Content Warning: incarceration, torture, politics
THE SIEGE OF BURNING GRASS
by Premee Mohamed
They lock me up while my leg grows back, which we all agree is fair. Generous, even, what with the wartime cutbacks, the effortful efficiencies, the general spirit of make-do and do-without that permeates the country.
"Out. Now. Move."
How do you lock up so many people out here, on the wrong side of the front, and remain unremarked-upon by the foe? I wondered that myself after consciousness returned. But it's a school, our prison is a school. Was a school, I should say. Though I cannot imagine the destinies of the pupils it would have eventually matriculated. The mind's eye pictures sickening generations of stranglers, despoilers, frighteners; or perhaps just grim-faced little gargoyles rotating through life with the expressionless efficiency of a brass cog.
St. Nenotenus' Reformatory School for Minors: and I guess that if you could not be reformed here, you would be buried out back. To reform you, they would break your spirit, or teach you to dissemble. One or the other, not both.
Well, maybe it is good that it now contains such persons as myself. I have been told many times that I need to be reformed. Rehabilitated, reconstituted into a particular type of person.
"No. You cannot speak. Only write. Here, now."
My prison cell is cold and grey, and intricately wallpapered with mould. In the city you would have paid a month's salary for a pre-pasted roll of such baroque glamour. The cell possesses four child-sized shelves of dressed stone, protruding about an arm's length from the wall, too shallow to accommodate my full body; I can sit on them, just, but I am forced to sleep on the floor.
Sometimes I think: The pupils, would they have called this a residence? A dormitory? The soldiers did not need to modify anything when they arrived, I should note: already each "dorm" boasted a stout iron door, half solid and half-gridded with thumb-thick bars. Locks only on the outside, with a flanged cup welded on to prevent meddling from within. These were prison cells long before they were prison cells.
As winter's chill deepens my dispensary wasps grow sluggish, and drag themselves about as if they too are at war—hooking their claws into my skin and pulling with what appear to be silent groans of effort. Now when they taste my skin, even their tongues are cold, like the brief lick of a draft. Then the emplacement in their ranks, (like artillerymen, yes), the glossy abdomens rising, aiming, correcting angle and pitch, and then the redhot agony of the sting. A slow spreading of warmth as the envenomed drugs take effect.
The stings have no effect on the pain everywhere else (from the cold, from the sadness). I think they were designed not to. But the leg, they help. The stump becomes stonily inert instead of a bonfire burning at my knee, or the riot of chewing sharks or lizards I also sometimes hallucinate. When numb, it is manageable, and need only be transported without weeping as I go to and from interrogation.
The leg, I mean. Not me.
Though I also weep.
"I said write. Write! Malingering scum!"
The walls of the room of questions are still lined with schoolbooks and diagrams, kept (I think) only to retain what little warmth is generated by the torturer's brazier. This is an almost laughably small thing, and reminds me of the jury-rigged stoves we had to build in the city in those last days: you did not even have to chop wood, you had to feed it with broken-up pencils and the covers of books folded in half or even in quarters to fit.
While I am questioned I can study diagrams of eyeballs and skeletons, colour-coded hearts (in rushes the red blood; out the blue), a plant cell as big as a bathtub, its jelly filled with things I half-remember learning about. A nucleus, a chloroplast. A folded shawl
The worst is a poster of pregnancy, everything luridly red and pink and bisected down the middle, from brain to knees, right through the tender breasts, the adamantine womb, which is stronger than any other thing.
As my blood spurts or skin sizzles I often think: Don't be born, little one. You will be born into war. Close your eyes, face away. I am only sorry that you must hear this in your time of imprisonment.
On Thursdays, my minder takes me to the infirmary to see the prison doctor, whose name I have not yet learned. Strange that no one has said it. He is short and slender, and very pale; with his gracile build and his black hair against the white skin, he reminds me of a birch sapling. The window behind his narrow shoulders still frames a beautiful thing: one last city floating high on the horizon as a hawk. How has it not come down in two years of constant bombardment? It is a miracle, its every spire, every brick a miracle.
