It was pitch black in her room. She liked to think in the dark, it made everything invisible, left her alone with her thoughts. And her thoughts weren't light ones.
Every day she grew to hate the Society. Every morning she woke up and continued working for them, sneaking around in the shadows. She had given up her life for this existence of intrigue, plotting, and assassinations. Why? Oh, the Society had some higher purpose, something they wanted to accomplish. But lowly grunts like her would never know what it was. If they didn't know, the information couldn't be tortured out of them. The logic was simple.
Moving quickly, with the catlike grace she had acquired during her years working here, she walked to the small console in the center of the room and sat in front of it. Turning it on, her face was bathed by its greenish glow. She hesitated a moment, then keyed in a command with sudden determination. She barely breathed as a man's face appeared on the screen, his commanding presence filling up the distance between them.
"Why are you calling me, Agent?" he demanded, "I thought you had your orders."
She fought to still the shaking of her hands and with every ounce of strength in her said softly, "I can't do this anymore. I..." she took a shaky breath, "I want out."
The man's frown deepened and he leaned forward, seeming to stare right through her into her heart, "It's too late for that," he said simply, "Don't you think?"
She steeled her face into the expressionless mask she had worn for many years, "I just want my life back. Let me go and I'll never bother you again." Even as she said it the foolishness of her words struck here. As if they'd ever just let her go.
"I'm sorry," the man said calmly, "I'm afraid we can't do that. You knew what the job entailed when we recruited you. You've promised to live by the ideals of the Society, and..." he smiled, although it wasn't a comforting sight, "...die by them."
She nodded, "Yes sir. I'm sorry I bothered..."
He leaned forward, interrupting her, "Agent, I expect obedience from my subordinates. If any of them have doubts their efficiency is harmed. Inefficient soldiers will be...eliminated." The monitor went black and the darkness in the room took an ominous quality. She sank down in her chair, gripping her hands until her knuckles went white. Stupid, stupid, stupid. What had she done? Somewhere farther down the hall she heard faint footsteps. They grew closer, louder every second, dozens of feet in leather boots approaching her. Every footstep seemed to echo -- ...eliminated...
Lillian Beyrill sat up suddenly, her eyes wide.
A stray ray of sunlight filtered through the grate high up on the wall of her room. Her alarm was beeping urgently, and the sounds of morning activity could be heard outside the walls.
Pushing her dark hair out of her face Lillian breathed deeply, whispering, "A dream...it was just a dream. As if I'd ever do anything that brainless." She rolled out of bed and walked to the bathroom, grabbing a clean uniform on the way. She dressed quickly, and plaited her hair into its usual tight braid. On her way out she turned back to make sure everything was in order.
The room was really no bigger than a large closet. The small bunk occupied one corner, the console and a small desk the other. The bathroom was separated from the rest of the room by an enclosure. The few of her possessions that weren't yet packed, lay about neatly.
She felt a bit claustrophobic suddenly and hurried out.
On her way to the mess hall she passed several other agents, all in black, their faces as expressionless as her own. They were also staying briefly at Society Headquarters, before moving on to their next assignment. Headquarters itself was a small underground complex, consisting of the mess, several rooms, and in the center the brain of the Society, where the main computers were housed, and where only the very top ranking members were allowed to enter.
Walking in she filled her tray with a grayish, nondescript substance resembling oatmeal, and a glass of caffeine dissolved in some unmentionable substance, and sat down on a bench in the corner. While she was eating, another agent came in repeated her actions, and occupied the other corner. Not a word was spoken.
The oppressive silence seemed to close in on her, and she suddenly felt every ton of earth pressing down on her. The air seemed stale and lifeless and breathing came in gasps. Getting up quickly she disposed of the remains of her breakfast and strode out.
Some instinct made her stop at her room and gather up the remaining items into her black backpack. Slinging it over her shoulder she boarded the lift up to the top floor. As it moved noiselessly upwards she paced the cabin restlessly, not sure of what she was doing, but knowing she had to get above ground.
At the surface she was met by a guard who blocked her path. "Agent?"
Lillian thought quickly, "The shuttle I'm using for my next assignment is currently in use, but should be returning today. I'm going to watch for it, since I want to get underway as soon as possible."
"Yes, Agent, let me just check that..." He turned to his computer and started keying in commands.
Lillian gazed down on him with the most supercilious, most patronizing look she could manage, "Are you saying that you don't believe me, *Guard*?"
The guard shook his head. With a final narrow-eyed glare at him Lillian climbed the metal ladder to the surface and lifted up the trap door. Reddish sand trickled into her face and the bright sunlight almost blinded her, despite the dark glasses she had donned. But the air...
Lillian pulled herself up through the opening and closed the trap door behind her, pushing some sand over it to hide its location. Then she straightened and filled her lungs with the first deep breath, arid and dust-filled as it was, she had taken in ten years.
She didn't know how long she had been walking. Once the euphoria of being free, in theory if not entirely in fact, had passed, some inner instinct of self-preservation had pushed her to start walking. The direction was meaningless but she chose north, with some fuzzy notion of not having the sun in her eyes. Then she set off.
