It’s midway through the 21st century, and after economic collapse and a “small” war, civilization is in pretty bad shape. On the Canadian prairies, a religious cult, the Chosen, has dedicated itself to destroying all vestiges of the old technological civilization–but only a few hundred kilometres away, the Technos are just as dedicated to rebuilding it. The two cultures are on a collision course that could mean the first war of the new era, and mutual destruction, unless the teenage daughter of the cult’s leader and a boy from the Technos can overcome their own personal differences and prevent it…no matter what the cost.
Beth Foster held tight to her father’s waist, her right ear pressed against his back, as the white stallion galloped across the prairie. Out of the corner of her eye she caught occasional glimpses of the dozen mounted men following close behind. The pounding of all those horses’ hooves and the pounding of her own heart mingled in her head until she couldn’t tell one from the other.
Suddenly the stallion slowed, and at the same instant, Beth smelled the sharp scent of burning pine. She raised her head, sniffing the autumn wind like a hunting dog, as her father lifted his right hand and the other riders reined to a halt around them, horses blowing and stamping, breath and sweat steaming in the frosty air. The wind tossed a strand of red-gold hair across her eyes, and impatiently she tucked it back under her warm red cap of knitted wool.
Her father surveyed the troop of horsemen, and Beth followed his gaze. Each man wore a white surcoat, emblazoned front and back with the red cross of the Crusade, dimmed by the dust of their ride; a saber hung from each belt and a holstered rifle was slung from each saddle.
Beth’s father nodded, then said, “Torches.”
From their saddlebags, each rider pulled out a short wooden torch, greasy rags wrapped around one end. After a few moments’ work with flint and steel, the rags began to burn. One by one the riders lifted the flames in salute to Beth’s father. He raised his clenched right fist in response. “Hold on,” he said in a low voice to Beth, then, “To the glory of God!” he shouted, and slammed his heels into the stallion’s flanks.
Beth’s heart leaped as they surged up the slope, but instead of plunging down the far side of the hill, her father reined to halt at its crest. In the valley below Beth could see a farmyard, with a pre-Trouble white frame house and a few outbuildings surrounded by a much more crudely made wooden stockade about eight feet high. “Aren’t we going down?” Beth shouted as the other riders pounded past them, but her father shook his head.
“It’s too dangerous for you,” he shouted back. “Just watch. Watch how the Chosen purge the land of evil!”
An old man picking corn looked up as the riders thundered down toward him, froze for a moment, then dropped his half-full basket and ran for the open gate, shapeless brown hat flying from his balding head. “Joey! Marta! Close the gate! Close the—”
The broad chest of the lead black gelding struck him in the back and he fell, rolling over and over among the dry yellow stalks.
A woman appeared in the doorway of the house, and screamed as the Chosen pounded through the gate. Three crying children, the oldest no more than eight, ran to her. One by one the horsemen flung their torches through the door of a shed from which stretched two strands of black wire, strung on tall wooden posts.
A dull thump shook the ground, and orange flames engulfed the shed and licked at the wall of the house as the Chosen swept out of the compound and rode back up the hill, past the motionless body of the old man.
“Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!” Beth’s father shouted to his men as they rejoined him at the top of the hill, but Beth’s eyes were locked on the woman. She herded her coughing, weeping children away from their burning home, then saw the old man lying in the field and ran toward him.
“Dad!” Beth heard her scream. “Dad!” Beth’s last view, as her own father wheeled the stallion to lead his band home in victory, was of the woman kneeling in the broken corn beside the old man, sobbing.
Beth thought she might be sick. “It was God’s will,” she whispered to herself. “God’s will—God’s will!” Hadn’t her father said so that very morning? He had stood in his stirrups, silver hair and beard astir in the breeze, his voice booming through the Square. “The army of the Lord rides forth to rid the land of evil and prepare the Earth for the coming of its King!”
They had a generator, Beth told herself fiercely. It had to be destroyed!
“Electricity is the lifeblood of Satan!” her father had shouted out across the Square. “From it sprang all the evils of the Old World before the Tribulation!”
But she kept seeing the old man rolling in the dust, the fire licking at the house, the terrified faces of the children, and in her ears still rang the cries of the woman who had seen the little bit of security she had carved from a hard, uncaring world destroyed in an instant.
We saved them from the Evil One. We saved them!
Would Mama have thought so?, another inner voice whispered in reply.
