of pain and anguish and novelty were over, they reared him up by his shoulders and taught him to walk. His legs were jelly at first, but slowly they overcame the great burden of his bodyweight. They learned first to support him, then how to balance him, finally how to move him from one point to another. All this under the kind and helpful guidance of the black-robed elders on the ship’s deck. After a few laps, he exalted, jumping up and down, tripping, falling, and rolling about ecstatically on the floor. He was a baby again for a short while, overwhelmed by the sensations and movements poured over him after such a long slumber.
They fed him like a prince that night and gave him a sack of feathers and down to sleep on instead of a hammock. But only a few hours of sleep were found. He spent most of the night pacing about the room, afraid to let his muscles stop even for a night, mumbling to himself, enjoying the sound of his voice, and exploring the crevices and wood grain and mortar in his wall, delighting in the patterns it put forth for his brain to follow and analyze. That night, his dreams took him from the depths of the lake to the highest reaches of the sky. He swam, flew, climbed the peak, leapt from one rooftop to another throughout the city, and landed in his family’s kitchen, delighting in stories of adventure and perseverance. It was the best birthday he’d ever had.
There was a tap on his shoulder. He opened his eyes. Three elders stood over him, waiting. It was time. He would meet before a special tribunal and attempt his last walk. He stood and dressed. They led him to the mirror room. There it was, calm as glass under the plank of wood he’d seen so many times before. He was ready to face it for the last time. He wasn’t a child anymore. He was a teenager. He would leave this room a man of the world or not at all. Two elders blocked the door, and he smiled wanly at them. The “tribunal” was very simple. In less than a dozen words, they told him to walk the plank or live in exile.
It was all very eerie. They looked at him as if he were already lost. Sid was quite oblivious as to what they thought they knew. His mind was still swimmy from his coma-like absence. He smiled like a baby very quickly growing up. He took the first step onto the plank as if it were just the simple matter of jumping into a warm bath. The water was so perfectly placid that it truly resembled a mirror. On this steadily rocking ship, it was obviously under some sort of spell. He took one step and stopped. A bead of water ran along the surface, followed by a tiny ripple, like the flesh of an arm pushing against the air above.
Something lifted in his mind. Sid couldn’t explain it, only that some wave of energy welled up from the pool and swept through his brain, rendering him completely blank for a moment. He took another step, and the ripples returned, running this way and that as if the pool were crowded by dozens of invisible fish thrashing about. He was trying to remember something. Like a teacher asking a question and the answer lurking in the deepest realms of his mind. What was it? He racked his brain but felt an inward resistance, as if the pool was trying to extract something from him, and his body shuddered to let it go. He felt a distant burning in one of his thighs.
Sid took one more difficult step, halfway out this time, and now saw his reflection in the mirror below. Waves distorted his face into that of a ghoulish monster, snarling soundlessly. The ripples sped up into a vortex of such intensity that water lapped up against the sides of the basin. Then he remembered. My treasure, he thought desperately. At that exact instant, the vortex exploded in a foamy maelstrom of bubbles and mist, arms of water clawing at every inch of air before him. Every muscle in his body locked, his lungs emptied in a horrific scream, the spot on his thigh flared like a stab wound, and the fiery pain washed over his entire body. His treasure chest had been opened and scattered, every idea he’d ever had flooding his mind like he was a child again.
He saw wooden ships flying through the sky on great wings, carrying riders over rooftops. He saw a rock skipping erratically across the “holes” of his beloved number line, marking the primes. He saw instantaneously every plant and animal at the tip of a thread of a frayed rope, each converging with neighbors like a hand, back into an arm, and back and back until every cord wove together in one single grand taxonomic being. He saw a fire burning in a small chamber within a wooden box, alive with belts and pistons and rotors driving a carriage down a street. He saw progress! Revolution! Citizens pouring into the streets, breaking free of chains and swarming like ants, uprooting the great stone Directive from its throne. He saw it tilting with the force of flesh and intellect, heard it groan, and it was beautiful.
The maelstrom settled down. He turned around, defeated. A tear rolled from his eye as he faced the elders, knowing what they had to do. They all reached into their cloaks for clubs, nets, and rope. He had less than half a second to make the biggest decision of his life: attempt the most exultant escape imaginable, or submit quietly to their judgment, as good as death. His first thought was that it was useless even if he tried. His second thought was that he would be banished whether he resisted or not, that he had nothing to lose. At this second thought, he pounced for the door. He managed to smash through one elder with his shoulder and launch headfirst into the next one, tackling him to the ground. But before he could get to his feet again, a half dozen were on him, all pulling different limbs, others applying rope to his appendages. It was hopeless. He cried out with all the force of a wild animal scrambling against a cage.
They had him bound tighter than a spider binds her prey, and dragged him back into the room, shutting the door. They lifted him up to face his sentence. An elder addressed him, mentioning his wildness and lack of respect not as a crime, but as a lecherous parasite. They saw it as their own failing that they could not purge him of it. And so what followed was not punishment but surrender to the natural order of things. “Cast him away.”
Sid lowered his head, expecting the long escort to the edge of the world, wherever that might be. So when they turned and carried him back toward the pool, he did not understand what was happening. He looked at each elder carrying him. Through his gag, he tried to ask what was happening, but they held him next to the plank and gave only a slight push. The pool was perfectly smooth, but he was terrified. They were going to drown him! I should have known! These were not serene and civilized old wretches. These were savages, determined to convert children to drone worker-breeders and simply murder those that resisted. He saw his reflection in the water, his head growing bigger and bigger. He made eye contact with himself, looking deep inside his own reflection, and in that last moment of life, wondered how he could ever be so stupid for not seeing this coming. What good was holding onto a dream if by doing so you must die by drowning? He splashed and wriggled in the mess of bubbles.
In almost every sense, Sid was reborn. The events that followed this death would reshape not only the remainder of his life, but also that of the world around him. It was all very confusing. Here he was, drowning, struggling against the water, and he could not find the edge of the basin. Then he saw fish swimming all around him. Fish! If this was his brain turning to mush in death, it certainly was not a pleasant way to go. Flapping wildly against his bindings, he managed to get his head above water, where he was blinded by what seemed to be sunlight. This was impossible, of course, so it must have been either what eyes do as they die, or his brain wandering into a dream.
He lay calmly on the surface, floating gently. His hands and feet were still bound; he still breathed shallow through the soaked gag, water lapping at his face. He was undoubtedly outside, floating on some sort of lake. But before he could make any sense of these surroundings, he had to untie himself. His hands worked carefully and calmly at his restraints. Every time he breathed in, his body rose a bit on the surface, but the water from his gag tickled his throat and nearly choked him by encouraging a useless coughing fit. The world was still too bright to open his eyes, so he worked diligently at the rope, thinking of nothing else.
The very instant it gave, he ripped his hands free, tore off the gag, sucked in a huge breath, and began treading water feverishly. He opened his eyes, screamed, and surveyed his surroundings. His vision was blurry, but he distinctly saw beach in every direction, blue sky, sparse white clouds, and palm trees. Was this the afterlife? His feet were still tied together, making it difficult to keep above water, tiring him out. At the closest shore stood a human figure. Without time to think, Sid summoned the last of his strength to power his arms toward the shore.
His legs slowed him down considerably, but he did not have the time or the strength to untie them. He kept slipping just under the surface and clambering back up, but making progress toward the shore. A warm breeze swept through palm trees and blew bleach white sand over the rocks. The human figure was half-naked, leaning on a spear, dressed in only a leafy loincloth. It was a boy no older than he, stained brilliantly gold, with long shocks of blond hair blowing about his face. He looked as if he’d been awaiting Sid’s arrival, and it annoyed Sid that he made no effort to help him in his obvious struggle. When he finally washed on shore, he lay panting for many long minutes before looking the boy over.
The boy crouched now, still holding his spear like a flagpole, smiling warmly. “Happy birthday,” he said.
“Where am I?” Sid sputtered, catching his breath.
“In the Fall of Imaginings. The land of the castaways.”
“How did I get here?” Sid asked, more confused than ever. “Where is the lake?”
The boy smiled slyly, spreading an arm about the scene. “This is the lake.”
Sid sat up, pulling himself onto dry sand, white as sugar. He took a closer look around. It did look faintly familiar. And sure enough, to his left, there rose the mountain. There was no mistaking it. He was silent for a very long time. It took a lot of thought to digest this. This was a wholly different world, painted over the real one, stick for stick. The most gut-wrenching realization of all was that he was home. He was exactly home, sitting on the shore of the lake, escaped, free. This was the ultimate cruelty, the ultimate mockery. That he had not been dumped in some dungeon or swamp or netherworld outside the city, or even killed. He was in exactly the place he longed to be, only the place itself was wholly different. That was the certainty: that there was no going home. That this was it.
He was a little sulky now. “You could have helped me,” he sneered, untying his feet.
“You’ll appreciate later the satisfaction of having done it yourself,” the boy replied casually. “I did.”
Sid ignored the comment and staggered to his feet. He looked like a snowman. Living in the dark so long his skin was pale as a maggot, and the white sand stuck to his wet clothes and hair like flour.