"It is the last fortification of the enemy, Alefret," says the doctor, brusquely yanking the bandages from what remains of my knee. "They have nowhere left to run. Go on, stare if you like—imprint it upon your eyes ."
"It is a miracle."
He looks up, his eyes not blue or green but a sort of rainy grey, as if camouflaging themselves against the walls. "I'm going to change your wasps. You are becoming loose in the head."
A year ago, he probably would have said, I shall report you for treason. But I am already here. I am in the place where you go if you are reported for treason. And the only reason I have not shared the fate of the others is that I am, myself, a miracle.
We both look down at the stump: furiously crimson, ringed with the healed pinpricks of sting-delivered anaesthetic and the peppery speckles of glass and concrete that had not been removed in those first frantic hours. The crisply-sewed seam at the end still weeps, still sobs its transparent tears. The bone is growing back first, as he said it would: a bulging, bloodshot eye surrounded by the tufty gelatine that will one day be muscle, nerve, tendon, skin, even hair. Just as before.
"Not one doctor in a thousand could have salvaged that mess," he says, as he often does. "And never during a firefight... nor done this impossible thing, this regeneration. All of medicine will be changed forever, and you will again be whole. And still you will not thank us. Us, your countrymen, your protectors, your guardian angels."
Your jailers, your torturers, he may as well have added. In the face of his proudly upraised chin I lower my head, lower, lower, till my neck aches and my beard covers my breastbone. When you are part of the war effort you are proud of the war. He then is proud, and I cannot be.
He snarls at my submission, winds bandages, palpates the good flesh in the middle of my thigh with a thumb like a paring knife. "None of this is cheap, you know. It is an experimental program, no one believed we would succeed, conditional on my early and necessary success we received funding for six months only..."
"And I am the only survivor."
"Who says that?"
"Someone said something," I say cautiously; his tone had not been angry, but lightly curious, academic even. "I heard it in the hallway."
Although my minder stands in the doorway, I feel his breath on my back, even perceive its sound (impossibly) in the long silence. I am going to regret saying that within his earshot. What kind of man is he? Let me tell you: in previous wars, the elders told me, the soldiers would burn their uniforms afterwards to avoid detection and reprisal. But he, the minder, would never do such a thing. Even though successive waves of volunteering and conscription have reduced the uniform from a full outfit, to merely a jacket, then a cloak, then armbands, and now (I think) just a patch, he would not burn the patch.
"Then you are the miracle, not that suspended clot of hovels and muck," the doctor says; he never uses the name of the enemy city. "You should show more gratitude, Alefret. Your every confession should contain a—a love letter to my work. "
I nod, still looking down. The bandages dampen with seeping grief as I watch, an oblong moving cautiously along the seams of the cream-coloured cloth, then coming to a halt, as if they have discovered, or suspect, an enemy trench. From the toes that are no longer there to the back of my head the pain surges and returns: first the memory-pain of the explosion and the snapping collapse of the great bone, then this new, fresh one, clean-edged and sewn up, the impossible pain of growth.
In the city, the doctors wear sober and proper black, to hide the stains of sundry fluid. But this doctor wears pale grey: almost the colour of the sky. As if he would be shocked to have blood shed upon him.
"You should be paying us," he says as I carefully regain my crutches and make for the doorway. "Because you are dead weight otherwise, you know. You do know that."
Yes, I know that; because every visit, he tells me that, and many other people have told me that. I think dozens, perhaps hundreds. To my face, and in the newspaper, and in letters and in manifestoes posted on the doors of the city. My family has told me that and the people I called my friends have told me that and my minder has told me that. Yes. Even some of the soldiers here, arrested for desertion or self-mutilation to avoid being sent to the front, they tell me that.
I say nothing. When I was brought here, after I had recovered enough to speak, I asked my captors what they hoped to achieve by jailing me and my fellow pacifists, those of us who could clearly be identified as part of the Pact.
It is a war crime, they said. That is enough.
I said achieve; that is not an achievement.
And then the questioning began. I had believed we were no more than inconveniences to the army, but I was wrong. They tell me again and again how wrong I was. If I would not fight, and would not otherwise support or participate in the war, I was worse than dead weight; I was a criminal, perhaps even a sympathizer, traitor, on the side of the enemy.
