“Sir, that doesn’t… That can’t make sense.” I looked away from him, staring at the glass of water on his desk, trying to compose my thoughts.
After a moment, Doctor Sven replied softly. “Maybe you’re right, but what else could it be? Albert has known about verbal traditions for a very long time now, and he knows they are very difficult to get rid of. And that’s when it’s hobbyist martial artists maintaining them. A government institution is going to be far more resistant to losing verbal traditions, especially if verbal traditions are the only way warfare knowledge can be reliably maintained.”
Doctor Sven stood up and collected his coat from the back of the crude chair he’d been sitting on. “Don’t think that Albert didn’t understand exactly what he was going to be setting in motion when he removed the warfare training documents from their caches.”
More highly unpleasant pieces began falling into place, but it still didn’t work. There wasn’t a reason.
“Doctor, if Albert deliberately created a scenario where warfare knowledge would be stored in a verbal tradition, as opposed to simply trimming highly objectionable bits out of collected knowledge-”
He interrupted me. “Then he was setting us up for failure. Yes.”
I looked up to see him looking down at me, with a sad expression. “If it’s any consolation, it’s extremely unlikely that Albert will try to rush things. If I’m right, it’ll be generations before our civilization begins to lose knowledge at an accelerated pace. Your children and grandchildren probably won’t live in a world much different from what we know.”
I slammed my left fist down on the desk in frustration, and the doctor’s water glass jumped, falling over and spilling into my lap.
Doctor Sven looked at my hand and then the glass, then back up at my eyes, saying nothing as the glass slowly rolled with a rattling sound towards the edge of the rough grained table.
I shook my head. “Sorry, doctor. It still doesn’t make sense.” I had collected the rolling glass before it fell off the table while pushing my chair back slightly so the water still on the table would drip onto the floor instead of my lap. “If Albert was making plans to devolve us further, why talk to me? Why didn’t he just start eroding human civilization slowly, without giving humans the hope that we could prevent it? He could have simply pretended to go insane, and stopped talking to Countymen and Statemen.”
“Trying to understand why Albert does what he does is a quick path to a headache, Allen.”
“But this is torture, sir,” I whispered. “If he set up this entire scenario centuries ago so that the next time there was a war, a verbal tradition would be implemented-”
“Albert is not entirely without emotions, I don’t think.” Doctor Sven interrupted me. “Like guilt. We made him. He’s already caused one mass die-off of humans by removing access to most technology and almost all free metals. Maybe he designed this scenario so that he could enact the course of action that he wanted, without feeling that he was responsible for it?”
I looked at Doctor Sven. He wasn’t even looking at me. He was looking from window to window.
He’s not talking to me.
I closed my eyes for a second, hard enough to create bright lights behind my eyelids as I was thinking.
Opening my eyes again, I breathed out a shallow breath. “Doctor. If Albert is still sane, then he has a reason for what he’s doing, and he’s going to ignore you. If he’s not sane, trying to psychoanalyze him might make him angry.”
“You might be right.” The doctor shook his head and looked down at me again. “What’s my other choice? I can do something, or I can do nothing.”
“Sometimes, doing nothing is the only reasonable choice.” I offered, tentatively.
He shook his head. “Not in this case. Albert clearly contrived this. I won’t go as far as saying Albert started the war by somehow interfering with the locusts this year. However, I have no doubt that he’s been ready for war, with a mind-boggling number of contingency plans prepared and kept ready at all times.” His eyes continued to look from window to window. “Am I supposed to believe that he’s dropped the fate of the world into the lap of a fifteen-year-old with anger management issues, in hopes that things won’t fall apart?”
“How could he know I-”
“Hypnotism. Drugs. Subliminal programming. Even at our current technology level, we can make those things work in a crude way, especially hypnotism. Allen, I have a difficult time imagining what Albert can do, even with my medical training and experience. You can’t have any real appreciation of how easy it would be for someone with the knowledge and technology of the ancients to create this scenario in a civilization as backward as ours. Especially when that someone can think as deeply and thoroughly as Albert. That said, I’m certain my estimation of Albert’s potential is far less than what he could do.”