She had a very vague idea of geography. Those up top made the strategies, planned the campaigns. Soldiers like her just fought. If reconnaissance was required, they were told only the details their role would demand. She had no idea of her destination.
Rusty red was the predominant color of the landscape. It was the color of the never-ending sand and the jagged rock outcroppings, and it was the color the dust painted the sky. For the first time since the mad thought had entered her mind, Lillian wondered what exactly she was doing. In just a few hours she found her situation extremely altered, and herself lost in a desert of whose dimensions she was ignorant, without food, water, or provisions, and probably with a squadron of armed soldiers on her track. It was a wonder she wasn't already dead. However had she got into this position? Wasn't forethought an essential for an Agent?
But then she wasn't an Agent anymore.
Lillian's thoughts were becoming more and more gloomy, not any less so because they were now muddled by exhaustion and thirst. In the distance she though she could see a group of figures whose outlines seemed unlike those of the rock formations, and she remembered hazily something about people who saw images that didn't exist after being a long time in the desert. She thought she could hear voices and footsteps...so many footsteps...eliminated....
But that was all wrong! Agents wouldn't be making so much noise, they were trained for stealth...
The last things Lillian remembered before consciousness deserted her was a pair of boots standing a few inches in front of her face.
Water was dripping into her mouth. It tasted foul and was full of sand and dust, but she gulped it down eagerly.
"Don't drink too much now, you'll be sick. Awake, are you?" said a grating voice that sounded as full of sand as the water, somewhere above her.
Lillian's eyes opened and she tried to sit up, only to be pushed back by a strong, callused hand. For a moment, the world was nothing but a jumble of fuzzy images, until the dizziness receded and she could focus.
Looking down at her was a figure completely muffled in scarves of a colorful appearance, despite the dust that coated them. Some straggly locks of hair hung down from the turban-like affair arranged over the person's head, and various utensils and leather pouches were attached to his wide leather belt. From one of these pouches he extracted some herbs, pounded them on a rock and poured the resulting mixture of sand and plant bits over Lillian's face. She quickly shut her eyes and coughed.
Recovering from the coughing fit, she freed an arm and wiped her face, before raising herself up as much as she could with his hands still pressing down on her chest, and looking around.
In front of her was a grouping of short, stout horses, weighed down with blankets and sacks of cargo, a few covered wagons, and several individuals like the one who was holding her down. All of them, including the horses, were looking at her curiously.
"Where am I?" she asked, addressing the question to the entire congregation.
"The Desert," her nurse answered, uninformatively.
"Who are you?" Lillian tried again.
"Traders. We follow the caravan route across the Desert."
"Where are you going?"
"East." His voice hardened. "And who are you?"
"I --" she began.
"You are an Agent," the trader answered his own question, pointing scornfully at her rust-colored camouflage uniform. "What do you want with us? We do not harm you."
"I'm not an Agent anymore," Lillian said, as humbly as she could, "I've escaped, and I need your help, if you can give it."
"Ha!" the trader scoffed, turning to the others to invite them to share in the joke, "An Agent, wanting our help?"
Lillian felt her meek mask slipping. "I said. I'm not. An Agent. Anymore. I ran aware, deserted. You understand?"
"How do we know we can trust you?" asked another trader, stepping forward from the group.
"I have a weapon," Lillian said desperately, noticing whispers coming from the other traders. "Once an Agent, always an Agent," one of them said, and others nodded assent. "Let me come along to protect you."
"We don't need your protection," said the one that had stepped forward. "I say we kill her now!"
Her nurse raised a hand and pronounced, "No. We will take her along. We have more than enough to share. Those who disagree can leave." There were a few rumblings from the group, but no one moved. "Good. Are you fit?" She nodded. "Then get up." Lillian did so, and the trader draped her in several pieces of cloth, like those of the others, effectively covering her Society uniform. Another length of material was wound about her head, and a fold of it pulled down to shade her face.
The caravan wasted no more time than was necessary and by the time Lillian was ready the wagons had already began to move. She fell in stride with one of the packhorses and set off across the desert.
They had been walking for several days, resting only when it got too dark to see, when one the traders noticed a faint cloud of dust on the horizon.
"A dust storm," said the leader, for such the one who had revived her must have been, "We must hurry to reach the rocks." He motioned to a large, irregular formation some distance off, and their speed increased.
The sun was setting by the time they were near their destination and the spectacular sunset caused by the dust in the air made the surroundings an even more vivid shade of red. The dust cloud had grown larger and seemed to be approaching the caravan at a great speed.
"Take the horses and walk ahead," the head trader told Lillian, "There is a spring behind the biggest stone. Let the horses drink and fill the canteens." Lillian would have taken umbrage at his commanding tone and slightly too detailed instructions, but decided that her situation didn't allow her to be offended. Mutely taking the leads of the two horses that were not attached to wagons, she headed towards the largest stone.
She had barely reached it when the ever-growing cloud resolved into two armored vehicles, each full of Agents, weapons at the ready. Lillian viewed them with alarm, but not surprise, and, pulling the horses behind her, she dove behind the slab of rock and leaned against it, motionless, hardly daring to breathe. Lighting-fast thoughts flew through her mind. Would they search the rock formation? Did they know she was with the caravan? If they did, they would look for her. How would they have known? What could she do if they found her? One gun against two dozen?
