This is a Wonderfully imaginative story by my Friend Steve Bartok.
He gave me permission to post it where I would, so long as he got credit.
The New Darkness
The chimes sang their metal song in the distance, a lonely voice in a sea of silence.
An old wooden chair, originally meant to be under shelter, sat beside the chimes. Wind, rain & sun all fought each other valiantly on this battlefield, insignificant to all but the combatants. Wind blew dust & dirt onto the chair while rain washed it off. Rain rotted away the wood until the sun dried it off. The sun dried the wood so that it would crack until the wind blew clouds in front of the sun to shade the chair.
No one sat at the chimes today. Nature was forced to push one chime into another through rain or wind.
Instead, everyone gathered at the hall. They had heard that a birth was imminent. Events would prove them right.
Distance masked the cries of a newborn infant. It masked the cries of joy from the townspeople in celebration. It masked the whispered hopes amongst others that the child would be "The One."
As the celebration lasted into the night, no one could hear the chimes way off in the distance. Nature had fallen silent, the wind ceasing to blow.
Tomorrow, the chimes would be manned as they always were. Life would go on as usual.
Some hoped, though, that tonight would spell the beginning of the end of their normalcy. Their very survival would depend on it.
"Paper, paper, wooden cloth,
Crinkle, crinkle, will you talk?
Shelter, shelter, go you there,
Stored away with loving care."
--- Children's rhyme, unknown origin
Edward was a big boy. He didn't need "the ropes" to guide him. He knew where the chimes were all by himself.
Edward asked Robbie if he wanted to help him ring the chimes for today. Robbie's parents told Edward that Robbie was helping his sister make more rope. Edward would just have to ring the chimes alone.
So Edward walked to the chimes & wiped off the chair before he sat down on it. Like all young boys, he was careless with his energy, swatting at the chimes as though it were a pinata. Edward remembered what his father told him about the chimes...
"Edward," his father said, "Ringing the chimes is a big responsibility. Only good little boys & girls get to ring the chimes. Remember, people can only hear the chimes if they ring so make sure you keep ringing them. That's the only way people will know that we're here & we like visitors."
Edward liked ringing the chimes because making rope was hard. Robbie's parents were one of three families in the settlement that made rope. Robbie tried to explain to Edward how to make rope but Edward couldn't comprehend it. Worse still, Edward had no idea how to tie knots. Robbie's sister, Gina, already knew how to tie knots in rope.
Edward followed the pattern that his father taught him - Ring the chimes for a little while & then listen. Ring the chimes for a little while & listen. Repeat until you heard a response. Edward knew what he was supposed to listen for but had never actually heard it for himself. His biggest fear was that a visitor would walk right past the settlement without Edward even knowing about it, so Edward listened as carefully as he could.
Normally, Edward wouldn't even be at the chimes so often as he had been in the past few months. Usually, a grown-up would be sitting at the chimes.
However, Edward's father was helping out the family of the newborn. In fact, many of the families were helping out the family of the newborn. That meant a lot of the older children (like Edward) were filling in for the grown-ups at these more 'menial' jobs.
As Edward rang the chimes, he hummed a little rhyme to himself. Anything to pass the time.
Edward was again at the chimes today. His enthusiasm for smacking the chimes, though, had diminished since he had first been introduced to the task so many months ago.
For school, he needed to know how to tie knots. With a piece of rope given to him by the teacher, he practiced tying various knots into the rope. Occasionally, he would ring the chimes.
Then, Edward heard it.
A faint whistle.
The whistle wasn't coming from the settlement... It was coming from the metal road. It was coming from the metal road!
Edward dropped his piece of rope in excitement & began ringing the chimes madly. After ten seconds, he silenced the chimes & listened. After a moment of silence, he heard two toots of a whistle.
The whistle had heard him. The whistle had heard HIM!
"Mail car is coming! Mail car is coming!" Edward's young voice excitingly screamed in the direction of the settlement.
Edward, his breathing rapid, his pulse racing, banged on the chimes as never before.
His father would be so proud! He finally heard the mail car coming & the mail car heard him... They heard his chiming!
Edward, banging away energetically on the chimes, felt like a grown-up. He had done a grown-up thing & now HE would be the first to talk to the mailmen! He would be representing his settlement!
As the whistles grew louder, he envisioned telling the mailmen everything that had happened in the settlement since they last visited. He'd tell them about the new building they had raised... Of all the rope that they had made (including the new rope fence at the back of the settlement)... He'd show them all of the knots he had learned...
Edward would even tell them about the child that was born awhile back who co...
Edward stopped dead cold, the chimes swaying from momentum. He swallowed hard & felt his bottom for a moment, remembering the whipping he had received from his father.
No one was to mention the child. No one was to say a thing, under penalty of banishment.
The whistle blew louder & louder. Edward, more sober, banged on the chimes.
"We should kill the child," Malcolm confessed in confidence to the Town Elder, "We should kill her before God punishes us for our leniency."
"Kill the child?" The Town Elder asked rhetorically, "And to what do we owe this decision?"
"The Scriptures have made it clear that we are to suffer for one thousand years & not one day sooner!" Malcolm insisted, "This child is a test from God, a test of our obedience to His Will."
"I am aware of what the Scriptures say," The Elder said slowly, choosing his words, "And I thank you for reminding me of them. You say that this child is a test from God on our obedience. Has it said as such in the Scriptures as well?"
"No," Malcolm said hesitantly, "A teacher does not reveal the answers to a test while it is being taken by the pupil."
The Elder smirked at Malcolm's choice of words, replying, "Does a test not hold the potential for temptation?"
"It does," Malcolm answered, "In the form of cheating."
"Is temptation not another form of punishment?" The Elder asked.
"I... am confused, my Elder," Malcolm confessed.
"You claim that the Scriptures are specific in our punishment," the Elder stated, "Yet mentions neither a test, a test of which hold the potential for our further punishment in the temptation of sparing a child in our obedience of being punished."
"As I am sure you know," the Elder continued, "There are others who interpret the Scriptures differently. To them, this child is a blessing from God that we have suffered enough for our ancestor's sins."
"Their interpretations," Malcolm humbly admitted, "Are their own but their actions will reflect on all of us, not just them. If they are wrong..."
"If they are wrong," the Elder repeated, commenting, "How quickly our Scriptures go from specifics to conjectures."
The Elder sighed, saying, "As Town Elder, I am forced to be ambivalent to how the Scriptures should be interpreted. Clearly, there appears to be room for great variation on how the Scriptures tells us to treat this child."
"God gives direction," Malcolm answered, "But does not dictate. However, the lack of specification should not be interpreted as leniency should we stray from His path."
"Your counsel is most appreciated," the Elder stated, "I shall take your words no differently then any others who have spoken before. My decision shall require time & I ask of you forgiveness if my decision is not as immediate as you would appreciate."
"Your guidence is always welcome, My Elder," Malcolm replied, placing his right hand over his heart in a symbolic gesture.
"Our conversation has ended," the Elder declared, "Go forth about your affairs."
As soon as the Elder heard Malcolm leave, the Elder sat down in the nearest chair & sighed deeply.
The child was now walking & she knew... She knew what she was! She knew she was different!
The Elder knew that a decision would have to be rendered soon. They could not continue to keep quiet about the child. Already, visitors & the mailmen who traveled to their settlement suspected that something was amiss. The tenseness in their voices, the awkward changes in conversation... Deceit was a suit that fit Man poorly & fit the people in the settlement even worse.
The time for deceit was over.
"The Elder is not fit to make these types of decisions," Gregory declared softly to the child's mother, Megan.
"We can not supersede our Elder," Megan replied, "All law is based on compliance. Without compliance, we are nothing more then animals."
"A dog can be obedient through fear & punishment as easily as kindness & reward," Gregory argued.
"My child is The One," Megan stubbornly persisted, declaring, "The one who will bring light to the darkness. It has already been proven."
"Yes," Gregory answered, "Those who believe that the Scriptures should be interpreted... Verbatim, think that your child is temptation, a test on our leniency to forgive our debt to the Lord."
"Madness!" Megan blurted out, feeling Gregory's hands on her shoulders as she continued, "What cruel God would give..."
"It matters not," Gregory interrupted, gaining Megan's attention, "Fanaticism breeds its own chaos. Turning away from reality does not mean that it no longer exists. There are people here, in our own settlement, that wish to kill the child... Your child."
Megan remained silent, then pulled away from Gregory. Gregory could hear Megan's stifled sobbing.
"What..." Megan tried to say through her sobs, "What should be done to protect her?"
Gregory paused before answering, finally saying, "Abandonment."
"Of her?!" Megan said incredulously.
"With her," Gregory corrected, pausing. With a long, deep sigh, adding, "With us. Together."
The silence seemed to stretch forever. Megan walked over to Gregory & slapped him. Gregory threw up his hands to block a second slap & managed to grab both of her wrists after a momentary struggle.
"I'm sorry," he confessed, "You are right in your refusal of me. I... I couldn't help myself. We are all married until death but..."
Megan felt Gregory let go of her wrists, her arms dangling by her side.
"I miss Kate. Every day," Gregory confided, walking away & stopping at the door, "I cursed God for months for taking her away from me. Cursed the Scriptures for being married to a dead wife, born into a crippled world forever whining about it's past. You changed all that. Your laughter. Your voice. You make me forget the thousand years of punishment inflicted upon us."
Gregory opened the door to leave, opening his mouth for one last apologetic good-bye when he felt himself yanked away by a force greater then he thought a woman could generate.
Megan wrapped her arms around Gregory, confessing in sobs, "God has taken so much from me, Gregory. My husband, my anonymity... I love my daughter but curse my life because of it. We hide from the mailmen. we hide from visitors. I have done everything He has asked me to & where has it led? To be killed? For her to be killed? What cruel Shepherd brings the flock to the butcher? Can't at least one sheep be spared? Can't...?"
Megan continued to sob for over a minute, until finally saying, "I love you."
Neither of them knew that a verdict had already been rendered as to the fate of the child... Made not by the Elder.
Three men walked through the night, footsteps their only sound, rope their only possession.
The chimes at the front of the settlement sat idle, both wind & attendant resting.
Quickly, the men began to lace the rope around the entrance of the settlement. No one said a word. No one, for that matter, made a sound beyond their own breathing.
All three men knew that such a deterrent was not an insurmountable obstacle. Ropes could be cut or climbed past. Some other sections of the rope wall surrounding the settlement was barely waist high.
With their job done, one of the men walked over to the chimes & took it gently down off from it's hook. The chimes barely made any noise as it was gently lowered to the ground. Now, neither wind nor attendant could use them.
As the three men began to walk back from which they came, each wondered what tomorrow would bring. Would they be idolized as heroes or cursed as villains? It mattered not. They had played their part in adhering to the Punishment of Man. If all went according to plan, most people in the settlement would not even know that the entrance had been blocked at all.
As they walked back, other parts of the plan was unfolding...
Swaying branches swished leaves from within the forest, as though swatting at imaginary flies.
Salvare sat in his bed, playing a wooden recorder. The tune was not important, although there was no point in playing drivel; The only audience he had to impress was himself. He played so that there would be something to listen to other then wind & leaves & trees & the occasional whistle from the mailmen or whomever traveling down the metal road.
Of all his possessions, nothing was both superfluous yet vital as his recorder. Everything else that he carried with him he would sorely miss, of course, if he went without; He needed his tent for shelter; His sleeping bag to sleep & stay warm; A small, metal club for protection (which, sadly, he had needed to use far more often then he had liked); His "firestarter," a weird, Old World device that had proven invaluable for starting fires... Everything else he owned he needed just to live for a single day like a human instead of some creature sleeping in a tree or in a cave.
Salvare loved his recorder because he didn't need it - It filled no requirement in his life (except for the occasional gift of food or temporary shelter from appreciative strangers who enjoyed the music). He simply enjoyed playing the recorder because it was something that he could do. Playing the recorder made him smile. It made him... What? Human? More human?
"Free," his conscience reminded him, an opinion that Salvare didn't debate.
"Free from what?" Salvare muttered to himself, as though he needed to think long to find his own answer.
The Punishment of Man.
Just the phrase soured Salvare's mood, soured enough to stop playing his recorder for a moment.
Salvare remembered a lifetime of memories in a single moment that led him up to where he was now. He remembered a happy childhood, playing with other children. Chasing around paper tumbleweeds. Listening to tall tales told by old men. Helping his parents with the garden.
Nostalgia, he once heard someone say, simply means that you're not trying hard enough in the present to enjoy yourself.
As bad as it was to sleep in a tent that needed replacing, in a sleeping bag too cold for winter & too warm for summer... At least he didn't have to deal with the drivel that called itself "The Punishment of Man."
It was everywhere - In every settlement, every town, everyplace even remotely connected to the metal road. It reminded you of how horrible your ancestors were, how horrible you were & how horrible you constantly should be. As long as "The Punishment of Man" existed in the bloodstream of society, he would never be welcomed for more then a day at any given location. He could hardly stomach such conversation & he had yet to develop the discipline to refrain from airing his opinion.
Salvare was disgusted with himself that he let such depressing thoughts into his head. Instead, he simply put away his recorder & decided to go to sleep. Tomorrow, he would need to move along down the metal road.
He never once thought it strange that the chimes of the nearby settlement had fallen silent. Nor would he awaken for the noises that followed...
"Move along, visitor," an unfamiliar man told Salvare.
Salvare felt the rope weaved across the entrance of the settlement. The rope was plain with no knots tied into it.
"I said..." the unfamiliar man began to repeat but Salvare interrupted.
"I heard you the first time," Salvare sternly replied, "I'd like to know why. All towns on the metal road are supposed to be open for everyone! It's a rule!"
"It's a courtesy," the unfamiliar man replied, "One that we can revoke at any time if we so choose & now is one of those times."
"Just a courtesy now, is it?" Salvare exclaimed, "In another few years, will it be nothing more then a privilege? A whim in a decade? An afterthought in a generation?"
"Our conversation is over," the unfamiliar man stated with absolute firmness, "Unless you want me to call out for a net."
"No settlement is supposed to bar visitors!" Salvare protested, "It's a rule made by all the settlements that are on the metal road! You just wait until..."
"Net!" The unfamiliar man cried out.
Salvare momentarily tensed up, squeezing the grip on his baton. He raised his hand high in hopes of batting down the net or, at the very least, creating enough space from within it to back away out of it.
"Stop," another man said. This man's voice was slightly lower & older.
"I'm afraid there's been a grave misunderstanding, compounded by everyone's exceptionally frail emotions here at our settlement," the new man continued.
"I'd like to think so," Salvare cautiously replied, still keeping his baton & hands momentarily high in case the calmer tone was a ruse.
"Our chimesman is very unfamiliar with the nuances of the laws that pertain to the metal road &, for that, you have my deepest apologies. It was never his intention to knowingly break any laws & he was, in fact, under my strict orders to keep the entrance to our settlement temporarily closed."
"You like to throw around a lot of fancy words," Salvare pointed out, finally lowering his arms more out of fatigue then trust, "But you haven't given me a plain answer yet. Why is your entrance closed?"
"Ah, yes," Alexander replied, "Well, you see, our entrance is closed because there was a crime committed in our settlement last night, one of the few conditions that allows us to close off our settlement until we deem it safe to open back up to the public."
"From a visitor?" Salvare asked cautiously.
"No," Alexander said, trying for a brief laugh, "I assure you, no visitors were harmed or were the cause of harm over what transpired last night. We enjoy our visitors here immensely & take great pains to not only entertain them but to enjoy their company as well."
"Well," Salvare asked, confused, "What happened?"
"I'm afraid its rather grotesque, err...," Alexander said, before asking, "My deepest apologies, my manners elude me. My name is Alexander. And you are...?"
"Salvare," Salvare replied.
"Pleased," Alexander quickly replied.
Salvare couldn't believe his ears as he listened to Alexander explain to him what had happened in the settlement the night before.
Salvare, jaws agape, dropped his baton to the ground in shock over the description.
Crime existed on the metal road. Any seasoned traveler would be able to tell stories of being "netted" or "herded." The process was always frightening & painful as Salvare knew all too well.
The crime wasn't rampant; Salvare hadn't been "netted" or "herded" in years. Criminals also tended not to strike near settlements, where patrols & other people could readily be called upon for assistance.
Criminals never struck the mailcar - Not unless they were suicidal. The last time the mailcar had been struck, all the settlements responded by flooding the metal road with patrols & security sweeps for over a month. Several "suspected" criminals were caught & punished without so much a trial. A lot of settlements responded by clearing away as much brush as possible from beside the metal road as possible, a practice that still occurred to this day.
Salvare had never been one to mingle with the criminal element although being a traveler meant having to encounter several unsavory types. His impressions from the few "unsavory types" that he had met immediately after the mailcar had been robbed was that the criminals had learnt their lesson. The mailcar had been absolved of any concerns for its safety ever since.
Hearing about a crime from within a settlement, much less a murder, was literally unthinkable. If the mailcar was deemed untouchable by the criminal element, settlements were considered sacrilegious.
If the metal road was the spine of modern-day society, then settlements were the heart & soul of that society. Neither entity could live without the other; Settlements desperately relied upon the metal road to provide a reliable avenue for supplies & visitors while the metal road would have rusted away to oblivion without the settlements painstakingly caring for it.
Salvare paused & sat beside the metal road for a moment, reflecting on the horrible events he had been told by Alexander only an hour or so ago.
A Town Elder, along with two adults (one of which was a woman) had been killed. A small child had been kidnapped by a fanatical believer in the scriptures. Salvare struggled to remember the fanatic's name. Mark? Mikey? Michael? Melvin?
Salvare shook his head as he stood back up.
'Religious fanatics will believe in anything,' he remarked to himself in thought, reminding himself of what the fanatic thought that the child could do, 'What next? A child that can fly through the air?'
He ignored a distant rustling of leaves.
Alexander heard the final sounds of a house being torn down. The sounds were distinct: Nails finally being pried from wood, wood crashing down to the ground, wood being thrown into a pile of other wood.
Alexander also heard cheers from townspeople amongst the chatter.
Quickly, Alexander walked past the activity & back to his quarters. There, he heard the familiar rustlings of his assistant working.
"Report," Alexander stated, sitting down.
"The child is nowhere in the settlement," Benjamin stated softly, "And the bodies have been disposed of outside of the settlement. You may have passed the child's house being torn down..."
"Yes," Alexander admitted, "Has the Town Elder's house been torn down as well?"
Only silence greeted Alexander, the pause so long that Alexander almost spoke before he heard Benjamin reply.
"The townspeople...," Benjamin said hesitantly, "...Are reluctant to do that. The position of Town Elder holds sentimental value to them."
"That position is no longer relevant," Alexander coldly stated, "I am acting Town Elder until the elections can be held."
Sighing to himself, Alexander softened his voice & added, "The house may be kept standing for now. Once again, I ask too much from those accustomed to performing too little. Leave me for now. I shall call for your return soon enough."
"As you wish," Benjamin replied, leaving.
Alexander had learned early in life that all men were pawns & pawns had only two roles in life: To be pushed & to be sacrificed.
In twenty-four hours, Alexander had done both to many people. In the days to come, he knew that he would need to do both to even more.
The child had escaped. Somehow, the child had escaped.
To Alexander, it didn't matter whether the child disappeared forever or was found tomorrow.
What mattered was that Alexander was now "acting" Town Elder. Now, he needed to capitalize upon his newfound position to ensure that one part of the title would be temporary while the other would become permanent.
Rumor & gossip yielded to no barriers, either in speed, direction or accuracy.
Salvare informed the next settlement he had walked to of what was told to him. Others heard his story & spread it to other settlements. The mailmen, with their fast mailcar, needed little effort to quickly spread the rumor.
Three people murdered soon became "four or five." "Four or five" quickly turned into "At least five." "At least five" graduated to just "Five" before becoming "Six or more, with even more injured."
Malcolm turned from murderer to the Devil Incarnate. No longer was his deeds antiseptically described as merely murders but people took it upon themselves to elaborate with as much detail as they thought they were justified in making.
Malcolm was a cannibalist. Malcolm tore out the hearts of his victims. Malcolm burned his victims alive. Malcolm raped the woman & then burned her. Malcolm first beat the woman, then raped her, then burned her. Malcolm first beat the woman, raped her, cut off her head, burned the main part of the body & then burned the head.
Finally... The child. After the rumor & gossip mill got through with her, she could perform any miracle save bringing the dead back to life or forcing people to love one another.
The girl was psychic.
The girl could heal with a touch of her hands.
The girl was the Second Coming, the daughter of Christ Himself.
Nobody knew anything but no one was afraid of telling people what they thought or what they thought they knew.
Salvare had no doubt that, within a few days, every settlement connected to the metal road had heard of the story. He would have even bet all the bottle caps he owned (and even most of the milk caps) that the story had traveled BEYOND the metal road, to that region of the world that most simply described as "Elsewhere."
The tale, Salvare was afraid to admit, had been good for business. More people had heard him play his recorder, more people donating meals & lodging (along with the occasional clandestine bottle cap), more people thanking Salvare for telling them the story.
Leaving one settlement, Salvare wrinkled his nose in disgust as he passed a chimesman.
"Heard a small animal in the woods," the chimesman replied, "Threw some rocks over in that direction. Haven't heard it since."
Salvare walked away, a bit more spirited then usual. He had no desire to be around the faint smell of feces if he could help it.
"I'm afraid there's not much that I, personally, can add to alleviate this situation," Alexander said, pouring more tea for one of the three men seated inside his house.
"Are you sure that Malcolm was the one who... Performed these deeds?" One of the men asked incredulously.
"I have asked that very same question myself many times since these dreadful incidents occurred," Alexander responded politely, pushing the tea cup & saucer over to one of them.
"Unfortunately, the evidence clearly speaks for itself. Malcolm believed that this child he kidnapped had special powers," Alexander continued before being interrupted.
"The whole community did," One of the men added.
Alexander paused before continuing, his voice unflustered, "Yes, but that does not take away from the very public statements that he aired concerning the child's role in The Punishment of Man."
"Malcolm," One of the three men said with hesitation, "Was a literalist. Any violation of The Punishment of Man..."
"Nonsense!" Another of the men spoke, "Malcolm would not keep the child alive if she violated The Punishment of Man! Even liberal interpretations of The Punishment of Man dictates..."
"Applying rationale to a crazed man," the third man interjected, "Is beyond all of our scopes & accomplishes nothing. The kind Acting Town Elder of this fine settlement has called us here in an effort to minimize the reputational damage done to the religious industry, have you not?"
"I could not express that in better words then yours," Alexander politely replied.
"The Punishment of Man is hardly diluted by this one isolated incident," the first of the three men stated, "All facets of society must deal with incidents involving their extremists. Malcolm has no choice but to eventually enter into a settlement &, when he does, he will be captured & tried according to law."
"What if he goes beyond the metal road?" The second of the three men asked, "This child has strange powers that may make the safety of the metal road... Irrelevant."
"If the child is willing to help the assailant," the third of the three men added, "If the child is not dead, if the child even has special powers at all... Again, I find little reason to continue discussing matters which we can not influence."
"Gentlemen," Alexander called out, "It is not for me to determine your individual courses of action. May I merely suggest that we influence our respective settlements to... Close our settlements at night? Certainly, the addition of a door to our communities will not impede our otherwise openness to visitors & the mailcar. At the very least, while Malcolm is still on the loose, we should invest in being more... Selective as to who we let into our communities."
The three men thought in silence for a moment before they spoke again.
"These unfortunate circumstances harms us all until it is resolved," the first of the three men spoke, "We can not allow Malcolm to continue to be on the loose."
"I propose," the second of the three men said, "That we form patrols to walk the metal road. We must force Malcolm into a settlement. Only then, inside the confines of a settlement, will we be able to capture him."
"An excellent plan," Alexander agreed, "However, not all settlements have formidable walls. Even this settlement's walls are... Lackluster in containing a person committed to escaping."
"Patrols must begin," the third of the three men stated, "As well as better barriers for the settlements. Those two combined measures will force Malcolm's hand to either stay out of the settlements or be confined covertly into one. The prey must be chased before it makes a bad decision."
"Let us pray that Malcolm does not strike again beforehand," Alexander stated.
The repercussions of "The Settlement Murders" (which they were now commonly called) were felt quickly & harshly. Vigilantism needed no excuse to swell in the hearts of the people.
"Singing Mike," a known traveler of the metal road best known for his singing, was netted & beaten to death by a roving gang of vigilantes.
Stanley "Greenthumbs," another known traveler who specialized in gardening, was found dead by two other travelers. A search by members of a nearby settlement only recovered some of his limbs.
Countless other travelers either fell victim, were forced into a settlement or went into hiding as a result of the vigilante groups. Most settlements rejected their refugees after a day or so, the ecology of even the hardiest of settlements unbalanced by even a few new members.
Vigilante groups, fueled by emotion, disregarded the premise that Malcolm was a settler much like they were. Visitors & travelers were much easier targets to pursue & targeting them generated far less sympathy from fellow settlers.
As word spread that the vigilante groups were enforcing their own code of justice with blood, the metal road soon became silent except for the mailcar & only the most dedicated (or desperate) of travelers.
Salvare, for the most part, had been blessed with coincidence - Oftentimes, his path & the paths of the vigilante gangs hardly crossed. Those few times that Salvare had encountered the gangs, he had been aware enough to fall silent & let the more boisterous gang pass by, unaware of his very existence.
Unfortunately, though, Salvare would have his encounter with a gang that WOULD hear him & pursue him.
That encounter would change the history of the metal road & all of the civilization bound to it... Forever.
Edward sat by the chimes on his chair, swinging his legs as most children did to pass the time. A steady breeze performed most of the work to rattle the chimes. Edward lazily batted at them whenever the chimes fell silent for more then a few seconds.
The appeal of being a chimesman had diminished for Edward. Nowadays, visitors were feared instead of greeted. Nowadays, the fear was that visitors wouldn't even make their presence known at all. Maybe, Edward feared, Malcolm would silently sneak up on chimesmen like Edward & kill them.
In a better world, children like Edward wouldn't even BE chimesmen... Certainly, if their mothers had any influence over the issue. The risk of abduction or bodily harm was too great for a child to perform the task.
Unfortunately, most of the able-bodied men needed to devote their time towards strengthening the settlement's rope walls. Higher beams, thicker rope & more of it were all in such great demand that no settlement could afford to allow otherwise healthy men to perform a task like sitting down & banging chimes.
Edward wished that he was a teenager so that, maybe, he could help out in cutting down trees or setting up posts or... Or something. Anything. He'd even go out on patrol if they'd allow him (Although he knew his mother would never allow it).
Edward heard men approaching from behind him. He knew the footsteps well - It was the patrol that their settlement had set up to police the local part of the metal road.
A smattering of cautions were thrown Edward's way - "Warn us if you hear a stranger approach," "Keep the gate closed," "If we're in a fight, warn the town," "Keep your bat with you at all times" & the like.
