CHAPTER 1

1631 Words

CHAPTER 1

Johnny Hope backed off warily, retreating toward the sun-dried creek bed, a jagged brown scar across the parched grassland. He carried no weapon and as the others closed in about him in a tightening semi-circle his eyes darted furtively in all directions. But all the faces were stamped, as from a mold, with uncompromising hostility.

Johnny licked his lips and said, “I want to bury them. Let me bury them and then I’ll go. I promise.”

DeReggio, the mayor, brandished his club—which was an old rifle stock with half the jagged, corroded barrel forming a handle. “Go,” he said. He took a long stride toward Johnny, then changed his mind when the youth held his ground. “They cannot be buried, Johnny Hope. You know your parents must be burned as the law dictates.”

Blinking sweat from his eyes, Johnny felt the sun scorching down through the glaring midsummer heat-haze. “It was the last wish of my father,” he said softly, his voice hardly more than a whisper. “That I should take them forth from the village and bury them with a prayer for their Christian souls.”

“No!” DeReggio bellowed. He was a great-chested man with sloping shoulders and almost no neck. “We cannot deliver their bodies to you. We cannot let you come back into Hamilton Village and take them, for you comforted them in their last hours and are therefore a victim of the Plague yourself.” He pointed with the rifle stock toward the far hills, purple with distance. “Go.”

Johnny shook his head, planting his feet firmly, wiping sweat-dampened hands on the worn fabric of his denim trousers. Then he held his palms up and said, “Where? Where is the Plague?”

“You’ve been contaminated.”

Nearly the entire village had gathered behind their mayor now, and the mutterings were angry. When Johnny began to walk toward them, his hands outstretched to show no plague scars marked their skin, someone hurled a stone. Instinctively, Johnny hunched his shoulder and caught the missile on his collar bone. It jarred him and left an angry red mark where the capillaries had burst beneath the skin.

Staggering back toward the creek bed, Johnny was felled by a fusillade of stones. He crouched on all fours at the edge of the dry brown earth, head spinning, vision blurring with pain. He expected more stones to usher in the final blackness, but when he could again see clearly, DeReggio’s muscle-corded legs straddled him and the mayor cried, “Enough! Let Johnny Hope depart with his life.” It was a brave gesture DeReggio had made, approaching within inches of Johnny, whose parents had been slain by the Plague. But DeReggio and Johnny’s father had been close friends all their lives and had fought together in the last days of World War III before the Plague brought warfare—and civilization to an abrupt halt.

Johnny forced himself upright on trembling legs. “I thank you for my life,” he said, “but not for how you treat your dead companion-in-arms.”

The color drained from DeReggio’s olive-skinned face. “Think what you will, Johnny. Think it but go while you still can. And remember that our first concern is with the living. The dead are beyond recall and the Plague victims can spread c*****e in their wake. You know I loved your father like a brother, and your mother….”

DeReggio and Johnny’s dead mother were cousins, had been raised together under the same roof in the long-gone days before the War. Except for Johnny himself, the death of his parents could have disturbed no one more than DeReggio.

“All right,” said Johnny. “I’ll go.” There was a loud sucking in of breaths—relief—from the crowd. “But first I have this to say. I have visited the old, ruined cities. I have seen Philadelphia on its river and once I went north as far as New York, the great stumps of its buildings coming right down to the water’s edge on the island called Manhattan. I have seen these things and although I am young I tell you this: we will not return to our greatness unless we strike out boldly instead of sitting, huddled in fear, at the thought of the Plague.”

“It is what his father always said,” someone whispered from the edge of the crowd.

“The Robots will cure the Plague,” someone else, a woman, declared.

Johnny laughed and had never heard such a sound before, from his lips or any others. “The Robots will cure nothing,” he said. “Has anyone here ever seen the Robots?”

The faltering wave of sound from the crowd was in the negative.