All the way home, Beth listened to the excited voices of the horsemen, rehashing their glorious attack. She didn’t say a word, and when the tree-filled valley that sheltered their village opened below them, Beth suddenly felt she could not face the cheering crowd that would welcome them. “Father, may I get down?”
“What?” He looked back at her. “Why?”
“I’d like to walk from here, that’s all.” She didn’t meet his eyes.
He hesitated, then pulled on the reins. The other riders halted a little further on and waited as he helped Beth to the ground. “Don’t be long,” he said. “There’ll be a celebration feast tonight, and I want you looking your best.”
He pulled off her cap, leaned down and kissed the top of her head, then handed her back the cap and urged the stallion to a trot. A moment later the entire troop disappeared into the valley.
Beth looked back the way they had come. Was that distant smudge the smoke from the destroyed farm? She stared at it a moment, then shivered and plunged down into the valley herself, to escape the wind that suddenly felt much colder. Winter’s coming, she thought. That recalcitrant strand of hair had escaped again; she tucked it up under her cap once more, then pulled her patched brown homespun riding cloak closer around her shoulders. Maybe this will be the last raid for a while.
But an icy gust rattled the yellow leaves of the birches and aspen like scornful laughter, and she shivered. She knew better. As surely as the snow would come, the raids would continue. “God’s will does not wait for good weather,” her father said, and she knew his scouts were scouring ever further afield for any sign of the Old Ways.
She reached the trail at the base of the slope and walked slowly toward the village, wishing that when she got there she would have someone to talk to, someone who could help her sort out her feelings.
But there was no one. No one questioned her father. He had risen to oversight of the Chosen through the combined force of his intellect and personality; no one had ever withstood him in debate, no one, it seemed, failed to be mesmerized by his fiery oratory. When Elder Silas had dropped dead of a heart attack ten years ago, Elder Joshua Foster had been the unanimous choice as his successor—and had not been challenged since.
If only Mama were still alive. But that was foolishness, like wishing the Tribulation had never happened. If her mother had not died a year ago in the outbreak of Blue Plague that took more than twenty of the Chosen in all, her father might never have begun his Crusade; but die she had, drowned in the fluid that filled her lungs as surely as if she had sunk to the bottom of Lake Katepwa. Beth’s father had taken his wife’s death as a sign. She could still hear him thundering to the Chosen on the Sunday morning that had launched the Crusade. “Evil remains in the land!” he had shouted, voice hoarse with emotion, face tight with pain. “God sent the Tribulation to purge us of evil, but He has let some remain to test our faith. It is our duty, as the sons and daughters of God, to finish God’s great work—before God repents of our survival and destroys us all!”
Beth could also hear her mother’s voice, saying “God is love.” But love seemed to have little place in her father’s new creed…
And then Beth’s heart skipped a beat and she suddenly forgot her doubts as she heard men’s voices—voices she didn’t recognize.
She darted off the path into the woods. Anyone not of the Chosen was to be feared; that was one warning of her father’s she believed fervently. She knew what had happened to others of the Chosen who had come upon some of those who wandered the Wild…
Yet despite her fear, she had a duty to her neighbors. As silently as she could, she crept toward the strangers. There were two, she decided as their voices became clearer; two men, just off the trail, hidden by a stand of bushes. They spoke English, but with such a strong, drawling accent she had to get closer than she liked to understand them.
“Ain’t seen nothing bigger’n a sparrow since day before yesterday,” one whined. “Where’s them deer that old man promised?”
“We’ll find them down here,” said the other in a deeper tone. “He must have known what he was talking about. You saw all those hides.”
“So why should he tell us where he got them?”
“I paid him, didn’t I? I gave him that flashlight thing. That should be worth a deer.”
“Yeah, and who said you could do that? That was mine, that was. Why’nt you give him them silver gloves you lifted?”
“Because I need gloves worse’n you need a flashlight. Anyway, you’ve got those binoculars and the best rifle. And we’ve each got a couple of those—what’d the Technos call ’em?—solar batteries, that’s it. They ought to be worth a winter’s lodging just about anywhere, if they put out as much ’lectricity as they said.”
Beth swallowed and nervously shifted position, and a twig under her foot snapped like a rifle shot. “Someone’s watching us!” the whiney man cried.
Beth burst from cover like a startled rabbit. A branch snagged her cloak, but she twisted free and raced for the village, ignoring the shouts behind her and praying she could outrun the men if they pursued her.
