January 01, 2006

Chapter 37

The pilots wore red, but they had never reported to Matthew before. Relations with other cities were purely the territory of the leader, and while the pilots sometimes coordinated with Matthew, they never told him where they were going or what they doing. Gregory sometimes did, and rumors sometimes suggested what was happening, but this was the first time Matthew had sat down with the four of them expecting details of what they did.

The pilots filed in to the council room, which Matthew had cleared for the meeting. Anthony entered last, closing and locking the door behind him.

"We're ready to take the raiders whenever the weather clears," said Elizabeth. "The helicopter is fueled and all maintenance is up to date, except the pre-flight. We'll need about six hours between the two trips for additional maintenance."

"That's excellent," said Matthew. "As critical as that mission will be, though, I need to ask you about your other projects. Gregory left behind notes, and some invoices, but not a lot of detail about where and how he was hoping to get us fuel."

"It hadn't been going very well," said Mark. "We kept getting offers, but most of them were setups. We had one case where the landing site was in a canyon, but the infrared scanners showed a small army of people ready to take us down but no one at the actual landing site."

"Then there was the one where they greeted us warmly, but didn't have the goods for us," said Mary. "They had some old tubes filled with lead, but it sure wasn't fuel."

"Did Gregory find you these places, or did you find out about them from other cities?"

"Only a few of the other cities will even talk about their trading partners with us," replied Mary. "When you go to the same place repeatedly, you get to know their trade crews, but even then it's mostly rumors as they try to get more from us than was promised."

"There are some interesting bazaars out there, though," said Anthony. "Most of the cities work like we do, with leaders negotiating prices and us just acting as a delivery team. When you get closer to the coast, though, there are some cities near enough to each other that they have open markets."

"The food is usually pretty good, though you have to be careful," said Mark. "The deals are mostly questionable, but we brought back some large decorative furniture for Gregory, some jewelery that we later traded to another city, some chemicals, some fabric, spices - it's usually not big stuff."

"How does that kind of trade work?" asked Matthew.

"Usually we bring a set of solar panels to [city3], and the city pays us in gold coins. We don't really need gold coins here - though Gregory did build a small stockpile - so we then take those coins to the bazaar and buy various things. It changes every time we go there, but you can still mostly work from a list," said Elizabeth.

"How many cities do we actually trade with?" asked Matthew.

"There are only three places we go with bazaars, plus another dozen we visit once every couple of years. There are probably another twenty beyond that which we've visited occasionally, but they're mostly further away and don't have anything that interesting to us," said Anthony.

"And what have we been trading away?"

"Mostly our finished manufactured goods. Gregory was also looking for markets for some of the things the farmers produce, mostly their furniture and more permanent things like that. We've sold some food, mostly flour and hops."

"Except for the solar panels, most of what we have to offer doesn't seem very exciting to the other cities. I think they want more excitement," said Mary.


"Well, only a few of these places are anything like us. There are two other libraries within a reasonable flight, and they have most of what we have. Well, most -"

"One of them's out of fuel completely," interjected Anthony. "They've been out for ten or fifteen years now. They're using solar panels - our panels - to get by, and selling off their stocked-up goods, but it isn't pretty. They never - well, they have a much bigger population, and a lot of it is learning about farming the hard way now. If they weren't hidden away in a mountain valley, they'd have been taken over long ago. Gregory gave them a discount on panels, too, which probably helped."

"The other library's in decent shape," said Mary. "But they've cut their population to a skeleton staff over the years. They don't have pilots any more - anyone who wants to trade has to come to them, and their landing strip is set to explode if anything goes wrong. It's terrifying going there, but apparently everyone who deals with them understands the terms."

"They weren't willing to trade us their fuel, obviously," said Mark.

"So what do the other cities want?" asked Matthew.

"It totally varies by city," said Elizabeth. "They're all so different."

"Different?" asked Matthew. "I mean, I understand that different climates might lead to differences, and most of these cities were put together by survivors over time, but aren't we all trying to survive?"

Anthony laughed. "Everyone's trying to survive, but some are surviving a lot better than others. [City4] on the coast is a lot of fun for us, and they take some of the farmers' furniture at a nice price, but their leaders are completely harsh to their subjects. I can't imagine having to live there, especially knowing how their king and queen live."

"King and queen?"

"Yes, thrones and everything," said Mary. "They always grant us an audience, I think so they can enjoy the sight of us bowing and scraping. Oh, and they laugh at our red uniforms, up there on their golden thrones."