On the other side of the boulder she could hear the sound of the two vehicles pulling to a stop. A thud and footsteps signaled one soldier, probably the commanding officer, jumping down and approaching the caravan. Voices blended together for a moment until the head trader spoke, in resonant tones quite unlike his usual speech.
"We tell you, we haven't seen the woman you speak of."
"You're lying!" the commander yelled, sounding slightly sulky. No doubt they had been searching a while already, Lillian thought with grim satisfaction.
"You have our solemn word," said the trader.
The soldiers seemed to emit a collective sniff of contempt before the officer asked, "What's in the wagons?"
"Or our fugitive! Search everything," he told the men. Sounds of objects hitting the sand, the voices of the traders raised in protest, and the curses of the Agents mixed into a general din.
"There's nothing here except dried food and trinkets, Commander," reported an Agent. He sounded very young, Lillian thought with a pang of remembrance, young and overzealous.
"Well, then," the officer said, "I suppose we better be on our way." He walked back towards the vehicle, and then tossed back with studied casualness, "Confiscate everything they have."
"You can't!" One of the traders cried out. The voice was female, high and shaking with panic. "We will never reach cultivation if you take our food and water and --"
A barked order from the commander, a scream, and the sound of a body hitting the ground. Lillian bit her lip and shut her eyes, but that only focused the sounds of the ensuing massacre more.
"Well," the commander began, in the same measured and calm tone of voice, "Never accuse me of being unreasonable. I told you that we would leave your caravan in peace if you cooperated, and I was fully prepared to keep that promise. However, since you will not..."
Lillian didn't have to see it; she knew what would happen next as surely as
if she had possessed a crystal ball. The officer was one of those bloodthirsty
men who joined the Society to wield weapons and be feared. His subordinates
were like him, tightly wound up for battle, their fingers aching to pull
triggers. A single gesture from him would release them. The gesture was given,
the order spoken. Lillian had never been afraid of fighting, but now she sank
down to the ground, her hands over her ears. A part of her was ashamed of her
weakness and she tried to focus on it, to block out the sounds.
Soon, very soon, there was only silence and vehicles riding away through the sand. She waited long after they couldn't be heard anymore to venture out from her hiding place.
The color red was even more dominant than ever. The wagons had tilted over and lay in the dust like giant carcasses. Among them more than a dozen shapeless lumps were scattered, bundles of cloth with no more life in them than the wagons.
Lillian moved amongst them mechanically, seeking for any signs of life. Her face was as expressionless as the stones at her back. She had almost reached the edge of the grizzly scene before a low groan made her turn back. It was the head trader; she could recognize him in spite of the blood and dust covering his face. A spreading crimson stain covered the front of his clothes and she didn't need much medical knowledge to know that he wouldn't last long.
"Listen to me," he whispered, his voice rough with struggling against the pain.
Lillian crouched down and motioned for him to continue.
"Take the horses. Follow the sun to the east until you come to a river. Go along it, north. You understand?"
"Good," he said and his eyes fluttered closed.
"Wait!" She cried out suddenly, "I wanted to say --" But it was too late.
Lillian sat at the same spot for a long time, long enough for the sun to noticeably change position in the sky. Then she stood up, dusted the sand from her knees, and squared her shoulders. Just a few more deaths on her conscience. But she couldn't afford to think of it now, not when there were danger and things to be done. It was just a few more deaths, after all. Not at all a convincing argument, but sufficient to push the thoughts back.
The horses still needed to be watered, that was the first order of business. Lillian began unstrapping the loads from their backs, to let them rest a little before continuing their journey. As she unloaded the second horse, the pack slipped, and the leather straps that had secured it burst open. She instantly snapped out of the half-doze she had fallen into and stared in surprise at the contents.
Lillian stood looking down at the countless weapons in the saddlebags. Well, now she knew why he wanted her to take those two horses. Dust storm, indeed! But why trust her, of all people, when he could have sent one of his own or even escaped himself?
But she knew, deep down, why the trader hadn't done so, as clearly as she knew that she would do as he had asked.
She had not wanted to think about the guns, or wander what their presence meant, as such thoughts must necessarily call up the images of death that she would rather forget. However, the weapons intruded into her thoughts in an entirely practical connection, for they meant that she couldn't ride either of the horses. More walking through the desert was something she could do without, and her pace was slowed down considerably.
Lillian concentrated on such commonplace, easily applicable reflections, and avoided any questions about her destination. Who needed supplies of weapons carried across the desert, what sort of person or people they were, what sort of reception she would get once she got there -- no such inquiries could do much good at present.
The rest of her journey was uneventful to an extreme. After the first few miles of reddish sand Lillian had fallen into a sort of walking doze from which she didn't wake until the first patches of grass began peppering the landscape. She mostly slept during the day and traveled at night, in a feeble attempt to avoid detection, drank the water from the canteens, ate the food scavenged from the wagons (the Agents had little use for it, after all), and rested in the shade of rock outcroppings, but when she suddenly looked up to see in front of her a dry, rustling grassland she found herself unable to remember any of it. The late-morning sun was shining in her eyes, but she kept going. Stopping for the day would serve no purpose since there was nowhere to hide to escape being vulnerable while asleep, so Lillian pulled a fold of the turban she had been given by the traders low over her eyes and walked on, the horses shuffling along behind her.
