(This is my entry for Jason Heppenstall's deindustrial scifi contest. And please see below for news of my novel Lifeline.)
by Catherine McGuire
Merridel woke to the sound of chickadees chorusing beyond the shutter. It was another gorgeous spring morning, but Merridel, in her autumn, couldn’t find the usual swell of enthusiasm. Recently, the days seemed to drift by, each one the same. Then she remembered—Jarvis should be coming through today! She had to get the library order ready.
Quickly but quietly, she put on her knee-length green tunic and knitted stockings, leaving Julia asleep in their featherbed. Some days she envied her partner’s job: being mayor didn’t start till well after dawn. Honestly, neither did librarian, but an early start meant she didn’t fall as far behind.
Merridel paused at the alcove shrine to give thanks for another day and ask Gaia’s assistance finding the right path. In the kitchen, she made do with oat bread and hard cheese—it was too much trouble to pump water. But she packed slices of dried meat and a small bag of dried mint. She could heat tea water later in the solar cooker she used to make book glue, if the sun cooperated. She washed her face and combed her unruly salt-and-pepper curls, examining her face in the polished tin mirror, for once glad the metal was too dim to show details like wrinkles.
They lived in a cob duplex two blocks from the library, and shared a vertical garden with neighbors. This time of year, the canted shelves for plantings were still empty except for some wintered-over garlic and kale, but espaliered cherries and plums were flowering along the fence, and their perfume finally pushed Merridel’s mood up. She loved spring, but this year she feared she couldn’t muster the energy for its many obligations. Group plowing was so much fun, as was the scion swap—a chance to meet with townsfolk and other towns. But all the little tasks—weeding, watching for bugs, protecting from frost—took more and more energy. She tried to shake off her negativity and picked up her pace.
At the end of the gravel lane, the merchant shops began: candlemaker, weaver, wool store, and the Mercantile taking up half of the far side of the street. Merridel noticed Lars unloading his bright green single-wheeled goat cart; the brass milk cans fit compactly on both sides of the large wooden wheel. And Sahra was walking up with three racks of eggs balanced on her head for Abas, who was happy to allow consignment where he didn’t buy outright. That reminded her to bring down her latest batch of scrap paper notebooks and quills – there was a surprising market for them. She waved to Sahra and held her breath as the girl waved back—she’d never be able to manage that.
It was just after dawn, but she could hear shutters thumping open, the humming of people at their prayers, the squeaky wheels of the compost cart as it did the morning pickups. Other early blooms spread their perfume, mixed with dust and the sharp cut-cedar tang from the carpenter’s workshop on the next block. Merridel loved this time of morning, before Salvage Grove got too busy, noisy and dusty, when she could believe she had a chance of getting through her whole day without falling behind.
When she reached the library, she pulled the large iron key from her pocket and fought with the old lock. She’d asked the Council twice already to fix the complicated mechanism. One of these days she’d have to saw through a window shutter to get in! One of the first shingled cobs put up 50 years ago when the town was founded near a prime resource site, it had survived well, but like Merridel herself, it was somewhat worn. She crossed the main room by feel, avoiding low shelves of books, a pair of round tables with their straight chairs, and the small cart with wheels that allowed her to re–shelve books without wearing out her sandals. She reached the desk, and leaned in to turn the shutter pole—as she cranked the brass rod, the roof shutter mechanisms slid open and dawn outlined the room.
It was only 10 x 20’, a small collection of books and some old sheets of paper too fragile to handle. There had been so little salvaged from the first chaos, when the unimaginably long supply chains and power lines broke and every area was cast out on its own. The cities’ tall steel and concrete towers had become deathtraps—salvagers still found bones in the rooms. Those who fled from the cities started from scratch. The few ancient survivors refused to talk about it, and everyone had agreed to put it behind them. There were no books in here that detailed the destruction—those who’d tried to save history were far more concerned with finding paper versions of the vast information that had been on their magic machines. There were a few books of warnings, but half of the items didn’t make sense—don’t let GMO corn mix with heirloom? Avoid low EMF frequencies??