The chill air stung her face and her arms grew cold without her cloak, but she hardly noticed. Electricity! Flashlights! Satan’s work, brought into the Chosen’s valley!
Half a mile later she staggered through the open gate of the village’s palisade and fell to her knees on the flagstones of the Square, gasping, heart pounding, unable to speak.
The Square was crowded with people and horses, as the men who had been on the raid mingled with those who had come out to greet them on their return. John Ramsey, the village butcher, and one of that morning’s raiders, was the first to notice Beth. “Here, now, Beth, what’re you in such a state over?” he said, helping her to her feet as a crowd gathered. She tried to speak, but a stitch in her side doubled her over again and for a moment she thought she would throw up. It seemed to take her forever to summon the breath to blurt out what she had heard.
Shouts of anger greeted her news. Leaving her in the care of Sarah Goodman, a grandmotherly woman Beth knew mainly as the village’s biggest gossip, Ramsey called for men and horses and sent his eight-year-old son, Amos, running toward the big house overlooking the courtyard to summon Beth’s father.
Mrs. Goodman settled Beth on the wooden bench ringing the well, then drew up the bucket and offered her a ladle of water. Beth gulped the icy liquid gratefully, but then almost dropped the ladle in a fit of shivering. Mrs. Goodman’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, dear, I never thought…here.” She pulled off her green wool cloak and wrapped it around Beth’s trembling shoulders. “What you need is something warm. Come inside and I’ll fix you some mint tea.”
Teeth chattering, Beth followed Mrs. Goodman across the Square, but paused as her father strode from their house, still wearing the dust-grimed uniform he had worn on the raid and buckling his sword-belt around his giant, gaunt frame as he walked. His ice-blue eyes glittered in the waning sun, and the cold wind ruffled his white hair and beard. He looked magnificent and frightening, and as Beth watched him mount his stallion once again, she almost pitied the two strangers.
They brought Satan’s handiwork into our valley, she reminded herself. And Father won’t harm them if they don’t resist…
But what if they do?
“Come along, dear,” Mrs. Goodman said, and Beth gratefully turned away from the forming posse and hurried after her.
Mrs. Goodman’s hot mint tea, poured out in a cozy kitchen warmed by a potbellied stove, soon warmed Beth’s body, but did nothing to ease the chill in her heart, and she excused herself as soon as she could, leaving Mrs. Goodman’s myriad questions about what had happened in the woods and on the raid that morning unanswered.
Half an hour later, she watched from the door of her own house as her father and the half-dozen men who had ridden with him returned to the crowd awaiting them in the Square, bringing with them two strangers, bound together astride a barebacked pack horse.
The posse halted, and her father dismounted. He pulled his saddlebags free, lifted one flap, and upended them. Bits of metal and glass scattered across the stones of the Square, glittering in the sun like diamonds.
Joshua Foster drove his boot down onto one of the largest pieces of glass, grinding it to dust against the rock. “Thus do we treat all the works of Satan!” he shouted. The Chosen cheered.
Then he saw Beth and motioned her to him. She reluctantly obeyed, holding her arms tight to her body against the deepening chill. From the other side of his saddlebags he pulled out her old brown cloak; as she took it, he bent down and kissed her on the cheek. “I’m proud of you, Beth,” he whispered, then stood and shouted, “Let my daughter’s devotion be an example to us all! It was she who discovered these pawns of Satan and exerted all her strength to warn us!” He motioned to John Ramsey, whose horse was leading the packhorse bearing the prisoners; Ramsey slipped out of his saddle, then jerked the two strangers to the ground so roughly they almost fell.
One was a tall, stout man, his black hair and scraggly beard salted with gray, his face brown and deeply lined. The other, thinner and younger, had dirty blonde hair and a straggly mustache. Both looked around sullenly, and for a moment the older man’s eyes met Beth’s.
She read anger and disgust there, and suddenly all she wanted to do was escape. “May I go now, Father?” she said, looking down at her hands, twisting the rough wool of her cloak.
“Of course,” he murmured. “You should rest before the feast.” He lifted her chin and smiled at her. “You’re a hero, you know.” Then he released her and turned toward the crowd as she walked quickly toward their house. “These strangers will be questioned,” his voice boomed out again. “They may yet redeem themselves by telling us where they found these tools of the Devil. And tonight at the feast, perhaps, we will be able to celebrate not only a great day in our Crusade, but the hope of more great days to come…”
The front door banged shut and cut off his voice. In the dim hallway just beyond Beth pressed her cheek against the smooth, dark wood paneling and closed her eyes.
