The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iii Part 47
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"There's a gun up there," he said. "Looks like a four-pounder. Bra.s.s. I knew that smith-shop was also a foundry. See that little curl of smoke? That's the gunner's slow-match.
"I'd thought maybe that thing on the island was a powder mill. That would be where they'd put it. Probably extract their niter from the dung of their horses and cows. Sulfur probably from coal-mine drainage.
"Jim, this is really something!"
"I hope they don't cut loose with that thing," Loudons said, looking apprehensively at the bra.s.s-rimmed black muzzle that was covering them from the belfry. "I wonder if we ought to--Oh-oh, here they come!"
Three or four young men stepped out of the wide door of the old church. They wore fringed buckskin trousers and buckskin s.h.i.+rts and odd caps of deerskin with visors to shade the eyes and similar beaks behind to protect the neck. They had powder horns and bullet pouches slung over their shoulders, and long rifles in their hands. They stepped aside as soon as they were out. Carefully avoiding any gesture of menace, they simply stood, watching the helicopter which had landed in their village.
Three other men followed them out. They, too, wore buckskins and the odd double-visored caps. One had a close-cropped white beard, and on the shoulders of his buckskin s.h.i.+rt, he wore the single silver bars of a first lieutenant of the vanished United States Army. He had a pistol on his belt. The pistol had the saw-handle grip of an automatic, but it was a flintlock, as were the rifles of the young men who stood so watchfully on either side of the door.
Two middle-aged men accompanied the bearded man and the trio advanced toward the helicopter.
"All right, come on, Monty."
Loudons opened the door and let down the steps. Picking up an auto-carbine, he slung it and stepped out of the helicopter, Altamont behind him. They advanced to meet the party from the church, halting when they were about twenty feet apart.
"I must apologize, lieutenant, for dropping in on you so unceremoniously."
Loudons stopped, wondering if the man with the white beard understood a word of what he was saying.
"The natural way to come in, when you travel in the air," the old man replied. "At least, you came in openly. I can promise you a better reception than that you got at the city to the west of us a couple of days ago."
"Now how did you know that we had trouble the day-before-yesterday?" Loudons demanded.
The old man's eyes sparkled with child-like pleasure. "That surprises you, my dear sir? In a moment, I daresay you'll be surprised at the simplicity of it.
"You have a nasty rip in the left leg of your trousers, and the cloth around it is stained with blood. Through the rip, I perceive a bandage. Obviously, you have suffered a recent wound. I further observe that the side of your flying machine bears recent scratches, as though from the spears or throwing hatchets of the Scowrers. Evidently, they attacked you as you were landing. It is fortunate that these cannibal devils are too stupid and too anxious for human flesh to exercise patience."
"Well, that explains how you knew that we'd recently been attacked," Loudons told him. "But how did you guess that it had been to the west of here, in a ruined city?"
"I never guess," the oldster with the silver bar and the keystone-shaped red patch on his left shoulder replied. "It is a shocking habit--destructive to the logical faculties. What seems strange to you is only so because you do not follow my train of thought.
"For example, the wheels and their framework under your flying machine are splashed with mud which seems to be predominantly brick-dust, mixed with plaster. Obviously, you landed recently in a dead city, either during or after a rain. There was a rain here yesterday evening, the wind being from the west. Obviously, you followed behind the rain as it came up the river. And now that I look at your boots, I see traces of the same sort of mud, around the soles and in front of the heels.
"But this is heartless of us, keeping you standing here on a wounded leg, sir. Come in, and let our medic take a look at it."
"Well, thank you, lieutenant," Loudons replied. "But don't bother your medic. I've attended to the wound myself, and it wasn't serious to begin with."
"You are a doctor?" the white-haired man asked.
"Of sorts. A sort of general scientist. My name is Loudons. My friend, Mr. Altamont, here, is a scientist, too."
There was an immediate reaction: all three of the elders of the village, and the young riflemen who had accompanied them, exchanged glances of surprise.
