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Critical Mass

by Bill Kowaleski

part 1

We’d watched them on the bluffs with our night vision equipment, drilling and practicing in the moonlight. Dr. Arkos had laughed and said they had to be from far away, that the local tribes already knew better than to challenge us. After five nights of practice they slept. We all knew what was next.

They attacked at dawn, a ragtag group of perhaps thirty unwashed males in their mid-teens, waving everything from home-made guns to pointed wooden sticks. As they swarmed the shallows that offered the best line of attack to our river island, I and the three student Physicists aimed the beam weapons. When they were well into the water, unable to turn and escape quickly, we charged the lasers and fired.

I never liked that part, seeing the flesh melt from the skeletons of those in the front line, seeing the ones behind turn in panic, unable to move quickly enough in the flowing water and sandy bottom. But Dr. Arkos insisted that we eliminate as many as possible, that any show of mercy was sure to be interpreted as weakness.

Only eight made it to the far shore. They lay on the ground, panting, their eyes wide with fear. Dr. Arkos looked them over with his telescope. “They’re probably fifteen or sixteen years old. Insufficient critical mass to survive on their own. They could be useful to us. Take them in.”

After securing the survivors, Walt Miller, leader of the Warriors met me and Dr. Arkos in the shed that the head of our commune used as an office.

“They seem healthy enough,” Walt said. “I’d like to integrate them into the Warriors immediately. They’re the perfect age, and they know how to survive out there.”

“No!” Dr. Arkos barked the command as if he were addressing a dog. “First they need a complete education. Francis, you teach them about our mission, win them over to our cause.”

Walt glared at us. “A few weeks with me and they’ll know as much about our mission as they need to know. We could use some more good soldiers.”

Dr. Arkos waved his hand dismissively. “Our rays are our first and most important line of defense, Mr. Miller. We appreciate the added protection your Warriors provide, but this is not a military encampment.”

“Dr. Arkos, no purely defensive strategy can succeed forever. Eventually the tribes out there will figure out that they can overwhelm our defenses with numbers. We’re really quite vulnerable!”

“I don’t agree. You underestimate the value of terror, and our rays produce terror in the simple minds out there in the prairies.”

“Simple minds!” Walt’s round, bushy-bearded face reddened. “The survivors out there are the craftiest and the most resourceful. Or have you forgotten your Darwin, Professor?”

He spat out the last word, a title Dr. Arkos had made clear must never be used to his face, though it was spoken everywhere with respect. Professor was inaccurate, and Dr. Arkos could not tolerate any statement, any idea, even any title that was not provable with cold facts.

“You may go Mr. Miller!”

Walt spun on his heel and marched stiffly out the door, his face locked into a smile that hid nothing.

Dr. Arkos turned to me. “He’s a good man, but he just doesn’t appreciate the importance of our mission. Francis, please, take charge of them, make sure they understand what we do here. Let me know if they cause any trouble.”

He waved his hand, always the signal that our discussion was over. I stole a glance at him before I turned to leave. His skin was gray, his thin white hair looked dirty, as though it hadn’t been combed in years. He was thin, but then we all were. Food was nowhere near as abundant as it had been in the Days Before. He wouldn’t tell anyone his age, and the deep wrinkling brought on by so much sun exposure had surely added to his apparent years. He didn’t look healthy to me, and I felt a cold stab of fear as I crossed his threshold.

The survivors were short for their age — skinny, dark skinned, with the broad features of Aztecs. They stunk terribly. We gave them a little food, washed them, and clothed them. I led them to our outdoor classroom, the only one available that warm autumn day — not much more than a sandy spot covered by a sloped, corrugated metal roof on poles.

Across a narrow lane from the classroom was our commons, distracting because it was market day and dozens of ratty men and women from the Outside stood at tables piled high with produce, scavenged metal, wood, and other materials they’d plundered from the remains of civilization. Almost all of the commune wandered among the tables, impressing the vendors with the colorful, fine, flowing robes that we proudly produced and traded.

Mercifully, the animal market was far enough away from us to avoid the worst of the smells, though the bleating and mooing never stopped. Along the edges of the market, Walt Miller’s Warriors stood in their green-gray robes, impassive, watching for evidence of young men forming into groups, or of arguments exploding into violence.

Our new arrivals stared at the market wide-eyed. Only after I’d twice demanded their attention did they tell me that they had broken from a larger group that lived in the rotting ruins of the Omaha suburbs. They’d heard of a magical island where people lived like they did in the Days Before and wished to pillage it. I laughed at that.

Yes, we’d preserved more technology than most — living in a nuclear power plant gave us more options than others who had no access to any fuel other than sod and brush.

But our lives could hardly compare to the Days Before, when everyone had year-round access to wonderful foods from everywhere in the world, when information was instantly available on every computer screen, when ships flew through the air at nearly the speed of sound. As I told them these things they sat sullen and unbelieving.

