Note to our readers: The site is giving me fits. On this page alone, it duplicated nearly 500 words worth of paragraphs. I hope I got it fixed, but as bleary as my brain was by the end of the process, there are no guarantees.____Ghost
For Dawg and the other twenty-one newbies willing to assimilate at Fort 24, the week went by in a blur. The teenager didn’t even have time to focus his hormones on the pretty girl or even a stray sheep; he was too busy trying to figure out which courses to take. Thankfully, he wouldn’t be facing any remedial reading, writing, or ‘rithmetic classes, having tested out surprisingly well on those. The remarkable lady at Fort Steel they’d only known as the Teacher had done an outstanding job.
He even possessed a bit of skill in basic algebra and plane geometry, though he hadn’t known that’s what they were called. Sneaky Teacher.
Renegade Rodney Upward was another matter. Dawg’s host family, the Johnsons, were thoroughly plugged into the local Fort 24 grapevine, missing very little that went on from upper to lower valley. According to them, the redhead had sneered at Fort rules for two full days before succumbing. Apparently, he wasn’t too fond of being thrown out of his own host family’s domicile for refusing to muck out the stables, spent two nights sneaking into barns and burrowing into hay piles to keep from freezing to death as the temperature dropped, got caught in the act of stealing hen’s eggs and eating them raw, lost the fight with the homeowner even after trying to stab the man with a pitchfork, and finally caved after being locked up in Lower Valley’s one and only jail.
Which did not have heat.
No one trusted the boy as far as they could throw him one handed, but he was being fed now and mucking stalls without audible complaint, though his scowls were the stuff of legends. “You could use his expression to frighten little children,” Hiram Johnson assured Dawg one evening, “but he’s studying the remedial classes. Ain’t saying he’ll make it, but we’ve seen worse. Jeb Strake assigned him a bunk in what we call Holdover House. He’s the only newbie living there, but ol’ Jeb won’t be letting him get away with much, and he’s got till spring to fish or cut bait. Won’t be no traders leaving 24 until then anyway.”
In the end, Dawg registered for several required classes and, thanks to his already impressive education from the Teacher, quite a few optional studies. The cream of the crop among the latter included Horses, Mules, and Oxen, taught by Bradley Sedlacek, Grunt’s eldest son. He was really looking forward to that one.
First session of the first class, right after morning chores, was another matter. Required, this one, and titled simply “Why 24?” Class description described it as “Theory behind the past, present, and future of Fort 24 as a functioning society.” Whatever the heck that meant.
It did not surprise him greatly to see all twenty-two members of his peer group in attendance–lacking only number twenty-three, one self-proclaimed outcast known as Rodney Upward. Of course the resentful redhead wouldn’t be part of this; Fort administration did not suffer fools lightly, nor allow them to taint the rest of the apple barrel. The teacher was another matter. The man was old, using a cane and bordering on rickety if not already there. Blackfaced, a relatively mild case that left his face spotted like the rump of a leopard Appaloosa horse. He’d written his name in white chalk on one of several broad sheets of black slate spanning the entire front wall of the room: Victor George. His frame was broad, though his posture was anything but erect and he peered from under bushy white eyebrows, his bloodshot brown eyes set in a droopy-jowled face worthy of a bloodhound. If there was a face that said, I’ve seen it all, his was the one.
Dawg again chose a seat in the back row, sparing little more than a quick glance toward Pretty Girl as she chatted animatedly with another, much dumpier lass.
Males settled in on either side of Dawg’s desk, a short but fat fellow on his left and a lantern jawed older man–in his thirties at least–on his right. He still didn’t remember the names of any of his peers other than the absent Renegade Rodney and the three who’d ridden in his wagon from Fort Steel.
Their teacher didn’t waste any time. “My name, as you can see,” he began, gesturing toward the slate, “is Victor George. You can call me Victor or you can call me George. Just don’t call me late for supper. Now…why did twenty-four people decide to found a settlement in this mountain valley?” He paused for a beat or two, not really expecting an answer. “I’ll tell you why. That’s the purpose of this class. People, there will be quizzes and tests! There will be discussions! There will be assigned reading! I enthusiastically advise you to take notes, or if you’re not yet literate, to get with some of your fellow students who know how to write and form study groups. I don’t care how you learn it, but learn it you will! There is nothing-not! One! Single! Thing! More important than understanding Why Fort 24?”
He paused, his great head swinging from side to side, his bloodshot eyes raking each and every member of his audience. The force of his personality, the passion when he spoke, these were completely at odds with his worn and battered physical appearance. When this man lectured, he was transformed.
Dawg sat transfixed for several seconds, than grabbed his quill pen and began scribbling like crazy. Nothing more important.
