Stealing Souls, Chapter Two; Bernard, Part I

This is part of the book I have been working on. It will be posted chapter by chapter every other week. The first chapter can be found here. I will post ten chapters that together will comprise the first third of the book, then take a break before posting the next ten or so chapters. Please tell me what you think, and thank you very much for reading!

His name at first was Christopher, and he had no family. Like most people without a family, chosen or biological, he thought mostly about what it would be like when he had one.

The world has never been particularly good at finding something to do with people who have no family. That’s because all but an infinitesimally small part of it is completely apathetic to families. Luckily, Christopher happened to be small enough to fit into the part of it that was far from apathetic. Not so luckily, that part was so small as to be constantly distracted by other matters, like finding enough food and understanding what the point of it all was. He was so small as to believe they should be up to handling all that and finding him a new home all at once. Compared to him, after all, they were quite large; it would be some time before he realized they were only human-sized.

Now that the poetic has been dispensed with, the facts. Christopher was orphaned at 3. His parents had been rebuilding a house in the ruins of Atlanta. Atlanta was a skeleton town. Most big cities were. When the O’Hare virus hit, the hospitals had gotten flooded, the graves overwhelmed. Doctors and nurses had nothing they could do, and besides many of them died in the first wave. People started dying in beds and streets, and the ones who didn’t die had to run. Not for their lives, because mostly they were going to die anyway, but just from the sight of bones on the sidewalk.

Towns too small for much travel survived, if they figured out to keep all outsiders, with barbed wire fences and guns if need be. Then there were the few whose bodies somehow cracked the code of the virus before it cracked them. Like a twenty year fire, the virus devoured all its fuel, and then died of hunger. The bones in the cities lay quietly for a century as their nieces and nephews and cousins built up little isolated worlds.

Every now and then, some people, like Christopher’s parents, would think about all those houses and skyscrapers, ready built and still standing, and think how much easier it would be to go back and patch them up, instead of relearning the log cabin. They were too far south to realize that would attract Friendlies. They didn’t really know what Friendlies were. All they knew was that sometimes the quiet fluttering silhouettes of birds were sometimes joined by frozen, humming silhouettes of something else with wings. They knew their grandparents said those were airplanes, and that was proof that there was still civilization and technology somewhere. Perhaps someday they would find out where, they thought. Perhaps rebuilding the airports in Atlanta would draw them in, and the world would become an interconnected globe once again.

They were right about the first. For a while planes flew overhead, once a week or so, and then they began to fly every few days. After the settlers had cleared away enough kudzu that they were sure the whole of the airport was visible to those in the sky, they came in a flock. It was not a large one, a mere ten or twelve planes, but that was the first time any of them had seen more than one plane in the sky at once. The settlers came out, hands raised against the sun so they could take in the swarm, many waving to them. Then came the fire.

The people below did not know the meaning of the word napalm. It was not, by and large, one their grandparents had thought worth remembering. All they knew was the fire that clung to their skin like glue, and hurt worse than anything they had felt in their lives. Then they didn’t know anything at all.

Christopher survived because he was sick, and because his parents had claimed as their house a little cafe a ways away from the airport, on the outskirts of what the rest of the settlers had begun to clear out into their new city. They had picked it because his mother liked the faded decorations. It was full of ceramic cats, and little rainbow flags, their colors faded to translucent pastels. Christopher’s father had gone out to look, but his mother had stayed in. From the window, she saw the fire pouring out of the sky, and she did not hesitate before scooping him out and running out with him. At this time, he was only three, and small for his age. It was easy enough to run with him, deep into the thick of the forest.

She had planned to make it to their cautious kin who had stayed in their old town. With no shelter, she held him under her dress, keeping him warm as she shivered. The winter had buried all the food, and she had nothing to hunt with. Furthermore, she caught his fever.

The same kin who she had been seeking had seen the fire and gone seeking survivors and one of their dogs had smelled them. Shortly before they found her, she had already fallen for the last time. The frost bound baby Christopher to her chest, freezing her sweaty coat into a straight jacket, and they had to hack him free. They left much of his frozen fingers behind as well. While he recovered, the stumps of his fingers became gangrenous and his hands had to be amputated back to the wrists. Otherwise he was fine.

