First the Good News...
New – 20 August 2005
A Glancing Blow
First the Good News...
Scott looked back down into the darkened enclave, his powerful flashlight searching the interior. It had been stripped of everything removable except some of the metal lockers. And these would have taken too long -- already the water was within six inches of the hatch, the wind occasionally tossing wavelets into the interior.
As the light roamed about the interior, Scott tried to think of a forgotten item, something they were unintentionally leaving behind. But the interior was clean. Tthey would have to close the hatch and leave. Perhaps some day they could return but Larry had no expectations. Turning away, he looked at Monica Harvey. She was holding the life raft to break up the waves trying to fill the enclave. Scott had a momentary thought that she had done it without a word and had never mentioned the fact that he was taking longer than necessary.
He was unsure of when Monica had attached herself to him. He had suddenly realized that he had begun to turn to her whenever he needed something. She was always right at hand whenever she could help, but he never felt as if she were crowding him. It was as if she could sense his needs just prior to his own realization and, in that short instant, she would be there for him.
Her presence pleased Scott even as he pulled the hatch up and began to secure it from the outside. Her careful devotion was an unexpected compliment. He had never run across a woman whose sole objective in life appeared to be to assist some particular man. And with Monica there was the constant assurance to Scott that she would always be there whenever needed, but never, never to intrude or overstate her case.
With the hatch fully dogged and prevented from opening, Larry thought momentarily of her silence. Monica never seemed to say anything. She apparently knew his needs, without asking, and she avoided all loose conversation so as not to interfere with his own thoughts. Or perhaps it was just that at sixteen, almost seventeen years of age, she really didn't know what to say. Either way, Scott had to wonder to himself if perhaps he would prefer her to talk more often.
As he turned to her, her smile brightened and, with a lilting cheerfulness, she asked, "Ready?" Uncanny, Scott thought. She knew him perfectly, equipped with a telepathic sense to let her know when he needed a simple word. Smiling broadly, his sense of steadiness and confidence in full bloom, Scott acknowledged, "Ready." He had not answered her so much as he had merely agreed with her.
They moved the life raft to where it attached to the lines linking it to the shore. Monica handed the guide rope to Scott as she positioned herself in the raft next to the last of the supplies from the enclave.
Larry took his own position immediately behind her and began to pull the raft toward the shore. With her body lightly brushing him, Scott wondered momentarily at the organization of the supplies and themselves in the raft. It had seemed obvious that each item should go where she had secured it. And, after a fashion, it seemed obvious that she would be next to him. What kept Scott marveling was that she was not interfering with him in any way as he pulled them toward shore. But she was definitely close to him, uncompromisingly forthright but without expectation or urging. Larry knew unerringly that Monica was there if and when he should ever want her.
A shout from the shore interrupted his thoughts as he simultaneously felt Monica stiffen ever so slightly. The moment had passed for now.
Quickly Tom Wirth was out to the raft, the water level up to his knees. He was clearly excited. “Everything okay?”
“No problem, Tom. What's the status here?”
“Great. We've got a surprise for you.”
Scott looked at Wirth for a moment with the wind ruffling his surprisingly long brown hair. “Let's hold the surprise for a moment while we get the raft up to the shelter.” The wind whipping at their words, Scott knew that the surprise, whatever it was, would be better told when they could relax in the shelter.
The delay did not seem to bother Tom at all. He answered, “Right!” His confidence seemed constantly on the rise.
Grabbing the secondary rope, Tom drew it taut and then jerked. The rope careened easily toward him. ‘The slipknot had worked just as planned,' Scott thought. And again it had been Tom's idea. They could not afford the idea of simply leaving the rope that linked the enclave and the shore. They might have no need of the enclave but would definitely want the rope. It did mean that finding the enclave again might be difficult, but the only reason to find it would be due to a major change in water level, and if that happened, it would then be easy to find a huge spherical shell sticking up out of the water.
As Tom reeled in the rope, Monica pulled the raft ashore with Scott's assistance. With it properly beached, Larry looked back at Tom who was leaving the water's edge with the rope partially coiled. Tom looked up, wondering if Scott sensed the same thought. Larry had already felt it the moment Tom had jerked the slipknot. They had broken away from a previous world. There was no going back.