"Do you communicate with the Meddon? Do you send them information? Intelligence? Do you meet with agents from their side? Maps? Drawings? Do not speak. Only write."
They will give me no trial. I still ask; every day I ask. I never receive a yes or a no. With what hatred, with what icy disdain, do they turn their heads from the question... "I hate to see a man beg," says the minder. "It makes me sick. To hear that note in your voice. This is why they make you write, you know. When they ask the questions."
The next day, they question me in the morning and return me to my cell. I find myself wondering how recently this school had pupils. Were they retrieved by their family, after those few Meddon deserters began to straggle across the border to warn us of troop movement? Would your family come and get you if you had been sent here to be reformed? Or did the teachers take them somewhere, or did they flee on their own, or were they... I cannot say it, but I will say this much, the enemy has by all accounts moved so quickly that in many cases they have not stopped to ensure a total defeat of our forces behind the front; and skirmishes are still taking place in many areas. At any rate blood has been spilled here before; I know this.
"Walk. Walk. Move, by God, or I will fucking drag you down this hallway. Facedown. Who cares about your face?"
Often on Friday mornings they hold executions in the quadrangle, from which it is convenient to remove the dead through the cloisters and to those hidden bonfires I cannot see but can smell. There is one such today.
If they could speak, others of the Pact would probably say: Alefret, do not look. It is a small violence but it is violence nonetheless.
I lean my forearm upon the tiny windowsill, letting it take my weight. Frozen breath rises smoke-slow into a sky the colour of teeth, and all is the same hue, the faded uniforms of the executioners, and the scavenged prison weeds, and the cold torpid rats that sit in the corners, and the frosted ground, and the clouds and the walls and the knives—a single movement, and there is finally another colour splashing into the stiff grass.
I am ashamed that my response to this sudden spilling of colour is hunger, it is always hunger. I am ashamed that this is why I watch.
Outside, some miles away in the direction faced by the doctor's window, the war rages on; or you would say it raged if it were louder. In fact, nothing can be heard. Both we and the enemy are low on ammunition, and to manufacture more is no easy thing now. For we drafted the men, and when the men were gone the women set to work; and when too many men had died, we drafted the women. Now the women are dying, and no one can work. The cities had already become uneasy alliances of the very old and the very young by the time I was arrested. Indeed, I had been carrying two toddlers and two old ladies when the bomb took my leg. Nicely balanced. You could almost laugh.
Balance, I think now. Balance. Something that is very difficult with something like a sixth of one's bodily mass gone. And they say this will grow back. They urge me to believe what I am seeing. These people who spent so long demonizing the Meddon in broadsheets and pamphlets that by the time the war actually began, no one in the cities would evacuate: It is impossible, people said, that they are telling the truth now, when they have spent so long lying to us.
"Next! Stand here. The line. Stand!"
Four this morning, dispatched with the exhausted economy of motion that is the only beauty in this place. You have to save energy no matter what you do, you have to save gas, wood, food; and whatever indestructible spark is within us that lets us move, you have to save that too. There is a peculiar grace in the walk of the soldiers and prisoners here, even in the way they sit in chairs, open doors. Nothing can be wasted. Or, let us say, for some of us, nothing remains to waste.
In their glass globe, the lightspiders begin to chitter, amplified by the round walls; this is always in response to vibrations in the hallway, and I push myself off the sill just as the minder and someone else enter the cell. It is a tight fit; I edge backwards at once, and sit on a stone shelf, tugging a blanket over my stump. Warmth drains out of me and into the stone as I look up at them, erect and haughty in their crisp though faded uniforms, still medalled, dazzling.
The newcomer is perhaps seventy, and beautiful in the way of a woman who only hit the full stride of that beauty when she was forty or fifty; she is like a court portrait rendered in oils of a queen widowed young. Her steely hair is combed straight back from a taut, round brow. Easier to paint, I cannot help but think. On her wash-faded uniform, awards and insignia glitter not like stars but flak, catching the weak winter light. I do not know their entire system, but it seems to me that she has more decoration than most. Golden dots, stripes, ribbons, trim, and a sewn patch on her right sleeve of some unfamiliar animal. A general? Higher? I don't know their ranks.
