Bewildering Stories

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The Quest

by P. J. Lawton

Upon reaching their eighteenth cycle and the age of ascension, a village member was given a secret tribal name and his position within the clan society. The elders had selected a suitable name for him: Jonas the Seeker.

Jonas was pleased with his new name. Since early childhood he had been a seeker of knowledge. One of his dreams was to become the village scholar. To accomplish this, he spent every available hour attempting to learn the Story. With no reading or writing allowed, the Story was a verbal record of the villages history. The holder of the Story was an honored position within the tribe.

All his best-laid plans changed with the conclusion of his ascension ceremony. Along with selecting his name, the elders also chose him for an even higher tribute. He was to become a Searcher. Although overjoyed, he was a little frightened by the scope and responsibilities of this honor. After all, the entire tribe would be depending on him.

For many years he had secretly yearned to be a Searcher, like his father, Seth the Master. Seth had been the tribe’s foremost Searcher and had completed five grand walkabouts. On one long walkabout he even journeyed to the very edge of the uncharted ed zone. His last walkabout, the last by any Searcher, had been almost four Cycles ago. His plan had been to cross the Big River and enter the uncharted zone. He never returned.

The search undertaking was inherently dangerous, consequently, only the best and brightest tribal members were selected. Some returned with astonishing tales to tell, some never returned. So was the lot that befell those who secretly journeyed to the outer zones. None really knew what unknown perils might await them there.

The Searcher’s mission, commonly known as the Quest, was at best to discover a cure for the dreaded Sickness or at worst to locate additional supplies of the life-sustaining PLF. Over the past sixty Cycles, twenty different Searchers had ventured forth. Only eight had returned, and none had been successful. If, now, when the quest was successfully concluded, the people would no longer be dependent on the current source of PLF and could be liberated from the grasp of an evil tyrant known only as The Leader.

* * *

As the sun sneaked over the horizon, Jonas resumed his journey. His thoughts returned to that damp early morning almost ten days ago when he had made the decision to begin his quest. Perhaps it had been the fear and desperation etched on the faces of his neighbors. It had started just before dawn.

The Enforcers entered just at daybreak and within minutes had pushed all the villagers out into the damp square. The lead Enforcer stepped up on the well housing. Without preamble he shouted:

“Citizens of Zone One, hear me. The Leader is very disappointed with your latest tribute. The grain production was 15 percent less than last Period. That is completely unacceptable. The next Period ends in 14 days. You will be expected to supply your normal quota, plus the 15 percent shortage from last Period and a 10 percent penalty.”

Loud groans and murmurs escaped from the chilled villagers. Due to the drought, production was down, way down, and hunger was ever present.

The enforcer continued, “As you all know, the Leader is a benevolent person. To show his kindness you will not be punished and will receive your normal PLF ration. But understand; if you fail, you then will have to decide who will live and who will die. That is all, return to your duties, it is the time for work hours!”

In groups of twos and threes the villages stumbled back to their lodgings to gather their tools. Walking slowly, most had only one thing on their mind, PLF. Without the Periodic Life Force Ration many would be doomed to face a horrible death. The quota had to be met!

Jonas had seen and heard enough. Within the hour his journey began.

* * *

In an effort to help pass the time, Jonas let his mind shift from his current task back to the origin of the village Story. The Story had been the Flash. Flash survivors remembered seeing gigantic brilliant bursts lighting the sky. Those not immediately blinded witnessed huge round top clouds form and climb majestically upward. Then the sickness came! For many Cycles people got very ill and scores died. Countless others that did not die were horribly disfigured. Within a few Cycles the ancients and all their wondrous technology was gone!

After about twenty-five Cycles the first Leader came with his Enforcers and the PLF. That was over one hundred Cycles ago. For the promise of loyalty and hard work the Leader would provide this life saving medicine to all. Most villages were happy to comply. Gradually, over time, people began to get better. Most believed the sickness could be prevented as long as they received the regular PLF rations.

Better health and conditions soon brought an increased workload. The villages were tasked to provide ever-increasing tributes. The burden had gotten almost too substantial for the tribe to bear. That’s when the Quest began in earnest.

Within the community it was widely believed that if there was not a successful quest soon, the village was doomed. The Leader’s Enforcers would remove the people, divide, and relocate them to more successful villages within Zone One. As a tribe, they would cease to exist. Jonas just couldn’t let that happen.

* * *

It was almost three days later when Jonas came upon a high bluff overlooking a large river. The river was at least as wide as his home village and had a very fast dangerous-looking current. This must be the Big River his father had spoken so proudly of, and the other side had to be the uncharted zone.