Merridel tried to focus on the task at hand. Jarvis came by monthly with his wooden printing press compactly stowed in his hide-covered cart. He would stay the day to print up marriage certificates, birth certificates and the like, but for books like Merridel’s, he’d take the aging copy and have it reprinted next time. She was looking forward to seeing Growing Winter Vegetables again, and she had to be sure she had all the pages of the herbal text that had finally fallen apart from overuse. About half the books here were handwritten—she employed three scribes—but some books were popular enough that getting five copies per order was worth the cost. If paper and ink were more available, there’d be no limit to how many books Jarvis could print! She suspected he printed extras to sell to other libraries, since he always brought a few new books to entice her with. But not only did she have a limited budget, this town was strict about info. One of the deadliest problems of the Oil Culture was too much information—it had confused, agitated, and ultimately destroyed them. Now, only recognized facts were allowed to be circulated, and only sustainable processes shared. There were no unlimited resources; paper and ink were allocated only to the most useful words.
A clattering, huffing noise from the street sent her to the front door. As she leaned out, she saw most of the other shopkeepers doing the same. At the end of the road, a cart was jerking forward slowly… without horses or mules. Squinting, she recognized it as Jarvis’, and wondered whether he had somehow put his cart before the horses. But there was steam coming from the back, swirling up into the sky. Just as the thought machine entered her mind, she saw Raul on his bicycle heading down the street to meet the printer.
“Oh, turd,” she muttered, closing the door behind her and hurrying up the street. She met up with them just as Raul was ordering Jarvis to shut off the motor.
“You are hereby ordered to cease and desist the use of a prohibited device,” Raul began. Merridel stepped closer and put a hand on the diminutive hawk-faced teen’s shoulder. Thankfully, he shut up.
“Jarvis—I’m very glad to see you,” she said hurriedly, “but I’m surprised not to see Bucky and Ebony.”
“We had a bad patch over at Glory,” Jarvis said, leaning down from the bench. He was only a little younger than Merridel, sunburnt to mahogany with wrinkles that could almost be woodgrain. His hair was snowy and he wore his ink-stained uniform: a white cotton cap, blue denim overalls, and a pale green linen shirt. “Nearly the whole town’s nags died of something, and mine too, since I was there. But some clever gent got me hooked up with a wood-gas engine and away I went.” He grinned; the gaps in his teeth made her wonder, as usual, how he managed to chew his food.
“Wood-gas engines are machines, and thus are prohibited within town boundaries,” Raul insisted. “He needs to be gone within the hour.”
“And he will be, Raul. Especially if you just let us get our business done.” Merridel regretted her sharp tone, because the boy was just doing his job. But she needed this printing! “He’s going to park in front of the library and he’ll be gone within the hour. Thank you, Raul.”
She gestured to Jarvis to keep going and she waved at all the busybodies who were still gawking from their doors. And she resisted putting her fingers in her ears as she returned to the library, even though the sound was really obnoxious. She’d never heard anything so ratchety before. The grist mill’s waterwheel was loud but soothing, the rasp of hand saws could be annoying, but this was like the Death of Metal. As the cart passed, she saw the metal device: two upright cylinders connected with pipes and a small box—steam was coming from the top of the pipes. If this was what machines were like, no wonder they had been prohibited! Raul was speeding off in the direction of the City Council building, so she knew who’d be coming back soon.
She’d have to do business with Jarvis in the street or neighborhood children would be all over the cart. She waited until the old man had gotten off his bench before she started. “Jarvis, I’m surprised you didn’t remember this is a sustainable town,” she said, having to shout. “And it does say on the signs at the edge of town.”
“Well that just shows y’all don’t understand—if this horse plague comes through, y’all will be left without transport,” he retorted. “Unless y’all can push your own carts.”
“Let that go for now. Do you have my printing?”