“My name is Lee. Come, let me take you to the village.”
Sid followed, mildly angered, dusting the white powder off his body as he walked. The boy trekked barefoot through the underbrush, through no discernable path, as if he’d been here a thousand times before. They made their way up the hill as if they were going to the city. But Sid knew that in this place, there was no city, no family, nothing.
When they reached the village, it was nothing but a few dozen huts strewn about the crest of the hill, at the foot of the mountain. Lee brought him to the hut where apparently the leader resided, and summoned him. The boy who walked out was more of a man than a boy. He was at least fifteen, tall and muscular, with a face that showed the wear and hardness of the years behind him. They shook hands firmly, as was customary between adults, and the leader introduced himself as Cole.
“Welcome to the Fall. Not quite what you were expecting, eh? You’re going to like it here, that’s for certain. This isn’t banishment. This isn’t a prison we are all sentenced to. This is paradise! There are only two things we do here: hunt and play. And really that’s only one thing, you’ll see! Can you even imagine being bound to something like an occupation, walking to a place to work every day? Seeing your family only at night. Plugging away like a body part of some huge creature, cast into retirement, and replaced by a newer, fresher cog? That is the prison. The school is simply a way to numb us of our senses, strip us of our logic, before being sentenced to our place in the world. But we outfought them. We beat the system. We are the strong, the smart, the fast. We are the ones they don’t want in their prison, the ones that would tear the very walls down in the place. Instead they drop us into this mirror world, this wild place of mystery they call a dungeon. But in fact, they are the dungeon. Those they can’t keep caged, they set free!”
They stared at each other for a very long time, his words flowing over Sid, wrapping all around him, vindicating his every thought since the day he was born. He was grateful, happy, overjoyed that this place was what it was. He was so afraid of being alone. Of being cold or in pain or tossed into a sea of nothingness. Now he saw the truth. This was the world he belonged to. This was home after all. This was the place he was destined to be, that he was born to find. His legs went weak. He fell to his knees with thirteen years of relief. He fell forward as if to kiss the boy’s feet, and wept himself into a swoon.
When he woke up, it was darker. He could see sunlight, but only as a faint glow. He was inside one of the huts, golden light peeking between the leaves. A warm rag made laps up and down his arms and chest very slowly. He turned to see the arm holding the rag, and it belonged to a girl about his age.
“There you are,” she said. She dipped the rag in a clay pot of water resting on orange embers.
“How long have I been asleep?”
“Most of the day. It’ll be sundown soon. Time for the bonfire.” She reapplied the warm rag on his shoulder. The white dust of the beach was all gone now. “I remember you from the school.”
“At directed play. It must have been your first walk. I told a story and you went right after me with a better one. About a girl named Good Jen.”
Good Jen. He turned away from the girl to hide a tear.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… Was she real?”
He nodded. “Good Jen was too good. Not strong enough. They got her. She graduated. Passed her walk.”
“I wish I could have met her. I’m glad they didn’t get you. I remember liking you.”
“How old are you?”
“Just turned fourteen.”
“It’s strange going from the oldest in the school to the youngest in the Fall. I feel like a baby again.”
“We all start in the same place.”
Sid sat up in the little bed made of reeds with leaves as a mattress. “Thank you.”
“Well, for the bath. Elders aren’t as gentle. I haven’t had a bath like that since I left home.” He thought of a better answer, the real one. “For being here. I was so afraid this place would be a nightmare. That I would be all alone. So, thank you for taking me in.”
“You’re welcome. It’s a pleasure having you.”
Outside, the sound of drums began, accompanied by whoops and hollers.
“The bonfire. It’s starting. Come on.” She took him by the hand and pulled at him.
“Wait.” She looked back. “What is your name?”
She smiled. “Lane.”
The bonfire was extraordinary. A hunting party brought a huge pig to the camp and ignited the greatest party Sid had ever dreamed of. They skewered it and lit a huge fire. The boys wore flailing headdresses - someone swooped in and fastened one on Sid too. The girls wore headbands, trailing down their beautifully overgrown hair. Dancers painted totally red came bouncing around, streaking faces and bodies of everyone else with decorative stripes. They had fashioned hand-drums and a few flutes. The hunters turned the pig over the huge flames, and Sid watched it turn colors as its flesh burned. Fireflies the size of a fist danced out in the sky above the canopy.
Sid lost himself in the yellow chaos before him. He wasn’t even sitting down anymore, but skipping in great circles around the fire along with everyone else. Special drummers had huge leafy tree limbs to beat against the embers in cadence, so that the entire thing swelled and reverberated with life. The hunters tore strips of meat from their roast and passed it around. Some retired to the shadows to devour their ration, others continued to dance mindlessly, Sid among them. This was total release. This was paradise. Alone in a world of sun and sand and fire, alone with all the other castaways. Alone together.
Lane danced with seductive abandon. Everything about this place was welcoming. Her smile was like a jewel gracing the very air around them. Reflecting the flame in golden curves and brilliant white teeth. Her eyes contained a boundless joy, nothing like the eyes of children in the school or the city. These were babies allowed to keep their innocence. True children in every sense of the word, bodies and minds advanced as nature intended. Sid melted into the sea of paint that was this mirror world, and felt happy.
In the darkness of sleep, that happiness, a concept he had never experienced before, draped over him like a blanket. But the blanket was short. His feet poked out. An icy menace of cold floated around him, trying to penetrate, tickling his feet and the back of his neck. He missed his mother and brother, but that wasn’t it. It was something viler, something closer. He sat up in bed, staring straight ahead. He saw absolutely nothing - it was the sound that disturbed him. Whatever it was, it was staring straight at him, breathing heavily. Sid stared into the sound for a long while, awake, asleep, or something in between, and he was quite sure his heart did not beat a single time until morning.
“Hunting party,” Lane called into their hut, waking him with a slight startle.
“No,” she said slyly. “Departing. Come on!”
Sid stretched and stepped out into the light. His feet had already calloused against the abuse of raw land. Cole caught him at the door, spear ready for his friend.
“From oldest to youngest.”
Sid took the spear and laughed. “Let’s go.”
The entire party, Lane never least in anything, yelped and yawped and took off toward the mountain. Sid trailed behind, lungs unaccustomed to this abuse. They took a path across the foot of the mountain on the lake’s side. From oldest to youngest. Sid caught up to Lane. There were six of them in all, including Lee. A question was growing in his mind.
“How far do we go?”
“Just to the other side of the lake,” Lane responded. “That’s where they nest.”
“And Cole goes on every hunt?”
“As many as he wants. He’s the best. Why do you think he’s our leader?”
“Because he’s oldest, I guess.”
She didn’t say anything.
“How old is he?”
“I don’t know. We stop counting here. We just live, and the years go by.”
“How many years?”
“As many as we want. As many as we can stand, I suppose.”
“So, we’ll never grow old. We live as children forever?”
“Then why are there so few of us here? Are there other villages?”
“You’re young and you ask a lot of questions.”
He let her escape ahead of him. She’d struck a nerve in him. His parents and his brother used to say things like that to him. That was the city world, where questions were looked down on. This should have been a haven of curiosity, of technology. Their city should have been ten times bigger, taller, stronger. He did not understand why they were a few dozen teenagers huddled at the foot of the mountain. If they were ageless, then who were the elders, even if devoid of wrinkles? Was this just a starting point, some kind of purgatory? Was there indeed a city elsewhere, where a long journey would lead a teenager into adulthood, even here? Certainly they did not hunt pigs and dance around fires every night for years. Sid would need a break after a few weeks, not years. Maybe they wandered into the lake to drown themselves after a few years for sheer boredom.
They all crouched behind a rock on a slight hill on the opposite side of the lake. Below them was a beach strewn with ruts and holes and hoof prints. The watering hole. The six hunters stayed quiet, lying in wait. After what felt like an hour, Cole finally led them backwards, so they could flank the beach and sneak through the trees quietly out of earshot. They were masters of quiet. It was a skill Sid would have to learn as he went. He seemed to snap every twig and crunch every leaf and brush against every branch. Even his breathing seemed to resonate across the forest. He watched Lane directly in front of him to see if he could discover how they avoided the noise. She didn’t seem to look at her own feet but at the boy’s feet ahead of her. Looking closer, Sid saw that she stepped in his tracks perfectly. Sid did the same and realized that not only did he avoid twigs this time, but the erratic tracks all fell in slightly wet muddy spots, so no leaves were crunched.
They reached a spot where they stopped for a long while again. Cole and another boy ran on ahead and returned after several minutes, whispering very lightly and gesturing with their hands. Sid could not keep up with the hand signs and could not hear their voices over the ambient sound of wind, leaves, birds, and insects. He supposed that was intentional to keep their communication undetectable. He tapped Lane and gestured his puzzlement. She leaned in close to his ear and explained.
“The nesting grounds are empty. Their tracks are collected and all heading in one direction. If a predator had spooked them, they would be scattered, so they must be on a run for food. We are just debating whether to follow it or abandon our hunt.”
Sid cocked his head to the side. Why would we abandon it?
