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Critical Mass

by Bill Kowaleski


Dr. Arkos had asked that his body be vaporized by the fusion reaction to which he’d devoted his life, and we granted him his wish. After the ceremony, after I had announced that I would lead the commune, I assembled the young Physicists in the shed that had been Dr. Arkos’s office.

“We must intensify our learning. There’s no telling how much longer you’ll be able to continue your studies,” I said. They looked down, none meeting my eyes, saying nothing.

‘What?” I asked. “Why are you acting like this?”

The door to the shed burst open, followed by a brutal gust of arctic wind, and then Walt Miller.

“I saw you assembling your team, Gerard, so I thought I’d explain something.”

“What’s that, Mein Herr?”

His face lit up with fury. He lifted an arm. For just an instant I could see him try to control himself, and then he lowered his arm, closed the distance between us, and shoved me roughly against the wall. With his fist pressing hard against my chest he shouted, “Enough sarcasm! Your protector is dead. You will respect me from this second forward!”

He stood an inch from my nose, smelling of sour sweat, staring into my eyes until I looked down and said, “You have my respect.”

“That’s better.” He stepped back, turned and pointed to the three Physicists. “These young people need to be fully integrated into our militarized commune. If we grant exceptions to some, soon everyone will want to evade his duty. So I’m taking them for six months. After that you can have them if we don’t need them for operations.”

“Intense study is required for them to complete their training. This will set them back a year at least.”

“Can’t be helped. Figure out a way to do better. You’re a smart guy.”

He motioned to the Physicists and they followed him into the winter chill.

Over those next six months the commune became a completely different place. Commander Miller and his Lieutenant, Manuel, led raids over the bluffs that brought us over a hundred new members. They built small fortresses on both sides of the river, and established a farm in the choice soil nearby. I had to admit that Manuel and Walt were outstanding military leaders. They won every battle with very few casualties.

Our lives, which had formerly focused on our trade crafts and teaching the next generation the knowledge of the Days Before, now were filled with production of weapons, provisioning of raids, farming our new lands, and expanding housing to accommodate our new members. I was not allowed to recruit new Physicists, and I had no hope now of ever seeing the three I had been training. They were Warriors, needed for regular raids that had become a part of our routine.

My leadership of the commune was in name only. Commander Miller did what he wanted without consulting me. I found out about the windmills, for example, when I noticed some young men constructing towers along the riverbank. I walked over and asked what they were up to. They seemed surprised that I didn’t know anything about it.

“Why windmills?” I asked him later that day.

“The wind always blows here, Francis. Haven’t you noticed?”

“Sure, but we’ve got a nuclear power plant to provide our energy. Building windmills seems a frightful waste of time and resources.”

“When a windmill fails, you climb up and fix it. When you need a new part for your reactor, what do you do? Who exactly is building nuclear power plant parts right now?”

“It’s true, we have to build our own parts, and it’s not easy. But so far we’ve always managed to get the raw materials we need from the traders...”

“Just this spring, you waited weeks for some kind of special metal. And it cost us a month’s production of robes. There’s no reliable supply chain any more, and it’s only getting worse. Windmills will warm us, they’ll give us some electricity for lighting, forging, running our looms. And they’ll work for generations.”

“You could have at least consulted me about this...”

“I just did. Thanks so much for your input.” He gave me a mock salute, grinned, turned and marched away.

I wanted to show him that the reactor was important, how much we’d suffer without it. But I didn’t want to wait until it was irreversibly broken, so I formulated a foolish plan. On a steamy August night, when we didn’t need the reactor’s power for heat, I shut it down. Within minutes, Manuel and Walt were at my door.

“I’m trying to diagnose the problem right now, guys.”

“What do you think happened?” asked Walt.

“I’ve been unable to do all the maintenance myself. It’s finally caught up with us. Please, give me my Physicists so I can get this problem fixed.”

Walt smiled. “Well, the day has come, Francis, sooner than I thought it would, but I think we’re ready. No, your Physicists stay in the Warriors. And as for you, I think you’re going to tell the commune that the problem can’t be fixed.”

“What do you mean? I’m sure that with some help I can...”

“No! I said we’re not fixing it.”

“Are you insane? What will we do this winter? How will we repel attacks?”

“You’ve seen the windmills — they’ll keep us warm. And nobody’s going to attack us. We’re the strongest force in the area now.”

“What do you want me to do then? I can’t maintain the reactor, you won’t let me teach anyone, and I’m certainly not the leader of this commune. What is to become of me?”

His face was the impassive mask of authority. He spoke without emotion, without any hint of malice or mercy. “You’re likely to be little more than a nag now, fomenting trouble behind my back, undermining my plans, second-guessing everything I decide. This should be the moment when I execute you, or exile you beyond the bluffs.”

He paused. I knew there was more, but I was far too frightened to say a word.

