“The mistake that most students make is to consider history a series of discrete events, with the past distant from the present,” his professor droned on, “but the reality is that history is — a language. Events trigger responses, and each society at any given time could be viewed as a culture of responses. Time shows how successful those are, with some societies even lasting for thousands of years.”
David Burleson zoned out in his chair. He had read about a school where they assigned you books, you read the books and then wrote an essay or participated in a debate about the topic. Classroom time always killed him because he got bored before he could get interested. His mind traveled back to what he considered his actual education, a trip across the continent last May…
“Come along, students,” said Mr. Marchant, the lead chaperone on the trip. Like all of their teachers, he had served in the military during active war, and his left leg lagged but David had no illusions: this man would crush and kill opponents in a fight. The others were similarly broad-shouldered, alert and almost paranoid in how they saw every person or event as a potential threat, and regarded most people as basically criminals held in check by fear. The students filed onto the train, a vast metal caravan with cars bristling in weapons on the front and rear.
David knew he was lucky to be on this trip. The son of a hardware store owner who had the wit to install a machine shop in the rear, David knew he was “prosperous” in the sense that his family had enough money to do most of whatever they wanted. His father invested heavily in education. “This won’t make you rich, but it might make you whole,” he said, while signing the admission forms to St. Augustus Academy. As part of that education, David would be exposed to the world outside of their isolated mega-hamlet in Northern Idaho. Set off the main roads and rivers, their spiderweb of towns and small cities thrived on its own production alone.
The train set off, moving more quietly than he thought, with the guns on the forward and rear cars tracking the hills with increasing urgency the farther they got from the valley. The rhythmic passage of tracks lulled him in to a kind of trance. He woke from it suddenly when the scene around him changed from green to grey as they passed through the ruins of another city. The buildings were not bullet-pocked, but abandoned, covered in graffiti and surrounded by the scattered waste from successive generations of looters. A few people who looked like beggars — skin of the universal brown that all Outpeople had, with mostly Asian features but sturdier bodies showing some hybridization with Caucasians, Africans and Indian-Australian aboriginals — picked their way through the ruins.
David knew how people on the rest of the continent looked because some, usually the very prosperous, came to visit, but it was agreed among the first families that they should not stay. Apparently once this had been tried and it was a disaster, but they did not teach that until lessons in later years. As David watched, several of the beggars moved toward one another near a heap of hay, and then, more adroitly than he would have thought based on their appearance, dove into the hay for weapons and opened fire. He saw they were using the rocket launchers he had read about in his textbook on the history of the 20th century. To his surprise, this shocked him more than the attack itself. Surely the weapons of the Outpeople had improved since those ancient and pointless wars? His mind jolted back to reality as one of the rockets struck a hit, blasting a man-sized gap into the engine car. Smoke filled the cabin and the machine guns returned fire wildly at first, but then zeroed in and chased down several of the miscreants. Looking out the window on the other side, David saw that the ambush had been staged from several points, with more than a dozen participants, several of whom now lay unmoving in pools of blood.
“Rare for them to hit us this early in the run,” said a dust-covered and bloodied railman as he came back into the cabin. He spoke to David almost instinctively, trusting the alertness of this tall teenager. “Round up the others, make sure no one was hurt, son.”
Having been born to practical people, from a long race of practical people who nonetheless nurtured their inner dream, David acted as he was told. He visited each of his classmates, boys and girls within a few years of his age, and verified no injuries. The shuttered bulletproof glass had kept out machine gun fire and no rockets had hit this car. David went on to the next car and did the same, and then the next. There he found that a wild miss had sent a rocket into the luggage compartment. He helped two other boys from his group beat down the flames, taking water from the bathroom to soak the smouldering remnants of obliterated luggage.
