A Committee of One: “Weren’t you supposed to ask first?”
|Reunion, Chapter 1: A Committee of One
by JJ Robinson II
He woke, and shuffled the filthy rags that made up his bed in a vain effort to ward off the gnawing cold. It took him several minutes to remember why he had awakened.
He heard the noise again. It was a quiet tapping sound from the back of the darkened tavern. He decided it was just one of the ever-present rats eating through a wall board, and huddled up to try to sleep.
Also awake, the dog growled at him, thinking the movement was another attempt to steal uneaten food.
At the top of the grimy tavern’s stairs, a warm glow under the keeper’s door taunted him.
The sound came again, louder and more insistent. He sat up. He had suffered a long day of particularly grinding labor, and wanted desperately to sleep. The tapping continued. He wiped tears from his eyes, drew his rags about him, and went to make the tormenting sound stop.
He followed the sound to the back door of the tavern. It was a low half-door through which he had spent many waking hours shoveling the tavern's refuse into the gutter outside. He pulled back the bolt and pushed against the door. It was blocked by drifting snow.
Suddenly, it flew open of its own accord, leaving a quarter-circle of compressed garbage in the snow outside. A blast of deadly cold seared his flesh as if he were naked. He drew back, and narrowly avoided being crushed as a large man thrust himself through the door on hands and knees.
The man lay wheezing on the floor for some time. He wore a dark green vest over a short chain shirt and a heavy felt tunic. The sleeve of his undershirt was stained red.
"Close the door, boy!" The man gasped. He hauled himself with great effort to his knees. He pulled the steel cap and felt-lined camail from his head and dropped it on the floor. The hilt of the small sword at his belt glistened in the dim light from the door.
"What...?" The boy had seen the familiar bird's head on the sword's pommel before.
"I said close the door!" The man spoke in a hoarse whisper.
The boy stumbled into the mind-numbing cold to seize the iron ring and pull the door closed. He was almost sure that the effort would kill him.
"Is there no fire in here?" The man thrust his hands into the sleeves of his tunic.
"The keeper has one upstairs, but I'm not allowed there."
The man whispered a string of desperate curses at the absent tavern keeper. He moved one hand further up the sleeve of the tunic, and brought out a small object. It was smeared with blood.
The boy thought it an ordinary rock, until it began to glow softly. The ruddy glow spread until it enveloped both in an aura of impossibly lovely warmth. Awestruck, he touched the stone with a grimy finger. The aura where he touched it turned golden, and a feeling of loving familiarity spread into his mind.
"Shh!" The man pulled the stone away. "They'll see! Be careful!" More cautiously, he moved the stone closer to the boy's face.
"It really is you! I thought never to find you again. Where is your father?"
"They took him as soon as we entered the city gate." Tears welled in the boy's eyes, and he began to sob softly. "They sold me to...I don't know what they did with my father!"
"They tried to take me as well. That's how I got this." He pulled back the left sleeve to reveal a deep, bloody cut a hand's-span long across his forearm. "Do you have the dagger, the one that looks like this." He touched the hilt of his short sword.
"The keeper took it from me when they brought me here." The boy wiped his eyes and nose on his filthy sleeve.
"Very well." The man sighed, and removed a small ceremonial dagger on a chain from beneath the collar of his armored shirt. The pommel was decorated with the same angular bird's head as his sword.
"No! The keeper searches every night to be sure I haven't hidden coins or bits of food from under the tables. If he finds that, he'll beat me half to death," the child whimpered.
"He won't find it. You have to leave immediately." The man dropped the dagger’s chain around the boy’s neck. He drew a silvery cloth from the pouch on his belt, and wrapped the child in it. He produced two small bags of the same material, and put them on the boy’s feet. “Come with me!”
Something thudded against the tavern's front door with a force that seemed to shake the structure to its foundations. The impact was repeated rapidly three times.
"Open this door!" a voice bellowed. The boy could see the flickering light of torches around the oiled skins which covered the windows.
The man lurched frantically to his feet, crouched, and half-dragged the boy through the door.
"There.” In the direction he pointed, the child saw a glow that covered half the horizon.
“Go toward that light. The local can cult is recruiting searchers. They’ll have food and clothes for you. With your father and I out of action, it’s up to you to find the relay.”
