After a long look at the horizon, Foster turned away from the deserted scene. Jones stood by seeing that the older man was ruminating over something and he was loathe to break in.
Finally, Foster said, "You know, I'm not superstitious but it almost seems too coincidental that so many factors culminated simultaneously to create the mess we're in. From here it is easy to see why so many people believed in conspiracy theories. But what was weird was that so many of the religious people believed in the human conspiracies when their own beliefs would have supplied an ample villain -- if I read my demonology texts right -- to have the same effect without the need for huge and improbable clandestine organizations. I mean, who needs an Illuminati or Council on Foreign Relations when you have a devil, millions of demons, and masses of mankind in their camp?"
"That's one of the things that made the religious people less credible, they panicked into wild speculation instead of doing their homework," Jones answered. "That was how the Christians became isolated from society. From there it was easier to control them. By the time I was in college, they were so unliked that it was simple to round up outspoken religious people, declare them neurotic or psychotic, and send them for treatment. People were able to neatly disguise their hatred of them with a veneer of 'compassion' by placing them in state-paid therapy."
A wind stirred the sparse vegetation around them.
"It's unfortunate that they tended to respond the way they did -- that is, without solid facts," said Foster. "Because, now that I have gotten to know some Christians and what the Bible actually says, a lot of it makes sense and much of it is actually appealing. But that's not the view I had before. I didn't know any Christians and my opinion of them was shaped by a few of the more sensational ones. From that old perspective, I would never have suspected that Christians would be saving books rather than burning them. A project like this would have been impossible for me to imagine."
"Well, I find Christianity more than appealing," Jones added sincerely.
"I'm aware of your conversion, Jones, and you know I respect that, but I'm still not sure I can buy some of the 'only one way' and 'through the blood of Jesus' stuff yet.
"Anyway, I was saying, I always thought of Christians as anti-books and anti-learning. I say 'I thought' because I knew differently. I remember a lot of the attempts of so-called book-banning. We -- that is to say, us media folk -- all knew that the issue in most cases was whether or not certain books were 'age appropriate' or if they were blatantly offensive to religious beliefs. But we deliberately played the angle that these people were censors when we ourselves were censoring their true objections. Most news people have an inordinate fear of censorship -- or whatever was currently being called censorship -- and we went out of our way to make sure such movements were quashed. The trouble here was that many of the more thoughtful Christian leaders often remained silent in public about such issues leaving the field to those whom we could easily type-cast and mock."
Jones looked at the former-journalist. He could see the anger and self-loathing well up from within. Normally, Foster maintained a journalistic detachment but from time to time his bitterness over his own complicity rose to the surface. Jones said nothing. He knew that in the end, this would not be resolved by human words.
"Eventually, our self-censorship became official policy," the writer muttered.
"In the name of free speech, we destroyed free speech," Foster intoned.
Jones remained silent still. The motionless morning air had begun to warm and the direct sunlight bleached the color from the rocks with its glare. A black bird soared high overhead in an apparent search for some unwary meal. It reminded Foster of the vulture of barbarism that was riding down its last, few, slow circles over the dying corpse of Western civilization. The despair of that thought was overwhelming.
"Is there anything to preserve us?" he asked the desert air.
Jones waited another eternal minute before saying anything.
"Foster, we're working on that here. Just like the Christians at the beginning of the first Dark Ages, we are preserving our heritage in vaults out here."
"But even Christianity won't survive what we're looking at will it?"
"Sure it will, Foster. Civilizations operate better with learning at high levels but basic Christianity only needs love -- God's kind of love toward God and our neighbor. Education is not necessary for someone to love. Knowledge can be a tool to facilitate love -- medical knowledge, for instance, can help us to love the sick in more ways, but caring for the sick can happen in the absence of that knowledge, too."
"But you at least need the knowledge to read your Bibles, don't you?" Foster asked.
"I'm sure it is better that way but there have been times when literacy among Christians was low and that overshadowed by their great charity. Other times, Christian learning was great but their service to God and man was niggardly. Knowledge -- improperly placed in priority -- simply makes man proud. It is love that builds up -- builds up God, truth, other people, and civilizations. In losing learning, we lose a great treasure that helps us to serve God better, but we do not lose God Himself."
"I wish I could believe that," Foster said. Without another word, he turned and wandered down toward the entrance to the caverns.
Jones had seen the black mood hit Foster before, he prayed it would pass soon. He looked to the floor of the valley. There, the black bird picked at some newly-dead meal.