He reached behind his bench and pulled out a wooden box, opened it on the bench and handed over one sheet after the other—Merridel was thrilled to see the sharp, uniform letters cleanly printed on each page. And there were fools in town who wanted to call Jarvis’ press a machine! Luckily, since it was hand-powered—basically a wine press with a tray of metal letters beneath—it passed as a tool. As she checked to be sure no pages were missing—a bit tricky, since they were laid out for folding into signatures—she was disappointed to see that some of the paper was lumpy, not the usual good quality. It might be harder to bind and get them to lie flat. But Jarvis didn’t make the paper, and it wasn’t bad enough to reject them.
“They’re well printed, as usual,” she acknowledged. “I’ll go get payment, and I have another book for you. Wait here.” As she hurried inside, she wondered if she would lose this herbal—how could she get it if he couldn’t come back? I suppose I could meet him at the edge of town, she thought, rummaging around in the cashbox for five brass dollars, then picking up the wrapped herbal.
Outside, Marshal of Peace had arrived with two guards. Thoma was a tall, thin man with thick black hair that brushed his shoulders, a wide, crooked nose, mud-brown eyes under bushy eyebrows and long gnarled fingers that were constantly active, brushing or picking lint. He was acting as if this was some kind of contagion! It wasn’t like someone could copy an engine like this with one glance.
“Good morning, Thoma,” she said, forcing cheerfulness. “Jarvis was just leaving.”
“It’s a good thing,” the Marshal replied, his scarecrow body radiating scorn, his caterpillar eyebrows arched. “We’ll just escort him out of town.”
Merridel fumed, but there wasn’t much she could say. Instead, she turned to the old man, thanked him profusely and said, “Next month, let’s meet down at the Inn outside of town.”
“But what about my certificates?? There’s lots of people waiting for me…” He glared around Thoma and the two burly guards for a moment, then sagged. “Y’all be sorry,” he said, and got back onto his cart.
Merridel didn’t watch him roar down the street with the guards trotting to keep up—she went back inside and stared at the new printed sheets without seeing them. She certainly wouldn’t argue that a machine that noisy had no place in town—imagine a half-dozen of them roaring and sputtering down the streets! But it wasn’t just Jarvis—lately, several itinerant merchants had been caught with “contraband” and disinvited from town. Salvage Grove had started out scrambling like every other town, but in the last 25 years had settled into a manual/passive system mandate. And as others rediscovered bits and pieces of the Oil Culture, Salvage Grove was fielding one conflict after another.
The door opened suddenly. She spun around, but it was only her copyists—Dora, Lilluan and Yallow, almost interchangeable teens with the stylish multi-braid hairstyle and long tunics of blue and white checks. Only their elaborate embroidered belts distinguished them. They were chattering excitedly and Dora called out, “They caught a machine inside town! It was noisier than a metal bedframe falling down stairs!”
“I know,” Merridel said dryly, “that was our printer—so no more books or certificates until we find someone who uses a horse and cart.”
“Oh no!” Lilluan wailed, “I was getting my choice certificate printed!!”
“Well, you could probably catch him if you run,” Merridel said dryly. “They can’t stop you outside of town. Though he’s probably angry enough not to do business.”
“Don’t worry, Lilluan,” Dora said, patting her arm. “Rita does a gorgeous certificate and she even paints tasteful little pictures of the tits and groin.”
“I know, but I can’t afford her! It would be at least six dozen eggs or a whole brass dollar! Jarvis prints them for a couple pennies.”
“Yeah—he has the whole thing set up except for the name and sex, and he hammered those lead pieces in and printed it out faster than I could pull out my coins,” Yallow agreed.
Merridel shooed them over to their desks, and adjusted the mirrors to maximize the incoming light. “If you three practiced your handwriting, maybe you’d get business doing calligraphy certificates. Today I will be happy with legible copies.”
She heard Dora sniff in disdain but she ignored it. The foolish chits were so distracted with dances, weddings and preparations for the spring festival that she’d be lucky to get any work out of them today.
