The Believers – Chapter 11

The guards had stayed through the night for three nights now, in tents just inside the gate. The huge doors had held the Turned out easily.  The families that had stayed behind the temporary perimeter had been nervous through the last of these nights, because there were now more guards passing the night within the new walls than were guarding the steel wire fences.  But this would be the day they would move.  Everyone was busy packing their belongings and clearing out the shacks they had lived in for the past months (it had seemed like almost a year to many of them).  There would be no regrets upon leaving, not when the new city beckoned to them all.

The official residences were complete, and ready for the belongings and trappings of their owners.  The walls were solid, the support structures in place.  All in all, Mal was exceedingly proud of his work.  The other team leaders took just as much pride in the sight of the gate swinging open and shut, as the guards tested the bolts.

Mal and the other leaders walked around the entire inside of the building in the morning, looking for flaws or problems they could yet solve.  The afternoon was taken up with inspecting the outside.  As he’d predicted, Mal could see stains on the walls, leftover from an entire night’s visit from the Turned.  The effect of beating their hands on these walls and doors had a punishing effect on what was left of them, and from the look of the walls, there would be a lot less remaining each morning.  A living person could never drive themselves to such self-abuse.

They arrived back at their starting point outside the southern gate, and spontaneously the entire group of men and women began to laugh.  It was a release of stress they had been looking forward to for a long time.  Even if they had to live in tents while they built their new homes, they could start immediately.  Even if they were less comfortable in the coming nights, they’d be far safer than they ever had been in their lives.  It was a worthy trade.

They separated once they reached the gate of the temporary fence.  The guards had already begun taking the steel fencing down in sections, probably to be used somewhere else now that it was unnecessary.  He smiled as he entered his temporary home, finding his wife and children finishing their packing.  He gave them each a kiss before moving through the two-room building, looking for anything that might have been missed.  He returned to the front room when he heard the sound starting to build up outside.

It had started with a distant shout, but he couldn’t make out what the man had been saying.  He came out of the front door of the shack, looking around to see what was happening.  At first, he saw most of the other workers doing the same thing he was – trying to figure out what was going on – but then he saw many of them running back toward the new South Gate.

And then he saw what the shouting was about.  The guards were pushing one of the families back outside by force.  Their swords were drawn, pointed at the husband.  He’d been trying to resist, but was allowing himself to be moved outside under the threat of sharpened steel.  Then the guards began pulling the door shut.

Mal’s eyes went wide.  His wife came out of the shack, and saw the color drain from his face.  Then her eyes followed his gaze.  He started running then, with a growing crowd of workers and their families.  Some were carrying bags or boxes of belongings, but many of these had been discarded.  The large door took some time to swing shut, but none of the workers had reached it before it slammed shut.  From 10 meters away, Mal heard the large bolts grind into place, locking the door shut.

He turned to look at the sun.  It would be below the horizon within 30 minutes.  He thought for a moment that he could circle the city wall to the next gate, but heard them thundering closed just as his brain formed the plan.  They were soon bolted as well.

That was when people began screaming.  Panic spread fast, and while Mal tried hard to keep his head, he could feel the panic swelling in himself.  The shadows were low enough over the trees that some of the Turned were beginning to move out from under the forest’s branches, toward the city they’d surrounded the past few nights.  He could see them with surprising clarity, his eyes feeding his brain with super-human detail for a few moments.  There were three of them in the lead, two women and a young man.  The women were nearly naked now – the tattered clothes they wore were getting caught under their feet every few steps, being pulled and torn a little more each time.  The skin underneath was a sickly grey-green, and one of them had a constellation of bites and scratches on her torso.  The other was missing most of the skin on her face.  The young man that accompanied them was heading right for Mal, one arm outstretched, the other broken at the elbow and hanging by its connective tissues.  His remaining eye stared upward.

Mal spun in place, watching his fellow workers retreat into the rough wooden homes they’d been living in, in the vain hope that the thin wood  planks of the walls and doors would be enough to protect them.  But they were all builders, and they had to know how fast the Turned would get through them.  Even those who were climbing onto their rooftops were only delaying the inevitable.