“You’re a hero,” her father had told her. A hero—to the Chosen.
But not to herself.
Beth stared at the plate of venison, beans and bread she had hardly touched, wishing the night were over.
Although all five hundred of the Chosen crowded the Square, seated at trestle tables around blazing bonfires, she felt very much alone. She hadn’t joined the laughter and joking of the half-dozen others at her table, and they had long since given up trying to include her.
At the table nearest the center of the Square, next to the well, her father sat between the two men captured that afternoon, in earnest conversation with the older one. Beth wondered uneasily what had put them in her father’s good graces. Joshua Foster thought only of his Crusade; if the prisoners were now allies, they had bought that alliance—and that, she feared, meant another farm or tiny hamlet would soon suffer the fate of the farm they had raided that morning.
So who ran as fast as she could to report these two? her conscience mocked her, and a chill seemed to grip her that neither the roaring fire only a few feet away or the cloak she wrapped more tightly around herself could dispel.
As the Chosen finished eating, more and more heads began to turn toward the central table. Beth’s father chose his moment and rose, raising his hands for silence. A hush fell, broken only by the crackle of the fires and the night wind’s whisper around the eaves of the surrounding houses. A log snapped in the flames behind Joshua Foster, whirling sparks into the sky, and he spoke.
“Brothers and sisters, tonight we celebrate two victories in our Crusade to prepare the Earth for the coming of the New Kingdom.
“This very day I and many of your brothers, fathers and sons rode forth and destroyed that source of evil, that generator”—he said the word like a curse—”which our scouts discovered last week. It has been cleansed from the world with the holy fire of righteousness!” Many of the Chosen cheered, but Beth hunched her shoulders as though warding off rain.
When the shouting subsided, Foster continued. “Then, when we returned, we captured two men who brought the tools of the Devil into our very valley—captured them, I am proud to say, through the brave actions of my daughter, Elizabeth!”
More cheering followed, but died quickly when Beth did nothing to acknowledge it. Two of the women at her table whispered to each other, glancing at her suspiciously.
Foster gave her a quick frown, then carried on. “Do you wonder why these two men sit at my table this night, brethren?” He put his hands on the strangers’ shoulders and they stood on either side of him, looking down at the ground. “Because, praise God, they have repented! With their own hands they have destroyed the vile things they brought into our valley, and renounced their use, and in my sight and the Lord’s they have knelt and prayed for forgiveness and been baptized. These men are now your brothers!”
This time the cheering was deafening, and someone started singing Soldiers of Christ Arise. The whole congregation joined in—except Beth. She kept her eyes on the strangers, thinking how easy all evangelism would be if it were done at gunpoint.
Her father sang louder than anyone (even though he couldn’t carry a tune to save his life—a constant source of amused regret on the part of Beth’s mother). At the conclusion of the hymn he shouted, “Amen! I echo your joy, brethren—but there is yet more to be joyful about. Not only have these two benighted souls come to Christ, they have brought us vital knowledge!” He nodded to the older man. “I will let Brother Len tell you the tale himself.” Foster and the younger man sat down, leaving “Brother Len” to fend for himself.
The new convert squinted at the crowd, licking his lips. “My name is Len Davis,” he finally said, then stopped and had to clear his throat. “Sorry. Um, as, uh, Elder Foster has said, I and my friend Johnny Olberg here came into your valley carrying tech—um, ‘tools of Satan,’ not recognizing their evil. When the, uh, error of our ways was pointed out to us, I naturally felt I had to tell the Elder where we got these terrible things.”
Everything he’s saying has been put in his mouth by Father, Beth thought. She looked around at the Chosen. Can’t they tell?
If they could, it didn’t seem to matter to them.
“About a month ago Johnny and I were northeast of here maybe seventy-five miles or so, hunting,” Davis—Brother Len—went on. “We stumbled on a village that wasn’t on the pre-Trouble—I mean, Tribulation—map we had. Nothing unusual about that—but there was something unusual about the village.