Her surroundings became more and more green as she proceeded, and occasionally she could see animals of some sort in the distance. It was a dramatic change from the arid desert. She had not yet been spotted by Society patrols, and this far away from Headquarters she was almost completely safe from capture. With such thoughts to lift her mood, by the time Lillian reached the river, wide and slow moving, she felt something approaching to happiness, in spite of the last few days and the last ten years.
She rested for a bit on the bank, and took a long-anticipated bath, before heading north. Trees began appearing in her path and their number gradually increased until she was in a dense green forest.
Walking through the splashes of sunlight that pierced the leafy canopy brought back long-suppressed memories of a time before Lillian had ever known the sterile interior of Society Headquarters. She didn't try to suppress them now. The woods in which she had played as a child were rather warmer and contained fewer evergreens than the one she was walking through now, but the earthy smell of growing and decaying leaves was the same. The meandering river reminded her of the clear azure sea that had been so near her parents' house, and she remember quiet afternoons spent looking at the parties fishing in the distance.
A twig snapped somewhere to her right and Lillian instantly broke out of her reverie, cursing such sentimentality. Green forests and azure seas! And all while there were piles of weapons behind her, a military organization at her back, and, several days' walk away, two dozen corpses that had died for her. This was no time for childhood memories.
The sound had probably been only an animal, but it put her on her guard. While she didn't actually know how far she would have to go to the north, something told her that she was nearing her destination.
"A stranger? You're sure?"
"Yes. A woman, with two horses. I have never seen her with Lyara's cell before."
"She could be a new recruit."
"Lyara would not have trusted a new recruit with such a mission."
"No, she certainly wouldn't have! Does she trust anyone, I wonder?"
"She trusts you."
"Maybe she does."
"You say she's dressed like a trader?"
"Then we better let her come. If you are right -- and yes, I know you are, Derek -- and there is no one with her, then she can't be very dangerous to us."
"Yes, sir. We will keep her under surveillance."
Lillian had a feeling she was being watched. Her feelings had rarely failed her before, and she proceeded with extra caution, one hand resting casually on the holster at her hip.
She had been walking all day and now, somewhere above the cover of leaves, the sun was setting, sending slanted red rays to the forest floor. She was reluctant to stop for the night, but the long travel was taking its toll, and Lillian knew that her concentration was impaired from exhaustion. Just before the light faded completely she reached a clearing. Tying the horses loosely to allow them to graze, she rested her back against a tree at its edge and allowed herself to fall into a light doze, ready to wake at the slightest disturbance.
She had been more tired than she had thought, and her sleep probably deeper than was strictly prudent. Her training intervened enough to wake her before her feet were completely bound, and she put up more of a fight than her attackers had anticipated. However, her hands were already tied, and she couldn't reach her gun. Soon they had her overpowered.
"Damn!" she cried in frustration, at her bounds and her own weakness.
Her captors, three figures a shade darker than the surrounding night, made no response. Two of them dropped her over the saddle of a horse, and in that extremely uncomfortable position she was jostled along for what seemed a long while. She could feel her insides shaking with every bit of unevenness in the road. Eventually, the darkness began to lighten, and Lillian noticed the flickering of torches between the trees in front of her.
The lights grew closer until she and her assailants entered a very large clearing, full of people, buildings, torches and campfires. The river must have been nearby, because she could hear its musical progress somewhere to her left.
She could now see the people around her clearly. All of them, men and women, wore clothing of a greenish-brown shade that must have allowed them to blend in with their surroundings. Now that she was able to think clearly she saw that there were not nearly as many of them around as she had first thought. They all stood around the horse she was so inconveniently perched on, talking in whispers and pointing in her direction. Another man joined the circle, leading the two packhorses.
To Lillian's immense relief, she was taken down from the saddle and made to stand, a hand holding up her up by the ropes that tied her hands together. She could see that something was happening. The group drew apart to admit a tall, tanned man of about thirty, with dark hair and piercing eyes, dressed in the same way the rest of them were. He seemed extremely agitated as he spoke to one of the men who had captured her.
"Derek, how could you do that without telling me?"
The one he addressed, Derek, stepped forward and looked at him defiantly. He was tall as well, well built and with a proud face and posture.
"I determined it to be the best course of action," he said flatly.
The other man's eyes flashed dangerously, "You must understand, once and for all, that while you are with my cell the best course of action for you to take will be determined by me. I told you to watch her, make sure she wasn't dangerous, and you..." he took a deep breath to compose himself, "It's possible she was just passing in this direction, without knowing anything about us. Thanks to you and the fools that followed you," his angry look took in all three of her attackers, "Now she knows."
"Sir," said Derek, imperturbable as ever, and looking straight ahead with his chin raised, "Those are clearly Lyara's horses."
"She could have found them somewhere!"
"Would you two stop it?" cried a woman from the group, stepping forward, "If you really want to know who she is and don't just plan to stand here flexing your muscles, how about asking her?"