He embraced his wife, looking in her eye for a moment, and trying to calm her panic.  He felt a tear roll down his cheek, then squeezed her tightly to his chest.  He pulled his children close a moment later, the family holding tight to each other, unable to do anything else.  Mal looked back toward the city, and could see the guard captain standing atop the wall, looking down at him and his family.  Two thoughts appeared in his mind simultaneously.

We have all just been executed.
I should have known better.

*****

The captain of the guards watched from the guard-house built over the top of the gate, his face impassive as the Turned finally arrived to embrace the defenseless workers below.  First in small groups, the walking corpses shambled toward them, ignoring the new city walls and attacking the unprotected people just outside.    He had his orders, and failure to follow them would be impossible to disguise.  His own future required the sacrifice of those people down there.  If they couldn’t see what was coming, that was too bad for them.  They should have known better.

*****

Dresten and Idzac came through the gate together, still laughing from the stories they’d been told.  For the previous two days, they’d spent a lot of time with the gypsies, and many of the tales they’d heard had defied belief.  The older gentleman, Lincoln, was quite an able storyteller.  Even though Dresten had been a scout for the Order, and had seen much of the world, he hadn’t seen much of its people, and he was just starting to learn how much more there was to people- and their lives.  It reaffirmed his belief that he and the others had made the right choice- to join with the rest of humanity, rather than continue trying to end it.

Saia still sat beside the wooden cage.  The two sisters had talked continuously throughout their first night together, and for most of that Saia insisted on being inside the cage as well.  Ilyana had not argued against being locked inside.  She had quickly accepted her condition.

Dresten had left the explaining to Saia.  He hadn’t known they shared a birth mother, but the bond between the two women made sense once he’d learned that.  Saia had always looked out for Ilyana, and had dragged Odyna around half of the Compound the night it was overrun, searching for her.  Ilyana was respectful and polite to him whenever he’d come near, but he honestly didn’t know what to expect from someone in her place.  She seemed remarkably strong.  Perhaps accepting was a better term.  And even though Ilyana had nearly been killed the night they let the Turned into the Great Rock, the young sister was open-minded about what they’d done.  And that, too, made sense when Saia had explained.  Ilyana had a level of trust in her older sister- her blood sister- that left her wanting to hear the reasons behind Saia’s choice, not just bitter and scared.

He approached the cage again now.  It had been two days, and while the bright noon sun had bothered her earlier, it was bright and hot enough to bother anyone.  He approached the cage slowly, seeing both of women asleep.  Saia’s head leaned against the wooden poles that contained her sister.  It seemed to Dresten a bad place to sleep.  But Ilyana was curled up on the rough mat on the ground, as well.  This was a good sign- the Turned had no need of sleep.

Ilyana’s mat was close to one wall of the cage, and Dresten knelt down to take a look.  Her skin was still a healthy color.  By now he’d expected her to start turning blue, at least.  He didn’t have too much experience with watching people turn.  The Order had a habit of sending such people out into the wild.  Since they believed they were helping the Turned in their purpose, becoming one of them- while not the most honorable experience- was not the worst thing in the world.  He’d often looked out over the walls outside the Great Rock and seen a few of his brothers or sisters in the swarm.

Her injured leg was close enough for him to touch.  The cloth of her pants was torn and lightly stained with her blood.  The scratch hadn’t been deep, but they never needed to be.  The skin only needed to be broken.  He reached into the cage, and pushed the cuff of her pants upward toward her knee.  He’d seen scratches from the Turned, how they would seem to scab over and start to heal, but within hours they’d seem to get deeper and worse than before.  The infection would spread from that point, and while the rest of her skin may seem normal, it would have changed here.  The first wave would be blue, then as that color expanded, it would be followed by gray, then it would begin to decompose and sometimes peel away.

But that was not what he saw.  The scratches had nearly healed themselves closed.  There was only thin, linear scabs where the scratches had been before, and the skin looked healthy.  He paused for a moment, then ran his finger along the line of one of the scabs.  He didn’t want to touch it, but he had to be sure of what he saw.