“There is no telling how far out they’ve gone. We’d have to run them down, and we’d never manage to carry them back by nightfall. It’s dangerous to venture this far from the lake and more dangerous to make camp so far out.”
Sid wondered what it was that was out there. Wolves, bears, giant snakes, rival tribes. He shuddered at the thought. After a few more minutes, they seemed to reach a consensus. Lane whispered to him again.
“We track them. We go until midday. If we haven’t reached them by then, we go back.”
With that, they all took off again. By now, Sid was getting truly tired. Did they not eat at all during a hunt? He supposed either the smell of food would give them away, or their hunger simply drove them harder and faster toward a catch. They followed in the wake of the pigs’ tracks, picking up speed as they went, every now and then stopping to examine the softness of a hoof print or clod of dung. It was approaching midday, but even Sid could tell at this point that they were close, just by the smell of the trail. They came upon a huge boulder, and the tracks wrapped around it. Cole stopped suddenly, and everyone crouched behind him to listen. Very faintly, around the next bend they heard it - the grunts of their prey.
They ducked under a huge bent tree overhanging the path, and before Sid could even comprehend what was happening, Cole, Lane, and Lee zipped into the air, disappearing in a huge net. The bent tree snapped back to its natural straightness, and there the three of them dangled, screaming. The other two boys next to Sid scrambled away, off the trail. Sid watched them absentmindedly, wondering why they weren’t going to save their friends. They hopped up onto a fallen tree to leave a gap in their tracks, and ran along it all the way to its end. From the opposite side of the tree, Sid heard a loud snap, saw a cloud of dust, and the boys vanished, wailing. He looked up at the net, still departed from reality.
Without thinking, Sid grabbed a rock from beside the boulder and crushed it against the stone wall. It shattered, and he took the sharpest piece and climbed the tree. When he reached the top, he saw down the trail a horrible sight. Two pig-like creatures, running on two legs, slavering and howling triumphantly, heading for them. Sid severed the rope, and the net spilled out onto the trail. The two creatures stopped short, only a few paces away, and looked up at Sid in surprise. Cole was the first on his feet, and he ran as fast as he could off the trail. The pig-like creatures took off after him, but not before Sid dropped from the tree and landed squarely on one’s shoulders, squashing him to the ground. It thrashed and Sid noticed horrible teeth and claws on the creature. He hauled the rock-shard into its neck before it could fight back.
The second one turned back toward Sid and hissed loudly. But before it could attack, the point of a spear jetted out of its mouth like a tongue, silencing it immediately. It fell to the ground, revealing Lane at the other end of the weapon. She let go of it and covered her face with her hands, aghast. Sid stood, dropping his own weapon. He approached Lane and put both hands on her shoulders.
“It’s okay. They’re dead. We got ’em.”
She shook her head.
“Lane, what are these things?” She didn’t answer.
“What did you do?!” Cole yelled from afar. He ran back toward them. “Fool!” he screamed, and pushed Sid to the ground.
“What are you talking about?” he yelled back.
“How could you do this to us?” Cole howled, kicking and beating at Sid on the ground.
Lane got her senses back and pulled him off. “Stop it! He didn’t know.”
Cole shoved her to the ground too. “But you did! You’re both as good as dead.”
“Would somebody mind telling me what’s happening?” Sid asked from the ground.
“You killed a Snatcher.”
“The Snatchers! This is their land. We are guests here.”
“Guests! They were going to kill us!”
“They take only a few of us at a time.” This was a sobering statement. His use of the word take got to Sid. That’s why there were so few of them. They were food.
“And you call yourself a leader. You let this happen! You ran away like a coward after I saved you! And you let horrible piggie monsters hunt and kill your people.”
“You don’t understand. They only take a few at a time. If you resist, they take double. If you kill one of them, they take two of us in payment. That is their law here.”
Sid stood up. “Why don’t you stand and fight? Look at them. They’re small and stupid.”
They heard shouts from the other side of the fallen tree. The two other boys had fallen into a pit the creatures had dug, covered with thatch. Cole motioned for Lee to help them out.
“These are the children. The adults are twice the size. And there are hundreds here. This is their land. They let us camp on their mountain. They let us drink and bathe in their lake. They let us hunt their pigs. All they ask for in return is our oldest member whenever a new one arrives.”
“You,” Sid realized aloud. “You wanted one last hunt. You were walking right into their trap. Taking five of us with you.”
“They would have let you go. They respect their own law. But now they’ll want me, along with four others for these two.”
“Then we bury them. Dump them in the lake. Eat them and hide the bones. Then they’re missing instead of killed.”
“You can’t outsmart a Snatcher, and it’s suicide to try.”
“You mean you don’t have the guts.”
Lane still lay on the ground sniffling. Cole pulled her to her feet and shoved her against Sid. “You two will be offered.” He picked up his spear.
Sid grabbed Lane by the hand. “Run!” She raced silently after him, whimpering. Cole leapt after the both of them with his spear. Sid headed for a fallen tree near the net, apparently a second trap. He leapt up onto it, pulling Lane along. “Lane,” he whispered behind him as they ran, “there’s a trap at the other end. Jump as far as you can before you land.” Cole hopped up on the tree behind them. Sid reached the end of the trunk and catapulted as far as he could, with Lane directly behind him. They both landed on hard ground and continued running. Behind them Sid heard a snap and a scream and knew that Cole in his anger had fallen for the Snatchers’ trap. They ran fast and hard.
“What about the other boys?” Lane asked.
“They can chase us or go home.”
By dusk their mountain was a distant spot on the horizon. Lane was silent the whole day. The experience had turned her into a mute. Sid loved the fun, flamboyant, childlike Lane. He now realized that it was all an act. It was amplified to hide the overwhelming despair of the place. These children lived at the mercy of monsters, things that snatched them in the night and dragged them away without a sound. Things that commanded wordlessly and ruled by the temple of claw and tooth. To live in a world where there was no escape, no future, where the very existence of tomorrow was the toss of a coin - that destroyed the spirit.
Lane stopped walking. She lowered her eyes and folded her hands. “I can’t go on.”
Sid stood before her. “We have to. They’ll come after us. They’ll get the Snatchers’ permission to hunt us, their help even. We have to get as far from the lake as possible.”
Lane buried her face in her hands. “We’ll never make it. Even if we do, where will we go? What will we do? Just wander around forever?”
“We’ll find someplace. We’ll find another lake. A waterfall. A cave. Something. We’ll find someplace safe. Somewhere far away. We’ll build a house. We’ll build a life. We’ll catalog the plants and animals. We’ll figure out what this place is, how big it is. We’ll watch the stars. There’s more to do than one lifetime can possibly hold. More than hunting and eating and dying, Lane. No fear, no Directive, no law.”
She shook her head. “Even if we do escape, another person will be offered in my place. This is not just another place to explore, Sid. It’s a dungeon. We’re just waiting in line for our coffin. Nothing has changed. The Directive here is a natural one. So natural it doesn’t even need to be written down. We’re all a part of a huge clock. It’s just counting down all the time. I know that our tribe isn’t much of a life, but it’s better than this huge emptiness. It’s as close to a home as I’ll ever have. And running off to let someone else die in my place is as good as murder.”
“Lane, have you gone blind? This place is worse than the school. Not only does it rob you of your imaginings, it takes away your will to live. I can’t accept that. And I won’t let it happen to you, even if I have to drag you away. Lane, those people are slaves. Someone tells you that you have two years to live before they eat you, and in the meantime you can hunt and eat all the pig you want and have fun as long as you don’t try to escape or resist. I don’t know what is wrong with them, but I would stand and fight and die before lying down for that.”
“You’re young. You don’t understand.”
“No! I’m young, that’s why I’m still capable of understanding. You’ve been here a year, plenty of time for the lie of this place to sink into your bones. They’ve put a blindfold on you, ever so slowly, so that when your time comes, you go quietly. You’ll feel differently in time, once we get away. Your eyes will open back up.”
She just stood silently. Sid took her by the hand and pointed. “Look, we’ll be safer sleeping up in a tree tonight.” He led them both over to a huge double trunk, with plenty of branches and foliage to lie on. They climbed up and did not speak the rest of the night.
When Sid awoke, Lane was gone. He expected it, but that made it no less painful. And he knew he could not cry out or spend too much time in his tree feeling sorry for himself. The sun had not come up yet. He dropped down and skulked off into the forest, tears streaming down his face. He was being hunted. By monsters, human and not. He could feel eyes and ears all around him. This forest was a noose, and it was steadily tightening. It was only a matter of time before wild children with spears appeared all around him, flanked by horrible two-legged pigs biting and slashing, twice his size. This notion sped him up only slightly. It was one thing if they had captured her, if he had failed in protecting her. If a creature, human or not, had overcome her and tied her up and dragged her away, that would be one thing. But it was not a creature; it was the place itself. The forest, the lake, the mountain, the Snatchers, the bonfire, even the school and the Directive, all tied together, made the arms and legs of this creature. It was the world that captured her, tied her up, dragged her into submission and, ultimately, death. And that same creature was coming after him.