Gathering the rope and supplies, the three of them carried the raft and its cargo toward the shelter. Off to the right lay the bodies of three of their people. Scott regretted momentarily that they had never found Tom Griffith, Leonard French, or Jim Wells. Apparently the explosion had blown them well clear. And soon they must bury the remains of little Mike Wells, Tom's oldest, Timothy, and Shari Harvey.
Shari's death had been a surprise to Scott. He knew that she had been badly hurt and was in considerable pain. Still he had become accustomed to people in that condition being saved. The problem, he surmised, was that they could not evacuate their wounded to well behind the front lines where they could recover in leisure. Rather, everyone was at the battle front with no place to which they could retreat.
Inside the makeshift shelter, nestled among large blocks of concrete rubble, Scott lowered himself to the ground, his entire body suddenly making all of its grievances known at once. Monica had gathered two plates of food from a slightly surprised Penny Griffith and returned to her place beside Scott. As she sat down to eat, Larry glanced up from his own food to watch Penny. She still had her eyes on Monica, with an expression that seemed to suddenly show more respect for the young woman.
The thought of a feminine conflict in their small group momentarily appalled Scott. Perhaps he was jumping to conclusions, but there was an undercurrent of personalities, each one shifting for a position in a new hierarchy. Larry looked over to Yasaitis' wife who still slept. The bandages on her eyes would delay her entrance into the social order. Yasaitis merely sat quietly beside her as if ready to defend her at a moment's notice. Then Scott saw Penny watching him. She quickly gave him a smile of assurance, then looked knowingly back toward Monica.
Scott ignored the gesture and returned to his food while his thoughts continued their inventory of personalities. George Harvey was a medical doctor and would hold on to that position regardless of what might happen. Tom and Ida Wirth seemed content to assist, while Pat Wells seemed interested only in herself. Yasaitis and Scott had always had a good relationship. They understood each other and Scott felt sure that he could always count on Yasaitis. That left only Penny and Monica without distinct positions. Perhaps, he thought, Penny could be a second-incommand and Monica a sort of special assistant. It might work at that. He would have to subtly infer to Penny her unofficial position. And, hopefully, there would be no conflict.
Suddenly he tasted the food. He had been eating some sort of mush with a spoon, only now realizing the taste. It seemed to have a mixture of honey and pickles. Scott gulped, frowning at the mixture. It was then Tom laughed, his face one of mischievous delight.
Scott looked up to see smiles on most of the others while Monica only looked perplexed and puzzled as she surveyed her plate. Slowly catching on, Larry asked, "What is it?"
Tom boasted, "Boiled atmospheric carbohydrates."
Scott looked at him incredulously. "What?"
“Manna from Heaven, hoarfrost.” Tom was clearly enjoying himself. “It's everywhere, laying on the ground, floating in the air. It's the carbohydrates that Jon Trippe had said might be present. Apparently it's a part of the atmosphere of the comet. And now it's part of ours. And, I suppose, the same Manna that the Israelites once existed on.”
Scott and Monica were still shocked. Monica voiced it, "ls it edible?"
Tom laughed even more while George Harvey, smiling, answered, "Oh, yes. And quite nourishing.”
“It tastes like shit!" Pat Wells blurted out. The attack silenced completely Tom's laugh. The others turned away as George retorted, "When there's nothing left to eat, you, too, may learn to like it."
"Go to hell, you bastard!” Pat was indignant.
Scott calmly said, "Shut up, both of you. It won't help to fight."
George quieted, but Pat Wells had to have the last word. "Linda and I will certainly not eat this garbage.”
"Well...” Scott quietly said after staring at her for just a moment, "That's of course your decision. But it does suggest that you may very well not eat.” Dismissing her with his eyes and ignoring her hateful glare, he turned back to the food. Struggling to find something tasty and attractive in the next mouthfuls of the mush, he turned momentarily to Monica.
Continuing to eat herself, she looked at him and smiled. Scott thought that, while Pat Wells could damn well go to hell, the lithesome creature next to him he would protect to the last breath. Monica was the reason for survival, even for the enclaves, and Scott would keep her safe, would provide for her in whatever manner might be required. Larry suddenly realized that Monica was the hope of the world and she would lack for no essentials. In Scott's mind it was paramount to a vow.
