Canticles for a New World
by Bill Kowaleski
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Ortega had said to aim for the point where the sun rose, to walk a full day until they reached a bluff, and to climb to its top. “There,” he’d whispered to Hannegan, “you will see our kingdom spread out below you. It’s a beautiful thing.”
And so Marcus Hannegan and Jennifer, along with Josiah and Naru, two sixteen-year-old boys breathless with the enthusiasm of seeing new places, crested a bluff on a crisp autumn day as the sun neared the western horizon. Hannegan’s eyes were drawn to the sky by the sound of honking. An armada of Canada geese, at least a dozen flying V’s, was passing overhead, all aiming south. Every year there were more. Then he looked down, toward the river far below. Lieutenant Ortega had been right. It was a beautiful sight.
Beyond a herd of shaggy bison, another species he’d seen more of every year, was a broad, muddy river that split into two flowages far to his left and converged again far to his right. Between the flowages was a large island, and on that island a city, but not a dead city like Lincoln or Omaha, filled with skeletons, eerily silent, buildings crumbling, cars, trucks, garbage littering the streets. This city, he could tell even from that distance, was alive.
People moved like ants among its buildings. Along the river bank was a wall of wooden windmills, all spinning in the brisk breeze. Behind them he could see low structures, wooden longhouses with many windows. In the center was a massive metal structure, bristling with high-tension wires, three gigantic, conical smokestacks rising above everything else on the island. But the only smoke he could see rose from chimneys on the longhouses.
Then he remembered: this was the Platte Island Nuclear Power Plant, the first fusion plant in the world, and always the biggest. He looked beyond it, across the river from the island. On all sides he saw cultivated fields stretching halfway up the bluffs. Two stockades, one directly in front of him, one on the far bank of the second flowage, protected the settlement.
“It’s a miracle!” shouted Josiah. The skinny, flaxen-haired youth stared with his mouth open.
“Once, young man,” said Hannegan. “This would have been nothing more than a minor town. Now, both of you: we walk slowly, we act respectfully to everyone. We are visitors. This is their home.”
They marched down the long slope toward the nearer stockade. The grass was slippery and so tall that they saw little ahead of them. Without warning, four young men appeared, wearing long gray-green robes, carrying what looked like guns. Josiah brandished his spear, evoking a laugh from one of the commune’s defenders.
“Lower it, little boy. We’re your escort. Follow us.”
* * *
They sat in a warm room, richly paneled in oak, bright LED panels creating a glow Hannegan hadn’t seen in almost thirty years. Jennifer remembered electricity also, and stared at the LEDs, her eyes full of sadness for a time now so hopelessly lost.
Hannegan had poked his young protectors twice now, trying to quiet them. He’d had to show Josiah how to use the bathroom outside their conference room where water flowed from a tap and a toilet flushed, evoking a gasp of wonder from the skinny soldier.
Two men sat across from them at the long table: one with wild black hair, bushy-bearded, stocky, vigorous, somewhere in his forties; the other, slender and elegant, his temples gray, his face wrinkled, his thin hair neatly arranged, his eyes bright blue, staring just a bit too long at Jennifer. Hannegan had already picked the bushy-bearded one as the city’s leader, and the man quickly confirmed it, calling himself Commander Miller. He introduced his companion as Archivist Gerard, his Chief Advisor.
“I come in no official capacity,” said Hannegan, “I may well be killed when I return. But we survivors must work together. Perhaps I can convince our leader of this. Allow us to gather some information about your abilities. I hope it will be enough to scare Bear into an alliance with you.”
Commander Miller took a hard look at Josiah and Naru then broke into a grin. “These are your soldiers? My, you must be in desperate need of our protection.”
“Hey,” Josiah said, standing. “How dare you—”
Hannegan roughly dragged him back to his seat. “They are young; please forgive him.”
Commander Miller nodded, then said, “I appreciate the risk you are taking, Mr. Hannegan. But why should I reveal anything about our defenses? You can see for yourself that we have many times the population of your village, plus electric power, plus a well-organized army. That much is obvious. Isn’t that enough?”
