It was sundown by the time Grunt made it to the young blue spruce standing alone on the rise above his home cabin. The freight wagon had to be delivered to the Quartermaster for unloading and recording, the newcomers needed to know where to go for lodging and meals until they could be integrated into the community, and of course his sons had to get in their licks, too. Bradley, all serious and a bit full of himself, citing the number of colts in this year’s crop and which ones he thought would train up best. Weston, nervous and excited about his upcoming marriage to Delana Havens. Curt, baby of the family but twenty-one now, newly promoted to Sergeant in Fort 24’s military, working with the other troops half days during the weeks and overseeing the sentinel rotation on the weekends.
“Another round under my belt, Merry,” he said quietly, laying one great hand on the tree. “Nobody lost, not even a critter. Four slaves freed and all of them looking like they’ll be great additions to 24, including a teenager who reminds me of me and a five year old boy you’d never be able to resist for a second.” He chuckled, turning his back to the spruce and leaning against the sturdy trunk. “Dawg did ask me why we call it Fort 24 when it’s not even a fort. He’s a good one, honey. One of the best we’ve found since the 24 of us came together in the beginning.”
For a long time as light continued to fail, Jake Sedlacek stood like that, not really thinking, just gazing out over the hollow hidden in the folds of the valley. Bare land and one great source of running water, game galore…that’s what had been here when they’d stopped and stared, knowing this was the place they’d put down their first real roots since the Fall.
“Look at it now, sweetheart,” he murmured. “Only seven of us pioneers left now, but we got it established. We really did it.”
He let his knees buckle, slowly sliding down Merry’s Tree until he sat, long legs stretched out before him, awaiting the rise of the full moon, utterly content. It had been his wife’s idea to handle dead bodies this way. No cremation because without an oven there was such a danger of fire during the warmer months, and besides, Miriam “Merry” Sedlacek had been born Jewish. She was not big on ovens. No headstones because Before-style graves were in her opinion a waste of time, effort, and arable land. It was standard Fort 24 practice now, bury your loved one in a plain cloth wrapper and plant a tree over his (or her) resting spot. Nutrients from the decaying body would be sucked up by the tree roots, recycled into bark and leaf and cone.
Or in the case of the Upper Valley Browns, recycled into an entire one acre patch of choke cherry trees complete with the finest fruit on the planet. The Browns had lost a lot of family members over the years.
If Dawg had harbored any remaining fatigue after being called to breakfast by his host family well before the rooster crowed, the twit he met on the way to the schoolhouse blew it right out of his thoughts. “Rodney Upward,” the redheaded stranger announced, sticking out his hand for the fifteen year old to shake. Dawg stared at the meaty paw, bemused. What was he supposed to do with it? Slave life at Fort Steel hadn’t exactly schooled him in the finer points of etiquette practiced throughout the world. His first instinct was to draw the belt knife Mr. Hanson had gifted him that morning as a replacement for the spears he’d been assured were inappropriate for Orientation Day. Was this boy’s move a prelude to a martial arts strike, perhaps? A feint, or an aborted version of what Grunt called a jab? Uncertain and not wishing to make a wrong move on his first full day in Fort 24, he managed not to skewer the dude.
Which turned out to be fortunate. Finally realizing Rodney Upward must be the young man’s name, he managed a lame, “I’m Dawg.” The steps into the Lower Valley conference room were close; hopefully he could find a spot to himself inside, preferably with his back to a wall. But not a corner. Corners limited your options something fierce.
“Dog? You’re named after a pooch?” Rodney was grinning, a toothy exhibition that would have made most beavers jealous. This kid looked like he could chew trees and spit toothpicks. “Who names their son after a bow-wow?”
“Daw-w-g,” he drawled with far more patience than he felt. “Dawg is kind of drawn out. A bad mofo. Not a butt licker. Except Slash is a dog, technically I guess, and it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to let him hear you refer to him as a butt licker.”
The redhead stared at him. “Man, do you even talk English? Moefoe? What’s that?”
