Thu, 15 October 2009 - 10:30 pm

Behind the curtain

For the past few days, I’ve been trying to think of a way to get to the General. I have considered many ways to escape Jonah’s watchfulness, though they made me feel guilty in advance; I didn’t want to get him in trouble. He has been good to me when he didn’t have to be and I don’t have anything against him. I even tried asking him to take me to the admin building a couple of times, but he shook his head and said that I had to stay in my designated areas – the infirmary and the dorms, with brief trips to the mess hall.

It was so frustrating. The General is so close but I can’t get to him. There’s something going on that no-one will talk about, and it just killed three men. One of the survivors might never use his arm again. There are fresh stains on the infirmary floor, none of them pleasant. We’re running out of disinfectant to scrub away the smell with.

Then suddenly, there he was, right here in the infirmary: the General, in his neatly-pressed uniform with its shiny buttons and impressive epaulettes. He looks so neat until you get up close and see the frayed threads. He was talking with the patients quietly when I saw him, patting shoulders and hands reassuringly. I thought his hair looked greyer since I’d seen him last, the ageing creeping out from his temples to swathe his whole head.

My pulse juddered uncertainly as I went to position myself close to the doors. I wasn’t going to interrupt him – the two injured fellas, Draskill and Pauly, seemed heartened by whatever he was saying to them – but I wasn’t going to let him leave easily either.

As it turned out, I didn’t need to ambush him and demand his attention. He stopped in front of me and looked me squarely in the eye, with a sharpness to his gaze that made me self-conscious. I restrained the urge to tug my shirt straighter or glance away.

“I hear you want to talk to me,” he said. Straight to the point – I like that.

“Yeah, I do. Probably not in public, though.” He had his usual escort of cutouts with him, a grim-faced man behind either shoulder. And I didn’t want Draskill and Pauly to hear what we were talking about. Those guys need to heal up.

The General gave me an assessing look – the kind that makes my skin crawl uncomfortably – and waved his escort away. We moved off to the side of the room, but not out of it. It meant I had to make an effort to keep my voice down, just between us. I was nervous – I had gone over how I’d approach this a hundred times, but it still felt like a test I was about to fail. I took a breath and grabbed hold of my courage, and opted to just dive right in there and see which way the tide was flowing today.

“I want to know why you’re not doing anything about the sabotage,” I said. My courage sat on the back of my tongue, waiting to see if it had to run and hide.

The General’s eyes narrowed and demanded to know what I was talking about. So I told him what I knew: that this wasn’t the first time the Converter had been damaged, and each disaster in this place seemed to involve it. At least, the ones I knew about.

“I don’t believe in curses or that God is doing this,” I said. “It’s being done on purpose, and it’s killing people.”

His expression clamped down, trying to shut off the conversation right there, but I caught a glimpse of something that stabbed ice into my belly. It was so much more – so much worse – than I had assumed. The pieces shifted in my head into a pattern, a sickening picture that I didn’t want to look at. The whole room got darker.

That was when my dad’s words rang in my head, carried on his sadness. “It’s nothing, Faithy.”

I thought he had been fobbing me off, but he had been telling me the truth. It was so obvious. The Converter was nothing: an illusion. The roof collapse was keeping the citizens of Oz from seeing the curtain that hid the wizard. The General didn’t just know about the sabotage; he ordered it.

My mouth opened but nothing came out. In hindsight, that was probably a good thing – who knows what kind of trouble I would have got myself in if I had been capable of forming words at that moment.

“They were accidents,” the General said, biting off the words precisely. He leaned in closer to me and I suddenly realised how big he is: as tall as Thorpe and almost as wide. I’m tiny next to him, and I felt it. “Nothing more. Do yourself a favour, Faith. Leave it alone. You’ll only end up hurting yourself if you push this. Do you understand?”

I stared at the General like a horrified rabbit and nodded. Usually, I’m the first one to speak when others can’t; this time, it was me who couldn’t make a sound.

His heel squeaked when he turned and stalked off, tugging his escort along with an imperious gesture. I could feel my heart thumping out of time with his boots as he stomped out of the infirmary.

 

I wish I had pushed him. I wish I had made him explain to me what the hell he thinks he’s doing, setting this thing up and then tearing apart its edges so that no-one can see the whole thing. Once anyone sees the Converter, they’ll know it won’t work and this whole place will come crashing down around us.

If I had pushed him, I think he would have had me killed to keep his secret. I think he still will, if he thinks I’m a danger to his project.

I remember the look on the General’s face when he told me about the other bases when I visited his office last. He told me how they imploded and tore themselves apart, one by one. Matt told me that cutouts are just men; their discipline is thinner than anyone would like to admit. Give them a little of what they want and they’ll accept the rules and the restrictions; letting them become unhappy is dangerous for everyone.

I thought that was just about sex, but it’s so much more. This whole place is a construct of compromises and lies designed to keep people just happy enough to stop them rebelling. There’s no truth in any of it. There’s no future here. Any real hope was left out in the rain long ago.

The question now is: what do I dare to do about it?

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