“I have seen them,” Johnny told his people, with whom he could no longer live. “My father wanted it that way. He sent me to the cities and to the mysterious places between the cities, the gleaming, white-surfaced roads which we use no longer, to see the Robots. And I tell you this: they will not cure the Plague. If anything they’ll spread it.”

A hushed silence fell, like a pall, on the assembly. None of them had ever seen the Robots, but that was because it is not proper for a mortal to see a deity. “This was the truth my father could not tell you in his lifetime,” Johnny went on. “He knew you would have laughed and mocked—or worse. In his death I tell it to you for him. Along with his wish to be interred in the ground, it was his final thought.”

DeReggio did not look Johnny squarely in the eye. “I think you had better go, lad. You have no right to talk like that.”

Johnny shrugged, feeling the weight of a knowledge and wisdom beyond his years. “I am twenty-three,” he said. “I was an infant when the War ended. Yet my father could teach me certain things and other things I could see for myself because he taught me to be curious and take nothing for granted. You could learn the same. Someday, perhaps….”

“By the Robots!” DeReggio swore softly, hissing the words almost in Johnny’s ears. “Go before you antagonize them. If they start throwing things again, I won’t be able to save you.”

Johnny turned his back and squared his shoulders in a gesture compounded as much of defiance as contempt. He told DeReggio, “At least do one thing for me.”

“If I can.”

“When they are burned, say a prayer. One of the old prayers, if you remember.” Johnny did not wait for an answer. He set forth in long strides, his sandal-shod feet powdering the sun-baked ridges on the dry creek bed. He did not once look back over his shoulder, but now, with the people gone and his pride no longer a barrier, he sobbed softly, thinking of his parents who had died because they had to venture forth from Hamilton Village to learn some of the truths which were hidden from their people, and so had come down with the Plague. Hours later, as the sun sank toward the western horizon and the heat of the day became less intense, Johnny heard the distant baying of dogs as the village hounds picked up his spoor and followed it. As prescribed by law, Mayor DeReggio was making certain Johnny did not double back to Hamilton Village.

He was alone in a hostile world which, in twenty years, had seen civilization come tumbling down like a house of cards in a hurricane.

* * * *

That night, he slept uneasily on the bare ground, the soft-footed padding of foraging animals all around him under the dark moonless sky. He awoke with a tremendous hunger and a parching thirst. The latter he slaked in a swift-gushing stream which flowed clean and cool even in the heat of midsummer. Presently he came upon a huge black hawk, its pinions flapping, its talons sunk into the flesh of a dead cottontail rabbit as it prepared to fly off. Johnny waved his arms and shouted, frightening the bird of prey which rose without its breakfast, circled uncertainly, and then wheeled off to the east, a soaring black ghost graceful as a feather.

Johnny built a fire with brush and dry twigs and ate his meal in silence, feeling like a scavenger. He drank again from the stream and began to fashion himself a spear by uprooting a sapling and ripping off its branches and rubbing its tapering top to a fine point on the edge of a small flat boulder. He hardened the point in the embers of his dying fire, hefted the makeshift weapon experimentally, and headed north in the general direction of New York.

Two days later the joints of his knees and elbows began to stiffen. It came upon him slowly and he thought it was from too much walking and not enough food, but when the stiffness spread to ankles, wrist and neck and giddiness struck him suddenly, he began to suspect the Plague.

It was early afternoon and he sat down at the base of a thick-trunked oak tree, propping himself against the bole. He hurled his useless spear away and wondered how long it would take before he sank into the final coma and death. He ran swollen fingers across his knees and realized they had puffed to twice their normal size. He could now feel nothing from his knees down, and it was an effort to move his hands. A faint purple color suffused his limbs and any doubt he may have harbored about the Plague vanished.

DeReggio was right. Johnny tried to rise and failed, rolling over helplessly to lie half in and half out of the cooling shade shed by the oak. The chills rushed up from his feet, and engulfed him, followed at once by fever. By the time he began mumbling in delirium, the sun was going down in the west, casting long red cloud fingers into the darkening sky.

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