She went back into the tiny one-window closet she called her office, opened the shutter and adjusted her own mirror, trying to focus on her request for town funding, but Jarvis and his crazy machine invaded her thoughts. She could understand Council not wanting townsfolk using the dangerous machines from the Broken Time, but surely they were cutting their own nose off to insist anyone, even their trading partners, be “pure handcraft.” And what happened to “the varied ecosystem of ideas”?
She looked up as the front door opened and the sound of laughing children filled library. This would be Ronnie’s fifth-grade class, in for the geography lesson. Maps were some of the things just too expensive to reproduce, so it was easier to come to the maps. She went to her doorway and waved at Ronnie as he ushered the children around the tables and retrieved the two large atlases from the oversize shelf. She enjoyed watching them ask questions about the world, even though these days answers were “scarce as silk”. Still, landmasses didn’t change, and if their society didn’t die off from famine or plague, someday they might actually reconnect with the lands across those giant oceans. It was a mind-boggling thought.
Her apprentice Suberry had come in with the class and was processing the books that had been returned yesterday. A quiet, shy young woman, she was a perfect match for a library. She nodded at Merridel and kept on with her work.
Merridel shook herself out of her woolgathering and gathered up the manuscript pages. The bindery was an adjoining room, not much bigger than her closet office, but with a slanted, glass-paneled roof to maximize the light, and chest-high tables to minimize bending. She’d had the wood turner make a small bookpress and a stitching frame, and she mixed her own glue, using mucilage from the Rosedale renderers. It was finicky work, but she enjoyed it, and enjoyed the result even more. She wished she could afford leather, but Shereen’s fine-woven linen was durable enough. Over thin wood boards, it made a beautiful book cover, especially with the title batiked on.
Again and again Jarvis’s noisy cart and Thomas’ scorn played in her head. She started making mistakes—cutting the waxed thread too short, folding a page slightly crooked. And the sun kept ducking behind clouds, making an uneven light.
I can’t afford to mess this up, she thought, and set it aside. Impulsively, she decided to send a message to the librarian of Rosedale—Jarvis would head there next. As far as she knew, Rosedale wasn’t nearly as strict, but it was worth warning Laurel.
By now the streets were full of life—the shop fronts were opened and tradesmun were working on their crafts while keeping an eye open for shoppers. Shereen had brought an upright loom to the front beside the open double doors, while behind her Denio tinkered with her four-harness shuttle loom. He seemed to be replacing some of the reeds, and as Merridel wandered over for a closer look, he straightened up with a guilty look on his face.
“Morning, Merridel,” he said. Was he shifting to hide something?
“Were you finally able to repair the loom?” she asked. Now Shereen had turned and was looking at her also. Was she imagining some slight defensiveness?
“It took a while, but yes,” Denio answered, brushing himself off as he came out to the sidewalk. “Now Shereen will be able to get some good yardage done.”
“Aye,” she chipped in, “once it’s warped, I do a couple yards a day, and I’ve got five people waiting for summer linen.”
“Well, you do fine cloth,” Merridel answered. She bent over to examine the blue/white striped linsey woolsey half-finished on the frame. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a brown paper wrapping by the other loom—the printed label read: Bamboo Reed Manufacturers, New Chitown. So Denio had purchased those reeds; probably machine-made. That’s what he was hiding. Not that she cared. She nodded brightly. “I’m sorry to have disturbed you. Use the light while it’s strong. Good day.”