The gate opened & closed, the men walking in a group down the metal road with their footsteps the only sound. Travelers were getting smart, the patrol would say, listening for oncoming patrols & walking off the metal road to stay silent.
The patrol was going to use a new technique to flush out the travelers & force them to identify themselves. Edward had heard bits about their plan but never the whole thing.
All Edward knew was that it had to do with a pole.
As Edward heard the patrol walk away into the distance, he realized that it had been a long while since he heard a visitor answer the settlement's chimes.
Salvare could hear something in the distance behind him.
Salvare would take a few steps, then 'it' would take a few steps.
Salvare was certain that he had picked up a stray animal. There was no panting like a dog & the footsteps sounded too loud to be cat.
"Go away," he had said before on a number of occasions, saying it again & adding "No food." He didn't bother telling an animal that he didn't have any bottle or milk caps. What would an animal do with those items?
Animal attacks on the metal road were rare; He doubted if the few stories that he did believe were actually true. The worse that a stray dog would do, in his limited experience about the subject, was eat your food while you were asleep. He had never encountered a bear. He had tripped over a cat (at least, it felt like a cat before it scampered off frightened) once. He hard heard the scurrying of rats & mice more times then he would want.
So picking up a stray animal was more of a hassle then a concern. Who knew when the stray would attack but, considering that the stray had followed him for a few days now (At least, he had known about it for a few days), wouldn't the stray have attacked by now if it was going to attack? Unless it was a rabid raccoon (In which case it would undoubtedly have attacked him by now), then all the animal really cared about was food. In a few more days, it would wander off or follow another traveler.
As Salvare walked along, he would stop momentarily to listen carefully. Vigilante gangs were everywhere on the metal road now. A gang's membership was anywhere from between four & fifteen members, all armed with a stick or club or net or knife or something otherwise dangerous.
At first, the gangs had been easy to avoid - Step off the metal road & stay silent. At times, staying silent was so easy & effective in avoiding gangs that Salvare would have to hold back his laughter as the gangs would stroll by, shouting their false bravado & fiery rhetoric.
The gangs, though, had become much tougher to avoid. More gangs started "walking silent," using long poles to poke & swing at the road. Anything human that the pole would hit would have a very difficult time avoiding the wrath of the gang.
A few gangs, admittedly, were not cruel.
"Who are you?"
"Oh, wait. I know you. You're the music guy."
"Play us some music, music man."
Salvare would then play some music on his recorder. He would be told to stop.
"Yeah, I recognize that tune. OK, go past."
Unfortunately, few gangs were that generous in their interrogations.
As Salvare continued to walk, listening to the stray animal following him from far behind, he heard a soft but strange series of noises coming from in front of him.
Settlements, Peter believed, lived & died on the notion of safety.
Safety was the cornerstone for all other desirable traits in a settlement - Stability, Growth, Diversity... All good factors hinged on whether or not the inhabitants of a settlement felt safe in their surroundings.
Just as there was an ecology of nature, so too was there an ecology of safety. Inhabitants needed to feel safe about travelers visiting their settlement; Visitors needed to feel safe about traveling to settlements; Everyone needed to feel safe on the metal road. Disrupt any of those three tenets of safety & the other tenets would soon become useless.
Peter, walking with members of the patrol that he was on, knew that most travelers were not "Malcolm," the murderer & kidnapper. In fact, Peter knew that most travelers were not malicious or dangerous in nature.
However, the settlements needed to prove to those few travelers who were looking for a rowdy time to look elsewhere. After all, settlements could live without travelers better then travelers could live without settlements. Travelers didn't grow food, settlements did. Travelers didn't make clothes, settlements did. Travelers didn't make houses, settlements did. Mail? Settlements. Children? Settlements.
Peter had convinced himself of the nobility in being a part of a patrol. Perhaps their efforts would force a traveler to permanently join a settlement, get married & start a family. Perhaps they would force malicious travelers off the metal road entirely, out into "Elsewhere" & from existence altogether.
Although Peter had never met a malicious traveler, he had heard the horror stories... Of travelers raping, robbing & burning settlements. Travelers would walk until they reached a rope outer wall of a settlement & then proceed to cut through or climb over the rope wall. Travelers would enter settlements to rob them. The stories were as varied as there were grains of sand on a beach.
Today, Peter was the "Pole Dragger" for the patrol; A pole was being dragged perpendicular across the road. Sneaky travelers would stay silent until they "heard" the patrol pass, then jump back onto the metal road. Hopefully, the pole would trip the sneaky travelers & alert everyone to the traveler's whereabouts.
Two men in the patrol served as the "decoys." They'd shout & yell such things as...
"All travelers - Stop & identify yourself. We won't hurt you if you come on out into the open."
"This is a patrol. If you're a traveler & can hear us, reply immediately. Silent travelers are not welcome here."
The plan hadn't worked yet but it hadn't been for a lack of trying. Travelers were few & far between nowadays. Peter reasoned that the travelers were probably hiding out of fear from "Malcolm" as much as the settlements.
It wasn't Peter's job to listen for "silent travelers," just to pull the pole. However, he thought he could hear a stray animal just off of the metal road.
Little did he know that the entire patrol would soon discover whether or not their tactic would work.
It felt like someone had smacked Salvare just above the ankle.
Had he been prepared for it, the hit was light enough that Salvare could've braced his stance to avoid falling.
Unfortunately, the hit seemingly came out of nowhere. Salvare let out a yelp as landed on the ground.
"Pole hit!" He heard someone yell out behind him. Salvare's blood turned to ice as he heard a dozen footsteps come alive, all clamoring towards him.
Quickly, Salvare stood back up & jolted off of the metal road as he heard cries of "Net! Net!" just behind him. Salvare felt the very edge of a net tag the back of his heel as he scampered off into the dense brush bordering the metal road. The air was awash in yelling, in branches behind violently pushed aside, of feet stomping onto small twigs & dried leaves through the forest.
The secret, Salvare had learned about "evasion by forest" was to jog slow & always remember to circle back. Salvare, like all travelers, had heard the tales of travelers entering the wilderness & never finding their way back to the metal road. Salvare heeded those tales with seriousness as now his very life depended on their sage advice.
Behind him, Salvare could hear cries of both anger & surprise. The patrol, bent upon capturing Salvare, had abandoned safety for reckless speed. Their penalty for such recklessness could be heard from behind.
"Ah! My ankle! Goddamnit! My ankle!"
"Where is he? Where is he?"
"We'll get you, traveler!"
"Get back to the road before he doubles back!"
"I hear noise from over there!"
Salvare stayed silent as the patrol, away from the metal road, splintered while within the forest. In a matter of moments, the patrol knew that they had lost their prey. The yells went from boisterous to angry, from angry to vengeful, from vengeful to threatening & then finally died off into the distance. Salvare waited an extra long while before finally moving back out of the forest.
For Salvare, it had been a close call with the patrol.
His encounter with the patrol, though, had just come at a great price as he would soon discover later on that evening...
"There's not much that can be done, I'm afraid," Alexander stated sincerely.
His guests, all of whom were representatives of Town Elders, sat silently as they awaited further comments.
"We are all concerned about Malcolm striking again," Alexander confided, "Some more so then others. Some even feel that he has struck again although, of course, definitive proof is not evident. Each town, though, seems to hold their own standard on who is deemed a threat & who isn't."
"We must control our citizens from spiraling into outright vigilantism," one representative said.
"Vigilantism is one rung higher then mob rule," another agreed, with others nodding & others briefly acknowledging agreement as well.
"It is not for me to say how other towns should control their citizens," Alexander politely recanted, "I feel almost embarrassed to think that others hold me in such high esteem to dispense such advice."
"This is a problem that has affected all the towns along the metal road," a representative answered, "We need the views & advice from everyone before we can find a reasonable response."
"I find it disheartening," one representative chimed in, "That there are patrols from other towns that patrol our own stretch of the metal road! I won't stand for it! When we've told them to move on, they challenge us to produce a patrol of our own! As though we need their help for our own safety!"
A loud chorus of agreement rippled through the room.
"Our town hasn't had any incidents in over two weeks," another representative said, "We only have one patrol that goes out once a day. I'm hard pressed to continue even that level of monitoring."
"I almost feel," a representative replied, "That my town needs a patrol simply to monitor the other patrols from other towns nearby! I can't tell you how many tales of patrol abuse there have been towards travelers."
Alexander heard multiple conversations erupting after the representative speak, mostly relaying to others their own similar experiences.
"We ought to have borders," he heard someone say, "A clear indicator of where one town patrol ends & another can begin."
"And allow criminals to take advantage of that system?" Another representative barked, "A dog on a leash is only as effective as the length of the leash! We would be inviting crime to occur!"
"Occur where?" A representative shouted out, "The only crimes I have heard of are overzealous patrols harrassing & injuring travelers! It is time to end these patrols before it permanently damages our economy."
"We do not rely on the whims of travelers for our quality of life," a representive huffed, "We will keep our patrols just the way they are!"
"Gentlemen, please!" Alexander cried out, a dozen conversations instantly being cut off.
A sharp, deafening silence ensued as Alexander spoke again.
"Good, reasonable arguments all," Alexander admitted, "Would it please the assembly if I added my thoughts on your statements?"
Upon hearing more silence, Alexander smirked for a moment. Then, he began to speak.
The proposal, to many in the room, was so crazy that it actually made sense.
As the representatives left, each pondered to their own degree the proposal that Alexander had made.
Each town having their own patrol (or, in many cases, more then one) which, in turn, had their own standards was an absurd operation. To this point, hardly anyone in the room could disagree.
What if, as Alexander suggested, that there would be an unified patrol? Many towns contributing a few of their citizens to have a series of uniform patrols. All of the patrols would follow the exact same standards.
The logistics, of course, would be immense to figure out. The metal road, although eventually circuitous, was very long... Not even the mail car could travel the entire metal road in a single day. It was doubtful that the mail car could travel the entire metal road in a few days.
Who would be capable of joining the unified patrol? What would be the standards of that patrol? Who would pay for the lodging of the patrol members? What would be a safe & reasonable method of detaining a dangerous traveler? What about jurisdiction?
Yet for every flaw that Alexander's proposal may have contained, the flaws in the current application were just as severe if not more so. Men perfectly capable of tending fields were out on the metal road chasing travelers & getting injured as a result. Travelers were hiding in the woods or climbing over the rope fences of towns to avoid the patrols. Unknown numbers of travelers had been injured & stories were plentiful of travelers getting killed. There were even stories of travelers abandoning the metal road altogether to take their chances outside the metal road in the land simply known as "Elsewhere."
The easiest solution, of course, was to simply catch Malcolm once & for all. No matter the inconvenience or coincidence, Malcolm had been charged in the minds of countless people for every unfortunate occurrence that had been experienced since "The Settlement Murders." For every rope fence cut, for every chime stolen, for every unannounced visit to a town... Malcolm was always on the short list of suspects regardless of evidence or witnesses.
Some argued that the need for any patrol was exaggerated, that crime had become no more severe then what it was before Malcolm & the Settlement Murders. Others contended that the metal road & all those establishments dependent on it finally needed to face the reality of a growing population rapidly maturing beyond mere settlements & tribal-based forms of resolution.
A few of the representatives wondered how those responsible for adherence to The Punishment of Man doctrine would respond to Alexander's proposal. They wondered not about the type of reaction but of its severity.
It was gone.
IT was GONE!
Salvare had checked, re-checked & checked again every single space in his backpack. No matter how thorough the search, he couldn't find his recorder.
Had he lost it when he got smacked in the ankle by that gang? When he ran into the woods to lose the gang? Later then that? Earlier?
'It's just a stupid recorder,' he tried telling himself, 'It can't light fires, it can't protect you from the rain or the cold, it certainly isn't like bottle caps or milk caps...'
Salvare tried to convince himself that he should be thankful for having avoided serious injury at the hands of the gang.
Yet, try as he might, Salvare could not help but feel a sense of deep, unconsolable grief. He hadn't felt such grief since...
Salvare shook his head violently as though he could fling the memories permanently from his mind with one good, swift shake. Salvare knew, of course, that he couldn't remove memories with a mere shake but he knew it would do no good to remember a past permanently scarred.
Slowly, Salvare's better senses took over. A tent was raised, a fire was started & the backpack was re-packed. By the evening, Salvare sat alone just like he had so many other days ago around a small fire. He had eaten an adequate meal as he had on any other days.
Yet, there was loss.
Salvare could not answer the trees that swayed their branches, the crickets that chirped or the babbling brook nearby.
Sadly, Salvare began to retire for the evening by putting out the campfire & thinking about what he would do for tomorrow.
"Forgive me, Father," the Town Elder replied, "Would you kindly define what an army is according to The Punishment of Man?"
"The Punishment of Man is not a dictionary," Father Philips replied, "It expressly forbids mankind to raise an army of any kind for any reason. It is in the best interests of humanity to yield on the side of caution as to whether we cross that line or not with our creations."
"Certainly, though," the Town Elder asked, "the Good Lord provides a way for us to defend ourselves against a coordinated attack?"
"It is not for us to be privileged during our Punishment," Father Philips stated, "To feel pleasure or safety. Punishment is, after all, just what it is - Punishment."
"Are the patrols that we set up in violation of the Punishment?" the Town Elder asked.
Father Philips heaved a sigh, pausing for a moment before replying, "An army is neither a mob nor a man; Defending oneself against aggression can never be taken away for God did not create Man for it to destroy itself."
"So, then," the Town Elder asked, "Where does the line of tolerance exist? If I sanction a patrol, is it an army? Is it any less an army if one of our citizens spurs this same patrol?"
"Curiosity," Father Philips declared, "Has done more then just kill cats. I would politely suggest that any interest in this proposal be academic only."
"A suggestion not easily granted," the Town Elder replied, "I will write a request to find out what the Punishment Council considers to be an army. A lesser of two evils is still less evil then what we tolerate now. We can only hope that, in the future, we are blessed with an even more peaceful option to our predicament."
Discussions such as those between this Town Elder & Father Philips were far from uncommon. Soon, the Punishment Council would receive several letters of a similar nature.
However, what few knew was that their decision would soon be rendered moot by future events.
"Is someone there?" Salvare called out.
Salvare knew quite well that fellow travelers used a wide array of devices (including their own voice) to signal their presence. Some whistled a certain tune, some used a whistle, one man yodeled ("Yodeling Jim" as he was known) & everyone had their own unique cadence even if the device that they used was similar.
Salvare, off the top of his head, couldn't tell who it was behind the low, out-of-tune call. It almost sounded like it was a...
'It couldn't be...' Salvare thought, his pulse quickening just a little bit at the mere thought.
"I'm just a traveler," Salvare shouted out, "No caps."
"Why don't you come on over to my camp? I've got a fire going. Plenty of tinder to keep it going, too," Salvare reasoned.
Just as Salvare was about to turn around to sit back down again, he heard it again.
This time, he heard a low, soft tone that again pitched itself out of tune.
Salvare shot towards the sound about a foot or two, exclaiming, "Hey, mister, is that a recorder?"
Silence. Salvare stood completely still, listening to every twig crack, every leaf crunch, every gust of wind whistle past the trees.
After a moment, he heard quick, shuffled steps moving away from his camp. To Salvare, it sounded almost as if someone was walking around with their pants at their ankles.
"Hey!" Salvare shouted, "Don't go! Wait!"
Salvare grabbed a ball of yarn, one end of which was already attached to a pole stuck into the ground. Salvare quickly took the ball & it naturally unfurled as he moved to keep pace with the sound in front of him.
"I've got food, you know," Salvare stated, listening to gauge the response.
The footsteps stopped, Salvare grinning as he heard silence again.
"Lots of good food. I can't eat it all. Some of it is going to spoil before I reach the next town. Be a shame to have to throw some of it away," Salvare said.
Silence again, then more of the shuffling footsteps.
'It can't be,' Salvare thought to himself, 'Could it?' Salvare thought to himself about the sound of the footsteps, arriving at an unlikely conclusion.
Salvare came up with a plan to test his theory. He wasn't certain if he wanted to be proven right or not.
Edward sat at the chair, smacking the chimes lazily. He muttered to himself a multiplication table that he needed to learn for school.
"1 times 4 is 4, 2 times 4 is 8, 3 times 4 is 12..."
Suddenly, he heard something off in the distance. Edward stopped the chimes for a moment.
Was it a wolf howling way off in the distance? Edward couldn't be certain. It wasn't a traveler's whistle, though. It didn't sound like any traveler's call he had ever heard (not that he had heard many of them lately).
Then, he heard the sound clearly. It wasn't a wolf's howl. It sounded like a horn, more like a bugle.
A horn! It wasn't a traveler, but a religious caravan! Edward had heard the sound once before back during... Back during "that time," just after the Settlement Murders. Edward's mood soured as he remembered all of the tension & panic surrounding those events. Even while so young, the events were still seared into his mind no less then a cattle brand struck against his side.
Edward began ringing the chimes loudly as he heard the horn continue to sound.
Edward knew that religious caravans were rare; Individual Punishment priests (Edward knew enough not to call them "Punishers" openly) weren't allowed to use a horn as their signal when traveling, even if it was strictly for business. Only a religious caravan, representing the Punishment Council itself, could use a horn as it's signal.
Edward began feeling cold as a shiver went up his spine. What could a religious caravan possibly want with their settlement?
"Mmmm... Good," Salvare exclaimed, finishing his meal, clanking his spoon around a mostly empty tray.
"I guess I'll just keep the rest here in my backpack for tomorrow," Salvare continued, adding, "No need to eat all of it in one sitting."
Salvare rustled his backpack loudly, opening & closing various flaps. Finally, he closed all of the flaps on his backpack except for one.
Taking out a vial of spice (they called it "Pepper" in the Old World), he sprinkled it liberally on the remainder of the food. It pained him to use so much of the spice up but he needed to use as much as necessary for the desired effect.
Placing the container of food into his backpack, Salvare walked over to his tent & got into it. He made sure that the backpack could be opened & the food removed without ever moving the backpack itself.
'You fool,' a part of Salvare yelled at him, 'You just used up a lot of spice that could have sold for a fistful of bottle caps on some food that would sell just as much cold as it was warm!'
'Worth enough for a recorder?' Salvare thought in response, 'I'd settle for a kazoo... A slide whistle... Even a mouth harp.'
Most important of all, Salvare wanted to know who it was who had eluded him. Someone short, perhaps? Someone toying with him?
The last thing Salvare wanted to be considered was an easy sucker on the metal road. If you gained the reputation for being suckered into falling for every scam & swindle, then you could be inviting some serious harm from criminals who didn't mind throwing a few punches to get whatever they wanted. Salvare wanted to teach the underworld that he could hunt just as easily as being the hunted.
As Salvare lied in his sleeping bag, pretending to sleep, he waited silently for the trap to be sprung.
He wouldn't have to wait for long.
No one was ever invited to the Punishment Council to be congratulated.
Few ever escaped the encounter with the Council with their reputations intact. Some didn't escape at all.
Alexander sat before five Punishment priests where the silence was deafening.
"Why do you think that your proposal does not defy The Punishment of Man?" One of the priests asked.
"I would not dare defy The Punishment of Man," Alexander replied, "I am well aware of our prohibition for creating an army."
"No one said anything about your proposal as akin to creating an army. Would you care to explain your reasoning of this presumption?" Another Punishment priest asked.
"My presumption is that I would not be here to be congratulated for my proposal," Alexander stated.
"It would be wise," a Punishment priest coldly declared, "If you kept your answers straight & your wit restrained."
"I sincerely apologize to the Council for any inappropriateness that my statements have been interpreted as. I am here only to fully answer your inquiries into my proposal & accept your verdict as to it's validity," Alexander replied.
"You are here at our request," a Punishment priest reminded Alexander, "And it will be our decision as to when & under what conditions you shall be dismissed. Are we in agreement?"
"Yes," Alexander simply replied.
"Very well," A Punishment priest declared, "We may proceed."
"The question originally asked," a priest said, "Was not answered. Why do you think that your proposal does not defy The Punishment of Man?"
"The interpretation of The Punishment, as I have studied it, is that we may not possess money, weapons, an army, & hold opinion higher or contrary to what is declared in The Punishment," Alexander said, concluding, "To which I feel my proposal violates none of that or I wouldn't have offered it."
"How would you characterize your unified patrol as being different from that of an army?" A priest asked.
As Alexander spoke, the Punishment Council listened. There would be several more questions & answers, each one more difficult then the last.
Finally, the event was over. Alexander smiled as the verdict was handed down to him.
In the meanwhile, actions were taking place to render whatever their verdict had been as meaningless.
"Alright, kid," Salvare said, stunned that the person trailing him had been a small girl, "Here, drink this water. It'll wash it down in no time."
The girl, still coughing on the pepper-laced meal, quickly drank the water as Salvare sat down to gather his thoughts.
He recounted in his mind the ease of which she had taken the bait. As soon as he had grabbed her, he knew that it was a child. Her muffled yelp was all the identification he needed to also know that his straggler was a 'she' & not a 'he.'
Salvare knew that he was nowhere near a settlement of any kind. The best case scenario, which played out more like a miracle then an actually feasible event, would be if the mail car passed them & they would be able to get a lift to the nearest town. The mail car never allowed passengers, though, & it would be doubtful if they would begin now.
Salvare could hear the small girl finish drinking. She had also stopped coughing.
"Kid," Salvare stated, "Do you know where your Mommy & Daddy are?"
"Are your Mommy & Daddy travelers? Are they like me? Do they walk the metal road?" Salvare asked.
"Do you have a name, kid?" Salvare asked.
"I can't help you, kid, if you don't help me figure out where you come from," Salvare stated.
"I don't want to go home," she finally said in a wavering, tiny voice on the verge of tears.
"Well," Salvare said, searching for words, "Is there any place you would like to go? The next town? To a priest, perhaps?"
Just as Salvare was about to say something, the small girl stated, "Mommy's dead."
Salvare, jaws agape, again searched for words as the small girl broke down into tears, adding, "I saw it."
People in the settlement were told to gather for an announcement by their acting Town Elder. There were no explanations.
Everyone had their own opinion as to what was going to be said. Cynics believed that Alexander was going to be punished for his proposal of an unified patrol to monitor the growing violence on the metal road. Optimists believed that the Punishment Council had seen the wisdom in the unlikely but bold plan. Some didn't care either way, for the lofty issue of travelers & security of the metal road hardly affected them.
"Citizens," Alexander began, "I thank you all for gathering here today. You have taken time away from your important duties so I will be as mercifully brief as I can."
"I was asked to speak before our beloved Punishment Council to explain to them my proposal for an unified patrol that would monitor the entire metal road," Alexander said.
"I will not repeat the imagined merits or fallacies of my proposal here; The time for explaining my proposal has long since passed & I will now rely upon the charity of the citizens to discuss the proposal amongst yourselves," Alexander continued.
"The Punishment Council decided that my proposal for an unified patrol defied the doctrine that binds us all, that being 'The Punishment of Man.' I will not dispute the validity of that doctrine; The purity of that doctrine is what has helped our civilization rebuild after the punishment our ancestors faced for defying the Word of God," Alexander stated.
Alexander allowed the gasps to die down before continuing.
"As punishment for my defiance of 'The Punishment of Man,' I must resign as Acting Town Elder of this fine settlement. Furthermore, I must not ever seek a position of elevated guidance or leadership ever again. I accept this punishment without question or reservation, as it is a fair & reasonable judgment for the defiance that I displayed," Alexander said.
"In full accordance to this punishment, I have announced to you, the fair citizens of this settlement, my punishment with all possible haste so that you may organize yourselves accordingly & elect a proper Town Elder," Alexander said.
"It has been a pleasure serving you as Acting Town Elder & I wish you the absolute best in choosing my successor. I thank you sincerely," Alexander concluded.
Stunned silence gave way to tepid applause with the occasional shout, "They're wrong!" Even though priests were in audience & could hear these acts of defiance, they knew well enough not to pursue these acts vigorously soon after such a traumatic event as their Acting Town Elder resigning. In a day or two, they would think twice of the words they spoke & be twice shy of repeating them in public.
Alexander walked away from the crowd, smiling. He had little doubt that he would soon be speaking in front of an even larger audience soon enough.
"Bad, bad little man;
Defy me, you think you can.
Pluck, pluck, no more eyes;
I don't like your big, fat lies."
-- Children's song, unknown origin
The Punishment of Man.
It was taught to children even before they learned the alphabet... Even before they could talk. In some settlements, they had to recite the entire thing verbatim every year from memory.
Even though Salvare wasn't a priest, even though he wasn't religious... Salvare knew enough about The Punishment of Man to know what was taught.
"Sure, kid," Salvare said, the sarcasm lost on her young ears, "You saw it."
"I did," the young girl replied.
'Religious nut case,' Salvare thought to himself with a deep sigh.
Salvare held up three fingers on his right hand.
"How many fingers am I holding up, kid?" Salvare asked.
"Three," the young girl replied.
"Lucky guess," Salvare said slowly, now making a fist with the hand, "Now how many fingers am I holding up?"
The young girl laughed, replying, "None."
Salvare didn't realize he had stopped breathing until his body forced itself to take a deep breath. His lower jaw slightly quivered as the young girl continued talking.
"Can you teach me how to play this?" The young girl asked, "I don't know how to play it."
"How to... Uh," Salvare stammered, "How to, uh, play what?"
"Your flute," the young girl stated, "You dropped it when those men chased you."
Jaw still quivering, breaths still rapid & shallow, Salvare swallowed hard as he replied, "Sure, kid. I'll teach you how to play that. I can, uh, only teach you if I know your name, though. Do you, uh, have a name?"
"Angela," the young girl replied.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Angela," Salvare replied, "My name is Salvare."
Nuts and bolts. The tools of democracy.
Every settlement had their own method for voting. The Punishment of Man, after all, was not all-inclusive; It did not tell the people how tall a fence should be or whether someone could build a house on a certain piece of property or not.
As long as the Punishment of Man was followed, everything else could be decided amongst the population as far as the priests were concerned.
One settlement chose nuts & bolts as voting tools. Each person would make a choice to place one nut or one bolt into a metal bowl. Two people from the next settlement over (or even a pair of travelers) would then count out how many nuts & bolts were in the bowl.
Another settlement used unique paper punches to signify a vote. The voter would punch a piece of paper with the particular punch of their choice & place it into a box. The paper ballots would then be counted.
Another settlement used a systems of knocks against a wooden table for voting. A voter would walk into a room & two people would ask the otherwise anonymous voter for their vote. One knock or two knocks would designate their position.
Now that Alexander had been dismissed by the Punishment Council as Acting Town Elder, the wheels of democracy would turn once again for one settlement. Candidates would be chosen, speeches would be made & a vote would ultimately be taken.
Alexander had never asked the Punishment Council if he could even vote anymore in elections. Even if they had specified to him that he could vote, Alexander would choose not to vote. Alexander wanted to make sure that he followed even the spirit of the punishment handed down to him by the Council.