“But why me?” I demanded. “Why not Captain Marko if he wanted someone to use it constructively somehow, or Brad if he wanted everything to fall apart?”
“You were alone, far from anyone. You think you had an idea. Did you? Or did Albert knock you out, give you a frightening idea, and program you to think the idea was yours?”
I thought about it for a second. “Talking about that is not a good idea.”
Doctor Sven stared at me for several seconds, then shook his head. “You’re intended to break the agreement with Albert. He could easily have conditioned you to forget what you knew, otherwise.”
“No.” I shook my head.
The doctor looked at me with an overly patient expression. “Go on.”
I took a breath and started trying to explain, hoping I wasn’t going to infuriate him. “You keep saying how incredibly intelligent Albert is, but you also seem convinced that there is only a short list of possible goals, and you know all of them. A few moments ago, you were trying to talk to him, knowing he’s listening to me. You were either insinuating that you thought he might be going insane, or trying to make him reconsider what you think he is doing, or both.” I paused. “You pointed out some things I hadn’t considered, but you have no more idea than I do what Albert is planning.”
At first the doctor’s nearly black facial features drew tighter under his short, tightly curled white hair as he stared at me. Abruptly, he closed his eyes and shook his head a bit. After another brief hesitation, he laughed once sharply and cut himself off. “You’re right.”
He turned away from me and appeared to be staring out the tiny window behind his desk. “I’m not sure it matters that you’re right because your only sane option is never to use the knowledge. As far as I can see, that makes you viable only as a weapon for Albert to use against humanity, to justify his planned actions against us. If we try to use your potential as a weapon against other humans, it’s clearly an empty threat. The consequences of you releasing the information is worse for humanity than what we could do to each other.”
“Are you sure that Stateman Urda can’t-”
“Of course I’m not sure. She’s brilliant. I’ll freely admit she’s on a whole different level than me, and she’s focused on politics, not medicine. That’s why you need to talk to Captain Marko, so he can confer via messenger or prism tower with her. If she does figure out a way to use you, it still doesn’t make sense. Like you said earlier, why you? Why didn’t Albert just give her the information directly? Why put the information in your hands? No disrespect, Allen, but you’re fifteen, with a history of being hot-headed.”
I stood up, carefully. “No offense taken, doctor. I know I have a temper. You didn’t give me any answers, but you helped me understand more of the questions.”
Doctor Sven snorted as I was standing. “Glad I was able to do something useful.” His eyes flickered up and down my body as I stood. “You seem a bit wobbly there, but you walked in by yourself. Why?”
“Kevin is supposed to watch me from a distance, apparently, so I don’t overpower him and run off into the woods or something.”
Doctor Sven looked back and forth between Kevin and me before speaking. “Kevin, whose orders?”
Kevin spoke from behind me. “Sergeant Covil’s orders, sir.”
“We’ll be changing those orders then. You’re to give Allen a shoulder to lean on so he doesn’t fall and break his neck wandering around while he should be in bed, drinking lots of fluids and rebuilding blood volume.” Doctor Sven was staring past my shoulder, gaze unwavering. I moved a little to my left to avoid being between him and Kevin.
Behind me, Kevin finally said “Yes, sir.”
“Tell Sergeant Covil to come to me if he has a problem with that. I don’t think he will. Not after what I just heard from Allen.” He paused. “One way or another, Allen, I hope you don’t expect to enjoy much freedom in the near future.”
“What?” I looked at Doctor Sven, and I’m sure my face was a study in ignorance.
“You still haven’t thought about how your conversation with Albert is going to affect you beyond what the militia will want you to do.” He smiled sadly. “So focused on how Albert’s revelations will affect the world around you, but not seeing the personal impact. Think about it.” He waved a hand at me. “Unless there’s something else, I’m going to the officer’s tent to check on my other patient.”
“Nothing else, sir.” I said, distracted, as I tried to start thinking about what he had meant about my personal life.
As he walked past me to the door, the doctor slapped me lightly on my left shoulder. “You need to go back to your carriage and rest, Allen. Get a water skin or cameltote from supply if you don’t have one and put it in easy reach of your bed. Doctor’s orders. You won’t get your equipment back tonight, maybe not even tomorrow. The officers are looking at everything that the scouts collected very closely.”