Merridel picked up her pace and then ducked into the telegraph office. Marcia the operator grinned up at her without losing the flow of the message she was tapping out. Merridel waited, looking around the tiny office flickering as sun danced through clouds overhead, sending shafts in and out of the light well. Behind the half-wall between the desk and the front area, there was only the operator’s desk, a hand-drawn map of the telegraph route linking a dozen towns, and a filing cabinet. On the half-wall were scattered small framed wax boards to write out the messages. And to think they used to throw away whole garbage pails full of paper with only one side printed, sometimes only read once! She picked up a thin stylus to compose her message. Maybe she should ask Laurel to report what Jarvis said about the encounter—she might have to bring a small gift to him next month. At a penny a word, would it be easier just to set up a meeting with Laurel at the seedling market next week? Yes, and that would be a good excuse to go. She wrote up her request, finishing just as Marcia ended the transmission. The young blonde lurched to her feet, rounded with a pregnancy that should be ending soon.
“Morning, Merridel,” she rasped. Some childhood throat illness had almost destroyed her voice, so few were surprised when she ended up learning the telegraph and also assisted the teacher with the deaf language classes. And she had married the deaf bakery assistant, one of many who were born impaired, the result of hidden poisons that were a “gift” of the Oil Culture.
“Good morning, Marcia,” she said. “When is the happy day?”
“Should be near Equinox,” the girl croaked. “That’s eight pennies.”
“Put it on the library account, if you don’t mind.”
She was in a thoughtful frame of mind as she headed home for lunch. Obviously she wasn’t the only one having to contort themselves to work around town strictures. Maybe there was another Revision coming—the last one, 20 years ago, caused a third of the townsfolk to move away, after they couldn’t agree on how many parts separated a tool from a machine. Granted, in the gray areas, it was sometimes difficult to tell. The doctor’s foot-pumped bellows, used to help those with lung flu hang on until the body healed itself, had several very finicky parts and some had protested, but the blacksmith, whose father had been saved using the lung-pump, argued that it was no different than his own bellows, only smaller and more delicate. In the end, they’d agreed to allow it. Now perhaps there’d be an argument about whether to import machine-made parts, as long as the town tools were hand-constructed and repaired.
She was surprised to find Julia at home, removing a pot of hot soup from the rocket stove. Two bowls were set on the table, and plate of bakery rolls on the counter. Julia’s coppery brown ringlets bounced forward on her high latte cheeks; long lashes hid her brown eyes as she pursed her lips in concentration.
“How is mayoring going today, love?” Merridel said, leaning for a peck on Julia’s cheek. Her partner only came up to her shoulder, yet somehow towered in the relationship.
Julia put the pot on the table. “Funny you should ask that,” she began. Merridel tensed. She couldn’t have heard about Jarvis so soon?? But Thoma could never resist bragging about his little victories. “I heard you had an unusual visitor today.”
“No—just the printer. It’s true he came without his horses.”
“And you prevented them from escorting him out?” Julia asked as she ladled out a tomato corn soup that Merridel had put up last fall.
“I did not! That little bicycle bully insisted Jarvis be out of town within an hour and our business barely took ten minutes. And then Thoma marched him out like he was a leper.” Merridel fumed—she had wanted a quiet meal to help digest the morning. This was making it worse. She dipped a hunk of bread in the soup and nibbled it. “Look, if you don’t mind, could we not fight over our meal? It’s lovely to see you here.”
“We weren’t fighting. At least I wasn’t. But fine—” Julia waved her hand and change topics. “What should we get for Allen and Aruna’s wedding?”
“I think Allen had his eye on the apple punnet over at the Merc. We might be able to afford that.”
“I’m not worried about the tradecost—my brother only gets married once.”
With luck, Merridel thought, since Allen was one of the Divine’s great curmudgeons—never met a person he couldn’t argue with. She hoped Aruna knew what she was getting herself into.
“Another thing,” Merridel said. “Jarvis mentioned today that the horses of Glory died of some plague. It took out his two also. You should look into that—we don’t need something exterminating our work horses.”
“I’ll get Marcia to telegraph—with luck it was just some bad feed or water. Though we might have to ban visitors from Glory for a while.” Julia dropped her spoon and cursed—she was more tense than Merridel had seen her in a long time.
“How could we tell? Without medical tests, we’re guessing.”