As the settlement began the process of choosing a new Town Elder, Alexander made all the necessary preparations to leave the settlement. He gave away his superfluous belongings to various other members of the settlement. He acquired the traditional gear of the traveler, ensuring that he learned how to use it properly.
Throughout the entire process of leaving the settlement, Alexander was never sad much to the surprise of others.
No one but Alexander knew that, although he would leave as a traveler, he would return as a ruler... Regardless of how anyone voted.
Salvare finally realized what the phrase "An embarrassment of riches" meant.
Salvare held company with a girl who could do something that no one in generations could do - See. She could count the rocks on the ground & tell Salvare what colors they were.
Some people would give the last ten years of their life to have just one conversation without someone who could see.
'Some people,' Salvare reminded himself, 'Would give ten years of their life to kill her.'
What could Salvare do? He couldn't go into another settlement with the girl. He couldn't risk the chance that they would kill her for 'violating' the Punishment of Man. He couldn't risk 'returning' her to her original settlement because she didn't want to go back.
Finally, Salvare couldn't risk looking like the murderer "Malcolm" that 'kidnapped' this child. A number of settlements would pummel Salvare on the spot regardless of what he claimed if he presented Angela to them.
Angela hadn't told him how she had escaped from Malcolm although, if you can see, she would have a great advantage to accomplish such a feat even at her youthful age.
So Salvare did the only thing he knew he could get away with.
"Angela," Salvare asked, "Would you like to travel to someplace special?"
"Where's that?" Angela asked.
"It's a secret place where some travelers go to rest," Salvare replied.
"Is it like a settlement?" Angela asked.
"It's kind of like a settlement," Salvare replied, smiling at the comparison, "I think that you'd enjoy it."
"OK," Angela replied.
Salvare & Angela packed up the campsite, Angela eager to do most of the chores herself. Salvare told her to take her time. It would give Salvare more then enough time to think about what he was going to do next. He didn't have many other options at his disposal.
Little did he know his options were about to shrink even further...
The sound of fire. Children were taught the old adage that "If you can hear fire before you feel it, run & tell an adult." Sound traveled faster then the rise in temperature.
The sound of fire rarely sang alone. Two women cried out in agony, their anguish unintelligible.
Immediately, adults sprang into action. A water line was formed. The settlement gate was closed. All travelers were asked to report to the Town Elder's house & to stay there until told otherwise.
The house, of course, couldn't be saved; Houses rarely won even when fires were caught at early stages. The action was to prevent the fire from spreading more then salvaging the house.
Neither, for that matter, could the women be saved. Both died of the burns they suffered to their bodies. It was rumored that one woman died naturally while the other was simply put out of her misery. Even though the rumors were disputed, they were like a fire itself - Once started, they were hard to extinguish.
Quickly, someone found a section of rope fence that had been completely cut through. Inspecting the fence was a task that rarely held precedent over more pressing concerns like gardening & other quality of life issues. For all anyone knew, the fence could have been cut days or even weeks ago.
The travelers were talked to by the Town Elder. Most were regulars, as unlikely to have started the fire as any native. All the travelers had an alibi that could be verified so everyone was let go.
The travelers would talk, naturally, about the calamity. They would talk about a broken fence, a burnt home & two dead settlers. The settlers would feel uneasy about their own fate if they couldn't be protected by their current fences.
So it began...
"Richard?" Richard's wife, Harriet, called out, "Richard?"
Harriet thought about ringing the outdoor dinner bell but decided against it. Richard, volunteering as the town chimesman for the day, might mistake it as an incoming traveler.
"If he's talking with Jack again..." Harriet mumbled to herself as she walked out of her house & began to walk towards Jack's house. Harriet, like so many other lifelong residents of the town, didn't need the guidance ropes that were set up for visiting travelers.
Knocking on Jack's front door, she called out, "Jack? Jack? Are you there?"
The sound of footsteps greeted her until she heard the door open.
"Hi, Harriet," Carol, Jack's wife, said, "How are you?"
"Hi, Carol," Harriet replied, "I'm sorry to disturb you but is Richard here?"
"No," Carol replied, "Richard hasn't stopped by. Maybe they're talking up at the chimes. Jack was supposed to take over for Richard a little while ago."
"Of course," Harriet replied, "That's probably where they are."
They spoke for another moment or two & then parted ways.
'Men,' Harriet thought scornfully to herself, 'The one day I'm making his favorite dinner & of course he's late...'
Walking towards the chimes, she could finally hear the chimes gently swaying in the breeze.
"Jack? Richard?" Harriet called out, "Are you here?"
"I'm here," Jack said, adding, "Hi, Harriet, how are you?"
"Oh, hi, Jack," Harriet said, asking, "Did you talk to Richard up here?"
"I haven't bumped into him," Jack replied, "Found the chimes unmanned when I got up here. Why? Can't find him?"
"No," Harriet admitted, "Would you know where he might be?"
No one, it turned out, knew where Richard was. After a visit to the Town Elder, the Town Elder ordered the town gate closed & a search conducted. The rope fences were intact & Richard was nowhere to be found.
A traveler, early the next morning, stumbled upon Richard's mutilated body. His face had been so badly beaten that the town was forced to use dental imprints to confirm the identity.
And so it continued...
Another cold dinner. Even reheated on the stove, Frank could taste the difference between a fresh dinner & one that had been sitting around for an hour or two.
"Will he live?" Frank's wife, Terry, asked as he ate.
"Yeah," Frank replied between bites, "Just a minor lump. No swelling. No bleeding. If only they were all like that. Some minor scratches, probably when he fell or attempted to flee."
"That's the fourth one this month," Terry commented, even the deaf being able to hear the bitterness seep through in her voice.
"I've already informed the Town Elder," Frank responded, "He's going to send over another messenger..."
"Another messenger," Terry interrupted tersely, "What about the first?! This has been going on for over a month now! How many travelers & how many 'lumps' before he does something about it?!"
Frank knew the golden rule of relationships: The only argument a husband ever wins with his wife is the one they never have.
"There's nothing more that I can do about this," Frank said, almost feeling as though he were defending himself against charges that hadn't been voiced, "I've already told the priest & the Town Elder; Everyone else doesn't need me to verify that these travelers are walking in injured & I doubt that they're all lying about being harassed by that other town's patrol."
"We've only seen the injured," Terry replied coldly, "What about the ones the travelers they might have killed?"
"We don't know about that," Frank answered, "And I'd hesitate to start any such rumors."
"Rumors," Terry scoffed, "How hard is it to go from a punch that harms to a punch that kills?"
"It's hard to convict anyone on words alone," Frank finally shot back, "And harder still to repair your reputation after you've begun. Now stop before you say something foolish that escalates the matter further! I hate this just as much as you do but this has to be handled properly."
His wife's silence said all that needed to be said, a silence that lasted well into the evening & after both had gone to bed.
Others in the town, though, were not so vigilant about restraining their actions. Who could not sympathize with travelers wandering into their town pleading for medical assistance after being harassed & beaten by a nearby town's patrol? For every traveler that had wandered into town merely bleeding, how many had died by the side of the metal road?
Escalation was slowly turning into confrontation...
"No travelers. No problems." That was their motto.
Their town didn't want anything to do with travelers, Malcolm or whomever else wanted to cause problems. "The Settlement Murders" gave the town a perfect excuse to close the gates & keep them shut.
Travelers were always a tolerated nuisance. Most of them were smelly, most of them got drunk way too quickly & practically all of them didn't want anything to do with following "The Punishment of Man," either to the letter or even in spirit.
What right did other towns have in questioning their sovereignty over how they treated travelers? If the travelers didn't like how they were treated, no one was preventing them from moving on to another town!
"Go on," they'd say at the front of the gate, "You'd be better off at the next town!"
Travelers, of course, never enjoyed being refused anything. Some would holler, others would get violent. The patrol was there to convince travelers that they had better places to be then to pick a fight with the town. On some occasions, a hearty shove was all that was necessary. On other occasions, things got heated even further.
Nearby towns had warned them of their activities. Their response was simple & straight-forward : "We have the right to protect ourselves. Come & stop us."
It was about to come to just that...
They weren't back.
When the afternoon chimesman was replaced by the evening chimesman, he said that the patrol hadn't returned since briefly stopping by early in his shift.
The afternoon chimesman, once relieved, told the Town Elder of the patrol's absence.
The Town Elder, in turn, had a search party of five men gathered to intercept the patrol wherever they may be. No one, at the time, thought of calamity - At worst, the patrol had probably been overzealous with their protection of the town & their section of the metal road.
Once the search party left, no one heard two men sneak in through the open front entrance before it was closed again. Now inside, they waited long until the chimesman lost interest.
Then, the attack began.
George Noveen, 34, didn't even like being a chimesman. He only took the job to elevate his status in the community so that he may attract more women. It had never worked & it never would. George felt the net fall onto him. He didn't even hear the sound that the pipe made as it crushed his skull.
Re-opening the gate was the easy part; Rendering it useless took longer then expected.
A whistled bird call was the signal for three other people to enter the town.
Quickly, they set to work lighting as many houses on fire as they could. They lit seven up before the town was aroused to the possibility that the fire was more then just accidental.
An emergency security patrol discovered the attackers' escape about ten minutes after it had been used - A cut through section of rope fence that had bypassed the small warning bells attached to the rope. Sticky pine sap had been used to cover the inside of the bells to mask the cutting of ropes.
Seven houses on fire quickly became nine & then just as quickly became fifteen as winds began to get stronger & shift.
The search party did not find the patrol but, instead, found the town in utter chaos with people evacuating the town by any means necessary.
Wolves would find the bodies of the dead patrol in the forest, bludgeoned to an unrecognizable pulp. For them, the day would end gloriously with an easy & fulfilling meal. They would be the only ones gloating about their good fortunes that day.
Little did anyone realize that they were a witness to history - The fall of their civilization had just begun...
"I have no interest in being involved with politics again," Alexander stated to the four men who had gathered inside his house, "Although I am delighted, as always, to entertain dignitaries such as yourselves."
"You don't understand," one exasperated assistant Town Elder replied, "It's madness out there now! Madness!"
"Town patrols openly slaughtering travelers," another added, "Town patrols attacking each other! Sabotage on countless town fences..."
"All issues," Alexander replied calmly, "That the Punishment Council & the Town Elders are fully equipped to handle. I am humbled by your judgment that I may have some influence on their thoughts but, really, I have learnt my lesson when it comes to offering my advice on such topics."
"You should know," a third assistant Town Elder stated, "That we are not the only ones who have reconsidered your proposal from before in light of all of the recent tragedies."
"The Punishment Council," Alexander reassured his frantic guests, "Has never reversed a single decision of theirs. How would you possibly go about convincing them that an unified patrol does not equate into an army?"
"What if," the first assistant declared, "The towns themselves unified?"
There was silence. Alexander had no interest in breaking the silence first & allowed the assistant to break it for him.
"Not just with trivial pacts & treaties," the assistant continued, "But an actual union? One town can have one patrol already, the Punishment Council allows that. If all the towns unify, would they not be entitled to have a patrol?"
"Such a unique proposal," Alexander mused, "But does this not violate the Punishment of Man's taboo on centralized government? Towns would certainly be punished by not having patrols of their own."
"The Punishment Council already holds the template for a governing body," the second assistant declared, "Yet they do not dictate the practices of each individual town, only that they follow the Punishment of Man. Why not the same for a unified patrol? As long as the patrol is restricted to the metal road, a town's right for freedom would not be in jeopardy."
"Clever," Alexander sadly replied, "But clever so rarely works with the Punishment Council. They doggedly adhere to a more restrictive interpretation of their doctrine."
"Not if we protest," the third assistant Town Elder added, "The Punishment Council is not like it's idol, God Himself. A single tree does not make a forest & the Punishment Council is just a row of men without people to guide."
"Bold words," Alexander coldly remarked, "Protesting the Punishment Council is not an advisable task. I, for one, would never advise for that action to take place. You would do well to find a more peaceful alternative."
From there, the conversation shifted to other topics briefly before all of the assistant Town Elders went about their way. Alexander sent the gentlemen on their way.
The breaking point had not been reached yet... But it was getting close...
The Traveler's Web.
While the metal road was far & away the most popular choice of getting from 'Point A' to 'Point B,' some travelers preferred a less circuitous method of travel. Some travelers' livelihoods even depended upon it.
The Traveler's Web was, by strict definition, a series of ropes (not like clothes lines of the distant past) tied to trees that resided inside the middle of the metal road. Follow the ropes & you could cut your traveling time in half.
Salvare & Angela had heard of the increasing violence against travelers. Wisely, Salvare chose to use the Traveler's Web to travel.
As was customary, Salvare kept the rope he was following on his left. Also customary was shaking the rope on occasion to warn oncoming travelers of an approach (in which both travelers would pass carefully past each other to avoid colliding their hands) or to allow travelers ahead of you of your presence. Travelers were friendly enough that, often enough, shaking the rope translated out to having a momentary conversation.
Angela, as Salvare found out quickly enough, was a curious child... One who held no shame in hiding her curiosity.
"Are we there yet?" Angela asked.
"No," Salvare replied, "When you see a large building & people, you'll know that we've arrived."
"Oh," Angela replied, then asking, "How will you know when we're there if you can't see?"
"I'll hear the people," Salvare replied, "Just as you'll hear the people."
"Oh," Angela replied.
The silence did not last for long.
"Are they nice people?" Angela asked.
"Most of them are very nice," Salvare replied.
"Will there be kids there?" Angela asked.
"There are several kids there," Salvare replied.
"Oh," Angela replied, adding, "Are they nice kids?"
"When we arrive," Salvare stated, "You can play with them & find out."
"Oh," Angela replied, stating, "You walk fast."
'Not fast enough,' Salvare thought to himself, quickly condemning the thought but not before the briefest of smirks.
As the two continued to walk, Angela had no inhibitions about asking questions. Salvare had the patience to answer all of them as they walked towards the center of the Traveler's Web... To the last place where a traveler could feel safe in these very uncertain times.
"Who goes there?" Salvare heard a man call out. Salvare knew enough to stop. Already, he could guess that there were a few people surrounding him.
"Salvare," Salvare replied, "With one child."
"Salvare..." The man contemplated, "You're that flute guy, aren't you?"
"Whatever," The man quickly dismissed, his tone none too polite, "Play some music."
Salvare grabbed his recorder & began to play some music. He played for about ten seconds before he heard them call out for him to stop.
"Yeah," he heard a man say behind him, "I've heard him play before. That's him."
"Alright," he heard the first man say, "You & your child can go through but let me approach you for a minute, OK?"
"OK," Salvare agreed.
"Next time you want to come here," the man whispered into Salvare's ear, "The password is: Moonshot. OK?" By the smell, it was evident that the man hadn't brushed his teeth in days.
"Yeah," Salvare quietly uttered back.
"Alright," the man said at normal volume, "You & the kid are free to enter."
Salvare, already holding onto Angela's hand, walked past the men & entered.
As though walking into a field from a forest, Angela could see tents & shacks that resembled a refugee camp. In the center of the camp was a crumbling structure whose exterior had turned mostly to gray.
Salvare could hear people walking all about & called out to any of them.
"Excuse me," Salvare asked, "Where's the campground at?"
"Follow the rope until you get to the double knot," Salvare heard someone reply, "Then take the triple knot until the end. Not much room left. If you like privacy, might want to camp outside the wall."
"The wall?" Salvare asked incredulously, "It's that filled?"
"'Fraid so," the man replied, "Maybe someone will give up their spot for a few caps but I don't think so. Not many people are moving out of the campground. They may have to kick some people out soon or have them pay squatter rates."
"Thank you," Salvare said, motioning to Angela to move along with him.
Salvare walked along, stunned by what he heard. He hadn't heard so many people around him before, especially here. The entire place felt like a large settlement.
Just then, Salvare would hear a voice he hadn't heard in years.
All successful leaders, at some point in their lives, learn the golden rule of leadership.
Behind all obedience is fear. Fear of being beaten. Fear of imprisonment. Fear of disease. Fear of death. Fear of impoverishment.
When people forget to fear, they defy law & defying law is synonymous with defying leaders... And leaders never, despite what they say or how they act, want to be defied... Ever.
The two towns never meant to evoke the rage of the Punishment Council. They simply needed a solution to the growing crisis of travelers too afraid to walk the metal road because of abusive patrols, citizens too afraid of retribution from angry travelers & patrols taking too much time away from so many other activities that desperately needed to be performed.
The agreement, done in private by two Town Elders at a neutral site, did not combine the two towns - Both retained their sovereignty, their names & their culture. In attendance were four travelers, all the travelers that they could find, to bear witness to the event so that they could spread the word that the agreement was real.
The towns agreed to share a common patrol & set common laws for engaging travelers on the metal road. Citizens & travelers alike would be escorted by the patrols from one town to the other.
Neither Town Elder felt that they were violating the spirit or intent of the Punishment of Man. If anything, by improving the quality of life for their citizens, they would be encouraging their citizens to indulge in stricter adherence to its tenets.
Word of the agreement reached the Punishment Council by means of a confidential courier.
An emergency meeting was assembled of readily available members of the Punishment Council.
"This is our fault," one of the members said, upon hearing of the two towns' pact, "We are ignorant of the flock's inability to retain discipline."
"Retention of discipline is based upon familiarity & routine," another countered, "We have been ill-prepared to deal with an internal threat such as Malcolm & the paranoia that he has created in his wake."
"I do not care to listen to cause," one of the council remarked, "What is done has already occurred & now we need to retain control of the situation. Who are the highest ranking priests in those two settlements?"
An answer soon followed, their names neither recognizable or important to the hierarchy of the council.
"Remove all town leadership from those two towns. Isolate the two towns. Promote the priests to temporary Town Elders while we question the Town Elders for their actions," a council member rattled off.
"How shall we deal with inquiries?" A council member asked.
"We are protecting the integrity of the Punishment of Man," a council member spat out, "God is our superior, not a group of humans who deem themselves worthy of judgment."
"The real issue," a council member intervened, "Is if they are defying us enough to create one government, will they defy us enough to create one army? The Lord is generous but I do not think He is willing to physically defend us."
"So what do you propose, then?" An angry council member asked, "That we declare the Punishment of Man as optional? As a guideline to salvation but not the solitary path?"
"If we can not stay relevant," a council member replied angrily, "To the needs of the people then we shall be replaced! These times call for a creative interpretation but not an abandonment of the Punishment."
"Creative," a council member mocked, "Is simply another form of abandonment. Would any of our lenient members be willing to put forth a standard on what is or isn't lenient?"
"Strict interpretation," a council member called out, "Is what has led us to this point already. Strict interpretation will not resolve the rising violence & mistrust. We need alternative actions!"
"We need alternative council members who will defend the Punishment, not turn away from it when events turn difficult!" Another snapped back.
And on & on the debate raged. Only when the council members were physically tired of their deliberations was a compromise reached. No one was satisfied but, at the very least, action would be taken.
No one, though, privately had hopes that their actions would resolve what many began to secretly fear as a downward spiral towards chaos.
"Bottle Cap Andy," Salvare asked, walking towards the voice, "Is that you?"
"Salvare?" Andy replied, "Recorder-playing Salvare?"
The two laughed & greeted each other as Angela looked on silently.
"How've you been?!" Salvare exclaimed, "I haven't heard you in ages!"
"You don't exactly come around here too often anymore," Andy countered.
"Don't tell me you're settling down after all these years," Salvare playfully mocked, "You've lapped the metal road more times then the mail car has."
"I'm retired now," Andy stated, "Have been for three winters. I stay here & keep the new travelers out of mischief."
"Or out of harm's way," Salvare glumly added with sobriety.
"Yeah," Andy confessed, "Things have been tough out there. You of all people would know about that. All I know is what I've heard through stories."
"Hey," Salvare said, trying to lighten the mood, "I need to tell you something but in private. Where can we talk with a little privacy?"
"I don't trade anymore, Salvare," Andy tried to tactfully say before being interrupted by Salvare.
"No, no, nothing with caps," Salvare said dismissively, "If I need to trade in caps, I'll go to a real dealer."
"Oh," Andy playfully replied with a laugh, "A real dealer! How quickly friends are forgotten..."
Salvare joined in on the laughter for a moment but then said in a serious tone, "Yeah, look, just meet me at the campground section here after the night announcement. Row seven, lot thirteen. Got it?"
The night announcement was nothing more then a pronouncement that it was now evening. Often, people could figure this out on thir own with subtle audible & temperature cues - Crickets chirping, slightly colder temperatures & the like. However, a community always needed a night announcement so that citizens could coordinate meetings at a scheduled time or switch shifts or any number of events.
Once Salvare & Andy departed, Salvare quietly said to Angela, "You did a good job in keeping quiet."
Salvare & Angela walked away, knowing that he wouldn't be able to keep Angela's secret as quiet as Angela had. In his mind, it was better to tell someone he trusted first before rumor leaked out.
Besides, according to Salvare, maybe Angela could be put to good use for the travelers. If the priests wanted to think of Angela as a curse from God, then he'd be more then happy to keep her around.
"We have to stop meeting like this," Andy quipped, "People might starting talking."
"Very funny," Salvare replied, asking, "Look, we go way back, right? So, if I tell you something, you're not going to tell anyone?"
"Unless you've pissed off the Punishment Council," Andy answered, "It doesn't matter much to me. I can hardly claim sainthood myself & those are the times that I was sober."
"OK, then," Salvare hesitantly said, "Hold up your left hand & hold up any number of fingers on it."
"Is this a joke?" Andy asked.
"Think of it as, uh, a magic trick," Salvare suggested.
"You brought me all the way out here to try out a magic trick?" Andy asked incredulously.
"Are you doing it?" Salvare asked.
"Yeah," Andy grudgingly admitted, holding up his left hand & thrusting two fingers into the air, "OK, all ready."
Salvare felt two tugs on his pants leg.
"Are you holding up two fingers?" Salvare asked.
"Yeah," an impressed Andy replied, chuckling, "That's pretty good. Let's try two for two."
Andy held up all five fingers this time. Salvare felt five tugs on his pants leg.
"You're holding up five fingers," Salvare stated.
Andy laughed, dropping his hand.
"That is good," Andy admitted, "I have to admit, you always had a bit of the performer in you. Never thought you'd go into magic but you seem to have the hang of it from here."
"It's, um, not a magic trick," Salvare sheepishly admitted.
"Come on," Andy replied, "I ain't going to tell. How'd you do it? Hey! If you want, I can book you in the main building. Not tonight, of course, but maybe tomorrow night."
"Angela," Salvare said, "Say hello to Andy here."
"Hi," Angela simply stated.
"Heh," Andy cautiously replied, "An assistant. OK, well, um, a pleasure to meet you, Miss."
"Angela," Salvare asked, "Please describe what Andy is wearing."
Angela began to describe Andy's attire. Slowly, Andy's smile faded to a slacked jaw as his hands began to tremble.
Participation was not an option. The Punishment priests made certain of that.
One by one, all of the Town Elders were rounded up. They were told merely to follow the priests to the Punishment Council. Haste was most preferred although not enforced by the end of a bayonet.
It would be the largest ever meeting of leaders in the entire history of the metal road. Some Town Elders, living only miles apart, would meet for the first time in their entire lives. Other Town Elders would meet representatives from towns they didn't even know existed.
Every spare Punishment priest would be walking the metal road. No patrols, for any reason, was allowed to walk the metal road during the meeting. Some towns resisted more then others but all understood that defying an already agitated priesthood was not their most prudent course of action. Begrudgingly, most patrols ceased although some patrols continued to occur under the guise of "groups of travelers."
Everything that could go wrong in the logistics of the meeting eventually did go wrong. There wasn't enough food or drink for the sheer number of Town Elders. Lodging was also a scarcity, with some Town Elders forced to sleep on benches, in chairs or even on carpeted floors. Sanitation proved a challenge despite the priests digging an extra twenty outhouse pits. As one Town Elder would later describe the conditions at that meeting, "Hell & Prison took notes at that meeting, coming away insecure about their ability at producing torture & misery on the scale that they had witnessed."
Clashes of egos would quickly emerge, small towns accusing larger towns of collusion & undue influence. Wounds that had healed through the solitary act of silence erupted between other towns. Meetings would begin but never end & some meetings scheduled would never start their sessions at all.
The results of that gathering would pale, though, at what lay ahead. No one knew that the calm before the storm had not begun but was quickly ending...
"Neither of us can afford to have this meeting," Alexander stated.
"Now is the perfect time," Benjamin pleaded with Alexander, "All of the Town Elders are in one place! Most of the priests are patrolling the metal road. The Punishment Council is vulnerable!"
"Yes," Alexander agreed, disinterested, "And what would an attack upon any of them prove?"
"We can remove them from power! Shake the confidence of the people! You have said yourself that the only rule is fear!" Benjamin pleaded.
Alexander sighed, then began to speak.
"Have you ever wondered what creates a legend?" Alexander asked rhetorically, not waiting for Benjamin to answer.
"A legend," Alexander continued, "Has two parts - Reputation & Potential. A man can live a very long life being virtuous. That man has reputation. A man can also be brilliant in the arts or sciences. That man has potential. Both men, though, are constantly ignored by history. Do you know why?"
Benjamin thought for a moment, then answered, "They are missing the other part."
"Exactly," Alexander answered, "The brilliant young actor who dies before his time will live to be a legend because the people will always wonder about his potential. The man who flaunts his correct decisions instead of humbling withholding them will always be remembered for his reputation."
"If we were to strike at our Town Elders, our priests or even the Punishment Council, then what do we take away from any of them?" Alexander asked.
"Potential," Benjamin realized, "The potential that their plans would prove successful in dealing with Malcolm & the wave of violence."
"Exactly!" Alexander agreed exuberantly, "You elevate a room full of squabbling, indecisive degenerates into legends. You give the people pause to wonder what it would have been like to live under their enlightened rule."
"To ruin anyone," Alexander coldly continued, "You must take away both Potential & Reputation. We have already damaged their reputation - Violence on the metal road, towns striking against one another. Now, we must destroy their potential."
Benjamin thought for a moment, then conjectured, "We wait for their plan to be implemented... And then ruin those plans."
"This is," Salvare asked Andy as they walked away from the camp with Angela, "A bit selfish, don't you think?"
"Not at all," Andy replied, his voice rushed & a little excited, "If anything, this just proves that good fortune truly arrives to those who wait."
"Our good fortune," Salvare corrected Andy, his tone leaving no room for interpretation.
"Oh, yes, absolutely, all of us," Andy hastily replied, understanding Salvare completely.
"Where are we walking to?" Angela asked.
"Angela," Salvare asked, "Have you played a scavenger hunt before?"
"Oh, yes!" Angela said excitedly, "I used to play 'paper ball' all the time with my friends. I threw the ball all the time because I was too good at finding it."
"Well," Salvare diplomatically stated, "This is going to be sort of like a scavenger hunt but especially made for you."
