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Critical Mass

by Bill Kowaleski

part 2

After it was over, Dr. Arkos said it was too dangerous for us to return. He offered my mother and me a place on his island, and we reluctantly accepted. Only later, after he’d won me over to the importance of our mission, did I realize that he viewed me — a young, healthy, intelligent, handsome youth — as a worthwhile addition to the commune’s gene pool. And my mother’s medical knowledge was urgently needed. He’d had no intention of letting her get away.

As the shadows lengthened, I took our new arrivals to the workers’ dormitory, and then reported to Dr. Arkos.

“So, Francis, how does it go with the newcomers?”

We sat in his office, a shed really, lined with books from floor to ceiling, perhaps six paces by nine paces, brightly lit by LED panels powered by the fusion reaction outside his door. His desk, always littered with papers and electronics, almost hid his grizzly, gray face. He felt his years, and I knew he had an urgent desire to finish passing on his knowledge to the young Physicists while he still could.

“They are surly but docile, Doctor Arkos. I must tell you that they have been visited by the priests of the Simplification.”

He stood, alarm filling his face. “They must be watched! They will spread this venom of anti-science that poisons more and more of the world. I hear about it every day on the shortwave radio: more and more scientists killed, more laboratories destroyed, more books burned!”

His voice was ever more gravelly, his breaths ever shorter. I heard it, and feared what might be growing in his lungs.

“Yes, Dr. Arkos, they expressed doubt that keeping the knowledge from the Days Before was wise.”

“You see! They have been indoctrinated already! This evil thing will cast us all into the pit of ignorance!” He broke into an extended fit of coughing, waving his hand to indicate that I was to leave him. He hated showing any weakness, even to his closest allies.

We kept the newcomers busy with a daily regimen: eight hours of instruction followed by four hours of labor. We’d assigned observers in the dormitory where the newcomers slept, and four weeks after they’d arrived, our spies reported that two of them were spreading the poison of Simplification. Dr. Arkos called a commune meeting the same day he heard the disturbing news.

He stood on the landing of a metal stairway that led up to the reactor intakes in front of the two hundred and fourteen people that lived on Platte Island at that time. I’ll always remember the gray November sky spewing stinging sleet. Paco and Manuel, the two who’d been preaching Simplification, looked so harmless standing beside him, bound in ropes, wearing only loin cloths, shivering uncontrollably in the wicked gusting wind.

“People of Platte Island, before you is the evil, the poison, that spreads like a dark cloud outside our commune.” He paused, coughed, cleared his throat, continued.

“It is the evil of Simplification, the belief that science and knowledge are bad and must be suppressed. To follow this wicked cult is to condemn your children, their children, and the children after them for a hundred generations to the darkness of poverty, disease, and early death. It is the sacred duty of this commune to preserve the knowledge of the Days Before. If any of you do not wish to help in that cause, you can join these evil agents of Simplification in their exile beyond the far river bank. We need no one here who is not dedicated to our cause.”

He turned to go down the stairs, but Manuel suddenly lunged to the railing, faced the crowd, and shouted, “The evil in this world came from the Days Before, from the technology that killed our families. The Great Dying was caused by the very things you wish to preserve, old man! Why should we keep something so terrible? We live in a new world now, a world where all that technology has no place. We should be preparing ourselves to live in that new world, not in the old world you long to recreate but that will never again exist!”

As he spoke I could see my mother, gray-haired but strong and nimble, ascending the metal stairs to a landing one level below where Dr. Arkos and the newcomers stood. She moved to the railing and shouted to the crowd.

“In the Days Before, people were free to speak as they wished. If we are to truly carry on the spirit of those times, then we must allow dissent. I say let these young men make their case. We cannot hide here forever cut off from the rest of the world. I am committed to our mission, but we cannot pretend that we can keep the world at bay forever. Let them present their case, Dr. Arkos!”

There had been much mumbling about Dr. Arkos’s dictatorial ways, so my mother’s words roused the crowd. Within seconds someone began a chant that grew and grew: “Set them free! Set them free!”

The refrain repeated until Dr. Arkos raised his arms and shouted, “Do not be fools. This evil must be expelled!”

Walt Miller and four of his men had been standing guard at the foot of the stairway. Now Walt bounded up the stairs, two at a time to the second landing where he grabbed Dr. Arkos’s arm and whispered in his ear. I could see the old man’s face crinkle in anger as they whispered to each other, but I could not hear what they were saying. The heated exchange continued for a minute before Walt stepped back, wagged his index finger, then walked back down the stairs.

Dr. Arkos again approached the railing, a defeated look on his face. “Very well. Our esteemed Kimberley, who brought us the life-saving vaccine thirty years ago, is revered for her wisdom. I cannot agree with her, but I must respect her. We will let them stay. But they must contribute, and they must study the knowledge from the Days Before. That is my condition.”

“We accept!” shouted Manuel.

And so the crisis was averted, or perhaps I should say deferred, for in the weeks that followed, opposing visions of the future divided the commune into two factions whose positions quickly hardened. Most of the younger people, led by Walt and Manuel, cared little about preserving knowledge, preferring to militarize the commune and expand into the surrounding countryside.