Ahead of him in the grey before dawn, Sid saw a light. It looked like the fist-sized firefly he’d seen the first night at the bonfire. His first thought was that it had a stinger and was going to attack him. But it just fluttered around in little circles in front of him. Strangely, every time it moved, it stirred something in his mind, random images, memories, sounds, smells. It was an eerie feeling, and he almost hit himself in the head instinctively. But after a few moments, he realized what was happening. The images were all of chasing, escaping, running. The firefly was communicating. It was trying to tell him something. He concentrated and closed his eyes. After a moment, he understood. They are closing in on you. Run!
Sid bolted. Faster than he’d ever run before. In his imagination, he heard whoops and hollers of the hunting party catching its prey. He heard the snarls of the Snatchers. He heard the sound of feet patting against wet leaves, of spears whooshing past his ears. He could smell the sweat pouring off the hunters’ shoulders. He ran ever faster, following the dancing light. His lungs burned with the hot salty air. After what could very well have been a mile of twisting and turning, the light rose up a bit, arced down to the ground, and disappeared into what looked like the hole of a hornet’s nest. It was just big enough to squeeze into, and Sid went in feet first.
He sat for a few moments in darkness, catching his breath as his eyes adjusted. It was actually the hollow where two boulders leaned against one another. The floor was rock, with a thick layer of peat, overgrown with moss and ferns. The scant light that the hole let in illuminated a colorful garden of growth surrounding a small pool of water. Beyond the pool, dozens of fireflies swarmed about through the forest of ferns. This was their tribe.
“What are you?”
The images were more cluttered this time, “louder” as if more of them were answering. A wide smile spread across his face.
“You’re the Imaginings! This is your lake.”
The little lights danced about in confirmation, spraying images all over his mind in what he could only comprehend as hooray! It was like learning a new language, the way he had to concentrate on flailing, nonsensical sights, sounds, smells, and memories in his head.
“Are you friends of our tribe?”
This response was less cluttered, as if they had designated a speaker. But it was more complicated, because it was an explanation. Those human children escaped your world with their own imaginings intact, the ones they were born with. And though they resisted the laws of your place, they succumb to the laws of this one. Thus, their own imagining loses its light and dies. Those are our brothers and sisters locked inside their heads, and they turn a deaf ear to our cries of pain. They are murderers by inaction. They refuse to even defend their own lives.
Sid nodded in slow understanding and agreement. The words unfolded quite unnaturally from pictures and stories, but he had seen this story all too clearly in Lane. He lowered his head.
“Is there nothing you can do to help them?”
We try. But if we get too close, a human child captures us in his head and squanders us just as he squandered his own imagining. Thus, they are our predators.
“I understand. Then why help me?”
Your imagining is the brightest and strongest we’ve ever met. The only ones brighter are those we see in newborn babies. It is one of great strength but willing to dim down and hide when needed. Yours is the best example of a hero we have met in this place or any other.
“Thank you. I’ve always known I was different. I never dreamed it would be because of something like this. It’s strange to learn that others see a hero in me.”
“One question, though. You said you see other imaginings in newborn babies. Do people grow old enough to have babies in this place? Are there other tribes, perhaps refugees, like me?”
No. The lake is the only human settlement in the Fall. And you are the only living renegade. There is nothing beyond us, only open forest filled with monsters and other imaginings.
Sid lowered his head. The loneliness of this place was overwhelming. “Then what newborn babies are you talking about?”
We travel between this world and the other freely. Except that your world is lonely to us the way ours is lonely to you. Thus, an imagining loses its brightness almost immediately upon entry, and must return quickly or it will die.
“I wish I could travel freely. I’d go back and change things. I’d start by sinking that school. Then I’d tear down that Directive they have in the town square. I’d show them how to be human again.”
What makes you think you can’t?
Anyone can travel between the mirror worlds. How do you think you got here?
“They pushed me in. It was some kind of portal. They pushed me through and closed the door behind me.”
No, there is no door. Only a hole through which you can jump, if you know how.
“Do you know where I can find one?”
They seemed to chuckle. You’re staring right at one.
Sid looked around. This was nothing but a hole in the ground. Rock, dirt, moss, and a little pool of water. Sid thought back to his last walk, falling into that mouthy pool of water. Could it be that simple? Had they built a portal here just as the elders had? With whatever magic and deep knowledge they shared?
“Are you telling me I could jump back to my world right now if I wanted to?”
All you have to do is make contact with your inner imagining. Look into your reflection, through your eyes and into your mind. When you see him, ask him to carry you across.
Sid looked into the pool. The face that looked back was foreign. With a sudden sense of strangeness, he realized that he had not seen his own reflection since before he left for school. The only thing that came close was the pool, and he could see now that it lied. It showed him a young, clean, perfect little boy. But he had changed. Come to think of it, there were no mirrors in the school at all. The face staring back at him was old and strong. The hair was messy, slightly sun-bleached from the few days here, strewn with twigs and leaves. The cheeks were burned. The mouth curled inward with stern absolution. The eyes were hard, intelligent, and yet glowing with a fiery passion. He looked deep into them, and behind everything, saw that flicker of life that could be nothing other than his own imagining. He smiled and ducked his head down into the water.
He expected to hit the rock at the bottom of the shallow pool, but he just kept sinking into it, past his shoulders now. His hands still steadied him against the sides of the pool and now extended fully, his entire torso underwater.
Wait! Don’t go yet! We haven’t told you about the -
But it was too late. He opened his eyes, and they were in dry air. And what was up and down in the water was not up and down in the air. Very eerily, gravity pulled him sideways through the air, and he lost his grip on the rock. The rest of him slurped through with a splash, and he tumbled into darkness onto a hard wooden floor. It was black as midnight, and Sid heard a stirring in front of him. As his eyes adjusted further, he realized he was on the floor in front of a bed. A figure sat up in the bed and looked toward him, fumbling off to the side. After a moment, a candle lit up the room. He was indeed on a wooden floor, having tumbled out of a freestanding oval mirror next to a dresser against a wall.
The candle illuminated the face of the figure in the bed. It was a face, not in its traditional hood, but in a night cap, folded and dangling next to its head. The expression on the face was that of utter shock. And the face itself belonged not only to an elder, but to that elder whom Sid recognized as the principal of the school!
They stared at each other for many moments in shock. The principal was certainly bewildered at the sudden and awkward return of the very boy he had pitched into a mirror world only a few days before. And Sid was even more bewildered that of all the places he could pop out in the city, he had to tumble into the principal’s bedchambers.
Sid bolted for the door. The principal was right behind him. He tore out of the room and into the hallway. The angry elder unleashed some sort of a roar, undoubtedly a prearranged alarm designed to wake the others and alert them of a child escaping. Sid had never been down this hall, but at its end was a spiral staircase. He zipped up and around it, and reached a thick door latched from the inside. He pushed it open and spilled out into the freezing cold morning air of the ship’s hull. Another elder, supposedly on guard, awoke, sitting in his chair and taking a moment to react. Children did not escape often. He popped up and pounced for his prey.
Sid’s clothes were in tatters, bearing him fully to the horrible sting of cold in this place. He ran across the deck, air racing over him cruelly, until he reached the edge. He looked down into the dark fog, knowing full well what lay below it. His options were few and his time virtually gone. Just as the guard came upon him, he threw his arms out and leapt.
The air was a blistering oven compared to the water. His body went stiff as a board with the splash. He could hear the screams and pleadings of the souls trapped down here. He could feel the hands wrapping around his wrists and ankles. He knew that he must swim fast, with great determination to defeat them. With every beat of his arms, his pulse seemed to slow. His limbs grew numb. He felt as if he were sinking, slowly and deliberately, one millimeter at a time. It was not just cold. It was a calculated cold. Like worms of different temperatures writhing below him. Little tongues of syrupy blackness lapped against his sides, each feeling like a suction cup, pulling against his flesh.
He kept going, in the dark, in the fog. He tried to gain a handle on which way he was going. He tried to remember the orientation of the ship, which side the elders’ chambers were on, how many times he’d made a complete revolution in escaping, which way the ship was pointing in the first place. Soon the sun would rise. Then, even through this fog, he would find the mountain. But then they would be looking for him. His existence here violated the deepest covenant of the Directive. That an untamed child could not only escape the school, but escape banishment. They must stop him, or he would rip a hole in the fabric of their civilization.
The screams grew louder. The water around him began to jump and bubble. It started swirling slightly. The black tentacles were trying to make a whirlpool. No! Sid thought. He swam against their current, arms completely numb but strong nonetheless. White breath poured from his throat as he fought the terrible forces pulling against him. The lake’s aim was surely to direct him away from shore, and with this fog, it was all he could do to swim a straight line in the first place. If only he could see a shadow of beach or a flicker of starlight, he’d be able to maintain his direction. But all he had was a beating heart and beating arms. And that light inside him was struggling to stay lit. It was no more than an ember, keeping his body moving.