"I get to find paper balls?" Angela asked.
"No," Salvare laughed, "You're going to find something else."
"Andy," Salvare said, "Show her what a bottle cap looks like."
"Oh, yes," Andy sheepishly replied, quickly opening a pouch, "Of course. Here, Angela, here's one for you to keep."
Andy gave Angela a bent bottle cap. Angela flipped it over in her hands a few times, the edges being a little sharp but not cutting her.
"Now," Salvare continued, "We're going to go to a building that may have a lot of bottle caps or might not have any bottle caps. All we're asking you to do is bring back as many bottle caps as you can."
"If you need help getting the caps off of the bottles, just let us know," Andy quickly added, "We'll pry them off for you."
"What do I get if I find them all?" Angela asked.
"Well," Andy asked, "What would you like?"
"A recorder!" Angela stated enthusiastically, pointing towards Salvare's recorder.
"Sure thing, Angela," Andy replied with a chuckle, "Heck, I'll give you two. And if I can't find two, I'll make them both."
As the three of them continued to walk, Salvare couldn't help shake the uneasy feeling he had about this entire adventure of theirs. He felt awkward for using Angela for monetary gain but, at the same time, he knew that he would need all of that money to save Angela from the impoverished life he had lived.
Time had blunted the stench of aging food at the expense of pristine conditions. Most of the tiles on the store's floor were covered in a fine layer of dirt & grime. The air was stale & swarms of dust particles illustrated perfectly where light cut into the decaying man-made structure.
"It's dark," Angela stated as the three of them shuffled slowly into the store. Salvare couldn't help but smile at the statement. Oh, to have her problems...
"That's OK," Salvare replied reassuringly, "We are never going to be in danger. If you see anything that makes you scared, just tell us & we'll take care of it. OK?"
"OK," Angela replied.
"The last time I found any bottle caps," Andy chimed in, "They were this way. Follow me."
They walked past five aisles & then went down the sixth aisle. Signs were barely readable, some faded & some so badly weathered they may as well have crumpled to dust. Shelves were barren of food but plentiful of dust & mold as weather damage had taken it's toll.
"It smells gross in here," Angela whined as they exited the aisle, a confession that Salvare whole-heartedly agreed with.
"That means we're getting close," Andy said, nervous excitement invading his voice. A few steps in front of Salvare & Angela, he felt that he had exited the aisle.
"OK," Andy announced with pageantry, raising both of his arms, "Angela, let the scavenger hunt begin!"
Both Andy & Salvare heard Angela suddenly dart off in a direction. "Found some!" They heard her say a distance away before either of them could stammer out an objection to her leaving them.
Both Andy & Salvare walked over to where they could hear Angela's voice. Angela would eventually guide Salvare's hand to the decaying remains of a six-pack of beer, the cardboard all but withered to paper, the glass bottles completely opaque with age. Salvare felt the metal bottle caps & smiled. "Good job, Angela," Salvare replied, "Good job."
As Salvare began lifting the bottles gently out of the decayed cardboard one at a time, Angela scampered off again, yelling, "I found some more!" Salvare sighed to himself as he heard Andy shuffle off after her, saying, "Angela, not so fast!" Salvare felt as though they had just released a bull into a china shop. He wondered if they would be back to the camp ground before the night announcement.
57 bottle caps & 12 milk caps.
Just the metallic jingle of all those bottle caps rattling around in a sack when Andy shook them up made Andy smile until he practically giggled.
Angela didn't want to "play" anymore but, even for Andy, she didn't have to. 57 bottle caps was better then he could have possibly found by himself. Had they found less then half of what they had found, he still would've been happy.
Salvare was speaking to Angela who had found some rocks to throw against the wall of the store. Children were amused by the simplest of activities...
"I thought I'd find you here," a female voice suddenly said. Andy was so startled that he dropped the bag of bottle caps. A deaf man could have heard him gasp as the bag hit the ground.
"Big Becca," Andy said, trying to sound unstartled & polite, "Nice of you to drop by."
"Nice try," Becca deadpanned, "You do realize that bottle caps are illegal EVERYWHERE, right? That we can't have any form of money?"
"I was just preventing others from obtaining them first," Andy reasoned. Salvare had long since covered Angela's mouth & slowly moved the both of them back into the store.
"Uh-huh," Becca replied, her lack of cynicism unswayed.
"Well," Becca continued, "We all have to go back to the camp now. The boss has an announcement for everyone. Something to do with the metal road. I figured I'd find you before anyone figured that you were doing something you weren't supposed to."
"Absolutely," Andy said, "Much obliged."
The two walked off with haste, Salvare listening while Angela watched. Andy had left the sack of bottle caps behind, a fact that no doubt killed him to no end.
'Great,' Salvare thought to himself, 'How are we supposed to get back with no guide?'
A priest was supposed to accompany any patrol that went out onto the metal road. That was the new rule.
That was, though, not the only rule to emerge from the unprecedented gathering of all the Town Elders.
No traveler was to be out on the metal road after nightfall. Each town was to have a "night bell" at the entrance of their settlement that faced the metal road & ring it for no less then forty rings after the night announcement was read.
A host of other, more minute judgments were rendered as well. Petty border disputes, debt reconciliations & the like had all been mediated by the priests. Enforcement of these rules, naturally, would be placed onto the towns themselves. Priests would monitor the enforcement & advise the Punishment Council of any gross negligence.
Some towns hailed the meeting as a revolutionary success while others were disturbingly indifferent to it's results.
Everyone wondered, though, how the new rules would curb the growing chaos that had enveloped the entire region. Everyone wished that the new rules would be the solution, rather then the escalation, of the violence that had engulfed the metal road & had stifled commerce to the point of isolationism.
As word began to trickle back to the various towns about the new rules, others waited patiently for the reaction that the travelers would have to the new rules. Not a single self-professed traveler had been invited to the meeting but each & every one would be irrevocably influenced by it.
Everyone, therefore, began to wait to see if violence or peace would re-emerge from the new arrangement. they would not have to wait for long.
Being lost was bad.
Being lost with a small child was worse.
Fortunately, Salvare was neither for very long because of Angela.
"See," Angela said, pointing to a slightly worn path through the forest, "This is where we walked through."
Salvare smiled gently, replying, "I believe you, Angela," resisting the urge to chuckle. The two continued to walk on the small path with only the various noises of the forest to keep them company.
"Why are bottle caps bad?" Angela asked Salvare suddenly as they walked along the path.
"Well," Salvare replied, "Bottle caps themselves aren't bad. What is bad about them is that people use them as a form of money."
"Oh," Angela replied, asking, "What's money?"
Salvare sighed to himself, stating, "Money is a form of value. Have you ever given a toy to a friend before?"
"I made a doll for a girl in town," Angela said, "Because she lost her doll & we couldn't find it. My Mom helped a lot, though."
"A hand-crafted doll," Salvare replied, "Is very valuable & I'm glad that you gave it to that young girl. However, what if you had to trade that doll for something. What would you trade that doll for?"
"I dunno," Angela replied, slightly confused, "Candy."
"How much candy?" Salvare asked.
"I dunno," Angela replied.
"The reason why money is considered bad," Salvare said, trying to end the lingering conversation, "Is because it is a false sense of value. Some people ignore other types of good value in their pursuit of money & it makes them not very nice at times."
"Oh," Angela stated, "Why?"
"Why what?" Salvare asked, confused.
"Why does money make people not nice?" Angela asked.
Salvare sighed, wondering how long it was going to be before they would get back to the campground.
Unknown to either of them, they had walked right across the path of three people who were also trying to head towards the campground for a very different reason.
Just as a superhighway was different from a dirt road, a hop line was the 'dirt road' of the travelers. It consisted of segments of rope (mostly twine, as that was cheaper & faster to make) instead of one continuous rope. Whatever direction the segment of rope ended, you would walk a ways (anywhere from a few feet to a dozen or so yards) until the next segment of rope. You would, essentially, "hope" from one segment of rope to the other - A "hop" line.
The three men quickly worked their way towards the path, creating the hop line perpendicular to the path.
As the men approached the path, they suddenly heard voices.
"Why are bottle caps bad?" One of the men heard a little girl ask someone else far in the distance.
All three men stopped silent, listening to the distant conversation unfold.
"Oh," they heard the little girl ask, "What's money?"
One of the three men couldn't help but smirk as he heard an older man try to explain the concept of money to a small child.
"Should we kill them?" One of the three men asked to another.
"No," the other replied, "They're too far away. Besides, we're here to create a path, not bloodshed. I ain't paid to wash blood off of my hands."
The three men stayed silent until the heard the two travelers walk off into the distance. Only when the forest was silent of human voices did the three men resume their duties.
None of the men wanted to admit that they were afraid of killing a small girl. Although each claimed that they were not intimidated or persuaded by The Punishment's teachings, even they had morales. Besides, they had helped with a murder before.
As they continued creating the hop line, one of them couldn't help but think that the little girl's voice sounded awfully familiar.
'Nah,' he thought to himself, 'All little girls sound alike. Just a coincidence.'
"Where were you guys? I couldn't find you," Andy asked Salvare & Angela at their campsite.
"We found our way back," Salvare said, catching himself before mentioning Angela's help.
"Well," Andy apologetically stated, "We must have missed each other. I went back there as soon as I could but you were gone."
"Here's the bottle caps," Salvare stated, handing them to Andy.
"Thanks," Andy quickly said, stuffing the small pouch into a simple backpack, "Hey, we've got to talk. For real this time."
"We've been hearing something about the patrols," Salvare revealed, "It's been all around the camp."
"Yeah," Andy stated quickly, "Um, Salvare, we've got a kid's pen here, you know? Maybe Angela would like to play with some of the kids. Big fence, very safe. See-saws, everything."
"Right," Salvare caught on, saying to Angela, "Angela, would you like to meet some of the other children here?"
"OK," Angela simply stated, "Do they play 'paper ball'?"
"You can teach them if they don't know how," Andy quipped happily.
"Remember, Angela," Salvare seriously stated, "You can't tell them about your ability, OK? That's just between us for now. You understand, right?"
"OK," Angela stated. Salvare knew that was as close to an assurance as he was going to get from her.
"Hey, Angela," Andy replied, "You can even play with that twine that you guys strung up across the path back there."
"Twine?" Salvare asked.
"Yeah," Andy replied, "It was strung right across the path. Really dangerous. You're lucky I untied it - I don't want you guys to get into trouble."
"We didn't put up any twine," Salvare stated, confused.
The silence between the two men was deafening.
"I thought I was going to the playground," Angela whined slightly as Salvare & Andy walked down the path.
"This is going to be even better," Salvare replied, "This is a game where you get to use your special ability."
"Really?" Angela asked, slightly interested.
"Absolutely," Andy answered, "You're going to lead us on a path that we've never been on before. It'll be like an adventure."
"OK," Angela agreed. They remained silent until they walked to the spot where the twine had been set up across the path.
"Here we are, Angela," Andy said, "So, do you see any rope lines anywhere?"
Salvare & Andy weren't invalids; Both of them could have easily found the next segment of the hop line with a little effort. The task was effortless, though, for Angela. Within moments, they were walking along the hop line as though it were the metal road.
"Over there, now," Angela stated, turning & running in a new direction.
"Angela," Salvare called out, "Hold up, please."
"Salvare," Andy commented, "That's the second time the hop line changed direction without indicating that it was going to change direction."
"I know," Salvare agreed, "A person would be lost if they ever tried to follow this line unless..."
Salvare couldn't believe the next words that came out of his mouth when he said them but knew that they were true.
"...the line was meant to be hidden."
Both Andy & Salvare thought for a moment, each one's brow more furrowed then the other. Hop lines whose paths were meant to be secret were not unusual; Small camps used such hop lines to ward off potential criminals from following the line back to the camp. At worst, some people set up traps where a hop line was meant to go to ensnare (or even harm) intruders. Small camps, though, rarely had hop lines longer then a few segments. Salvare, Andy & Angela had been following the hop line for nearly half an hour.
"We have to go back," Salvare stated, "If this line leads to danger, I don't want Angela anywhere near it."
"I think it's time," Andy admitted, "That you & Angela come with me to meet the camp royalty."
"Square, Circle, Triangle;
Please come talk to me.
March in line on paper;
Creates a story."
-- Segment of children's song.
There was 'Old Braille' & 'Common Braille.' Most people could read 'Common Braille' because it was easy to produce & there was plenty of material to read. A series of 1, 2 or 3 shapes in the form of half-circles, half-squares & half-triangles were punched into paper. The series of symbols would then translate to letters or punctuation.
Angela sat in relative disinterest as she heard a woman try & teach a group of children how to read common braille. Angela already knew how to read common braille; She wasn't a baby.
Most common braille was written on "Old paper," paper produced before The Punishment. The Punishment Council actually encouraged the people to use the old paper & convert them into common braille. This had caused some people to become "Paper Chasers" & search the entire land within the confines of the metal road for any paper. New paper could be made but it was very hard to make & often lacked the quality of the old paper.
"Knotted braille" was a form of common braille where knots in rope or twine were used instead of punches. A few rope lines & some hop lines used them to convey simple messages.
"Classic Braille" was the braille that people used before the Punishment. It was very hard to produce but there was still some material of it still around. Most classic braille materials had been donated to "The Library," a series of buildings that had become the unofficial repository of all literature that had been derived from settlements on the metal road.
Angela watched the young woman teaching the children about common braille. She yawned & looked around the room, catching a glance of Salvare & Andy discussing something. They would point back to her for a moment & then continue talking.
Angela found a kid's punch for common braille & just started punching any old combination of symbols into them.
Angela wanted to go back onto the hop line they had discovered earlier to see what it was. When they had turned around to come back, Angela had seen a glimpse of what she thought had been a clearing. She had also seen three men walking down the hop line in their direction from a distance.
"More twine," Alexander commented dryly, repeating the request that one of the three men stated.
"Even at 15 pace intervals, which is a fairly long hop, we still didn't have enough," one of the men stated.
"How much more twine are you requesting?" Alexander asked.
"At least ten more lengths," the man replied.
"Then you will receive twelve," Alexander quickly responded, adding, "Do realize that this needs to be completed as quickly as possible."
"Of course," the man said.
"I shall make arrangements for you to receive your additional twine at your home," Alexander stated, adding, "Our business is now finished. Thank you."
The two men parted ways, the man leaving Alexander's home. Alexander let out a deep sigh, rubbing his forehead as he sat down at his desk. Taking out a common braille punch, he began punching out a request to give to Benjamin.
"Well, what'd he say?" One of the men asked the other.
"I have to wait to receive the twine," the other replied.
"Did you tell him...?" The first man asked before being interrupted by the second.
"Our employer," the second man tried to say as diplomatically as he could, "Needs not be aware of any... Operational difficulties. Besides, we don't even need to replace that segment of the hop line. We'll just punch it out on the map as it is."
His employer didn't need to know that an entire segment of their hop line had gone missing. Neither did he need to know HOW it had probably gone missing... That they had directly crossed the path of another hop line. Fortunately, they had set up their hop line so that it could only be followed by a map.
The man had thought about stealing segments from the hop line they had inadvertently crossed paths with but decided against it. The last thing he needed was for his hop line to gather too much attention. Hopefully, all anyone would think is that someone had carelessly put up a hop line.
He hated leaving a job undone. Hopefully, he would have the additional segments of twine soon so that he could go back & finish the job.
First a rope gate, now a hop line... His employer made the strangest requests...
They called him "Traveling Matt." No one knew his real name because he had never mentioned it to anyone.
Had Salvare possessed the gift of sight that Angela had, he would have been standing in front of man who easily stood six foot three & weighed as much in muscle as his voice was low. In a world of darkness, one could only feel that his light brown hair had receded to the point of realistic baldness. Perpetual stubble graced a rectangular face that rarely sounded friendly & rarer still actually meant it.
"Hello," Matt said simply, patting & momentarily grabbing Salvare's left shoulder. It was the post-Punishment equivalent of a handshake & Salvare returned the gesture.
After they both sat down, Matt stated, "There is nothing that I can offer you that you can not receive elsewhere. I can not offer you luxury for we have little industry here. I can not offer you influence for even I hold little sway over some segments of this campground of travelers who often come & go as they please. I can not offer you protection for the ease of which travelers arrive is the same ease that travelers depart."
Matt continued, "What I can offer you, though, is the chance for your child, Angela, to live in a land free from the whims of the Punishment. Neither of us needs to be told that, for every ten priests, there are eleven interpretations of how The Punishment of Man should be enforced. As many priests would save Angela as sacrifice her for what she can do."
"Your offer is appealing," Salvare replied slowly & diplomatically, "I would like to state that she is not my child for I found her following me. My interests are to see what is in her best interests. I would hate to use her in any way that would be a detriment to a healthy upbringing. I'm not a parent... I don't have that sort of patience. However, fate has given her to me & now I must set aside my usual preferences in order to provide for her. I will ask her if she wishes to stay here & will return with her reply."
"That is all that I can ask," Matt replied.
The two parted ways moments later, Andy staying behind at Matt's request.
"Who else knows of this?" Matt asked of Andy.
"Just myself," Andy professed, "No one's told anyone else... Except for you, of course."
"Tell me more," Matt stated, "Of this hop line that the three of you found."
Joe was a rope maker. He could also tie or untie any knot that he had ever laid his hands on.
The recent escalation of violence on the metal road & against travelers had forced him to curtail his services. At the traveler's campground, though, he could find no consistent work to either feed himself or provide for his quality of life. In desperation, he went back out onto the metal road.
To his surprise, he found the metal road nearly as peaceful as before all of the violence had started.
Patrols were polite to him, some cordial enough to escort him to the nearest town. Towns more then welcomed his services, having been malnourished for the specialized services & talents that travelers often supplied towns on a part-time basis.
Across the span of the metal road, life slowly had begun to normalize once again as travelers learned that they could trust the safety of the metal road. Convoys of travelers, walking together in packs of as large as fifty for protection against malicious patrols, began to splinter & shrink. Hop lines, known only to well-worn travelers, that skirted the metal road faded from use. Some of those hop lines were even dismantled so their valuable twine or rope could be used elsewhere.
The mail car, ironically, suffered from the influx of travelers back onto the metal road. Where once they could breeze across the road without ever yelling a single warning or ringing a single chime, they now had to become accustomed to give out constant warnings to travelers so that neither car nor traveler collided.
Even the dreaded name of Malcolm had depreciated in it's evil value. Three children who had begun their own patrol on the inside border of their settlement, with the bemused permission of the adults, lost interest as they neither encountered Malcolm or anyone else of malicious intent.
Yet there was a fine line between exhaustion & decision, of resignation towards pain or the decision that it would never arrive again.
The impatience of life had won... For now. As a philosopher once noted, though, pride always comes before a fall...
"Hi, Angela," Salvare called out to the symphony of children's voices.
"Hi, Salvare," Angela called out. Salvare could hear small, rapid footsteps approaching.
"How was your day?" Salvare asked.
"My friends are playing 'paper ball.' I taught them how to play 'paper ball,'" Angela replied happily, adding as stoicly as a small child could, "I'm not playing though because it wouldn't be fair."
"Of course," Salvare replied.
Salvare left with Angela & they walked back to their campsite at the campground. Along the way, Angela informed Salvare of all the pressing daily events:
* Billy smelled.
* Kayla doesn't like Lynn because Lynn told Connie that Kayla didn't like Connie & Kayla didn't want Connie to know about it.
* Shaun skinned his elbows yesterday when he tripped & fell down.
* Donnie is a tattle-tale & you shouldn't tell him anything.
* Lynn talks a lot.
"Angela," Salvare gently interrupted her, "I'd like to ask you a question."
"OK," Angela replied.
"How do you like the campground?" Salvare asked.
"OK," Angela quietly replied, "I guess."
"Have you made a lot of friends?" Salvare asked.
"Yeah," Angela replied simply, "'cept for Donnie 'cause he's a tattle-tale & no one else likes Donnie."
"Are there any friends that you miss from elsewhere?" Salvare asked.
"I don't want to talk anymore," Angela said tersely.
'That went well,' Salvare thought to himself sarcastically.
"Whoever set up this hop line," Traveling Matt said, feeling one of the twine segments of the hop line that Andy had brought him to, "Shouldn't have. We need to take it down before it confuses anyone else."
"Of course," Andy agreed.
"Get Salvare & the girl to help you," Matt recommended, "I don't want this taking all day or too many people."
Both Matt & Andy walked off back onto the trail, oblivious that their every word had been overheard.
"What do we do?" One of the three men asked the others.
"What else can we do?" Another of the men quietly replied, "We need to get the hop line out of here before they take it all! We can't afford..."
That man was interrupted by the third, who replied, "Stop! Did you hear what they just said?"
"Of course!" One of them answered, "They're going to..."
"No," the man responded, interrupting again, "They're bringing in only a man & a girl to disassemble the line. Why so few? Why assume they'll be so quick?"
"Because they know we're here!" Another of the three men suggested, "They must have mapped out the entire line in our absence!"
"Maybe," the man replied, adding, "Perhaps we ought to uncover just how much they know about the hop line & how they came about knowing it."
"We're not being paid for that," one of them men said bitterly, "Or to be discovered!"
"I have a hunch," the man said, "We'll be paid handsomely for what we uncover..."
"What exactly are you doing here?" Alexander asked with as much restraint as he could muster, listening to a man panting wildly out of breath.
"You have to listen to me," the man said, Alexander recognizing the voice instantly as one of the men he had hired to set up the hop line that Salvare, Andy & Angela had discovered.
"You have my attention," Alexander replied, "Of what would you like to say?"
"The girl," the man stammered, still having not caught his breath, "The girl is alive."
"Girl?" Alexander asked, confused.
"The one that Malcolm took," the man replied, "The one who defies the Punishment of Man!"
"Really?" Alexander replied, trying hard not to display his interest, "And what of the hop line that you were paid to set up?"
Alexander listened with interest as the man began to tell his tale.
"So there we were," the man stated to Alexander, "When..."
"What's the trouble, Andy?" Salvare asked.
"Traveling Matt wants us to take down this hop line we discovered," Andy replied, "Before anyone gets confused by it."
"You mean no one from the campground set it up?" Salvare asked.
"If they did," Andy stated, "They sure didn't get permission. We ain't a settlement but we're not anarchists. We've got rules here as much as any other place."
"Well," Salvare said, "Let's start at one end & work our way down."
Salvare spoke to Angela, "Angela, would you like to play a game?"
"OK," Angela stated.
"We're going to follow these ropes all the way until we get to the end. Can you help us follow these ropes like you did before?" Salvare asked.
"OK," Angela replied, running off to the first rope, her footsteps getting softer in the distance.
"Angela," Salvare shouted roughly in her direction, "Please slow down. You don't want to trip & hurt yourself."
"Wouldn't you love to be able to just do that?" Andy quipped to Salvare silently, "Just be able to 'go' to the next line without having to discover it?"
"You'd think I'd still be on the metal road if I could do that?" Salvare replied, the two men sharing a brief laugh.
They began to follow Angela's verbal directions of "Towards me," "No," "Move left," "Move right" & "Tree."
"How interesting," Alexander dryly confessed, hiding his genuine curiosity, "Grown men playing a game of 'Magnet.' Its a common children's game but doesn't prove that she has any special abilities."
"No," the man replied, "This was different. You see..."
As the man's story continued, Alexander found it harder to contain his curiosity... Or optimism.
"How, exactly," Alexander asked with all the patience of a loving parent to an ignorant child, "Did you manage to hear all of this conversing if you were hiding?"
"Well," the man stated, "I only heard this next part before they got out of earshot range... But the other two heard the rest because they tried to sneak along..."
"What do you think the world looks like?" Andy asked Salvare as they slowly marched to the instructions of "Straight!", "Left!", "Right!" & "Tree!"
"Colors," Salvare replied, "The world is filled with colors."
"Yeah," Andy replied, "You don't believe all that stuff about how God removed color from the Earth as a part of the Punishment, do you?"
"How can you?" Salvare answered, "Angela keeps saying that there is. All around us..."
"That's all I heard," the man confessed, "Before they got out of range."
Alexander remained silent, then replied, "A trusting man believing the imagination of a child or, at best, simply teasing the child. How many false prophets have there been of people confessing that they have extrasensory perception..."
"But it's true!" The man confessed profusely, "My friends, they tried to follow them to keep listening! They stayed close to the ground, below the grass tips! Even they were spotted!"
"Spotted?" Alexander questioned.
"Yes!" The man exclaimed, "Not a minute or two after everyone was out of range, I hear my friends come running back towards me, crying, 'Run! Run! They see us! They see us!'. I heard them run right past me, so close I thought they were going to step right onto me! I crawled off to the side & heard others run as well. When I couldn't hear anyone, I wandered as best I could back towards the metal road. A passing by group of travelers told me where I was exactly & then made my way back here."
"Such an intriguing story," Alexander calmly admitted, "And how would you like to be repaid for your information?"
"I..." The man admitted, "I do not know. I have not thought that far ahead. As our employer, I thought that you would like to know as to why we could not complete the job you had paid us for."
"How honest of you," Alexander said in a pleasant tone.
The man had ignored Alexander shuffling slowly around the room up until now. What he could not hear was Alexander slowly gripping a club that was leaning against a wall.
"He'll live," Andy quipped, both himself & Salvare dragging the unconscious body along the path.
"See?" Salvare told Angela who were walking behind them, "That's why you don't go running around in the forest. You might bump into a tree & hurt yourself."
"I didn't mean to scare them," Angela whined sorrowfully, "I thought they wanted to play."
"Well," Salvare replied, "Some people are more playful then others. You did nothing wrong. It was their fault that they ran away."
Salvare couldn't stop his hands from slightly shaking. His pulse still raced & his brow still covered itself with sweat just thinking about what had occurred only moments ago.
"Truth be told," Andy stated, "The worst thing he'll receive from Traveling Matt is a warning not to put up another hop line without permission. That goose egg I felt on his forehead is punishment enough. Actually feel sorry for the man."
"Do you suppose," Salvare said, the thought suddenly dawning on him, "That he... He heard us talk about..."
Andy stopped in his tracks, Salvare stopping immediately afterwards. They both pondered in silence at the implications that the man they dragged had overheard them speaking of Angela's abilities.
Both Salvare & Andy already knew that the man they dragged behind them wasn't the only one who ran away when Angela spotted them lying on the ground.
"We have to get to Traveling Matt now," Andy said suddenly with urgency, pulling again on the body. Salvare pulled along with him.
Suddenly, a goose egg on the man's forehead was the least of his worries.
He was lost & he knew it.
After running away with his fellow compatriots once they had been discovered, he now wandered through the forest slowly. Hopefully, he would find his way back to the metal road. Once on the metal road, he could easily find his way back home.
Thinking back on it, it wasn't even his idea to stay & "listen" to those three people talk. As soon as the hop line was uncovered, he thought to himself, they should have just scrapped the entire hop line & started over.
