October 04, 2004

Chapter 4

Sunrise was near. Miriam was checking in wagons, counting people and animals. Scouts had gone out again to see if the raiders were near, but the swirling snow made that unlikely.

Finally, the radio crackled, Jacob's voice. "The gates have opened, Miriam. We're leading people in... Miriam?"

Miriam cheered, and took a moment to respond. "We hear you. I'll get people awake and ready."

***

James had received his orders. Let the farmers into the surface buildings of the city, but lock down all entrances to its deeper parts. Give them access to the buildings and supplies, but send no one up. Watch and listen, but don't respond. Close the gate once everyone was in, and electrify the fences.

***

The snow kept falling as the wagons entered the gate. Jacob went looking for the chaplain, seeking an explanation for the city's silence. He found him in the hospital, tending two patients and peering at a list.

"Abner?"

"Jacob? How did you get in here?"

"They opened the gates," said Jacob. "How have you been?"

"I've been well, but haven't been able to leave the hospital. I went to bed the other night, and woke up to a note from the nursing staff." He fished in his pocket for the note and handed it to Jacob.

"The city is going on retreat for a short while. Please use the attached list of tasks to keep the patients well. We will be out of contact until we return. You'll find plenty of food in the kitchen, but the doors to the hospital will be locked and you and the patients will have to stay in the hospital. Thank you very much!"

Jacob looked up at the chaplain. "It's not a lot to go on, but I guess there's something happening below."

"I've never seen anything like it. The staff's had meetings before, but they were always in the hospital and left someone on duty. I'm glad I've been here long enough to know where things are."

"We'll get you some help, Abner. Has there been much to do?"

"Just tending these two women, and they're asleep most of the time. Mostly I'm writing down if there's any change, checking these numbers against the list, and bringing them water. And Jacob... why are you here?"

***

John woke up to find a different nurse tending him.

"How long have I been asleep?"

"About six hours."

"Has anything happened?"

"Well, you've been sleeping."

"On the surface, I mean! Have they opened the gates?"

"I wouldn't think so, but I haven't heard anything. Why don't you relax for now. You've been through a lot, and we're trying to make you feel better."

"Is James around?"

"James is on his shift. He told Martha he'd be by to see you later."

***

The wagons rumbled through the gate, horses pulling the families and what goods they could bring through the snow into the safety of the city walls. Jacob had the wagons come as far into the enclosure as possible before stopping, as he wasn't yet certain that all of the people and livestock would fit comfortably. The space was enormous, but there seemed to be many more wagons and especially cows than there had been the last time they'd had to do this.

Supplies were everywhere. Jacob smiled when he saw the granaries were full, making it easier to sustain both the people and their livestock as long as necessary before they could return to their homes. There were water, bathrooms, and a few heated buildings: the hospital, the library, the trading area, a barn, and a warehouse.

The residents of the city might have vanished, but their goodwill remained.

The radio brought him back to earth.

"Jacob - this is Miriam. All the wagons are past the crossing."

"Great. Any sign of the raiders?"

"Not yet. The snow's still heavy, so they might not be far."

"Any other problems?"

"The usual troublesome wheels and axles, but nothing impossible. I wish we'd been able to take sleighs."

"We'll make it. Let me know when you cross the gate."

***

On the road leading to the city, a wagon had pulled to the side. Miriam approached it, ready to call for help if necessary. Eli and his daughter were busy repairing it, battling a wheel whose rim was only loosely connected.

"I didn't think this wagon would make it, and I'm afraid I was right," Eli told Miriam.

"You're almost there - just a mile to safety."

"We're trying," said Eli, as his daughter handed him the wedges. Miriam looked up the hill, and saw two more wagons with similar problems.

***

John couldn't sleep, even though the nurse insisted. There were too many questions. Was his part here done? Had he conveyed the urgency he felt to the council? What had they decided to do?

He felt stronger than he had in years, but it wasn't helping him. He should be up there, calming people, fixing their wagons, easing their worries. Instead, he was here in bed, losing his own calm and worrying about problems he couldn't fix. James might tell him what was happening, or he might not. Everyone here seemed helpful, to a point, but couldn't or wouldn't tell him what he wanted to know. They weren't going to kill him, but for now he was dead to his family and friends.

***

In the city's lowest level, the council was still meeting, uncertain what to make of John's appearance and the news of raiders.

"I think it's too large a coincidence that a man we exiled fifty years ago would dare to come back, and be lucky enough that his exile had ended the day before," said Catherine. "I was on the council when we exiled him and I can't say I expected to see him back."

"If it's not a coincidence, what do you think happened?" asked Stephen.

"I don't know what happened. I'm just uneasy that an old exile can break into our city the day after our leader is murdered, and that we've opened the gates at his request," replied Catherine.

"We don't know that Gregory was murdered," said Stephen.

"You don't accept that, but I do," said Catherine.

"None of us know that for certain, Catherine," said Donald. "Many of us share your suspicions of the worst, but the doctors haven't told us anything yet."

"This city has thrived because its council hasn't taken foolish chances with its safety," replied Catherine. "I worry that we've taken our first and maybe our last foolish chance."

Donald nodded, and looked at the other council members. Most were staring at the table or the ceiling, avoiding the discussion. "So what can we do? Should we do anything different?"

The council members all looked at Catherine. She coughed, and turned to Donald. "I think we should keep John unconscious until we've sorted this out."

Stephen was outraged. "He's a citizen, and in frail health. He hardly seems likely to cause trouble, and he's passed all of our scans for disease."

Donald nodded. "I agree it's outrageous, but it seems like the least outrageous course of action we have. If his arrival isn't a coincidence, we can buy some time while we sort things out. The farmers can stay above, locked inside the gates and locked out of the city. John can stay here, improving and healing but immobile."

Margaret stood up. "Do we have agreement?" she asked.

Stephen looked around at his fellow councillors' nodding heads. "I disagree, but won't block the council's decision."

"I'll notify the hospital," said Margaret.

Posted by simonstl at October 4, 2004 09:01 PM
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