He closed his eyes. He didn’t need them in this darkness. His skin and muscles had already sufficed to the cold. He had absolutely no senses, only a will to survive that somehow or another would not allow him to swim in circles. He paddled for what felt like a lifetime, lost in despair. He might have swum three whole laps around the lake for all he knew. But on the ten thousandth stroke of his arms, a hand came down on something hard and jagged. His eyes snapped open in realization, and he flailed with one last surge of desperate energy. Then the other hand touched rock. And his feet touched sand. Somehow, this last stretch was the hardest.
As his body pushed and struggled out of the molasses, it became heavier in naked air. He crawled ever so slowly, one handful of pebbles and sand at a time, and like a slug, birthed himself from the primordial soulless ooze of the black lake. Tentacles pulled at his ankles, but he rolled all the way up the beach, out of reach of the surf. He lay on his back as his lungs and heart slowed down. His arms curled into stiff bundles, but they served him well. Every organ in his body seemed to shut down, one by one, as he fell into the deepest sleep he had ever experienced.
Something woke him. An instinct, an invisible guardian, the sound of a twig snapping half a mile away. Something. He was nearly dead with exhaustion, but something saved his life. He stood and ran in the darkness. He heard the all too human sound of leaves rustling and whispers and animal calls that didn’t quite sound like animal calls bouncing about all around him. The elders were inexperienced hunters. They were close on his trail, combing the woods with nothing but their eyes and ears, hoping desperately to stumble over him by sheer luck. Once he felt safely out of range, Sid looked for the widest tree trunk he could, knowing it would be tallest, and climbed up.
He climbed high enough that the foliage cleared a bit and the fog thinned. The land was truly beautiful, a wispy layer of fog dancing over the canopy. He saw easily what he was looking for. The grey mass of mountain was only a shadow in the fresh morning sun. He could not have been asleep more than an hour on the beach by the looks of it, although it was not the least bit warmer. There was no time to warm himself with a fire or sleep till midday. He wished he’d had the foresight to grab the principal’s blanket off the bed on his way out, or to rob the guard of his cape. But all he had were his shredded pajamas from the school, or what survived of them between the mirror world and the escape back.
He made his way toward the city with haste. All he had was the faint smell of the lake and the angle of the sun’s glow to guide him. He climbed two more trees before it was all over to make sure he was headed in the right direction. Hopefully the elders would abandon their hunt. It was conceivable that they assumed he’d drowned, and were only circling the beach to be certain. In that case, he was furious with himself for not covering his tracks when he woke. If they did suspect him alive, they certainly would not make that public. Sid imagined that a special company of elders would canvas the town, and only elders would ever be aware of the possible situation. They would have their watchdogs, but the majority of the town would be oblivious. That was at least one advantage Sid would have.
Somehow, he imagined prancing into town square dressed like a prince, and with one spellbinding speech, bringing the entire population to a riotous uproar to overthrow the elders’ rule, tear down the Directive, and live a life of freedom and knowledge. But there was no rule. The civic circle was a group of elders that replaced cracked stones in the street and directed the building of houses and the upkeep of cemeteries. The court was one old man that heard the petty infractions mostly of children right out of school. The city ran itself. That was the beauty of it. What was there to overthrow? What was there to change? Were people just going to go out into their backyards and start cataloging the plants? Sid was certain their world needed to change, but what was going to change? Here he was, shivering, dirty, wandering through the forest in rags, and when he set foot into the city, the first thing he would have to do was hide. He didn’t know where to start. What could a bruised, sunburned, beaten, half-drowned, banished child do to change the world?
When he arrived at the outskirts of the city, the first thing he did was steal a blanket hanging outside a house to dry. He wrapped the wet thing about him, with the hood draped completely over his head and one side thrown over the other shoulder like a toga, completely concealing everything but his bare feet. He plucked two apples off a tree and gobbled them down. The town was just waking up, and there was only one logical place to go.
When he reached Jen’s house, he knocked on the front door, and her mother answered. In his best elder voice, he issued the familiar command:
“Please, summon the one called Jen.”
Her mother bowed to the dwarf elder, who in reality was an alien to this world, a thirteen-year-old boy committing yet another crime in the impersonation of an elder.
“I’m sorry, Father. She’s away on honeymoon, at the Inn. You should not have any trouble finding her there, though.”
“Very well,” he whispered hoarsely. He nearly tripped turning around, in such shock at the notion. Jen was already married! She had just barely turned thirteen. Brides were usually six years back from school, their mothers having completely trained them in the ways of wedlock, and having settled into an occupation for the city. Fifteen was usually a starting point.
The “Inn” was really a temporary house for newlyweds waiting for the building of their own house or for an old decrepit couple to move in with their children and leave the house open for the taking. There was no need for an inn in this place, where no guests or travelers were ever to be found. He made his way in that direction, and every time he saw an elder, they watched him suspiciously. By his bare feet, they could tell he was no city dweller. They must have assumed him the rare tree-cutter or stargazer or goat-herder from out in the country on a trip into town. When he arrived at the Inn, its keeper directed him to Jen’s cottage. He knocked on the door, and a few moments passed before her man pulled it open. Sid gasped.
Bas stood in the doorway looking down at the dwarfed elder with the shadowy face, hidden hands, and bare, dirty, scratched feet. Sid wanted so badly to jump out and bear hug him. And at the same time, he wanted to turn and run as far from this town as he could. If he did not have friends here, then he was lost. “Bas…” he uttered.
“Who are you?”
He regained his composure and put on his elder voice again. “I come bearing news for the one called Jen.”
Bas led him inside the tiny house, and inside the kitchen, saw her facing away from him, scrubbing dishes in the water basin. She turned to look at him. They both looked so old. It had only been two years since they passed their walks, but they already looked dead. Bas came around the table to hold Jen’s hand. They both faced the odd houseguest in wait.
“I come bearing a message from the one called Sid.”
They looked at each other. “It’s been so long,” Jen said. “I was certain he would have returned by now. We assumed he’d been banished.”
“He has. But before we cast out a wild one, we offer to deliver, word-for-word, a single message to a single loved one, as a token of respect.”
“But I thought we were to forget he ever existed.”
“After today, yes. You are to never mention his name, his message, or his existence to another so long as you live. He is to be as a dream. Not even my being here shall ever be mentioned. But for the next few minutes, it is my task to deliver his last sentiments.”
They both stood nervously in wait. Two years, Sid thought. He’d been forming these words for that long, night upon lonely night. As Good Jen slowly slipped into conformity, then slipped out of his world forever. He was crushed. It was murder. She became more than a friend, more than an idea. She became all of him. This was his first and last chance to tell her…
“I love you, Jen. As I have no other. You are what they have taken from me more than anything else. I wish that you had resisted them. I wish that we could fall together and live in banishment side by side forever. I wish it even more than I’ve wished I’d given up to live with you in the city. There we would only be shells of human beings sleeping under one roof. I am afraid of what the future brings. I do not know how to move on, how to express myself, how to accept what must be done here today. There are so many monsters roaming free in this world, and I feel like I am caught in between. I feel like the entire world is chasing after me. I don’t know what’s real anymore. All these things that I’ve done…
“And yet, one thing in this world does remain true. One single solitary notion in my brain. That you are the foundation of everything I am. My imagination, my word, my life. I see in you a vast universe of everything the world could be, and from my greatest love has sprung my greatest hate. I see in you now nothing but the hollowed out world they have created here. I see nothing but dead ashes of the once glowing fire in your eyes. I hear the exhaustion in your voice, not the flailing musical ring of exaltation. And that is the world I truly hate. Not the one my parents have borne me into, but the one that has slithered into you like a serpent and hollowed out your beauty.
“What are you, but something that could have been? You could have been a singer, your voice was so sweet. You could have been an astronomer, your mind and eye so keen. You could have been a doctor, your touch so warm and healing. But now, look at what you are. You’re the keeper of a man’s house. The bearer of the city’s children. The mind with which you were endowed on the day of your birth shall remain stagnant and empty until death. And that I can never understand. That I can never condone. That I can never love. I do not love the creature standing before me, but I love what you were, the picture of you I carry in my mind. The picture I will always carry.
“I will carry it into the depths of the Fall. And it shall keep me warm at night. It shall give me hope in times of desperation. It shall fuel my every move and push me toward that one ultimate goal. I will escape. Bear these words strong in your mind. Sid will walk out of the Fall. One day - it may be today or tomorrow or a hundred years from now - but one day I will walk into your cottage, deliver this message to you in person, and reveal myself to you. I don’t care if you recognize me, if you embrace me or cast me out, if you run screaming in fear. But mark my words, Sid will return, he will find a way back, and he will change things. Mark them well.”
They both stared wide-eyed. This was no elder, they could tell that. The dwarf spread his hands, the hands of a child. His robe parted in the middle, revealing the familiar school-issued pajamas, torn to shreds. He tossed back the hood, revealing the hard, weathered face of their friend and enemy of society. The robe fell to the ground, and he stood before them brutally.