When he was stable, and the rest of the scouts had returned with news that there were no more survivors, then came the question of what to do with him. Things would have been simpler if he had one close relative who had remained in the village, or if of a few relatives, one had been clearly better suited to take care of an amputee. They would have been better if his legs had been taken instead of his arms, for the villagers could think of many ways a boy who could not walk could make himself useful, but nobody could think of a task that did not somehow require at least one hand.

Humans like to think that the most important factor in their goodness is their character. This is only true for a small number of people, at distant ends of the bell curve. The real deciding factors can be absurdly small. For example, of all the obstacles to Christopher’s adoption, none was so deciding as the fact that there were no less than twelve families with equal claim on him. Neither of his parents had someone as close as a sibling or parent still living, but he had a dozen uncles, aunts and first cousins. All had large families and few means. All worked every day out of the year, hunting and farming, fishing where possible. As they tried to consider which of them could manage best, in the back of each one’s mind was growing resentment for the other eleven. Discussions that began as a rational, compassionate weighing of the costs and benefits of each home, for both the child and the family, only informed each family of all the reasons the other families might possibly be a decent home, while affirming that their own troubles were far too great to endure one additional burden. The longer they talked, the more each was determined that, of course, if they were the only ones who could take him they would bravely swallow the burden, but they weren’t going to cave to the laziness of the other eleven.

With no arbiter, the only solution they could settle on was to let each family tend him for a day before passing him on to the next, which only made the problem worse. Deprived of any consistency in his upbringing, he became alternately sullen, anxious, demanding and overly eager to please. What got him spanked in one house passed without mention in the other. He was with his family, but never for long enough to understand them, so he was among strangers.

Then a seed peddler offered to take him. He did not see any work the boy could do any more than his family could, but he was accustomed to managing all of his own work anyway. The worst problem he had to contend with was the instinctive mistrust he was met with everywhere he went, and he thought having a little cripple boy in tow would go far. It would establish him as a man of sympathy, both in the sense of having it and being worthy of receiving it for the burden he had taken on. Besides, though he would not admit this as motivation, he was lonely.

After six months of pitying themselves for being imposed on, once every two weeks, by a boy who knew full well how unwanted he was, nobody had any qualms about sending him off. At least, none that weren’t easily overcome.

The peddler’s name had been Ambrosius, but he thought Jack sounded more peddlery, so that’s what he called himself. He had no experience with children, and so decided from the start on this course of action. First, Christopher would be allowed to do and to have whatever he wanted, so long as it was not dangerous, foolish or unattainable. Second, if he attempted to do something or beg for something that fit one of those exclusions, he would be told no and given the appropriate explanation. Third, if he persisted, he would be made to sit under the wagon, with nothing to divert himself, until Peddler Jack told him he could come out. Under this treatment, the moody, petulant and peculiar boy was resolved into a curious, even tempered boy, occasionally naughty but generally good in his intentions.

Peddler Jack and Christopher were fairly happy together, and might have been a family the rest of their lives, except for one mistake. Christopher, like all children, became persistent in his questioning, and soon exhausted Peddler Jack with his constant succession of “but why?” When Peddler Jack ran out of answers, one day he said, “I don’t know, I’m not your father.” Saying this once might have been forgotten, but for some reason, the next time conversation went this route, Peddler Jack gave the same answer. It became his default answer, and as a result, Peddler Jack felt himself distanced from the ultimate outcome of Christopher’s life, unqualified to contemplate who he would eventually become, while in Christopher’s mind, “father” became a word attached to something immortal, omniscient, and absent. A hole that could have been averted was created.

Peddler Jack traveled east to the coast, and when he hit it, he began to meander north. They moved through Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and began to wander through the middle of Virginia. The further north they got, the more people had reclaimed the skeleton towns, though to an approaching visitor it did not look like as much. They knew the trick was to keep it from being seen from above. Fields could be plowed with donkeys and harvested by hand without being molested. Everything more than that had to be hidden. Engines, power generators, even primitive smithies and steam powered machinery, all had to be kept under rotting roofs among buildings covered by ivy. If they were turned on, there needed to be a lookout on the highest roof, armed with a whistle and binoculars. If planes were in sight, anything that let out smoke needed to be turned off, and everyone needed to hold their breath and pray. They had learned this lesson from a place called Washington, where the scavengers above had been burned away, while the Metropiads below had survived.