No, he argued with himself, no one ever listened to him. They always had to accept the first job that paid them. They could never turn down a job.
"The Three Blind Mice" they called themselves. "Any job, any time, any price - The Three Blind Mice" was their motto.
How many people had they murdered? He had forgotten. How many houses had they burned? Too many to possibly recall. How many items had they stolen? A warehouse wouldn't be big enough to hold everything they had pilfered for the job. How many odd jobs had they done for the bent bottle cap or the sexual favor or the free meal or free lodging or... Or anything?
He had to admit that it hadn't been all fine wine & dining. There had been low moments in their career as hired hands. Gangs chasing them, towns barring them, bounties after them, even the priests watching out for them.
Were they really all that bad? After all, if they didn't do it, someone else would. That was the way the real world worked - When people wanted things, they took things. Rules were meant for the weak & passive. Leaders never played by the rules; They MADE the rules. What were rules, anyway? Just another form of oppression on the masses. Just another way of suppressing free enterprise & the market.
At least they were reputable; They had never cheated anyone on a job. When they said they had murdered someone, they did. Whenever they said they would steal something for someone, they did. That sort of honesty amongst thugs circulated, gave them a reputation that other gangs just couldn't match.
The man stopped walking through the forest & sat down for a moment.
How long, he asked himself, could he keep performing tasks like this? He wasn't a kid anymore. He wasn't a young adult anymore. At some point, he figured, he'd have to quit this life. He'd have to settle down before...
'Before you get caught?' His conscience asked him.
'Why not quit now?' His conscience suggested.
He nodded to himself as he sat quietly in the woods, all alone.
"Our plan has changed," Alexander stated simply to Benjamin.
"How so?" Benjamin asked, still catching his breath from walking quickly up to Alexander's house.
"The girl is still alive," Alexander stated plainly.
"It was," Benjamin said cautiously, "My understanding that the status of the girl didn't matter."
"It didn't matter," Alexander replied, "When no one knew whether she was still dead or alive. Apparently, that is no longer the case."
"So," Benjamin asked, "What do we do?"
"First," Alexander stated, "I need your assistance in a rather trivial task."
"Of course," Benjamin answered, "In performing what?"
"I was just collecting twine, that's all," the man said in a whiny, mumbled voice, "You can have it back if you want it."
"That's not good enough," Traveling Matt said menacingly, "I want to know more about your other two friends."
The man hesitated, then replied, "They were helping collect the twine. I don't know where they are."
Traveling Matt took a smoldering hot poker from a nearby fire & lightly jabbed the man with it. White cold lightning burned the man's skin for a quarter of a second, long enough for him to emit a startled yelp that was unmistakably translated as pain.
"Start over," Traveling Matt growled, "And this time, lying means the stick lands on an area of your body that you DON'T want burned!"
"I told you!" The man said, his whine nearly screeching into a falsetto, "I found the hop line with my friends. I wanted to steal the twine so I could sell it so I had some friends help me find where the end was to see if we could take it down. In the process, you guys found me & my friends ran. I ran. You caught me."
The man broke down crying, bubbling out between sobs, "I'm sorry. I'm hungry."
"Yeah," Traveling Matt growled, "You damn right you're sorry. I'm going to see just how sorry I can make you feel."
Nearly yelling, Traveling Matt shouted as he walked away, "Throw him in the cage!"
Traveling Matt walked over to Andy & Salvare, tapping them on the shoulder.
"Whisper room," he whispered, so softly that even Salvare could barely hear it. As customary, both Salvare & Andy tapped Matt's shoulder in acknowledgment, walking with him to a staircase leading down to a lower floor.
Salvare, unfamiliar with the path, used the handrails but didn't need to slow down as he listened to Andy & Matt as they both walked in front of him. Salvare felt a door frame &, once beyond it, heard a door close behind him.
The "whisper room" had no mystique or physical advantage over any other room in the building; It was simply an isolated room in the basement that no one else but Traveling Matt & his guests could go to have a truly private conversation.
"So," Matt said in a normal voice, "What do you think?"
"He's lying," Andy replied, "Based on what Angela said, I find him hard to believe."
"That hop line would be impossible to follow with just three people," Salvare admitted, "It doesn't signal the corners that it takes. It doesn't follow a straight path. Abnormally long intervals. If we didn't have Angela, well, we'd be searching a long while just to find one segment, not to mention travel it."
"Do you think they would know about Angela? About her ability?" Matt asked.
"We have to assume that he does," Salvare quickly replied, "We don't know how long they may have been out there."
"You know," Andy stated, "I think we may have a way to figure out whether he does or not."
"How so?" Traveling Matt asked.
As Andy explained his proposal, everyone knew that it would be a risky plan. It would also be a rewarding one if it actually worked.
A brook! He had found a brook!
The man knew that the metal road passed over a few rivers. All he had to do was follow the river & that would lead him back to the metal road.
'Or out of it,' his pessimistic conscience reminded him.
For a split moment, the thought of crossing that invisible border from the loose boundaries of the metal road & those settlements that encircled it to the land simply known as "Elsewhere" legitimately frightened him.
There was a reason why the land beyond the metal road was labeled as "Elsewhere" - No one ventured far beyond the metal road. Heretics were banished there, criminals were occasionally escorted there to presumably get lost & die, tales of the wild & fantastic originated there. However, no one went to live there. No one went to explore there.
Some settlements had even made their periphery boundaries from the metal road a sort of vacation destination. One settlement proclaimed to have the "Southernmost point of civilization" attraction, a rope line (not a hop line!) that extended nearly seventy lengths beyond their southern tip. Another settlement had a yearly festival to extend it's northern boundaries by a length every year.
As the man followed the brook, he couldn't help but think that significant expansion beyond the metal road would become inevitable. The metal road, for as long as it was, could only hold so many people. People had to farm, had to use the water resources, had to harvest wood to make houses & fires... All of which took space that had begun to shrink in recent years. Settlements, once isolated by huge expanses of land, were beginning to find themselves uncomfortably bumping into one another. "Small" settlements now had dozens of people in them as opposed to the quaint, almost campsite-like atmosphere that "small" settlements used to embody.
The man stopped in his tracks for a moment, contemplating his career. Perhaps a future in exploration would be a fitting career change. After all, there HAD to be non-metal road settlements out there somewhere. They, of the metal road, couldn't be the only ones still left, could they?
It was an answer no one knew because everyone was too busy trying to exist to attempt to answer such a lofty question.
Maybe, he thought, it was time to serious attempt to answer it.
How odd that no one had ever really attempted to document the rise of the civilization that encircled the metal road.
Of course, if anyone had attempted to make such a documentation, they would quickly learn that there was little, if anything, orthodox about their civilization in comparison to their historic brethren.
For starters, their "civilization" didn't even have a name. Each settlement was like its own world, hooked onto a common metal ring with other worlds. In the center of the ring lay the refuse of humanity that could neither survive nor thrive in the otherwise orderly & structured settlement environments.
The Punishment of Man forbid that organized nations form. A community could neither conquer or expand to become entirely self-sufficient. Dependency upon others forced oversight & oversight meant compliance.
Money, of course, was strictly forbidden. Money was the false value that created sinful lust. Lust formed greed & from greed erupted the Pandora's box of evil to satiate the greed. Trade was the only legitimate transaction but even the Priests knew that some form of unofficial currency was being used. Bottle caps & milk caps were the unofficial currency of the immoral.
Could something with no unifying anthem, no unifying currency or even unifying name ever be destroyed? Could it ever have been created in the first place?
Alexander contemplated his next move as he heard Benjamin continue to fill in a hastily dug hole. What unified their society of individuals, a symbol that all would merit value?
The metal road was the unifying thread but to disable it would be difficult for even two people, let alone keep it quiet.
No, the heart of every civilization rests upon the facilitator of that civilization... What makes that civilization possible...
"The mail car," Alexander mumbled to himself in a moment of revelation. Benjamin's shoveling & distance prevented him from hearing Alexander softly laugh to himself.
The man had nearly dozed off, having been thrown into the cage earlier by Traveling Matt after being interrogated. He wondered if his two associates had escaped.
"Get her in there!" Traveling Matt shouted angrily, snapping the man fully awake.
A flurry of footsteps & yelling voices grew increasing louder until they felt like they were right next to the man.
"You dumb b*tch!" Traveling Matt screamed, practically at the top of his lungs, "You bite my friend's d*ck off & you expect me to treat you like some g*ddamn lady then you're also g*ddamn insane!"
"He was beating me!" The woman screamed back, "He was f*cking beating me!"
"I don't give a sh*t what he was doing!" Matt screamed back, the man hearing that the cage was being opened.
"Get in there!" Matt growled, pushing the woman into the cage. The cage door slammed violently shut immediately afterwards.
"You sh*t!" The woman complained, "Who'd you throw me in here with?!"
"You & 'Twine Boy' can get better acquainted while I think of an appropriate punishment that doesn't involve death," Matt hissed, adding quickly, "And don't think I haven't forgotten about you, 'Twine Boy'! As soon as I get squared away, we're going to have a very long talk & don't think for a minute that it'll be too nice!"
Matt stomped viciously away, his first steps from the cage so violent that the floor shook upon every step. The footsteps grew softer until, finally, after what felt like an eternity, there was silence once again.
"Uh," the man said awkwardly, "Hi."
"Whatever," the woman snapped back.
His ears weren't hearing things - The brook was still near his feet.
He tapped the brook with a long stick he had found while walking. In a forest, sticks & leaves were as plentiful as blades of grass in a valley. The splashing sound that the brook made was all the evidence he needed & he continued his pace without delay.
In the unknown, minutes could feel like hours & hours could feel like an eternity. He had to remain calm as he continued to follow the brook. The brook, he kept re-assuring himself, would lead to an overpass of the metal road. The metal road, obviously, would lead him home.
As he walked, occasionally tapping the brook, he wondered what there might be "Elsewhere," in the land that hadn't been domesticated yet. Ruins, of course - The decayed remains of the decadent civilization that had landed future generations into this mess, that had caused God to punish mankind. Animals, naturally - Even in such a dense population that inhabited the area surrounding the metal road, animals of all kinds existed: Birds, indigenous forest creatures, cats, dogs, deer... God had punished mankind, not the animal kingdom.
Were there people? That was always the big question, the question that everyone asked but no one could answer.
The priests, of course, discouraged reckless adventure of any kind. Exploration before satisfying your obligations to the community was part of the Downfall of Man. Mankind went, for instance, to the Moon. What did the Moon provide to Man? A place to live? Resources to spare the plundering of Earth? People? None of those. The Moon was a decadent goal, achieved only through ignoring the plight of the disadvantaged. A rocket ship was built instead of homes for the homeless, food for the hungry & jobs for the unemployed. How much money was wasted just so that Mankind, an insect even at its hour of greatest triumphs, could plant a flag on a rock?
Exploration, of course, was not "evil" by definition - Exploration to benefit the community was encouraged. How could you make twine faster? Could you consolidate three hop line routes into two by exploring new territory? A newly discovered ancient building could still have valuable paper which could be used for printing.
Reckless exploration was an activity that only the wealthy could afford & the wealthy could only afford it because they had deprived wealth from other, more vital activities. Did people really need to live in such opulence, spending in a day what some people could not earn in a month? Again, reckless exploration could only be funded by equally reckless retention of wealth.
The man had to admit that there was a sense of logic to what the priests taught. The civilization encircling the metal road had been incredibly stable for generations - Territorial squabbles aside, there had been no rash of chaos or crime in their civilization. Ruffians & the infirm abounded, of course, regardless of any civilization's effort to reduce their numbers. Yet the undesirables in their society had never unbalanced the civilization so extensively that it had changed dramatically. The mail car still ran, travelers still walked the metal road, settlements still ran their affairs despite minor grievances of individual civilians & their petty concerns...
'Until recently,' his conscience told him, 'Because of you. Because of The Three Blind Mice.'
The man stopped walking for a minute, allowing the brook to eternally walk past him with its blubbery, watery sound effects.
He stood there for nearly twenty minutes in deep thought.
When he finally snapped out of it, he knew he needed to get to the metal road... But not to get home.
There is a difference, an old quote reads, between being slow & being stupid. Being slow means it takes you a while to get there. Being stupid means that you never get there at all.
Lions weren't stupid creatures, only slow. They could afford to be slow because they were so powerful in relation to the rest of the animal kingdom. A pounce from an attacking lion would kill most animals outright & severely wound the rest. The powerful ultimately became lazy because their power made them feel invincible. The lazy, in turn, always fall to the smart because they never stop thinking about toppling the powerful.
To demonstrate the lack of mental capacity of a lion, Alexander recalled an important lesson about lions.
In the Old World, the one destroyed by God, there was a profession called "Lion Tamers." The thrill was in seeing a simple man conquering the power of a lion to do it's bidding. The lion tamer would have only two simple devices with him to tame the beast - A chair & a whip.
Everyone makes the mistake that the lion tamer values the whip more then the chair. However, the chair is far more valuable then the whip could possibly be. A whip serves only to distract the beast, to serve as a signal for when the beast is to perform it's next trick. The whip as a weapon is far too punitive against the power of a lion.
The chair is the secret to the lion tamer's power. The chair is the decoy, for the lion is too slow to realize that it is the man behind the chair who is forcing the lion to do it's bidding. So, in the lion's absence of intellect, the lion curses & hates the chair for it thinks that it is the chair that is the master. Should the lion ever get angry, it is the chair that is destroyed & not the man behind it. The man runs away & comes back with another chair so that the process begins anew.
Alexander had found his "whip" but he still needed to decide on whom the lion would be & whom would play the role as the chair.
It would all depend if he could find the girl that had evaded his capture so long ago.
It was a pity that "Malcolm" could no longer be used but the role of a chair was to be sat upon or, in this case, destroyed when necessary... And there were plenty of other chairs...
"So," the woman said after a lengthy bout of silence, her tone devoid of her earlier sarcasm & spit, "What's with the 'twine boy' slur?"
The man thought for a minute, then replied, "Got caught taking the line down from a hop line."
"Sucks to be you," the woman replied, followed by a laugh, "How'd you get caught?"
"Being at the wrong place at the wrong time, I guess," the man replied, "You? Did you...?"
"Heh," the woman snorted, "As advertised. we were having sex. He got rough on me. I told him to stop it. He got rougher. So, I bit his dick off."
There was silence for a moment, then the man started to laugh.
"What's so funny?" The woman asked, somewhat defensively.
"Nothing, I guess," the man said, calming down, "I'm sorry, it's just... Well..."
"What?" The woman asked, slightly demanding.
"Ain't you afraid of dyin'?" the man asked casually, "Biting a man's dick off... I dunno... I know quite a few settlements that have hung you by now..."
"It was in self-defense," the woman replied quickly.
"Bit a man's dick off," the man stated, trying hard not to laugh, "I'm surprised you're still alive."
"They can't kill me," the woman demanded, "It's against The Punishment of Man, remember? Man can not order the death of fellow men or something to that effect. I dunno how it actually goes."
"Don't matter," the man replied, "I know men who'd kill you flat. Do it for the chance to get a bottle cap, never mind actually get one."
"Really?" the woman asked, slightly nervous.
"Yeah," the man stated, "I don't know about your actual punishment, but your REAL punishment... I dunno... If I were you, I'd think about escaping."
"Yeah, well," the woman said, nerves creeping into her voice, "How'd I do that?"
The man smiled to himself.
They were called "Chime angels." No one knew who they were or even if 'they' were anyone at all.
Chimes were set up at points both within & outside of the metal road. Underneath them would be some water, a bit of food & directions to get back to the metal road. Some even had a small hop line in that direction to get you started.
No one had ever admitted setting up one of these "chime stations." The priests swore that, although charitable, it was not of their doing. Settlements were rarely generous enough to sacrifice a chime along with fresh food & water (never mind paper to print directions). The campground could hardly run itself, much less be organized enough to coordinate & afford such an effort.
The chimes were moved quite frequently, there at one week & gone the next. Although the Chime Angels were charitable, they didn't seem to want their resources to be plundered. It was said that, once a chime station had been found, it would be quickly moved to a new location.
The man could hear the distinct sound of the chimes & it drew him away from the brook. As he got closer, the chimes grew & faded with the whims of the wind.
Indeed, there was a jug of fresh water below the chimes. In a tightly sealed wooden box lay a loaf of sliced bread. The man slightly laughed to himself as he ate one of the slices of the bread. The bread had an odd taste to it that he had never tasted before. The bread was by no means malicious; He felt perfectly fine moments after eating a few slices.
The paper attached to the chime told him that the metal road was about fifty more lengths away from the metal road & to head in the direction that he was going.
It was customary to leave something valuable behind as a token of gratitude for the angels. The man, having never been at such a station before, fumbled through his clothes to offer something.
He left behind an Old World coin. Time had worn it down to nearly a faceless disc of which he could feel no distinguishing marks. Placing it in the box, he walked off in the direction that the chime station had indicated.
The metal road was just ahead.
The bottle caps clinked into his hand, one at a time. The man felt the small, jagged edges of the bottle caps rattle around in his leathery palm before sliding them into his pouch. The pouch was loosely stuffed with cloth so as to silence the clinking sound of bottle caps smacking together. It was just one of many little tricks that the man had learned over the years.
"I'm here," the man stated plainly, "So let's talk."
"Would you care for a seat?" Benjamin asked, trying not to sound nervous.
"You're very gracious," the man stated in a calm but unnerving voice, "But I prefer to stand, thank you."
"Of course," Benjamin agreed hurriedly, saying, "I'd like for you to take care of a problem for my client."
"I don't work for middlemen," the man replied quickly, almost interrupting Benjamin before he could finish the word 'client,' "So I don't work for you. Good day."
Benjamin heard the man begin to turn to walk away & replied sharply, "I didn't think semantics preceded your reputation."
The man stopped & turned back around. Walking over to Benjamin, he walked right up to him so close that Benjamin could smell his breath.
"I work for you or I work for no one," the man stated, his voice never wavering, "Not your client, not for who your client represents. So, tell me, do YOU have a problem or does your client have a problem?"
"I have a problem," Benjamin stated as calmly as he could, "And a proposition."
Benjamin could feel the man take a few steps back.
"I'm listening," the man said.
Benjamin began talking to the assassin known as "The Bat." He never noticed that his voice was becoming more nervous with each syllable. With a dry mouth, he pressed further until he completed his proposition, his voice crackling on their final words.
"OK," The Bat replied, "I'll do it."
The two worked quickly but quietly.
The "cage" was just a room like any other in the Old World, modified to ensure that none of the prisoners attempted to leap out the room's solitary small window.
Instead, the man worked on removing the pins from the hinges of the door. Ridiculously, Matt had chosen to lock the two prisoners in a room where the door opened from INSIDE the cell! Therefore, all they needed to do was to remove the pins from the hinges of the door.
With the pins removed, the door popped open from the doorway with barely a push. The man had to stifle a laugh as he placed the door aside just long enough for the woman to slip out.
"Come on," the woman begged him, hearing him jostling with the door behind her,"They could be back at any minute!"
"Now, darling," the man replied, "A good magician never gives up his secrets..."
The man placed one of the hinges back well enough to push the pin partially back in. After a moment of additional effort, the man couldn't get the second pin back into the door & left it. Covering one's tracks would be for naught if there was no escape. The man decided to keep the pin as a souvenir for his troubles.
"Alright, darling," the man replied, "Let's beat it before they realize we're gone."
The two shuffled through the room until they felt a doorway. Unfamiliar with the interior, the man took a few moments to explore the layout. However, they eventually found a window & opened it up. Climbing gingerly out, they landed on the ground with hardly a scratch.
The two giggled endlessly as they made their way back into the campground crowd that was awash with noise & people.
"Good day, mister," the man heard an older man say, "Tin Can Sam." The man envisioned Sam to be exactly who he thought he was - Shorter, older, bearded & just obese enough without falling squarely into the category of "fat."
As was customary, the man replied with a greeting & his name, "Hello, sir. My name is Howard." The man felt odd, sharing his actual name. It had been the first time in years he had told a complete stranger his actual name.
"Howard's not much of a traveling name," Sam replied boisterously, "But I like it. Simple. Easy to remember."
"I'm afraid I haven't exactly built up enough of a reputation to give myself a nickname that would describe myself easily to others," Howard replied a bit awkwardly, the truth still a foreign language hard for him to both pronounce & formulate.
"Well," Sam replied in thought, snapping back to add, "You're an honest man! Yes! Honest Howard! That's what I'll call you & that's what I'll call you to others."
"It sounds great," Howard replied, "Thanks."
"Oh," Sam sheepishly admitted, "Don't thank me. We travelers have to stick together. Times have been tough although, lately, they've gotten better."
Sam continued, "So, tell me, where are traveling to?"
Howard thought for a moment, then replied, "Sam? Can you keep a secret?"
"Absolutely," Sam replied, "I'll take a book of secrets to my grave if old age doesn't make me forget about them first!"
Howard laughed at Sam's boisterous but harmless manner, then replied as diplomatically as he could, "I need to talk to the priests, Sam. I know of something that they need to be aware of."
"There are priests in every established settlement," Sam replied, turning his boisterous attitude down a notch, "It's a law. They enforce The Punishment of Man."
"I need to see them where they gather," Howard replied, "The sooner they know what I have to tell them, the safer this metal road will be."
Sam stood silent for a moment, then humbly asked, "Well, that sounds fairly important. Would it be asking too much to know what this might be all about?"
Howard cleared his voice for a moment, then replied, "It's about Malcolm."
The silence hung in the air for the longest time before Sam simply replied, "Oh."
"Is it done?" Alexander asked Benjamin.
"Yes," Benjamin replied, "He's on his way."
"Good," Alexander said, adding, "Soon, our plans will be back into motion. Ironically, perhaps it is better this way - Why have others fighting a ghost when they can fight one another?"
"Should we not try to steal a vase while it is intact rather then watch thugs smash it to bits?" Benjamin asked rhetorically.
Alexander poorly stifled a laugh, replying, "Ah, yes - But what is 'the vase'? Hmmm?"
Benjamin thought for a moment, then answered, "Obviously, the vase is indestructible since you would never risk it being destroyed."
Alexander added, "And?"
Benjamin continued, "Therefore, the vase is the only thing that can not be destroyed... The metal road."
This time, Alexander failed completely to stifle his laugh, finally saying, "You've learned well, but... No. No, even the metal road can fade & rust into oblivion. No, the vase is something that can never be destroyed even from a practical sense."
Benjamin asked, "So, what is it, then?"
"Authority," Alexander replied, "Authority can never be destroyed for the weak shall always exist. The weak will always seek a ruler to lead them, like water will always roll downhill. The perfect war is always a war between factions that refuse to be led for every casualty is one less heretic you have to deal with."
"And if those factions merge or seek a truce?" Benjamin asked.
"I doubt seriously that there will ever be dialog between them to reconcile," Alexander stated, "Especially after what will occur."
"Look," the man said, "I've got nothing against you..."
"All I want to do is get as far away from this place as possible," the woman replied quickly, cutting him off, "Once we reach a settlement or something, we can break off there, OK?"
The woman, the man figured, could be trouble if he tried to kill her so close to the campground. As it stood, all he was to these people was a twine-stealer who escaped from their jail cell & nothing more. Being a murderer, though, raised the stakes even if that murder was a genitalia-decapitating woman.
"I need to know your name - Your REAL name," the man stated, "If we're going to be a team."
"Mary," the woman said, "I don't really have a last name."
"What a coincidence," the man deadpanned, "Neither do I. You can call me Frank."
"OK, Frank," Mary slowly said, "What do we do now?"
"First off," Frank stated, "We don't go to a settlement. They're too organized. We're escapees & they'll be asking questions.We'll go to a camp. Small, isolated... The religious ones are always willing to accept new travelers if they think that they can brainwash you. How well do you know The Punishment of Man?"
"I don't know," Mary replied, "I know the basics. I don't know it word for word or anything like that."
"Good enough," Frank answered, "You're curious about learning more. They'll eat that up every time. Come on, we need to get as far away from this place as possible. We'll work on the rest of your story on the way there."
The two began walking with little more then the clothes on their backs. Frank had scavenged an old tent & a sleeping bag from the "Drop-off box." The drop-off box was where travelers dumped their old gear that they didn't need anymore for others who might be looking to upgrade from others' downgrades. The tradition was to put something in for what was taken out but the tradition was sometimes not followed as rigorously as it could have been.
Mary began to wonder how far she wanted to go with 'Frank.' Hopefully, she thought to herself, she wouldn't have to go far at all.
"You know," Sam said, his conversational voice having lost most of its boisterous volume, "I used to work the mail car."
"Really?" Howard replied as they both walked down the metal road.
"Yup," Sam responded, "Seven seasons, all in a row. The whole circuit."
"It's a small world," Howard remarked warmly, "I bet you had a lot of great experiences."
Sam chuckled a bit before replying, "Oh, that was back in the days when we still served the tiny settlements, camps practically. Anytime we heard a chime, we'd stop. No exceptions, no one left out."
"Not too many camps anymore, are there?" Howard asked absently, the conversational equivalent of throwing a log on the fire just to keep it burning.
"Oh," Sam answered slowly, "Place is so crowded nowadays. The northeast corner... You know, the one with the sharp bend? We used to call that the 'quiet corner.' Settlements took forever to root there for one reason or another. Not anymore. Place is packed now! The only place left for a camp is... Well, 'Elsewhere.'"
"Elsewhere?" Howard asked, his curiosity getting the best of him, "You mean, out there?"
"Yep," Sam replied, "The last frontier. Don't think we'll be using the metal road forever. Some folks are proposing a wire loop from where the metal road curves off down in the southwest corner. Been proposing it for years now. Don't know what's holding it up. Maybe the priests."
"Stop," Howard suddenly said sharply, standing still.
"Huh?" Sam replied, jolting to a stop.
"A patrol," Howard quietly announced, "They're coming this way."
"Most of 'em are friendly now," Sam explained, "Real nice. Not like before."
Before Howard could respond, Sam blew his signature whistle at the oncoming patrol.
At first, there was silence. Then, both Sam & Howard heard a dreadful noise - Running footsteps... Towards them.
"How'd they do it?" Traveling Matt asked Andy. All four, including Salvare & Angela, were standing near the opened entrance of the jail cell.
"Took off the door," Andy replied, struggling with the door to put it back onto it's hinges, "Somehow got the pins out of the hinges."
Matt could do nothing but smirk as he replied, "I always wondered when someone would be smart enough to figure that out."
"Shouldn't we go after them?" Andy asked, finally fitting the door back onto the hinges, "I mean, it's been almost an hour now since they left."
"I suppose it wouldn't hurt," Matt replied, "They needed to know that they'd get away clean, no pursuits."
Matt called out, "Salvare? Angela? You there?"
Salvare replied, "We're here."
"Ask Angela if she wants to play a game," Matt wryly suggested, "A 'hide-and-seek' kind of game."
"Do you really think we'll be able to follow them? I mean, it's been almost an hour," Andy stated, pounding a pin back down through one of the hinges.