Scott moved slowly through the concrete rubble, evaluating the possibilities. Their makeshift shelter was proving itself inadequate; the tent portions flapping in the wind were becoming unbearable. Already Mildred Yasaitis had woken up screaming, the unceasing noises of earth and rushing air adding fuel to her nightmare fears. And, while the rubble of concrete and brick offered them a temporary sanctuary, it provided virtually nothing in the way of building materials. Most noteworthy was their inability to provide a roof with anything more substantial than canvas. And, even if they could put away the harsh annoyance of the wind and canvas struggle, it was only a short time before the wind would win out and rip the canvas from its moorings.
The decision to send out an exploration party had seemed totally reasonable. The problem has been the difficult choice of who was to go. Scott's first thought would have been to go himself, but George and Tom Wirth had convinced him otherwise. George did not want the only obvious leader to leave. Yasaitis still had a bad foot which would rule out any exploring on his part even if he continued to work hard around the camp. And, finally, Tom wanted very much to go himself. So, when Tom and his wife had set out, Scott had felt one of the most intense displeasures of leadership; he had temporarily lost all immediate control over the actions of those who would do his bidding, while at the same time Scott would still be assuming responsibility.
Tom's plan to move along the edge of the lake (if that was, in fact, what it was) and then moving inland occasionally with a line anchored to the water's edge seemed cautious enough. There was still the danger of becoming lost in the wind-blown smog of the atmosphere and wandering until exhaustion won out. But, with some care, they could manage. In any case, Scott would have to wait the eight hours that he had allotted Tom. Sighing deeply, Larry returned to the shelter.
As he approached the entrance he saw Monica huddled nearby, awaiting his return. As he moved up closer, she pointed to the shelter's makeshift door and yelled, "Trouble!”
Quickly Scott entered the shelter and immediately encountered the yelling in progress.
"Look, you bitch, you don't tell me or my daughter what to do!" Then Pat, turning from Penny, saw Scott. "Look hot shot! This little miss big shot isn't gonna order me around. She can just ...” her voice trailed off as she saw Scott's stern countenance.
His was a controlled rage when he demanded, "What the hell is going on here?"
Penny immediately answered, "I asked Linda to get off her duff and help ..."
"You don't order my Linda to do nothing, you..."
"Hold it!" Scott glared at the women, each in turn. "One at a time.” He then fixed on Pat, who hesitated only a moment.
"Mrs. Griffith," the words were almost spit out, "Has assumed that she is somehow in charge. So, instead of doing things herself, she wants to order the rest of us around. But I, for one, am having nothing of it. My daughter and I will do what we bloody well please.” She glared back at him, daring him to challenge her.
Scott watched her for a second. Then, as both George and Penny started to speak, he held up his hand and hushed them. Keeping his gaze fixed on Pat, he calmly but forcefully informed her, "As of this moment, whenever I'm not here, Penny Griffith is in charge. What she says goes. Understood?”
Pat looked at him unbelievingly. As if stunned by the complete incredibility of his statement, she mockingly inquired, "Who the hell died and left you in charge?" The smirk on her face railed at him.
Hesitating just a moment, he heard Penny answer simply, "My husband .”
Scott answered as well, "Whether you like it or not, Pat, I'm in charge. If you don't like how I'm running things, you can bloody well lump it." Quickly he glanced around the room; all were quick to acknowledge his statement and assumption of authority.
Pat had seen it too. Only she would not accept it. "They may be willing to knuckle under for you, but I damn well won't." Then, for effect, she added, "We're leaving! I don't have to listen to this rabble or…” She searched for an object and found it, "And I don't have to eat your boiled garbage.” When no one even thought to challenge her but rather simply watched for her next move, she turned away from them all and ordered, "Linda, gather our stuff. We're leaving."