Lillian, extremely tired of passively being debated about, shot her a swift look of gratitude. The dark-haired man gave a small rueful smile in acknowledgement, and turned to Lillian.
"Well, then, care to explain how you came by those?" he asked, pointing at horses.
She took a deep breath. "I was traveling through the desert and came upon a caravan. They...were all dead." She found herself strangely reluctant to admit her own role in their deaths. But it didn't matter. Squaring her shoulders, Lillian went on, ignoring the collective gasp of her audience, "Except one. He stayed alive long enough to tell me to take these horses east to the river and then north. I assume this is the place?"
The man nodded with forced calm. "You assume correctly. Who exactly are you, if you don't mind me asking, and why were you in the desert? It's not a very pleasant place."
Lillian didn't think it wise to point out that she did mind, not while being held captive and helpless. "My name is Lillian Beyrill. I...I was running away."
"Why?" His voice seemed almost gentle, but there was no mistaking the fact that she must answer.
"I was a member of the Society. I deserted." The group's gasps were, if possible, even louder at this startling information.
Derek raised a cynical eyebrow at her. "And yet you help a poor dying rebel, all out of the goodness of your heart? How very good of you."
Lillian met his eyes without flinching. Neither of them would have been the first to look away. They could have stood there for eternity if the other man's quiet cough hadn't interrupted the battle of wills.
"So, Lillian Beyrill, what are your plans now?"
She didn't know what to say, caught completely off guard. "Well...I'm not sure." Then, recovering, "I don't know how far ahead I can plan, tied up and surrounded. Shouldn't I be asking your plans for me?"
To her surprise, he chuckled slightly. "If you did ask, I'd tell you that it might be very useful for us if an ex-Agent joined our little resistance movement."
"Are you crazy!? You don't seriously mean to..."
Lillian and Derek spoke at once, then shot angry glances at each other. The man looked from one to the other, as if deliberating whose demand to answer first. Meanwhile, the woman who had stepped forward turned to Lillian with an enquiring look.
"You mean you don't know about us?"
She shrugged as much as she could, considering her tied hands. "I was just a soldier. If there were any resistance to the Society, we wouldn't have been told. Lowers morale."
The two men were arguing. Derek's voice was gradually rising while the other's stayed level and calm.
"She could be a spy!"
"So could you. So could I. So could any of us."
"None of us are Society deserters!"
"Would they have admitted if they were?" No reply. "She did admit it. Would she have done so if she was a spy?"
"Maybe that's what we're supposed to think!"
"You're grasping at straws, Derek. Would you be here if I had been so distrusting?"
"No," he answered hotly, "I would be with Lyara, under a leader who knows how to lead without endangering everyone by her sentimentality!"
"Call it what you like. I call it acquiring a valuable resource." The topic seemed to be closed, leaving the other man to stamp off angrily into the woods. "Nora," he said to the woman, "Give her a place to sleep and some food, and tomorrow fill her in." As the woman untied her bonds and led her into a tent, Lillian could hear him giving more orders, for the horses to be unloaded and watered and the weapons to be taken away. They were followed quickly and efficiently, and she fell asleep underneath the blanket the woman had given her, still listening to the sounds of activity outside.
"Rise and shine!"
Lillian didn't arrive at a waking state by degrees, but rather snapped into consciousness at the slightest alarm. The bright voice of the woman whose tent she had spent the night in was more than enough to wake her immediately. She opened her eyes and looked over her surroundings. The tent was dyed a forest green shade, and flakes of material of that color seemed to rain down onto everything inside, including Lillian herself. It was just big enough to contain a sleeping bag, a small wood stove of outdated Society issue, and some bags of supplies, and Lillian's sleeping bag took up more room than was strictly available, but the woman didn't seem to mind. She was busy making coffee on the stove, filling the small space with vast quantities of smoke and steam.
"It's early," Lillian stated, for lack of anything else. It must have sounded unpardonably rude, she realized, but couldn't be taken back now.
"Yeah, I know," the woman replied. A dim memory of the confused night reminded Lillian that she had heard her name, but she couldn't remember what it was. "I wanted time to give you some info about the way things are before the day starts. Coffee?"
"Thanks," she answered absently, sitting up and rubbing her temples. She felt tired and sore, the many days of travel catching up to her. However, she knew she mustn't seem weak on this all-important first day, and she rose as quickly as her aching limbs would permit her, to face the other woman on as equal a level as possible.
"So, tell me what you have to tell me."
Unexpectedly, the woman laughed. "You're not anything like I thought an Agent would be like. I imagined you'd be all ‘yes, sir' and ‘no, sir' and no substance." Her laugh turned slightly hollow, "I never thought of them as human beings, I guess. How could human beings do such things?" Before Lillian could reply, if she had had any reply to make at all, she shook her head, as if to clear it of unpleasant thoughts. "Right. Here's your coffee. I'm Nora Pillar, by the way, and I know your name already." She handed Lillian the cup. It was overcooked and tasted vile, but Lillian gulped it down, ignoring the burning it caused in her chest.
Nora sat down cross-legged on her sleeping bag and Lillian chose to do the same. They looked at each other for several seconds in silence, until Nora put down her cup and began to speak.