“We can still make good guesses. For example, if the dead horses didn’t consume the same things, or if the illness spread in a way that suggested contagion.”
That was one of the things that made Julia good at her job. She was logical and good at detail. Merridel was just good with her hands, and often found herself arguing both sides of the question without coming to any conclusion. She almost told Julia about the imported reeds, then stopped herself. Julia didn’t need anymore trouble.
Merridel finally got down to work after noon, letting the rhythm of bookbinding settle her nerves, listening to the whispers and giggles of the fourth grade English class as Suberry read them an old story of an orphan boy named Huck. She had just put the first two signatures into the stitching press when the front door slammed open and a moment later, Nurmi, a messenger boy, paused in the doorway to catch his breath.
“Mayor says… Mayor says to come…” He was gasping. Merridel ran to him.
“Is she at the Council offices?” Divine Grace, not at the doctor’s clinic!
Nurmi nodded without speaking, and after a quick glance to be sure nothing was left in a dangerous state, she raced around him, out the door and down the street.
She was winded before she arrived at the City Council office four blocks away. It was one-story cob-built, filling an entire block. Merridel waved to the town clerk and hurried back to Julia’s office, a 20x20 room well-furnished with deep window seats, a plain pine desk and four straight-back chairs set around an oval table. There were bookshelves with the bound records of Council meetings arranged chronologically. Nothing looked askew; no blood on the floor—Merridel took a deep breath and took in those assembled: Julia, Thoma, the engineer’s apprentice Dale, his parents and two members of the Council, Venkat and Mare. She frowned and stepped inside.
“We ask that you be Witness, as a town member,” Julia said quickly. Her partner’s expression was a blend of real panic and phony officialism. Beside her, Thoma looked smug; the council members looked skeptical at her “convenient” appearance. Dale was looking down, his straight black hair obscuring his face. His parents, both about his shoulder height, seemed confused and angry.
So this was some kind of infractions hearing. Merridel’s chest tightened—16-year-old Dale was a brilliant lad, but forever tinkering where he shouldn’t be.
Thoma announced, “Dale Affray, you have been charged with an illegal machines act contravention, which carries a penalty of 500 dollars or three months field labor.”
Merridel gasped, and Dale looked up, protesting, “It was just a few brass rods! I didn’t make anything different. I just connected—”
“You created a machine to circumvent manual labor,” Thoma interrupted. “By making the bike- powered thresher work on its own. Do you deny this?”
Dale’s father groaned and Dale looked down again, and shrugged. “No… But all I did was connect it to the grinding wheel by the river. If water can power the grainmill, why can’t it power our thresher? We’re all getting tired of that bicycle job.”
“It’s not for you to decide, Dale,” Julia said. Merridel winced—Dale was a boy with a good heart, a sharp mind… and no sense. But this punishment was too much!
“If I may speak?” she tried, but Julia waved refusal.
“Witnesses can only witness, please you,” she said formally. Merridel fumed—why was I called here then? She could’ve grabbed anyone off the street. She paused and considered that. There must have been a reason—Julia wanted her to see this. But what could she do??
She knew Julia couldn’t step out of her role and take sides, nor could she impart secrets from Council meetings—but as a Witness, Merridel was free to draw conclusions and make citizen complaints. And it certainly seemed to warrant that. Was Thoma taking his frustrations out on the boy, after today’s incident? Or worse—was Thoma starting to get a little crazed in his anti-machine stance? But if she was going to make a complaint, she needed to know more about the situation.
“As Witness, I am allowed to request more details of what I am witnessing,” she said firmly, and was answered with Julia’s smile. She must be on the right track.
Thoma looked thundery, but he recited from memory, “Defendant was discovered with a threshing machine powered not by human pedaling, but by a series of brass rods that extended from the pulley belt out along a field and down to the river, to the gristmill mechanism.”