"Do you know who I am, Alefret?"
"No, sir," snarls the minder, starting from the doorway. She quells him with a small gesture.
Outside, they must have found another name on some list—and this fifth one does not go quietly. His shrieked pleas grow in volume and urgency until they begin to stutter, and I know he is struggling so that they cannot place the knife cleanly into a useful place. My empty stomach rises, subsides in the silence. She too, this higher-up, waits till they are done.
"The good doctor says you are losing weight. Are the rations not sufficient?"
"The rations are sufficient." I meet her eyes for a moment, the brass buttons of a raptor, and look down again. Her eyes are sewn all over her coat.
"In a way," she says, putting her hands behind her back, "you're very lucky to be here. In several ways. You've been informed, I'm sure, of the fates of those with whom you were arrested."
I marvel for a moment at the gymnastics she's made that sentence perform so that she doesn't end it with a preposition, then woozily look up again. She's right; I am losing weight. I am hungry, I'm not thinking clearly. I sound it out again in my head as if I were eight years old again and learning to read. What did she ask me again? "No."
"Do you wish to know?"
I don't. I can guess. In the silence, she turns on her heel, walks the single pace to the window, peers down.
"The Pact," she says. "And remind me again. What was the full name? Of your little 'group.' What did that come from?"
"The Pact of Those Who Would Not Fight At Lugos."
"Ah, of course. Where it all began. That shitheap."
From her elegant mouth, the coarse word startles me; she smiles at my involuntary twitch. But I was never going to have any dignity in front of her, I realize. That was the point of this meeting. She wants something. Something the interrogations have not yet asked me to provide.
Lugos was one of those villages that all city folk call a shitheap. (It is not one now, of course, or it wasn't when I left; it was a smudge of soot at the bottom of a crater two miles wide.) A farming place of dry and salty soil at the edge of an ancient lake, good mostly for barley and oilseeds and not much else. For a few years they had been lucky with rain and babies, the two resources most precious there; but their luck ran out when the Meddon broke through the defense line, and the village found itself pressed like an olive pit between our reinforcements and the incoming enemy. Our soldiers arrived first, and demanded that everyone who could raise arms do so against the Meddon.
And those of us who had already declared our affiliation did not.
Are you with the enemy? they asked.
We are with peace, said our leader. We are with life.
So they named us for that, for the so-called cowards who evacuated the village, loosed the livestock, and put people on trains for the city, for the ones who ran from the foe.
For a while they simply called us 'the Lugos,' and then, when pledges had been drawn up, and the articles of non-engagement, and we tacked the small iron pins to our collars, we signed a pact. Then, they began to call us the Pact, and we had enemies on all sides. The Meddon cut us down without regard; our own soldiers hunted us; civilians (but who was left that you could call a civilian, in this war) took out their grief and frustration upon us, in mobs, in midnight ambushes, at the end of ropes. They would have tarred and feathered us if the army had not requisitioned all the tar in the country.
The general's voice is soft. "Not all of them have been terminated. Did you know that, Alefret? Many live. In other facilities."
"No one has said anything about trials," she says, almost apologetically. "Where did you get that idea?"
"It is in the constitution of this country. A fair trial is—"
"I can see they schooled you well, your associates," she interrupts. "You recite these things. But during times of war, under martial law, punishment for the act of treason may be implemented by any member of the Varkallagi military above and including the rank of lieutenant. Or by the equivalent rank of any of our allies."
"That law was taken off the books. It is unconstitutional."
"It has been reinstated with its full legal weight, Alefret. More than a year ago."
"Then why am I not dead?" I cry, and in my rage I rise from the stone, forget my wound, teeter, and crash into the wall, catching myself with one hand. My palm slips off the moss and sends me to the floor in a heap, and for long moments I can only lie there, startled, breathing the dirt and spores of the floor.