One girl had taken a small rocket fragment to the orbit above her eye, but sat stoically with blood streaming down her face. Knowing his first aid, David washed his hands, then the wound, and extracted the fragment which he put in an envelope for her. The cut would need stitches however, and so he backtracked with her to the railman, who pointed them to a former army medic who carefully sutured the wound. David held her hand — he thought her name was Helena, but did not pay particular attention to those around him — and felt the pulsing of her heart between the little squeezes she gave each time the needle bit into flesh. Sealed and disinfected, she hopped off the bunk and he took her back to her seat, gave her some water, and then joined his other classmates in hunting down the last of the fragments and salvaging what could be saved from the luggage. Thus ended the first encounter of David Burleson and the outside world.
Back in his car, David struck up a conversation with the railman he had seen before. “They hit us when they can,” said Henry, who had come from a mega-hamlet one-removed toward the river from where David originated. These autonomous regions operated without government for the most part, having only a handful of wise elders and volunteer civil services. In contrast, the rest of the continent had government, but from what Henry said, it had little control. “In the cities, they have power,” he said. “But the cops take bribes, and the politicians are buddies with the guys with money, so the laws are all messed up and everyone works around them. The more order you get, the more disorder happens.” Henry went on to explain that the only useful order came from corporations, like the rail company, and unincorporated tribal areas like the mega-hamlets. Everything else was “all about the same,” he said.
The students crowded to the windows as they passed through first towns and then cities. They all looked about the same: crooked roads shaped by buildings that seemed to spill out of the ground like foam, constructed on top of one another with no sense for architecture or stability. Helena stepped up next to him at the window. Like David, she was a clear Western European Caucasian: long face, blue eyes, lighter hair and elegant bone structure in the style of this ancient people. “I read that these are what they once called favelas in a place in the South Atlantic Protectorate,” she said. “They make them out of bricks, concrete and wood, and they fall down a lot. Then they just build them again.”
“I never knew the world was so disappointing,” David said. “I imagined vast kingdoms, interesting places, culture and learning, but instead I see dirty savages in the ruins of civilization.”
“It may be both,” said Helena. “I study literature and music, so I sample much of what they produce. These people have more music than we do. More books also. And many theories that their scientists and academics develop. The problem is that the content of these works is generally low. Their songs for example are very musically similar, and operate on only a few principles but many techniques and different sounds. After a few hours of listening, they all run together because they are all in effect the same song in different keys and with different instrument textures. Their books tend to have many fragments of theory in them, but no central point, so they become these complicated stories that end at a very simple idea because nothing holds together all their parts. Their dances are not like ours, which are orderly and have structure from beginning to end, but are improvised like much of their music, which means that they tell the same story over and over again in different forms. I am both impressed by what they write and play, and prefer ours immensely.”
Having never cared for either literature or music, David knew not how to proceed. Being an intrepid adventurer, he kept the conversation going. “What do you like about literature?” he asked.
“The same thing I like about science and history, I suppose,” she said. “People do things a certain way, and they get similar results because of that. In literature, characters must overcome their fear and self-doubt to do what they know in their inner selves is true, while everyone around them tries to confuse the issue for their own convenience. Most people do not want truth or beauty because they want personal power over things that are less important than they think they are, but they are afraid to abandon them because they are all they know. This is why our great stories are all adventures, where the heroes leave a comfortable state of mind and see how primitive and criminal the world is, and then they decide to do what they can to improve it. That can be as simple as having the right conversation, or slaying a dragon, or running the right business, or even what you do in science lab or on the farm, which is to make things work better.”
David raised an eyebrow. “I saw your independent project last semester,” she said. “About using capillary pressure in stone to produce never-ending irrigation.”
“Oh, that,” he said. “It was a fun idea… but it fails because it needs constant cleaning from the mud build-up. It would never be eternal, which is what I wanted it to be, so that I could create a forest that would always thrive.”
Helena nodded. “Eternal, well, that is quite a goal to shoot for. But at least long-lasting, I can understand. That will require people to take care of whatever it is, whether it needs irrigation or defense against those who would abuse it, or just clearing out the dead wood. If there are no people who understand, the thing no longer has utility, and fades away into history.”
