October 04, 2004

Chapter 1

The raiders crept out of the woods near dawn, ten men. Ezra knew they weren't friends - no one in his community carried guns openly. He woke his wife and daughter, warned them of the danger, and went to meet his visitors.

The knock on the door came soon enough. Ezra pushed the share button and answered the door.

"Who is it?"

"God's Army, here for you and yours," a man answered.

"I don't believe God has an army," replied Ezra.

The door flew open, and three men came in, all carrying guns and knives. Ezra's wife stood beside him, pale but determined not to show fear.

"Of course God has an army, and we're the army. Our leaders listen to God nightly. We do God's will."

"And what would that will be?" asked Ezra.

"God plans to prosper us, that we might gather his army. You can join, or you can die."

"I'm not joining any army," said Ezra.

The man raised his pistol and shot Ezra in the head.

"That's what we do to heathens and infidels, right, Nathan?"

"So right, Uriah. Especially when there's a pretty woman nearby. What's your name, ma'am?"


"Read her God's will, Uriah."

Uriah hunted through his pockets for a piece of paper and read it to Ruth:

"When thou goest forth to war against thine enemies, and the Lord thy God hath delivered them into thine hands, and thou hast taken them captive,
And seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldst have her to thy wife;

"Then thou shalt bring her home to thine house, and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails;

"And she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife.

"And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her."

Nathan smiled. "I have humbled you, Ruth." Uriah kept a gun pointed at her while Nathan tied her hands and feet, then touched her cheek.

There was a shot from outside.

"What's going on out there?" bellowed Uriah.

"Someone got away," was the reply.

"Don't just let them get away - chase them!"

Clouds dimmed the sunrise as it started to snow.


John had heard the whole exchange - all of them did. The share button broadcast whatever happened in the room to the whole community, turning on their radios and alerting them to a problem.

John paused for a moment to remember Ezra, who he'd met briefly a few times, and pray for Ruth in her captivity and Keren in her flight.

There was a knock on his door, and his son Gideon entered the room.

"We're packing, father."

"Good. I don't know what to do."

"I thought we'd bring you, like we did last time. You can stay in the wagon."

"I don't suppose I have much choice. They don't want me there, but I don't suppose God's Army has much better to offer."

"No, they definitely don't. I wonder who they are this time?"

John just shook his head.


Jacob played back the recording, listening for any clues about "God's Army." He couldn't tell whether they really were an army, or whether it was just a small group of desperate men with religious pretensions. They did seem to know their Bible, if not parts he would have chosen, and appeared to work as a group.

Miriam came into the room, signaling for him to take off his headphones. "We're all ready to go. It sounds like everyone is moving quickly."

"I hate leaving the house to whoever wants to come by."

"I know, Jacob, but I think we'll have enough to do without worrying about the house."

"I hate leaving Ezra out there unburied and Ruth in the hands of this 'Army.'"

"That's a harder problem. But maybe we have a month to rescue Ruth?"

"Maybe. I don't trust these people to live up to the scripture they quote, though."

"All we can do is hope, and get people to safety."

"You're right as usual, Miriam. At least Keren got away."

"She did?"

"Yes, she's on a wagon heading in right now. Judah reported that just before you came in."

"Does she know?"

"He didn't tell me, but I suspect she does."

Jacob started packing up the radio to load it in the wagon. "We should get to the city quickly," he said. "We need sanctuary, but we also need their help."


Jacob and Miriam reached the bottom of the hill quickly. They lived close to the city, and didn't have much to pack. Wagons were coming on all three of the roads that met there, preparing to climb the hill to the city gates.

"I'll stay down here," said Miriam.

"Are you sure?" asked Jacob.

"Yes, I'm sure. They'll need you at the city, and I can keep people moving smoothly here."

"What about the raiders?"

"If they come, I know these woods well. And there'll be plenty of wagons here, so I doubt they'll be as eager."

"I think they've figured out that we don't fight back."

"Yes, probably. But we don't, and that's that."

"Are you certain you want to stay here?"

"Yes, I'm certain. I'll come up with the last wagon."

Jacob went into the wagon and pulled out some food for her and spare batteries for the radio. The snow swirled while Miriam talked to people, getting them ready to go up to the city.

"Jacob will lead you. It's not a market day, but he knows the way and the guard."

Jacob handed Miriam the supplies and batteries and headed back to the wagon as the horses pulled slowly up the frozen road.


Gideon drove the second wagon behind Jacob. John was in the back, well-wrapped in blankets, and Gideon's wife Sarah was tending him. The snow kept falling, but the road was clear enough, and the horses seemed content. The forests along the road were quiet, though he watched and listened for any signs of trouble.