Do they think they’ll find Albert’s plans in a cipher on my cameltote?
I restrained a smile before I realized that there was a reason to worry.
I remember burning the pages from the notebook. But did I burn enough of them? Can they trace out what I was doing based on the indentations left in the papers that I didn’t burn?
“Yes, sir. I’ll do that.” I managed to say as I tried to pull together memories from immediately before Albert’s appearance.
I didn’t have a spare water container, so we walked to the quartermaster’s wagons first. Kevin allowed me to balance myself on his right shoulder as I tried to remember what I’d written down on the pad and paper. The first page had been an image, I knew, the next several pages had been equations and calculations. I couldn’t remember for sure what I had been calculating on the last two or three pages.
Several minutes later, I was walking with Kevin back to my carriage after collecting a cameltote from supply and filling it with boiled and lightly salted water from the kitchen. The scouts had clearly found and returned the cattail root. I could smell the roots being boiled as I did my best to ignore the other, meatier scents coming out of the kitchen.
They weren’t pets, Allen.
Fortunately, Kevin didn’t seem to want to talk as we walked. I had more than enough to think about without trying to maintain a conversation.
Kevin settled himself onto his stool outside my door as I opened the carriage door. Once inside, I arranged most of my spare clothing and pillows on my bed against the wall of the carriage. After creating the nest, I got into bed, laying on my left side with my back against the outer wall of the carriage.
The first thing I needed to do was write home and ask someone to come collect the swine and the carriage.
Please excuse the terrible handwriting and share news with Marza. I’ve been injured, again, by people this time. Not serious. A long, ragged cut through the skin and maybe nicking the muscle of my right shoulder. I should be able to work again in a couple days, and be back at a hundred percent within a couple weeks. It’s a long story, better told when my handwriting is better, or in person. The short version is that I ran into eight New Tokyo scouts while I was alone in the woods with my sounder. I was lucky and nearly avoided their ambush because I noticed several jays scolding something the swine were ignoring. We were chased. Bigboy, Hoss, and I were injured by arrows. The boars raged after they figured out who hurt them. I ran. The boars injured five New Tokyo scouts as the sows and I fled the fight. One of the scouts and both boars died. Without the boars, I can’t take the sows into the forest safely to forage. I’m asking Zeke to come return my sows to the farm, along with the carriage. I understand that it may become necessary to cull some of my sows if the second harvest is poor…
The rest of the letter was for Zeke. I explained that Speedy had apparently taught other swine how to pull up cattail root. I urged him to breed Tubby, Speedy’s sire, to all the full-grown sows before culling him this winter, if that became necessary. I also asked very nicely for Speedy to be kept alive, even if all the rest of my sows had to be culled.
I specifically mentioned nothing about Albert.
I should never have mentioned Albert, and just stopped offering insights on violence.
Being told by Albert that I could say something didn’t mean it had been my best option to do so. It would have stressed my relationship with Riko, perhaps, but if I had simply accepted a position with the new, more aggressive scouting units that were being created, nobody would have been terribly upset.
Or maybe they would have. It doesn’t matter. What could have happened, didn’t.
As I folded up and addressed the letter to my family, I did my best to avoid thinking about anything but the present. The next thing I needed to do was write Marza.
Sorry for the handwriting, I am writing with my left hand. My right shoulder was injured by an arrow this morning. Please do not be concerned. My arm is being kept immobilized as much as possible to heal faster, not because I was badly injured. I’m sure I could write with my right hand now, but I am following doctor’s orders.
A lot has happened in the last day. Several things that I can’t write about, but will be able to tell you more about in person when this is all over. I wanted to write and tell you that I am well, even if injured. I also wanted to let you know that I thoroughly enjoyed every one of the flatbreads that you sent. They are now all gone, as I took the last several out the other day on an overnight foraging trip.
You can get a few more details from my family about what happened to me. I apologize for not rewriting it for you, but my left hand is cramping from writing with a broken pencil. I had to explain clearly to my family what is happening, as I am asking Zeke to come retrieve my sows and carriage.
I would say that I wished you were here, but I’d be lying. If you were here, I would be as terrified for you as you are no doubt worried for me.