"Oh," Matt playfully opined, "I think Angela is up to the task. All she has to do is follow a trail..."
The nickname was accurate; He collected all things metal. Big or small, rusty or almost new, sharp or dull... Metal Mike collected it so that he could redistribute it to whomever wanted it the most.
Most of the time, he merely traded the metal away for his immediate & incidental needs. Food, improvements in shelter & clothes were often exchanged for rusty car parts, license plates, jar lids & the like.
Selling items for money was against The Punishment of Man but Mike sold his merchandise as well since people were willing to pay him. There was no set price; Something that sold for five bottle caps one day might sell for three the next or seven the day after that. What mattered the most to Mike was that most people liked the price & were willing to pay the price quoted without too much of a hassle.
Mike wasn't interested in why people wanted to buy the metal items he offered. He had heard that license plates made good food plates & were perfect for building shelves. People strung them together to form a sort of plate mail armor which protected the user adequately from most knife attacks. Some people needed paper weights while for others metal was a status symbol &, the more metal owned, the more prestigious one was in their local group. Bells & chimes were immensely popular, rarely in his possession for a day or two without serious offer being proposed to him for purchase.
As a merchant, Mike cared little for being at the center of the campground; Too many people meant too many thieves. Mike had scoured countless dwellings to recover the Old World metal & he would not let them be stolen without considerable effort.
Therefore, Mike had settled at the edge of the campground where he could control the flow walking towards & away from his establishment. No one ever bothered with the section that Mike had established himself in so he enjoyed being surrounded by quiet except on those occasions when he was visited by customers.
So it was to Mike's dismay that he kept hearing a strange rustling sound emanating from within the woods behind him. Mike knew that there were some Old World stores that were far behind him but not so close that he would hear the scavangers walking through the woods towards it.
The rustling only lasted a day or two with Mike dismissing it as a passing family of deer or other such woodland creature.
To Mike's credit, they were only passing by... But they weren't deer &, this time, they didn't make the mistake that a former group had made concerning intersecting trails...
There were four of them. All men.
Weapons? Howard couldn't tell within the three seconds he had to respond.
Howard pushed Sam down onto the ground as hard as he could by his shoulders, hoping that Sam didn't hit his head in the process. Then, being prone to the ground himself, he waited for the mob to arrive. He had only seconds to wait.
Howard felt the unmistakable swish of air by a blunt weapon over his head. Howard's first uppercut punch landed too forward for the man's groin & caught the man just below the belly button. The man, surprised, faltered backwards while dropping his weapon in the process.
"Net!" someone screamed out but, by then, Howard had jumped up & kicked absently into the air. Ironically, the man that Howard had aimed at was now careening over Sam who still laid on the ground.
Howard felt two hands push him to the ground. Wasting no time, Howard rolled to his right & kicked into the air. This time, his aim was true & it struck another man just below the knee. The man fell on top of Howard before he could have a chance to get up. Reacting quickly, Howard punched him in the throat before rolling on the ground.
"Where is he? Where is he?" Someone yelled as Howard heard the sounds of two people struggling.
The edge of a net glanced off of Howard's arm, an effort to ensnare him easily dismissed by a mere brush off. Grabbing the net off of the ground, he yanked on it to discover that someone was holding on to the other end of it.
Howard felt a mild kick at his butt, nowhere near the strength to knock him over but instead designed solely to uncover his location. Moving quickly to right, he felt a man brush up against him. Howard unleashed a punch that held nothing back, nailing the man's ribs. He felt the man crumple to the ground, trying to grab at Howard's pants on the way down. Howard raised his foot up & kicked the man in the shoulder hard enough to hear him yelp in pain.
Hearing two sets of footsteps run away, Howard was bathed in silence as he heard the injured man that Howard had tussled with most recently limp away.
In the old days, Howard would have pursued the injured man &, most likely, killed him.
Instead, he waited until there was absolute silence before calling out, "Sam? Sam?"
"So," Mary asked as the two of them hiked along the metal road, "Frank, other then stealing twine, what else do you do for a living?"
Frank just snorted quietly to himself. Of all the luck! The dame hadn't stopped talking the entire time since they had escaped. He had half a mind to kill her on the spot. However, hiking alone was both dangerous as well as lonely. Besides, it had been a while since Frank had been... Together with a woman...
"A little of this & a little of that," Frank replied cryptically, "Anything to get by. Yourself?"
"Men like sex," Mary replied bluntly, "Men have bottlecaps. I like bottlecaps. Bottlecaps buy you things. Catching on?"
"Yeah," Frank replied, "You're a *hore."
Frank felt a hard smack against his shoulder.
"*sshole," Mary blurted out.
"Fine," Frank corrected himself, "You're a *hore with a good right backhand. And a strong jaw."
This time, Frank deflected Mary's oncoming swat, using his free arm to push her down onto the ground with one swift motion.
"Hey!" Mary said, scrambling to pick herself up off the ground.
"Look, lady," Frank declared, neither pleasant nor eloquent, "I've had it with you. I'm giving you five seconds to beat it or be beaten. Personally, I'd rather you stay still because it's been a while since I've beaten a woman to death. Otherwise, scram & get lost."
Mary heard Frank begin to walk away.
"I know who you are," Mary called out, "You're just another small time con artist who got caught! If you can get caught by Traveling Matt, they'll catch you in half the settlements you go into. They've got real jail cells & banishment is their punishment. We can be a team, you know? Together. But since you're so smart, I bet you've already thought of that."
Mary heard Frank walk back towards her.
"You don't want my life, honey," Frank told her, "It's a lot more dangerous then a john that turns 'rough.' A lot more violent. A lot more physical."
"How dangerous is it if your target is distracted by a naked woman?" Mary asked.
Frank was silent for a moment, then said, "You do what I tell you to do. No bull*hit. Understand? I give you your cut. You don't like it, you can walk. Got it?"
"Yeah," Mary sheepishly replied.
"Home" was a subjective word.
What was "home"? Was it a physical place? Was it a type of place? Was it a type of people?
At the end of the night, everyone goes to bed but not everyone goes home.
As far The Bat was concerned, only the weak could associate "Home" to a physical place. To them, "home" could only be a certain location... A piece of property that they physically owned. The weak always retreated to where they felt the safest & where they felt the safest was where they called "home."
To the more enlightened, "Home" was an emotion. Transcendence to that enlightened plateau did not come without effort; To elevate "Home" into an emotion, you had to abandon physical want or desire. Safety was a drug that far too many were addicted to; Mankind was never meant to live the majority of their day or their life in comfort.
The Bat sympathized with the average traveler; Their home was not a physical place although "The Campground" certainly came close to it. Instead, their home was in the comfort of travel, the assurance that a man could pitch a tent only yards away from the metal road & sleep there in relative peace.
However, the metal road had become dangerous & travelers had retreated to "The Campground" for want of a home. Only recently had the violence from the metal road calmed down enough to reduce the ranks of "The Campground."
The final level of "Home" simply did not exist for it was everywhere. Instead of your environment molding your actions, you molded the environment to suit your actions. You transcended society & nature itself; As the more enlightened man abandoned physical want & desire, the truly enlightened disowned physicality itself. What was, after all, a life if you lived it with self-imposed limitation? Nothing more then a prison, a prison with walls. Those who freed themselves from their physicality, from the timid preservation of the present for the shaky promise of a better tomorrow were the only ones who could honestly call whatever they wanted to a "home." Those were the people that The Bat respected the most.
Five bottlecaps was all that was needed to find the "home" of those that called themselves "The Three Blind Mice."
Almost at once, The Bat knew he was not dealing with petty criminals or small-time thugs whose bravado always outmatched their expertise. Their home did not reflect timid men for their neglect of it was pronounced. The home smelled & was sparsely furnished. The wooden siding felt worn, paint on the walls chipped & peeling. It was no more of a home then a shack.
In a way, The Bat felt good that he found neither of the remaining Blind Mice at their "home." He was not dealing with timid or limited men; This time, he would be hunting instead of stalking.
Convincing Angela to "play the game" was a cinch.
"Angela," Salvare asked, "Would you like to help me play a game?"
"OK," Angela replied enthusiastically, "Is it a seeing game?"
"Yes," Salvare said, "It involves following a trail of colorful ribbons."
"OK," Angela replied.
Colorful... Only days ago, the word "colorful" meant less then what it used to. Salvare couldn't even imagine colors; He had no idea what 'blue' really was or, for that matter, any other color.
Salvare tried to imagine a world of sight, where one could see without hindrance. Sight, obviously, had not been necessary for the continuation of society; The metal road was living proof that sight was only an optional sense. People laughed & cried, wrote stories, played musical instruments & built houses all without sight. No doubt, of course, that sight would make some tasks easier then others.
People, though, adapted; After God had taken away their sight, Man had moved on. How many generations had gone by where there simply was no desire for sight? How could one desire something that they could not even fathom? Would caveman desire three-piece suits? Would the Egyptians adore telephones?
Salvare could not understand how it could be "punishment" if something was never taken away. Sure, God took sight away from the Old World. The Old World was used to sight & depended upon it for their society to exist. However, how was it "punishment" for those generations where sight was not even a possibility? Salvare didn't feel punishment or envy over the absence of sight. It was human nature to always want more then one possessed but even greedy men had thresholds. How many bottlecaps could one have before even they felt as though they possessed too many? How many recorders could Salvare possess before he felt as though he has one instrument too many?
Salvare awkwardly followed Angela's voice as she raced from ribbon to ribbon. The ribbons, according to Angela, were "brightly colored" & spaced about 10 to 20 yards apart. Based upon their direction, they were headed for the metal road.
Where were they headed, though? Where from the metal road would they branch off to?
More importantly, just what would either of them do should they close too quickly on them?
"Shut your trap," Sam said jokingly, "I'm alive, I'm alive. I was just laying low."
"You injured?" Howard asked.
"Nah," Sam lazily replied, "The guy never heard it coming."
"Never...?" Howard began to ask.
"Knife in the gut, kid," Sam explained, "I ain't as young as I used to be. I can't do all that fancy fighting you were probably doing elsewhere. Once I had made my point, so to speak, I laid low. It sounded like you had everything all figured out anyway."
"I thought the patrols were...more civil," Howard commented.
"Don't listen to me," Sam countered, "That's the first time I had to break a sweat in a while over an unruly patrol. Up until now, everything had been quiet."
"Where's that guy you felled?" Howard asked.
"He's around here..." Sam slowly said, feeling the area around with his foot. Finally touching something heavy on the ground, he completed his sentence, "Right here."
"He got anything worth taking to the grave?" Howard asked.
"A man after my own heart," Sam touchingly replied, followed by a giggle.
Sam & Howard poked through the corpse's clothes. There was nothing of much value except...
"Paper," Howard commented, feeling for the writing, "Common braille."
"What's it say?" Sam asked.
Howard read the short note to himself, not believing what was written.
Frank did most of the talking.
"Not many camps anymore," a traveler named Two Cane Bob said to Frank, "Especially those that would take in strangers like yourself."
"Well," Frank replied politely, "We're all strangers at one point in our lives, aren't we?" Frank punctuated it with a polite laugh that was diplomatically joined in by Two Cane Bob.
"That's for certain," Bob agreed, "'A stranger today, a friend tomorrow,' that's been my motto for as long as I've walked the road."
"I bet you've met a lot of friends along the road," Frank remarked, his voice so smooth & soothing that Mary found it hard to believe that he had uttered the word "*hore" harshly only hours before.
"A lot of friends," Bob admitted, "A lot of weirdos, too."
"Weirdos?" Frank asked.
"Oh, ah," Bob backtracked, "Well, I suppose I ought to admit the truth. Some friends are stranger then others. Take the Molers, for example."
"Molers?" Frank asked, some of the polish from his voice slightly fading as his interest kicked in.
"Now, for starters," Bob stated, "You don't call 'em 'Molers' unless you really want to tick them off. You don't call 'em 'Miners,' either.Fact is, I'm not sure what they call themselves."
"Sounds pretty off-beat already," Frank admitted.
"Well, they're a different lot," Bob said with a sigh, "I wouldn't want to be their neighbor. Strange religious group. Just strange. A real different take on The Punishment of Man."
The conversation continued for a few more moments before Frank ended it. Mary heard Bob walk away as Frank walked towards her.
"Come on," Frank said, the diplomacy in his voice now fully deflated, "We've got to check out these Mole people."
As the two walked away, Mary dug into a sack of belongings. Pulling out a ribbon, she tossed it onto the ground.
The hop line, the one that The Three Blind Mice couldn't manage to complete, was built at last. Alexander gladly paid the fee.
Alexander had listened to accounts from travelers. The roads had gotten better but not good enough. A few vigilante patrols had adapted to the rigorous new rules set by the priests. Crime, initially pushed out by the surge of priest-monitored patrols, had found a way to creep back in.
Alexander considered simply doing nothing at all - Letting the hop line rot but knew that he needed to have a spark to push the metal road back over the edge again. Adaptation could only work so far; Tolerance could be pushed but it could also be pushed too far.
Until then, of course, Alexander displayed all the traits of a normal individual - Tending to his crops & domestic affairs. Despite his priest-imposed embargo on being influential, he was still visited by those who had more clout then the average citizen. Even in these exchanges, he never hinted at his true intentions.
All great works, Alexander reasoned, took time to create.
Time, Alexander knew, was on his side. With the priests pre-occupied with maintaining the peace, they would be less pre-occupied elsewhere...
For such a well-traveled man, The Bat had only been to "The campground" a few times before.
The campground, to be fair, was not a destination that many would want to venture towards. It was not a settlement for it was not "sanctioned" by the priests. It was not a "camp" for it was well too large to be a mere gathering of a few like-minded people. Certainly, it could never claim to be connected to either the mail car or the priests.
Even a significant number of travelers only occasionally entered the campground, the same way that avid gardeners would begrudgingly leave their gardens if only to eat & rest until the next day. Travelers, after all, enjoyed traveling & used it as their livelihood; Standing still left little joy even to those travelers who knew that the campground was more beneficial then they groused.
It did not take long for The Bat to strike up a conversation with a traveler.
"I would like to speak with your leader," The Bat said to the traveler, "It concerns an incident involving a hop line."
The traveler & The Bat walked away towards Traveling Matt, blending into a sea of conversations, sales pitches & the unpleasant aroma of more then just a few unwashed travelers with their worn gear.
"Everyone's addicted to something;
And being addicted to anything;
Is never, ever, ever a good thing."
-- Verse from a popular traveler song, author unknown.
"Halt, stranger," Frank & Mary heard suddenly. Frank could hear the telltale shuffling of more then three pairs of feet just before their training kicked in, falling silent.
"Hello," Frank stated simply, hearing pairs of feet try to quiet amongst overgrown grass & fallen twigs, "My girlfriend & I are trying to locate 'The Purists.' We were wondering if you could help us."
Honestly, Frank didn't know what to call the people he had tried to find in the last day. Everyone Frank had talked to had a different name for them - Molers, Miners, Moths, Purists...
"We are called many names," the stranger professed, his voice still strangely flat & almost monotonous, "But lay claim to none of them."
"Then," Frank replied, "I guess we've found you. Hello."
"What is it that you have come to seek?" the stranger asked, barely any emotion in his voice at all.
"We've, ah," Frank stammered, "Come to find out more about you guys. We were told that only you guys understood the full meaning of The Punishment of Man."
"We welcome all those who wish to be enlightened," the stranger replied, "But first you must know darkness to enjoy the Splendor Of Light."
Frank could hear others chant softly, "Splendor of Light."
"Yes," a hesitant Frank replied, "So, how do we get to know darkness?"
"Come," the stranger beckoned, "Join the village & learn about the darkness."
Frank & Mary, uneasy, began walking with the other strangers. Already, Frank reasoned, he had decided that he wasn't going to waste any time with these religious zealots if he couldn't size up a workable scam quickly enough.
To the unknowing, it was just a location & a random word.
To someone like Howard, who had been getting his hands dirty for most of his adult life, it was a meeting place & a password.
Why the piece of paper hadn't been destroyed was anyone's guess. Maybe they were amateurs & had simply forgotten. Maybe it was a condition on whomever was paying them. Maybe... Maybe anything.
"Look, Howard..." Sam said as the two walked along the metal road, "I'm all for an extra bottle cap or two, don't get me wrong..."
"Those people were hired thugs," Howard replied flatly with confidence, "Not criminals, not a patrol with a grudge against travelers."
"Were they..." Sam stated, a bit stunned at the thought, "Were they after us?"
"Probably not us in particular," Howard replied, realizing the rudeness in the tone of his earlier statements & amending it by softening his speech, "Probably just after anyone they could find & they found us. That's all."
"We should tell a settlement then," Sam suggested, "Maybe a priest."
"After we find out who's behind this," a determined Howard replied, the drive & edge creeping back into his voice, "Hopefully, they'll accept the hands as proof."
"Yeah," Sam replied softly, not saying anything else.
Howard realized that he was startling Sam by being so forward about pursuing the nature of the note to its conclusion. However, Howard had to find out just how far back the paid job went. If it were just 2 rival towns or some local grudge match, then Howard would simply drop it.
If the paid job was... Well, Howard didn't want to think about it.
The possibility did exist, though. Howard knew that all too well.
Salvare listened to Angela's voice in the distance.
"Over here," Angela cried out, watching as Salvare began walking in the wrong direction.
"Alright, Angela," Salvare reassured her, correcting his direction as he walked towards Angela's voice.
Salvare could feel that they were now on the metal road. Salvare quickened his pace to reach Angela.
"Angela," Salvare said, "We're in public now. Do you remember what we do when we're in public?"
"Speak softly," Angela said in an overly soft voice.
"We speak softly why?" Salvare quizzed her.
"Cause you don't want anyone to know that I can see," Angela stated in a soft, punished voice.
"We don't want anyone to harm you for who you are," Salvare replied, correcting her, adding, "You are a very talented & special young lady. Unfortunately, there are mean people out there who may not be as nice to you as a lot of people have been."
"Why?" Angela asked.
"Why...what?" Salvare replied, slightly puzzled.
"Why would people be mean to me because I can see?" Angela asked softly.
Salvare thought for a moment, then decided to tell Angela the truth.
"Angela," Salvare started, "People are afraid of what they can't fully understand or control. Have you ever had a pet? A cat or dog?"
"My friend had a cat," Angela replied.
"Was the cat friendly to you? Did it always run up to you?" Salvare asked.
"No," Angela said, "The cat would brush up against me & before I could pet her she would run away."
"Well," Salvare explained, "The cat was probably frightened when you extended your hand towards her. She didn't know what you were going to do."
"I was just going to pet her," Angela explained in her defense.
"I understand," Salvare replied, "You weren't going to do anything mean to the cat but the cat didn't have a way of understanding that you weren't mean. Well, it's the same way with people. People are going to be frightened if you tell them that you can see them. They won't understand that you won't harm them; They'll only fear of all the bad things that could happen to them because you can see. That's why we keep your special skill quiet, so we don't make them frightened."
"Oh," Angela said, "OK."
Salvare hated himself for offering that explanation to Angela. Living in a bigoted society, he reasoned, was never an excuse to seclude oneself.
After they had followed the ribbons, Salvare promised himself, he was going to raise Angela someplace that was different then the metal road. A place where Angela could be herself without fear of repercussions.
Salvare had no idea where that magical place was... But he was now more determined then ever to find it.
"Thieves?" Traveling Matt asked The Bat incredulously.
"There were three of them. Now there are two," The Bat stated calmly, "They've made many enemies. They're... Instigators. It was my understanding that you caught one of them. Is that true?"
"Caught," Matt explained, "Is the operative word. Your 'instigator' escaped with another person we were holding. He's lucky... Setting up an unauthorized hop line is a big offense here. The punishment was going to be... Significant."
"Punishment is for God," The Bat reasoned, the calm in his voice relaxing into casual for the briefest of moments.
"God doesn't run this campground," Matt replied sharply, "I do. Every tent is a traveler's entire possessions. Settlements have rope fences, patrols, guarded entrances. We only have... Each other. Thieves aren't welcome here."
"I can not compel you to help me except to say that I offer a humane end to this unfortunate occurrence," The Bat replied, "Others will likely be more harsh & unforgiving."
The Bat gave Matt a piece of paper written in common braille, adding, "You can contact that person any time with information. I will check with that person periodically. Any assistance that you can provide will be deeply appreciated."
"I can't offer much," Matt concluded, "But I'll offer you what I can."
The two men ended their conversation, The Bat being escorted out of the building that he & Matt were in.
Matt turned to Andy, whispering, "I'm beginning to doubt that plan of ours."
Andy, in response, whispered back, "You mean to purposely let out that guy so we could follow him?"
"Yeah," Matt replied, "Because I have a feeling this guy is even more important then wherever that prisoner is running off to. I know he's not telling us the full story. I just can't tell which parts are real & which parts aren't."
Andy leaned back into a normal standing position. The night bell would soon ring, marking the evening. Salvare & Angela, Andy imagined, would have to rest at that point.
Had they found the prisoner's origin? Had they been injured? Had...?
Andy knew that he would have to be patient. He was beginning to agree with Matt that, perhaps, they had gotten too bold with their plans.
"Man deserves the darkness for He ignores the Light."
-- From the Book of Tamarole.
It didn't take Frank long to grasp the history of the cult. Feigning naive interest, he was able to glean enough history out of the enthusiastic prattling of others to skim over the rest.
Dissatisfied hard-line priests think that the Punishment of Man is not being followed as originally intended. The original four priests were named Keler, Tamarole, Ivoju & Alequad. Other minor priests followed.
Each of the original four priests wrote their own book as to how to follow the Punishment of Man. The books are meant to be complimentary as opposed to mutually exclusive. The more books you follow, the more you follow the intent of The Punishment of Man.
Mary had learned that the real hard core members were allowed to live in the cave. This was a sign of deep commitment as, according to the teachings, Man was not supposed to have anything to do with the above-ground world if they could not help it.
"This place is... Weird," Mary whispered to Frank during a spare moment.
"Weird but it has potential," Frank replied softly, "These people are dependent on outside supplies. That could be our opening."
"So," Mary asked, "Should we stay the night, at least?"
"Definitely," Frank replied, "At least a week."
Mary breathed a sigh of relief as Frank walked away. She had only a few ribbons left. Hopefully, by the morning, she could be found & escape her "partner."
How anyone would ever be able to find & follow the ribbons, though, was beyond her.
Tolerance was just another form of leniency. Leniency was just another form for having a lack of discipline.
A lack of discipline was unbecoming of those who strived towards perfection in observing The Punishment of Man.
Marlon continued to beat on the drum softly in perfect rhythm. Only those who strode right by him on the metal road would be able to hear it; Even those persons standing a few yards away would hear only the sounds of leaves rustling & the crunching of gravel underneath their feet.
To Marlon, observing the true intent for The Punishment of Man was paramount in God lifting His Punishment.
Normal society, naturally, would never abide by such strict standards. The priests that were left in charge to corral & motivate the public to observe The Punishment had become weak with compromise when constantly confronted by the public.
This was why a true sect, following the original tenets of The Punishment of Man, had to be established. This was why Keler, Tamarole, Ivoju & Alequad had to leave the priests so that they could re-establish a society that understood the true meaning of The Punishment.
Society had grown so docile towards The Punishment that Marlon often wondered why God didn't just render The Judgment now. People laughed, people sang songs, people played instruments, people interacted with animals, people ATE animals & formed secular groups. Marlon knew that some people even used bottle caps as a form of currency. Currency! The nerve! That was as direct a violation of The Punishment as there could be!
Only through strict observation of The Punishment would God render a peaceful verdict that would spare mankind. Did people really think that God, having punished Mankind twice already, would be so lenient the third time around? The Punishment of Man said clearly that the Last Punishment would be Extinction. It was right there in The Punishment! Plain as could be! How could people be so stupid?!
Marlon found his anger welling up & began to forcefully breath slowly to calm himself down. He, himself, had begun to lose focus over his own observations of The Punishment. It was not, after all, for him to judge Man but God. God would spare Marlon, just as God would spare everyone who followed the Four Books.
As Marlon slowly beat on the drum, he had no way of knowing that a ribbon was no more then a yard away from him.
A few more yards away, well out of the earshot of Marlon, stood Angela & Salvare, whispering to one another as Angela pointed towards Marlon's direction.
A conversation between two drunk travelers about one of them owning a leaky tent.
Children telling "knock-knock" jokes.
A customer trying to haggle a merchant to lower the price of some pieces of paper.
The smell of damp but unwashed clothes.
The Bat took in all of these moments & more as he stood virtually silent outside the building where he had talked to Traveling Matt about his former prisoner, one of the members of The Three Blind Mice. Standing just outside the doorway where he was escorted out, he listened more intently of the events at the door then he did of the various conversations nearby.
It wasn't difficult to pick up a pattern: All guards had to escort people in & out of the building. The guards knocked on the door in two series - The first series (with knuckles) identified the guard, the second (pounding on the door softly) identified the nature of the visit. The pattern was practically confirmed by the idle chatter that the guard & the visitor would have just before arriving at the door.
There was a steady stream of visitors to the building although it was far from being a constant revolving door.
The Bat duly noted that some of the guards' voices could be mimicked more easily then others. He also noted their use of language & the terminology that they used.
As the night bell rang in the distance, The Bat used the distraction to walk away unnoticed.
He had gathered all the information he had needed. Now, all he had to do was implement his plan.
Her name was Kayla.
She sounded older but not old, shorter but not short. Her husky voice hid an otherwise friendly personality & feminine figure.
Mary had learned that Kayla was a "student," a self-described 'top-sider' who hadn't yet fulfilled the requirements to live in the cave.
"It's going to be a while before you can even get the chance to live in the cave," Kayla plainly said to Mary.
Both Kayla & Mary were holed up in a small bedroom that had been quickly re-arranged to accommodate Mary. A simple cot was Mary's bed, a backpack serving as her dresser, closet, & desk.
"So, only those who can follow all four books can live in the cave?" Mary asked.
"Yes," Kayla explained, "The four books guide each human towards complete compliance with The Punishment. The Punishment states that Man is not to interfere with nature if they can help it. Well, what is a house but an artificial structure? The house, created by man, interferes with nature. There must be a road to a house. There must be a fence of some kind."
"But we're above ground," Mary reasoned, "In a house. There's even a garden here."
"Students need to be eased into compliance with The Punishment," Kayla recited, almost as though she were repeating verbatim what had been taught to her prior, "The Punishment can't simply be read to you. Take children, for instance - For adults, the order of the alphabet is simple... Second-nature. For children, they need to be taught the alphabet. You simply can't recite the alphabet once & expect them to know it fluently. The same holds true with The Punishment - We are God's children & must be taught how to comply with The Punishment."
"So," Mary asked cautiously, "How does one follow The Punishment according to how God wants us to follow it?"
