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Zone Three


Brian Willmott

My name is Chuck Walker and I am writing this story at the behest of the Magistrate. I broke the Law and he said that I should tell others how I got into trouble, then hopefully they will not do the same. I am at home now with my family, waiting for the final decision on my sentence. Pop is reading my words as I write, and he says that I should tell the story as if you, the reader, knows nothing of our way of life. I can see that is a good idea, for new communities are being admitted into our state every few weeks.

It was mid-morning when Art noticed that we had stumbled onto an old- time road. Amongst the undergrowth he saw chunks of broken asphalt, pointing them out to me. "Let's see if we can follow it," he said, looking for more.

"OK," I agreed. "We may even find something special. Then we can report it to the Lawman."

Art laughed. "What, and give him all the credit? No, if we find something good, we'll take it back ourselves."

It wasn't long before we found some rusty metal posts amongst the trees. Just beyond, the woods thinned out and we found ourselves standing on the cracked concrete of a parking lot. A few yards in front of us lay the rusting remains of a car, and beyond that stood a weather stained single storey building. Above the flat roof of the squat block, like some huge grey tombstone, loomed the face of a cliff. Some weathering had caused the face to shed parts of its surface and the roof of the building was a jumble of small rocks. Over the double door were the remains of a weathered sign on which only the last couple of words could still be seen. "ZONE THREE," they said.

Art ran to the car, picking up a piece of glass that was just supported by a heap of rust. He held it up and scrubbed at the stains on its surface. "We could use this in our den, Chuck. See if you can get that other window out." He pointed to the other side of the hulk.

I grabbed the pane and wriggled it, rust falling around my boots like a red waterfall. Within seconds I had my prize; I held it up with a triumphant grin.

Art took the glass from me and laid both pieces on the pavement at the edge of the clearing. I looked at the heap of rust, searching for other treasures. The large windscreen was cracked and the rear window still remained firm, so I ignored them.

"Come on," Art said, tugging at my arm as he walked towards the building under the cliff. "Let's look inside."

The building was well-built with a heavy steel door guarding the entrance, and I was confident that it would deny us access. We had been taught in school that discoveries of this nature were to be reported, and investigative action left to the authorities.

Sure enough, when he tried the door it refused to open. "Pity," I said, sounding as if I meant it. "We'll just have to wait to find out what's inside. We can ask what was found when the Lawmen have had a look around."

"Are you kidding? I'm not waiting for that. Anyway, they'll steal the best stuff, and we'll get the rubbish. I'm going in the window." Art picked up a rock and heaved it at one of the three windows that were the only other breaks in the cube of concrete. The glass proved to be tough, and it resisted his initial attack.

Art was not the sort of boy to be scared of some nebulous future punishment for breaking into some deserted and forgotten building. It was not in his nature to knuckle down to authority. He stood five feet tall, a good four inches above me although we were both the same age, and he was already showing signs of early puberty. He hadn't yet started to grow a beard, but his upper lip had a coating of fine dark hair and his face had recently lost the roundness of a child. 

I, on the other hand looked to be a couple of years his junior, still clear skinned, with an unruly mop of blonde hair that was bleached almost white where it escaped from beneath my cap. I deferred to Art most of the time; he was my hero and protector. With him as a friend I no longer feared being bullied by the other boys because of my size.

I knew that breaking the window was wrong, but he had given me a challenge. I forgot my objections to entering the building. Now I saw only a sheet of glass that had to be broken. Selecting a heavy chunk of broken concrete, I joined Art in a determined assault. The pane cracked, first becoming cloudy as a starred pattern crazed its surface. Repeated blows smashed a respectable hole through it. I had never seen glass like it before. The pieces were almost like large grains of sugar, with no sharp edges, and they were easy to clear from the frame once we had broken through.

"Give me a leg up," I asked Art. Now that we had broken in, I was eager to explore the inside of the building.

I looked inside at a strange office. We grew up in the comparatively austere surroundings of a large village a hundred miles away on the Texan border, and knew little of the wonders of civilization but those we were taught at school. This room had several desks and chairs, all made of metal and what I guessed was plastic. There were large cabinets along one wall, and on the one opposite a board with printed notices pinned to it.

I scrambled inside, and leaning, out helped Art up. "Wow!" he said looking around, his eyes wide. "These must be computers." He ran a finger across the glass face built into the top of one of the desks. He left a mark in the dust. There was a thin layer over everything, hiding the finer details.

I brushed some of the fine gray powder off of the desk nearest to me, and then blew the remainder away with a whoosh. We both began coughing as the fine particles got in our throats.

"Idiot!" Art opened the only door and escaped into a wide dark passage. Opposite was another door and he opened that to reveal another, larger room. This one was set out as a canteen, with six tables each flanked by four chairs, and off to one side I saw a small kitchen.

I sat in one of the chairs to try it out because it looked so fragile, not at all like the wood and leather furniture I was used to. Surprisingly, the seat was very comfortable, and it took my weight without any problem, although I felt it give slightly as I sat down. "These would be great in our den." I stood and lifted the lightweight seat. "Plastic is supposed to be weatherproof."

"Yeah, great, we'll take one each. And some of these." Art held up a handful of cutlery, still shiny even after nearly a century, for that is how long this place must have been forgotten. Civilization broke down in all but a few isolated centers and there were many remains such as these to be found, hidden now by nature.

My eyes, however, were drawn to something on the wall beyond, and my expression must have alerted him. He turned and looked at the picture pasted above a calendar. "Oh boy!" He said turning as bright red as I must have been. "She's naked."

We were drawn irresistibly to the picture of the woman. We were fascinated by the forbidden fruit displayed before us. Like all our contemporaries, we wore voluminous black clothes that covered us from neck to ankle. On our heads perched soft felt caps and our feet were shod in sturdy boots. To people from the last century, we would have been a strange sight dressed in this way, but the religion of Texas was rigid in its view of the human body. Sight of the naked flesh of a person was supposed to be sinful, so our dress code dictated we cover ourselves completely. Not even at home could we relax. Even husband and wife were supposed to protect each other from temptation.