He turned to Manuel. “You’re dismissed, Lieutenant.”

When Manuel had gone, Walt said, “What makes a great leader, Francis? Making sure everyone fears you, or getting the most out of people?” A great leader? His ego was expanding at an alarming pace. I had little choice but to answer. “I would say the latter.”

He nodded. “And if someone who has talents, who has value, is your enemy, how can you best use him?”

“Well, I suppose keep a close eye on him...”

“No! You turn him into a friend — if he’ll let you, of course.”

“You think you can turn me into a friend? I thought you hated me.”

He smiled, leaned against the wall. “It’s true, I don’t like you. But hate, well, that’s a luxury we can’t afford, Francis. And besides, I remember things. I remember a man full of kindness and patience, a man who never waivered in his loyalty to Dr. Arkos. And I remember something else: a young man, little more than a teenager, pricking my arm with a needle — a needle that gave me my life. Yes, I could kill you or throw you out, but how does that benefit Platte Island Commune? My gut tells me you’ve got something left to offer. But I’m not sure what that is. So make me an offer.”

“An offer?”

“Yeah, tell me how you’ll contribute to our commune now that your toy is broken. And don’t waste your breath trying to sell me on restarting the reactor. Make me a reasonable offer. But think it through carefully, because if I don’t like it, you’re going to be camped out on the bluffs tonight. You’ve got one minute.”

Fear can either numb a mind or focus it. In that minute, I focused as never before. I saw myself surrounded by books, sitting at a table, teaching children about a world they’d never know, but that could, just possibly, return in some distant time to come. I described that vision to him.

“So you’d maintain and pass on knowledge like the monks in the middle ages copying ancient manuscripts,” he said. “But how does that help the commune?”

“We can use some of the knowledge of the Days Before now: farming techniques, simple electricity generation, principles of structural design, all kinds of things that our low level of technology can support.”

He stood inches from my nose, his eyes wandering from side to side. It was at that moment that I remembered my mother’s words and finally accepted just how intelligent he was, how carefully he thought things through. My fear and hatred subsided and I said something else, something that reached him, the words that may have saved my life.

“Killing me will just arouse those who oppose you. Allow me to preserve and pass on the knowledge and you’ll appease that faction that still supports Dr. Arkos’s vision. You’ll solidify your power, and I’ll be your ally for life.”

He stared hard into my eyes, took one breath, another, then broke into a broad smile and slapped my back, staggering me. “Francis, I never knew you had it in you! You can think like a leader! Let’s talk about this.”

He sat in Dr. Arkos’s chair, motioning me to sit in the guest chair across the still-cluttered desk. “Sketch it out for me, tell me what you need.”

“We’ve got more children now. That’s what I need most — people to teach. There are a few who come to me with questions, ones I think might be good candidates.”

He stared at a spot behind me, his eyes darting. “OK, I could let you have two children of your choice to train, more later if we can spare them. You could be our archivist, the first in what might be a long line of archivists.”

His eyes locked onto mine. “You know, I never said that preserving the knowledge was wrong, only that it wasn’t practical. But yes, there are things that really could help us now.”

“Two children,” I said. “Yes, that would be great. I’d be very happy with that.” I trembled, overcome with relief, wary of his sudden change of mood.

He leaned back, linked his hands behind his head. His eyes returned to the spot behind me, but I knew his mind saw farther still. “Critical mass! You’ve got to have it to support advanced technology. You know what I mean, Francis, you more than anyone else. It’s educated people, factories, raw materials, transportation, communications, an electric grid, and on and on. It’s all gone now, and it won’t be back for many generations. Then, and only then will all that knowledge have value again. But today we’re living in the new dark ages. There’s no route back, no shortcut. We have no choice but to take the long path.”

He turned wistful, and I’ll never know for sure whether I saw a tear in his eye. “Someday the Times Before will return, Francis.” He looked down, his eyes unfocused, his voice little more than a whisper. “But that’s a day you and I will never see.”

I’d been such a fool. He was more my natural ally than anyone else in the commune, and finally I could see that he’d known that all along. I reached across the desk and put a hand on his shoulder. He looked up, smiled, and grasped my hand. I nodded. No words were necessary. We were reconciled.

Now, one year later, our commune thrives, and so do I. As I promised, I have become one of Commander Miller’s strongest allies, and I have grown to feel lucky that he rose to lead our commune, for so many leaders in the tribes beyond the bluffs are nothing more than stupid beasts, more brutal than their challengers.

I move into my older years now without fear, for I am certain that others will continue in my footsteps. I cannot know whether the chain of knowledge will remain intact until that day when what I’ve preserved can again serve humankind, nor can I know whether those people in the far future will be wiser and learn from our errors. Those are things that will concern others not yet born. But I am fulfilling my pledge to Dr. Arkos. The chain is still unbroken.

Copyright © 2013 by Bill Kowaleski

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