October 04, 2004

Chapter 2

"It hurts to remember."

"I know it does, John, but we need your memories."

The old man sat back in the wagon, closed his eyes, and shuddered.

***

It had been fifty years since he'd left, fifty years since he'd come out of there completely lost and Rachel had found him. Rachel had known him before, but he hadn't known that either. He could speak, and get around, but he didn't know his own name, much less hers. Her family had taken him in when they'd heard he was wandering through the woods near the fence. They let him eat at their table and do chores for them while he figured out how their world worked.

He owed a lot to Rachel, probably everything. Her brothers taught him how to farm, but she showed him how to live. She took care of him when he knew nothing, introduced him to people, taught him how to act, helped him deal with the incredible confusion of arriving in this world at thirty with no idea who anyone was or what to do with his life.

He knew he'd been exiled, because they told him that. He could never go to the trading center or the hospital at the city. His family took care of the trading and the doctor came out to see him every few years. The city didn't want him around.

Still, he had to remember. The city's gates were closed while marauders were burning down farms. No one was there to answer, and no one was there to let them shelter inside.

He remembered the gates, playing around them as child. John and Matt had found themselves outside the gates one night while collecting rocks and chasing anything that moved. The guard had scolded them, but let them in anyway. He wasn't supposed to do that, but since they were just ten, this one time...

The face of the guard. He'd known him. Always telling jokes, jokes picking on the clothing and habits of the people coming from outside.

"They're too dark, you know. That's why we only let them in during the day. We need the sunshine to keep all those black clothes and serious faces from making us like them."

These were memories that had come back over the past few years. They were a start, but he needed to dig deeper.

***

While John was searching through his memories, the wagons were coming up the trail through the falling snow. Radios crackled with reports of where people were and questions about how best to get to the gate. The marauders, whoever they were, weren't moving very quickly. After taking Ezra's farm on the edge of the settled area, they'd stayed there overnight, sending out only a few scouts to find the next farms over. By then everyone was packing, preparing for evacuation. They hoped that the snow would fall fast enough to hide the traces of their buried stores.

Jacob was coordinating the departures, making sure that people whose wagons broke down or who didn't have their own wagons were taken care of, brought to their traditional shelter in the city. Whether it would matter or not wasn't clear, though.

The gates of the city, their traditional sanctuary, remained firmly closed. No one was around, and no one was even responding. There were no signs of the guards, the traders, the hospital staff, or even the chaplain, the only one of their own people who stayed in city. Everything was silent and dark, and the gathering crowd was wondering if the city-dwellers had abandoned them for some unknown insult.

Years had passed since the last raid, when they'd sought shelter in the city until the raiders had passed. Houses and barns needed rebuilding, but as usual the only people killed were those the raiders had first attacked, as the farmers spread warnings quickly. Rebuilding the mills was expensive and difficult, but the city-dwellers helped on those projects to restore their flow of goods quickly.

The radio crackled again, a young woman calling Jacob's name. "Jacob... Jacob... the raiders are moving again. Their scouts are on the next hill. Wait... they've turned their horses back, they're gone, but they saw us."

"Move as quickly as you can," said Jacob. "You're nearly here." He didn't tell her that the gates were closed.

***

John knew the guard was important. The guard was the only person he rememembered seeing as he left the city, but he didn't remember his name or much about him. He was older, suspicious somehow, though maybe that was just because he always suspected John of being up to something after spending too much time outside the city.

The guard had said something about John's exile - that it was for life, and that death awaited if he came back too early. What did that mean? If it was for life, what did "early" mean? He'd never approached the gates again, except in the last emergency, when he never left the wagon. Maybe they had noticed? Maybe they were closed because he was here? Maybe his presence was keeping them all locked out?

Or maybe something had happened to the city? Disease? Warfare? A reactor failure? There still seemed to be power, lights behind the gates. It didn't seem like anything was wrong, just that everything was silent.

Silent. Maybe they were in retreat? Why would they be in retreat, and why would everyone, including the guard be in retreat? Wait... what was retreat?

John shuddered again. The barriers weren't coming down far, but he was getting somewhere.

***

Jacob called Miriam on the radio. "How many people do we have in the clearing?"

"Three hundred wagons, with more in sight."

There were six hundred farms, more or less, so the evacuation was going well. A few of the people further out, more isolated, would probably take the chance that traveling was more dangerous than staying home, but having half the people here already was a good sign. The snow was getting heavier, but hopefully that would slow the raiders down as much as the evacuees, and sunset was coming soon.

"Arrange the wagons so they're ready to go in the gate, Miriam."

"Are they open yet?"