"We must have this for our den." Art carefully removed the prize, his gaze feasting on it still.

I stood beside him, embarrassed but keen to study every detail "We'll have to hide it somewhere safe, though. We'll be in deep trouble if we're caught with it." I may have been the smaller one and slightly more timid, but I was still ready to break the rules if I thought I could get away with it. We were both of us in some form of trouble with the grown-ups every day, and that was why we spent so much time in the woods. There, well away from danger of being seen, we would take off our caps and unbutton the necks of our shirts, in conscious defiance of authority. If we heard anyone else in the woods, however, or if we felt we were too close to the village, we soon covered up again, but the breaking of the rules gave us a feeling of independence. But having this picture was a worse crime than that!

Art laid the calendar reverently on a table until we were ready to leave, then walked back out into the dark corridor and turned to the left away from the big entrance doors. I followed after a further glance at the picture, and saw that another pair of green painted steel doors blocked the passage only a few yards beyond. "Why put doors there?" I asked, puzzled. "That's where the rock should be."

"I don't know," Art pushed against them but they wouldn't budge. "I saw some keys in the office," he said, looking at a keyhole in the right door. "Let's try them and see if we can find out what's behind."

He ran into the office and came back out with a large bunch of brass keys. He tried several, until he found one that reluctantly worked. After such a long time, this was a tribute to the lock and the grease that protected it.

It took our combined weight to push the huge door open, and we could hear the hinges protest as it moved. Beyond was a dark and vast echoing cavern. All we could see in the light that filtered through from the two front rooms was a pair of white lines painted on the floor. As our eyes adapted to the darkness, we saw vague geometrical shapes seemed to form in the gloom. "We're going to need candles to explore any further," Art observed. "We'll come back again next weekend. Don't say anything to anyone till then. This is our find and we get to explore it first."

"OK, but we must do something about the window. We can't leave it open like it is now, " I said as we returned to the passage. "Does one of those keys fit the outside doors?"

Art tried and soon found one that worked. Again the lock was stiff and it took him a lot of effort to turn the key all the way. The door opened inward, and both of us had to pull mightily on the handle to open it far enough for us to squeeze through.

Having established that we could get out that way, we took two of the chairs and dropped them out of the window before wedging one of the canteen tables across the breach in the office. Art collected the calendar and then we slipped out of the main door. We had a few anxious moments when we thought we would never close it behind us, but in the end we were able to secure the building again.

We took our booty back to our hideout in the woods, and then returned to the village. We swore to each other that we would keep secret our knowledge of the building under the cliff. I was dubious at making the commitment because we could be in very serious trouble if we were found out.

New Texas, where we live, has some very strict laws. Sex is one of the things the laws control. Just about everything to do with it is not allowed, and anyone who does something wrong is punished by the Magistrates. In the old days, people did what they wanted, and some one made a disease that killed off nearly everyone. Since then people are afraid of sex.

It took seventy years for people to build up our state again. They built new cities, some of them near the ruins of the old ones, and new rulers took over. They kept power by appointing Lawmen to make us do as we were told, and they made it easier for the Magistrates to convict anyone who didn't.

For the next couple of days we carried on our lives as normal. I managed to steal half a candle from the kitchen, hoping that Mom wouldn't notice. I only dared to take two matches from the box on the top of cupboard, as they were sure to be missed if I was greedy. These I wrapped in a scrap of cloth and hid under the chest at the foot of my bed.

Reporting my success to Art, I was dismayed to find that he was having second thoughts about our vow of silence. We faced serious trouble if it was discovered that we had withheld information about the discovery of a Pre-Plague site, and he thought we should go and confess.

"No, Art," I protested. "We can't say anything until we have been there again. If we tell now, then we'll be in real trouble."

"But we will still be in trouble later."

"Only if the Lawmen find out we found it previously. We can check that everything is okay and that no one else has been there. Then we can say we had just found it, and apologize for the window, but we can't say we found it last weekend."

He saw the logic in my argument and promised to wait. I can't say that he was happy about it, but he realized that we had put ourselves in a position where we had few choices. If only we had been able to see what was in the future! Art, my constant shadow and only real friend amongst the strangers of our new community, and I, were still of school age. Although both only months from our thirteenth birthdays, and adulthood, we knew nothing of the dangers Pre-Plague sites posed.

Each day after school we diligently did our chores, using the longer evening light to get through the week's tasks, so as to leave us free on the weekend. This brought a comment from Pop, who said that maybe I should be given extra jobs in future. Fortunately, Mom took my side, arguing that I should be allowed to plan my week how I wanted. He was suspicious though. It was not my normal way.

On Saturday, Art met me just outside our den, and we quickly made our way to the site. Carefully, we crept to the edge of the clearing and watched from the trees. All was quiet, and the table still blocked the window, so it looked as if no one else had found the place.

We ran across the concrete and Art unlocked the doors that again needed both of us to open. Inside I swiftly checked the office, worried that rain might have got in through the window. All was as we had left it, and I felt almost faint with relief. I had been worried as well, but would never have admitted it to Art.

"Come on, Chuck," Art was impatient to explore beyond the inner doors. "Give me a match."

I was about to move the table back where it belonged and stopped to give him one of my matches. He had been able to bring a whole candle but hadn't a means of lighting it. He then asked me to help him with the door, so I left the office.

We both pushed on the unlocked doors and this time they moved a little easier. To give ourselves more light we opened both doors as wide as they would go, and then, pausing only to light our candles from a single match, we stepped boldly into the cavern beyond.

My eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, and with the flickering light of the candles, I was able to make out lines of metal racks stretching back into the hill behind the building. On the nearest were stowed wooden boxes of various shapes and sizes, but beyond them I could just make out rows of metal drums lying on their sides in the racks.

"Wow!" I ran to the nearest rack, almost blowing out my candle in my haste. The first box I looked at had obviously had a card label when it had been put on the rack, for I could see the discolored remains still stuck to the side. Whatever had been written on it had faded beyond any possibility of being read. Below, though, a box had markings painted directly onto the wood, but what they represented I was at a loss to know.