Miraculously, they were up the steps and through the double doors now. Six years of slavery to often brutal masters, capped off with a full month of traveling and working with Grunt on a trail where death might well be waiting pretty much anywhere, had honed the young warrior’s senses to a razor’s edge. The ability to assess a new situation within split seconds came in handy now. Their Orientator, a middle sized and middle aged woman with piercing green eyes and a beak of a nose sharp enough to slice melons, stood behind a sizeable desk at the front of the room. He was early enough; Mr. Hanson had said there would be twenty-three of them attending Orientation this morning but only three seats were filled. Two older men, both showing the blackface marks of Survivors, and one twenty-something woman who looked like she knew them; the three had chosen desks in the second row from the front.
Without hesitation, Dawg made his way to the back row, choosing a seat just to the right of one of the big support posts. Thankfully, he settled into the chair, taking careful note of the rolls of parchment, ink pot, and quill lying on the lap board, ready for use.
Unfortunately, Rodney Upward the Talker had followed him, taking the seat next to his right. “They expect us to…take notes or something?” The boy sounded fearful, as if the quill might be a timber rattler, coiled and ready to strike.
It looked like he was stuck with the guy. For now. “That’s usually what you do with quill and parchment.”
“But…hey, aren’t you one of those slaves who came in with the giant? Do you know how to write? That’s pretty crazy for a slave, ennit?”
“I’m no scribe,” Dawg shrugged, “but yeah, I can write a little. Enough to take notes if it seems important. Have to use my own code for some of it.”
“But…since when are slaves literate? I mean I never been around any slaves before but don’t masters keep them ignorant as a way of controlling them?”
“Guess you’re not quite as stupid as you look,” he muttered under his breath.
“What was that?”
“I said you’re right if you go by the book. But the place I was held slave, it’s called Fort Steel, there’s a teacher there. She educates anybody who wants to be educated. Taught us a lot. Mostly in secret, after nightfall, though I think they probably knew she was doing it. Seemed like they didn’t want to mess with her as long as we didn’t stick it in their faces. And believe me, none of us were stupid enough to do that.”
The conversation, if it could be called such, continued in that vein until the Orientator got their attention by ringing a huge bell. He wondered how she held it up; the woman must be a lot stronger than she looked.
“First of all,” she began, “welcome, everybody, to Fort 24. My name is Lynn Burch, your Orientator for today. You can call me by name; I don’t require anyone to address me by my title.” She followed that with roll call, asking each newcomer to give his or her name and a tiny bit of information about the community of origin. Dawg remembered none of it, with a few exceptions: Kiko and Gloria were positioned in the back row also, but nearer the door, with little Free solemnly occupying his own chair between them. A rather pretty girl on the far side of the room was nursing a baby and taking notes at the same time. Rodney Upward came from a place called Burbs which he made sound like such a paradise it made no sense for him to be here at all.
“Well now, people,” the Orientator beamed at them, rubbing her hands either in glee or because the wood stove wasn’t throwing much heat her way, “my task is to give you an overview of what you can expect before you make a decision about your next steps to become functioning citizens here at Fort 24. Over the next few days, you will have classes with more than thirty people whose expertise is invaluable, all of them specialists in one or more fields of endeavor as we continue to build our society from the center outward. There are nearly three hundred different occupations from which to choose. You can even mix and match, apply your efforts to two or even three different careers at the same time. That’s rare, but it can be done and has been done.”
Dawg’s brain had just short circuited. Nearly three hundred occupations? Choice? Most of the people in the room, he realized, looked just as gobsmacked as he did. He shook his head to try to clear it and nearly missed the next part.
“It’s not up to me to list all two hundred and ninety-two specialties. We’d be here all day, you’d be overwhelmed and bored out of your skulls, and besides, the list is on the parchment scrolls on your lap boards–no, don’t unroll those yet. You will have time to peruse them at your leisure later.”
Leisure? The young warrior had heard the word before, but it was not something applicable to him. Was it?
