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Canticles for a New World

by Bill Kowaleski

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3


They walked toward the rising sun, reaching the top of the bluff when little daylight remained. Looking longingly at the city below them, Hannegan said, “We’ll camp here. There’s brush for a fire. Naru and Josiah, can you get us one of those bison down there? Hurry, before night falls.”

Every boy in Omahatown learned to hunt bison at an early age, and so they ate well that night. Hannegan chewed gingerly, his jaw painful, the entire left side of his face swollen.

They huddled together as close to the fire as they dared. As the stars blazed above them in a moonless sky, the night grew colder, and even the fire failed to warm them. It was almost November, and Hannegan knew that they could surely not survive long on the open plains.

But worse things than cold threatened them. Just beyond the light of the campfire, eyes glowed. Naru and Josiah held their spears while Hannegan and Jennifer slept, but in the deepest part of the night the boys nodded, and then the wolves were upon them.

They went for the bison meat first. It was the growling that roused Hannegan. He shouted, stirred the fire, stood. Naru and Josiah sprang to their feet and pointed their spears toward the wolves. But they were many, and in no mood to give up the meat.

Hannegan threw a burning branch into their midst, but it scattered them for only a few seconds. Naru made a brave charge, but two wolves turned and leapt on him. Within seconds they were tearing flesh from his body. Hannegan jumped atop one of the wolves, wrapped his arm around its neck and pulled hard. He heard a snap and it fell suddenly, twitching. He rolled away, and now more wolves entered the camp.

He swore to go down fighting, standing before Jennifer, determined to protect her until the end. How he longed for an effective weapon, a weapon forged of steel, a weapon that his creed could not allow.

As four wolves slowly converged on him, he heard a sharp cracking noise, then another, then at least four more. Wolves fell, one by one, all around them. The remaining wolves scattered. Hannegan, confused, unable to see beyond the dim light of the fire, rushed to Naru, but the boy wasn’t breathing. Then came rustling and the sound of human feet trudging through the grass.

Six men, all clad in robes that covered them head to foot, entered the camp, heads turning, eyes scanning. They carried long tubes that Hannegan knew must be firearms. One of the men approached the fire. The orange glow lit his face allowing Hannegan to see that it was Lieutenant Ortega.

“Thank you!” shouted Hannegan. “Thank you from the bottoms of our hearts!”

Ortega looked down at Naru. “Did they get him?”

“Yes, I think he’s dead.”

“Damn shame. We’d been watching you with our night vision equipment. We saw the wolves but thought they wouldn’t approach the fire. Once they attacked, we left the stockade and got here as soon as we could. Why are you out here? Don’t you know how dangerous it is?”

“I do, but our leader expelled us for visiting you. We’re homeless.”

Ortega shook his head, then said, “It’s not an easy world for idealists.” He put his hand on Hannegan’s shoulder. “What do you say about firearms now, Reverend? They just saved your life.”

Hannegan turned away. For a long moment he said nothing, then, “I’m happier to be talking to you than digesting in some wolves’ stomachs. I can’t deny it.”

“You were persuasive in your sermons,” said Ortega. “All that technology, all the death it led to. But then I came to Platte Island and I saw the other side.”

Hannegan nodded, but said nothing more.

“Let’s get moving,” said Ortega. “It’s cold out here. We’ll shelter you in our stockade the rest of the night. Only way I can bring you all into Platte Island Commune is as prisoners. You okay with that?”

Hannegan sighed. “Even an idealist can see that there’s no alternative.”

* * *

Hannegan, Jennifer, and Josiah all agreed: if this was the Platte Islanders’ concept of prison, then living freely here would be pure paradise. In a longhouse that abutted the silent nuclear reactor, they rested comfortably in two separate rooms with soft beds, blankets, heat, electric light, running water, a toilet, and a shower. Their food was simple, but far better than the seared buffalo meat and boiled roots that were staples in Omahatown.

Josiah swore there was nothing he wouldn’t do to secure citizenship in the commune. But three days after their arrival, at a meal in the commons at the center of the longhouse, under the watchful eyes of four robed guards, he also swore revenge on Bear. “Naru was my friend, and Bear threw him to the wolves. I will never forget that, even if it takes the rest of my life to make Bear pay.”

Hannegan sat, head down, wringing his hands. He fretted, hearing what Josiah was saying, but beset by his own demons. All that had happened stirred inside him, boiling over until he shouted, “What have I done?!”

He turned to the guards. “Please, inform the Archivist that I would like a meeting.”

A young, gray-green robed soldier nodded, spun, and marched out of the room. He returned just minutes later and led Hannegan into the same conference room they’d used on his first visit. Francis Gerard sat at a middle seat alone. He motioned with his hand to a seat opposite when Hannegan entered, but never offered a handshake or a friendly word.

“We’ve been discussing your situation,” said the Archivist. “It’s difficult. We don’t want to exile you to certain death, but we don’t want you here stirring up trouble either. I’d been hoping you’d have a proposal for me, a solution to our dilemma. Is that why you asked for this meeting?”

Hannegan nodded. “First of all, whatever you decide for me, Jennifer and Josiah can contribute to your community. Jennifer was our town’s expert on prairie plants. She knows about everything that grows out there. And Josiah will make a good soldier given proper training and discipline.”

“He’ll get that here. I’m not standing in their way. I have little doubt that they’ll both be accepted as citizens. Now what about you? Why this urgent meeting?”