Loudons dropped his hand to the grip of his slung auto-carbine and Altamont sidled away from his partner, his hand moving as if by accident toward the b.u.t.t of his pistol. The same thought was in both men's minds, that these people might feel, as the heritage of the war of two centuries ago, a hostility to science and scientists.
There was no hostility, however, in their manner as the old man came forward with outstretched hand.
"I am Tenant Mycroft Jones, the Toon Leader here," he said. "This is Stamford Rawson, our Reader, and Verner Hughes, our Toon Sarge. This is his son, Murray Hughes, the Toon Sarge of the Irregulars.
"But come into the Aitch-Cue House, gentlemen. We have much to talk about."
By this time, the villagers had begun to emerge from the log cabins and rubble-walled houses around the plaza and the old church. Some of them, mostly the young men, were carrying rifles, but the majority were unarmed. About half of them were women, in short deerskin skirts or homespun dresses. There were a number of children, the younger ones almost completely naked.
"Sarge," the old man told one of the youths, "post a guard over this flying machine. Don't let anybody meddle with it. And have all the noncoms and techs report here, on the double." He turned and shouted up at the truncated steeple: "Atherton, sound 'All Clear!'"
A horn up in the belfry began blowing, apparently to advise the people who had run from the fields into the forest that there was no danger.
They went through the open doorway of the old stone church and entered the big room inside. The building had evidently once been gutted by fire, two centuries ago, but portions of the wall had been restored. The floor had been replaced by one of rough planks, and there was a plank ceiling at about ten feet.
The room was apparently used as a community center. There were a number of benches and chairs, all very neatly made; and along one wall, out of the way, ten or fifteen long tables had been stacked, the tops in a pile and the trestles on the tops.
The walls were decorated with trophies of weapons--a number of M-12 rifles and M-16 submachine-guns, all in good, clean condition; a light machine rifle; two bazookas. Among them were cruder weapons, stone-and metal-tipped spears and clubs, the work of the wild men of the woods.
A stairway led to the second floor, and it was up this stairway that the man who bore the t.i.tle of Toon Leader conducted them, to a small room furnished with a long table, a number of chairs, and several big wooden chests bound with iron.
"Sit down, gentlemen," the Toon Leader invited, going to a cupboard and producing a large bottle stoppered with a corncob and a number of small cups.
"It's a little early in the day," he went on, "but this is a very special occasion.
"You smoke a pipe, I take it?" he asked Altamont. "Then try some of this, of our own growth and curing."
He extended a doeskin moccasin, which seemed to be the tobacco container.
Altamont looked at the thing dubiously, then filled his pipe from it.
The oldster drew his pistol, pushed a little wooden plug into the vent, added some tow to the priming, and, aiming at the wall, snapped it. Evidently, at time the formality of plugging the vent had been overlooked: there were a number of holes in the wall there.
This time, however, the pistol didn't go off. The old man shook out the smoldering tow, blew it into flame, and lit a candle from it, offering the light to Altamont.
Loudons got out a cigar and lit it from the candle; the others filled and lighted pipes. The Toon Leader reprimed his pistol, then holstered it, took off his belt and laid it aside, an example the others followed.
They drank ceremoniously, and then seated themselves at the table. As they did, two more men entered the room. They were introduced as Alexander Barrett, the gunsmith and Stanley Markovitch, the distiller.
The Toon Leader began by asking, "You come, then, from the west?"
"Are you from Utah?" the gunsmith interrupted, suspiciously.
"Why, no, we're from Arizona. A place called Fort Ridgeway," Loudons said.
The others nodded, in the manner of people who wish to conceal ignorance. It was obvious that none of them had ever heard of Fort Ridgeway, or Arizona either.
"You say you come from a fort? Then the wars aren't over yet?" Sarge Hughes asked.
"The wars have been over for a long time. You know how terrible they were. You know how few in all the countries were left alive," Loudons said.