Christopher was nearly eight when he first heard of the Metropiads. He was enthralled. In their city under the bigger city, they had everything they needed. They ate no meat, but lived on nuts and berries, and what preserves they could buy from outsiders. They never died of illness, because they remembered all the cures of the people who came before. Great machines powered lights so underground was as bright as day. Every now and then they came out to perform shows of extraordinary magic, and to trade their glass and wool. The rest of the world had managed pottery and could crudely refire and modify some glass, but nothing like the exquisitely colored and delicately spired glass the Metropiads produced. Their wool was warmer than that of goats or sheep, and they produced the most beautiful dyes as well. And this was the best thing about them; they bought children who had no families. Even if that child was like him.

“They can make you an arm or leg out of old metal, from the people before,” said the old woman who first told him about them. “It’ll move as well as any limb, and all you need to make it work is your mind. They’ll take blind and deaf children as well. Sometimes they’ll take one that’s sickly or mute, but they do want the head mostly all right. They can’t fix head stuff, but they can cure anything else.”

She saw how big his eyes got at this, and thought it was his desire to have hands, but she was only partly right. True, the idea of having ten fingers to grasp things was appealing. Still, he could do more than people thought with his toes, teeth and stumps. What grabbed hold of him was the idea of a whole city full of people like him, of being actively sought and wanted by people who did not consider him strange.

His ability to hope was tested almost immediately afterwards, when everyone he met agreed that they did not take children as old as eight. Their preference was for babies and toddlers. A few people knew they had accepted children at four or five, but older than that and they tended to refuse. He asked “why?” again and again, and mostly he heard “I’m not a Metropiad, so I wouldn’t know.”

But one person said, “One told me he wouldn’t take a paralyzed girl of seven because she was too accustomed to our ways.”

Then another said, “One said there was too much to being a Metropiad, so you’ve got to start small to learn it all.”

A third laughed and said, “I think they’re afraid a kid that big won’t give up meat.”

And putting these three answers together, Christopher decided what he should do to become one of them. He needed to prove he was willing to change anything they wanted, so they would let him in. He already knew that they never ate meat, so he would only eat the vegetables Peddler Jack cooked. He had to know more.

Luckily, he was now often sent away from the main cart to beg, and this gave him plenty of opportunities to question passersby about what they knew. They had been founded by a woman named Mother Miranda, one person said, and they worshiped her as a goddess. Others told him that Miranda was not exactly worshiped, but she was revered, and she founded something of a religion. One teenaged boy explained to him that a Metropiad had told him they don’t believe in gods, but they believed in principles and right ways of thinking. Oh, and also that they had some sort of afterlife, because their technology could record your brain after you died. Or maybe just before it? He wasn’t sure.

It was good, but not enough. He began trying to elicit more specific information. What did they wear? Not very much, it seemed. They kept cloaks and things for bad weather, but mostly they came out in warm weather. Sometimes their clothes came with holes, but not the kind that comes by accident. They would deliberately tear their clothing into patterns. Men often wore nothing but a harness for tools across their chests. Women bared midriffs and backs. Christopher had little choice in what he wore, and he would get in trouble if he ever ripped up something Peddler Jack gave him. But at least this might help him recognize them.

How did they speak? People said they never swore, so Christopher purged his language of every one of Peddler Jack’s profanities.

This was all a good start, but he needed more. He asked for anything else peculiar that they did, and people thought this was a funny question, because everything they did was peculiar, and truth be told any one was different from another. Then a toothless old man told him how once he had asked a Metropiad how they pick the children the need.

“Before we are sent out,” the Metropiad had said, “we are given a selection of names, male and female. We keep these names in a bag that we take with us. When we find a child who seems to be a candidate, we give them a name appropriate to their sex, and when we run out of names, we go home.”

The man had asked if they wouldn’t be better off going through town, meeting several children and only choosing once they could compare all of them.

“No,” the Metropiad said. “Much of what makes a good Metropiad is invisible from the outside. Mother Miranda taught us that, once human reason is exhausted, fate will take over. Fools try to reason beyond their knowledge. Rational beings know when they have reasoned enough, and they know wondering any further is just another kind of taking a chance. It is better to let chance become the arbiter, and accept its judgment.”