"Look, the main thing is that we're not just fighting for truth and justice here. It's mostly self-defense. We have something they want." She pushed back a corner of her sleeping bag and sketched an irregular shape in the loose soil. "I'm no cartographer, but you know what I mean."
Lillian shook her head, embarrassed at the ignorance she'd never known she possessed. "I'm afraid I don't. I didn't have much in the way of education."
"Guess not," Nora said and the same hollow note was in her voice again. "Well, here," she scribbled in the center of the shape, her dirty blond hair obscuring her face as she leaned down, "is the Desert. At the edge of it there're patches of grassland," clumps of three lines represented those, "and on the outside are forests, lakes, green stuff. Now the important thing is that here," she pointed to the eastern coast, "and here," the one opposite, "there are two mountain chains. That's what the Society wants." She paused, as if expecting something.
"And I'm supposed to ask why?" Lillian asked, and was completely taken unawares by the small smile she felt tugging at the corner of her lips.
Nora grinned. "Well, yes, pretty much. There are minerals in the mountains that they need. Bauxite, in particular, though I can see that the name means nothing to you. But when bauxite is treated in a certain way, a way the Society has discovered, it forms aluminum. No, you don't have to ask why they need it; I'll answer it anyway. It's not to make cooking utensils, that's for sure. Aluminum is a very light metal and alloys that include it...well, in short they want to build rockets and travel outside the atmosphere, and it's vital that we stop them."
Lillian opened her mouth, then closed it again. She recovered quickly, however, and said quietly. "I had no idea. So that's what they were planning. I'd never questioned, but the missions they sent us on..."
Nora shrugged, "I can easily believe the powers that be didn't let you in on the secret. You realize what will happen if they succeed."
She nodded, "They'd have complete power, control of everything. I can see why you're here."
"Well, it's not much of a chance, but we try. The movement is basically divided into two main cells on the east and west coast, and some small clusters scattered in between. The one on the west is controlled by Lyara Allain, and she's a major...well, we have our differences. The one on the east is right here. You met our fearless leader yesterday, he was the one not having a temper tantrum."
Lillian felt the smile trying to force its way out again, and it was all she could do to suppress it. "I think I know the one you're talking of."
"That's Alexander. Just Alexander; he makes something of a mystery over it. The sulky one was Derek Reggan, the second in command unless he makes any more stupid decisions. He worships Lyara, and wants Alexander to be more like her, a wish in which he's sure to be disappointed. That about covers it," she ended a bit abruptly, rising and brushing down her perfectly clean clothes. "You should see Morgan for something to do, he's the one with the red beard in the next tent. He'll get you a permanent place to sleep too. Oh, and here's something for you to wear." She tossed her a green and brown bundle. "You can change in here, I'll wait outside."
Lillian gratefully took off her travel-stained garments; first removing the things the traders (though she now knew that that was not what they had really been) had given her, until she got to her uniform. Even after many days' wear, the cut, the color, the fabric, all seemed as familiar as her own skin, and she felt naked in more ways than one after taking it off. Still, she was glad no longer to be wearing it -- it felt like cutting the last link to her past life, a frightening, but quite liberating sensation. The clothing Nora had given her was loose-fitting and allowed for great ease of movement; Lillian immediately felt comfortable in them.
She emerged from the tent feeling more rested and refreshed than when she first woke up. Everything felt more vivid, more brightly colored this morning, and the bleak dimness of the Society seemed very far away.
Nora was waiting for her, leaning against a stack of wooden boards with her arms loosely crossed in front of her. Her eyes darted down to the pile of clothes Lillian was carrying, and when she looked up her smile was slightly strained.
"There you are. Have to say, green is definitely your color. Brings out those eyes." Nora detached herself from the boards and walked away, calling over her shoulder, "Get some breakfast at the large campfire over there, and then go find Morgan." Then she slipped through the entrance to a large tent, without looking back.
Lillian shrugged, and went off to find something to eat.
She sat by the small tent she had been given, mindlessly peeling potatoes. It was an easy task, requiring almost no effort of concentration, and it was all she was to be trusted with at the moment. Her mind was free to enjoy (somewhat self-consciously) the beauty of the woods and the industrious noises around her. A large group was busy building a canoe, the banging of their hammers reverberating through the area. It masked, or almost masked, the agitated conversation coming from the large tent to her left. It was the one Nora had disappeared into earlier, and her voice, higher in pitch than Lillian had ever heard it be before, was one of the two involved.
"I can't do it Alex, I'm sorry but I'm just not strong enough to handle it!"
"Yes, you are." It was Alexander, the leader, speaking with calm assurance.
"I don't know why you're forcing me to do this! You have no idea how hard it is just to see her! I can't stand much more."
"Nora, sooner or later, you have to face this."
"I don't want to face it! I never want to see one of those...those Agents again, if I don't get to fill his chest with bullets!" She broke off with a groan and a muttered curse.
"She's one of them anymore, you know." He was still serene, still collected, and Lillian had a wayward thought that, if someone were to speak to her like that while she was angry, she would be highly likely to punch him.