Art moved deeper into the storage area, but my eye was caught by a reflection of light in the dark area to the left of the doors. I walked over to investigate, and as I got closer I saw that there was a yellow-painted machine parked next to a wooden hut. It was some sort of lifting vehicle, I guessed, for it had two large arms that stuck out of the front of a vertical support and had small wide wheels for it to move around on. Behind the supports was a seat, in front of which were some levers and a wheel for steering. I climbed up and sat in the seat imagining myself as the driver.

I was still on the vehicle when there was a tremendous crash from amongst the storage racks, and a short scream from Art. A further series of noises followed, the sounds of groaning wood and solid clangs of metal on concrete being most prominent. "Art. Art," I called as I ran towards the area they had come from.

It was dark ahead; I could see no light from his candle. Halfway along the aisle I could see that the drums stored there had cascaded from their racks. One of them had split with the impact and the contents were leaking into a spreading pool. I splashed through this obstacle, seeing Art's head and left arm between three of the drums.

I reached my friend and tried to push aside the containers on top of him. They were heavy and wedged between the racks, and I couldn't do more than rock the top one. I was crying and calling to Art, but he gave no response. Stopping my efforts to move the drums, I leant over to reach him. It was then that I noticed the blood. There was a pool of dark red blood under his head, and some was even coming from his ear. His head looked odd, and he stared sightless at the racks above him.

I was coughing with the fumes that were coming from the spilt contents as I leaned over a drum holding Art. With tears in my eyes I shook him, screaming at him to respond, but I already knew he would never move again. I made one more attempt to move the drums off the top of him. By now my lungs were on fire. The fumes from the spillage were too much to endure, so I scrambled back to the light and fresh air outside.

Instinctively, I kept going, once I was outside. Every breath was searing pain, and my eyes burned too. How I made it back to the village I don't know, but I remember gasping out the terrible news to someone before collapsing.

I woke briefly, pain racking my body. I struggled to breathe, with lungs that were on fire. My throat, mouth, eyes, feet, hands, legs and part of my belly burned - it hurt terribly. I was being lifted on a stretcher onto the back of a wagon, Mom by my side holding my hand. Then thankfully, I again slipped into merciful sleep.

A long time passed before I woke again. This time, though, the pain had gone, and I felt more ready to face the world. I was lying in a bed, dressed in PJs, a single sheet covering me. I opened my eyes to find that I was in a small hospital room. There was a single window, curtains closed against the light, and just one closed door. Beside my bed I could see a fearsome array of medical equipment mounted on a flexible arm that was suspended from the ceiling.

My throat was dry and I sat up to look for something to drink. The effort made me pant for breath, and I felt dizzy. I collapsed back on the bed, frightened by my weakness.

"Awake already?"

I looked up to see a nurse smiling at me from the doorway. "Yes, Ma’am," I said politely. "I'm thirsty."

She came into the room and picked up a tumbler from a low table by the head of the bed. I hadn't seen it there when I looked around; it was below my level. She poured a little water from a jug, and, putting an arm under my shoulders, lifted me up so that I could sip from the glass as she held it to my lips. "There, young man, is that better?"

I nodded and she let me lie back on the pillow. "We'll just get you a little breakfast and then the doctor will want to check you over. Rest until I come back. Don't try to do anything, yet. You've been very ill and you will be very weak for a few days."

She went out and, I must confess, I dozed off until she shook me gently awake again. Then she lifted me into a sitting position, propping me up with pillows, so that I could eat the bowl of thin porridge that was to be my first meal in a long time.

As I slowly ate my meal, the nurse told me that I was in Heber Springs hospital. I had been taken there directly from my village, as soon as had been possible. That had been three weeks previously, and I had been kept unconscious throughout the worst part of my treatment. "You were seriously ill, Chuck. You had inhaled poisonous fumes and had chemical burns on other areas of your body."

I rested after the meal, sleeping until the doctor came to visit. He listened to my chest and examined my eyes, questioning me on how I felt. When I complained that I felt short of breath, he laughed and told me that it would be at least a couple of months before I could expect to be well. "You severely damaged your lungs, reducing their ability to do their job. Only twenty years ago, when I started in medicine, you would have died. Fortunately for you, medicine is the one area where we have progressed since the Plague." He lifted the sheet back and looked at my feet. "The new flesh seems to be healthy enough, but the Vet will be in later to check on that aspect of your treatment."

"Vet!" I said, not quite believing I had heard correctly. "I'm not an animal."

"No I know you're not, young man," he said grinning, "but he was the best person available when you were brought in. He is an expert in the necessary medical techniques, and was the only one who could treat the chemical burns, when you arrived. He's done a good job, and you shouldn't see any signs of injury by the time you're discharged from here."

As promised, just before lunch, the nurse brought in a tall man in a green lab coat, who she introduced to me as Dr. Strang the vet. "Now, Chuck," he said briskly, "let's look at your skin." He gently examined the skin on my lower belly and legs, asking me if I felt any discomfort.

"J...Just a little when you touch me, sir."

"How does it hurt? Is it a burning pain?"

"No, sir," I shook my head. "It's more like after a bruise."

"Good, good," he said. "You are well on the way to recovery. I won't need to see you again for at least another two weeks." He helped me back into my pajama pants, before saying goodbye.

After lunch I had my first visit from a Lawman, he came in with my Mom, and stood silently as she came over and gave me a hug. "Chuck," she said, "This is Officer Spiro, and he is here to ask you a few questions. I want you to tell him exactly what happened on that Saturday. I will be here with you."

The officer came over to the bed then and waited until Mom took a seat on the other side of my bed. "You are Chuck Walker?" he asked, and when I had said yes he said in a steady voice, "I, Officer Spiro, do charge you, under the Laws of the state of Texas, with failing to report a Find immediately. Contrary to Statute Fourteen, 2067. I caution you that you need not answer my questions, but, if you do, then your answers may be used against you in any subsequent criminal proceedings. Do you understand what I have just told you?" I again said yes, and then he quizzed me about our discovery of Zone Three. His questions brought home to me all the terror of Art's death and my struggle through the woods to raise the alarm.

