The pen in Foster's hand scrawled over the piece of paper. Text seemed to flow from his mind unabated as he carried sentence after sentence nearly without a pause. It was one of those days where he could put out page after page for hours on end. Foster felt a great satisfaction at these times, but still, when he thought about it, there seemed to be little sense to his endeavor.
Who, for instance, he would wonder, will ever read this?
But he did not wonder such things when the words rolled out of his mind and on to the page as they did this day.
Foster had just finished writing when the Old Man came tapping at his door.
"Come in," Foster called.
The Old Man entered and carefully shut the door behind. "How are you feeling these days?" he asked.
"A bit better, I suppose," he answered tentatively. "I've been thinking a lot lately, though."
"About?" the Old Man ventured.
"Well, about some -- for lack of a better term -- ultimate questions. I'm a little reluctant to put them to you, though, because I'm pretty sure of what you might answer -- given your religious beliefs and all."
"Suppose you just tell me what you are thinking and risk getting a religious answer. After all, if a religious answer is the only one that fits, it might be worth investigating, huh?"
Foster looked unsure for a moment, then shrugged and proceeded. "Well, suppose we assume -- as I do -- that either there is no God or He has no particular interest in human affairs. This belief leaves us on our own for everything, doesn't it? This may seem rather basic to you but I am beginning to see problems for analyzing our culture in some chapters I have yet to write unless I consider the ramifications of these beliefs. What is difficult for me is to see how my belief truly affects my world. I have some ideas but I'm not sure of their accuracy or completeness -- and, even at that, I'm not sure I like the conclusions I'm seeing. I mean, I have a sense of morality and I feel that man has some purpose or goal to strive for, but my basic beliefs give me no foundation for either morality or purpose. If, for instance, I am the accidental product of a Big Bang, a primal soup, and a series of chance mutations, the only purpose would be to survive by whatever means. That undermines any concepts of morality or higher purpose. Do you see my dilemma?"
The Old Man's expression did not change. "I think so. Are you saying that your foundational assumptions do not support your concept of morality?"
"That's the way it looks right now. I haven't thought it completely through but at the moment I haven't discovered a way to maintain even standard 'givens' like equality of rights and freedom from oppression. I've never really thought about this until recently when I heard someone else argue the point -- there must be something I'm missing. There's got to be."
The Old Man shrugged. "Maybe there isn't. I always find it interesting to ask where man would 'evolve' a sense of morality in the first place. I can see that he might, out of necessity, evolve a legal system, but not an innate sense of right and wrong -- especially one that has so many similarities throughout the world. It is only in various 'civilized' times -- especially today -- that we find people who have no concept of right and wrong. We call them sociopaths, but maybe they are simply the next stage of evolution, huh?"
"You have a point. A scary point," Foster answered leaning back in his chair until it touched the wall. "What does the next stage of evolution look like? I'm sure that we won't like the look of it any more than Neanderthal man liked Cro-Magnon. And I see your point about evolving a legal system. It would be like any other adaptation, a tool for survival like agricultural knowledge. But a moral sense? What kind of adaptation would that be?
"I also see what else you are driving at. If a moral sense would be hard to explain as an evolutionary adaptation, where would the instinctive belief in the supernatural come in? Good questions. And ones I will have to study before I get on with some parts of this book. It wouldn't be complete without a look at the cultural mores."
Foster picked up his pipe and began to load it with a plug of tobacco. The Old Man watched him work at lighting the moist, brown weed.
"You know," said Foster, "maybe you could recommend some reading for me on this. I can put those chapters on hold for now and work on other parts that I am more settled about."
The Old Man asked, "Have you ever read Abandon All Hope?"
"Abandon All Hope? No," he said puffing at his pipe to keep it going. "I remember hearing about it. Wasn't it that a jeremiad by some would-be modern-day prophet?"
"Right," the Old Man nodded.
"I heard it was a lengthy tome pointing out many ills of American culture and predicting disasters for the U.S. as a result. The guy -- I can't remember his name -- who wrote it had a bad time getting it published but finally got 10,000 copies out from some small press in Oklahoma or someplace like that. I seem to recall that there was a call for a second -- and much larger -- printing but someone got an injunction against its distribution because it was a violation of some state hate crime laws. It was supposed to be anti-Jewish, anti-woman, and anti-gay. The author disappeared. Some of his supporters said it was a kidnap by the government. Others said that God had taken him to heaven. Some say he changed his identity and finally died as a street-person in New York."