"I know, and I wish it made a difference, but... I gave her some stuff to wear, and after she changed, she came out holding one of their uniforms!"
"I saw her throw it in the fire at breakfast."
"Alex, I know that she's different now, but I don't know if I can go on smiling, and cracking jokes, and being nice and pleasant to her, while I can still remember what she's been."
"Give her a chance, Nora, she might grow on you. In any case, she'll soon be on her own and won't need your help anymore."
"Alright. I'm sorry for losing my temper, but you know how hard it is..."
"I do know, and I apologize for putting you through this. But you really should try to put all that anger behind you. It will only hurt you, blunt your objectivity."
"Thanks." She seemed to ignore the last part of his statement, and Lillian could hardly blame her. A pause, then Nora's voice returned to normal. "So, do you want me to check out those weapons?"
"Yes, I was wondering if..." They moved farther away, probably exiting the tent at the side opposite from where Lillian was sitting, and their voices grew softer.
Her knife had stopped its actions as soon as she had realized that she was the object of their conversation. Now, she forced it to keep moving, cutting away rather more of the potato than necessary. Was that how she would always be seen -- an Agent in everything but name? She would have liked to challenge that opinion, but could think of no way of going so. After all, she didn't know how to be anything else.
Lillian got ready for bed, moving about the tent in the semidarkness, occasionally pausing to massage the tight muscles in her shoulders. Peeling potatoes had been just the beginning. Over the course of the day she had been given one mindless physical task after another, and while she was no stranger to hard labor, she couldn't remember ever lifting and carrying so many heavy objects before. She was exhausted, and would, no doubt, be terribly sore in the morning, but she welcomed the exhaustion and the promise it held of an uninterrupted, dreamless sleep.
She unbraided her hair and ran her fingers through it, reminding herself to find time for a wash the next day. Her sluggish fingers were halfway through unbuttoning her shirt, and she was thinking only of her sleeping bag and oblivion, when a quiet voice from outside called her name. Sighing in resignation and hastily refastening a few buttons, Lillian poked her head out of the tent.
The night air was cool against her face, and crickets chirped in the distance, but the object of higher priority was the form of the cell leader crouching in front of her. Alexander gave her his hand and pulled her to her feet, whispering,
"We're having a council, you should come. We may need your help."
Lillian nodded mutely. He kept a hold on her hand as they traversed the camp towards a faintly glowing tent, but that didn't prevent her from stumbling frequently over various object in their path, and feeling horribly clumsy and inadequate, completely unlike her usual self. All the grace and ease of movement she had acquired during her years as an Agent seemed to desert her, and she felt extremely uncomfortable in her own skin, and not confident at all. Stalking about in the dark, once second nature, now seemed foreign and unfamiliar.
"Here we are," said her companion as they reached the tent, "Watch your head." She ducked under the entrance and emerged into a large space occupied mostly by a wooden table, which was covered in sheets of paper, maps and the like. It was illuminated by half a dozen lanterns, and the glow they cast fell on about ten faces, looking pale and drawn in the shifting light. Nora was there, so was Derek Reggan, whom she hadn't run into since the previous night, and the blustering man named Morgan she had spoken to earlier, as well as several others that she had seen about the camp. Some of them forced smiles at her, others were cold, and a few shot thin-veiled looks of distrust, even hatred, in her direction.
"Good evening, everyone," Alexander said cheerful, seemingly oblivious to
the undercurrents of tension. "This is our new recruit, Lillian Beyrill. She
may have some important information for us, so please make her feel welcome."
He gallantly pulled out a chair for her, and sat down in the next one over.
Lillian fought the urge to scowl at him. It was unreasonable, she knew, he had yet to do her anything but good, but there was something about him that seemed...false, as if he was, if not lying, deliberately hiding some facet of himself completely unlike this blissfully ignorant persona. Ten years in the Society had given Lillian an inherent dislike of concealment.
She refused to feel guilty about distrusting him. She was only giving as good as she got.
"Now," he was saying, "This meeting is...
...called to order," said the man in black, encompassing his subordinates in a single commanding glare. "What have you to report?"
"That deserter of yours," replied the woman who sat next to him, "I have received news of her being with the eastern cell."
"You are certain it's her?" snapped the man in black.
The woman shrugged, "Fairly certain, Belius, at least until I can see for myself. My source has proven reliable thus far."
Belius made a broad gesture, "Your source may fail. I need first-hand information."
The woman nodded, "Of course. Now, about the offensive. May I suggest an attack on their left flank? It seems weakest, the sub cell is that area is poorly organized."
He glared at her, "No, you may not suggest. I have long planned an attack on the right."
"We may need your information, but need I remind you that you are not indispensable?"
"No, Belius, of course not," she answered meekly, darting a satisfied look across the table underneath her long lashes.
"Good." Another sweeping glance at the others, none of whom had said a word. "The meeting is...
...for discussing our plans for the near future. How is everyone?" The inquiry, seemingly after health and similar inconsequentials, startled Lillian, but the others didn't react in kind, but rather as if it was every bit the business-like beginning it should have been.