"None that we know of, beside ourselves and the Scowrers, until you came," the Toon Leader said.
"We have found only a few small groups, in the whole country, who have managed to save anything of the Old Times. Most of them lived in little villages and cultivated land. A few had horses or cows. None, that we have ever found before, made guns and powder for themselves. But they remembered that they were men, and did not eat one another.
"Whenever we find a group of people like this, we try to persuade them to let us help them."
"Why?" the Toon Leader asked. "Why do you do this for people that you have never met before? What do you want from them--from us--in return for your help?"
He was speaking to Altamont, rather than to Loudons. It seemed obvious that he believed Altamont to be the leader and Loudons the subordinate.
"Because we are trying to bring back the best of the Old Times," Altamont told him. "Look, you have had troubles, here. So have we, many times. Years when the crops didn't ... didn't...." He looked at Loudons, aware that his partner should be talking now, and also suddenly aware that Loudons had recognized the situation and left the leaders.h.i.+p up to him....
"... years that the crops failed. Years of storms, or floods. Troubles with those beast-men in the woods.
"And you were alone, as we were, with no one to help.
"We want to put all men who are still men in touch with one another, so that they can help each other in trouble, and work together.
"If this isn't done, everything that makes men different from beasts will soon be no more."
"He's right. One of us, alone, is helpless," the Reader said. "It is only in the Toon that there is strength. He wants to organize a Toon of all Toons."
"That's about it. We are beginning to make helicopters, like the one Loudons and I came in. We'll furnish your community with one or more of them. We can give you a radio, so that you can communicate with other communities. We can give you rifles and machine guns and ammunition, to fight the--the Scowrers, did you call them? And we can give you atomic engines, so that you can build machines for yourselves."
"Some of our people,--Alex Barrett here, the gunsmith, and Stan Markovitch, the distiller, and Harrison Grant, the iron-worker--get their living by making things. How'd they make out, after your machines came in here?" Verner Hughes asked.
"We've thought of that. We had that problem with other groups we've helped," Loudons said. "In some communities, everybody owns everything in common and so we don't have much of a problem. Is that the way you do it, here?"
"Well, no. If a man makes a thing, or digs it out of the ruins, or catches it in the woods, it's his."
"Then we'll work out some way. Give the machines to the people who are already in a trade, or something like that. We'll have to talk it over with you and with the people concerned."
"How is it you took so long finding us?" Alex Barrett asked. "It's been two hundred or so years since the Wars."
"Alex! You see but you do not observe!" The Toon Leader rebuked. "These people have their flying machines, which are highly complicated mechanisms. They would have to make tools and machines to make them, and tools and machines to make those tools and machines. They would have to find materials, often going in search of them. The marvel is not that they took so long, but that they did it so quickly."
"That's right," Altamont said. "Originally, Fort Ridgeway was a military research and development center. As the country became disorganized, the Government set this project up to develop ways of improvising power and transportation and communication methods and extracting raw materials. If they'd had a little more time, they might have saved the country.
"As it was, they were able to keep themselves alive, and keep something like civilization going at the Fort, while the whole country was breaking apart around them.
"Then, when the rockets stopped falling, they started to rebuild. Fortunately, more than half the technicians at the Fort were women, so there was no question of them dying out.
"But it's only been in the last twenty years that we've been able to make nuclear-electric engines, and this is the first time any of us have gotten east of the Mississippi."
"How did your group manage to survive?" Loudons asked. "You call it the Toon. I suppose that's what the word platoon has become, with time. You were, originally, a military platoon?"
"Pla-toon!" the white-bearded man said. "Of all the unpardonable stupidities! Of course that's what it was. And the t.i.tle, Tenant, was originally lieu-tenant. I know that, though we have dropped all use of the first part of the word. But that should have led me, if I had used my wits, to deduce platoon from toon."
The Tenant shook his head in dismay at his stupidity and Loudons found himself forced to say, "One syllable like that could have come from many words."