They halted in front of the gates. Jacob was out of his wagon, pushing the entry button and looking for the guard. Gideon got out of his wagon and blocked the wheels, then walked over to Jacob.

"Is there anyone here?" Gideon asked.

"Not that I can find. The entry button is normally lit, but it's dark and nothing seems to happen."

"What about the hospital? Can you contact the chaplain?"

"Not until we get inside the gate, no."

Gideon remembered his father in the wagon, and pulled Jacob aside. "Can we talk?" he asked.

Jacob came with him. "What do you need?"

"I don't need anything, but thought you should know John is in my wagon. Could the city be closed because of that?"

Jacob thought for a minute. "I don't think so. He's been here before, and the city knew it then, though we didn't tell him."

Gideon looked relieved. "I don't think you told us, either."

"The city people... well, it wasn't quite a privilege they normally extend exiles, but under the circumstances, they felt it was better to let him in, so long as he stayed in the wagon. The guard knew John was here before I did."

"Maybe they've changed their minds?"

"If they changed their minds, I think they'd have told us. I don't think they'd turn off the lights and hide behind the walls. It's not like we're a threat to them, and I doubt very much that John's a threat to them."

"He's a threat to no one at this point."


Jacob tried the button again. Nothing happened - no sound, no light, no guard opening a hatch. He pulled out the radio.


"Yes, Jacob?"

"We have a problem."

"What kind of problem?"

"The gate's closed and no one's answering."

Miriam paused for a moment.

"Should I keep sending people up there?"

"I don't think we have any choice, and hopefully this is temporary."

"All right - there are lots of wagons on their way up, and I can see more coming."

"That's good, I think. And Miriam?"

"Yes, Jacob?"

"Could you ask the elders to come forward to the gate when they get here? We may have some decisions to make."

"I'll let them know. Five have gone up so far, and I suspect they'll come find you anyway."

"I hope so."


The raiders had made Ruth cook them dinner, then set a guard and gone to sleep. The guard made her clean up after them, then tied her hands again and faced her into the corner, kneeling. She wept until she fell asleep.


Jacob left the elders, walked over to Gideon's wagon, and knocked on the side. Sarah looked out.

"Is John awake? I need to talk with him."

Posted by simon at 08:51 PM | Comments (0)

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, letting 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-three 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 and marauders were terrorizing farms. Everyone had piled what they could in their wagons and driven their cattle to the city gate, but now they were stuck. 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 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 and hoping 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 the 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 the 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 the guard 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 farmers, 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 different 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, coming 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 stuff.


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, hoping that John had anything to suggest that might help them pass the gate.

"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 was hoping 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 were milling 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. A few riders had gone to see if the western 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 simon at 08:55 PM | Comments (0)

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 "notifiying" 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 nurse was working over him, trying to revive him.

"I'm Martha. Welcome, John."

"What are you doing?"

"I'm 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 the scouts 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 a decade 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, though they weren't yet sure of the cause. 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 simon at 08:57 PM | Comments (0)

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.


"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 simon at 09:01 PM | Comments (0)

Chapter 5

After a few rounds of repairs, the last wagon came through the gate, and Jacob welcomed Miriam to the city. The snow was letting up and darkness was setting in, though campfires lit up the walls and buildings of the sanctuary.

"I don't know where they went," said Miriam.

"Don't know where who went? Are we missing people?" asked Jacob.

"The raiders. We'd heard reports of their scouts, but they never came close."

"Maybe the snow's held them back?"

"Or maybe they're too busy looting," said Miriam. "We brought a lot with us, but there are still a lot of animals and plenty of food down there."

They looked out the gate and down the road. A flickering light was moving in the darkness.


James had been watching the wagons come up the road and the farmers setting up their encampments. His orders were strict: close the gate when the farmers are in. He didn't want to risk locking out farmers, but he didn't want to leave the gate open to marauders, either.

The farmers were in, and it was time to close the gate. He looked at the hillside monitors one last time and saw a wagon straggling up the road. The latecomers had torches out, blurring the detail from the cameras. They were in a hurry, all too aware of the dangers in the valley.

He left the gate open for a few more minutes.


"Do we have everyone in, Miriam?" asked Jacob.

"Almost. We had a wagon break down, and put them aboard two other wagons. Three houses called in to say they'd take their chances out there. And Ezra's family, of course..."

"Keren's here, on another wagon."

"Yes, I saw her. Otherwise, I think everyone's accounted for."

"So how do we close the gate?"


James looked back at the doorway camera. Jacob and Miriam were talking to farmers, searching the walls. One man was pulling frantically on the guardhouse doorknob. A line of farmers formed across the gate opening, arms locked.