"No, they're not, but we may need to get inside them quickly when when figure out how to open them."

The radio groaned back at him.

***

John was thinking about the guard again, remembering the time he'd been stuck out after hours. The guard had been furious with him, shouting at him and Matt about the dangers of being out after dark. He'd gotten a long lecture - from who? - later about how he was too young to be out after dark, and that the gate was the wrong way to come home.

That didn't make sense. The gate was always the right way to come home, and always staffed in case the farmers had an emergency. He'd always used the gate, and the farmers he knew always used the gate. How else could he have come home?

There must have been another way, one they never told the farmers about.

"Rachel? Rachel!"

She didn't answer.

***

"A light just came on inside the gate," crackled Jacob's radio.

"Is there anyone visible?"

"No, there isn't. The entry button hasn't lit up, either."

"All right, keep an eye out, and keep trying to get their attention."

***

John fell back into the blankets, trying to remember that long ago lecture. Something about a better way, a more secure way, that he'd know when he was older, soon. They still didn't want him out there after dark, but they didn't want him "banging on the gates like some crazy old farmer." He was a crazy old farmer now, that was certain.

He looked outside at the falling snow, blowing and swirling in the wind. John loved snow, much to everyone else's annoyance. There was something soothing about it, gently falling into growing drifts. The wind and sun could play with it. He'd snowshoe or ski from his house to the next farm over to say hello to neighbors who'd spent too much of the winter indoors. The parents rarely wanted to come out of their home's cocoon, but the children always seemed happy to go out in the snow.

There'd even been a winter when he'd had trouble finding the houses, getting lost in a blizzard. He'd gone in circles twice before he realized he was still on his own place, and called Rachel for help. He knew where he was going, so he hadn't brought anything more than the usual radio, counting on landmarks for guidance.

Landmarks. What landmarks showed the way to the other entrance?

***

More lights had come on inside the gates, but Jacob was fairly sure that they were automatic, turning on as the sun went down. No people were visible, even through the windows. Hope fading, he decided it was time to visit John's wagon again, and see if the old exile had remembered something helpful. He worried that the brainwashing they give exiles must be powerful.

***

The blowing snow reminded John of another time he'd been outside, watching the snow fall along a cliff side. The snow wasn't blowing right - it would come almost down to the ground, then jump up again. After a while John realized that the snow wasn't doing this everywhere, just around one spot. He found a small hole in the ground, blowing warm air at high speed. Had he known it was there before, or was it something he'd found that day?

"John? Are you all right John?" It was Jacob.

"I'm here," said John. "I've been thinking about this gate and the snow."

Jacob wasn't sure what to think. "Is the gate closed because of the snow?"

"No, it's not. Something else has happened - they've retreated."

"Retreated from us? To where? Is there anyone in there?"

"I don't know why they've retreated," John whispered hoarsely. "It's strange that everyone's gone."

"Strange? It's dangerous? I know it's been years since we needed to come here, but they've always..."

"They have their own problems right now," said John.

"What problems? With us?"

"I'm not sure. I doubt it's with us. If it was with us, they'd tell us that and send us right back to the raiders."

"Are they abandoning us?"

"I don't think - I don't think deliberately. They're busy with something that needed everyone."

Jacob stared. "Why would they need the guard? He's told us for years they had him there since he was no good for anything else. And we've heard nothing at all from them on the radio."

"I think there's another way," said John.

"Another way in? I've never seen anyone go in or out except through the gates," said Jacob.

"Neither have I, that I remember. Let me try a bit more."

"All right," said Jacob, leaving the wagon.

***

"Miriam - are you there?"

The radio crackled, but there wasn't an answer.

Jacob walked down the hill, passing wagons full of people wondering why they hadn't gone in yet. Families were praying, inspecting their goods, keeping their animals calm.

"Jacob? Is there any movement?"

"No, Miriam, there isn't."

"We're backed up all the way to the road now. Four hundred wagons, but no place to put more."

"We're trying, Miriam. Any sign of scouts?"

"No, no sign. You heard the last sighting. I'm hoping they stay where they are for the night."

"I'm hoping that too, Miriam."

***

John was looking into the snow, trying to remember where he'd been that the snow blew upward. There was a hole in the ground, small with metal edges. He'd known where he was then, perfectly comfortable as he watched the snow. He'd been next to a cliff face, and he wasn't alone. Matt was with him, maybe someone else. They'd walked up here through the forest, from the gate, and then they walked back down. He couldn't remember what they'd said.

He reached for the radio, and called Jacob back. News of a hole that blew snow near a cliff in the woods wasn't exactly what Jacob had planned for, but it was at least an idea he could do something about.