"Thank you for being honest with me, boy," he said in the end. "You both did a very silly thing. One of the reasons for the strict laws on reporting Finds, is that many of the sites are dangerous places. You are not the first to have been hurt during careless exploration."

"Another reason for the legislation is to make sure that anything of value is salvaged for the good of the state, not just one individual. The place you found has some very valuable equipment stored inside. By discovering it, you have done us all a service. If only you had done the right thing and reported it immediately, then you would have been praised by the Magistrate

instead of facing him as a lawbreaker."

"You have co-operated with my inquiries and I will note that fact in my report. I must warn you though now, that you will probably face further charges. I will return again in a few days time with other questions." He nodded to my Mom and thanked her for letting him interview me before he left us alone.

When he had gone, and I no longer had to face a stranger, I gave in to the anguish that was inside me. "Why did we have to do it?" I cried out, tears streaming down my face. "I'm sorry Mom."

"No, don't cry, Chuck." She said holding me tightly. "You did the wrong thing, but it's over now and you have been brave. The Lawman saw that you were sorry for breaking the law. He will report to the Magistrate, and he will understand. You didn't mean any harm."

"But Art died!" I wailed, "and I am nearly thirteen. That's old enough to be punished."

The nurse came in at that moment, and, seeing my distress, told the doctor. Minutes later I was given an injection and fell asleep within seconds.

Mom stayed with me for nearly a full week before she had to return home, and the Lawman came again on her last afternoon. By then I was a lot stronger, and the doctor had ordered me to spend as much time out of bed as I could, so this interview was in a quiet part of the hospital grounds.

"I want to clear up a couple of small points, Chuck." Officer Spiro said. "Which of you first suggested that you should keep the find secret?"

I thought for a moment, remembering back to the day of our discovery. "Art, I think, sir."

"Yet you said that he later wanted to confess, but you talked him into waiting. Is that right?"

"Yes, sir."

"Now, can you remember putting the table up at the window to keep out the weather. Whose idea was that?"

"Mine, sir. I knew we had to protect the stuff inside."

"Now, I want you to think about Art. When the barrels fell on him, did he speak, or make any other sound?

I didn't want to remember those terrible minutes, and looked towards Mom for support. She smiled and held out her arms to me, I threw myself into them crying. "Tell him Chuck, you must try."

The Lawman waited patiently, and I eventually marshaled my courage to answer. "No, sir, he just screamed the once as the first lot knocked him down. After that I think he was already dead."

"Did you check to see?"

"Yes, sir," I cried, my voice almost reaching a scream. "I tried to move the drums, and get him out, but I couldn't do it. They were too heavy. There was so much blood, and he wasn't breathing, sir." I really started to cry then. I was shaking and gasping for breath.

Mom held me and talked to me until I became calmer. My chest was hurting again from fighting to get enough oxygen.

Officer Spiro waited until I was able to understand him, then read out new charges against me. They accused me of theft of the chairs, destruction of the window, and, worst of all, of being responsible for Art's death. "You will be informed of the date, time and place where you will face a Magistrate to answer the charges against you. Do you understand?"

I nodded, and answered yes in a voice barely above a whisper. I was scared, and shocked. Especially at the accusation that I was responsible for what had happened to Art. "I don't understand, sir," I said as the Lawman prepared to leave. "Why am I being blamed for Art?"

"Because, in law, if you are engaged in a criminal act that results in the death of someone, you are held to be responsible for that death. It is considered that the two are combined. The death would not have happened if the crime hadn't been committed."

It was another three weeks before I saw him again. I remained in the hospital, getting stronger each day, until the doctor decided that I was fit enough to survive without constant treatment and supervision. On the day before my discharge, Officer Spiro came to see me again.

"Hello, Chuck," he said, walking into my room. "I hear that you are being kicked out of here tomorrow."

"Yes, sir." I gulped in fear. I had worried for days after his last visit, frightened of what I knew I would have to face and expecting him to come for me every day. As the time passed, though, I thought about it less, until I pushed the memory to the very back of my head.

"The doctor has given permission for you to face the charges, and tomorrow I will collect you at ten in the morning. Your father will be here a little earlier and he will be with you. The law requires that he be present. Before that another gentleman will visit you. He will help you tomorrow, and will advise you. Listen to what he has to say." He paused and smiled. "Don't worry, son, nothing will happen to you tomorrow. We just have to do things in a certain way. That's the way the law works."

He left then, and I sat down on my bed, stunned by the sudden realization that I was going to have to face a Magistrate in the morning.

I didn't know a lot about the way the laws worked, but I knew there had been big changes since the Pre-Plague days. Now they were a lot stricter and the Magistrates gave out harder punishments. Before, it had taken longer to be convicted, and there were more chances to appeal against the sentence. This had changed, and the Magistrates had only a panel of judges in the capital to oversee their decisions.

That afternoon, after a lunch that I couldn't eat, my stomach feeling funny from nerves, I met the man who was to be my Defender in the hearing in the morning. I don't remember his name. He gave it to me, but my mind was not able to retain the information. Whoever he was, he seemed to be kind, and ready to help me.

He went through the charges against me, and asked me how I felt about each one. I replied that I could accept them all except the one about Art.

"Don't worry about it, Chuck. That charge is only there to make up the number of counts against you. We can expect to see that one thrown out." He said, with a dismissive wave of his hand. "I have studied all of the evidence, but I need to hear what happened in your own words."

He listened quietly as I went through my story, waiting until I finished before asking me questions. His manner put me at ease and made it possible for me to reach the end with only a few tears.

He had made notes during my tale, and consulted these as he asked me questions. "Tell me about Art. Was he a good friend?"

"Yes, sir. He was in my class at school, and was good at lessons. He helped me with Math. He was good at that. I am smaller than the others of my age, and he had a fight with one of the others who was hurting me. We did everything together. He was my friend."

"Would you say that he was your leader?"