James closed the gate. The wagon kept coming up the hill.


"Someone's watching us," said Jacob. The line of farmers dispersed, heading back to their fires and families. "I need to go report this to the elders. Can you stay here and let me know anything that happens?"

"I can," said Miriam. "Where are we camping?"

"I think right here would be a good place for us."


The elders were sitting silently when Jacob arrived at their tent. He sat with them, waiting for one of them to speak. It stayed quiet a long time before Leah finally spoke. "Is everyone in the sanctuary?" she asked.

"Everyone is accounted for. They have a prisoner, and three houses chose to remain outside."

"Is the gate closed?"


"Have you heard from the guard, then?"

"No. Another wagon was coming. We linked arms across the entry, and the gate closed."


"Yes, very strange. We can't contact anyone from the city."

"And the wagon?"

"We don't know. They haven't contacted us by radio."

The elders returned to their silence. Jacob headed back to the gate.


"We have to choose a leader. All we're doing is talking."

"We still don't know what happened to Gregory."

"We're running out of time."

"Is Gregory's death an issue for this council, or an issue for the next leader and the next council?"

"His death is an issue for all of us," said Stephen.

"And what if we reward his murderer?" asked Catherine.

Margaret stood up. She told the council "By law this council dissolves tomorrow afternoon. We are required to choose a leader who is not of our number. That leader will then conduct an election for a new council."

"I'm not ready to look at candidates," said Catherine.

"When will you be ready?" asked Donald.

"When I've seen the medical report on Gregory."

"You should have that tonight. Why not review the list and hope that the candidates we find aren't implicated?"

Margaret handed Catherine a stack of lists. She took one and passed the pile around.


A light was growing on the other side of the gate. Jacob and Miriam couldn't see over the gate, but it looked like someone had built a fire. Every few minutes they heard shouting, and the dogs the farmers had brought barked back angrily.


From the control booth, James watched the wagon pull up to the gate. A man had gotten out. He tried the entry button as well, but nothing happened. James wasn't sure he should open the gate. After some shouting and pushing the button repeatedly, the man grew frustrated and called to the wagon. More men had come out, carrying a bound woman, a bound man, and guns. James electrified the outer fences.

While one group built a fire, the other men emptied the wagon. When they had finished, one of the men picked a coal out of the fire, walked up to the wagon and set it alight. When the wagon was completely engulfed, he held a cone to his mouth and started shouting over the wall.


"You shall perish in flames," shouted Nathan, "unless you join us now. Accept God's will, give up the evils of the city, burn it down, and join our army."

Inside the gate, Jacob and Miriam looked at each other and laughed. Many of the farmers had gathered near the gate to listen, though most were more solemn.

"Join us now, and your lives will be spared. Join us forever, and your souls will be spared. The men will fight for God, and the women will support the men. We shall rebuild the kingdom and the temple and live in God's covenant once more."

The farmers were silent.

"Join us or we will destroy you," said the voice, as a torch came flying over the wall, landing in the snow. The farmers backed up quickly, as more torches came over the wall.

"You are cowards, all of you, hiding behind a gate, unwilling to defend your neighbors, unwilling to join an army that fights for truth. You can hide behind that wall but you cannot hide from God."

More torches came over the wall.

"You won't come out to join us. Will you come out to save her?"

The farmers shrank back as Ruth screamed. Jacob was furious, but trapped behind the gate. They could do nothing but listen.

"Nothing? You do nothing? Neither the city nor the farm is willing to challenge us?"

The farmers heard a man's loud scream and then shouting among the raiders.

"You hide behind a violent fence, afraid to inflict harm yourselves. You are cowards and villains, afraid of the voice of the Lord. Give them what they deserve."

Another set of torches came over the wall. A shadow appeared at the top of the wall, supported at both ends. The ends shook, and the shadow fell. Ezra's body toppled over the gate and collapsed at its bottom. A girl, Keren, ran over to it weeping.

Nathan's voice spoke again. "So Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded."


James had watched while Nathan was talking, but his orders were strict: close the gate, electrify the fence, do nothing else but watch. The raiders had attempted to scale the gate, but the shock from the fence quickly ended that plan. They'd used the ladders to push a body over the wall instead, and settled in for the night.

He could do no more. The raiders remained camped on the city's doorstep, tending their fire, guarding their hostage, and praying.

Posted by simon at 09:05 PM | Comments (0)

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.


"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 simon at 09:06 PM | Comments (0)

Chapter 7

The farmers woke up at dawn to the sound of Nathan reading scripture at them from the other side of the gate.