Jennifer grabbed Hannegan’s shoulder and said, “Forget about Bear and that godawful hellhole. I want to live here! I don’t ever want to go back!”
Both of the Platte Islanders laughed. The Archivist said, “We’re always looking to expand our population.”
Commander Miller added, “I’m flattered that you like our home, and I’d like to offer you a place in our commune, but we have a rule about new citizens. They must contribute something. Your... soldiers, here, could join our army; but what could you do for us?”
“Do you have someone to provide spiritual guidance here?” asked Hannegan.
Archivist Gerard’s eyes locked onto Hannegans’. “Now I remember where I’d heard your name before.”
Hannegan smiled. “Did you like my broadcasts, Archivist? You know, it was I who invented the Simplification.”
“No, Mr. Hannegan, it was a writer from the Times Before, but you were most certainly the one who turned it into a religion.”
“After the Great Dying, the survivors needed a reason to keep going. I gave them that. The traditional faiths had failed them. I simply mashed together some ideas from the major faiths, added a healthy dose of anti-science, and a core dogma of belief trumping logic. It’s an old idea, and its time had come again.”
Just then, Lieutenant Ortega opened the door. When he saw Hannegan he smiled and held out his hand.
“Reverend, do you remember me? Before I came to Platte Island, I lived in a settlement not far from Omahatown. I attended your sermons every week. They were very moving. You have a gift, so I’m happy to see you here. Our commune has everything except a spiritual leader. Will you join us?”
Archivist Gerard’s face darkened with anger. He rose to his feet saying, “That would be an outrage. Our founder Dr. Arkos hated nothing more than the Simplification. Our commune has long stuck to the principles of logic and science. We need no religious zealots here.”
Commander Miller pulled at his beard. His eyes darted. Finally he said, “Yes, Francis makes an excellent point. In the Days Before, science and religion co-existed, and they can again. But the Simplification is another matter. It rejects science and offers only superstition and fear. Even now we are threatened by Simplifiers who sneak into our commune and spread their poison. We banished one of them only last week.”
Miller paused a moment, his eyes wandered. Then he added, “You should know something about us. Platte Island Commune is a refuge of knowledge. We have gathered an extensive library here, everything from science to literature, to very practical, how-to information. Protecting it is our mission, our purpose. Tell me, how could you possibly fit into a community that was founded to protect the knowledge of the Days Before, Mr. Hannegan?”
“I did nothing more than give people what they wanted,” said Hannegan. He stood up, turned and paced the length of the room as he talked. “When the horrible weeks of death came to an end, when I realized that I was one of the lucky few, as if being a survivor could be considered the better outcome, when I’d looked around and seen the chaos, the gangs raping and stealing, the fear in those who clung to their dignity and morals.
“Then I knew that the time had come to help others make sense of it all. All the science, all the knowledge had led only to mass death and suffering. The few survivors wanted a different path.
“I began broadcasting weekly sermons over the shortwave radio then, developing my theology on the fly, week by week. To my surprise, it spread like wildfire, soon adopted by most of the survivors whom my radio reached. And then I learned from traders, by those within reach of those new disciples, and so on, until it seemed that the idea had spread to the whole world. Then the last of Omahatown’s batteries died, and I never found out what happened after that.”
“Quite a story, Reverend, “ said the Archivist. “Sit down. Let me tell you what happened next. You’ll want to be sitting down to hear this. Fanatic Simplifiers attacked survivors who had been scientists, destroyed the few research facilities still trying to operate. They burned books, computers, storage media — anything they thought might contain the hated knowledge that had killed so many.
“So, Mr. Hannegan: can you see where your ideas led? Would you dare to preach your ideology here? Would you tell us to shut off our electricity, to cease forging our weapons?”
“I never knew...” said Hannegan. “Omahatown has been cut off from the world for a very long time. But what those people did, I did not and do not advocate. Still, I would counsel against electricity, against any metallurgy. Those things are the steppingstones to greater evils. Yet what you’ve told me... It makes me pause. People distort things. Perhaps... But no, I still firmly believe technology led us to a fatal cliff.”