Her leg jerked away from him, startling him, but Ilyana twitched, waking quickly.  “Don’t, that tickles.”

“The infection didn’t take.  You fought it off,” he said, smiling.  Saia was slowly waking, then realized with a start where her head had been resting.  She sat upright, quickly, then relaxed as she saw Dresten.

Ilyana sat up on the mat, drawing her legs in under her.  She shook her head.  “No, I can feel it.  It’s spread everywhere.  It’s just a matter of time.”  She held up her hand, looking intently at her own fingers.  “Tonight, maybe.  I don’t know.  At least it doesn’t hurt.”

“No, sister, look.  Your scratch is nearly healed.”  He pointed.  “If you were Turning, your leg would be blue and grey- it’d be dying already.”

She looked down at her leg, confused.  “I don’t understand.”

His brow furrowed.  He withdrew his hand from the cage, then noticed someone else’s shadow coming up behind him.  He turned, and saw the gypsy, Marlena, approaching.  She stopped a few meters away, looking from Dresten to Saia before her eyes met Ilyana’s.  For a long moment, Ilyana and Marlena merely stared at each other.  Then Marlena approached the cage, her lips curving into a smile.

*****

Gina looked around at all the faces around her. All the wealthy families of Carter’s Hill were represented here, sometimes by husband and wife pairs, but most often by one patriarch or matriarch.  Twenty-five people, besides her own children, sat arrayed around the square table.  She sat at one corner, surveying their faces.

The hall was magnificent.  The ceiling was 8 meters high at its peak, with skylights that would allow the room to be flooded with light during the day.  Now, it was dark, and torches burned along the walls, mounted on brass sconces.  They added to the light from the two fireplaces that faced each other across the long axis of the room.  The floor was the finest wood that could be found, and the furniture was as old as the city itself.  This would be one of the last meetings this hall would hold.

Dana and Troy exchanged occasional looks.  They were both excited to reveal their secrets.  Troy because they would marvel at the accomplishment, and Dana because she wondered at their reactions.

And then, on the other side of Dana, sat Joshua.  His face was impassive.  He knew most of what would be revealed during this meeting, but Gina knew her younger son would protest Dana’s plan.  For the moment, though, he merely listened to the mixed conversations as everyone waited for the matron of the ruling family to call the meeting to order.

She did this with the simple act of standing.  She wouldn’t pace during this meeting, but as she rose, conversation faded and eyes turned to her.  She waited for another moment before speaking.  She enjoyed making them wait.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you have no doubt heard rumors of a rather large project going on just to the west of here.”  She kept her voice even.  “It is the brain-child of my son Troy, who proposed that we use the discovery of cement block to construct the outer wall of a new city for ourselves.  One that will have more room for our people to live, and one that will be far safer against the Turned.  That project is very nearly completed now, and awaits our presence.”  She motioned for Troy to stand and speak his part.  A few people whispered to each other, but silenced themselves as he spoke.

He unrolled the large parchment that held the design.  He marched through his explanation clearly and quickly.  The audience was rapt, already smiling and making plans for their new homes.  Troy had taken the liberty of building new homes for all of them, identical to those they currently lived in, but these could be added to and modified.  With as much space as was available to them, it was clear that some were ready to go home and pack immediately.

As Troy finished speaking and sat down, several of the people around the table began to applaud him.  He saluted them with his wineglass, took a sip, and then motioned toward his sister, who had already risen.

“So now that you understand what we’ve built, we must discuss our plan for moving the population.  Troy has been setting up an office through which people will be able to take out a contract for a space in one of the outer sections of the city.  The terms will vary depending upon where the space is, how big it is, and which section they would like to live in.  We will be letting them build the structures themselves, with guidance from this new authority Troy will be assembling.”  She took a deep breath before continuing.  Gina scanned the faces, knowing that the moment was coming.