"And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Command the children of Israel, that they put out of the camp every leper, and every one that hath an issue, and whosoever is defiled by the dead: Both male and female shall ye put out, without the camp shall ye put them; that they defile not their camps, in the midst whereof I dwell.

"And the children of Israel did so, and put them out without the camp: as the Lord spake unto Moses, so did the children of Israel. And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,

"Speak unto the children of Israel, When a man or woman shall commit any sin that men commit, to do a trespass against the Lord, and that person be guilty..."

Jacob shook himself awake while Nathan read on. Waking up in a tent in the snow was already less pleasant than waking up in his house on a winter morning, and this reading wasn't helping. Nathan seemed intent on reading the entire book of Numbers to the farmers, though only those near the gate could hear.

A few looked curious, and sat to listen, but most were looking for friends, catching up on old news, and investigating their strange new camp.


The council reconvened that morning, bleary-eyed members coming back to their meeting room to continue the seemingly interminable process of selecting a leader. The council, as frequently happened, was divided into roughly equal factions, and conversation wasn't changing many opinions. That persistent division was much of why they relied on a single leader to listen to the council and choose a path of action.

Exhaustion wasn't helping them reach a compromise, and choosing a leader was a decision that would reverberate for a century or more. Margaret finally gave up on the discussion and called for a vote.

"We are running out of time," she said, "and we appear to have no hope of consensus. We need to reach a decision, even if some of us are made unhappy by it."

She passed out slips of paper. "Please write the name of your preferred candidate, followed by the name of your second-place candidate. If we don't have a winner in the first choices, we'll add the second choice votes and see if that helps."

The council members wrote their choices and passed the ballots back to Margaret, who counted the first choices.

"We have a 4-4-4 split on the first choices."

The council members groaned, and Margaret counted second-place votes.

"We have a 8-8-8 split if we include the second choices. There is no clear pattern to the voting, either."

"How much time do we have left?" asked Catherine.

"Two hours and twenty minutes," said Margaret. "Does anyone have any suggestions?"

"What happens if we don't make a decision?" asked Catherine.

"Nothing specific is provided in the law," said Margaret, raising the council's hopes, "except that we as the council will have failed in our prescribed duty. Given the situation at the surface, I would suggest this is a bad time to fail in our duty."

The council members' faces fell.

"Are there any further candidates we haven't properly considered?" asked Stephen.

His idea was unpopular. No one wanted to return to the biographies, and no additional strong candidates immediately sprang to mind.

"Should we interview the candidates?" asked Donald. "I understand that we don't normally let people know they're candidates, and there may not be time, or probably need, but something might come up in the conversation that would change minds..."

Stephen cut him off. "Maybe we should let the candidates decide."

"The candidates?" asked several members at the same time.


James arrived for the start of his shift. Helena was clearly fascinated by the strange drama around the gate.

"What's been going on up there?" asked James.

"The raiders seem to be reading something to our farmers about lepers, involving laws, barley, and oil."

"Reading? Lepers? That's odd."

"Some of the farmers are listening - it seems to be something they're familiar with. Here, listen."

Nathan's voice came over the speaker. "And on the eighth day he shall bring two turtles, or two young pigeons, to the priest, to the door of the tabernacle of the congregation: and the priest shall offer the one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering, and make an atonement for him, for that he sinned by the dead, and shall hallow his head that same day."

James turned it down. "I'm not sure what it means. I wonder if the auto-transcriber can cope with people speaking so strangely."

Helena reassured him that it was working so far, and handed him a pile of reports. Not much had happened over the night. The raiders had stayed by the gate, close to the fire. At sunrise two of them had gone down to the road, then returned, while Nathan read through a megaphone to the farmers.

"Still only ten of them?"

"So far as I've seen, yes, just ten."

"I hope it stays that way. Any sign of more weapons?"

"Just the ones they had last night."

"Sounds like we may be able to take care of them easily. Much ado about not very much. I do wish I knew where they came from."

The red light started flashing. Someone else had reached the bottom of the road to the city. Three more wagons.


The elders' tent was busy. Jacob arrived as the hospital chaplain was leaving, having shared with the elders every detail he could remember of the past few days. After greeting the chaplain, Jacob stepped into the tent.

"Any news, Jacob?" asked Leah.

"God's Army is reading the book of Numbers at us this morning instead of the book of Joshua. I'm not sure that's an improvement."

"Has there been any more violence?"

"Not that I've heard. No more torches coming over the wall, or gunfire. They're close to the gate, though - we could hear them talking all night, but couldn't make out what they were saying."

"Any news from the city?"