"You are correct about it being quashed," the Old Man said. "But the original books were passed around and copied by a select group of people despite the U.S. Marshal's court orders to round them up. I wouldn't want to color your thinking about the content, but I have a copy if you would be interested in reading it. I think you might be intrigued in his analysis of America and the outcome of his predictions."
"I would like to read it," Foster answered. "I remember how upset I was hearing about the injunction and the Marshal's orders but there was not much I could do about it. A few of the newspaper's editors published opinions against it -- primarily because they thought that such a ruling would eventually affect their First Amendment rights. It was bald-faced censorship but the message of Abandon All Hope was unpopular enough that the civil libertarians would not defend it."
"I'll send someone by this morning with a copy for you, Foster," the Old Man said. "When you finish, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts about it."
"Sounds good to me," Foster replied while trying to re-light the endlessly dying bowlful of tobacco. "Can't afford to waste this stuff," he added.
The Old Man smiled, nodded, and left the room.
"We must have more than the minimum of security we have had up to this point," the Old Man said steadily looking into the eyes of Martin Jackson, Major, U.S. Army, retired.
The old soldier had helped set up a basic perimeter watch and selected a small handful of men to handle "security" needs within the community. Now the Old Man was virtually asking him to set up an army.
"It's not like we don't have the weapons. And it's not like we don't have real enemies," the Old Man emphasized.
"Yes," answered the Major. He was most often called Major Marty, or just Marty to others. He was near the end of his fifth decade when he had left the military -- and civilization -- in disgust. He had tried to just hide out in the mountains living out the rest of his days, but it was not possible. The cancer was even out there.
Illegally, through some survivalist contacts, he had obtained a cache of weapons. The Second Amendment had long been relegated to a vestigial appendage.
"I don't know how you acquired the guns. Many are really out of date but entirely serviceable. I think I can set up a Swiss system -- you know, a percentage of the men are always armed with military gear even while working and they become our rapid response while others go arm up. Does that sound okay to you?"
"In fact, it does, Major," The Old Man replied. "The council has discussed that model and seems to favor it. Once you come up with a plan, let me know and I'll call a meeting. Of course, it will have to be approved again once we have our elected representatives in a couple of months."
"Right," the soldier said. He stood, stretching his 6 foot frame, brushed back his cropped haircut as if he had long locks. "I'll get right on it. Do you have an inventory of the weapons and other gear available?"
The Old Man was now turned back to his desk sorting through some papers. "Yes, I'll have it sent over to you today," he answered as he continued to burrow through the paper pile.The Major briskly left the office.
"Mr. Foster?" the small voice of Lizard came from behind. Foster turned to see the small strawberry-blonde head poked through his door.
"Come in, Lizard. What can I do for you?"
"I was reading about different kinds of jobs people have in my reader -- and, well -- I was wondering about writing. My mom said I could do a report on whatever kind of job I wanted -- and I decided on writing."
"Well, sit down and tell me what you need to know."
Lizard was a bright young man. His academic level was several years beyond his chronology.
"Mom says you used to write for a newspaper," he started. Foster nodded and Lizard continued, "What did you do? I mean, who decides what to write about? How do you find so many stories to fill all those pages?"
"Hold it. Let's take one at a time," Foster answered.
Is this what it's like to have a son? he asked himself.
"First, the assignment editor decides what stories are covered. He picks them from several sources. Press releases -- which are announcements from people and groups who plan events that they think are news, from the wire -- stories sent from other cities and countries, or even police radio. He decides which reporters will be assigned to which stories. After the written stories come in, some editors decide which stories to print and which to toss out. After that, they are edited for length and laid out in pages to fit with the advertising that has been sold for that day's paper."
"Dad used to say that the newspapers weren't fair, though. How come?"
Foster felt the wound. "Newspaper writers are people -- people with their own ideas. They were supposed to not let their own ideas interfere with their writing, but it often did anyway. And editors could make different issues seem important or unimportant by the stories they printed or threw out."
"How do you become a writer?" Lizard interjected as though he were finished with that particular end of the topic.
"You have to do well on your English, for one," Foster said noting the frowning reaction of Lizard. "It helps to do a lot of reading -- and sometimes on subjects that are not your particular interest."
"I already read a lot for my school," Lizard replied.