"Yes, sir. Most of the time I did what he asked. "

"Mmmm. Now tell me about the chairs you took from the office. Did you intend to keep them?"

"Keep them?" I was puzzled. I hadn't thought about what we were going to do about them after we had declared our find. I thought back, trying to remember. "I don't know, sir. I don't think we talked about that. I think we would have given them up when we told about the place."

He asked a few more questions, mostly about my thoughts when we first found the Pre-Plague site, before closing up his notebook and settling back in his chair. He looked up at me on the bed and steepled his hands in front of his lips, thinking for a moment. Then he dropped them back to his lap and spoke to me. "What I am about to say, you may not agree with, Chuck, but I feel that we have no chance of getting you off of the main charge. My advice is for you to plead guilty to failing to report the find. If you do, then the other charges will probably be dropped." He held up his hand, as I went to speak. "Let me finish, please. I can use your relationship with Art to get you the sympathy of the Magistrate. If you show that you are ready to co-operate with me I think I can get you off lightly."

"What will they do to me?"

"I think you should get away with a short period of detention. You are still a child, and that should help. So, what do you want to do?"

"I can only do what you advise, sir. I know nothing about the law."

"Good," he said. He gathered his papers together and stood up.

 "You are a likable boy, and have impressed everyone with your politeness and co-operation. Do that tomorrow and the Magistrate will be sympathetic." He said goodbye and left me alone.

How I slept that night, I don't know. The nurse gave me a sedative, but my thoughts seemed to revolve in a continuous loop, going back over the events that led to me being in that hospital and facing the most feared of men in the morning. Eventually, though, I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, and woke rested.

The doctor visited me after breakfast and gave me a thorough examination. He then made me take several pills, before escorting me to the dayroom where Pop waited.

I had a few minutes to talk before Officer Spiro arrived, and I told Pop what my Defender had said about pleading guilty. "Chuck," Pop said quietly, "we have brought you up to be honest, and that is what you must be now. We can only hope that the Magistrate will be kind to you. Remember, son, both Mom and I will stand by you."

Outside, we climbed on board a buggy for the short journey to the Town Hall where the Magistrate had his office. Pop and I waited outside in the corridor, where the Defender joined us, whilst Officer Spiro entered alone.

Pop and the Defender talked in hushed tones, standing far enough away from me so that I was unable to overhear. They were both watching me, and I knew that I was the subject of their discussion. I should have been concerned with being left out of the conversation, and worried about what was about to happen, but instead I just felt calm and content. I giggled ever so slightly as I remembered the tablets the doctor had me take, realizing that I had been given a strong sedative.

"Come in, please." I turned and saw Officer Spiro standing in the entrance to the office, holding the door open for us to go in. I looked at Pop, who put a hand on my shoulder, guiding me in ahead of him.

We entered a large room that was divided into two halves by a low wooden rail. The nearer half of the room was bare, except for a small stack of chairs against one wall. Beyond the barrier, though, sat the Magistrate at a large wooden desk. To one side, behind another smaller desk, there sat a prim looking woman who had a thick notebook in front of her, whilst opposite was a chair on a low platform.

My Defender led us through a gate in the rail, to where three chairs were placed beside a table, and told me to stand in front of the middle one. We waited in silence for about a minute, as the Magistrate looked through some papers on his desk.

"Are you Chuck Walker?" The Magistrate asked, looking up and straight into my eyes.

"Y... Yes, Sir," I managed to say.

"Is your date of birth the twenty-second of September twenty eighty-six?"

"Yes, S...Sir."

"Then that makes you a minor. Do you have a parent with you?"

"Yes, my Pop, sir."

"And are you represented by a Public Defender?"

"Yes, sir."

"Have you been given advice by him?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then we can begin." The Magistrate looked down at the top document in front of him. "Chuck Walker, you are charged, that on June second, twenty ninety-eight, you did, in concert with Arthur Talltree, fail to report a Find, contrary to Statute Fourteen, twenty sixty-seven. How do you plead on that charge?"

My legs felt funny and began to give way. Pop put his arm around my shoulders supporting me. "P...P...Please Sir, guilty sir." I managed to say.

"Your Honor," My Defender spoke up. "In view of my client's age and health, I ask that he be allowed to sit."

"Yes, of course. Let the records show that the accused is in some physical distress. At this time, in view of his condition and also in the light of his plea, I will dispense with all formal procedures."

"Thank you, your Honour. May I make an appeal?"

"Yes, go ahead."

"I would like to ask that the further charges against my client be dropped in the light of his plea of guilty to the main charge. He is, as you have observed, barely up to facing this hearing now, without the added stress."

"Defender, I must point out to you that the physical and mental condition of the accused is not a valid reason for dismissing charges already made, but I will put them to one side for the moment. I feel that the main charge is of sufficient weight to satisfy this court."

"Thank you, your Honour."

"As you have advised your client to plead guilty, I presume that you wish to show mitigating circumstances. Am I correct?"

"Yes, your Honor, I would like to show you that my client was the submissive member of the two boys involved. May I draw your attention to page three of the initial interview Officer Spiro had with my client?"

"Just one moment, Defender. I think that it would be easier on young Chuck if you referred to him by name. You also have permission to drop the formal mode of address for the duration of this hearing."

"Thank you. As I was saying on page three, the second question Officer Spiro asked was, who threw a rock at the window first? Chuck replied that it was Art, but please notice the exact wording of his reply. Again on page seven, Officer Spiro asked who was the first to go into the cavern, and Chuck replied that it was always Art who was first."

The Magistrate looked through the papers on his desk, and studied them for a minute or two. "So it is your contention that Chuck was led to commit the crime out of loyalty to his friend."

"Yes, that is correct."

"Well, Chuck," the Magistrate looked at me. "Did you break into the storage area because of Art?"

I didn't want to answer. They were right, but I didn't want to get Art into trouble. Which was silly. He was beyond their reach. In the end, though, under pressure from the adults, I had to tell them.