“The time has arrived. You have to start the quest.”
“Reunion. Didn’t your father tell you what he does?”
“Oh, he mentioned that a few times. What is it?”
“You’ll know when you find it. Also, once you get away from the cult, don’t take any cans or openers you find back to them. They’ll adopt you—permanently.”
“Why can’t you go?”
“I’m wounded, and they have every agent in the city after me. It’s up to you. You can do this.”
From inside the tavern, he heard the dog barking and the keeper sliding the bar from the front door. The last the boy saw of the strange visitor was his flapping cloak as he ran awkwardly through the deepening drifts.
Still hungry and weak, but warmer than he had been for nearly a year, he set out in the direction of the glow.
His first sight as he approached the source of the glow was a dim, grey barrier taller than any of the other buildings in the city, which stretched out of sight in both directions. The source of the glow was behind it. It was accompanied by the stench of something burning—a lot of something burning. It was apparently not something fresh.
Next he came in view of the people, which the stranger had called the “can cult”. They were dressed in astonishing robes and headdresses of feathers and some sort of knobby animal skins. He was relieved to see that they were not the uniformly dressed agents which had taken him and his father captive.
One of them spotted him, and moved in his direction. He could see now that the cultist wore an ornament around his neck of polished, silver cylinders tied together with leather thongs. He recognized them---metal storage containers for food—“cans”.
“Come along, then,” said the cultist. “Let’s get you cleaned up, and dressed. Are you hungry?”
The boy nodded vigorously.
Soon he was bathed and dressed in his own leather robes, draped in ridiculous tufts of feathers. They fed him a sort of meat sauce that was stale and tasted of metal, but was far better than what he had been eating. He wondered what they would make him do to earn the clothes and food.
At sunrise, he was brought before a man dressed even more elaborately and ridiculously than the others, with a much taller headdress, and seated on a chair made of cans lashed together and draped in skins. The greater man gestured to his escort.
“To earn a place with us,” the man he had met first said, “You will need to find two things for us.”
He produced a can from a nearby crate, and took a small metal device from a pouch at his waist. He showed the boy how to set the device on the can, and turn a handle to cut the can open. The can he opened was, however, empty.
The chief man stood, and pointed to a rickety scaffold of sticks, boards, and ladders which clung precariously to the grey wall.
He looked around at the people, puzzled. His escort nudged him in the direction of the scaffold. He was given a container of water and a sort of hard bread in a paper bag. He was also given an empty sack of rough cloth.
He despaired as he realized it would take most of a day to climb to the top of the wall. It would be a very long, very boring day, with little to look at but the featureless grey wall.
He arrived with his escort at the base of the scaffold. As he ascended, everything beyond the scaffold was soon obscured by fog and smoke. The escort stayed at the base of the first ladder, and was soon lost in the mist.
As expected, he reached the top of the wall as the sun began to disappear below the horizon. It would take most of the night to descend the much smaller scaffold on the other side. Worse, some of this was in very poor repair, and some had been replaced with knotted ropes. His bruises and other untreated injuries hampered him badly as he moved. The descent was hampered still more by the burning stench and the darkness. He had begun to cough more frequently. He wondered how he was going to get back up with a load of cans, then remembered his instructions not to go back to the cult.
The interior was a maze of narrow footpaths, winding among giant middens of rotting food and household goods, and heaps of wreckage—vehicles and devices he couldn’t guess the use of. Some of the heaps were almost as high as the wall. Some were steaming or burning.
Around mid-morning, he found a large metal shack, packed full of boxes of the cans. These had old, but still colorful paper wrapped around them. Some of the boxes contained small metal things—different than the ones the cultists had--and brown, crusty papers with pictures that explained how to use them to open the cans. He struggled to remember enough reading to figure out what was written on the paper wrapped around the cans, but found one with a picture that looked better than most. After a lot of effort, he peeled back about half the top of a can. It was filled with pieces of sticky bread full of something like meat, and a dark liquid. He was hungry again, so he poured some into his mouth and choked it down, half-chewed. Again, it was better than what he had been fed at the tavern.
As he loaded some cans into his bag, the forgotten dagger suspended around his neck vibrated once, and a red light flashed beneath his robe. Nothing happened after that, so he gathered the bag and continued on his way.