***

Miriam was trying to keep new arrivals from panicking as they realized that everyone was locked out. People milled around, talking about pushing further south, complaining that they were relying too much on the city people for sanctuary. No one wanted to wait and see what happened, but they didn't have much choice. They'd fled southward, and there wasn't much of a road going further south. Isaac had led a few young riders to see if the eastern road went anywhere promising, but wagons couldn't get across it in the best of times, and no one had come in sleighs.

People had been willing to wait further up the hill, thinking they'd at least arrived even if they weren't safe. Here, the wagons were exposed on the road and the surrounding fields, with none of the protective forest of the hill.

She tried the radio again - "Jacob, is there any news? People are restless, looking for a place to go."

"We have some ideas, but we haven't found anything yet. John's having a hard time, and he's all we've got."

"Anything I can tell people?"

"We're trying, we're really trying. We're moving wagons closer together up here to create more space down there, but the gates aren't open yet."

"That's something, I guess. Thanks."

***

John knew that there was a door under the snow, if they could find it. He didn't know if any of them could use it, or what would happen if they tried. He doubted any of the farmers would be allowed to use it. With the city in retreat, he suspected they'd treat trespassing, even when looking for help, as an attack.

He couldn't remember the city ever closing its doors before, except for the usual closing at night, and even then they'd respond to emergencies, letting the farmers in for medical emergencies or for sanctuary. Rachel had gone there weeks before and gotten in, even in the middle of the night. Was she still there?

John looked up to see Jacob coming into the wagon. "Any more ideas?"

John coughed. "Maybe, but I don't think you're going to like this. I don't think any of us can use that doorway even if we find it."

Jacob turned away. "That isn't good news. Can we still use it to call for help?"

"Maybe. I think if I go, they'll at least let me into the city and listen to me."

"They'll kill you, won't they?"

"I think so, but they'll probably let me in at least."

"What if one of us tries first?"

"I suspect they'd kill you, and seal the doorway."

"They might do the same to you."

"They might."

The radio crackled. "We think we found it."

Jacob finally smiled. "Well, that's a start. I'll gather the elders."

***

They set up the tent and carried John into it. The elders filed in, six men and six women. Jacob had them all sit down, and presented John to them. They'd all heard of John, the only exile in their community, but few of them knew him.

Jacob told John's story briefly - his brainwashing and exile, his joining the farmer community, his family, the memories he'd found for them, and the entryway they'd discovered as a result. The elders remained quiet, though they looked more hopeful over the course of the tale.

Judith stood at the end of Jacob's presentation and offered to go in the entrance herself. She was small, slight, and old, but still able to get around. "John has helped us greatly so far, but I'm not sure he'll even make it to the entrance, much less inside. I can go instead, and I doubt they'll see me as any kind of a threat."

John sat up and looked at them. "I know I'm fading, and I know I'm a risk. I worry that I'm the only one they'll let in that doorway, though."

Judith looked shocked. "They'll kill you, you know - those were the terms of your exile. For life."

"They might, yes. They might take a bit of time doing it, though - I don't think they rush to judgment very often."

"Neither do we, but we don't give our returnees time for a family reunion," said Daniel, another of the elders. "And we don't want to escape at the price of your execution. It's almost as bad as if we'd executed you ourselves."

"I don't think they will, though I don't know why," replied John. "I remember something strange about not returning too early, though maybe that was a joke. I don't have long to live anyway."

"Can you even make it to the entrance?" asked Leah, another of the elders.

"With your help, I think so."

***

Ten men climbed the hill, carrying John on a makeshift stretcher. The trail was steep and narrow, and the snow fell steadily. The elders had given their permission for John to try the door, seeing little other choice. Jacob and Judith followed them, trudging through the snow.

They reached a meadow by a cliff, and John knew he was back. A small hole in the ground was blowing warm air, pushing the snowflakes out of the way.

"How do we open this?"

"It's a cover you pry open, I think. There's a prybar somewhere nearby, or we can try a tree branch."

They found a tree branch that fit the hole and lifted off the cover. John looked down - a ladder descended to a chair, and there were lights.

"Put some ropes around my arms, and lower me into the chair. If I pull on the ropes, drop them."

They rolled John out of the stretcher and did as he asked. He could hold himself on the ladder, and the ropes kept him from falling. He climbed down slowly, standing at the bottom. John pulled the ropes, and they fell into the hole with him.

"Thank you," he said, looking up at them, and sat in the chair. A steel plate emerged from the side of the hole and blocked the entrance. John was gone, and snowflakes began filling the hole.

Posted by simonstl at October 4, 2004 08:55 PM
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