For at least half an hour the questions continued. The Magistrate was firm but didn't bully me, and I told him more than I had ever even admitted to myself. I had to tell the truth, but their questions made it seem as if Art had been an evil criminal who had some sort of hold over me. I felt ashamed and was openly crying by the time they had finished.

The Magistrate sat deep in thought for a while, and Pop held me tightly to his chest. They waited until my tears stopped and I calmed down, then Pop sat me back in my chair. I wiped my face and looked at the man behind the desk, waiting for him to pronounce my fate.

"Chuck Walker, you have admitted your guilt in the court, and I have to pass sentence on you. There are very clear penalties for the offense you have committed, but I have some freedom to refer your case to a higher authority. In view of the mitigating circumstances of this case, I am releasing you into the custody of your parents, and recommending that you be sentenced to serve a period of public service, the said service to be carried out during the school breaks for the next year. I will also recommend that you be assigned to this department for those duties."

He looked at me smiling. "Do you understand what this means?"

"No, sir." I answered.

"It means that I am going to ask my superiors in the capital to let you off lightly. You will still have to face some punishment, though, and that will be losing your freedom during the holidays. I want you to come here then, and do all the little jobs we can find for you. It won't be easy, though; I will make you work hard. Will you accept my judgment?"

"Yes, sir, but there is a problem, sir."

"Oh, and what is that?"

"I will be thirteen in September, sir. I should leave school at the end of the next term."

"Oh, yes. I forgot your age. In that case, I will recommend that you work for your village Lawman at the weekends until you leave school. Then you can come here for a further six months. That should be enough. As an extra punishment, Chuck, I want you to write about what you have done, so that others can learn from your mistake. Give your story to your village officer next Friday, and he will send it to me."

That was a week ago, and I have to stop here because this morning I have to hand this work in. I hope that you, the reader, have understood my tale, and the stupid thing that I did. I should like to say that, given the chance to live the last few months again, I wouldn't make the same choices, but to be honest I can't be sure. I know that what we did was wrong, but we were kids, not angels.

No one has asked me to continue my story, but I feel that I hadn't finished. My sentence has yet to be confirmed, and there are other consequences of our action that were not in my first work.

Pop was keen on me writing the document that our village Lawman, Officer Hernandez, took to the Magistrate, but when I told him I was continuing he told me not to bother. He has been strange since that day, sort of remote and avoids me as if I have done something to upset him. Mom on the other hand fusses around me, treating me like I was six or seven again, not almost a man.

Enough of my rambling, it is time to get on with my story.

The first week back home I was kept confined to the house, Mom said that I wasn't strong enough to go out. After Officer Hernandez had been for my story, I heard Mom and Pop arguing downstairs when I had been put to bed. I tried not to listen, but I remember Mom shouting that I had to go out sometime. It seemed that they were afraid for me for some reason, and argued for some time.

The following morning, at breakfast, Pop was very quiet and ate his pancakes quickly before rushing off to work. Mom couldn't stop talking. She seemed to go on and on about nothing special, but she did say that I could accompany her when she went to the shops. "It's about time you got out of the house. You need some fresh air for a change."

I was pleased at this, as I was starting to go crazy with boredom. Since getting home I had done nothing but write my story and help with a few chores inside. Brooding about Art hadn't helped my mental condition either. I missed him terribly.

Once we had washed the breakfast things and taken the bedding out to the back yard to air, it was time to go out. Mom gave me my cap and made sure my shirt was properly buttoned and straight. "Ready then, Chucky?" she asked. She held my shoulders and looked down at me. There was a sort of sad expression on her face, as if she was unhappy, but it was quickly replaced by her usual infectious grin. "We won't be out long. Just a quick trip, down to the shop and straight back."

We left the house and made our way to the end of our street. Turning towards the general store, I noticed that there seemed to a lot of people around. Our village had grown up only recently to support the timber mill where Pop worked, and there were normally few people around at this time of day. Only on Sunday, or during a holiday, would so many, be seen out and about. There were several carts, laden with produce, passing by; much more than I could remember having seen at one time.

"Why are there so many people about, Mom?"

"Why?" Mom looked around, as if seeing the activity for the first time. "Oh, of course you haven't seen the changes." She stopped and looked down at me. "They are here because of what you found, Chuck. I hear that there is a lot of stuff to be recovered, and because of that, there are a lot of people who have come here from the cities. They will be living here for quite a while, so they and their families need somewhere to live, more shops and other services. In the last month Timberdale has grown a lot bigger."


"Yes, Timberdale. Our village is important enough to have a name now."

We walked to the store, which was situated halfway along the street. Beside the building there had been a vacant lot previously, but now the undergrowth had been cleared and there was the timber frame of another building taking shape. A little further down the street I could see a similar construction site on a further plot.

Just as we were about to enter the store, a woman who I recognized vaguely was leaving. I stepped to one side so that she could pass as Mom exchanged pleasantries with her. She was curt with Mom and gave me a glare, and I wondered what I had done to deserve a look like that.

I was soon to receive more hostile stares. We entered the store and I followed Mom around helping her collect the supplies we needed. Twice more women I knew to be from our village gave me a frosty reception. I felt nervous by then, and kept an eye on those who appeared to react to my presence. One of them stalked up to the woman behind the counter and spoke to her, pointing in my direction. A short argument seemed to take place before the customer resumed her shopping.

Mom didn't notice, and I began to think that maybe I was just imagining the hostility. When we got to the counter, though, the woman there voiced her feelings as Mom was paying. "Janet Walker," she said, her tone was much like the Magistrate had used in sentencing me. "I would ask you to leave HIM at home in future. I have a respectable business and don't want the likes of that boy in here."

Mom's face turned crimson and the look she gave the woman would have terrified the most hardened of soldiers. I knew that look and waited for the inevitable. "Melissa Bell," she said in a voice that seemed to come from the Arctic wastes. It was soft in volume but dripped venom. "I will take Chuck wherever I like. He is my son and he has my support. His trial is over, and the Magistrate has sent him home. So who do you think you are to question the judgment? Chuck may have made a mistake, but he wasn't alone. Arthur Robinson committed the same crime, and the Lawmen recognized that he was the leader. My boy only followed him. Even so, Chuck showed a loyalty that seems sadly lacking in this village. Don't worry, though, I will not bring him in again. IF I ever cross that threshold, that is." Mom pointed at the doorway and gave everybody a withering stare before pushing me out of the store.