The Tenant smiled at Loudons and said, "Your courtesy does not excuse our stupidity. We know our history and we should have identified the word accurately.
"Yes, we were originally a ... a pla-toon of soldiers, two hundred years ago, at the time when the Wars ended. The old Toon, and the First Tenant, were guarding POWs, and there, sir,"--to Loudons--"is a word we cannot trace. We have no idea what they were. In any event, the pows were all killed by a big bomb, and the First Tenant, Lieutenant Gilbert Dunbar, took his platoon and started to march to DeeCee, where the government was.
"But there was no government any more.
"They fought with people along the way. When they needed food, or ammunition, or animals to pull their wagons, they took them, and killed those who tried to prevent them. Other people joined the toon, and when they found women they wanted, they took them.
"They did all sorts of things that would have been crimes if there had been any law, but since there was no law, it was obvious that they could be no crime.
"The First Ten--Lieutenant--kept his men together, because he had The Books. Each evening, at the end of each day's march, he read to his men out of them."
Altamont knew without looking at his a.s.sociate that Loudons would be inconspicuously jotting down notes. The last was an item the sociologist would be sure to record: the white-bearded Tenant had p.r.o.nounced that reference to a written testament in capital letters.
The story was continuing....
"... finally, they came here. There had been a town here, but it had been burned and destroyed, and there were people camping in the ruins.
"Some of them fought and were killed, others came in and joined the platoon.
"At first, they built shelters around this building and made this their fort. Then they cleared away the ruins, and built new houses. When the cartridges for the rifles began to get scarce, they began to make gunpowder, and new rifles, like these we are using now, to shoot without cartridges.
"Lieutenant Dunbar did this out of his own knowledge because there is nothing in The Books about making gunpowder. The guns in The Books are rifles and shotguns and revolvers and airguns. Except for the airguns, which we haven't been able to make, these all shot cartridges.
"As with your people, we did not die out because we too had women. Neither did we increase greatly--too many died or were killed young. But several times we've had to tear down the wall and rebuild it, to make room inside for more houses. And we've been clearing out a little more land for the fields each year.
"We still read and follow the teachings of The Books: we have made laws for ourselves out of them."
There was a silence during which Altamont felt himself to be the focus of attention; not obtrusively, but, nonetheless, insistently. However, this was Loudon's field and Altamont preferred not to speak.
"And we are waiting for the Slain and Risen One," Tenant Jones added, and there was no doubt that he was looking at Altamont intently. "It is impossible that He will not, sooner or later, deduce the existence of this community, if He has not done so already."
Again the silence and lack of movement, broken by Loudons this time, when he picked up the candle to re-lit his cigar. Mentally, Altamont thanked his partner.
"Well, sir," the Toon Leader changed the subject abruptly, "enough of this talk about the past. If I understand rightly, it is the future in which you gentlemen are interested." He pushed back the cuff of his hunting s.h.i.+rt and looked at an old and worn wrist watch. "Eleven hundred: we'll have lunch shortly.
"This afternoon, you will meet the other people of the Toon, and this evening, at eighteen hundred, we'll have a mess together. Then, when we have everyone together, we can talk over your offer to help us, and decide what it is that you can give us that we can use."
"You spoke, a while ago, of what you could do for us, in return," Altamont said. He knew that now he would have to be the one to stress their original mission: Loudons would probably be so fascinated by this society that the sociologist might never remember the primary reason for coming to Pittsburgh.
"There's one thing you can do, no further away than tomorrow, if you're willing."
He had no time to wonder at the interchange of glances around the table before the Toon Leader said, "And that is--?"
"In Pittsburgh, somewhere, there is an underground crypt, full of books. Not printed and bound books, but spools of microfilm. Do you know what that is?"
The men of the Toon shook their heads. Altamont continued: "They are spools on which strips of films are wound and on which pictures have been taken of books, page by page. We can make other, larger pictures from them, big enough to be read--"
The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iii Part 47
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