At eye level is a little piece of graffiti I have read many times before, from the early weeks when I fell like this several times a day: I GUVOR WILL KILL TIYAT ONE DAY I SWER. Chiseled painstakingly into the stone perhaps using a nail or a sharpened fork, in small spidery letters, the moss avoiding it, the lichen avoiding it, as if the hatred of this child were enough to kill even with words.
Both visitors say nothing until I have worked myself back up and sat on the shelf, heart pounding. It goes so fast these days, it is as if I am running even when I sleep. My blood feels slow and thick, but I feel it rise into my face as I lift my chin to the general, or whatever she is—lift it to the rapturous raptor eyes, the two brass buttons above the rows and rows of brass buttons she put on this morning. Outside, there is a small, creaturely sound: mops and buckets, the young soldiers cleaning the dove-grey stone. There is no glass on my window. They know I cannot fit, and they know I will not try to jump, and they know I cannot escape.
"You are alive," she says, in her measured, expensive accent, "because the doctor is unable to kill you with his monstrosities. And you are being fed and cared for because the doctor does not run this place. I do."
"What do you want from me?"
She smiles. Her teeth are sharp, even, and yellow—the teeth of a pipe-smoker, but also, disquietingly, of a predator. "You played a difficult game before your arrest, hmm? Like tsques, with some extra pieces. Because you, your piece, could only be killed, would not fight, and would run off the board claiming you were trying to save the oldsters and babies... but there is no piece like that. You made up new rules for this old game. You chiseled a new piece."
"We were not playing at war. What we did was not a game."
"Look at you," she says indulgently. "Shaking like that. Do you want to hit me? No, of course you do not; you are all too pure for that. Listen, Alefret. I want you to play for me a different game. You already know many of the pieces."
"A game called peace." She folds her arms, the medals jingling: a calculated move. But I don't envy prizes for killing. "You want to play that, don't you? I've read your manifesto. A beautiful piece of writing. You doubt me? You don't think I did? For the preservation of human life, no sacrifice can be too great; we in the Pact will hold it above all else, and seek to convey the value of life to all we encounter. Now, I am not even asking you to sacrifice life or limb. I am not asking you to shed one drop of blood."
"Then you are asking me to sacrifice my principles."
"It's all I have left. Life, limb, one drop of blood. And those. No."
"You have not heard my offer yet. The rules of the game."
"No." My voice sounds dull to my ears: I listen to the echoes for a moment, checking for defiance, resignation, anything. It just sounds hungry and tired. Like everyone here. "No. No. I will not play."
Responding to its cue, whatever that might be (I have never figured it out: smell? sound?) one of the wasps zooms down from the ceiling, cutting past the general's face; she recoils with a cry of disgust as it crash-lands on my leg, drives in the sting. Leaving, it crawls over the back of my hand, pausing for a moment to harvest whatever little warmth still emerges from myskin.
The general glances at the corner of the ceiling where a dozen wasps squirm and writhe, constantly in motion to keep themselves warm enough to fly. Several have been marked with painted dots by the doctor's assistants, and so the overall effect is of the bright lights that swirl in front of my eyes when I stand up each morning, faint with starvation.
"We saved you, treated you. We are performing a miracle on your leg that has never been done before. We give you drugs to stave off infection, keep you from screaming in the night. You are costing us a fortune in money, time, labour, space."
"I did not ask you to save me. Or experiment on me."
"You owe us everything. You owe us your life."
"I will pay it."
"You would die rather than do this thing that I have not even described to you? This thing that could end the war. Save millions of lives. Hmm?"
"I cannot participate in your war," I explain again, wearily; I have written this so many times in the interrogations that my hand begins to move involuntarily, shaped as if to grip an invisible pen, startling the wasp, who clings more tenaciously. And if she has read our articles, she knows this already anyway. "In any way. In any fashion. I cannot be of assistance to any of you, except to rescue your wounded and move them to safety. I cannot."
"You mean you will not. You can do anything you want."
"I cannot, I will not."
Now she will threaten me, I think. Not with death, which I am prepared to accept, which I think I was preparing to accept long before this war broke out. She will threaten me with pain (more than my weekly quota). Mutilation, perhaps; I still have part of one leg, and two arms, after all, and a full complement of fingers, toes, and one earlobe. Starvation perhaps: she knew what she was doing, asking about my weight. There is such a cruelty in starvation, and only those who have experienced it before know exactly how bad it is; before the war, I had had no idea, I had never seen anyone in my village so much as go hungry. Now I know.