"None. Still quiet. No sign of John, no news from them. All of their videoscreens have stayed dark, even the ones in the guardroom. Since everything else up here seems to work, I think John's suggestion that they're on some kind of retreat makes sense."

"We hope it's a brief retreat," said Leah.


The wagons stayed at the bottom of the hill while a messenger came up to the gate. James and Helena watched his progress up the road while the wagons at the bottom formed a small circle, prickling with gun barrels. The messenger walked up the road, peering into the woods as he went. Another man came down from the camp at the gate, met him, and brought him up to the camp. When he got there, he ducked into a tent. Nathan kept reading, but the rest of the raiders went into the tent.

Posted by simon at 09:07 PM | Comments (0)

Chapter 8

Margaret led Alice, William, and Matthew into the council room.

"Sit down," she said.

The three looked surprised, but sat.

"We have been unable to choose a leader," she began, "but we agree that the leader is to be one of the three of you. This is not an interview, however - we are turning the decision-making over to the three of you.

"The three of you must choose a leader for the city from among yourselves in the next two hours. The other two of you must consent to serve on the council under that leader. When you have chosen, knock at the door. This council will reconvene one last time to ratify your choice, and announce it. We will then dissolve this council and hold elections for a new council."

The council members stood and filed out of the room. Margaret remained. "Good luck," she said. "Don't be too surprised - it was easy to choose the three of you. Choosing among the three of you was very difficult."

As Margaret departed, the three candidates turned to each other, all stunned by her announcement.

William was the first to speak. "I thought I was coming here to make a report," he said. "I don't know what to say about this."

"I thought the same," said Alice.

"And I did as well," said Matthew. "Gregory used to call at odd hours to ask questions, and this seemed like more of that."

"He was calling me constantly over the last few years," said Alice. "Always concerned that our factories were slowing, that we'd have to incinerate another production unit sooner than expected."

William nodded. "He wanted to know as much about our reactor as I did. I thought it was because he'd worked there long ago, but I guess I wasn't alone in answering unexpected questions."

"They were mostly good questions," said Matthew.

Alice agreed. "They were good questions, but so many, at odd times, and in such depth. I've spent as much of the last year reporting to him as working on projects."

"So who wants to be the next Gregory?" asked William.

They all looked down.

"Does either of you want to be the leader?" asked Matthew.

William and Alice shook their heads.

"That makes three of us then," said Matthew.

"I have a lot of projects in the reactor and the distribution network that we need to get done. I don't think that work would get done as effectively if I was trying to run the city," said William.

"And I have similar problems," said Alice. "We have two solar panel manufacturing units that need to be torn down and rebuilt in the next six months, and five other units that need similar work. The foundry is having more and more quality problems, and glassmaking is consuming far more energy than it should."

Matthew nodded. "There's a lot I'd like to do coordinating the farmers to work more smoothly with us, things that Gregory never permitted. We need to build some kind of a relationship with the lake-dwellers as well, and our coordination with other cities has been neglected for years. We've been lucky for a long time, though I think that luck may unfortunately be coming to an end."

"It sounds like all of us could do with less leading in general," said Alice.

William nodded. Matthew thought for a moment. "Gregory did a lot of good for me, though. I think he might have restrained me too much, but he also taught me a lot about how most of the city sees the farmers."

"They're okay with me," said Alice. "So long as they stay up there."

"That's a nice way of putting it," said Matthew. "A lot of the older citizens still think of them as dangerous, and some even wanted us to break contact completely."

"Really?" asked William. "Didn't we more or less create the farmers in the first place?"

"Sort of," said Matthew. "There were a few farmers in the area when we returned to the surface. We reshaped them from pretty good raw material, and were lucky that there wasn't a lot of pressure here from other communities. They accepted our lead on a lot of things, and we were able to help them find a more stable life. They didn't even have electricity then."

"I know we rejected the idea of letting them tap into our power," said William. "We have a hard enough time sustaining our own city."

"So how long exactly is our fuel supply good for?" asked Alice.

"That's confidential to the council," replied William, looking around. "But I guess we sort of are the council now. At current rates of consumption, we have thirty years of fuel."

Matthew and Alice gasped. "That's all?" asked Matthew.

"That's all," said William. "Gregory was talking with other cities about additional supplies for years, but always felt the price was too high."

"And here I thought he was selling our solar panels too cheaply!" said Alice.

"There are things we can do - lots of things, actually. We only have a few panels on the surface, and could increase that a lot. We've barely tapped potential hydropower both in our underground supplies and on the surface. We took down a wind turbine out of fears for its security, but we could put that back up. There are a lot of inefficiencies we could fix, though they take effort and cost supplies."

"How much could we get out of that with our existing fuel?" asked Matthew.

