October 04, 2004

Chapter 3

The plate closed over his head, and John was alone, sitting in front of a small screen glowing white next to a red button marked "CALL". John settled back in the chair and pressed the CALL button.

"Please place your left hand against the screen."

John wiped his hands and put his left hand against the screen.

"It has been fifty-one years, two months, and twenty-three days since you were last in this facility."

The screen flickered, and John pulled his hand back. They still knew who he was, for better or worse. The screen went blue, flashing "notifying" occasionally for a few minutes, then finally resolved to a picture. A youngish man in a red uniform sat in a chair looking out at him.

"This is the city center operator. My name is James. We will bring you in shortly. Please make yourself comfortable."

The picture flickered and went out. No chance to say anything, to suggest opening the gate. John listened for noise from above, but there was nothing.

He thought about James, wondering if that was anyone he'd known. Nothing had sounded like he was in trouble, but he really had no idea. Perhaps they were lulling him before throwing him back in the cell. Maybe they just weren't coming.

A click, a light, and then rough hands pulling him from behind, out of the seat and into a gurney. Strapped in, a band placed around his wrist, then rolled down a long hallway for what seemed like miles. The lights in the hallway seemed to brighten as they approached, and dimmed as they left. A man and a woman, both in red uniforms, were steering the gurney down the hallway.

"We need your help," John said, but there was no response. They weren't listening.

They turned the gurney into a dark room with a large window and departed. Lights came on and the same James who had been on the screen was looking at him through the window, seeming puzzled.

"You're back, John. Why would you come back?"

"We need your help... the gates... open the gates, please."

"I can't do that, John, but I'll ask people who might."

John collapsed, the exertion proving too much for his dwindling hope.

***

Jacob looked down the hole. Snow was falling on the steel plate and melting. Everyone was silent. After a few minutes, they heard a clicking noise and a thud. The plate stayed closed. They listened for a little longer, then most of them returned to the gate through the snow.

***

When John awoke, a woman in pink was working over him, trying to revive him.

"I'm Martha. Welcome, John."

"What are you doing?"

"I'm a nurse, trying to get you ready to talk to our council. For such a young man, you're in very sad shape."

"Young? I'm eighty-four."

"Like I said, young. I'm one hundred and twenty-two."

John lay back, confused. He knew the city would be different, but this already didn't make sense. At eighty-four, he was nearly the oldest of the farmers. Young?

"Don't worry, we'll bring you back to your senses. You've been away a long time."

That he could agree with. He fell asleep.

***

"What's the latest, Miriam?"

"Just about everyone's here, Jacob, but no one's happy."

"Did Isaac find anything to the east?"

"They're back. The road stops in forest and swamp."

"All right. We have some chance here, but nothing's happened yet. Any sign of raiders?"

"No, nothing since sunset. I think the snow may be keeping them in."

"I hope that keeps up."

***

As John was waking up, he heard Martha whispering. "But you told me to treat him as a citizen!"

"I did, and I still think I was right. They tell me I'm wrong, though."

"So what do we do?"

"When he wakes up, let me know. We'll bring him to the council."

He waited a few minutes, then "woke up." Martha came right over.

"Good morning!"

"Is it morning?" John asked.

"It's 8am, so it's close enough. We've got to get you ready to speak to the council."

"Who's the council?"

"They're the people who run the city, at least for now. You told James you wanted to talk with them."

"I did?"

"That's what he told me."

She sat him up in the bed, shaping it more like a chair, put a water glass on the side tray, and rolled him down yet another hall to a steel wall. The wall opened, and they entered a small steel room. She pushed a screen, and they descended.

"Where are we going?" John asked.

"To the very bottom," replied Martha.

"My friends are at the top!"

"They might well be, but you need friends at the bottom right now."

The room stopped and the wall opened again. Martha rolled him forward into a room with a white floor and red walls.

"I'll hand you over to James, then," she said.

James came down the hall, waving to John. He thanked Martha, who went back into the steel room. James pushed John down the hall.

"You're looking better. I hope you're well enough to explain what you need to the council."

"I just need the gates open."

"That's a lot to ask," said James. "You'd better have a good reason for that right now."

"We need..."

"Tell the council, don't tell me. I'm just bringing you to them."

They went through a door and into a meeting room. The walls were blue, the light dim. James left John under a light, facing a table surrounded by people in blue.

"You are John, exiled fifty-one years ago, correct?" asked a deep voice from across the table.

"I think so, sir."

"Your term of exile is over. The leader who exiled you is no longer with us. Welcome back."

"Er, thank you."

"Is there anything else you would like to discuss?"

"The gates, if I could."

"The gates?"

"The gates are closed, and no one is there to open them."

"Is there a need to open the gates?"

"Yes, sir, there is. The farmers need to evacuate to the sanctuary of the city. There are raiders about."

"Raiders? It has been decades since there have been raiders."

"Raiders, sir. They've attacked a farm, and there are many of them. They'll be attacking more."

The people at the table lowered their heads. They were no longer talking to John, but with each other.

"This is bad timing, to say the least."

"We can't open the gates. Only the leader can re-open the gates."

"I don't relish the thought of life here without the farmers."

"Can we open the gates and close the next level?"

"What if it's a trick?"

James came in and pulled John from the room. "They'll be a while deciding. It's difficult with twelve members. You've seen as much as they'll let you see."

John was crying, trying to sort out what happened. They weren't going to kill him - he wasn't an exile any longer - but it didn't sound like they'd open the gates. He might yet outlive Jacob, Miriam, and the rest.

James brought him back to the hospital level, and turned him back over to Martha. "He's a citizen again, Martha - no need to be careful."

John fell back asleep, lost in a strange world that he knew had once been his.

***

Jacob's frustration was all too obvious. He grew angrier as the snow piled on the unmoving gate. He wandered from wagon to wagon, looking in to see if everyone was all right, reassuring Gideon that his father was probably all right. The radio occasionally announced news of nothing happening - nothing at the road, nothing at the entrance John had used.

The elders were meeting again in the tent, discussing what to do if the gates remained closed, and how long to wait. They didn't have anywhere else to go, as the city had always been their refuge. Its betrayal of them at this crucial moment stung. They stopped, prayed for John, and went to their wagons for what little of the night remained.

***

James double-checked security inside and nearby the gates. From his operator's booth, he locked the guardhouse and all the entrances from the surface hospital to the city. He made sure the granaries and the water tanks were full. The cameras all worked, recording the falling snow and Jacob's frustration.

Posted by simonstl at October 4, 2004 08:57 PM
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