"Let's call this meeting to order," the Old Man said over the murmur of his advisors. "We've had some time to think over the questions we raised last time and these important matters must be attended to."
After a prayer, the floor was opened.
"I've been thinking of this quite a bit," said Tomas Varga, a middle-aged computer technician. "We're attempting a quiet revolution here. The old 'patriot' networks lacked the strength of numbers -- or of will -- to revolt when it was still possible. Now we are waiting for the world outside to crumble of its own decaying weight. It could be soon or late, but we hope to be part of what rises from the ashes. I say, if we cannot exercise a constitutional government now, we'll never get to it once the old system collapses. Once power is centralized, it is rarely decentralized. Human nature is just too corrupt."
Varga, all of that dense 5 foot 3 inches of him stood looking at the rest of the group waiting for an answer.
Slowly, Chuck Beeson arose.
Varga surrendered the floor by sitting down.
Chuck cleared his throat, a constant habit even when he was not about to speak. He touched his upper lip with his tongue and began.
"Not sure I really agree, Tomas," he drawled. "We're facing real dangers if the civvies find us. We are on a wartime footing, I think, and we need to be more careful of the civvies finding us than of individual rights.
"Not much help having rights if the outside world crashes in on us. Take Mr. Sears, for instance. We let him wander around because we can't 'prove' he's a civvie agent in a legal way, he might take off. If he is an agent, then we're in deep . . . well, you know.
"I think we need a more top-down government until the community is better established, at least."
The appearance of Sears had generated the debate and, listening carefully, there was always a hint of his presence in every argument.
"But how do we know when this 'emergency' is over? Who decides? And what do we go to then?" Varga called out raising his hand. "I mean, we don't have any real threats right now -- though we will have to decide how to deal with Sears."
"That's just the point," said a new voice, Margaret Wilcox.
Margaret was a trim, 43-year-old widow and mother of three teenagers. Her specialty was proofreading, copy-editing, and layout for books and magazines. "Sears represents a threat precisely because we don't know what to do with him. If we go with the old Bill of Rights or something like it, we have to cut him loose -- now! If not, then what? A dictator? A king? And, still, under what rule of law do we hold Sears? Can we have one set of rules for us and another for him?"
There was a pause. The Old Man arose. He had sat in the darkest corner while the debate proceeded and had almost been forgotten.
"The Bible says that Israel was not to have one law for themselves and another for the stranger, so I cannot accept a division of law such as Mrs. Wilcox describes," he said. "But let me remind you that even a constitutional government has built in emergency clauses. It can be drafted so that certain rights are temporarily suspended by executive order and that those orders are reviewed periodically and either extended or ended."
Beeson rose again.
"He's got a point -- but I think the Bible may give us more of a pattern than we first thought," he said. "This situation we are in is not unique. It is much like the children of Israel being led through the wilderness -- only our wilderness is time instead of space. Moses was an unelected leader -- at least until he died -- but his power was checked by elected judges over tens, hundreds, and thousands. A person with a problem could appeal all the way up the line, but during the emergency, as it were, Moses had final stay -- again, until he died.
"We could set up a similar situation with the Old Man as emergency leader and a constitutional election of the top leader that would kick in upon his death -- meaning no disrespect."
The Old Man nodded and said, "None taken."
The discussion ranged for hours. Finally, there was a consensus that the Old Man would be what they laughingly called "emperor of the Hive for life."
The community would be divided into groups of ten "families" as defined by living quarters -- singles with living quarters, like Foster, would also be a "family." Adults in these groups would elect a representative for a House of Representatives and a judge. Ten representatives and ten judges would then elect a Senator and an appeals judge. Until his death, the Old Man would act as both President and supreme judge. After his death, presidents would be elected and a Supreme Court of at least three would be impaneled.
A temporary constitution would be drawn up to detail the process and, once elections had taken place, the Senate and House would set about to ratify all or parts of the constitution.
A temporary emergency would be declared to last until the Old Man dissolved it or his death. Emergency powers would include treating unknown outsiders as potential spies and either imprisoning them or keeping them on a close leash. A security force would be established and proven spies would be executed under military law.
It left a bad taste in their mouths, but they could think of no other solution. As for Sears, they determined that they could keep him locked up until Varga and some of his electronic gizmo buddies could come up with a suitable surveillance device.
The Old Man walked slowly into The Chapel. There was no lamp inside but he knew Foster would be there. Foster had become depressed since his discussion with Jones and had spent the following days moping in the darkest corners of the community's structure. The Chapel was one of the darkest.