Commander Miller’s face tightened. He stood. “Thank you for your honesty. We are a practical people here, and we have to use every tool we can. I can’t allow such poisonous ideas here in Platte Island Commune. Lieutenant, at first light tomorrow, escort these people to the far bank and point their way home. Mr. Hannegan, if your leader chooses to join with us in an alliance, instruct him to send a different emissary.”
Josiah and Naru, turned to each other, desperation in their eyes. “No!” said Josiah. “We want to stay. We don’t want to go back to Omahatown.”
“What kind of soldiers are you?” said Commander Miller. “I don’t need people who abandon their duty. Protect your two companions, as you were ordered.”
* * *
On the return trip, Josiah and Naru tried to make sense of what they’d seen.
“I liked it there, but it was evil, wasn’t it, Reverend Hannegan?” asked Naru. “The electricity, the guns, the worship of science.”
“No!” shouted Josiah. “It was wonderful. Why should we live in misery when there’s a better way?”
“Now, boys,” said Hannegan. “You’ve heard my sermons. You know that what they are doing will lead to great evil. But that won’t happen for a very long time. In the short run, it looks wonderful, but, over time, evil will rise out of it.”
“I’m living now!” said Josiah. “And I want to live there. When we get back I’m going to tell everyone what we saw. They’ll want to join me and move there.”
Panic rose in Hannegan. “No! You must never tell anyone. Bear must never know what we’ve done. Swear to me you’ll never say a word about this visit.”
And so they pledged a solemn oath that they would never mention their visit to Platte Island Commune.
* * *
Two days after coming home, Hannegan woke to urgent shaking. He looked up to see Jennifer. She bent low, put her mouth in his ear and said, “Naru and Josiah couldn’t keep their mouths shut. I just heard about the wonders of Platte Island at the well this morning. The women were all chattering about how we would form an alliance and then move there. Bear must know by now!”
Hannegan rolled onto his feet. “We have to get out of here! Bear will...”
A terrible roar rumbled through the sod huts. They heard a crashing noise and then Bear’s voice. “Hannegan! To the gate. Now!”
Jennifer and Hannegan hastily gathered what they could carry and walked to the gate, already open. Bear stood before it, his ceremonial whip in hand.
“What is this I hear about you visiting Platte Island, my priest?”
“It is true, sir. I only wished to protect your interests. But they expelled us, and...”
“I do not recall authorizing this contact.” Bear paused. There was a noise of scuffling from behind Hannegan. He dared a look. Approaching were Naru and Josiah being dragged by four other youths of the Omahatown militia. Their ragged loincloths hung loosely. Josiah’s had almost fallen off and he desperately held it up as he was thrown to the ground in front of Bear.
“And you!” Bear said. “Worthless scum who violate a solemn oath. You will also be punished!”
Hannegan protested, “Sir, why punish them? Because of them you found out where we went. They did what I asked them to do. They’re...”
“Did you not instruct them to remain silent about this visit?”
“They violated your trust. I cannot have people like that here. And soldiers cannot spread gossip about some earthly paradise. Such lies destroy the spirit of our community.”
Bear raised his whip. “I could use this to punish you all, but I’ve decided on something better. All four of you are banished from Omahatown. Go now! You are not welcome here.”
He gave Hannegan a shove, then Jennifer. They turned and faced the open prairie, seeing nothing but tall grass waving in the wind stretching to a horizon of bright blue mottled with puffy cumulus clouds.
“How can we survive out there?” said Naru, his voice trembling.
“Hand them some spears!” shouted Bear.
As they shuffled through the gate, Bear reared back and swung his giant arm, hitting Hannegan’s face so hard that he fell. The pain was incredible. He fingered his jaw, unsure if it was broken, wiped blood from his cheek, stood and, with as much dignity as he could muster, continued walking toward the prairie, never looking back, never saying a word.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Bill Kowaleski