I managed to scrawl a legible address for Marza on the second letter. After that struggle, I carefully put the broken pencil, paper, and lap desk in a cabinet, took a drink of water, and got out of bed.
“I need to post letters, Kevin,” I announced as I carefully stepped out of the carriage.
He stood from his stool as he looked in my direction “Your mail must go through Lieutenant Davis.”
I stopped, motionless, staring at him in the near-dark.
Kevin shrugged. “Not my decision. You want to send the mail, or not?”
It took a couple seconds to clear the anger out of my mind sufficiently to make a decision. The idea of someone reading my mail without my permission wasn’t as troubling as the idea of not being able to send mail at all.
I also want to know if I’m a prisoner, or not. I don’t remember being charged with a crime.
About three minutes later we were standing in front of the officer’s tent, and I was talking to Riko, who had emerged when I had asked to see the lieutenant.
“Riko, I was told my mail needs to go through Lieutenant Davis.”
He sighed. “It does. I was not aware of that when we spoke, sorry.”
“What crime am I being charged with?” I asked, without raising my voice very much.
Riko looked up at me with a quick motion of his head. He grabbed my left arm with his right fist. As he held my arm hard enough that I couldn’t pull away easily, he looked up at me with a grim expression. “Do you want to be charged with a crime, Allen? If you go too far here, you might be charged with insubordination. The officers are legally allowed to give us orders. That includes them having the right to demand full accounting of your actions, and you have been admitting to censoring what you are telling them.”
I took a deep breath, and held it for a slow count to ten, then released it slowly. “They would prefer that Albert eradicate human civilization, and perhaps shift his grand sociobiological human experiment into something more like livestock farming?”
“No. They would prefer that you simply shut up while they try to verify your story. Give me the letter, Allen. I will give it to the lieutenant. He will read it and probably copy it. I will make sure it gets posted.”
Riko gave me a hard stare. “Letter or letters. Correspondence. Stop being hard-headed. I know you can act sensibly, and now is the time to do it.”
“Has Captain Marko sent the request for confirmation?” I demanded, trying to keep my voice down.
Captain Marko’s voice spoke from inside the tent, sharply. “Yes. I did. By prism tower and relay runner. About five minutes after our first conversation, and again, about five minutes after Sergeant Gonzalez advised me of the threats you told him Albert is supposed to have made.”
Riko’s left hand moved like a whip, his index finger raised in front of my nose so fast that I backed away a step, startled. “Say nothing, Allen. Go back to your carriage. We should have an answer late tonight or tomorrow morning. Night transmissions through prisms are slow, and there are low clouds tonight.”
Suddenly, there was amused laughter from inside the tent, accompanied by the sound of slow hand clapping. Laughter from a voice that somehow seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place it. As the laughter stopped, a new voice started speaking. “Brilliant. Whoever wrote this script needs to sell it after the war. I’d pay to see it performed on stage. With better actors, of course. The fellow outside needs voice coaching.”
My mind replayed a horrifying moment when I had heard a man yell ‘Shoot them!’
My anger flared, and my consciousness shrank to a pinpoint focus that only recognized threats and opposition.
I ripped my left arm out of Riko’s grasp and used the newly-freed hand to capture Riko’s raised hand in front of my face before he could move, holding it with all of my strength. I wasn’t going to be silenced. Not for this.
“I recognize that voice,” I spoke as coldly as I could manage, trying to push my rage into my voice so I could control myself. “It’s the voice of an incompetent leader, unskilled archer, and failed murderer. Maybe you’d like to talk to Brad and try to improve your murder technique.”
I released Riko’s hand and turned. Adrenaline gave me the stability I needed to stalk rapidly away from the person I wanted to attack, towards my carriage.
The last time I had been so blindingly angry was when I had found Rikard attempting to rape Marza in the woods. I struggled internally for several minutes to stop myself from walking back and pushing into the officer’s tent to attack the man that had tried to kill me and managed to kill both of my boars.
When I started thinking clearly again, I was leaning my chest against my carriage’s door. My left arm slung over the roof, gripping the luggage rail with a grip so tight that my knuckle joints creaked audibly as I relaxed my hand. I could feel wetness on my right shoulder again.