As Linda tried to respond, she reached for a food locker. Penny slapped her hand away. She jerked back just as Pat turned to Scott for justice. Everyone sat for just a moment. Almost casually Scott reached over for a partially filled knapsack, examined it quickly, and began to add other supplies. Then he tied the knapsack and pitched it to Pat, almost knocking her over. Then he stood still, waiting for Pat's next move. It was a standard bluff for Scott. He expected her to now back down. But some people have never played poker, and have no idea how to call a bluff.
Instead Pat muttered a cry of "Bastard" and grabbed her daughter's hand and started toward the shelter's opening. With only a slight glance by Linda back at the others, they left. For a moment they all stood there, unbelieving. Scott kept thinking they'd be just outside waiting for an apology. The only question was how long to wait before going outside for some other reason.
When Penny started to check the supplies, Scott, sensing her unspoken question, replied, "Better to let them have something now than have them steal it later.” The idea seemed to satisfy Penny and slowly everyone started to find things to do.
Scott leaned back against a concrete wall, trying to sort out what had really happened just then. Monica settled down near him and, uncharacteristically, muttered, "Poor Linda." The phrase jerked at Scott's thoughts. Linda was but ten years old. Should she be leaving with Pat? Pat was clearly her mother but did her rights of parenthood extend that far?
As Scott ran the thoughts through his mind, a new idea struck him. Children, of themselves, were a bit of a nuisance. Or so it has often been claimed. In a climate of survival and struggle, they seemed to only add to the complexity. But if the truth be known, they were not only to be tolerated, they were be loved. They brought joys by their constant learning of the world and, perhaps most importantly, they were the continuation of the community – quite literally the lifeblood of the community. And, as such, the community must provide for them.
Suddenly a more critical point dawned on Scott. Children belonged not to their parents, but to the community. It was the sum total of the members that had responsibility for a child. Parents were only given the authority to exercise that responsibility on behalf of the community because it was likely that a parent would show more concern and be more motivated to strive for their child's benefit.
But when the interests of the child and community conflicted with the self-interest, even selfishness, of the parent, the responsibility reverted back to the community. Children were not chattel of the parents but represented the assets of the community.
Abruptly Scott moved. Grabbing the only remaining coil of rope, he announced the essence of his decision, "I've screwed up. She had no right to take the child along." With that, he left the shelter with the rope. Monica startled, hesitated only momentarily and followed.
Outside in the wind, he waited for just a second for Monica to join him and ordered, "Secure this to the big locker and then stay close behind me."
"What's happening?" The sudden shout startled them as Yasaitis stepped into view. Then he added, "I just saw Pat and Linda head out, all steamed. What's going on?"
Scott thought to tell him; then decided against it while they stood in the wind. "They'll tell you inside." Then, as an afterthought, "Penny's in charge until I get back.”
Yasaitis shook his head in agreement, indicated a rough direction in which Pat and Linda took, and then ducked into the shelter.
Gauging the direction Yasaitis pointed out, Scott instinctively recognized it as a path of least resistance, out across the flat wind-blown plain adjacent to the concrete rubble. For several moments they moved along, Monica carefully playing out line.
Suddenly they felt the earth tremble. It seemed a minor tremor, but was sufficient for Monica to lose her balance. His thoughts on her as he steadied himself, Scott's ears nevertheless picked up what he thought to be a scream. It would be just off to the right. He quickly marked the direction in his mind and turned to Monica. Quickly she was on her feet, apparently unhurt.
"Stay low. The wind will blow you down otherwise. And watch your step.” She assented and, because of her silence, he guessed that she had heard nothing.
They moved off in the new direction even more cautiously. Then his foot found a crack in the earth. He knelt down abruptly, Monica quickly following suit.
“Stay here,” he ordered. Seeing the sudden uncertainty in her eyes, he elaborated, “I think we're near the edge of some sort of a drop off. You stay here for just a second while I check up ahead.”
His guess had been correct. There was a drop off of which they had been unaware, one stretching out full length along a now crumbly edge. With the wind less intense just below the edge, there was slightly better visibility along the lower ground. Peering into the murk, he realized that the drop was nearly fifteen feet and ended in a pile of rubble, rock and fallen earth. Then, just off to his left, he glimpsed something. The wind and dust continued to minimize visibility but Scott was confident that he had seen both Pat and Linda near the bottom of the newly created cliff.