“As you all know, there has been a certain amount of dissatisfaction amongst the poorer people of our town, and it could be argued that many of them will hesitate to move, or to contract for a new plot to build on.  While they would be happy to live within an obviously superior perimeter wall, there will be many who think we will be setting contract terms that are impossible to live with.  And because we will be needing many, many workers to help clear trees near the new city and begin planting crops- as well as finishing this years harvest here- we will need to make sure these workers commit to a fairly long term with us.  We will be asking quite a bit in these contracts.  There will be many who protest.  So we felt it necessary to create a situation where the people throughout the city will be pressured to take the contracts we offer.”

That last statement caused many ominous looks.  They hadn’t heard the meat of the plan yet, Gina knew, but their reactions would be carefully measured.  The implied message in Dana’s speech so far was clear; the complete loyalty of the wealthier families in town was expected.

“What I am about to tell you next must not leave this room.  If a rumor spreads, the consequences to those who start them will be severe.

“Over the next two weeks, we will be moving our households to the new city.  We will need to be seen here, daily, to keep people from becoming suspicious, but your servants and many of our soldiers will be transporting our belongings to their new homes.  When that process is complete, we will stage a breach in the perimeter fence, and allow the Turned to take a part of the city.”

Jaws began to fall open around the table.  Troy’s head snapped around at the end- he hadn’t seen it coming at all.  Gina smirked to herself, and felt just a little bad about not letting him in on that aspect of the plan.

“The next day, we will announce the new city, and offer our contracts.  With the breach the night before, the people will be desperate to move, and will accept whatever conditions we ask for.”  Dana looked at her brother.  Joshua merely stared back at her, his eyes revealing nothing.  He must be boiling inside, Dana thought.  For a brief moment, she wondered how he might conspire against their plans, but she knew him well enough.  He didn’t have the resources or the mental capacity to spoil their plans.  But she still needed to share her discovery with mother.  Dana hadn’t quite decided what to do about all that, other than to continue having him watched.

Everyone else, however, wore their initial shock on their sleeves.  Then the underlying message began to sink in, and each of them got it clearly: We didn’t have to tell any of you about this, either.  Some looked at their spouses or across the table at the heads of other families.  Many looked down at the table.  All were counting themselves lucky, and thinking of ways they could keep favor with the ruling family.  Once again, they had all been reminded why this family was in control.

Gina let them think for a long time before speaking again.  “I’m glad to see no one has any outright objections.  We will start wagon-trains moving to the new location tomorrow morning, and will have regular travel twice a day.  The guards at the new city will direct your servants to the correct homes.  If you have individual concerns, please bring them to Donovan, and he will either advise you or bring your concerns to me.  That is all, ladies and gentlemen.”  She smiled, looking like a predator surveying its hunting ground.  “Thank you again for coming.”

With that dismissal, the other families rose from the table and made their way to the door.  Within a few minutes, the ruling family was alone again, with Donovan preparing to leave as well.

“My only concern is the disappearance of so many families from the villages,” he said, gathering his notes.  “It reduces the pressure on people.”

Gina nodded.  “I agree, but there are still plenty of people left, and they will all be willing to do whatever it takes when we save their lives.”  Donovan nodded, and took his leave.  When the door shut, she turned to Joshua, who had hardly moved through the entire meeting.

“I’m surprised you don’t have more to say,” she said, rising from her chair and beginning to pace around the room.

He looked up at her, his face still impassive.  “I’ve given up trying to argue with the three of you.  Whether I agree with your plans or not, you’ve already put them into action.”  He rose, and moved toward the door.  As it closed a third time, Dana looked up at her mother.

“Bluefield.”

Gina nodded.  “Whom did he meet there?  The same girl?”

“I don’t know.  I wouldn’t assume anything, but that would be my guess.”

Gina sighed.  “I suppose he wants to shield her from us.  But he has to know that he really doesn’t need to try to hide such things.”

“The fact that he does hide it from us, though, suggests that there is more there than we know.  I plan to have him watched more closely.”

Gina nodded, then returned to her chair.  She preferred it when Joshua was argumentative.  At least then she didn’t have to guess at his thinking.

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