The dagger shook, flashed, and made a low grumbling sound. As he turned down the next path, it did all three twice. He could now make out another high grey wall in the distance like the first, but perpendicular to it.
He passed another side path, and continued to follow the one he was on. The dagger only signaled once, so he went back.
After some time of this, the dagger was signaling as many as four times. He deduced from the angles of the visible walls and the signals that it was directing him toward the center of the huge enclave of junk.
Exhausted, he found another metal shack, made some space on the floor among the boxes, and slept.
He arrived early the next morning at a large, circular clearing in the refuse, as the dagger began to vibrate and grumble continuously, and the flashing light became a solid glow. The clearing was covered in a soaring canopy of dark material, as if someone was trying to conceal the clearing from above.
In the center of the clearing, he saw an object more beautiful than anything he had ever seen. It was like a gleaming white bird, but larger than any building in the city, and swept gracefully backward into a wedge shape. Its skin was completely featureless, with no markings or openings. It stood on six graceful legs that merged seamlessly into its underside.
The dagger signaled more insistently, so he started toward the giant white bird. A circular piece of the bottom of the craft descended to the ground, with no visible support. He shrugged, and stepped on.
He rose into a circular chamber at the end of a corridor. The interior of the corridor was kind of disappointing, after the beauty of the outside. It was stark, angular, with visible fasteners everywhere, and hoses and cables strung along the ceiling. Past the opening at the end, he found a comfortable-looking couch set into a wall in a small room.
He found he was very tired, and hungry again, so he sat down and took out another can from his sack. He yawned as he laid back on the cushioned headrest, and thought, “I’ll just rest for a while, and then try to open this one.”
A metal tentacle emerged from the arm of the couch, and gently guided his hand to the arm rest. For some reason, he didn’t feel any concern about the strange thing that was moving his hand. There was a slight sting in the back of his hand, and he fell asleep.
He awoke, to find that he was no longer hungry or tired, and the constant pain in his arm and side were gone. He was dressed in a sturdy, white one-piece suit, and the constant bad smell he had gotten used to was also gone.
He sat up, and saw a strange, bald boy next to him. After a moment, he realized it was him, his image repeated on a panel at his side. He touched his head, to find that his hair was gone. He found a slight seam on the back of his head.
Confederation standard medical couch; he knew.
“What did you do?”
You are from Committee primary descent. We have a mission for you. We inserted the cybernetic brain implant to allow you to understand how to operate the equipment you will need; he knew.
“Weren’t you supposed to ask first?”
Situation is desperate. Instantaneous PanWeb Continuum has failed to be established for more than 19 cycles. You must help; he knew.
Confederation standard intra-stellar shuttle craft; he knew. He could operate and…
He gasped aloud. He could fly it!
Faster-than-light interstellar carrier; he knew. He also knew how to fly that.
Instantaneous PanWeb shut off. 19 previous missions failed to reestablish; he knew.
First relay active; he knew.
He gasped again. Missions were sent every 100 standard years.
2000 years? What had happened to them? He saw the diagrams. Why couldn’t any of them shut the machine off? What was so terrible about it that the leaders did this terrifying thing?
Pick up crew, reconnect PanWeb main trunk relays, reestablish communications; he knew.
Reunion; he knew.
Proceed to Confederation capitol. Evaluate Cybernus malfunction. Neutralize project or deactivate PanWeb relays and terminate crew; he knew.
He saw far more in the non-verbal instructions and images, and realized that the people who set this up were crazy…deeply, incurably, collectively insane.
On the other hand, their stuff was really interesting, and he wasn’t going back to the tavern. His father and that other man couldn’t complete the mission assigned to the Committees of 19 earlier centuries, so it was up to him.
The old chief spooned food from a can into his toothless mouth, and grumbled aloud. The searcher was days overdue. Supplies were getting low.
“Should we search for him?” asked the Second.
As the old man began to shake his head, a deafening roar rose from the enclave. Smoke, dust, and large and small pieces of debris flew above and over the grey wall as the shock struck the air like a giant hammer. The grey wall trembled with the impact. Then a craft like a white bird appeared above the wall—huge and awesome-- streaking toward the heavens.
Standing up on the trembling ground amid the roar of the air, the chief took his can necklace in one hand, and an opener in the other, and screamed as he shook them at the sky.