"If we did everything we could, probably fifty years," said William.

"We have real problems," said Alice. "I'd like to solve problems in my own space, but I don't think I'm up for these."

"Nor am I," said Matthew.

"Nor am I," said William. "It may seem like an energy problem, but those I can solve. This is a diplomatic problem, something that requires us to work with other cities."

They sat in silence for a few minutes.

"Is anyone looking forward to being on the council?" Matthew asked.

"Sort of," said Alice. "I've wanted to present some possibilities to the council for years, though that was largely to get around Gregory."

"I'm in the same position," said William.

"And I am too," said Matthew.

"It'll be a new council," said Alice. "Half of them are too old to stand in new elections."

"It sounds like the three of us in this room will be sharing power with ten other people, one way or another," said William.

They paused again.

"Do any of us object to having any of the others as leader?" asked Alice.

"I don't," said Matthew.

"I don't either," said William. "You?"

"No, you've both done a good job from everything I've heard. It doesn't sound like either of you is planning radical change," said Alice.

Matthew smiled. "We haven't had much time to think about it!"

"It seems like there are fewer possibilities than I'd thought," said William. "Gregory was always talking about how the city could leap forward, and I wondered why we hadn't done it already."

"Me too," said Alice. "Though with only fifty years of power, max - maybe you should lead, William, if it's that big a problem."

"I'm not sure I could fix it as effectively if I was leader," said William. "Too much of it is in the details, and I don't want to do to my successor what Gregory did to me."

"It sounds like whoever is the next leader needs to have a lighter touch," said Matthew. "Let the different divisions do what they need to do and make sure none of them get too far out of line."

"Maybe we can agree on that. Whoever we choose as leader needs to manage, but give the divisions more freedom," said Alice.

"Given our experiences, that seems likely to happen anyway," said Matthew.

"Yes and no," said William. "I heard Gregory started out that way, and got more controlling later."

"That's what I heard too," said Alice.

"Will it help having the other two of us on the council?" asked William.

"Probably," said Alice, as Matthew nodded yes.

"If we make agreements now, do they hold after this meeting?" asked William.

"Yes," said Alice and Matthew at the same time.

"Okay," said William. "Then let's work out a deal."

Posted by simon at 09:09 PM | Comments (0)

Chapter 9

Jacob had returned to the gate, and was listening with a group of farmers to the reading from the other side. Some of the farmers were discussing Numbers, a book they rarely read, debating the strength of its connection to their preferred New Testament books.

Meanwhile, Nathan's voice, growing hoarser with every verse, continued.

"And Israel vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, If thou wilt indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities. And the Lord hearkened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their cities: and he called the name of the place Hormah."

Jacob shook his head. Waiting to get into the city had been difficult enough, but waiting to get out now seemed worse. The city had removed the last group of raiders, sending them far away, but this time there was little sign the city was interested in their plight. They had let them in and closed the gate without any of the usual consultation, leaving Jacob to stew. They seemed to be watching, but their silence was troubling.


Helena left James well past the usual end of her shift. It was difficult to leave when there was so much going on, but for the moment it seemed quiet. The messenger had returned to the wagons at the bottom of the hill, and the wagons stayed there. Nathan's reading droned on, while the other raiders stood guard duty.

Inside the city, the farmers were using all the facilities available. Children were playing in the snow and visiting the library in small, apparently organized groups. People were visiting the hospital, both to see the patients there and to use some of its more approachable facilities. The barn was busy with farmers tending their animals, and the corrals were overfull. People were visiting the meeting tent and departing regularly. The farmers at the front gate were listening and talking among themselves. The elders continued their meeting.


Matthew knocked on the door and the council returned to the room.

"Have you made a decision?" Margaret asked. "We're down to fifteen minutes."

Matthew, Alice, and William all nodded their heads. "We've decided to do things a little differently," said Alice.

Margaret frowned. "How differently?"

"Not that differently," said William. "We'd like the new leader to start with a declaration of principles at the beginning, and be bound by them afterward."

"We've never run by rules beyond the basic law," said Margaret.

"The council and the leader together are the rules," said Catherine.

"We don't want to change how that system works," said Matthew. "We'd just like to ensure that the leader listens to the departments as well as the council. Starting out with a pronouncement and agreeing to be bound by it seems to fix problems we have now."

"Future leaders could change the principles if they wanted," said William. "The council and leader will still be the rules."

Alice held up a small set of notes. "The principles are pretty simple. Department heads can appeal beyond the leader to the council directly, and departments can coordinate separately from the leader when given permission to do so."

Margaret looked relieved, though several members of the council looked upset. Catherine was annoyed, Cornelius was frowning, and Denis was staring at the table, but Stephen was smiling.