"We've almost finished the third canoe," reported a dark man with a very large mustache. "It will seat three men, more in an emergency. Should be enough to station a small force on the other side of Anyo Creek." He motioned to an extremely detailed map, full of topographical lines and notations. After studying it intently and mentally turning it upside-down, Lillian realized that it depicted the wide river, and beyond hills that steadily grew taller to the east. A blue line, labeled Anyo Creek, was a tributary to the river, and, at the bottom of the foothills, ran nearly parallel to it. Closer inspection revealed a bridge crossing the river, and a dotted line showing the path of the canoes across the creek.
A question occurred to her, but she hesitated before voicing it. The hesitation annoyed her, and made her voice sound slightly challenging as she asked, "Why not just build a bridge over the creek? It can't be very wide, though since it seems to be running down from the mountains into the river I can see how fording it would be difficult against the current. But a few boards should be enough for a bridge, and it'll be so much simpler---"
"Yes, it would be simpler," Derek interrupted harshly, "It would also clearly announce our intentions to the Society. But you're already doing that, aren't you, Agent?"
Lillian jumped up, overturning her chair. Her eyes shot daggers at him and she was about to lunge across the table to deliver on the threat they held, when a hand like iron closed about her arm and pulled her down.
"Derek. Lillian." Alexander didn't have to say anything else, his tone was commanding enough, stripped of all pretense at amiability.
Lillian sat down.
"What we need to know," he continued, his voice almost, but not quite, the same as before the outburst, "is where the greatest concentrations of Society forces are stationed at the moment."
Lillian pulled forward a map and tried to seem as if she knew exactly what she was talking about. "I was with a company on the northern coast last week," that seemed a fair guess, it had been very cool, and the air had smelled salty, "Most of them remained there after I returned to Headquarters, and I would guess they're still there. About a hundred, maybe less, spread out along the shore and monitoring fishing activity." The information must have welled up from some deep place in her memory, because she was sure she had never really thought about it before. "I was only there to fix their computers, I've been doing more of that sort of work lately. The younger Agents usually get the field duties." She fought her way back to the subject, pushing away the powerful remembrances that washed over her at each word. "I heard something about a regiment moving to the east, in this direction, I think they were planning a flanking movement to catch you from the back."
Alexander nodded. "Now that's useful information. Felix," he addressed the man with the mustache, "How many men do you play to send over the creek?"
Felix shrugged, "About twenty. They're old-timers, from Shira's cell."
"Good, we will need experience for this. See if Shira can't spare ten or twenty more. How strong would they attack?" The last question was addressed to Lillian.
"Regiments of about thirty," she answered, quickly estimating. "They might send three regiments or so for something like this."
"Alright. Felix, speed up the operation, once the men are across set them to work building defenses. Take the weapons from the new shipment and plenty of ammunition. Use guerrilla tactics; make them overestimate you. I know you can do that."
Felix nodded, his mustache quivering faintly in pleasure. Lillian sat looking back and forth from Alexander to his subordinates, and saw the way they all looked up to him for instructions, silently swearing to follow every word, no matter what it took. This was loyalty, given freely and not coerced or forcibly taken. It was rather a new concept to her, and when she looked back to Alexander's set, serious face it was with dawning admiration.
More business was transacted, more orders given. After a while, all the voices blended together into a steady river of sound, rising and falling in pitch and volume. Though Lillian tried to concentrate, her eyes developed an ever-increasing tendency to droop. Finally, Alexander's voice pierced through her exhaustion.
"It's late. We've done enough for tonight. The meeting is now...
...dismissed," the man in black said with finality. The others shuffled out silently, leaving him alone in front of the long table.
Belius slowly leaned back in his high-backed chair, and let his eyes fall shut. It was in moments like these that he felt his full age and more, the euphoria of command replaced by a lethargic weariness.
But he wasn't that old yet, or that frail. He would live to see the silly little rebellion crushed, if it was the last thing he did. Fools! Why were they fighting that which could not be defeated? Why did they resist, when surrender would cause such dramatic change for the better?
While they hid out in the woods and played at being Merry Men, his scientists were making leaps the likes of which had never been seen before. It was Progress. It was the Future. Yet, these ignorant fishermen and farmers chose to rise up in arms and fight it. Why? No matter. Their misguided motivations, whatever they were, were of no consequence. They could not hold out for long.
"He' s a fool!" the woman exclaimed in frustration, throwing a punch at the nearest wall.
"You say that as if it was not an advantage for us," replied the man who had received her victorious glance earlier. "He is very easy to manipulate, and supremely predictable. You tell him to go left and he goes right."
"True," the woman said with a sigh, "But I have a low tolerance for fools."
"You won't have to tolerate him for long, my love," the man said, smoothly drawing her into his arms, She let him, but pushed him away when he got too close. "Once the rebellion is defeated, we will make our move."
"If the rebellion is ever defeated, under his incompetent management!" she hissed, with a resurgence of anger.
"It will be," the man comforted, stroking her hair. She submitted to his attentions without recoiling, even permitting him to tilt up her chin and kiss her firmly. Her response was hardly enthusiastic, but it seemed to satisfy him. As he walked away with a pronounced swagger, the woman glared at his back with a mixture of contempt and hatred.
"A very low tolerance for fools, ‘my love'."
© 2001 Copyright held by the author.