In the street she stopped, and crouched down in front of me. "I am sorry, Chuck, I wouldn't have brought you if I had realized they would be so nasty." She wiped my tears with her handkerchief, and kissed me before taking me home, a protective arm on my shoulders.

On the walk home I thought about what had happened. I hadn't realized my actions would have affected other people like that. The Lawmen didn't seem to be affected, and the nurses had treated me as normal. Now, though, I began to appreciate that I had done something that many didn't like. That they would take it out on my family, though, I couldn't accept. Mom had defended me back in the store, and in doing so would probably not be made welcome there in the future. As it was the only one in the village, I had caused her hardship.

"I am sorry, Mom," I said as we walked in through our front door.

"Sorry? What for?"

"For being bad, and making everybody mad at me."

Mom got angry again. "Chuck. You have nothing to be sorry for. If I had wanted a little goody-goody, then I would have brought you up that way. We let you develop your own way, and so the responsibility is ours. You are small for your age, and needed the strength of character to protect you. We failed, not you. We should have given you more guidance, and for that I apologize. Now give me a hand to put things away, and cheer up. Oh, and let's keep what happened at the store a secret, we don't want to upset Pop as well. OK?"

I helped around the house until lunch, then Mom made me go up to bed to rest, as she said that I was looking peaky. I stayed there until late in the afternoon, sleeping at first then again thinking about the effects my actions had had on others. Art's family was uppermost in my mind. They were the ones most affected by what had happened. I decided then that I would go and see them. I had to tell them that I was sorry.

"Mom," I said at supper, "I want to go and see the Robinsons tomorrow. I must tell them that I am sorry."

"What was that?" Pop looked up sharply. "No, Chuck. Stay away from them."

"But Pop!" I protested, "I must."

"Oh, no you mustn't. They already know that it wasn't your fault. So stay away."

I looked at Mom for support, but she shook her head, indicating that I should not push any further. I wasn't satisfied with Pop's order, though, and decided that I would go just the same. I would have liked him or Mom to go with me, but that was obviously not going to happen.

The next morning I helped around the house again, intending to slip out of my bedroom window after I was sent up to rest in the afternoon. That plan was doomed to failure, prevented by an incident just before lunch.

Mom asked me to fetch in the washing from the line in our yard, and I was taking down one of Pop's shirts when I noticed one of the boys in my class at school. He was looking over the fence at me. He walked past the end of our yard and disappeared around the corner of next door’s shed. I took note of the stare he gave me but relaxed again when he vanished.

Reaching the far end of the line, I had put all of the clothes in the basket and turned to walk back to the house when I heard a sound behind me. Looking back, I saw the boy walk in our gate with a couple of his friends. I didn't need to ask what they wanted; I could see from their manner that they hadn't come to play.

Turning to run for the house, I saw two more of their mates jump over the fence between me and safety. Bewildered, I looked round for some way to escape, but they were all running at me by then. I had only time for one short scream before a blow to the stomach knocked the breath from me. Then my arms were grabbed before I could get more than one blow in my defense.

"You haven't got your pal to defend you now, Worm," one of them laughed.

"Yeah," another snarled, "you murdered him and you'll soon be dead too. You tried to steal from us all, and now we're going to get you."

I never got the chance to protest as blows rained unto my unprotected face, accompanied by shouts of 'Murderer' and 'Animal'. I screamed again and kicked out, feeling the satisfying impact of my boot connecting with a sensitive region. Moments later I heard Mom's frantic shouts. I was on the ground by then, curled into a protective ball, but a couple of kicks connected with my lower back and thighs before the boys ran off.

"Chuck, Chuck!" Mom was frantic with fear as she dropped down beside me. "Are you all right? Are you hurt?"

Strangely, I didn't cry, instead I laughed. "What a silly question," I thought to myself. "I'm OK," I said, wincing in pain as I sat up. I could feel blood running from my nose, and my left eye hurt like hell.

"Come on, let's get inside." Mom helped me to my feet.

Safely in our kitchen, I sat on the table and Mom fussed over me, washing my face and giving me a clean wet cloth to hold against my injuries. She then lifted my shirt, and pushed down the back of my pants to check where I had been kicked. She prodded the area gently to find out how much pain I was in. "You are going to have a couple of nice bruises here," she said applying another wet cloth to my back. "Are you hurt anywhere else?"

"No Mom, please don't fuss." I was confused and angry. I wasn't popular with a lot of the kids, but I had never been attacked like that before. I worked hard and excelled at school, which caused some envy and ill feeling, but in the past it had only resulted in sly pushes or a punch in the back when no one was looking. The only serious incident had been when one of the bigger kids had cornered me, after having been lectured in class by the teacher, who had used my marks to belittle him. That had been the occasion that Art had become my hero, when he had beaten the other kid so badly that he wore the bruises for a good ten days after.

"Why did they attack you? Did you say anything to them?"

"No, Mom," I said, getting off of the table. "Just leave me alone, please." I pushed past her and climbed the stairs to my room.

She didn't pursue the matter then, but at lunch I could see the hurt and sympathy in her eyes. Later, though, when Pop came home and we sat down to supper, he noticed my black eye, and Mom told him all about it. "They came right into our yard and attacked Chuck. He said that there was no reason for it, but they were screaming things at him."

"What were they saying, Chuck?" Pop asked.

"They said I was a thief and a murderer," I wiped my nose, tears beginning to come. "I'm not! I DIDN'T KILL ART. It's not true!"

"I would like to know who started that accusation." Pop sounded really angry. "I have heard it at work as well. They thought I couldn't overhear. Tomorrow I want you to go and see Hernandez and make a complaint. Tell him he must do something," he told Mom. "Chuck, you should defend yourself, and not let others bully you."