“Not that we realized it at first,” he added hastily. “It looked like any other village from a distance—you know, something like this one, only with a stone wall. It had three or four watchtowers at the corners and some extra earthworks outside the walls.” He paused to take a drink and a deep breath. “Anyway, we weren’t having much luck hunting, so we decided to take a chance on local hospitality.
“We went up to the gate nice and slow, with our hands in plain sight, ’cause you never know what kind of a welcome you’re going to get. We were about fifty feet away when this really loud voice said, ‘Stay where you are’—and then the electric lights came on.” Gasps and murmurs ran through the crowd, and Davis blinked. Then he grinned, as if beginning to enjoy himself. “That’s right, electric! Bright as the sun, they seemed to me.
“This man dressed in bright-colored pre-Troub—Tribulation—clothes—you know, that slick, shiny stuff?—came out through a little door in the big wood gate and searched us, and asked us what we wanted. When we told him we were just looking for a warm place to sleep, he said we could bunk in their guardhouse, just inside the wall.
“Well, I couldn’t believe what we saw inside. That whole village used electricity like the Tribulation never happened. They had a couple of really big buildings at the center of town that blazed with light all night long. And in the guardhouse we saw all kinds of things just lying around—flashlights and binoculars and pre-Tribulation clothes and stuff. And just outside…” He paused dramatically. “Outside three or four men were working on an automobile—and while we were eating, we heard this horrible roar, and a grinding sound, and we looked out and saw them drive it away…”
An angry growl ran through the crowd, and even Beth quailed at the thought of one of those metal monsters, whose hulks rusted everywhere, once again roaming the countryside.
“After a bit, this old man came in and pumped us for everything we could tell him about where we’d been and what we’d seen, especially any old towns we’d been through. He was especially interested in anything from pre-Tribulation times that looked like it hadn’t been messed with, and we’d seen a few stores and suchlike full of useless old junk that he was really excited to hear about, and in reward he gave us that stuff we had with us—the binoculars and clothes and those solar battery things. He said they’d put out enough electricity to light up a whole house. Well, naturally we asked where they’d come from, and he said they made them right there in the village. And we asked why, and he said, ‘Because we’re trying to get things back to the way they were before—’“
The Chosen’s angry uproar abruptly drowned Brother Len out. Foster pulled him down and stood in his place, holding up his hands for silence, his face grim as a storm cloud.
The shouting died, but Beth felt a kind of pre-thunder tension, and dreaded what would come next.
Her father spoke softly at first. “Did you hear our brother’s tale, Chosen? Did you hear it not only with your ears, but with your heart and soul? Were you listening?”
Suddenly his voice boomed, echoing back from the buildings around the Square. “It is a sign, brethren! It is a message from God, as clear and bright as the sun! It is the sign we have truly been Chosen, Chosen to battle the Heart of Darkness itself, the very dwelling place of Satan on Earth—this Devil’s Village Brother Len has described!”
The crowd was silent now, rapt.
“Can you picture the place, my brother and sisters? A village where electricity flows as freely as God’s sweet rivers, where grim walls protect hideous secrets, where even the metal dragons that once ravaged the land still run freely? Do you fully understand the horror of a place where the monstrosities evil men begat a century ago survive, and are encouraged—are even manufactured?”
He raised his clenched fist and shouted, “This village is the very mouth of Hell, the wellspring of the evil we have been fighting! Now we know why plagues continue to sweep through our number—the evil God punished with the Tribulation continues to fester, on our very doorstep, and we have done nothing about it!”
Beth heard sounds of muttered agreement in the crowd.
“It has been a year since I led you into this Crusade, brothers and sisters. Until now the battles have been small—but no more. No more! Now we must burn this festering sore from the pure flesh of the Earth, cleanse this cesspool of corruption with fire and sword!
“In the name of the Lord, we will march on this village of evil and bring down upon it the righteous wrath of God!”
The Chosen leaped to their feet, tension exploding in a wordless roar of approval that went on and on.
But Beth sat at the table, staring around her at her neighbors, her mind echoing not with their cheers but with the cries of the children at the farm that morning and their mother’s anguished screams.
More than anything she longed to run to her own mother and be comforted, to ask her mother’s help in making sense of the feelings that boiled inside her.
But her mother wasn’t there. She would never be there again. Beth had only herself.
She stood and pushed through the crowd toward the house. Caught up as they were in a holy frenzy, no one seemed to notice; but as she turned to shut the door on the horrible noise, she saw her father staring after her.