Victor George resumed as if he’d never left off. “Overview, part one. Learn this! Every one of our founders–and in case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m one of them–every one of us knew the Ancient Times because we had lived in them. Every one of us saw a world of magic stripped away like that!” He snapped his fingers, the sound making several of the students jerk in their seats. “Those of you in this class who are Survivors as I am, you know what I’m talking about. Humans swarmed the planet like ants; in many locations around the globe, more than the entire population of this valley lived–if you could call it that–lived in a single square mile. Where there were too many people to fit on a given piece of land, we had structures built that stacked us one on top of the other, sometimes as much as a hundred levels high or more.
“And fools that most of us were, we believed we had it good. You younger folks would call much of it magic. Roads of asphalt and concrete everywhere, and wheeled vehicles able to travel on them at monster speeds, two days travel on a good horse in a single hour. The magic enclosed these wonder boxes on wheels, too; we could punch a button and cool the air inside the enclosure or warm it at our pleasure. Music and other entertainment flew invisibly through the air into these wheeled boxes, letting us tap our toes or sing instead of needing to watch the environment for marauding raiders or grizzly bears or whatever.
“In the air, the magic was even stronger; we crossed the continent in flying cans in a mere portion of a single day. We carried little flat hard pads and tapped messages on them, buying luxuries from anywhere in the world with a little piece of plastic called a credit card and nothing real about any of it except agreed upon numbers, nothing but numbers. Food of a thousand kinds, medicine for everything you could imagine.”
He stopped again, his chest heaving as he sucked in air. Whether his need for oxygen was an outgrowth of passion or a failure of his body, Dawg had no idea…but the man’s eyes burned.
“Yes, we had it all. Girls, you want a handsome man for a mate? Before, you could punch buttons on these hard pads and the magic would give you a list of men who might be interested in what you had to offer. If you didn’t feel attractive enough? If you had the money–it was all about money–you could pay a doctor to pump salt water into little bags inserted under your skin so that your breasts became immediately magnificent. If your face sagged like mine does now, you could pay to have that all fixed back up so you looked thirty years younger.
“And I could go on, and on, and on…but that is only one side of the equation. Can anyone guess what the other side might be?” He glared around the room, daring them. No one dared. “No? Well now, here’s a clue or two.”
The teacher turned to the board, grabbed a piece of chalk and began sketching, his voice rising and falling over his shoulder as he drew so that every student had to lean forward, paying the utmost attention for fear of missing something. Victor George had their complete attention.
“Here.” He drew a small but sharply defined circle. “That was us, the good guys and gals, the people who worked for a living and took care of business, the folks who didn’t invade your privacy unless you invaded theirs first.” Dawg noticed the circle was pretty close to dead center on the center slate board.
“Now, all that magic that let people communicate, it did more than just bring good stuff to your door. It also brought evil.” He slashed a few lines on the board, creating a knife aimed at the little circle, dripping blood. “Let’s call this bloody knife government. Governments both local and national could spy on us with all this magic, and they did, and they used the knowledge they gained to control every aspect of our lives, to punish us for speech they didn’t like, to take our money and wherever possible our weapons by force. Here, let’s call this one crime. Criminals used the magic to spy on us as well, to steal from us, or to extort, sometimes even to stalk and murder. Now, religious fanatics. They got spied on, but they spied on us, too, and practiced terrorism with bombs and guns and poisons. They even started wars, and their goals were often to wipe us out completely if we chose not to believe as they believe.” The blood-dripping knives, up to three now, were beginning to surround the little circle.
Dawg felt a chill running down his spine. He ignored it, sketching his own circle, his own bloody knives. A sense of horror was growing in his awareness, though he shoved it to one side to concentrate on the lesson.
Now the teacher switched weapons, sketching a heavy hammer slamming toward the little circle. “Sloth! People who didn’t have to lift a finger to receive food, water, medical care, even entertainment…they became lazy! Add a sense of entitlement (another hammer) to help us feel the world owed us a living, and the prescription for disaster was complete. Plug in a belief that anyone who thought differently than we did deserved a punch in the face (the sketch threw Dawg briefly until he recognized it as a set of brass knuckles) and the fire was lit under the witch’s cauldron.”
In the end, Victor George’s slate board sported one tiny circle surrounded by seventeen different weapons intent on the circle’s destruction. He lectured quickly, though, and dismissed the class early–but with a ton of homework. On their way out of the room, the students picked slips of paper from a bowl on the instructor’s desk, learning only then the name of the library book with which they must be familiar by the following week’s class. Second to last out, followed only by Fat Boy (and admiring the way Pretty girl moved as she headed for the door), Dawg drew a book titled 1984, by George Orwell.
He only hoped it wasn’t a fat book. With his course load, reading by candlelight through the nights wouldn’t be out of the question.