“You really shook me up, Archivist, when you told me how my Simplification message had been twisted and distorted. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’ve also seen the effect that your community’s higher level of technology has on our young soldiers.

“Simplification is not only wrong, it’s doomed to fail. People aren’t going to choose to live in primitive, low-tech communities if they can do better, and the higher-tech communities will eventually overwhelm the lower tech ones anyway.”

Archivist Gerard smiled. “So is this your way of begging us to let you become a part of our community, now that you have no other choice but living in the wild?”

“Yes, quite frankly it is. And you’re right: faced with the ultimate Simplification, I quickly saw the fatal flaws in my ideology.”

“Remember our rule, Mr. Hannegan: you have to contribute. What can you do for us?”

“I’m an educated man,” said Hannegan, “Literate, mathematically capable. I’m sure there are many ways I can contribute. But I’d like to propose something more.

“I’m sure that you’re a man familiar with history. When has there ever been a society that existed without religion? Perhaps you don’t have spiritual needs, Mr. Gerard, but most people need to believe that their lives have some meaning beyond mere survival and reproduction, and they need to believe that there is some greater power that watches over them.”

“You’re right,” the Archivist replied. “People do need meaning. Our purpose here is to preserve and pass on the knowledge of the Times Before. That’s our ‘religion’, if you need to use that word, Mr. Hannegan. That knowledge gives us the power to protect ourselves better than any spirit in the sky could.”

Hannegan smiled. “You’ve got me there, Mr. Gerard. But do you remember what Lieutenant Ortega said when he entered the room during my first visit? He said, ‘We have everything here but a spiritual leader’. I contend, with all due respect, that while you may be performing your duties, while you may be fulfilling the purpose of your community, that there is still something lacking. Your own soldier said so. I can fill that void.”

Gerard sat motionless, his eyes wandering. He looked down a long few seconds, then looked up and said, “There is something going on here...”

He paused, as if searching for the right words. “Very well, here it is. We have a problem I think you could help us solve. Commander Miller already told you that we have occasional problems with Simplifiers. Right now, there’s a small group of younger citizens meeting secretly. They’ve got transcripts of some of your sermons, and tracts written by more fanatic Simplifiers. We have a spy watching them, but if they knew you were right here on Platte Island...”

“I could help you defuse them, tell them why Simplification can’t work.”

The Archivist shook his head firmly. “No, they’d just reject you as an apostate. You have to do more: establish a new theology and teach it to the commune, step by step.

“Those people are the ones you’ve been talking about. They need something to believe in. You could give them something better than what they have now. An alternative theology would not only weaken the current Simplifier cell, it could inoculate us from future problems with Simplifiers.

“This would be a kind of trial period for you. We’d see whether you can really contribute to the commune. Are you prepared to preach against what you formerly believed, Reverend?”

Hannegan looked down a second, then fixed his gaze into Gerard’s eyes. “There’s just one thing that continues to trouble me, Archivist, and perhaps you have some thoughts on this matter.”

“Please continue.”

“How do we prevent the kinds of abuse of technology that led to the Great Dying? How do we stop future generations from making the same mistakes as our predecessors? The old faiths taught exactly that but weren’t heeded.”

Gerard sighed. “Yes, Reverend, I’ve thought a lot about that. I’ve wondered a thousand times whether I was really doing the right thing preserving all this dangerous information. I finally decided that there’s really only one thing I know for sure: At some point in the great vastness of time, people will make the same mistakes again. They will do terrible things to each other using the knowledge we’re preserving. You can depend on it.”

“Then, why...” Hannegan stopped because he realized that he already knew the answer.

The Archivist nodded, smiled, said, “Yes, in the end, we want to feel safe and warm in our homes. We want to know that there’s a reliable supply of food. We want our children to grow up safely, to have a better life than we had. We want to alleviate suffering, to cure diseases, to enjoy a long life. It’s that simple, isn’t it? All those desires, none of them unreasonable, none of them in any way malevolent; yet what we do to make a better life for ourselves so often leads to something that can be quite evil.”

They sat silently a long moment. Finally, Hannegan said, “You’re asking a lot of me: to create a new religion that can somehow teach people to use science and technology only for good. No one has ever succeeded at that.”

“You created a successful religion once before.”

Hannegan shook his head. “That was easy. I stole old ideas and mashed them together. It was just plagiarism.”

Gerard waved his hand in a circle above his head. “All around you is the accumulated knowledge of humankind. There must have been people in the Times Before who addressed this problem, who perhaps already had a solution. But things had gone too far by then, and they weren’t heard. Use our library to develop your new creed. But don’t forget, the Simplifiers threaten us now. We need you to get started.”

“Yes,” said Hannegan. “It’s worth a try, it will be a great accomplishment, if I can do it. And while I’m trying, I can preach a message consistent with Platte Island’s mission. Yes, Archivist, I am getting excited about this. I want to be a part of your community!”

Archivist Gerard rose and extended his hand. “Allow me, then, to be the first to welcome you to Platte Island, Reverend. I wish you the best.”

Hannegan nodded, stood, shook Gerard’s hand, then turned toward the door. He felt relief but, much more than that, he felt an urgent need to get to work. There was so much to study, so many sermons to compose. And he had to do it right this time. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Copyright © 2015 by Bill Kowaleski

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