He was schooled by his mother in their quarters. Lizard was one of the few children living in this mountain. Most of the families lived under the other two hills. Most were schooled in groups by resident teachers.
"I would rather climb rocks."
Foster smiled and nodded. "I'm sure you would, but we need smart young fellahs like you to be well taught."
"But, why? Everybody says we'll be stuck out here for a long time. What good is an education out here?"
"More than you think, Lizard. Besides, nobody knows how long -- or short -- we'll be out here. And education does more than prepare you for a job, it can help you just be a better person," Foster said.
The entrance to the caverns was in a shaded crook in the hillside and there was often a cool flow of air emitting from it during hot days like today. Foster pulled up a stool and sat leaning back against the rock wall. He held the book carefully. The binding was hard unlike the instant disposal, biodegradable books that the power of the environmental lobby had forced on the world.
The new books, Foster thought, were symbolic of the transience of ideas within.
As the book decayed, so did its ideology. Perhaps one of the motivations behind the hatred against Abandon All Hope was that its sturdy, cloth-covered, hard cover declared its contents to be more lasting than the temporal works of popular fashion. The world today bore an unquenchable hatred towards the idea of absolutes, permanence, or even objective beauty.
Foster fingered the narrow book's fine pages. The publisher had made an extraordinary effort to release Abandon All Hope with a binding suitable to the importance of the message. There was a tactile sense of weight to the surprisingly thin volume -- a weight of thought, not of bulk. From the first words on the flyleaf, Foster was hooked. Before he had quite realized it, the first chapter was finished. Foster sat back hard at its end as if released from a taut string.
"Pretty heavy stuff, huh?" the voice of Jones came from behind.
"Well, its engrossing alright," Foster admitted.
Jones walked over and sat on his haunches beside Foster's stool. He pulled a pencil out from behind his ear where his sandy hair had grown to cover almost to the earlobe. "That book seems to have the whole scenario laid out in advance," he said pointing the pencil toward the horizon and sweeping an arc. The outlined hills baked orange and brown in the direct, pressing sunlight. Lizards clung to the bellies of rocks in fear of the unforgiving sun. The pale blue sky held two ragged, skimpy clouds in search of water and shade.
"The book is too accurate." Jones added. "Must be a prophet."
"Or an extraordinarily insightful person," Foster added.
"There's a difference?" Jones asked.
"Well, I guess I see what you mean. I tend to think of a prophet as some wild-eyed lunatic holding a sign saying, 'The end is near,' but I suppose he would -- if he were worth anything -- have to be a clear thinker."
"Right. If anyone was remembered as a prophet, he was not likely to have been truly loony," Jones said. "History would be against recording stories of nuts unless they had something going for them."
"You're probably right about that much but this book has a lot of religious presumptions. I mean, when this guy says 'God is gonna get ya,' he is not using it in some Deist, Thomas Jeffersonian way. He actually means that a real God is going to take vengeance. That's a pretty arrogant position -- claiming to speak for God."
"It would be, if it were not so, Foster," Jones retorted. "But suppose it were true. After all, his predictions are accurate."
"As far as I've read," Foster admitted. "I have only gotten through one chapter so far. I'll have to read the rest."
"You will," Jones stated flatly. "The best is yet to come."
Foster opened the book again and his eyes fell on the title of the second chapter, Man as a God: The Failure of Existentialism. "When man masquerades as God, destruction will surely follow," the text began. "Existential man is adrift in a non-existent universe, or at least a universe where nothing real exists."
Foster stopped. It reminded him of the conversation with the Old Man about moral absolutes.
Foster sat leaning his head over his desk kneading his forehead with stubby fingers. He held his face cradled and closed his eyes. In his mind, he was casting about for the next words he would use for his story. But discussions he had had with community people on spiritual subjects intruded, shouldering aside his desire to work on the project. Over and over, the arguments would flow past that mental screen despite his attempts to focus on his work. He was just about to surrender progress on his project and go for a walk when there was a shuffling outside his door -- then a knock.
"Yeah," he called. "Be right there."
When he opened the door, the large frame of Jones filled the rectangle. He was not carrying any scrolls or tools of his trade which suggested that he was not merely on his way to one of his work-sites.
"The Old Man says you've never actually seen the vaults," Jones invited. "I thought you might want to come along and let him give you a tour. They are only opened every six months, you know."