"They're rich, but it's a strange rich," continued Mark. "They buy our solar panels, but I don't think they have much power in their city. It's on the surface, so maybe they don't need it."

"How do they survive?" asked Matthew.

"They dominate the countryside, so they can get food. Their army looks especially well-fed, but there's nothing much around for them to attack, so they mostly keep an eye on their own people. They do their trading on ships, mostly up and down the coast, but occasionally they cross the ocean. And ocean-going ships come to them."

"They have no helicopters?"

"No - if you want to trade, you come to them."

"But they have no fuel?"

"They have it sometimes, though they have no need for it. The prices are incredibly high, though."

"Are there any other sources for fuel?"

"Yes, but they're all incredibly expensive," said Elizabeth. "No one on this continent seems to be producing it anymore."

"Two cities turned into huge radioactive disasters about three centuries ago, apparently," added Anthony. "I'm not sure if they were the only producers, but no one seems excited about making it now."

"Gregory had us exploring coastal cities in the hopes that they were getting some by trade," said Mark. "It was a good idea, except that no one seems to be getting any from anywhere. It made no sense to take the helicopter empty, but I don't think the trades we managed to make were all that valuable, either."

"There are always rumors in the bazaars, of course, but that never went anywhere," said Elizabeth.

"They might," said Mark, "but the cost of the bribes just to start the conversation seems to be more than we can carry in the helicopter."

Posted by simon at 08:22 PM

January 11, 2006

Chapter 38

Caleb found Isaac outside the kitchen, heading toward his tent. Dinner had just come to an end, and Isaac looked tired.

"Can we talk for a little while?" asked Caleb, walking alongside Isaac.

"A little while," said Isaac. "I think I've pushed too hard in the last week, and it's catching up with me."

"I think it'll be quick," said Caleb. "It's about Jethro."

"Nothing Jethro ever does is quick. He has this serene faith that no matter what happens his group will win in the end."

"That may be," said Caleb, "but they'll be winning someplace far away."

"He doesn't seem very concerned with the where or how," replied Isaac. "He knows God has foreordained his success. Even if he doesn't make it, he says, Nathaniel or one of the others will."

"Nathaniel's already gone to God," said Caleb, shaking his head. "For better or worse."

Isaac nodded. "I haven't said a word about that, though it's strange, since he was clearly Jethro's favorite. I'm not sure he'd be so serene if he knew."

"We need him to stay serene for now," said Caleb. "I hadn't known Nathaniel was that popular. Meeting his family and hearing Jacob's story didn't give me that impression."

"I don't know if he was popular with anyone except Jethro, but Jethro keeps talking about how 'upright' he is, and the effort he's put into ensuring his family lives by the law."

"Interesting perspective," said Caleb. "I guess it's a good thing we separated Zipporah from the rest."

"Jethro hasn't told me anything about her. He referred to some stain on the family's honor - maybe that was it."

"Any more on their plans, or how they think the Book of Joshua will get them out of this one?"

"No, not really. He's been talking a lot about the Book of Daniel lately, but that may just reflect their being prisoners."

They'd arrived at Isaac's tent. "I'll talk to him and to you more in the morning," said Isaac. "I need to sleep now."


Abner knocked on the door and entered. Jacob put down his Bible.

"I need your help, Jacob," he started.

"Am I allowed to help?"

"For some things, yes. I asked the elders. These aren't the kinds of things you're used to doing, though."

"What kinds of things?"

"Well, first I need you to talk with John, and Gideon and Sarah. John won't stop weeping. Gideon and Sarah are planning on returning home soon, but they don't know what to do with John."

"How can I... what am I supposed to do?"

"John knows you and, I think, trusts you. You also have some idea of how the city-farmer relationship works. Maybe you can help him contemplate having a future at least, maybe even plan it."

"That doesn't sound easy."

"I didn't say these were easy - they're situations where I don't have an easy answer, or time to come up with one."

"What else is there?"

"The other one may actually be more difficult - I don't know. You've seen Zipporah, the raider woman."

"The one whose father I killed, yes."

Abner blanched, and then continued. "We don't yet know what's going to become of her. The elders, because of her circumstances, are talking with the city about letting her stay here, but the city is not happy about anything to do with the raiders."

"Where do I fit in to that?"

"You don't, exactly. I need someone to talk with her, keep her entertained, and maybe teach her to read better while I work with some of the other raiders."

"There are other raiders in the hospital?"