In the far distance, on the other side of the swiftly moving water, he saw what once must have been a great city. Turning in that direction, he strode purposely along until darkness overtook him. Although he wanted to push on, he knew that being a strange land made it far too dangerous to attempt night travel. Tossing down his pack, made so much lighter from his long travels, he reluctantly camped for the night.

First light found him rapidly moving down to the river’s edge. He was truly astonished. On the far bank were indeed the remains of a huge empty-appearing city. There were no signs of inhabitants or movement of any kind. He found another really amazing thing, the silence, or near silence. Listening closely, the only sound was an eerie hollow whistling as the wind swirled through the tall deserted buildings.

A short distance downstream to his right sat the skeletal remains of a long bridge. Only a couple of spars and some long steel cables remained. As he edged forward for a better look, the bank suddenly crumbled beneath him and, with a surprised shout, he promptly tumbled into the swift coldness of the powerful water.

The current was really fast. He had never been much of a swimmer and fought hard to return to the surface. In desperation he reached out and grabbed one of the metal cables. It was all he could do to hang on and several times almost lost his grip. From the bank, a rope lightly landed across the cable directly in front of him. A swift head turn brought a figure into silhouetted against the bright morning sun. He couldn’t get a good look but could hear shouting.

“Hurry! Grab the rope and I’ll pull you in.”

Within minutes his heaving thoroughly soaked body lay on the bank of the river. Another two minutes and he was able to get his breath back enough to sit up and thank his rescuer. Was he ever surprised? It was a young girl perhaps a Cycle or two younger than he and very pretty. “Just what did you think you were doing?” she asked. “That was a pretty stupid thing to do.”

“Well, I was looking for a way across the water but I hadn’t planned on going for a swim, at least not yet.”

“You were going to cross the river? Are you crazy? Nobody crosses the river.”

Putting a touch of self-importance into his voice Jonas said. “Look, I am Jonas the Seeker and I’m a Searcher! I’ve come a long way, taking almost thirteen days getting here. I spent the last two Periods studying and planning this walkabout.” Pointing across the water the he continued. “That has to be one of the cities of the ancients, and there should be many wondrous things there for the taking.” He noticed that the girl was watching with a curious look. After a few seconds she spoke.

“You appear to be talking my language but I really don’t understand what you’re saying. What are Periods and walkabouts? What exactly is a Searcher and what are the ancients?”

It was his turn to stare at her. didn’t she know anything? Maybe she was dense or something.

Tossing him a rough cloth with which to dry, she said. “Okay, why don’t we start over? My name is Talla. Tell me where you’re from and why you are here.”

* * *

As they strolled away from the river, Jonas recounted his story. Toward the end he told her of his father’s last walkabout and how he believed that his father had crossed the river to explore the city. His plan was to follow.

“You say your father crossed over to the city? I can probably explain why he never returned. Nobody, except one, that has crossed the river has ever returned. The one fortunate enough to return was my father. The first time we camped near here, he and two other men went to explore the ruins. They had seen nothing alarming during the river crossing and separated to explore. After a short time they were attacked by dozens of creatures more animal than human. The other two were quickly captured before my father even knew of the danger. He was attacked but was barely able to fight his way back to the boat and escape. All the way across the river he could hear their screams.” With a shudder she stopped talking.

“But why were they killed? Surely they meant no harm.”

“My father believes that the weak, old and unknowing, to include outsiders, are used to provide sustenance for the young and strong. I’m sorry but if your father went there...”

She didn’t have to finish; Jonas realized what she meant. He just couldn’t or didn’t want to believe it.

Several minutes from the river, amazement again flooded through Jonas when they walked over a small rise. In the small valley below sat beautifully colored wagons and many marvelous horses. He stood in awe. Only Enforcers had horses! Also clustered around the campsite were large herds of cattle and sheep. He had never seen so many animals.

Entering the campsite, Talla told him that her people were called Gypsies or Travelers. The Travelers wandered up and down the land along the river. In the summer they would move north, and when the cold winds came they moved south. She believed it to be a simple, happy life.

That evening during dinner Jonas retold his story. When he finished there was a few moments of silence. Finally Talla’s father, Rios, spoke. “That’s an interesting story, but I wasn’t able to recognize all you were saying. First of all, it appears that your peoples existence depends on this PLF. What, exactly, is it?”

Sudden fear gripped Jason, as his stomach twisted into a knot, for he had realize that his meager pack had gone down the river with all his PLF supply. He was going to die unless these nice folks would share with him.

Along with his twinge of fear, Jason was also a little confused. “I’m not sure that I understand. PLF is the white powder, the medicine we must take every seven days to keep from getting the sickness. The Enforcers provide it. You may not call it PLF, but surely you have something like it? If not, how do you all survive? ”

A thoughtful look crossed Talla’s father’s face. “We have nothing like what you are describing. We need nothing other than food to survive. We also know nothing of the sickness you are talking about.”