What else? Cessation of the wasps who carry the painkilling drugs. She might kill them in front of me, because she knows it would bother me, to see the death carried out, to watch them struggle, would bother me. I brace myself for these threats. They too are a war in which I will not fight.
"You want the war to go on," she says. "Is that it? For millions of people to die because you will not unbow your head. You will have killed them."
"Not I. You. Your army. And the enemy."
"A rote answer. They will not surrender; they will continue to attack and kill our soldiers. And if we surrender, they will kill indiscriminately. Civilians, soldiers, the sick, the old, the hidden, babies. Down to the last fancy piebald mouse in the last fancy scrollwork cage. We must end this war. And we must end it by winning, or we will be destroyed. We will be ashes. You will be ashes."
"Yes. All of you murderers will be ashes. Good. Good."
In the doorway, the minder hisses, a small shocking noise, inhuman. Not catlike, not snakelike. The general laughs. "Will you at least let me tell you my plan?"
I cannot stop her, and she knows it, so she does: infiltration, secrecy, a last-ditch attempt at espionage when the mere act of throwing bodies at the bodies of the enemy is failing for lack of bodies. "You have to remember that we are not animals. We work in control of our instincts. They, the enemy, they are animals. But in time, even animals can learn. So we have to change our tricks. Constantly, intelligently. With calculation. Even a bird or a rat may plan two or three steps ahead. We, we must plan many more than that. And before winter sets in."
So: myself and a chaperone receiving admittance into the Meddons' last city as pacifists. Then the treachery: a thorn hidden in the rose, or a needle inside a fig, completing a mission in which I would have no part, dismantling either the city's flotation runes or the remnants of its hold-out government, and holding it hostage until the Meddon surrendered at last.
"They have not surrendered at the loss of all their other cities," I tell her, as if she does not know this, and she says, "I know," as if I do not know that their king and queen, and the two little princesses, live there. Are trapped there, I should say. It is a siege city. Besieged by us. We would love to capture it, people whispered back in the city, mostly soldiers fleeing the front; but we cannot, so we settle for crashing them and letting our scientists study how they work, hoping to duplicate the technology one day.
"You don't need me. Why not just send two soldiers?"
"But you do not know your own importance, Alefret," she says, and the room seems to darken around her, gather billows of black silk to cover our faces, cover the window, murder the light. And I, who am twice her size and half her age, cower under this new darkness, the change in her voice. "Or should I say infamy? They know you, the enemy. Why do you think we arrested you first, hoping you would lead us to the others? They know you as the most famous coward in the land. They know your face, they know your name. They sing revolting odes to your cowardice, they write plays about it. If you appeared at their doorstep they would welcome you in and empty their cellars of wine.
"You are the face of the movement of traitors that the Meddon think will win the war. You are the voice of the silent, worm-crawling bastards who will not fight, and will not work, and want our country to be crushed underfoot by those monsters. They know you. They know you. And if you speak the name of someone else, they will know him too."
"I... no. They will see it in my face, they will..."
"No. Alefret." She is still smiling, a smile like a bite. "Look at your face. You are capable of lying. At what price?, you say. I have no husband, no wife, no children for you to find and destroy. Kill me, kill me. Look at your face. You want to die. They will see only that. And they will not see you lie. And after they welcome you into their arms, we will welcome you back. As the hero that ended the war in one bloodless night. With your beautiful new leg. And your Pact comrades free and pardoned, and fresh monuments to them and you put up in the city squares."