Jen’s scream was long and loud. She collapsed to the floor, fingers clawing at her face, tears streaming from her eyes. Their front door flew open with a horrible bang, and a half dozen elders came pouring in with ropes and nets. Bas charged his friend, pinning him against the wall of his kitchen in defense of his wife. Sid flung him off and raised his arm in a punch. But before he could do anything, they were on top of him. They pulled the screeching creature off the citizens quickly, bound him, gagged him, and blindfolded him before he could so much as move a foot in escape or attack. Someone had spotted him along the way. Someone had followed him, waiting for some proof that he was no elder from the countryside. Someone had gathered a crew and peeked in the windows, waiting for his move. It was all over. They dragged his limp body over their shoulders, back to where he belonged. Bas cradled the terrified, wailing Jen, as the guards filed out.
“You have failed, wild one.”
It was very late in the afternoon. They had brought him back over the mountain, back across the lake, back up to the school, back to the very room they had cast him out in before. He stood before the plank overhanging the basin of water. He was not afraid of it this time. He stood with no blindfold, no gag, only his hands and feet bound, before the tribunal, led by the principal he had woken with a startle many hours ago.
“In your cleverness, you found the one connection between our worlds. You found the one door we left open generations ago, when we made the world. That’s why it was kept in the master’s bedchambers, to safeguard it against infiltrators, and to catch any that might stumble upon it. In your cleverness, you managed to get as far as the hull, and the black lake was kind to you in your pitiful struggle. But your cleverness ran out. The kindness of this world is over for you. The master’s mirror has been shattered. No more can any creature ever return from the Fall. Did you really think you could break back into our world and sway the minds of the schooled?
“The city is perfect, our laws all self-contained. There are no whips, no chains, no swords and shields. Only the temple by which men live in perfect everlasting harmony. There is no need for creativity when everything has already been created. No need for innovation when everything is already built. There is no place for imagination in a perfect world. No more purpose in genius and change. Change can only be a negative in a utopia. The school is a device for maintaining that utopia, weeding out changers. All civilizations rise and fall, because when they reach their peak, there are still those that want to change things, those like you. And so in changing perfection they tear it down to rubble. But not ours. You are a hiccup in the goings of this world. We are perfect and will be forever, because we know how to control agents like you, the natural disease of this place, the cancer of a utopia. We can’t kill it at birth, but we can boil it out of you, and if you resist, we can make you disappear.
“You are hereby sentenced to be cast into the Fall of Imaginings, where you will live out the rest of your days in whatever torment it finds fit to treat you.” The principal cocked his head to a guard behind Sid. “Carry on.”
Sid knew what was behind him. Without even looking, he knew the guard was advancing slowly with a knife in hand. This whole soliloquy was only for show. Wolves howling just to hear themselves howl. If they were going to kill him, they could have poisoned his breakfast or weighted his feet and tossed him overboard. But no. These predators had to drag their catch back to the lair, savor every last second. The knife came, but Sid spun in the opposite direction, leapt out to the edge of the plank, and bounced into the basin of water underneath. Every elder in the room screeched in panic and charged him. The one with the knife jumped in the water after him. But it was too late. He was already gone. Already a part of the mirror world.
Sid struggled against his lashings, pulling at them and flailing about wildly underwater. But this time he knew what to do. Before hitting the water, he’d filled his lungs with air. Once the bubbles cleared, his body bobbed to the surface, and he took deep breaths, slowly and deliberately working at the same knot they’d used last time. When he finally released it, he reached down underwater to untie his feet as well. But he didn’t cast them away. Looking around, he’d come out at the exact same spot in the lake as last time. The sun was low in the sky, but it was not quite dusk yet. He still had time. On the beach was the same blond-haired boy. With each length of rope, he fashioned a slipknot and tied them together tightly.
Sid swam slowly to shore, floating like a half-dead castaway drained of all hope. When he reached the beach, he kept his head down, hair concealing his face. He got halfway out of the water and lay there like a beached whale, breathing heavily and crying a bit. It’s all over, he thought. There’s only one thing left to do.
“The end,” he whispered to himself.
The boy approached him, crouching down over him, leaning on his spear. He extended his hand graciously. “It’s okay, you’re safe now. My name is Lee.”
Sid grabbed his hand tightly, throwing the loop of his slipknot around the boy’s arm and pulling tight. With his other hand, he seized the spear. It was an easy maneuver, taking Lee by utter surprise and leaving him sprawled out on his back in the shallow water. Sid popped up and stood over him, the other end of the slipknot tight around his own wrist, binding the two of them together, and pointed the spear at Lee’s face.
“We’ve met,” Sid replied curtly.
“How did you -”
“Let’s go.” He jerked the boy up to his feet and started up the path to the village.
“What’s happening?” Lee asked, timid as a mouse.
“Things are changing.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let me ask you a question, Lee. If I told you that I found a way back into the city, would you believe me?”
Lee thought about that for a long time. Sid was no fool. He’d figured it out, the whole riddle of this place. All they had to do was make contact, physical contact with their inner imaginings, through a reflection in a mirror or in a pool of water, and they could shift in and out of the mirror worlds. That’s why the elders planned to execute him. They couldn’t toss him back into the Fall. He’d just escape again. It didn’t matter if the master’s mirror had been shattered or not. That was not the only portal. There were portals everywhere. The Snatchers, the village, the hunts - these were just another way to kill their imaginings. Elders throwing bones to their grotesque dogs. When the school failed to tame them, the brutal nature in this world finished the job.
Every so often someone like Sid figured everything out. They mirror-shifted and popped out of the closest mirror in the other world. So the elders could keep a tight leash on the situation, it was kept in the principal’s bedchamber. They could capture and kill any that discovered this trick, and the secret could stay a secret forever. That’s why there were no mirrors in the rest of the school. That’s why the tribunal was a farce, to discourage him from fighting back. They didn’t shatter the master’s mirror. They needed it.
As soon as he’d set foot into Bas and Jen’s cottage, he knew there would be no victory. He could see it in their eyes. They were empty already. There was nothing left in them. Fresh out of school and they were as desperate and hopeless as his parents. He could either skulk out of there and wander around the city, or he could say what he realized he had truly come to say. Either way, he would be caught. Either way, there would be no “changing things.” Not without a voice. Not without an army. He alone could not change the course of the world. The true challenge was to sway the minds of those who could help him. Win the hearts of the people, and the world will change itself.
“They won’t believe you.”
“Then why sentence yourself to death?”
“Death? You just don’t get it, do you? Death is living your life in fear, in servitude, in despair with no hope or future or dream. Death is being so detached from any sense of self-importance that you live the rest of your life doing absolutely nothing. You’re confusing death with self-sacrifice. You see, I’m going to walk into the village and tell my story, and either they’ll tear me apart and feed me to the pigs, or they’ll follow me back to the city and change things. That’s not death, that’s conviction. I know that this is the one thing I must do to build a world worth living in. If doing so I risk my life, so be it. The stakes have to be that high to make it worth our while. Anything worth living for is worth dying for. I’d rather try and fail and die, than live out a life of emptiness and despair.”
“You’re very young, and you don’t understand the way things are. Nothing ever gets better. I wish I’d have let go. I wish I’d have let them tame me. I would be a blacksmith right now. I might be married soon. I would raise two sons, and then when I became old, I would be a teacher in the school. I used to hate that life, that picture. But now, it seems so perfect.”
“I’ll make you a blacksmith yet. But you’ll have to fight for it.”
“Fight? I’m done fighting. And so are they.”
They reached the foot of the mountain. All the children gathered around like ants for this surprising spectacle. The renegade, the bane, returning to camp with one of their most experienced hunters held hostage at spear point. Every one of them seemed ready to throttle him. Random shouts and curses gave way to an entire mob of shouting. The sun was getting low in the sky. Sid saw Lane at the crest of the settlement, strung up against a tree. So the piggies were still on their way, Sid thought. He was just in time.
Cole stepped forward from the crowd, spear in hand, and silenced them. “And so the fool returns.” The entire crowd laughed. “Let my lieutenant go, or we’ll tear your arms off before having you fed to the Snatchers.” The crowd exalted in consent.
“I am no fool. And my arms are mine to keep. I did not come here to be butchered or ridiculed. I came here to share something with all of you.”
“You came here,” Cole answered, “to save your girlfriend.” He pointed up at Lane. “In all your cleverness, you have some story prepared to get you close to us and close to her, and somehow you have it that the two of you will escape.”
“No, Lane is just as lost as you. This place kills the spirit faster than the school. No, I’m here to tell everyone, if only they’ll listen, that I’ve found a way back to the city!”
There were loud murmurs of disbelief through the crowd. Cole’s smile disappeared. His glare was cold and stern. “Ridiculous.”
“We got in, didn’t we? Well, there’s a way out. And it’s very, very close by.” He had their attention. “None of you have to die. No more Snatchers. No more elders. I have a way out of everything. But you have to follow me. You have to trust me. Because there’s no going back.”
“You broke the Snatchers’ law. Now they want five of us. They’re coming right now. They’ll take me. They’ll take you and your girlfriend. And they’ll take two others. If we concede, that’s all they take. Everyone else lives.”