"No, the raiders in the barn. The elders think I'm a safer person to have talking with them than most of our readers."

"I'll talk with John, Gideon, and Sarah. I need to think about Zipporah."

"Good. She doesn't know, if that matters."

"She'll learn it eventually, if she stays here."


Talking with the pilots had helped Matthew sort out the pile of receipts Gregory had left behind. The table was covered in piles, representing different cities, different kinds of transactions, and different states of transactions.

Matthew had built a grid on a sheet of paper listing which goods had come to which cities, which had gone where, and which were supposed to have gone but hadn't. It looked like Gregory had been building a long chain of trades to try to get fuel, but something had gone terribly wrong in the last few months. At least four cities were expecting goods that Gregory didn't have, though the pilots hadn't felt any huge pressure to find anything other than fuel.

Had Gregory been attempting simple fraud? Matthew couldn't figure out how he would possibly restore his city's reputation if that was the case. At least three of the cities involved were regular trading partners, and had suspended their shipments completely.

He looked through the file of recent communications, and it was pretty empty. Only two cities were sending any messages directly, and the rest of the file was just general broadcasts - weather events and some news and advertising.

It was late, but he buzzed for Catherine.


"What do you want that can't wait for the whole council?" asked Catherine, storming into his entry chamber.

"I'm hoping you can tell me a little of what these mean," said Matthew. "I've been sorting out the transactions Gregory left behind, and it's looking pretty ugly."

"I never saw the transactions directly," replied Catherine. "All I knew was that he was looking for fuel, and I thought he was close."

"He might have been, at one point," said Matthew. "It looks, though, like he took some risks in his trading and wound up unable to deliver to his customers."

Matthew pushed a sheaf of papers over to Catherine, who turned redder and redder as she reviewed them.

"I never... I don't know... Where would we... Did these get delivered eventually?"

"I don't think so. I'll be asking the pilots that tomorrow, now that I've assembled all this. So far as I can tell from the paperwork, we've lost most of our friends - and even [city name where the raiders came from]. I'm hoping there's a brighter answer to this, or a missing set of papers."

"I don't know... I wish he'd told me."

"I was hoping the same thing, I'm afraid. Did anyone on council work with Gregory on these things?"

"Years ago, yes, Paul did. But after he died, Gregory kept it more to himself, telling us only about the occasional major success. The pilots used to talk about their trips more often, but they've been pretty quiet for years."

"I remember Gregory exhorting us all to focus on what we were doing here, and not on the world outside."

"That was a lot of it. For a lot of years the pilots barely even flew, but then in the last few years they've been much more active."

"Gregory decided to risk more fuel on trading, I'm guessing, as he decided we were getting too close to running out."

"He was very concerned, the last few years, yes."

"Will you help me present this to the council?"

"You need to present this - I don't really know anything about it - but yes, I'll do what I can."

"Thank you for that."

Matthew settled down again with his papers, sorting and smoothing them, as Catherine departed.

Posted by simon at 08:52 PM

January 30, 2006

Chapter 39

The sun rose to a frigid morning. A few birds flew near the barn, pecking for bits of scattered grain, while a few farmers added logs to their dwindled fires. More snow had fallen overnight, and it was still piling deeper along the paths and among the tents.

Isaac poked his head out of his tent and quickly ducked back inside. He'd meant to be awake hours before, but no one had roused him. He put his clothes and his warmest coat on, and got into his boots.

The path to the barn was clear, and there was plenty of activity inside. Four city guards were watching as breakfast was served, with farmers bringing food to every cell.

"Good morning, Isaac," said Caleb. "We thought we'd let you rest a bit today. Don't worry - everything's taken care of. Food, blankets, slops."

Isaac paused. "Great," he said. "I probably could have slept some more -"

"But you didn't," interrupted Caleb. "We'd have gotten you up at some point, but you're here now, and that's great. We need to start planning lunch."

Isaac nodded. "Anything unusual happen overnight?"

"Just the usual prayers and Bible-reading, and there hasn't even been much of that. All things considered, it's been fairly quiet. Well, except for the city guards changing shifts every hour."

"I'll just look around a bit, then meet with the cooks and get some breakfast."

"I'm going to get some rest myself," said Caleb, moving toward the door.

Isaac walked through the cells. Women and children were eating as families and talking, while the men seemed to be eating their food while reviewing their Bible. Isaac came to Jethro's cell.

"Good morning, Jethro."

"Good morning, Isaac. I had an idea for you last night."

"Really? What's that?"