I stare up at her, the emptiness inside me churning. I know how this ends, I know how this all ends. They will promise me extra food. Drugs for the leg: that burgeoning bone. Liquor, candy. Things we have not seen in years. And at the end of my journey, the knife in my back, my body in a gutter somewhere to scare children. She already knew I have no family. She knows the jokes: That my mother stepped over a heap of dung when she carried me, that my face makes God turn away in shame, that no woman or man would have me no matter how dark the night, except that I might take them like a dog so they do not have to look. And then they must steal away before dawn... it is not that I mind being ugly, or dying and leaving my ugliness to frighten people. It is my people, my comrades, who took me in and loved me after Lugos, and who never made me fear for this little spot of skin and nerve between my shoulderblades. If I can save them, if they can spread the word. If they can convince people to lay down their swords and guns. If... if they live. If the others live. If I can...
She says, "Are we agreed?"
I don't know. I don't know. My stump hurts again despite the shot, a pain I feel in my back teeth. Everywhere I am burned and scarred but nothing hurts like this, not even those first moments when I thought I could still run, everything white and ringing from the bomb's blast, and fell in the street... millions, she says. Are millions still alive? Millions of lives. On our side, on theirs. If it could work, if it could really work.
"And you promise no blood will be shed," I whisper thickly.
"I promise. I am a woman of my word. As you are a man of yours."
Am I betraying my fellows? Those who died for our beliefs? By trying to save them? By trusting these people who say they will do so? I don't know if I am.
I shudder while I am prepared the next morning, the birch-sapling doctor fluttering around me with his cold hands. He is more than upset, he is furious, nearly in tears; he was not consulted, this is a slap to the face; it is a theft of valuable research material, no, worse than that, it is taking his priceless test subject, his hundreds of hours of work, his precious and irreplaceable chemicals, and throwing everything into the incinerator. For this, he shouts, he has sold his name; to buy equipment and reagents, no other reason. And now this. Now this.
I would be flattered by his solicitude if his fretting was truly for me and not for himself (his career, his reputation, his funding, his whole rich soft comfortable life after the war with thousands and thousands and thousands of survivors clamouring for new limbs, and soon enough the ability to purchase another name).
"My animals cannot be subjected to this journey. I cannot let you take them. I will not. I will not." He rises on his tiptoes to growl into the face of the general, and for a moment he is a man entirely without fear, made brave by desperation, making this threat display at the larger, taller predator. Behind him, in their glass cases, other small things stop and stare, and press their legs and antennae to the glass that vibrates with his anger.
She is unmoved. "You have your orders."
"Fuck orders! Each of these takes months to—"
"You have your orders."
"They will die! And what of my test subject?! He is mine, he belongs to me! And the work is not done! How will I get observations?"
"They will be looked after each and every one." She glances at me, and over my shoulder at my shadow, my minder. "Won't they, Corporal Qhudur?"
It takes me a moment to realize what she has done. It is him, this permanent scowl, who has dragged me along the stone corridors, poured the slop bucket onto my head, held me down for the interrogators' irons, choked me in rope restraints till I lost entire days, that is taking me to the floating city. Him that I will have to vouch for, me, the famous pacifist. The man who cannot lie.
"This mission cannot be," I begin, and the general shushes me.
"I suggest you hide whatever you fear your eyes will show at the crucial moment," she says. "It is a useful skill for life, and one you will need after the war."
After the war. After the war.
We are of the people who burn our bridges after landing, both so that we cannot retreat, and so that the enemy cannot use them either for transport or timber. We are of the people who have, many times, blown up bridges and destroyed fords with our own people still in retreat, to deny the enemy the chance to advance. We are of the people that will throw people away.
I swallow, and nod.
Maya sits staring straight ahead. Then she scoops the cat off the floor and hugs him, hard. He lets her hug him for a moment then struggles to get away, and she lets him go. He walks off towards the desk, but sits down half way there and washes his back leg furiously.
"That's only part of the story," she says, tentatively.
"Yes. It could still have a hopeful ending," he agrees.
"It was so good, so well written, so vividly awful," Maya says.
"I guess some stories have to be like that," he says. "They can be hard to read, but we need that."
Maya nods, and forces a smile. "Nothing to eat," she says.
"Shall we read something more fun next?" he asks.
Maya nods, and he hands her the next book from the pile. "Tina Connolly, Texts From My Mother About the Alien Invasion. That doesn't sound very cheerful!"
"Trust me," he says.
"Well, at least it'll have aliens," Maya says.
And they read.