Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Two Choices

            The ride up the lift took a long time. For several moments, Nascine stood in silence. Darron had explained on the walk over that they would pass through a “shared space.” The space was somehow both in Narcia and Retrein, and by walking through in a certain way or direction – that detail was foggy – one would step out of it in one place or the other.
            When she got in the elevator, she had asked him when they would pass through it, but he claimed they already had. There had been no indication that they were passing through some sort of magical portal. They had simply walked through an ordinary building and, apparently, had come out somewhere far away.
            She looked Darron over. He was tall, with black skin and wide eyes that seemed to scan his surroundings with constant vigilance. He wore a high-necked jacket not unlike the one she wore on her bike, but his was kept unzipped, presumably to allow easier access to the gun he kept at his side.
            She did not trust Barclay or any of these people. She was only confident that they were not going to kill her because logically, there was little reason to have kept her alive so long. They had not questioned her, and had never suggested any kind of ultimatum.
            She had been drowning. That she would believe. The smell in her hair after she had first woken up had all the elements of a filthy, urban river. And given that she had wound up with this lot immediately afterward, it stood to reason that they had been the ones to fish her out.
            But beyond that, there was little she could take at face value.
            “So I will arrive at the hospital. Your people will check me out. I will report to the Rookery and tell them only that I was taken in my apartment and that I woke in the hospital.”
            “Yes. Anything before you were drugged and after the hospital is up to you whether to tell them or not.”
            She nodded. There were decisions to make.
            First, ought she to defy them? After all, it was possible that Barclay was just as good as he said he was. Perhaps Darron and his ilk were true allies. Second, did they expect her to defy them? The House seemed to be quite good at misdirection. Did they expect her to defy them, and thus, by doing so, would she be serving their purposes? If she were to tell the Rookery about Barclay’s team, it could draw attention to Barclay and away from the mole. Yet by following their commands, was she not betraying her own side in hiding information from them?
            The difficulty in deciding this question was that, in order to do what was correct, she needed not to determine her trust in Barclay, but rather his trust in her.
             The lift slowed. It was one of these rudimentary, industrial lifts that one imagined one would find in a mine. On two sides, the bare rock wall slid down around them. They were ascending slowly enough that the bright, industrial lights set into the rock around them made a kind of shadow-puppetry of them on the opposite wall. With each floor, Nascine and Darron’s figures would elongate until they were great towers of shadow, and then vanish, to be replaced with a new set of shadows.
            Finally, the lift came to a stop. The door opened, but there was still no sunlight. Instead, there was just a large tunnel carved from white stone. Apart from the lights around the lift, there did not appear to be any more illumination, so that there was just a square of darkness that emerged as one looked farther down the tunnel. “Take this flashlight,” said Darron, and he handed her one of the gallon-sized torches arrayed just outside of the lift’s door.
            “Where will this let out?”
            “It’s a small town named after the ruins left there.”
            “I hadn’t heard of it.”
            “The ruins have been picked over for a while. They date back before Meriah. Built by the Woodfolk.”
            “I see.” It was a little frustrating that this Narcian knew more about the place than she did, but then, the Rookery tended to focus on things abroad. After all, you couldn’t steal artifacts for Retrein if they were already in the country.
            “We’re about a track east of Ravenfort,” said Darron.
            Twenty miles away, thought Nascine. And East! Not downstream. How far did they carry me from the river?
            The old mine was fairly linear, and the few turns they made were at right angles. It dawned on her that the mine hadn’t been built to follow a particular vein of ore or to haul blocks of stone either. It was probably only there to access the shared space.
            And who had been behind such a thing? Was it the House? Surely, if it was not the House, then how would they keep such a place a secret?
            “How are you doing? Do you need a rest?” They had been walking for nearly an hour. Darron pulled a thin canteen out of his jacket and offered it to her. The air here was dry and cold. She took a sip from it and passed it back. Darron took a big swig. He set down his torch, allowing it to project a long, narrow cone of light that spread out and faded as it grew more distant.
            It was dark. Darker than Nascine had ever seen. Where the light of the torches did not touch the stone, there was only inky blackness, or perhaps just a bare, faint reflection from light that had bounced between the walls many times. If they were to turn off their torches, it would be like total blindness.
            If the torches were destroyed, they might be forever lost.
            Now is not your time, Emily, she said to herself.
            “How much farther is it?” asked Nasicne, attempting to sound only bored and tired.
            “Not that far,” said Darron, providing absolutely no useful information. Except that perhaps he was unsure. Or perhaps he wished her to remain unsure. Even “not much farther” might have suggested they were over halfway through. He had either chosen those words precisely, Nascine decided.
            He was sure or he was not sure. She could tell the Rookery everything or nothing.
            Nascine recalled now an anecdote about a head of state, she believed it had been Jaran Hashel, President of Narcia about thirty years ago, who had been infamous for being an unintelligent puppet of his advisors. Hashel, she believed, had explained that he was the “Decider.” His Vizier of Security, whose name Nascine could not remember, explained this nickname in an interview that every morning, he would brief the President and present Hashel with the options he had, and then the President would decide between them.
            Of course, the troubling truth of all this, plain to see, was that it was really the Vizier – an unelected official – who was determining the policy of the nation. President Hashel was presented with the illusion of having only two choices, and thus, his Vizier was able to control him.
            Barclay had, effectively, given her two options: In following his instructions, she would be telling the Rookery that he did not exist. In defying him, she would be telling them that he did.
            Yet implicit in these two options was what Barclay would get either way: that Nascine return to the Rookery.
            The tunnel stretched onward into darkness. Darron plodded on steadily. He was just slightly behind her, so that she could only see him in her peripheral vision. Nascine slowed her pace, ever so slightly, so that after twenty steps or so, she would be behind him. Darron slowed to match her, always remaining behind her.
            Not here. Not now. You don’t know the way.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2014)