“For how long? Until they get hungry again? Until another child falls into this world and they feel justified in evening that out? How is it we all fought so hard against the school, and yet we lay down to these monsters so readily? Everyone here sacrificed everything. Their family, their occupation, their destiny, their sanity, to hold on to that one flame of reason and dignity. After everything we’ve been through, we’re ready to prance around here as pig fodder because the oldest child says so? You’ve all got some sort of tropical fever crept under your skin. I’m here to tell you that there’s a way out. A way back to your life, to your family, to your occupations, to your destiny. Without giving up your imaginings, your dignity. And if I’m lying, at least follow me and let me prove it to you. What have you got to lose? Tomorrow’s catch?
“I’m telling you that I have brought with me a plan. The means of getting back to the city. It’s going to be dangerous. But we’re all going back to the human world, we’re going to storm the school, flood it, sink it, free every child, and throw every elder overboard. After we do that, we’re going to march back into town, tear down the Directive, and return to our families. After that, we can do whatever we want. It’s our world. We can make of it what we want.
“Now, I’m either absurd, or I’m right. Give me the chance to prove it to you. If I’m wrong, feed me to the pigs, I don’t care. If I’m right, we all have a chance to start over.”
Cole took his spear and hurled it right at Sid. He ducked and it glanced against the side of his arm, knocking Sid’s own spear out of his hand. “Enough!” the chief cried. “You’re trying to play us! You think us all fools!” He grabbed another spear and stormed toward Sid. Lee freed himself and picked up Sid’s weapon.
Cole hefted his second spear in the air, and Lee swung his like a bat and knocked Cole to the ground. He held him at spear point and leaned down. “I’m willing to hear what he has to say.”
The rest of the village crowded together behind him, forming a wall between Cole and Sid, still clutching his bleeding arm.
“Are you insane? He’s out of his mind!”
“No, you’re insane. We’ve been sentenced here to death, and someone comes along telling you there’s a way out. Even if it’s a total madman, it’s worth a shot.” Lee turned to another boy behind him. “Bring the girl here.”
Cole scrambled to his feet, his whole tribe turned against him. “You’re all idiots! Listening to this fool, fresh out of school, who killed two Snatchers and then ran away like a coward, leaving one of you to take his place as a sacrifice! I hope they string you all up and roast you for dinner tonight!”
The sound of drums thundered on the other side of the mountain. It was so loud, they all crouched down instinctively. Lane and the boy barreled down the hill screaming, “Run! Run! They’re here! All of them!”
Everyone turned and ran down the path. But Cole turned and strutted up the hill to meet them. When the other boy passed him, he knocked him out with an elbow, took Lane by the arm tightly, and dragged her with him. Sid saw this and got to his feet, taking a spear.
Lee grabbed Sid by the arm. “There’s no time, forget about them!”
“No!” He shook free of Lee’s grip.
Sid pushed him to the ground. “Go to the lake. I’ll be right there.”
With that, he ran up the hill after Lane. At the crest of it, against the dusky sky, they could see the first dozen snatchers silhouetted on the hilltop. Sid caught up to Cole and went to skewer him, but he turned and grabbed the stick, pulling it away. Sid throttled him, sprawling him against the ground. He lost his hold on Lane, and she tumbled away.
“Run!” Sid called to her. She did.
Cole smacked him on the side of his head with the stick, but Sid grabbed a hold of it and tried to wrestle it from his hands. “You just don’t give up, do you?”
Sid freed the spear and pushed it against Cole’s neck. “Never.” He stood and kicked Cole hard across the face. He brought his stake high, ready to sink it into his enemy. But then he angled it up the hill and threw it with all his might at the line of monsters. It sailed squarely through one piggie’s chest, who fell forward comically. The drums stopped as they all looked at their fallen comrade. They had never seen battle before. Not from their food. They all screeched as loud as they could.
Sid turned and ran, and they all came storming down the mountain. Sid raced, with long strides and strong thrusts of his legs. Running felt so familiar by now, after everything he’d gone through. It didn’t occur to him that he might have done something stupid. He sprinted down the path and reached the lake, having put some distance behind him. When he reached the lake, Lee was frantic, and the Snatchers were only seconds away.
“Listen to me very carefully. Look into the water. Look into your reflection. Look deep into your eyes. Find that flare of life, that imagining deep inside you, the one you fought to keep in the school. Look right at it, think of home, and dive in. Wherever you pop out, be prepared to fight and run. We meet at the foot of the mountain.” There was a half a second of silence as they comprehended this. The Snatchers cleared the trees and spread out over the beach. “Gooooooooooo!!!!!!”
Sid tumbled out of some bathroom mirror, landing on the floor in a stranger’s house. He ran through the bedroom, opened a window, and disappeared just as he heard the fearful gasp of a woman in the bed. It worked, he thought. With so many children mirror-shifting at once, he was sure they would pop out at random. One of them, certainly, was scrambling to their feet in the principal’s bedchambers, through his unbroken mirror, and he only hoped they could get back to save them in time.
He made his way out into the cobblestone streets and jogged toward the path to the mountain. He hoped everyone had made it out. Running down the street, he saw a half dozen candles light up behind windows, heard furniture overturned and faint yells of fright and surprise, and knew his comrades had made it. He called to two others who had tumbled onto the street, motioning for them to follow.
“I don’t believe it!” one cried. “We’re home!”
“Shhhh!” Sid warned. “We’re not home yet. Follow me.”
He led them to the market and broke the window to the little store that sold farm equipment. He grabbed three huge burlap sacks of fertilizer, six axes, two knives, rope, oil, and matches, tossing everything feverishly to his partners, loading them and himself down like mules.
“Hurry.” Sid knew that it was just past nightfall, that not everyone was asleep, that word would spread quickly of strange children running around town, and then the elders would be on their guard. They converged on other children on the way out of town, all excited. They tossed the axes to one boy, the rope and matches to another girl. The fertilizer they double-teamed. When each one came upon the main group, it was interesting to see their reactions, their facial expressions, at seeing the supplies. First puzzlement, then realization, then shock. Finally a long silence of incredulity. Lee came upon them.
“Are we really going to…” he couldn’t finish.
“Yes,” Sid replied with all the conviction and certainty in the world. The party ran all the way to the foot of the mountain and down to the beach. He ordered them to hide in the brush, and found Lee. He threw off his shirt and stuck a knife in his belt.
“You ready?” he asked, walking toward the water, the very spot where they took him away five years ago.
“We need a boat.”
Lee looked incredulous. “You don’t mean to swim, do you?”
“I’ve done it before. I just don’t know if I can do it alone. Come on.”
Lee waded in after him.
“Just keep paddling. No matter what, don’t stop.”
They started off toward the ship. “It’s cold,” Lee whispered painfully.
“You’ll be okay, just keep moving.” He felt his arms and legs numbing, his breath going cold.
“I can’t feel my arms.”
“You don’t have to, just keep paddling. You’ll be okay.” He could feel the little tentacles clawing at him. He felt the familiar wormy bands of cold and colder beneath him, felt the water writhing with lust for a fresh meal.
“I’m sinking! Sid, help!”
Sid looked. “You’re not sinking, you’re just slowing down. Keep paddling! We’re almost there.”
The boat was tied off at the foot of the ship, but they kept the ladder pulled up on deck. They would have to go quietly. No more snoozing guards. Not tonight.
Sid rolled over on his back and took hold of his friend. Somehow, with Lee in tow, he wasn’t quite as cold. Not quite so weak. With every stroke, he fought for two lives instead of one, and somehow he felt twice as strong.
“Be strong, Lee. Keep paddling. We’ll make a blacksmith out of you yet. But I need your help right now.” He flapped his arms back and forth uselessly.
They came upon the boat. Sid clambered aboard and dragged Lee behind him. “We made it,” he whispered. He cut the rope tying it off, and quietly dipped the oar into the water. Lee laid against the stern, regaining his strength, working up the courage to face the coming task. When they slid up against the beach, the whole tribe had gathered, minus a few stragglers. Sid was ecstatic to see Lane, not just alive and well, but hungry. She had completely lost the hopelessness of yesterday’s events, and the light in her eyes was bright as ever.
“Listen to me,” Sid started. “No one sets foot on this boat that isn’t ready to die. They won’t cast us back out. They’ll kill us. If you want to live, run along and find a living. We’re not doing this to save ourselves; we’re doing this to save everything worth living for.”
They loaded the supplies onboard and squeezed as many passengers as would fit on the small vessel. Lane tied thick knots every foot or so in one of their ropes. When they reached the ship, they came up under the bow, where there was something to lasso. Lane threw her rope over the mast, tied a slipknot at the bottom, and pulled it tight. Sid was the first up the ladder. They would have to take out every guard on the deck without making a sound. Sid saw none at the bow, and the cabin in which they bathed the newcomers hid them from the rest of the deck, so he motioned for everyone to follow. While he waited, he peeked around the wall. They had two guards at each entrance, one in the front leading to the elders’ chambers, one in the rear leading to the children’s atrium. So they needed to not only take all four out, but all at the same instant.