"Foster?" the Old Man asked into the darkness. "Foster?" he ventured again.
"Over here, sir," the subdued voice of Foster replied from the ebony cavern.
"Foster, we must talk. I hear you are not feeling well -- that you are depressed. Our daily work inside the heart of the earth tends toward that, but I sense something else. Am I right?"
"As usual," Foster replied sounding resigned.
"Will you tell me about it?" the Old Man asked.
There was silence for a long moment. The Old Man knew that Foster was not refusing to answer but taking time to collect his thoughts.
"I guess I started feeling responsible for some of this mess because of my position as a journalist. I had deliberately helped to publicly trash some people because it was the popular route at the time. But it wasn't until I thought about it some more that my willingness to go along made me even culpable in my wife, Mara's death. Before, I had always blamed 'the system' for it. But now I can see how I contributed to that 'system.'"
"How do you mean?" the Old Man asked.
Foster's voice sobbed forth from the darkness. "She was killed with nice words."
The Old Man was quiet after hearing Foster's tale. The dark cavern waited in respect. Finally, Foster again violated the silence.
"That's what I couldn't let them see -- that I was angry with the way the system simply decided when someone was better off dead and ceased treating them. I had always bought the idea that medical resources were limited and it ought to be rationed -- especially UniMed, the government stuff that most people are covered by. I guess I never realized what it all meant until they stamped Mara's card with the words, 'Limited -- Blue' -- a derivative of the old 'Code Blue' in hospitals where a person was not to be resuscitated. Only this branded her anywhere and everywhere, even if she paid her own way. The UniMed card had to be produced to receive any kind of medical care at all and the inscription may as well have been 'nigger' for all the attention she got. The limitations of her care were basically for pain-killers -- nothing else could legally be done for her. She wasted away quickly.
"I couldn't let Trask know about that or I would have been on permanent treatment, so I faked going along with therapy while I tried to cook up something else."
"That's when you started looking at disappearing?" the Old Man asked.
"Yeah, I remembered reading about some loony religious cults that were trying to become self-sufficient. At first I had assumed they were hiding out from Armageddon, but I figured I would try to find out more about them."
Two men had entered Sears' room early in the morning and clasped a device around his ankle. It appeared to be a cross between metal and white plastic, tubular, about a three-eighths diameter, and joined as two halves in some unseen fashion. It was somewhat flexible and, though not tight, too close to the skin to have any hope of removing it.It was nothing like anything he'd ever seen.
What have these damn commies come up with now? he wondered. No doubt some new, top-secret material. Our guys probably invented this stuff but, before you know it, the commies'll be taking credit for it.
Sears studied it for a long time before the Old Man entered and told him the news.
"We cannot ascertain who -- or what -- you are, Mr. Sears, but since our work here requires the utmost in secrecy, I'm afraid we cannot trust you to run free on the chance that you might reveal us to others," he said. "But we cannot simply, without other facts, assume you are an enemy. So we have elected to offer you a place here until your memory returns and we can check you out. Until then, that device will remain around your ankle. It is a remote transceiver -- that is, we have a transmitter that sends out a signal every five minutes and that device, if it is within a mile of our hills here, will hear it and return a signal. But your little anklet is smarter than just a responder. If it does not receive a signal for, say ten minutes, a small amount of a very stable explosive contained in it goes off and probably blows your foot off. From there, you would probably bleed to death quickly, but, even if you didn't, you wouldn't be going very far."
Well, there it is, thought Sears. Their work requires the "utmost secrecy." I knew they were commies.
"I don't understand, sir," Sears said in his best confused and apologetic voice. "You mean I'm to be some kind of prisoner here?"
The Old Man looked troubled but resolute. "I suppose you'd have to call it that. No matter how much of a 'leash' we give you, so to speak, you are still not free. Unfortunately, we have no choice. I will assign someone to show you your quarters and to show you around -- including what is off limits to you. He'll be by tomorrow morning. After that, you'll be as free as we can afford to make you. Okay?"
"Well, if you don't mind my saying so, sir, it's not really okay, but it seems I have no choice."
"Stoic," the Old Man said. "I suppose that's the best attitude under the circumstances. But, please, once you get to know your way around, come and see me and we'll see if we can't make the situation more bearable."
"Okay, sir," Sears said. And we'll see if there isn't some way I can get enough information to get your commie butt thrown in jail.
Go To Chapter Five