“For now, let me just touch on a few of the better known career paths. All of you are familiar with the Traders. Obviously, since a Trader led you here or you would not be here at all. But to carry that title, a Trader has to be qualified in a great number of disciplines, including mathematics to at least include algebra and plane geometry, tradecraft, societal norms and deviations around the planet, ancient Before history and modern After history, unarmed combat, close quarters weapons combat, ranged combat, tracking, stealth techniques, the art of language, wagon construction and maintenance, diplomacy, spy craft, cooking, weapons construction from raw materials, various forms of healing, edible herbs, livestock for meat, livestock for wool, livestock for milk, horsemanship, the art of handling a team, tack repair, grief counseling, mapmaking and reading, navigation by dead reckoning and several other methods, the use of herbs in the wild, plants both edible and poisonous, animals of the wild, the treatment of rattlesnake bite, and more.”
Dawg glanced at Rodney. The redhead was sitting as still as a block of petrified wood, mouth agape, staring at the Orientator. The warrior knew just how he felt. You’ve got to be kidding.
Lynn Burch smiled benignly at the stunned class. “I don’t blame you, people. Our Traders are much more than they seem, are they not? They serve as our interface with the outside world; they have to be highly qualified. But lets move on, shall we? Other careers are available in Sewer Design and Maintenance…Hydro Power…Milling, Baking, Herding, Sentinel/Military, Militia, Home Design and Construction. Healing, Herbs, Crops, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. But do you know what the most crucial career of all might be, the one most highly regarded, the one that rates the highest pay here at 24? Any guesses?” Her eyes twinkled, surveying her thoroughly overwhelmed audience, few of whom had understood a word she’d said.
“That would be…Information!” She began pacing back and forth at the front of the room, gesturing, animated. “Nothing else is as powerful as information. In the center of Lower Valley Town, not far from here–we’ll take a tour there after lunch–stands the real secret of our success as a community, from the day of Founding through today and going forward into the future. Built of logs and covered with stucco like every other structure in the valley, the stucco added mostly to protect against incursion by fire or vermin, the Lower Valley Library covers six thousand square feet of space, with anti-pest and anti-rot treated plank flooring and never fewer than three librarians on call from first light until midnight. The windows are many, but small and set high to make human invasion impossible by that route. There is only one door, one way in and one way out, with two highly trained members of the militia on guard in the vestibule around the clock. Our Traders seek books more than any other item on their terribly dangerous journeys Outside. We prize new people, too, never doubt that, but information! Information is king!”
The pretty girl raised her hand, the baby asleep on her shoulder. “Miss Burch? Does that mean…are there openings for librarians? Once we’ve studied enough, I mean….”
“Yes!” The Orientator pounded her fist on her desk, causing several of those in the front row to jump in their seats. “There are always openings for qualified librarians! One of the greatest sins of the ancient Before world was the burning of the great library at Alexandria! Oh, I would not for one second suggest that all of the answers to our ills, all the solutions to the blockages of progress, or all of the methods by which man’s inhumanity to man–no, not all of these can be found in books. But there is so much that can.”
“Bit dotty, isn’t she?” Rodney Upward was shaking his head in disbelief.
Burch stopped and shook herself like a wet dog, seeming to come out of a sort of trance. “These are just two of two hundred and ninety-two possibilities–or maybe three hundred; new possibilities seem to open up nearly every day. But I would be remiss did I not tell you that first and foremost, before you can sign up to study toward any of the career paths and begin to take classes and sometimes become apprentices to achieve your wildest dreams, there is one hard and fast rule. Each and every one of you must, if you choose to become a part of our thriving society in truth, you must be able to read, write, and do basic arithmetic calculations at the very least. Some of you may be able to pass our tests on one or more of the three R’s here and now. Others will be starting from scratch. But no one gets a free pass.”