Only one, Manuel, showed a desire to learn more about our compound, contrasting sharply with the moody, prisoner-of-war defiance of the others.

“What will you do to us? Will we become your slaves?” he asked.

“No, we wish to make you full citizens of Platte Island Commune. I hope you will accept our offer and live by our rules.”

They nodded. Manuel looked up at me saying, “We’d like that. We have nothing to return to.”

“Good. Let’s begin then by explaining how our commune formed. What did you learn about the Days Before? Do you know why they ended?”

“Evil scientists tried to kill everyone,” Manuel said. “The priest told us this.”

“Was it a priest of the Simplification?”

They said nothing, their gaze fixed to the sandy soil where they sat cross-legged. But it could be nothing else. Now I knew that the terrible cult had spread very close to our door.

“The Simplification priests do not know the truth. You must never, ever talk about the Simplification here. Dr. Arkos will expel you immediately if you do.

“Now I will tell you what really happened. There was a terrible disease, something that escaped from a biological warfare laboratory, that destroyed red blood cells. Only one in a thousand were immune. Do you know what a red blood cell is?”

I waited. Their eyes stayed down. After a few seconds Manuel looked up. “Why do you instruct us like we are children, hermano?”

“Because I am assigned by Dr. Arkos to do so, and here in Platte River Commune, we do as he commands. That is the first and most important thing you must understand if you wish to live here.”

A leader that must be obeyed, I could tell, was a familiar concept to them. They nodded and turned their eyes up to me.

“Red blood cells are the things that carry oxygen to every part of your body. Without them you die.”

“What is this oxygen?” muttered Manuel.

Their ignorance was appalling. What Dr. Arkos had been saying was true: the world around us was falling back into another dark age.

“It’s what we breathe. I’ll get you all into our school soon so you can learn these things.”

Paco jumped to his feet, his runty legs making him only a little taller than he’d been sitting. “Why do we need school? Who cares about all that crap they teach? We need to hunt, to fight. That’s all we need to do.”

“We do those things, our Warriors do them quite well. But how do you think we defeated you? Those rays can only be maintained by people who have much scientific knowledge.”

“Yeah,” said Manuel. “They protect your little island here muy bueno. We saw that. But you need to go beyond your island for many things. And once you go out there,” he pointed toward the bluffs they’d commanded the previous evening, “only the strongest and the smartest survive. Knowing what red blood cells are won’t do nada out there.”

“Here we protect the knowledge from the Days Before so that all of us can return to those days sooner. It’s important work, it’s the reason our commune exists. If you don’t like that, I’ll have you escorted across the river. You can hunt and fight all you want then.”

Their eyes darted among themselves for a moment, then Manuel said, “Bueno, hermano, we’ll sign on to your mission. But are you so sure that what you’re doing is right? Didn’t all that knowledge only lead to where we are today?”

“People learn from their mistakes. We will learn from ours. This I believe from the bottom of my heart.”

They nodded, but I could see their doubt.

Just then, Walt Miller wandered over from his post in the market. “Gentlemen!” he said in a loud, commanding voice. “Welcome to our commune. Wouldn’t you all like to join up with the fighting men and women who protect our island?”

They jumped to their feet, their faces full of excitement, but I stepped in front of Walt and shouted, “No! You must first get an education! Dr. Arkos has decreed it.”

I turned to face Walt, who stood his ground, inches from my face. “You know very well that Dr. Arkos forbade their joining the Warriors. How dare you do this?”

He laughed. “We don’t need any more intellectuals, Francis! What if one of the bands out there stopped these vendors from coming over? We’d starve in a week! How would your rays help us then? You can see they want to join up, can’t you? It’ll happen, sooner or later.”

He turned and sauntered away. His defiance infuriated me, but I let it go. He liked to intimidate, to test peoples’ limits, and I did my best to avoid his game.

I spent the rest of the day teaching them about the end of the Days Before and the formation of our commune. Yes, I am proud of the role my family played in saving some of humankind, distributing a vaccine that came too late for too many, and I told them about it. But discussing such things aroused memories — memories of dead bodies littering the streets, of people I loved lifeless and bloated — memories that I wish I could bury forever.

I was seventeen that year, an age when the possibilities of life should all be before us. But instead, I slept on the cold floor of my mother’s hermetically sealed lab where she worked without sleep for over a month on a team developing a vaccine.

We’d won our prized position on the floor, safe from the rapidly spreading death outside, by committing to the dangerous task of being the test recipients, and if we survived that, we then had to distribute the vaccine into a world where order had disintegrated.

We made it as far as Platte Island. We’d just inoculated its almost two hundred residents, isolated until then from the spreading plague, and were preparing to return to the lab for more doses when we came under a sustained attack. The rays crackled all night long, but two small bands made it onto the island. I killed three myself, boys my own age. My father died.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2013 by Bill Kowaleski

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