Christopher heard this, and thought it was strange, but it was what the Metropiads did, so he should as well. He could find a way to pinch a coin between his stumps and fling it, thus flipping it, but this sounded awkward, and Peddler Jack would not have any of it. The risk of the coin being lost was too great, and that was foolish. Instead, he taught himself to make decisions by the chances that were happening every day, all around him. Would he turn left or right to find a begging space? He would not decide, only follow the boy with the red cap. Would he go home or wait another few minutes for more coins? It all depended on whether the pigeon in on the wall took flight or hopped down to the ground.

Sometimes these bets turned out well, and sometimes they didn’t. However they turned out, though, Christopher told himself he was pleased, because he was learning to become a good Metropiad. In fact, as he wondered when he would have learned enough, he realized this too was being decided by random process. He had no way of knowing when he had learned enough to be accepted by them, so it was a matter of fate. When he met one of them, he would have learned all he was going to know.

His moment came when he was twelve, in a field of white stones, hidden under tall grass. The stones were uniform little rectangles, rounded at the top, their color obscured by moss and lichen. Christopher had come out because it was dawn in a new place, and he wanted to see it. He wanted to learn the terrain, and perhaps meet somebody who could tell him something new about Metropiads. His begging bowl was with him, strung from a braided cord around his neck. This part of the world was so crowded, compared to what he was used to. He might see ten new people a day, if he wandered. This field, when he had first approached it, seemed very empty, but after he had walked a ways in, he saw a woman stand up.

She was young, perhaps late twenties, with dark skin and black hair, knotted into whisper-thin locks that were tied behind her in a simple ponytail. She wore a long piece of cloth, tied at her waist, for a skirt, and as she turned, he saw daylight shining through her right arm. It was made of metal rods, three from shoulder to elbow and two from elbow to wrist.

Christopher began running, his bowl banging against the bones of his chest. When he stopped in front of her, his insides felt like they were still running. He could not speak, and as he waited to regain his self-control, he watched the way she was watching him. She had a very intelligent look, kind and gentle but without emotion. It was as though she knew exactly what he was about to do, but was not about to betray how she would react before it was time.

Christopher had thought about this moment, imagined it again and again. Now that it was here, it felt surreal. Although he knew he was awake, part of his mind refused to accept that it was real. This did not feel like something that really happened in the outside world. It was something that happened within his own head.

“I wish,” he said, when he was no longer willing to wait for his breath to return. “I wish to follow the teachings of Mother Miranda.” That was an important start, he had decided long ago. He only had so much time to impress upon them that he was not simply a child begging for a cure, that his desire to be one of them was true. Her eyebrows lightly moved up and down. Though her face remained serene, she was not expecting this. This was a good sign.

“I have no attachments to this outside world,” he said. “Only a peddler who found me and would be glad to give me up for a price. I eat no meat. I, I am not too old to learn new ways. Please, take me.”

“This is not the usual way of things,” she said.

He ignored her, as he had just noticed the little bag hanging from a thin strap around her shoulder.

“Is that where the names are kept?” he said.

She did not answer.
“Are you here to trade, or are you here to find children?”

“I am here for children.”

“Then that’s the bag. It must be. You’re going to get a child for every name in there, and you will go home. Please, I know you must find the ones, the children who are most likely to adapt to their new life. I know that a child of six or seven might miss its home too much to really become one of you. But my being older does not make that worse. It makes it better. I am old enough to reject my former life, and I will become as true a Metropiad as if I had been taken by you as a baby.”

“I don’t know that.”

He had her. Maybe. “You don’t know that it’s wrong either. This is beyond your ability to reason,” he said. “So why not let fate decide?”

The eyebrows moved again, and the expression she resettled herself was still serenity, but more focused serenity. Serenity that was actively trying not to be something else.

He raised his stump towards her bag. “Pick a name from that. Don’t look. Just take the first one your fingers touch. If it’s a boy’s name, you will take me. If it’s a girl’s name, I have to find a new home.”

Her eyes stayed on him. She raised her metal hand, so delicately jointed it moved just like flesh, and tucked it into the bag. She drew out a flat little band of metal with a hole on the end. It was dull copper, and just for a moment he saw scratches on one side. As she raised it to his eyes, he tried to be confident and prepared for disappointment at the same time. It was impossible. All he could be was afraid.

“Bernard,” she said. “Your new name is Bernard.”

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