“True,” said David. “I just like the idea that people a thousand years from now my sit in my forest and love it as I have.”
“There is a term for that,” said Helena. “Civilization. We all make the best of everything we can, then write down what we have learned, so that others may do it a thousand years hence or longer.”
As the day went on, David and Helena saw more of the Outworld. Fallen bridges, rivers covered in oily rainbows of chemicals, vast fields dead and burned long ago which did not regrow, smashed monuments, wreckage of machines, great piles of garbage and endless tenements of the kind they had seen before, with stores and homes lumped together and built on top of each other.
“It is a crazy world out there,” said Henry. “It is why our people moved away. The cities had more money, and probably still do, but everyone who adopts that lifestyle becomes changed. They get shorter, darker and less honest. Soon they mix blood with others, not just other tribes but outside of their place in life, and then it becomes like the jungle savages but with technology. All the time, dancing and drinking, making a big deal out of nothing. The pipes stop working, the water turns foul, pollution fills up everything, but what do they care? They have their dancing, their drink and their parties. They can just buy more water, or put a wall around their houses so they do not have to hear the chaos outside. People seal themselves up into little bubbles and as a result what they share, what we call the commons, falls apart and turns into this mess.”
David watched as twilight fell. He could not remove his eyes from the tragedy scrolling by outside. It both enthralled and terrified him. But as he saw how unending it was, how relentless and common it all was, something changed in him. He clenched his fist and whispered to himself, “I will never let this happen to our lands… our good people… our future.” A single tear dropped from the center of his eye and he brushed it away angrily.
Helena stepped forward from where she had been standing, next to him and behind him. “All of the world is this way,” she said. “So few of our people realize that we are the rare exception not by fortune, but by choice. To avoid this, we have to care about being good. About keeping the forests alive, children pure and happy, and learning what is true and placing it above whatever we hoped was real instead. I do not wish to be unkind to my own sex, but it seems to me that very few women in comfortable homes recognize what is required to have those homes and how… different… these people are, that they make what seems like the opposite choice.”
David nodded. “Their forests are all wrong,” he said. “Just little bits here and there, filled with garbage, and only the small animals stay and they live off the humans. We travel through a land of death.” He exhaled heavily. “I have not known how much I wish to live, until now.”
She stepped closer and put her head on his shoulder.
Henry the railman blew the whistle as the train returned to its station several days later. The students filed out, subdued. Even the slower ones had seen what David and Helena had witnessed. The world was heavier, the air more threatening, as they went back to their golden valleys and warm homes surrounded by vibrant green trees and a diversity of animals. That night, each grabbed a pillow in a world that was suddenly darker and colder, but sleep would not come. Only the thought, echoing in their minds, how without positive choices the world became an evil and ruined place, and most people wanted it that way. It was paradoxical, inconceivable… evil.
At the school, Marchant poured himself his second whiskey. “I hate doing it,” he said. “Every time, to see those little hearts shattered. Like the first day we faced the enemy. I had never known terror before.”
Henry poured himself another as well. “It was not a happy mission,” he said. “But it is necessary. The other side of love is terror. If you love something, you cannot protect it from the world. You have to show it why your way is right and everything else is disease. Otherwise, it will never protect itself, and your efforts will be its doom.”
“I will drink to that,” said Marchant. “Still, it was no happy duty.”
“As we said in the fields of battle,” said Henry, “Like Christ and Socrates, we will face hell so that the future will be brighter. They are honoring our service with their own, in a little way. Someday they will take over from us, and this valley will stay golden. The children will not be innocent, no, but one can never be innocent. Evil exists nowhere and everywhere. It is a choice, like an error or illusion, that people fall into. And without inoculation against it, our people are ready victims for the enemy.”
Marchant raised his glass. Henry touched it with his. “Who dares wins,” he said finally.