Rodney Upward could contain himself no longer. His hand shot into the air, but he was speaking (loudly) before Lynn Burch even had the chance to notice him. “And what if we decide not to go along with that?” There was defiance in his voice, the eternal aggression of the natural born redheaded Irishman having a snit.
“Well then.” The Orientator peered at him, giving the impression she might be slightly nearsighted. “Mr. Upward, is it?”
“Well then, Mr. Upward. Should you choose not to participate, not to complete the basic required curriculum–or perhaps find yourself unable to do so, due to either a mental deficiency or an emotional deficiency–”
“A what?” Rodney’s eyes blinked rapidly as he tried to work that one out.
“I’ll rephrase. If you’re either too stupid or too wussy to tough it out enough to learn to read, write, and do sums, then you will be presented with a choice. You can work at the most menial tasks available for the rest of your life, shoveling manure or something of that sort, or you can leave.”
“Leaving is starting to sound pretty good right now,” the boy muttered.
Burch, unfortunately, possessed hearing as keen as her eyesight was dim. “It may sound good, but know this. By order of the Council, anyone who chooses to leave does so in a specific manner. He is blindfolded and shackled in a wagon, like a slave or prisoner, and transported far, far away, a thousand miles or more, in a different direction than that from which he arrived. This is done so that he cannot know how to find Fort 24 from his new position. He is left with the basic tools for survival and a basic set of clothing suitable to the climate where he is dropped. If he attempts to follow the Trader who carried him there, he is killed on sight–and the Trader, trust me on this, will see him long before he sees the Trader. He will die never knowing it was coming.”
“Murder,” the boy breathed, hate in his eyes. “Nothing but murder.” He jerked to his feet, upsetting the chair and sending the lapboard flying. Dawg lunged sideways, keeping his own board level while snatching the ink bottle out of the air before it could hit the floor. Upward was gone, storming out.
Lynn Burch watched him go, her expression calm and untroubled. Rodney Upward was not the first to have trouble accepting the Rules of 24. In the end, he might work it out or he might not. Either way, it was not her problem.
But it was an opportunity for the rest of the class. “Can anyone tell me why we would go to such effort to remove one dissenter from our midst?” Her tone was sweet and innocent.
Without thinking, Dawg found himself standing, his voice evenly modulated. “Contrary to Rodney’s knee jerk reaction, 24 does not commit murder. In fact, the very opposite. If one cannot fit into the local society with any degree of conformity, he must be removed. I would be quite astounded if any Trader tasked with removal of a failed citizen would ever waste his trip; in all likelihood, the chosen destination allows the wagons to be filled before they return. And if the outcast is not willing to shovel sh–manure, yet has not mastered sufficient skill to survive the wilderness by the time he has pushed the issue, he has killed himself. Suicide by lack of common sense.
“Beyond that, it’s a big world. We are a very small part of it, a tiny dot on any true map of planet Earth. There are without question larger groups out there somewhere, perhaps survivors of the great Before coastal cities or survivors in areas far across the great waters like in what used to be China or other places. For most of us, Fort 24 seems huge, many square miles in total, with as I understand it dozens of small dwelling clusters making up the whole and a ring of rugged mountains that could easily lead to a false sense of security. But the others will come, tomorrow, next year, or next century, but they will come, and we are not ready to survive first contact. We must grow, but not in any haphazard fashion. There must be a plan set by the Founders, a republic large enough and strong enough and by the Creator wily enough to remain a major player when humanity once again begins to cover the Earth like mold on month-old bread.
“The security measures as I understand them so far, including the far-dropping of those who have proven they can only be a drag on our energies, are far from cruel or unnecessary. They are, in fact, the bare minimum we can afford.”
Drained as if his own energy had leaked out through the fire hose of words, he sat back down, picking up the lapboard and waiting quietly. The rest of the class sat motionless as well, staring at him in unadulterated shock. Orientator Burch looked little less affected.
She stirred herself with an effort. “That…pretty well sums it up. I have to say, Mr. Dawg, you are something of a surprise.”
Yeah, he thought. I have no idea where that came from, either.