October 04, 2004

Chapter 6

The council was busy reading biographies of city residents when James arrived. Margaret looked up to the door as he entered.

"Come in, James. What do you have to report?"

"So far, we have ten raiders, all men, and a female hostage. They hurled a corpse over our gate tonight."

"What motivates them?" asked Stephen.

"Religion, apparently. They call themselves God's Army, and appear intent on conquering the world and converting it."

"Ten people don't seem likely to conquer us."

"No, but they're enough to disrupt the farmers. I'm not convinced there are only ten of them in any case."

"What makes you say that?" asked Catherine.

"They're traveling awfully light for this time of winter. On the surface, they shouldn't be able to live very long given the few things they have with them."

"Where are they now?"

"Camped in front of the gate. They burned a wagon," said James.

"Weapons?"

"I've seen guns and knives. The guns look homemade, probably single-shot."

"And how are the farmers responding?"

James paused for a moment. He'd spent a lot more time watching the raiders on the outside cameras than the farmers on the inside cameras. "I think they're holding up as well as can be expected. A girl ran to the corpse, and people were comforting her."

"Have there been any attempts by the farmers to enter the city?" asked Catherine.

"Apart from John's coming in yesterday and the chaplain's pushing buttons on the hospital door when he found himself alone, I'd say no. They did try to get in the guardhouse, I think to close the gate, but that was all."

"How are they settling in?" asked Stephen.

"Fine, I think. They have far too many animals with them for the barn, but they're managing to keep them in the yard despite the snow. There's food, they can warm up in the buildings, and they seem to have brought enough firewood for a few days. Their elders have been meeting continuously near the library."

"Thank you," said Margaret. "Is Helena monitoring them now?"

"Yes," said James. "I left her a full report."

"Thank you, James. You may go now. And please don't discuss this with anyone else."

***

The hospital was quiet, as John was the only patient, and very much asleep. Martha stopped James as he entered the room.

"He's sleeping now. You should come back tomorrow."

"He looks a lot better."

"I think he's getting a lot better. We can't fix fifty years of neglect, but we can improve on it a lot."

"I don't think he'd call it neglect."

"I doubt he would, but he'll be a lot happier after a few days of care. You should unwind and get some sleep yourself."

James thanked Martha and headed back to his quarters.

***

The gate was quiet. It was clear that there was a fire on the other side, and the farmers could hear occasional shouting, but God's Army was apparently disgusted enough with them to stop talking to them.

The farmers were quiet, gathered around campfires and sleeping in tents and wagons. A group of them had collected Ezra's broken body and buried it temporarily in a mound of snow as far from the gate as they could get. Keren sat staring at the mound, uninterested in the condolences people came to give.

Jacob and Miriam made their way through the impromptu village to the elders' tent. The elders hadn't been to the gate, but they'd heard what had happened. They were sitting quietly on benches when Jacob and Miriam arrived, most praying for Ezra.

"He died bravely," said Judith as Jacob and Miriam sat on an empty bench. "What a horrible way for him to be reunited with his daughter."

"Yes," said Jacob, "we seem to have something horrible on our doorstep."

"It's not our doorstep," said Leah.

"For the moment, it might as well be ours," said Jacob. "The city has remained completely quiet since the closing of the gate."

"God's Army can't get in, but can we get out?"

"I don't think so," said Miriam. "At least not until we hear from the city."

Judith shook her head. "Do we have any idea when that will be?"

"No," replied Jacob. "We may need to plan for a long stay."

"We've been starting to do that," said Daniel, "planning a daily routine. But I have a question before we do that. What's keeping this army from climbing into the hills and shooting us from above?"

"Nothing that I've seen," said Jacob, "but I asked the guard a similar question a few years ago. He said that we're smart to stay out of the woods that belong to the city, and that they know we're smart because they haven't seen us going in. He looked pretty grim. I was glad we didn't have unexpected adventures finding John's door."

The elders were silent.

"We'll be at the gate if you need us," said Jacob, as he and Miriam stepped out of the tent.

The campfires were dwindling as people went to sleep in their tents and wagons. The stars sparkled clearly overhead through the diminishing clouds. Exhausted from the sudden trip through the snow and the conflict at the gate, the farmers slept. Keren kept a vigil by her father's mound, watching the stars until she too fell asleep.

***

The council was still meeting. Its members had been reviewing files of the forty-five eligible candidates for leader, and had narrowed it down to three: Matthew, Alice, and William.

In addition to the basics of being older than fifty and younger than one hundred and fifty, each of them had excelled in their particular field. Matthew had managed relations with the farmers for several decades, Alice had overseen solar panel manufacturing for years and was now in charge of all manufacturing, and William controlled the reactor and electrical distribution.

The council members were tired, falling asleep at the table. They had been meeting for two days without much rest. "I'd like to suggest that we recess for the night," said Stephen. "We can choose among these three tomorrow, when our heads are clearer."

Margaret agreed. "That's a good idea, Stephen, though we'll still need to be here early."

A man and a woman in pink stood at the door. "I see the doctors are here," said Margaret. "We'll take their report and then adjourn, if we can."

The man and woman entered the room and passed reports to the council members. Some members flipped through them, others left them on the table.

"We found that Gregory died of a sudden stroke," said the woman.

"A stroke?" asked Catherine. "Are you sure that it wasn't caused by some outside influence, Rose?"

"We believe it was caused by elevated blood pressure, perhaps aggravated by a sudden stress. There are no signs of poisons in his body or his food, and no sign of injury or injection."

"Do all of the doctors agree with this conclusion?" asked Margaret.

"They do," said Rose. "I brought Michael with me, because he was the doctor who accepted it last."

"The stroke seemed out of proportion to the causes we could find," said Michael. "Despite my best efforts, however, I couldn't find another cause, and the area where the stroke occurred showed signs of earlier problems."

Catherine was studying the report, looking for any other signs of foul play. "How certain of this judgment are you?" she asked.

"Very certain," said Rose. "I think even Michael will agree."

"I do agree, having tested other possibilities extensively."

"Thank you," said Margaret, and the doctors left the room.

After the doctors were gone, Catherine proposed adjourning the meeting until morning. The council headed to bed, their difficult task made slightly easier by the news.

Posted by simonstl at October 4, 2004 09:06 PM
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