"There were five of them, Chuck didn't stand much chance of doing that," Mom said, her arm finding my shoulders. "Even so, one of them was on the ground, in a lot of pain."

The following morning, Mom and Pop didn't mention the attack, and I was grateful for that. I was stiff where the boys had kicked me, and Mom said that I should rest. "You have to go back to Heber Springs the day after tomorrow, and the doctor will be mad at us if you are not better."

I hadn't known that I was to return, and asked them why. I thought that I had been discharged from the hospital, expecting to be referred to the village doctor if any further treatment was needed.

"The hospital doctor has to examine you again, Chuck. After that you are going to be staying in Heber Springs for a while. The Magistrate sent word that you will not be going back to school here. Which is just as well, after yesterday."

I was stunned. Why was I being taken out of school? Then I remembered what the Magistrate had said about my punishment. I was looking forward to working for him. Being a Lawman appealed to me. I would not mind the loneliness or the suspicion of other people, I was already used to that at school. Only one thought spoilt my pleasure at this news. I only had two more days to get to see the Robinsons, if I was to do it before I left again.

I sat on the couch at Mom's insistence until she said that she had to go out. "I am just running around to Rita's," she said putting on her hat. "Need to pick up my dress that she has altered. I will be about an hour. Will you be all right?"

"Yes, Mom," I answered, sounding bored.

She smiled and gave me a kiss, then walked out. I gave her a couple of minutes before I too slipped out of the house. This could be my only chance to get away. I was being watched all the time.

I was nervous of being out of the house, after what had happened the day before, and crept to our back gate, carefully looking around. Nobody was in evidence, so I quickly made for the end of the back lane. At the corner I checked again, and in this manner made my way to where Art had lived.

I stopped outside the house looking miserably at the door. Now that I was here I felt reluctant to go any further. What would I do, if I were not welcome? Did they blame me for what had happened? I had been there when Art had died and had not saved him.

I almost turned and walked away, but I knew I had to at least say that I was sorry. Besides, I saw someone walking towards me from the far corner of the street, and was frightened.

I knocked on the door. Shaking, I waited, hearing footsteps inside. I couldn't see much out of my left eye, where it had been punched in the fight, and my right was filling with tears. The door opened and Art's Mom looked down at me in surprise. "Chuck," she said, a look of sadness on her face.

I burst into tears. I tried but couldn't say anything. She knelt and pulled me into her arms, just holding me and rubbing my back. How long it lasted I don't know, but in the end I managed to make myself speak. "I'm sorry, " I sobbed around the words.

"Sorry," Art's Mom sounded surprised. "You've nothing to be sorry about. I am the one who should be saying sorry to you."

She led me inside, and then through to the workshop at the rear where Art's Pop was working at his trade of furniture maker. "Paul," she called to him. "Look who's here."

"Chuck," he welcomed me with a hand on my shoulder. "I am glad you have come to see us." He knelt and looked at me, noting my battered face. "What has happened here? Who hit you?"

"The boys from school, sir, they came into our yard yesterday. They said I murdered Art, sir. I didn't really. I tried to save him!"

"We know you did, Chuck. You are a good boy and I am sorry that Art got you into trouble. It is our fault. We knew he was leading you astray, and should have put a stop to it. If only we had..."

We talked for a little while, and they told me that they had been too ashamed to go out of the house except for essential journeys. They continued to apologize for Art, despite my insistence that I was as much at fault. They had shut themselves away from everyone including my folks, and were shocked at the way the villagers were treating me.

"I have heard enough, Paul. Get your hat, we are going to put things straight now," Art's Mom said.

I followed them back into the house and was shepherded out into the street. They both put their arms around my shoulders and escorted me home. We received many stares from those of the villagers who knew us, and I was glad of their protection.

I had not thought of what Mom would think, and was dismayed when, just as we turned into my street, we met her and the Lawman as they approached from the opposite direction. Mom looked surprised, then worried as she saw us.

"Janet," Art's mom said immediately. "I am sorry we haven't been to see you before. It was unpardonable of us. We should talk now, though. Young Chuck has been to see us, and we hear that people are saying the wrong things about him."

"Come in," Mom said, a look of relief on her face. As she held the door open, she gave me a look that I knew meant I would be in for a telling off later. I didn't need to ask what for. I knew I was in trouble for going out.

"Chuck, go to your room," I was told, in a tone that confirmed my fate.

I lay on my bed, dreading the encounter that would come after everyone had left. Mom didn't shout or hit me on these occasions, but simply explained calmly and quietly what I had done wrong. The effect, however, was more than enough to reduce me to tears, as I was made to understand the consequences of my actions.

After a short time, Officer Hernandez knocked on my bedroom door. "May I come in?"

"Yes, sir." I swung my legs over the side of the bed and sat up. "I have been told what happened yesterday, Chuck. I could haul your attackers in for a stern lecture if you wish. I don't think that it will do a lot of good, though, so unless you want me to, I think it best to use a different tactic."

I looked up at him, wondering what he was going to propose. He seemed to want a response from me, so I spoke up. "What will you do then, sir?"

"I intend to post a notice on the Church notice-board, telling everyone what really happened to you and Art. It will tell them that we dropped the charge against you for his death, and state unequivocally that you are not guilty of murder. The Robinsons have said that they will add their signatures to the notice, and they will also tell everyone that they feel it was Art who was most at fault."

"There is something else, Chuck. Have you heard of the Pathfinder Department of Law Enforcement?"

"No, sir."

"Oh! There, and I thought we were famous!" he laughed. "Well, Chuck it is a division that searches for new communities and Pre-Plague sites. I am a part-time member of that group, and the reason I mentioned it is because I wanted to ask you if you would like to be part of it. If you are declared fit by the doctor on Friday, then you can start your training straight away. Then, if

you are good enough, you can help me. Would you like that?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Good, then I will tell the Magistrate."

He went back downstairs, and I sat on the edge of my bed in a daze. Suddenly everything had changed. My good name was to be restored, and best of all I was to be working with a Lawman. Who knows, I might even become a Magistrate!

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