Kayla laughed briefly, then replied, "I am not your teacher but let me tell you what to expect. They'll shave your body of all hair & I do mean 'all hair.' Remember, The Punishment states that Man is separated from Beast by God. Beasts, such as cats, dogs & apes all have hair. Man, therefore, shouldn't have hair."
"Wow," Mary gasped, "All hair?"
Kayla replied, "They're not perverts; They'll let you shave 'down there' & hold you to your word. They'll shave everything else, though."
"What else?" Mary asked.
"Its just like what's in The Punishment but only enforced: No money, no valuables, no aggression, no possessions of your own, no leisure. There's more, of course, but those are the basics. You've already met Hal, the man who talks without emotion. Well, the more advanced students try to suppress all emotion, both from their voice & their mind. That's hard."
"So," Mark asked, "What are your aspirations for being with these people?"
"Honestly," Kayla said, lowering her voice to a whisper, "I haven't been raped or harassed once here. They're more then happy to let me interact with new students, especially women, & break them in before they the formal lessons begin. I tend the above-ground gardens for the students & interact with the merchants."
"You have no intent on being a 'real' follower?" Mary asked.
"Someone has to be at the bottom of the pack," Kayla reasoned, "I make other students feel good about their progress."
Mary laid on her cot in thought, coming to a revelation she thought only intellectual people could realize. Her interest in leaving was now greater then it had ever been.
She DIDN'T want to play along with Frank anymore. She DIDN'T want to be here with a bunch of crazy cult members. This would be the LAST time that she would do Traveling Matt any favors.
Little did she realize that her chance to leave was only yards away & approaching...
The "rope" was every single piece of cord that Sam & Howard had between themselves which translated to about 35 feet of "rope" when it was all tied together.
The plan was for Sam, being tied to the rope at the other end, to follow the man while Howard stood still & allowed the man to leave. Once Sam got far enough away, Howard would follow loosely behind & slowly catch up until the both of them were back together.
The man, to Howard's amusement, wasn't stupid; The man walked in zigzags & even stood still suddenly for a few moments. Each time, Sam & Howard were wise enough to give the man plenty of room to walk.
About half an hour into the walk, the man started to whistle softly to himself. At that point, Sam & Howard distanced themselves further from the man now that they didn't need to keenly hear his footsteps.
"We're heading for Two Rivers Town," Sam whispered to Howard, "That's the only settlement here except for a few camps that come & go. Seasonal types."
"He doesn't seem like a camper," Howard whispered back in agreement, "He sounds a bit too regal to rough it."
The two continued to follow the man until they neared the town's entrance chimes.
"Hello, Edward," Sam & Howard could hear the man say to the young chimesman, the mystery man's voice devoid of the dread & cheap playacting that Howard had dealt with earlier.
"Hello, Town Elder Benjamin," the chimesman replied, asking, "Did you enjoy your walk?"
"It was most... Rewarding," Benjamin replied.
Salvare climbed over the rope fence gingerly. Only a few moments ago, he had convinced Angela not to walk near the man beating the drum softly.
"I know that the ribbon is right there," Salvare stated, "But we shouldn't disturb that man from beating his drum. It might upset him. Let's be kind & find another way around."
After Salvare had climbed over the rope fence, Angela took Salvare by the hand & the two began to slowly walk through the light vegetation towards the clearing where some buildings were. Angela enjoyed playing the game of "describing" what she was seeing.
"Remember, Angela," Salvare told her softly, "We must'nt disturb the people here. Let's pretend to be sneaky while finding more of the ribbons."
Salvare had walked the metal road many times but he was more attuned to some sections of the road then others. He had always known that a settlement of some kind had been here but had never investigated it. The place, by all accounts as told from Angela's perspective, had gone out of their way to be as unremarkable as it could be.
Angela & Salvare walked out into the clearing slowly, Angela taking Salvare by the hand. Angela looked for the next ribbon while Salvare listened carefully for an opening door or loud conversation.
"How does the sky look?" Salvare asked.
"Its dark," Angela replied, "Its hard to see now."
Salvare muttered to himself, "I can relate."
Salvare & Angela continued to walk around for a few more minutes before Angela excitedly said in a whisper, "There's another one! Its right by a door!"
'Finally,' Salvare thought to himself in relief before saying to Angela, "OK, let's go over to that door very quietly & listen to make sure the person inside is nice."
"OK," Angela whispered back.
Salvare & Angela began walking towards the building where the ribbon sat. With any luck, Salvare hoped that he could pitch his tent & go to sleep within the next hour.
"A tent that never moves is nothing more then a lousy house."
-- Old traveler saying, origin unknown.
Albert sat at his tent on a chair, softly humming to himself. As he heard people walk by, he would say little greetings like "Hello" & "Hi." Sometimes people would reply back, other times they wouldn't.
As the night bell chimed, Albert sighed to himself & stood up to stretch out momentarily. He hated the times when he was assigned as the night monitor but someone had to do it.
"Night Monitor" was the catch-all title that it implied; He was a guard, a moderator of disputes, a doctor & general overall representative of the campground personnel during the evening. Despite the anti-authoritative nature of the campground, evenings were generally quiet with few significant disturbances. Travelers were used to early bedtimes because of the aerobic tendencies of walking significant distances. You couldn't pick a fight with your fellow campsite neighbor if you were too tired to get out of your sleeping bag.
Albert, like so many other personnel at the campground, had fallen into a position of authority rather then seeking it out. A traveler at one time, his feet began to chronically hurt with any significant walking or running. Forced to abandon his traveling, he tried his hand at living in a settlement, weaving rope & performing odd jobs. The problem with settlement living, for Albert, was that the scenery never changed; Your neighbor today was your neighbor tomorrow. Routine & consistency were fantastic for others but Albert quickly grew bored of the same people doing the same chores at the same places during the same times every day. Settlement living was more about function & routine; Traveling was more about interaction & opportunity.
A series of events eventually landed Albert back at the campground where his longevity for staying around earned him respect & popularity amongst the travelers who routinely made pit stops at the campground. Traveling Matt took notice of this popularity & eventually offered Albert a job at the campground. Albert accepted without hesitation & the rest was history.
Albert fumbled for a simple flute he had bought from a traveling merchant not too long ago. The instructions were on slips of paper, each side having a series of grooves cut out of them to illustrate the fingerings of the notes. "V"-notches were holes that you didn't put your fingers over & "square" notches were. Four notes (fours sides) per piece of paper.
Only a few notes into practicing, Albert heard someone approach.
"Hi," Albert said, hearing the person walking up to him.
A sharp, sudden pain took Albert's breath away as he struggled to both speak & get up out of his chair. Albert could do neither, his legs & hands becoming numb, his voice becoming so soft that it was barely a whisper. The flute dropped from his hands, the papers scattering anonymously to the ground.
The Bat had struck.
Now, he needed to move quickly for the next phase of his plan.
Mary was tired. She had talked to Kayla for about an hour which was forty minutes longer then she had really wanted to. To Mary, Kayla seemed like a nice enough woman who had become just a little too comfortable being the bottom-feeder in a cult.
Excusing herself to go to the outhouse, Mary walked out of the small dwelling. Closing the door behind her, she reached for the rope line that would guide her to the outhouse.
"Miss?" She heard Salvare whisper out, "Miss?"
Mary froze, for a split-second thinking that it might have been Frank. The voice, though, sounded too different even if Frank was attempting to purposely disguise his voice.
"Who's there?" Mary cautiously asked, keeping her voice quiet so that Kayla wouldn't hear her.
"We've been following the ribbons," Salvare explained, "Just like the one you're wearing on your shirt right now."
Mary was speechless; How did he...? Instinctively, Mary reached to grab the ribbon that she had tied to one of her sleeves. The ribbon, to her relief was still there. Had he heard the ribbon flapping around? Had anyone touched the ribbon? How...?
"Miss," Salvare continued to whisper, "Are you at liberty to talk?"
"I..." Mary stammered quietly, "I..., uh..., um..."
"I'll take that as a 'Yes,'" Salvare replied, "Here - I'm reaching out to grab you. Just allow me to lead you to a quiet spot. Don't worry, I know where I'm going."
Mary felt a hand gently poke her in the stomach, then hit her arm before reaching down & grabbing her hand. Slowly, the two of them walked for a distance, making a few gentle turns before eventually stopping. Mary swore she heard another set of footprints while they walked but said nothing.
"OK," Salvare said, "We're in a safe area. No one is here."
"What..., uh," Mary continued to stammer, "What would you like to know?"
"Is this where the prisoner lives?" Salvare asked, "In this settlement?"
"No," Mary replied, "This place is weird. It's some sort of cult. We're just hiding out. He thinks we can scam the place. He thinks I'm some sort of con artist or something."
"Well," Salvare asked, "Have you learned anything about him? Anything at all?"
"He's definitely not dumb," Mary reported, "He was putting on a show for Matt back at the campground about being a simple rope stealer. He calls himself 'Frank' but I don't think that's his real name."
"OK," Salvare said, "Well, do you want to stay here or go back to the campground? Your choice. We're only here to follow you so that you could lead us to him, hopefully to where he lived."
"Personally," Mary stated, "I'd kill the creep & blow this joint. I don't know what he's up to but he's up to something. I don't think he'll cause the campground anymore trouble. It's almost as if... Well, a normal thief would be persistent but he hasn't mentioned the campground once after we escaped. It's almost as if the campground was... a job of some kind."
"Mary?" A voice called out in the distance, "Mary?"
Mary recognized the voice instantly - It was Kayla.
Two Rivers Town...
"Town Elder" Benjamin...
'How could I be so BLIND?!' Howard thought to himself, sitting beside the metal road. Sam, seated next to him, could do little else but pick up small rocks & lazily chuck them towards the forest.
"No one's going to believe us," Sam reminded Howard, "A Town Elder behind a bunch of thug killings? That's about as crazy as that tale about the zealous priest stealing that kid who could see. Didn't matter about that tale, though... People believed it just the same."
"We have to prove it somehow," Howard quietly stated, his voice trailing off, "There's more to this then just a town elder..."
"There ain't nothing to it," Sam concluded, Howard hearing him stand up, "My father taught me there were two kinds of evil in the world: The kind you could control & the kind that you couldn't. You confront the kind you can control & you avoid the kind that you couldn't. I don't think we can do much with this one except to steer clear of it."
"Just run away?" Howard asked.
"Howard," Sam said with a sigh, "There's honesty & then there's stupidity. It's a fine line & one I'm not willing to cross at my age. If you've got an axe to grind..."
"Then its been a pleasure meeting you," Howard stated, "We'll meet again, hopefully, some day."
The silence was deafening, shattered only by Sam's final words, "Good luck, Howard."
Howard heard Sam walk away, each passing step more distant then the last.
'What the heck am I going to do?' Howard asked himself.
Sound, as The Bat knew, was a false sense of security.
Sound could be manipulated, falsified & controlled. Like a musical instrument, sound was a tool & not an unalterable signature. Those who plied in The Bat's trade of deception knew that sound authenticated nothing.
The Bat quickly disrobed Albert who now nothing more then a corpse on the ground. Albert's instructions of his flute were now nothing more then anonymous & worthless pieces of paper that floated away with the opportunistic breeze.
The blood wouldn't matter much although The Bat was careful to wipe enough of it off so that the garments were not soaked. Questions could be raised if his clothing was touched by others & blood did, indeed, smell if left unchecked for long enough.
Experience had taught The Bat that people also relied on smell to recognize individuals. The Bat wiped the shirt on Albert's forehead & underneath his armpits. The smell did not have to be foolproof, just fool people enough for him to accomplish his task.
The shoes were larger then The Bat's own shoe size but that had been anticipated. Extra cloth that The Bat carried was wedged into the shoes for a more snug fit.
With his outfit complete, The Bat dragged Albert's body into a nearby field. The Bat knew that the body would be found as he had not the time to properly conceal the body better. However, time was of the essence & the discovery would likely only occur after he had accomplished what he had set out to do.
It had sounded, to the Bat, that Albert was left-foot dominant with a longer left-to-right foot stride then a right-to-left foot stride. As The Bat walked towards the building again, he worked on matching the sound of Albert's footsteps.
With sound & smell as his ally, The Bat became invisible once again, this time behind the facade that was once Albert. A facade that The Bat, hoped would be good enough for long enough to get beyond the building's doors & into the building itself.
As The Bat climbed the first stair on the staircase towards the building's entrance, he would find out in only a matter of moments if his disguise succeeded.
She had claimed to have heard "voices" & wanted to speak to them.
Even though Kayla could feel the wrinkles forming on her own face, her chest sag & her backside balloon, she wasn't going to be taken for a fool.
Mary, she had determined, had no real interest in staying with the group. She didn't hate Mary, of course; The discipline for following The Four Books simply wasn't for everyone &, in fact, it had turned out that it wasn't for most people who were curious enough to enter the settlement. Even Kayla had to admit that she had skimped on a few of the basic tenets but, as even the most astute followers would have to attest, not everyone could live in the cave.
Her friend (What was his name? Frank? Fred? Phil?), though, had showed at least a little bit of interest in sticking around. That's usually how it was; Women had virtually no interest in the settlement. Granted, more then a few men had fled after a week or two of "no this" & "no that" mentality that The Four Books often came of as to the undisciplined. Women, though, usually couldn't put up with the limitations. The religious hierarchy simply explained away the phenomenon that women were the original sinners & had a natural tendency to not adhere to God's commands. It wasn't for Kayla to correct them so she didn't but that wasn't the same as she couldn't.
Tonight, it was simply a case of "I heard voices, went over to check it out & got lost" syndrome. It wasn't a very original excuse & it wasn't even conveyed in the most authentic of voices.
Catching herself with such a high degree of cynicism, Kayla calmed herself for a moment.
Suppose, she reasoned, that Mary had honestly heard voices. It was possible for new students to be up past their designated bedtimes. It would be, of course, not the first time such a thing had happened. Was Mary "covering" for a bunch of students that she accidentally discovered breaking the rules?
'Check it out with the others,' Kayla thought to herself, wanting to go back to sleep, 'Cut Mary some slack.'
There was no need to report this to the self-important religious types. The turnover rate for new students was far too high. There wasn't even a need to bring this up with Mary any further.
In her last moments before falling asleep, Kayla thought of her own plans. Her youthful years had already faded into middle age. It was an ugly & poorly-kept open secret that her adherence to The Four Books was, at best, lackluster. How many more years, she asked herself, before you can't put up with the petty restrictions that are never loosened & always tightened?
How many more years before you start living again like a real human should?
Kayla fell asleep before she could answer her own question. It was just as well; She probably wouldn't have enjoyed hearing the answer.
Rope fences, so often, prevented so few of actually entering a town illegally. Howard knew all the tricks of the trade in getting past the rope fences without so much as making a sound. All of that knowledge, all of that illicit knowledge... How often had any of that knowledge ever been used for good? To help another human being instead of harm?
Howard climbed over the rope fence with nary a problem.
He didn't know the first thing about the town - Where was the bar? Where were the rope lines? The customs? Were visitors barred from certain areas?
Howard felt his way to a rope line & started to follow it.
'What are you going to do?' Howard's conscience asked, 'Confront Benjamin? Alexander? Kill for good instead of for profit?'
'No,' Howard replied to himself, 'I'm going to do things the right way. The good way.'
'And if that doesn't work?' His conscience asked.
Howard didn't reply. His conscience already knew what the answer would be.
Up ahead, Howard heard voices. Hopefully, he would be able to find out some information from there.
It was Henry's turn to be the "doorman." Henry would've rather listened to paint dry the entire time.
The doors to the building blocked out the words of a conversation outside, reducing it to a volume that rose & fell in pitch the same that a tide would come in & leave from an ocean.
All Henry had to do was sit just inside of the building, listen for the knock codes & let people in. He wasn't the designated "on call" decision maker for the evening - That illustrious duty was left to the shift guard down the hallway. Odds were that the shift guard was just as bored as he was.
Suddenly, there was three knocks followed by two fist pounds. Henry automatically reacted by standing up & reaching for the door's latch. The door was open within moments & Henry heard "Albert" walk in.
"Al," Henry asked, devoid of any enthusiasm, "What's the...?"
Henry suddenly felt a sharp pain in his ribs that spread quickly to the rest of his body. Henry let out a hissing sound as he tried to speak through his shock.
"Hha... hhaa...Ahlll..." Henry gasped out quietly as he felt two hands force him back down onto the chair he was sitting in. Henry fell off of the chair as The Bat closed the door behind him, locking it just as Henry would have had it been any other day.
Henry's legs & arms now numb, Henry bubbled up some blood from his mouth as The Bat grabbed him & propped him back up onto the chair. Taking out the knife, The Bat wiped it clean on Henry's clothes.
The Bat would now have to act quickly if his visit would have the desired effect. Silently, he strode down the hall towards his next victim.
"Camp" consisted of a tent, a few rocks in a circle that held the faintest of fires & some dried goods that Salvare knew had been in his backpack for far too long. Angela ate the goods without hesitation anyway.
Without Angela's help, the camp still might have been in the process of being set up. Angela, though, picked out the spot, picked out the rocks, gathered the sticks & even helped set up the tent. She accomplished all of the tasks with that enthusiastic, childish zeal that only small children could possibly possess.
"What did you do when you were a kid?" Angela asked Salvare, during that time of evening at every campfire when no one wanted to admit that it was past their bedtime.
"When I was a child," Salvare said, "Gathering rocks was a pastime. The town elder would lead us into a field & tell us to pick up all the rocks that we could find. So, there we are, digging through the entire field searching for rocks."
"Why did you look for rocks?" Angela asked.
"You can use rocks for many things," Salvare explained, "You can use them to make buildings, you can take them out of the ground to make vegetables grow better, you can use them to build a fence... A lot of uses for rocks."
"How many rocks did you find?" Angela asked.
"I found a lot of rocks," Salvare said with a laugh, remembering a few choice moments from that time.
"Is the woman going to be OK?" Angela asked.
"The woman is going to be fine," Salvare assured Angela, referring to Mary, "She just had to go to bed for the night, just like we have to."
"I don't want to go to bed," Angela replied.
"We need to go to bed so we can wake up bright & early tomorrow," Salvare reasoned, "The sooner we go to bed, the sooner we can wake up & go back to the campground so that you can play with all of the kids there."
"Oh," Angela said, "OK."
As both Salvare & Angela prepared for bed, Salvare knew that they would have to go back one more time for the woman. There was no mistaking that she had no further interest in being at that compound or whatever it was that it was called.
Salvare & Angela, as far as Salvare was concerned, had done what Traveling Matt had wanted them to do - Go find where the prisoner had gone. No one had said anything about capturing the prisoner or anything else like that. Now, Salvare had to think about Angela's future.
As soon as Salvare got back to the campground, he would re-supply & take Angela to the outer reaches of the metal road. He knew that there had to be lenient settlements out there that didn't adhere to what the priests dictated. He'd even raise Angela himself out in "Elsewhere" if he had to.
What Salvare didn't realize was that he would never return to the campground ever again because of what was going to happen...
The town hall served water to guests.
Howard took a sip of the water & was pleasantly surprised that the water didn't taste or smell horrible.
The conversations inside the town hall ranged from the mundane to the outright boring. Two farmers discussing their corn crop. A group of women chatting about knitting techniques & laughing about all of the mistakes they've made on earlier knitting projects. A group of men playing "Blind Man's Poker" to pass the time.
Howard eventually cut to the chase & asked someone where he could find a priest. Finishing off the water, Howard left the town hall.
Following the rope lines, Howard made his way to the priest's house.
"The priest is away on business, I'm afraid," a man by the name of Sullivan replied when Howard asked for the priest. Sullivan made a point that he himself was not a priest but only an assistant.
"When will he be back?" Howard asked.
"Within a day," Sullivan replied. The rest of the conversation was of little consequence.
One day. Howard felt as though he could not wait a single hour, let alone an entire day.
Begrudgingly, Howard admitted temporary defeat in his plans. As undesirable as it would be, he would wait for the priest to return before pursuing the matter of Benjamin & Alexander.
However... Howard did have another destination he could travel to...
All he needed was a shovel & a little time...
"Ignorance of Reality breeds Failure; Ignorance of Failure breeds Disaster."
-- Common quote, origin unknown.
In the unorthodox world of the metal road, the mail car was owned by no one, valued by everyone & driven by a small crew that was autonomous from all factions.
In fact, the term "mail car" was a misnomer that was as inaccurate as "dry martini."
The mail car did, indeed, deliver mail but it was so much more; It delivered supplies & even sometimes people. The drivers of the mail car sometimes delivered messages far too complex to be punched out on paper regardless of type of braille.
For such a valuable service, the mail car was left precariously unguarded when not in use. Despite common belief, the mail car was not continuously in service. Just as any other device would need to have periodic maintenance, so to did the mail car. When not in service, the mail car, incredibly, sat out in the open. Anyone could touch it or have the capability of taking off with it.
The only obstacle for the mail car not being destroyed or otherwise damaged was the same social & ethical unwritten contract that every human had agreed upon at birth. They were the same scruples that prevented any human from randomly killing any other human for any particular reason; The social penalty would just be too severe. Do unto others what you would want people to do unto yourself.
The lure of money & notoriety, in any society, is irresistible to certain individuals.
For some, the chance to be the person or persons who were responsible for destroying the mail car was irresistible.
Like all forms of intimidation, this "execution" had to be public & messy. Unlike 'Malcolm,' there could be little lingering doubt as to anyone's fate.
"I can tell when a man lies," The Bat plainly stated, not a hint of emotion in his voice.
Only moments earlier, The Bat had walked into the room where Traveling Matt was sleeping. The unmistakable sound of snoring was all that The Bat had needed to locate Matt inside the room.
In a fair fight, Matt's superior size & strength against The Bat would have made the confrontation into a struggle. However, The Bat never believed in a fair fight; Fairness was a concept reserved only for sport & he never considered his jobs to be sports.
There was no struggle; Just a sudden ambush of The Bat wrapping Matt's hands quickly with rope. Matt rolled off of the bed too late, screaming into the evening air for help that would never arrive. A solid hit on the back of Matt's head ended his brief but spirited attempt at calling out for help.
"I can tell when a man lies," The Bat stated to Matt, "Because you never have to think about the truth, only in how you present it. With a lie, you have to make up a story & think of how you'll present it. That extra effort causes hesitation & he who hesitates is lost."
Matt didn't say a word. The Bat continued.
"What happened to your prisoner?" The Bat asked.
"And this time," The Bat continued, taking out a switchblade & clicking it open right near Matt's ear so that he could hear the switchblade opening clearly, "I want the whole truth."
Matt told the truth.
A moment later, he was killed.
Blood first ruined the pillow that Matt's head & neck fell onto. Then, the sheets became soiled. By the time The Bat was nearing the exit, blood was beginning to drip over the side of the bed onto the floor.
The Bat didn't leave the building, though.
The plan had changed.
He was still there; At least, Howard could still smell him.
Technically, Howard wasn't supposed to know where he was. None of "The Three Blind Mice" was supposed to know. However, when your business involved partners who would betray you on a moment's notice, you made it your business to know. Sometimes, knowing was all you had in keeping you alive.
Howard began to fill the hole back in. He would need it to feel relatively untouched. After he had filled the hole back in, he sprinkled some leaves & dried twigs over the hole.
Lost in thought, Howard wondered if what he was going to do would end the violence... The conflict... The plague that infested the metal road & all the civilizations that it touched.
Ultimately, it didn't matter if the violence ended. The violence would always be there; Settlements had always hated other settlements, groups had always hated other groups. All violence & hatred needed were the flimsiest of excuses to ignite. One excuse was just as good as any other. Sometimes, the excuses were manufactured for the sole purpose of inciting violence.
'Like this one was,' Howard reminded himself, 'The one you helped create.'
'The one I'm going to end,' Howard corrected himself.
Howard began to construct a trap. If he was lucky, the trap would be sprung with all the witnesses he needed listening.
Little did Howard know that an event had occurred that would eclipse his plan.
The location of Malcolm's corpse was now the least of everyone's concern.
Frank reasoned that there were only two reasons anyone ever bothered to sign up for a religion: Either they were too stupid to realize that it was a ruse or they were smart enough to know that it was a ruse & wanted a piece of the action.
Already, Frank could tell that he was with a roomful of idiots who were more then willing to sacrifice their freedom for a little artificial peace of mind. The only use an idiot ever had was to do your bidding & Frank wasn't high enough on the food-chain for people to do his bidding just yet.
Kayla, Frank had discovered, was the only person that understood how corny the ruse at this "religion" truly was. Frank would have to determine whether or not to try & make Kayla his partner. Kayla seemed like a sharp knife in the silverware drawer but as someone once said, "A knife never has more then one handle." If Kayla was running a scam herself, then she would need to go as well. Frank hated competition, especially when it came to illegal activities.
What to do about "Mary," though, his "partner"? Frank knew he couldn't kill her outright on the cult's premises. He'd have to kill her, though, because she knew who he truly was & what he was up to.
Already, Frank had a good idea of how to get rid of Mary - Most women didn't last very long at the cult for one reason or another. He'd kill Mary, tell everyone that she talked to him & that she was returning to her previous lifestyle. It was a simple explanation that everyone would accept; She burned out. No one at the cult would follow up on the story because they'd all be too busy for scolding themselves over something petty like wishing their bean sprouts were tastier or some other sadomasochistic garbage.
As Frank listened to some garbage about purging his system of unhealthy foods that violated some obscure interpreted reference to one of The Four Books, he began to smile as he saw potential at his new home.
Little did he know that the "Mary" problem had solved itself already... And that it would ultimately lead to his downfall.
The world changed overnight.
The news spread more rapidly to some parts of the metal road then others.
First, there were the rumors. The mail car exploded. The mail car had derailed. The mail car was destroyed.
Then, the accusations began to swirl around. The priests did it. The travelers did it. Malcolm did it. The settlements did it.
Mary learned of the rumors from Angela & Salvare once they had gotten her off of the cult's property. Her extraction was easy; They waited by her door &, when she walked out, simply lead her off of the property with the help of Angela. There was no suspense; Kayla didn't run after her as Kayla was still asleep.
Salvare & Angela learned of the rumors from various travelers that had passed them by earlier in the morning.
"I have to get back to the campground," Mary said hastily, "At the least, to tell them where the prisoner wound up. Maybe Matt will want to do something."
"The metal road is dangerous already," Salvare tried to reason with her, "Let's all go together."
There was no talking Mary out of walking back to the campground. Angela told Salvare that she was practically running.
As Salvare & Angela stood there, Salvare wondered what he would do next. He had no obligations to anyone except to Angela. He took that as a cue.
"Angela," Salvare asked, "Would you like to go on a trip?"
Salvare had had enough of adventure for one lifetime.
The perfect storm of horrific news slammed into the campground like a tornado emerging from a clear, sunny day.
A guard at the campground had heard the rumors of the mail car disaster from passing travelers, all anxious & none of them concerned if they had sounded as anxious about the news as they really did.