“But the Leader says that the sickness is everywhere and that we must not attempt to move to another location because of the shortage of PLF. Yet, you and your people seem to move about at will. How can this be?”

Rios was silent in thought for a minute. “When was the last time someone from you village died from this sickness?”

Jonas had to think for a few seconds. He couldn’t remember anyone that had actually died from the sickness and said so.

“I will have to think on this more,” Rios said. “It is time for rest; we shall speak more of it tomorrow.”

The meeting broke up and everyone moved to bed down. Talla was kind enough to make Jonas a resting place under one of the wagons. As he prepared to sleep he realized that that he had not had a PLF ration in almost eight days. The Sickness would surely start soon and the travelers had no PLF. He was going to die!

The next morning he awoke with an odd feeling. After several attempts to rise he fell back on his bedding. He was sweating profusely and could not concentrate. Talla found him a few minutes later. She attempted to give him water but he could not swallow. As he slipped into the blackness the last thing he remembered was her beautiful face filled with worry.

* * *

When Jonas opened his eyes he could see the bright sun shinning and a cool breeze washed across him. It took a few seconds for him to understand where he was. Suddenly, with much joy he realized that he was alive. Expending considerable effort he attempted to sit up. He immediately heard a shout; it was Talla.

“Father, come quick, he’s awake,” she said.

Within seconds Rios came over. “Well,” he smiled, “welcome back. You had us worried for a while.”

Looking back and forth between father and daughter Jonas simply stared. He couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Rios realized his predicament and started to speak again. “Jonas, you are going to be fine. You can thank Talla for that. She has been by your side caring for you these three days and nights. Let me explain. The morning of the first day Talla found you burning with fever and bathed in sweat. For the last three days she stayed by your side, keeping a cool cloth on your forehead and bathing you as necessary. Finally, at night of the third day, the fever broke. This is morning of the fourth day.”

Jonas was alive, very weak but alive. He couldn’t believe it! After Rios finished he waited a few seconds then attempted to talk. “I don’t know what to think. I have had no PLF for over 12 days. By all knowledge I should be dead. What type of miracle is this?

“There is no miracle,” said Rios. “By your own accounts you should have been dead at least two days ago. However, in the last three days you were able to purge yourself of the effects of your PLF. It would appear that PLF is really not a medicine. Instead of curing this sickness you talk of, it keeps you subservient to your so-called Leader. In our travels we have heard of people becoming dependent on strong medicines. Sometimes the medicine is worse than the cure.”

“What are you saying? Am I no longer in the need of the PLF? If that is true then I have accomplished the quest, and my people can be saved. We can be free of the Leader and the Enforcers. I must return to my village right away!”

“Yes, with time and patience your people should also be able to rid themselves of this evil. However, you are very weak and will need at least a week to regain enough strength for your travels. Rest now and we will speak more later.”

* * *

Seven days rest and good food had done wonders for him. Jonas was healthier than he had ever been in his young 18-year life. He was loading the pack that Rios had provided when Talla approached. “Jonas, I know you have to leave but I want you to know that I would very much like you to stay.”

Looking fondly at her dark eyes and slightly upturned nose he nodded. “Yes, I too would like to stay, but my people must be brought out of the darkness. Once their dependence on PLF is gone I would hope to see you again; if you will wait for me? ”

She nodded and smiled but before she was able to speak Rios approached. “Jonas, tomorrow we start for the south. As you can tell there is coolness to the morning air. Once you have returned home and help rid your people of the PLF dependence you are welcome to join us.”

“I am afraid it will take many days to cleanse all my people. Unfortunately we will only be able to cure one or two at a time. Any more would arouse the suspicion of the Enforcers and we would be severely punished. Once we have completed the cure, all that wish to leave will slip away and I will lead them here. Perhaps we can meet again?”

“Yes, we will be back this way next year when the warm wind blows. If you and any of your people wish to join us, then come here. We will find you.” Shaking Jonas’s hand he turned away.

Looking toward the resting place of the sun and home Jonas took Tallas’s hand. “I must go now, for I have many days travel before I am home. Once my people have been cured I will return for you.”

* * *

After walking a short distance he turned for one last look. The morning sun limited his vision but he was sure he could see Talla standing hand raised in a silent wave. Turing back to the mountains and home Jonas felt happiness like never before. He now had the means to save his people plus he had a beautiful young woman waiting for his return. Could life be any better?

He was confident that all his family and friends would soon feel the breath of happiness that only true freedom can bestow. Thanks to Talla and her people his village would no longer held in the powerful grip of deception of a self-appointed Leader and the dependence on his evil PLF. Upon his return the Quest would finally, truly be completed.

Copyright © 2004 by P. J. Lawton

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