Sid whispered and signed a plan, and they all nodded. He and five others crouched down behind the cabin in wait, while everyone else climbed back down to the boat. He waited several minutes to give them time to climb up at the stern. The fog and the darkness were so thick they could not see each other, but when he heard the faint gull caw, they got into position, three on each side. After a few moments, the second caw sprang them into action. Sid raced around the cabin, and before his target could realize what was happening, Sid leapt up and stuffed a rag in his mouth, squeezing tight. Sid’s second man hurtled himself against the back of the elder’s knees, knocking the both of them on their backs. A third one, a girl, sat on top of the elder and tied his hands together. The second one tied his feet. When they had both done their part, they secured a rope around his head, locking the gag in place. The elder writhed about helplessly and silently on the deck.
All four fell at once, with no more sound than a bit of moaning from behind the rags. They dragged them all into the cabin, tied them together, and left one boy with a knife there to guard them. The deck belonged to them. They took a few minutes to lift their supplies on deck quietly, and barricade the door to the elders’ chambers. Then, ever so delicately, they snuck down the stairwell into the children’s atrium. Four stayed on deck to guard the doors, one took the boat back to shore to bring reinforcements, and the rest tiptoed through the honeycomb to the door opposite the atrium and quietly barricaded it shut as well. Once the ship was secured, it was time to go to work. They owned it, and they could do whatever they wanted.
Sid stood in the very center with six others, each holding axes. He poured a circle of oil on the floor around them and lit it with a match. It did a fair job of lighting their stage, but more importantly, gave them a sinister look of utmost seriousness.
“Everybody wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” he called. They clanged their axes together and whooped and hollered like they were returning from a hunt. In just a few moments, they saw hundreds of pairs of eyes gleaming from each comb, and a general murmur arose as the pupils of the school woke to this bizarre and frightening sight. “My name is Sid. My friends and I have just recently returned from the Fall of Imaginings.” There was some serious murmur of disbelief at that. “You look shocked. You should be. The Fall is a horrible place, filled, just as the legends say, with monsters and demons. And after a thousand generations, we are the ones that have found a way to escape it. We are the untamed, the ones they could not control. And we are back with vengeful hearts.
“But do not fear us. We are not here to harm anyone, not even the elders that banished us. We are here to end an institution. We are here to change the way people conduct their lives and families. We are here to sink the school. I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it is a little hard to believe. You may not even believe it’s the right thing to do. But I promise it’s the only thing to do. If you wish to sink along with it, feel free to do so. Just go back to sleep and let the black lake claim you. But if you wish to escape, do so now. Run up to the deck, jump overboard, and swim home. I promise you the lake will not kill you as legend says. I’ve swum it myself to get here tonight. No more classes. No more Directive. School’s out. Forevermore.”
There was some angry murmur and shouting and throwing, but the rebels walked confidently - with axes. They walked over to one side and picked out three combs several yards apart, forming a large triangle. The hull was angled almost at a perfect diagonal. Two children crawled into each comb with axes, and they started hacking away. Two more guarded each entrance, along with a bag of fertilizer, oil, and matches.
The children filed out of their combs and formed a giant circle around them. Some yelled in anger and protest. Others in confirmation and enthusiasm. Most just stared wide-eyed, jaw-dropped, and incredulous, watching these tall, burly, older teens chopping away at their home away from home. They were several years older on average and had the experience of hunting and dancing wildly every day, so were naturally stronger, with more conviction and intimidation. Some children took their word and bolted for the stairwell to hop overboard.
There was pounding on the barricaded door. The elders were awake, but it was too late. Even if they did get out, there was enough of a frenzy going already that they wouldn’t even get close to their work. Sid walked from one comb to the other, watching progress. It took them a good hour to do their work properly. They were not trying to cut holes with the axes alone, only to create weak spots, carving out thin patches of wood that could easily be punched through by the pressure of the water underneath. Once the comb started leaking and spraying sticky black water at the carpenters, they stopped. It had to be synchronized, or their stage would flood before they could finish their work, and thus flood too slowly to do the job.
In each comb, they dropped a bag of fertilizer at its weakest spot. They commanded everyone to stay far back, to run for the exits before it was too late. But of course, most only backed a few feet away, anxious and excited for the spectacle of a lifetime. Over each comb, one child stuffed a rag in a glass bottle of oil and lit the fuse. Sid called, “Ready, set, go,” and each threw the bottle as hard as possible at the fertilizer and ran. The bottles shattered against their targets, and the entire atrium lit up from the three orange bonfires. They didn’t blow like bombs, though. They fizzled and popped loudly, like fireworks. It was horrifying. Only then did they flee in panic.
It was deafening. Smoke poured out, stinking colorful smoke, so thick it blocked out the light of the fire from which it came. They could feel the enormous heat billowing off the combs as they all ran to the exits. The fires seemed to climax, and within a few seconds of each other, the three holes blew. It was not the fire that blew, but the water. The heat had finally weakened the hole enough for the lake to punch through with the force of a canon, sending the flaming bag of fertilizer like a bullet several yards into the air. It arced magnificently and sprayed against the floor in a bright red flame, before being snuffed out by the water that pushed it there.
The water level rose quickly, faster than any of the bystanders expected, but slow enough that there was plenty of time to make it to the stairwell. They poured out onto the deck by the dozens. When Sid squeezed out, the deck was already leaning a bit from the tilt of the sinking ship. They blew it on the side facing the mountain, so that the children would jump into the lake in the right direction to make it home. Sid took an axe and released the door containing the elders. They poured out just as frantically as everyone else. They knew what was happening. But unlike the children, they did not jump overboard. Sid smiled and waved at them, then soared through the air into the lake.
There were so many bodies in the water it looked alive. Hundreds of hands rose up and down in little white splashes against the blackness. None could swim without bumping into five other people beside them. Most were screaming indignantly at the cold and the initial fear of the legend that the lake would claim them. But Sid made it several minutes before he even felt the hopelessness he did the first time. Perhaps with so many bodies, the souls under its surface did not concentrate on any one, and so the journey was less treacherous. He hoped so. He did not want to cause the death of a single child in this daring endeavor.
The elders, on the other hand, he knew would not jump. They would stay onboard as long as possible, clinging to a mast or plank of wood even after the ship went completely under. Sid hadn’t killed anybody. He had even released the four tied up in the cabin. But the elders, with no imaginings, no spark of life, no semblance of will or tenacity, could never survive the lake. They were the ones it really fed on. Those were the easiest to drain, because they were empty already. Sid fully expected that not a single one of them would reach the shore alive. But that was between them and their lake, the one they chose to live on. Sid had no hand in that contract. The children all struggled across the water to safety.
The beach was horrible. As soon as they reached it, they were exhausted, so they lay still instinctively, until of course four more people toppled over them, sending them into a panic. So the beach was a thick conglomerate of children swimming in a sea of other children, trying to keep their head above, not water, but flesh. They crawled over each other and ran for safety as soon as they could, the ones farthest out helping to pull others to safety as well.
The sound emanating from the center of the lake was horrible. They heard the spray of air releasing from chambers in the ship as it sank. They heard the screech of elders either drowning in the lake or dreading their impending doom. They heard the structural groan and snaps of large pieces of wood being wrenched apart by enormous pressures. And they also heard a faint effervescent glow of sound coming from the lake, a satisfying sigh of victory at its biggest catch yet. When everyone finally made it to shore, not a word was spoken. They just formed ranks along the beach, absorbing the sights and sounds of the dying school.
But then, silence. Only heartbeats, breathing, and whispering. They made their way robotically up the path toward the mountain. The banished from the Fall, the older ones, made their way to the front, discussing plans, hatching ideas, talking excitedly about what they had done and what they were going to do. They too were less than a day into the notion that they were completely and utterly free. Sid’s vision had unfolded before them in a dramatic vindication. For Sid though, this was only the beginning. He felt the same now as he did the first time he swam from the school, sneaking home. It was a cold unwelcoming home, even a hostile one. He didn’t know where to start. But he would have help this time. He looked behind him at the hundreds of faces snaking up the path. Yes, he would have help.
Actually, he did know where to start. Sinking the school was just a first step. Ripping the stone Directive from its roots was a logical second. After that, perhaps a third would form itself. They reached the clearing at the foot of the mountain, and Sid stopped, letting everyone catch up to rest for a few moments. Sid climbed up on a rock where all could see him and hear him.
“I know you’re all as shaken as I am at what has just happened. But we’ve won. We’ve proven to ourselves and to any that oppose us that we have a great power. And within us, great potential. Listen to me! There is no Fall. There is no school. And before sunrise, there will be no Directive! We’ll march right into the town square with rope and shovels, and dig it out and rip it down before anyone even wakes up. We’ll drag it and toss it in the lake with the rest of our past, or we’ll melt it down to nothing, or we’ll rip it apart with our bare hands. We’ll write our own. Listen to me, because the sun is going to rise on a new world in a few hours.
“No Fall, no School, no Directive. A new world. An unpaved path. And we are the ones to pave it. We are builders, and it is up to us to build a new world in place of our old. Our families will object, our elders will resist, but we are the future, not them. We dictate the way things are going to be. It is our responsibility to build a world brighter than ever before. Brighter than any of our families could imagine. We are the Imaginers. It is not going to be easy. We are not out of the woods yet. We are just coming to be. But we are coming strong.”
He saw Lane’s face in the crowd, and she smiled wide.
“Let’s change things. Let’s make things better.”