The guard went to the main building with the information only to find two other guards having difficulty getting inside the building. Two travelers helped the guards gain entry into the building through a side window. Instantly, the odor of death could be smelled by even a novice.
By the time the front door had been opened, Andy had been awakened from elsewhere.
The news was grim - Three deaths, including Traveling Matt.
The news of Traveling Matt's death spread like wildfire throughout the campground, suffocating the mail car rumor completely & thoroughly.
The murderer (or murderers) had to be found. Search teams were set up; The campground was scoured for any newcomer who couldn't be vouched for by the guards or another traveler. Some travelers were detained briefly (one even mildly beaten) but all were released on later questioning & discovery of evidence pertaining to their innocence.
Andy felt the heavy burden of leadership fall upon him. As the saying went at the campground, "The leader is the one too slow to deny it & too stupid to pass it onto someone else."
As Andy made his first directives, he was unaware of an uninvited visitor inside the building.
He was also unaware that a third, equally vicious revelation was about to rock the metal road civilization...
Everyone was talking about it. The revelations. The horrific events that had occurred literally at the same time.
Howard had to piece together the story from several fractured & nearly incoherent rantings.
The mail car had been destroyed. The mail car had been taken. The mail car had been burned.
The traveler's campground had been attacked. 10 travelers were killed. 20 travelers were killed. The place was burned down. It wasn't burned down. Traveling Matt, the leader of the travelers, was killed. He wasn't killed. He was injured. He wasn't injured.
Malcolm did it. Malcolm didn't do it. The priests did it. The priests didn't do it.
Howard became so disgusted that he forcibly removed himself from the conversations. On a day when his own "revelation" should've been a bombshell, he quickly realized that his own story would be lost in the sea of idle chatter that had flooded the settlements like a sudden tsunami.
As Howard quietly walked away from the conversations, he heard a distinctive voice amongst the chatter. It was hard to make out complete sentences because of all the other conversations but he could hear snippets of the sentences just fine.
"Hey, I'm looking for..."
"Tall fella. Kinda nice sounding. Quiet."
"New guy. Just arrived. A day or so earlier then myself."
Howard fought his way through the crowd towards the voice. As he got closer, Howard instantly knew who it was.
"Sam?" Howard asked.
"Howard!" Sam replied, "I knew I'd find you here!"
"I, uh..." Howard sputtered, "What are you doing here?"
On a day that kept changing, Howard wasn't sure if finding Sam was a good or bad development. If Howard had been in dangerous situations before, what he was about to do would make the other times seem peaceful by comparison. Howard didn't want to risk Sam's life... Howard didn't even want to risk his own.
"Where are we going?" Angela asked as the two walked along the metal road.
"We're going to a quiet place," Salvare replied, "A place where you can live as you are & not as others want you to be."
"Oh, OK," Angela said.
"Why do they call this a metal road? There's not much metal here," Angela asked.
"They call it 'the metal road,'" Salvare replied, "Because of the two metal beams that run down the road."
Angela looked down at the two metal beams. Wooden planks, perpendicular to the beams, ran underneath the beams. Beneath even the planks was gravel & sand with the occasional weed sprouting forth.
"Oh, OK," Angela said.
"Are there other metal roads or is this the only one?" Angela asked.
"There are a lot of metal roads," Salvare replied, "This only being one of them. This metal road forms a big loop, like a circle."
"Oh, OK," Angela said.
"Do other people live at other metal roads or are we the only ones?" Angela asked.
"I don't know," Salvare replied, "Exploration is discouraged here by the priests. I doubt that we're the only ones, though."
"Oh, OK," Angela said.
"Why do grown-ups hide behind trees?" Angela asked.
Salvare stopped in his tracks, Angela stopping a step or two afterwards.
"Why do grown-ups hide behind trees?" Salvare repeated, partially in amusement & partially puzzled, "What do you mean?"
"There are grown-ups over there," Angela replied, forgetting that Salvare would never see that she was pointing ahead, "Hiding behind trees. I thought that grown-ups don't play games like hide-and-seek 'cause they're too old."
'They don't,' Salvare thought to himself, stopping in his tracks.
Frank had heard about the rumors. The events had even penetrated the isolated property of the cult.
Chaos was always a time of opportunity but these events didn't exactly compel Frank to leave the property.
First, Frank was still probably 'wanted' by the campground for escaping. For all he knew, the campground thought that he was the one who killed that 'Traveling Matt' character or whatever his name was.
Second, the hop line that Frank had helped set up as part of being in 'The Three Blind Mice' gang was to have extended to where the mail car was being kept. Odds were, his employer had simply hired another team to complete their job. Whether or not his employer would throw himself & his former gang to the wolves couldn't be relied upon. If he did, then he'd be hunted by just about everyone but the cult.
Frank resolved to lie low for a while & what better place to lie low then a cult that shunned any type of outside presence?
The only thing Frank had to worry about was "Mary," if that really was her name. He had heard that Mary had left the cult compound earlier & had not returned. In actuality, Mary's departure was more of a blessing then anything else; He could use the departure of his "girlfriend" to get in closer with Kayla. What better way to start a relationship then to gain the sympathy of having been "dumped"?
As Frank followed the rope line to Kayla's hut, he began to think of his upwardly-mobile prospects.
If he could set up a halfway decent scam at the cult, Frank would be sitting pretty & invisible while all of the ruckus on the outside world would be depreciating everyone else. Furthermore, he wouldn't have to cut anyone else in on his prospects, like two other former team members.
For the briefest of moments, Frank wondered if he would ever see his fellow teammates ever again. Probably not, he reasoned.
He would be correct.
Andy couldn't turn the campground into a prison... Even if he had wanted to. The campground had no real border & travelers could come & go as they pleased except for a few of the more common access routes.
The campground, though, was still abuzz in activity. Funerals were being planned for those who were killed. All hop lines near the campground were being taken down as a precaution. Guards were patrolling every square inch of the grounds, with some travelers volunteering for the patrols.
Andy had sent couriers to the priests & nearby settlements detailing what had occurred at the campground. He knew it would be important for them to have accurate, reliable information during a time of crisis. He didn't need inspired settlement patrols or self-righteous priests coming to the campground to impose their own version of what 'law & order' were supposed to represent. For all he knew, maybe Traveling Matt had been killed by the settlements or the priests.
It took Mary nearly four hours to finally talk with Andy face-to-face. Some guards knew who she was, others didn't. At one point, some guards thought that she might be a little too eager to get close to Andy & held her in a secluded room. Cooler heads prevailed, though & she was finally allowed to speak with Andy.
Of all the people to fill the shoes of Traveling Matt, Mary thought to herself as she contemplated a campground run by Andy. An eleven-year old boy was, on average, more responsible then Andy. Criminals often had more ethics then Andy although, admittedly, Andy was as far removed from the violent element that so often characterized criminals in general.
"Bottle Cap Andy" - The nickname was already beginning to circulate throughout the campground.
Mary & Andy's conversation was brief. She told him that the prisoner was hiding out at the cult but it wasn't his base of operations. Andy supplied Mary with the latest information on Traveling Matt's death & the destruction of the Mail Car. It was clear in Andy's voice that he was engrossed in other matters so the conversation ended there.
Mary came away from the conversation that Andy was taking the crisis seriously. Anyone, though, could grow a spine in desperate situations. The key was whether he would retain it when the decisions became more subjective & the costs of being seen as the campground's "leader" would be higher.
Neither Mary or Andy realized that a third party had overheard their brief conversation.
The Bat contemplated killing both Andy & Mary but he had other pressing concerns to deal with. Besides, he figured he would be able to return if he so desired it.
He would never know that it would be the last time he would step inside the campground again.
"A trap consists of only three things: Temptation, Opportunity & Predictability."
-- Quote, unknown origin.
The priest listened to Howard then spoke when he was done.
"Your allegations are elaborate," the priest began, "I presume that you have evidence to back up such allegations?"
"What if I told you that I know where Malcolm is buried... And I can draw the perpetrators towards his grave while spreading a falsehood throughout this settlement? Would you consider that as proof?" Howard asked.
"A falsehood?" the priest asked, puzzled.
"Only the perpetrators know where the true grave of Malcolm lies. Everyone else thinks that Malcolm could still be alive. With all of the recent activity, perhaps a rumor begins to spread that the grave of Malcolm has been discovered far away from here, with clear evidence indicating the perpetrators. Would the perpetrators not check the site of the actual grave, knowing where it is, to ensure that the falsehood is, indeed, nothing more then that?" Howard reasoned.
The priest thought for a moment.
"Guilt would not be determined by their action alone but it would rise to the level of suspicion," the priest reasoned.
"Regretfully," the priest admitted, "There is no fault in your argument that I can determine. It would truly be unfortunate if your theory proves to be correct but more unfortunate if the true perpetrators of strife remain unpunished."
"Would you like to visit the site in question?" Howard asked.
"We shall do so when the time is right," the priest replied, "I must have fellow witnesses with me when this incident occurs. I do not believe that my word may be sufficient should you prove to be correct."
The conversation ended soon thereafter, Howard leaving without incident.
The priest knew that there was a sincerity in the man's voice when he spoke, a sincerity not easily replicated by a trickster or instigator.
The priest knew, above all, that he would need guidance before he could proceed further. Quickly, he gathered his belongings. His trip would need to be fast if he were to take advantage of this opportunity.
Even the priest knew that a tripwire was of little use if the prey had already walked past it before it could be set up.
It had been a trap, a trap that Salvare would have walked right into had Angela not spotted it.
The ambushers had heard Angela's voice but, by the time the ambushers had run over to where Salvare & Angela had been standing, the two were already deep into the forest. Salvare could hear the angry & obscene-laden tirades of the ambushers off in the distance as they tried desperately to find their prey.
"We know your kind blew up the Mail Car!" Salvare could hear one of them shout, "We'll find you!"
Salvare & Angela walked deeper into the woods until they could no longer hear the ambushers.
"Why do they hate us?" Angela asked.
"There are people who judge other people based upon where they come from or what they do for a living," Salvare explained, "They don't understand that you're supposed to judge a person on who they are."
Salvare & Angela waited for a while in the woods. Angela described to Salvare the trees, the rocks & all of the other local surroundings. Salvare tried to imagine what Angela was looking at but he knew that he couldn't. Color was an abstract concept to him & always would be.
"Salvare, there's a man over there," Angela stated, again ignoring that Salvare would never be able to see the direction she was pointing in.
"On the metal road?" Salvare asked, concerned.
"In the forest, walking," Angela replied.
"Do you see a hop line?" Salvare asked, "Is he following a hop line?"
"I don't know," Angela said, "I'll go find out."
Before Salvare could even reply, he could hear footsteps running away from him.
"Angela!" Salvare replied, "Angela! Please wait!"
Angela rushed towards the man &, as she did so, could hear the faint hint of chimes off in the distance.
"I'm telling you," Sam stated, "It was Malcolm who did all this! I heard it from three travelers walking to this very settlement! They caught him & now he's being interrogated by the priests. Word has it that there are others behind all this as well."
Sam had injected himself into as many conversations as he could, reciting the same story with slight variations.
Elsewhere, Harold was spreading the same story.
Malcolm had been caught.
Malcolm had confessed to doing everything.
Malcolm swore that others were also in on the plot.
Most importantly of all, though - Malcolm had proof of co-conspirators. Malcolm had evidence.
Sam had caught up to some travelers just entering the settlement & had them agree to spread the story.
Between the two of them, they made certain that everyone in the settlement knew the rumor. The other travelers would soon spread it to other settlements. Soon, other travelers would spread the rumor even further.
Sam & Howard's plan wasn't for the rumor to become fact but that is what it soon became for reasons that far exceeded their comprehension.
The metal road civilization needed a villain, a personification for all of their recent grief & misery. They had found that personification in Malcolm. It didn't matter that Malcolm had long since died. It didn't matter that Malcolm's name was being used for the unfair convenience of other parties.
All that mattered was that two people in particular would take notice of the rumor... And they did.
The metal road was both deserted & crowded at the same time.
The metal road was deserted of travelers, seeking refuge at the campground, inside settlements or even making camps just off of the metal road using hop lines.
The metal road was crowded with bands of marauding patrols from settlements eager to lay blame of society's ills onto the travelers.
The Bat had little problem moving along the road, deftly defying no less then four such patrols as they scoured the metal road & the nearby forest bordering it.
"Road's no place for a traveler!" One patroller yelled out, adding, "You best just hide in the forest for now. If we can't find ya, we can't beat on ya!"
The Bat was half-tempted to take advantage of the patrols' amateur searches. It would have been easy to have killed a few of the patrollers as they wandered away from their packs, swiping at nearby vegetation with poles & sticks to see if they could intimidate scared travelers out of hiding.
The Bat, though, had a job to perform & he had a personal rule against "free" kills that did not advance completion of his jobs.
As he continued to walk towards the cult where one of The Three Blind Mice was hiding, he began to think of how he might attempt to find the third & final member of the gang.
The Bat also thought about how he could take advantage of the events that had unfolded recently. People enjoyed taking revenge upon others & The Bat envisioned that several offers to kill travelers & aggressive patrollers would begin to filter in. The Bat smiled as he realized that, in good times or bad, he was never without work.
Salvare could hear Angela running further away from him in the distance.
"Angela!" Salvare yelled out.
A dry, brittle & dead branch swatted Salvare right in the mouth as he attempted to close the distance between himself & Angela. Having no time to be reminded of what dead twigs tasted like, he pressed forward.
Unlike Angela, Salvare had to rely only on sound - The faster he ran, the louder the leaves crunched underneath his feet, the louder the twigs snapped as he bulldozed through them & the less he could hear of Angela running.
Salvare stopped for a moment, his ears ringing while listening to the sound of catching his own breath.
Nothing. No sound.
"Hey!" Angela said in the distance, "Stop!"
"Angela!" Salvare yelled, turning his head towards the direction of Angela's distant voice.
As Salvare ran towards the direction of Angela's voice, he wondered what would compel her to be so brash so suddenly. What had she seen to cause her to be so reckless?
"Hey!" Angela demanded, not knowing how whiny her youthful voice actually was, "Stop!"
"You're lost!" Angela tried to reason, the whine in her voice increasing, "We can help you find the metal road again! Stop!"
Suddenly, the man stopped & stood still. Slowly, he turned around towards Angela.
He looked directly into Angela's eyes & smiled.
"You're a special little girl," the man said calmly, "Your Daddy must be very proud."
Angela, stunned, said nothing in response.
"Read this to your Daddy," the man said, handing a large, folding piece of paper to Angela. Angela, numb, let the piece of paper fall from her hand. The man picked the piece of paper back up & stuffed it down the back of her shirt.
Angela never remembered the man leaving but did hear Salvare walk up behind her.
"You shouldn't be here," Alexander stressed, although his voice was as calm as though he were relaying the day's weather.
"It's all over the settlement... Probably beyond," Benjamin stated, "In a day or two, the entire..."
"The entire... metal road?" Alexander politely interrupted, "Will know what? Will know of a rumor with no evidence. Will know of several variants of a rumor... With no evidence."
"Men will also swing at sounds if they are frightened by them," Benjamin replied, "Regardless of whether they know if the sound is made with ill intent or not."
"The masses will celebrate more then anything else," Alexander bitterly admitted, "Their mail car destroyed, the heretics at the campground attacked... And still, they will celebrate all because of a rumor that supposedly answers their misery."
"We must address the rumor," Benjamin stressed, "At the least, we must be prepared in case this rumor... Develops unfortunately."
"How?" Alexander asked simply, "How do we draw attention to ourselves in order to make ourselves inaudible?"
"Should we not, at least, purge the last remains of actual evidence in the event, however rare, that this rumor persists?" Benjamin asked.
Alexander thought for a moment, then replied, "Absolutely. Under cover of gossip, no one shall notice if we are absent to perform other duties."
"Then let us begin," Benjamin said with a sigh of relief, "The sooner the burden is lifted, the better."
"Of course," Alexander agreed, "All burdens, eventually, should be disposed of
"I'm looking for Bent Road settlement," The Bat said, imitating an older man's voice, "A friend is waiting for me there."
"I'm sorry, sir," the chimesman replied softly, "But this is not that settlement."
"Oh," The Bat replied, remaining in character, "Would you tell me what this settlement is, then?"
"We are a religious establishment, sir," the chimesman replied, "We believe in following the pure intent of The Punishment of Man. Perhaps you have heard of The Four Books?"
"No," The Bat sheepishly answered, trying to sound both modest & interested at the same time, "I wasn't aware of them. They sound mighty intriguing, though. I suppose it wouldn't do any harm to hear more. You say you follow The Punishment of Man differently?"
Fanatics - The weakest form of Man that God had ever created. The Bat respected fanatics as much as he respected dead branches lying on the ground. If you had met one fanatic, you had met them all - Give them an ear & you'll hear a recording of their master's theology. They had willfully given up their free will to be led around by a charismatic leader who did all their thinking for them.
The Bat listened to the sales pitch for the cult's philosophy with an empty disinterest. All splinter religious groups thought that they could adhere to The Punishment of Man better then anyone else could. 'Follow us,' their sales pitch began, 'And we can save the world even better then the others. You don't want to be the last in line, do you? Don't you want to be the first that God saves... If God saves anyone at all, it will be us.'
It was easy to convince the chimesman that The Bat was serious in his intent to learn more. Fanatics, normal people otherwise, became fools when dealing with their beloved topic.
Without so much as a hint of suspicion, The Bat had set foot onto the cult's property. Being guided to the series of dwellings for new arrivals, all he needed to do was to find the one they called... Frank.
She claimed that the man could see her, that he had looked directly into her eyes. Salvare knew enough not to question it, although he wanted to politely call her bluff by making her read what the man had given to her.
"It's OK," Salvare said calmly, seated beside Angela, "Just read off each letter & I will tell you how the word should sound."
"OK," Angela replied, starting, "Y-O-U."
"You," Salvare replied.
"C-A-N," Angela stated.
"Can," Salvare replied.
"R-E-A-D," Angela continued.
"Read," Salvare replied.
They continued in this fashion, until Angela was finished reading all of the letters.
"If you can read this, travel to here," Salvare recited, partially to himseld but loud enough for Angela to hear it.
"Angela," Salvare asked, "Are there any more words on the paper?"
"No," Angela replied.
"Is there anything else on the paper at all?" Salvare asked.
"Just a picture," Angela replied.
"Would you please describe what the picture looks like?" Salvare asked.
"Some faces," Angela replied.
"Faces of... people? Real people?" Salvare asked.
"No," Angela replied, "Pretend faces."
"Pretend faces?" Salvare asked, "Are they made out of something? Drawn?"
"No," Angela replied, "The faces are in a mountain."
"In a mountain?" Salvare asked, "Are they boy faces? Girl faces? Faces of women...?"
"They're man faces," Angela replied, "They're not happy, either. They aren't smiling."
"How many faces are in the mountain, Angela?" Salvare asked.
"Four," Angela replied.
They waited in a lightly wooded area that smelled slightly like stale urine.
They waited under a sun that baked all what its rays hit & cooked what its rays couldn't.
The noise was kept to a minimum; Breaths were silenced, movements were stopped.
Six bodies, all laying in wait for a prey to arrive.
In the distant background, idle chatter from other people dotted the soundscape. Branches swayed, leaves fluttered.
Sam & Howard waited with the others, all silent.
What would happen? Would anything happen? What would happen if nothing happened at all? How long... How long before the others would become impatient? How long before Howard himself would become impatient?
Not a word, not a peep from any of the six as they continued to wait for the trap to be sprung. Four priests waiting with Sam & Howard, witnesses so that the allegations that Howard had made would be validated.
Suddenly... Footsteps approached.
The Bat was not belligerent; He allowed various members of the cult to talk to him about aspects of their belief.
The drivel that poured out of the orifices of the cult members was unimportant to The Bat. Every member simply regurgitated the same drivel over & over again. Man was doomed to extinction from God unless he followed The Punishment of Man. Only we could truly follow The Punishment of Man. We'll be saved & they won't. That Bat listened to no less then fifteen iterations of that argument.
Finally, there was a break in the brainwashing. The Bat was free to walk around the grounds to talk to other initiates about the experiences so far with the cult.
An older woman named Deidre said it was liberating to be away from all of the strife & violence that had besieged the rest of the metal road civilization.
Carl, practically a teenager, confessed that there wasn't "much action" here.
Simon aspired to become an occupant of the cave, where only the most observant of The Four Books' teachings resided.
On & on, each person was no more interesting then the last. Each was more brainwashed then the one before, each one so very convinced that they had finally found the culture of which to thrive in.
"Hi," a man said, shaking The Bat's hand, "I'm Frank."
"Frank," The Bat said pleasantly, "It's a pleasure to meet you... At last."
Four faces set into a mountain but no name. That was how Angela described the picture.
There were no mountains, obviously, anywhere near the metal road civilization. Salvare didn't even know where the nearest mountain could even be.
Salvare knew, deep in his heart, that Angela deserved to be with her own kind. She would need to be surrounded by people who wouldn't treat her as a freak or a threat to their culture.
A slight tremble formed in Salvare's hands as he contemplated, seriously for the first time, leaving the metal road civilization. It had been his home. His civilization.
For all he knew, the world beyond the comfort of the metal road would be ruthlessly unforgiving. Was there even a world at all? Perhaps the rest of the world had simply gone to rot? A shattered, cratered apocalypse of its former self?
"How are we going to find this?" Angela asked, a slight whine in her voice.
Salvare thought for a moment. He knew he would have to do it, to go into "Elsewhere." That bold realization caused the tremble in his hands to stop.
"I don't know," Salvare said confidently, "But I can tell you that we're going to find it. It's going to be like a camping trip, though. Have you ever been on a camping trip before, Angela?"
"No," Angela answered.
"Well," Salvare replied, "We're about to go on one. A real big one. Before we go on the camping trip, though, we're going to need to find out where those faces in the mountain actually are... And I think I know someone who can help us out with that."
"Who?" Angela asked.
"First," Salvare stated, "We need to find our way back to the metal road. Angela, could you help me find the way back to the metal road, please?"
"OK," Angela answered enthusiastically.
And in the distance, someone watched them walk away...
The voices were unmistakable; Howard fought hard to remain perfectly still as he heard the conversation emerge from the fog of silence.
"Two trees to the left," Alexander muttered to himself, following his own instructions, "Large branch... Large branch... Gap..."
Howard listened as Alexander, followed by Benjamin, drew closer to the site of the grave.
"Rock pile," Alexander said, his voice tinged with a sense of relief.
"Rock pile," Benjamin uttered as well.
Suddenly, the priests, Howard & Sam, all ambushers alike, heard the sound of metal hitting flesh. The sounds of a fierce & desperate struggle filled the air. As one, the ambushers sprang from their hiding places. Pandemonium arose as no one could distinguish friend from foe for the briefest of moments. The sounds of exasperated moans, shrieks of pain, clothes scraping against the ground, the trees... The flailing of arms & legs to hit anything flesh... And then...
The sounds of exhausted breaths.
Then, finally, the sounds of voices.
"Sam, are you OK?" Howard called out.
"Sam?" Howard repeated.
"Yeah," Sam replied, "I'm OK. Banged up my elbow."
The priests were relatively unharmed, save a few scratches on their faces. A few superficial bruises on their arms & legs were the result of unaimed flailings of limbs from both friend & foe alike.
Quickly, both Benjamin & Alexander were gagged & tied up. Howard actually felt himself feel the slightest pang of pity when he heard Alexander moan, "Let me go," just before the gag was slipped on.
One of the priests ushered over Sam & Howard as the sounds of the priests, with their captives, diminished back into the silence.
"I can assure you," the priest said nervously, "That you have performed an invaluable service today. Your services, though, are no longer required."
There was a pregnant, awkward pause, one so long that Howard almost spoke but was interrupted by the priest.
"I find myself tasked with a difficult message to convey but no eloquent way of conveying it. Forgive me," the priest said, adding, "The priests here today agreed that we should let you live for your service. I'm afraid that there are others above us who disagree."
"What are you saying?" Howard asked cautiously.
"What I am recommending strongly," the priest replied, his voice trembling, "Is that we broker a deal... One in which you voluntarily banish yourself from all traces of our civilization in exchange for us to say, when we get back that we have... killed you in compliance with our orders."
"You were supposed to kill us?" Sam asked, incredulously.
"I do not agree with that philosophy," the priest quickly defended, "But I have my orders. What is death, though, but the absence of existence & if you no longer exist where you are expected to be absent... Well, then... Is that not the same as death?"
"And if we don't banish ourselves?" Howard asked.
"I would really recommend that you reconsider," the priest replied, "For all of our sakes, if you wouldn't mind. All of us, after all, are in a way, disobeying a direct order from our superiors. If we are found to be disobedient..."
"You would die," Sam replied sadly.
"Yes," the priest agreed, "Most painfully."
"How much time do we have?" Howard asked, almost wistfully as the realization of banishment from the metal road civilization began to sink in.
"A few days, to be certain," the priest stated, "Of course, if you hid well enough..."
"Hide?" Sam asked, the indignity not even being veiled in his voice, "Hide in our own land? For helping you solve this whole thing?!"
"Ask yourselves," the priest replied, "What the consequences would be if people found out the truth? Ask yourselves if it is truly worth the additional hardship that would ensue?"
Howard asked himself that same question &, oddly, could not find the answer he desired the most. Neither, for that matter, could Sam.
"You seem to be a very perceptive man, Frank," The Bat had quietly told Frank off to the side moments earlier, "Is there a place where we can speak in private?"
The Bat had no desire to prolong the deception any further then it had to. The sooner that Frank was killed, the better.
The meeting place was behind a small storage shed, a rickety metal contraption prone more to its own faulty construction then to any force of nature to knock it down.
Frank never realized what had happened. The blade was sharp & fast. Frank tried to gurgle out a scream but all that emerged was a wet-sounding cough followed by an elongated wheeze that rose in pitch but not volume until, like a deflating balloon, there was only silence left.
The Bat dragged the corpse a few yards away from the building. The smell would give away its location but The Bat would be long gone by then. All that would be known was that an older man was the prime suspect, a charge that The Bat could easily avoid by simply disappearing back onto the metal road... Which he did.
As The Bat walked back onto the metal road, the world he had lived in... The world he had relied upon... The only world he had ever known... Was about to change irrevocably.
The insular nature of the metal road was about to be punctured...
The very beginnings of a civil war had taken root...
And the land simply known up until now as "Elsewhere," the land beyond the metal road, was about to get a formal name...
As The Bat walked down the metal road, he didn't realize that the golden age of the metal road had started its final descent. The halcyon days of priests keeping order, of settlements practicing virtual self-rule, of the campground housing those transients not content with living in one place was at an end.
What would emerge from the chaotic upheaval to come would be so starkly different from what was the cultural norms that it would be labeled by most to be "science fiction."
Others, though, would only consider it as "horror."
Gone was The New Darkness, replaced by The Edge of Twilight.
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