"I think this will be a matter for the next council to take up," said Catherine.

"We've agreed to these rules now, and they're the only terms by which any of us will become leader," said Alice.

"Have you even picked a leader?" asked Catherine.

"Yes, we have," said William.

"Ten minutes," said Margaret. "I think we can accept these rules with the new leader."

"Does the council have to formally approve them, or should they be a decree of the new leader?" asked Stephen.

"I think the new leader should set the rules," said Catherine. "These can be announced at the investiture. The next council can decide how they want to handle this."


Keren was still sitting by her father's resting place, covered with blankets and praying, and accepting condolences as people stopped by to wish her well. Over the course of the morning, more people gathered. The elders left their meeting tent and stood by the grave, and then nearly the entire community came to the grave, standing silently in the snow.

"He loved that farm and the woods near it," said Leah. "He was glad to watch the edges of the community, and kept a sharp eye out for anything unusual."

"Ezra made visitors feel welcome," said Daniel. "I used to visit that farm regularly, and he and Ruth were always ready for visitors. They'd chosen to be on the edge, but they were always happy to see people stopping by."

Keren cried again as people praised her father and regretted his early end. Her friends gathered around her to comfort her, while others continued to remember Ezra.

"Ezra was among the bravest of us, and Ruth too. He knew the situation didn't look good, and he showed us just how bad it was, broadcasting that horrible scene to all of us," said Judith. "We miss him and we thank him, for his sacrifice that drove us to safety."

The crowd kept commenting on Ezra's skills and how they'd known him.

"He was a fine woodsman, a master of trees. He knew how to manage the forest for a steady stream of firewood and lumber, never taking more than he needed. I was still learning from him."

"I remember his smile and Ruth's smile on their wedding day. It was obvious that they'd found the right people to spend the rest of their lives with."

"When Ezra worked at the saw mill, we counted on him to manage the power. He managed the millrace, the dam, the wheel, and all the belts inside. If we were going to be low on power or stopped for repairs, he'd let us know. We never had to worry about surprises."

"Ezra helped out at the grist mill too. After the ice had broken our wheel, he was right over to help fix it."

"When Keren was born, we went over to visit Ezra and Ruth. Ezra was gracious with his visitors, kind to his wife and child, and accepted help when we offered it."

Light snow was falling on the crowd, clinging to their blankets and coats, but they stood and talked of Ezra, talking until the tributes reached a natural end.


In the city, flashing green lights summoned everyone to the central meeting room. The investiture of a leader was the only event where the entire population of the city gathered, their machinery stopped or slowed for the event. Even the hospital patients were usually wheeled into the auditorium.

James picked up the mobile monitor, watching it while he walked down the hall. The auditorium was getting crowded, but he and Helena had reserved seats, near the front with a bank of monitors for keeping an eye on the surface. The raiders seemed quiet and the funeral had absorbed the farmers, so he might get to see the ceremony.

As he looked around, he saw all the uniform colors at once. Red for those who dealt with the outside, green for the reactor and energy crews, brown for manufacturing, orange for food production, pink for doctors, silver for archivists, gold for child-rearing. Everyone had a steaming mug in front of them, and the smell of chocolate permeated the room. There were as yet no council blue or leader purple uniforms in sight.

Posted by simon at 09:10 PM | Comments (0)

Chapter 10

When everyone was in the auditorium, the house lights went down and everyone quieted. The curtains opened a bit, and Margaret walked out to the podium on the stage.

"Welcome everyone," she began. "After a long and difficult decision-making process, the council has chosen a new leader to succeed Gregory. An investiture is more than just the installation of a new leader; it is an opportunity for us to revisit our shared commitments and examine how we reached our current position."

"Members of our past council will read from the official history, and then we will introduce the leader. The leader will then conduct an election for the new council."

The twelve members of the council sat in a row of seats across the stage. Catherine was carrying a large book. She placed the book on her lap and flipped it open to a marked page near the beginning. A screen behind her showed pictures of what she described.

"The twelve libraries were created in the year 2040, amid signs that we had damaged our planet. All twelve had similar plans and identical contents, providing a home for the knowledge gained over the previous centuries. Books, records, music, film, tools, raw materials, and a precious collection of plant, animal, and human genomic stock were surrounded by the technology needed to keep them viable for centuries. Excavations and construction lasted until 2143, when this, the last of the libraries, was completed."

Catherine passed the book to the next member. Every member read a passage to the audience before passing it to the next reader.