Albert’s going to have to take care of that if it’s serious. I’m not bothering Doctor Sven again.
Someone moved nearby, and my head snapped to my right. Kevin. He was several meters away, his staff held in both hands, planted vertically on the ground in front of him. He was watching me very intently.
As my head turned to face him, he stiffened. Otherwise, he barely moved his body as he spoke slowly and carefully. “If you’re listening, Doctor Sven sent a sedative. You have to take it. If you refuse or try to leave the carriage, I will call for assistance, and you will be dosed forcibly.”
Is everyone against me?
“Fine. Where is it?”
He said nothing, only pointing at the stool he had been sitting on earlier. There was a folded piece of paper with a rock holding it in place on the stool. I picked it up and opened the door of the carriage.
He coughed as I put my foot on the step under the door. “I have to see you take the pills.”
I stopped and turned back to stare at him. “Of course you do,” I growled. “Let me get my cameltote and I’ll take them in front of you.”
Out of nowhere, Kevin changed the subject. “I’m not sure if I should be afraid of you, or hope that you’re standing next to me if I ever have to fight for real.”
I shook my head. “I hope the idiots in charge at least wait until the late planting is harvested before they decide to start fighting.” I looked at him as I reached into the carriage and retrieved my cameltote from its hanging peg. “Again.”
Kevin nodded. “You and me both.” I could barely make out his face in the dim light from the lightly fogged moon, nearby lanterns, and campfires. He seemed to bite his lip for a moment. “If it makes you feel better, Sergeant Covil said you’re being drugged because you scared everyone in the officer’s tent except Fobi into thinking you might try to kill the prisoner tonight.”
“Everyone except Fobi?”
“Fobi just laughed and wouldn’t say anything. That seemed to make everyone else more worried.”
I don’t understand this.
“Why are you talking to me, Kevin? I have a pretty good idea what you just saw.”
Kevin set his chin down on top of his staff, never taking his eyes off me. “Seems like I saw a survivor. First the snake, and then eight-to-one odds in the woods. Rikard is scared to death of you. Some of your neighbors knew why, so the whole camp knows now. You’ve easily got the worst temper of anyone I’ve ever met, but you walked away from…” he waved back towards the officer’s tent, “that, without going homicidal. A lot of us are scared of you, but some of us are trying to figure out if we should start acting more like you. At least for the duration of this war, or whatever it is. Take your pills and get some sleep.”
“I’m pretty sure that acting like me is not a good idea.” I objected.
Is this a joke?
“Not exactly like you.” He smiled, slightly. “You’ve clearly got more jagged edges than most of us can manage.”
“That sounds better already. I wish I could lose some of my own jagged edges.” I looked away from him, down at the pills in my hand. I lifted my hand to my nose and sniffed the pills. No scent. Touching them with my tongue proved that they were sugar-coated. They looked to be about the right size for a human sedative dose of opium, about the same that we would use for a sow.
I popped the pills into my mouth and carefully broke their sugar shells without chewing the contents. I didn’t taste almonds or excessive bitterness. I carefully crushed the pills, ready to spit them out at the slightest taste of cyanide, strychnine, or anything that wasn’t opium.
Paranoia. Do I think someone might try to poison me? Do I think that Doctor Sven would agree to it, even if they ordered him to?
I smiled at the thought of sugar-coated poison pills. Then I tried to chase other ridiculous thoughts out of my mind as I suspended my cameltote several inches over my mouth with my head held back so I couldn’t backwash pills into the container. After I poured half a mouthful from the spout, I vigorously swished the water in my mouth before swallowing it with the chewed pills.
I repeated the pour, swish, and swallow twice more before looking at Kevin.
He nodded. “Thank you, Allen.”
I’m surprised he didn’t ask to look in my mouth.
I arranged myself carefully in the nest of clothing and pillows intended to support me as I slept on my left side. Before long, I was comfortable, but could not stop thinking. At first, I was afraid Albert would repudiate me. Shortly before darkness claimed me, I was more afraid that he wouldn’t.
If you enjoy the story, please vote for it at TopWebFiction!
Remember that you can vote for many stories!