Returning to Monica, he told her nothing of what he had seen but quietly moved far enough to the left to put him just above where he thought Pat and Linda lay. Staking the end of the line solidly and ordering Monica to stay by the stake to warn him if it should start to pullout (and he knew that, with the delegated responsibility, she would not now leave her post or question being left behind), he moved carefully to the edge of the cliff.
The figures were just off to the right. Linda was lying on her stomach, unmoving. Pat, partially covering Linda's body, moved only slightly. Scott first yanked at the rope. When it held fast, he crawled over the edge and lowered himself down the cliff. Then he moved over to the two females.
Pat, obviously in great pain, only barely recognized him. She croaked out a plea for help then returned her attention to the pain in her chest and legs. She was obviously in great pain, with at least one leg broken and twisted in a horrific angle. One arm was behind her back, and apparently useless.
Scott could find no compassion for her, and instead knelt down to see Linda's face. Larry saw at once that she was dead. Despite the obvious, he began searching for any signs of life. A bloody, partially crushed head belied his efforts. Finally he stood up.
Pat was trying to focus her eyes on him and awaiting his calm assurance that they would be okay. He glared down at her and bitterly announced, "I'm sorry, Pat, she's dead. You and I killed her.”
Pat gaped in horror as the statement sank in. Whether the horror was due to the realization of her daughter's death or to the accusation of her as a murderer was unclear. But slowly the labeling of 'killer' won out as Pat began to realize the obvious punishment for her crimes. Panic stricken, she tried to beg, her voice quavering, "Oh, God, Larry! Help me! Please!" But even as she tried to beg, the words were never audible. The pain she was feeling was simply too intense.
Scott watched her for only a moment, gauging the degree of pain and the extent of her injuries. In one sense, his decision had long since made. “I can't help you, Pat."
Pat then knew with abject horror that death was looking already into her soul. She could not speak, nor even gasp as she struggled with the realization. As Scott bent down to her, he said, “I'm sorry, but it's better this way.”
She never really understood his meaning; her consciousness had already recognized the inevitability of her death. For a moment, Scott only leaned over her, gazing into her eyes for signs of recognition. Then her body arched slightly, followed by a cessation of all things living. Scott continued to stare down at her. He simply could find no compassion for the woman. He then looked again at Linda, and silently cursed himself. In his mind, Scott had been responsible for Linda's death. Pat may have been a co-conspirator, but Scott had failed Linda when she needed him most.
He moved Pat's body off of Linda's and laid it out. He then tried to adjust Linda's body into something resembling a comfortable position, as if she was now simply sleeping. When he had done what he could under the circumstances, he gathered the knapsack, slung it across his shoulder and started back to where his rope linked him to Monica and the enclave. As Scott crawled up the line hanging from the cliff, he could only think about the good of the whole.
As Scott rejoined Monica, she looked at him with an intense gaze. When she at last spoke, her voice was low and yet distinctly clear: “I'm so sorry.” Scott only looked at her for a moment before they turned and began to move back to the enclave.
Back in the shelter, Scott set the knapsack next to the supply locker and announced, "They're dead. They fell off a cliff." Then he sat down as the others quietly turned away to mind their own thoughts.
Over and over in his mind, Scott thought about his carelessness in allowing Pat to take Linda. He regretted not a moment of Pat's death, but Linda's was another matter entirely. He was sensing something: perhaps the dying of a civilization. Had he begun a trek back to barbarism? Was he becoming uncaring, interested only in his own survival – or even more generously, the survival of just those he loved? Could he simply ingore those who had failed to earn his respect? What about the moral values of centuries as opposed to the trappings of vengeance and cruel 'survival at any cost' reasoning? He remembered a book by someone who had survived the Nazi death camps. Surviving had become the sole and only moral value. Was this what they were facing now? And what did this mean for someone chosen to lead the others? Wasn't there some greater calling for a ‘leader' other than just to survive? It was a question that he must soon answer.
But the time for such philosophical and immediate concerns was not yet ripe. Necessities and experiences of the moment prevailed as Ida Wirth suddenly stuck her head into the shelter and announced, "We've found some of the others!”
Chapter Five -- Rising to the Top
Chapter Seven -- United We Stand
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