"So I've heard," Foster replied reaching for a light wrap to ward off the coolness of the tunnel.
Together they walked toward the preparation room. Foster had been here on several occasions. Electrical conduits crawled the walls of this room and lead back to the generators located in a cavern nearer the surface. Heat differential generators chugged out the vital juice for the prep room's microfilm equipment and computers.
"The goal is to get every book in two print copies, two disk copies, and one copy in microfilm for the vault. We don't know how long this darkness will last or if anyone will still remember how to use a microfilm reader or a computer, but these things do not rot like paper," Jones said. "Over through that arch is where books are treated. Even old, pre-biodegradable books had a lot of acid in their paper making them more subject to decay. We have a solution that will neutralize most of that reaction."
Foster saw men and women busily engaged in photographing books or typing them on to computer screens. None looked up from their tasks. As they entered the next area, there was a pungent odor that Foster had smelled occasionally on the clothing of some in the community.
"The smell is the neutralizing solution," Jones said anticipating Foster's question. "It evaporates very quickly and recirculating the air for this room is nearly impossible. There have been no harmful effects linked to this stuff but many of the workers prefer to wear gloves and masks anyway.
"Dollies with large tires stood at the far end of the room at the mouth of a large tunnel. Crates of books and boxes of microfiche and computer disks were loaded on the carriers. The Old Man stood out, even among the large men who were preparing to push the loads toward the tunnel. Another smell caught Foster's nose. It was the sharp smell of Plexiglas as it is cut in a band-saw. Immediately his memory was transported back to high school shop classes where the material was all the rage to work with. Foster could see that they were making sealed containers in which to store books. Each worker had a list of dimensions for specific books and he would make a case for it, place a book and a label inside, and seal the lid with silicone glue.Foster and Jones crossed the room unnoticed until they had nearly reached the group.
"Ah, Foster! Jones! So glad you could make it. We're just about to go."
And the Old Man signaled the others who began to push the carts into the passageway. Foster had wondered why all these beefy men were selected for this job but that soon became apparent. There was no difficulty in moving the loads forward. The trick came in not allowing them to get moving too quickly on the mild downward grade. A handle on the carts contained a brake but this alone was not sufficient for the long corridor that they planned to traverse.
The Old Man walked behind the ungainly caravan. "We only open the vaults every six months because we want as little disruption down here as possible. The more that we are down there, the better the possibilities of a tragic accident that could destroy computer disks or microfilm or books. We wait until we have a load like this to go in and store before we open the vault."
"Who decides what goes in?" Foster asked."The final decision is mine, I suppose," the Old Man admitted, "but I get a lot of suggestions from the community. I'm no absolute authority on what is great writing. Of course when one goes back four or five centuries, it becomes easier. Most books that saw print at all were of some value. With the advent of movable type, and finally speed presses, the process itself was less discriminating. Printing was cheap enough that the publishers could afford to print more and more so-called pulp material -- though even some of that was quite good. An example is the whole field of science fiction was considered pulp, but some of the pieces were well worth preserving -- Martian Chronicles, The Foundation Trilogy, and others. All told, though, the art of writing was in decline."
The thick door drew back at the Old Man's urging. There was an antechamber which measured 20 by 25 feet and contained pictograph instructions on elementary phonics and reading. the second door, at the far end, held a sign that gave plain English instructions on opening the vault.
"We hope that whoever discovers this chamber will learn to read a little before entering the actual vault -- if they don't remember," the Old Man explained.
He then opened the second door. Inside were rows of dimly lit shelves where the Plexiglas containers stood in file. In the far left were a computer and a microfilm reader within an acrylic casing. Instructions for its removal were given in both English and pictographs as were the instructions to operate the machinery.
"We can't depend on our discoverers to patiently master the lessons of the antechamber before entering the vault, so we have used both forms of instructions."
"What about power," Foster asked.
The Old Man pointed to the pictographs again. Foster could see that the plaque labeled "I" showed a man pouring a liquid into a box. "This shows how to activate the battery with solution -- it will keep longer without the stuff inside -- and then how to crank the generator until the telltale showed a charge," The Old man explained. "Seems like you've thought of everything," Foster said.
"We've probably thought of most things," Jones injected. "But we haven't even come close to covering for everything that could happen."
Foster looked about the dimly lit cavern and shivered as he recalled what he had read of the first Dark Age.
Go To Chapter Seven