"Think about the book of Isaiah."

"All right -"

"Think about the book of Isaiah without Jerusalem."

Isaac turned white. "But it's all about Jerusalem... I'll think about it, Jethro. I'll think about it."


"How long?" asked Matthew.

"We're looking at five days, probably," said Anthony.

"Five days?" asked Catherine. Council members were shaking their heads.

"It could be longer, unfortunately," replied Anthony. "Based on reports from other cities, it seems likely that the storm is just starting to build. It will be at least four days before it stops snowing, and then we'll have a fair amount of work to do before we're ready to fly."

"How much work?"

"It depends on how much snow actually falls. Probably one meter, but it could be two or even three this time. We already have half a meter, maybe more."

"Thank you, Anthony," said Matthew.

"We should warn the farmers to be ready," said Stephen. "We still have direct access to the barn, but they could get cut off from their tents and supplies."

"Andrew can take care of that," said Matthew. "I'm mostly concerned about the drain of having our guards up there for so long."

"Could we have more shifts, but shorter?"

"We don't have enough people trained in weaponry for that."

"We don't seem to have enough people for anything new at the moment," said Matthew.


Jacob decided it was time to go for a walk. He hadn't really been out and about since he woke up in the hospital, and maybe people seeing him more would let them stare at him less. He put his arm in the coat and wrapped the rest around his cast, buttoning it and hoping it would stay closed.

The view from the window in the hall was enchanting and forbidding at the same time. Dim sunlight illuminated flakes falling to earth, piling up deeper.

Abner was on the radio in the reception area of the hospital, and motioned for Jacob to pause. "Yes, yes, I'll let everyone here know," he said, before disconnecting.

"Lots of snow on the way, Jacob - lots."

"How much?"

"They aren't sure, but at least a meter, maybe a few."

Jacob shook his head. The last storm that size had struck while he was a boy, and he remembered walking back and forth through the passage between his house and the woodshed endless times to keep the fire going while his parents worked on digging out the house. Their barn doors had been blocked, and a drift on one side kept much of it closed until spring.

"Is there room for everyone inside?" asked Jacob.

"Not comfortably," replied Abner. "More than half of us left, but since the barn is full, and the hospital's close to full..."


Caleb was leading the readers out in the snow, as they compacted snow into large bricks and built it into extensions on the front of the hospital and the barn, with a long passageway between the two and another to the library. James had sent a bin of shovels to the surface, and everyone seemed to have found a favorite.

"I'm sorry I can't help," said Jacob, walking out in the snow, pointing to his arm.

"You'll help soon enough," said Caleb, pulling him aside. "We have a small problem."

"We have a large problem, if snow keeps falling like this."

"Well, yes," said Caleb, "but it looks like John will be stuck here for a while. Gideon and Sarah finally left last night - he told them to go - but he's pretty much a mess. He offered to help shovel, but I don't think he's ready to be with people again."

"Might it do him some good?"

"It might, but I'm more worried about the effect he'll have on the rest of us. Not everyone's seen his transformation, and some of those who have - well, let's just say I suspect we'll be hearing about the city's magic for a few years to come."

"Magic? That's strange. The city's definitely not magic."

"Not everyone has spent as much time with the city as you have, and I don't think anyone's ever seen anything like it."

"I haven't, no. John looks a lot younger, but he still, well, still looks old. Not quite like the city people, who never really seem to age. Some of that may be grief, of course."

"Between John's reappearance and the number of guards the city sent up yesterday, there's a lot of murmuring about the city. I think a few of us have already forgotten what the raiders had in store for us."

"And the elders?"

"They know about the situation, but I don't think any of them have seen John. They'll have to make decisions about him soon enough."

"Where is he now?"


Jacob walked into the library, knocking the snow off his coat and shoes. None of the usual city staff were around, and it seemed completely empty, though beautifully warm. No one was sitting at the tables, but Jacob stopped to watch the snow falling through the windows, wondering how the snow might fall any harder.

He heard a stirring behind some shelves, and found John reading. He had a whole stack of books in front of him, and was flipping through the one in front of him at high speed.

"Looking for something?" asked Jacob.

John looked up, his eyes red and weary. "Nothing I can find," he said. "It doesn't sound like anyone else has gotten much younger suddenly, at least no one discussed here."

"You're looking well."

"Rachel didn't seem to think so."

Jacob looked down.

"And I'm not sure what anyone else thinks."

"I think a lot of people are confused."

"That's fair," said John. "I'm confused too."

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