"For six years, the library thrived, full of people with a strong sense of mission, preserving knowledge for the rest of the world. The concerns that had motivated the creation of the libraries were being realized, as the ever-increasing costs of energy led to new wars for the remainder and the damage done to the environment flooded the coasts, dried out the interior, and battered the country with storms. The library was a haven from the problems of the world."

"In 2149, there was a reactor failure and the entire library was evacuated. Its residents fled, and the contents were feared destroyed. Radioactive material spewed from the entrance."

"A year later, a team of thirteen investigators entered the library. The surface never heard from us again, presuming us lost, as we sealed the entrance behind us and locked down all the security systems. The earlier reactor problems had been an elaborate performance, necessary to allow the library to last through the centuries of chaos that now looked certain. As planned, our team became the new residents of the library, a much smaller core group that could keep the library going for centuries on minimal power. Outside, the area was marked as hazardous - which in fact it was, for a long time."

"This original team of thirteen and their descendants monitored the steady decline of the world outside. There were fewer and fewer satellite signals and then they stopped over the next century. Broadcast radio and television disappeared, though signals from smaller radios continued. Radiation levels increased for a while and then dissipated, while weather patterns on the surface reached new extremes of hot and cold, dry and wet."

"Inside the library, we maintained the systems, managing their cache of stored materials, life, and knowledge. Twenty-six children were born during the lives of the original thirteen, carefully chosen to succeed their predecessors. We had the materials of the library itself to entertain them, the warning of the world above to keep them focused on their mission."

"None of the original thirteen or the twenty-six would see the surface again. We spent our years underground, marveling at old pictures of life on the surface and the many joys available to those who had once lived there. We lived on generated food, using the materials stockpiled for just such an emergency. Our monitoring found ever bleaker news on the surface, and we experienced the joy and pain of having escaped that fate."

"Other libraries shared their stories occasionally, though they broadcast infrequently. We heard of success at some libraries, and failure at others. We heard of the rise of new cities emerging as the survivors of the great decline banded together in salvageable spots."

"Three centuries after shutting ourselves from the world, we decided it was time to revisit the surface. Radiation levels were safe, the weather less drastic, and there were no signs of other people in the area. We had been preparing for the ascent for years, looking forward to life in a forest as well as in a cave."

"The first group that went to the surface stayed there for a month before returning to the city and the hospital. After a year of quarantine, they were released and the surface declared inhabitable. Work crews went to the surface to clear the trees that had grown inside the gates, rebuild the ruined walls, and reconnect the old surface defenses with the power of the city."

"During this rebuilding, a group decided that they wanted to stay on the surface. They explored and remapped the area, searching for miles around, and discovered a small village with fields in the valley. The villagers were barely surviving, eking out a living with poor seeds and stock. The villagers were uncertain, not having seen other humans for decades, but they were fortunately peaceful and willing to learn."

"The past three centuries have been years of growth. Buildings on the surface provide services for the farmers and allow them to supply us with food and energy. Re-establishing contact and trade with other cities, none of them close, has taken years, but we now enjoy stable relations with other communities."

The last council member, Margaret, closed the book, leaving it at the podium, and they all stood up, walking off the side of the stage and into seats in the audience.

All of the lights went dark for a moment, and a spotlight illuminated the podium. Matthew was standing there, in a suit of purple. Everyone raised their mugs in his direction and drank their chocolate deeply.

"Fellow citizens," Matthew began, "the council has chosen me to succeed Gregory. We face new challenges today, and we must face them together."

"We have faced choices between conservation and expansion, between trade and self-sufficiency. After a few centuries of peace, we face new conflicts and new challenges. The revival of the world, slow though it may be, demands that we take a more active role in it, both to help ensure the creation of a stable civilization and to ensure that our own home survives."

"We must build on what we have and improve what we know. We were given tremendous gifts by the builders of this city, and we must make good use of those gifts. Our mission remains as critical now as it ever has been, even as the outside world begins its long recovery."

Matthew paused for a moment, enjoying the applause.

"To achieve that mission, the leader must work closely with the council, the council must work closely with the leader, and the entire leadership must work closely with those of us overseeing the departments of our city."

"Today, we must elect that council. I ask you to vote for council members who will work together, for council members that you trust."

Margaret was staring at him, waiting for him to recommend council members, the last component of their agreement.

"I ask in particular that you elect Alice and William to the council, as we face special challenges in both of their areas of expertise."

The old council members stood up, gathered pieces of paper, and passed them to the citizens while Matthew continued.

"As is traditional, you have twelve votes: six for men and six for women. Write a list of the people you would like to see on the council, in the order of importance you attach to their service. When you are finished, hand them to the past council members."

"After the votes are counted, I will return and announce the new council."

Posted by simon at 09:11 PM | Comments (0)

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