Dr. Arkos and most of the older members, many of whom had worked at the power plant, advocated for using the rays to protect us from outsiders, staying on our island, limiting population so that we would not need to expand.

My devotion to Dr. Arkos was unconditional and I was fully committed to preserving the knowledge of the Days Before. I could not believe that he could be wrong, and with him, put all our hopes in the rays, firm in believing that we were invulnerable as long as they functioned.

But he had become too weak to control the actions of the Warriors. Commander Miller, as he took to calling himself, openly recruited new members. He sent scouts into the countryside to gauge the strength of the nearby tribes. The Warriors, whom Dr. Arkos had always required to keep a low profile, paraded openly through the commune in tight ranks, boys trailing behind them, eager to join upon their fifteenth birthday. In his shed, Dr. Arkos coughed blood and slept twelve hours a day.

Three weeks after he’d tried to expel the newcomers he summoned me to his office. When I entered he lay on a cot, propped up on pillows. His eyes moved in my direction, but his head remained stationary.

In a raspy whisper he said, “Francis, my most loyal friend, my time is coming. You must carry on the work of the commune. In the middle ages, monasteries carried the light of civilization, but today we must not let the poison of religion pollute the purity of science. Please, promise me you will carry on!”

He gasped and broke into a minute-long bout of coughing. I looked away, took his hand, and waited politely until the coughing stopped.

“I will do my best, Dr. Arkos. Please don’t be concerned. Focus now on your health, try to rest.”

Filled with sadness and fear, I opened the door of his shed and took a step into the frigid winter air. Commander Miller appeared from behind a support beam and put his mouth into my ear. “Is he dead yet?”

I pulled away in shock. “You wait here for his death like a vulture so you can pick his bones! No, go and see him yourself if you want. Pay your respects to a great man.”

“He hates me, thinks I’m bent on destroying his dream. But I’m just a realist. Look, Francis, when he’s gone, I suppose you’ll be our leader. You’ll need my support to make that stick.”

I paused a moment then said, “Yes, I would. But I’m not so sure I want to lead the commune. What I really want to do is accelerate the training of the young Physicists. We need to keep the reactor and the rays going and that takes a lot of knowledge.”

He shook his head. “No, we don’t. Those things will fail sooner or later anyway. We need to build our population, conquer the nearby tribes. Only then will we be safe.”

“The rays will protect us! Who can possible conquer us as long as they are working? And what about the electricity and heat the reactor produces for us?”

He considered that for a moment, then said, “Of course, we’ll keep the reactor going for as long as we can, but we’ve got to face reality. Something will eventually break, and there’s no chance we could fix it...”

“No, you’re wrong. We’ve kept it going for thirty years. We can keep it going another fifty years if we have enough trained Physicists.”

“You overestimate the value of that reactor, Francis Gerard. The Professor took you under his wing the day you arrived here, and you’ve served him well. But you can’t face reality. We live in an underpopulated world with no power centers. We’ve got to go through the whole process of forming kingdoms and nations all over again. Our small population can’t support the technology infrastructure that created this reactor, and the people who are left don’t much like technology anyway. The reactor will fail, and when it does, we’ll all become slaves unless we’re ready, unless we create a kingdom around our island.”

I said nothing. He knew I’d heard it all before, that I didn’t believe it.

He paused, looked down, tugged on his beard, then said, “So here’s how it is. When he dies, I’m declaring you leader. That’s what the people here want. But you’re going to do what I tell you. If you don’t, then I’ll cut out the middleman. Am I getting through to you?”

“Jawohl, Commander Miller!” I responded, my voice filled with sarcasm.

“I’ll let that go this time, pretty boy,” he said, scowling, his teeth clenched. “But you’d better start taking a realistic look at where you stand. Your power dies with that man in there.”

He turned, and ran down the stairs. I took a good look at him — burly, tall, thirty-five years old; a handsome man behind his bushy beard and wild, dirty hair. But what did he mean by pretty boy? It hadn’t been that long ago when some of the women in the commune had called me that, and it was a compliment then on my Nordic good looks. But I was twelve years older than he, and the tough life we lived had lined my face and erased any hint of youth. Surely, then, it was an insult, a way to emphasize that I wasn’t Warrior material, and that he didn’t fear me.

That evening my mother paid me a visit. My tiny room was hardly a place for entertaining, but I offered her the edge of the bed while I sat on the floor.

“People saw you talking to Commander Miller today,” she said. “I heard it looked confrontational.”

“He told me that he’s going to put me in charge when Dr. Arkos dies, and that could be any day. But he’s going to give me orders, and I’d better do as he says.”

She sat quietly a moment, then said, “Yes, I think that makes sense.”

“What do you mean? I intend to do what I think is best, not turn this into an armed camp. That’s his plan.”

She sighed. “Francis, your idealism is commendable, but our commune has to survive for us to accomplish our mission. Listen to him. He’s a lot smarter than you think he is.”

She didn’t convince me that night, but she did plant a seed. It would be some time before it germinated.

* * *

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2013 by Bill Kowaleski

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