“I saw it in an old magazine about oil pumps,” Dale interrupted, “all I did was attach rods that reproduced the motion at a distance. If the gristmill is an acceptable use of water power, then attaching it to the bike pulleys can be—”
“The defendant will be silent!” Thoma bellowed. Definitely taking his job too seriously. Maybe she needed to start a campaign to elect a new peace marshal.
“This Witness is minded that the penalty for abuse of office is removal,” Merridel said sharply, continuing, “Thank you for the information, you may proceed.” If he was going to act like Generalissimo Machismo, she could get formal, too.
He stared at her for a long moment, then turned to Dale. “As this was a first infraction, I have decided to fine you 100 dollars or one month field labor.”
Dale looked at his parents, blushing deeply, then looked at Thoma. “I don’t have money, so I’ll do the labor.”
Merridel filed out with the others, torn between talking privately with Julia and not pressing her special status. There’d be time later.
“Where did he get such information, I wonder,” Mare said, holding the door for Venkat, teasing, “Age before beauty, sir.”
“And it would be impolite, I suppose, to suggest we are of an age?” he replied, grinning. “Merridel—could this information have gotten past your Guild?”
“I’ll have to look into it—it sounded like he was stating there was no new technology—just connector rods. I definitely will investigate further,” she assured them, then hurried back to the library.
The Editorial Guild had been feeling pressured recently, reading through newly-excavated material quickly in order to get it on the shelves. Merridel hated the idea of censorship, but if it was going to happen, she wanted to be on the committee. Perhaps they had overlooked something? But if Dale was accurate, he was implementing a variation, like the small bellows. What had gotten Thoma’s back up? On impulse, she ducked into the Mercantile—if anyone knew, it would be Abas—the town gossip.
The store was one of the few timber buildings, crammed with old and new merchandise, on shelves and piled on the floor. Merridel paused to let her eyes adjust to the dimmer light created by pas-sol bottle lamps inserted into the ceiling. Abas had a few window mirrors, but piles of merchandise blocked the light. The left side of the huge room was salvage: bottles, chairs, wheels, hoes—all of the excavated metal, plastic, glass, etc. that was still usable. The right side was new, with sections for food, clothing, raw materials, furniture and tools. Abas held court in the middle, behind a square wooden counter that guarded valuable items that might tempt the foolish to fast-finger them. The shopkeeper was scolding his apprentice Marva, shaking a small wooden box of broken glass. She waited until he had sent the girl into the back room with the command “not to break anything else”, before she approached.
“Good morning, Abas, may the light of the Divine shine on you,” she said, bowing slightly.
“And on you. How may I help our librarian today?” Abas leaned forward; his 5-foot frame made the counter chest-high, but he had the energy of a baby goat or a tightly-wound clock spring. Jovial, but Merridel would hate to work for him.
“I’m wondering if you’ve gotten the mucilage from Rosedale?”
“Alas, I think not, but I will look.” He led her to a shelf containing powders, pastes and small brown glass bottles of the few chemicals allowed to be imported.
“Did you hear the noise when Jarvis arrived?” she asked.
“One would have to be deaf to miss that! Has the printer sold his horses for mucilage?” he joked.
“He said there was a horse sickness in Glory.”
“The Divine spare us! What we need are those magic potions that cure sickness—have you found any of those in your old books?”
“Not yet, although we are always looking for new allowable solutions. Thoma got rather huffy about Jarvis today.”
“Between you and me, Thoma is afraid of losing his position,” the shopkeeper replied, tapping his long nose and winking. “I have heard the Council wants to create a Department of Innovation to investigate the new discoveries that have been cropping up recently.”
“And Thoma wouldn’t be included?”
Abas shook his head. “He would focus on keeping the peace only.”
“I’ll bet that would feel like a step down,” she commented. It would be enough for him to increase enforcement to impress the Council. Merridel assured Abas there was no rush on the glue powder, and returned to the library, needing to think.
She wasn’t in favor of another committee—Divine knew, there were enough already! And Julia would likely be required to sign off on minutes, at least—more work. But maybe Thoma’s increasing belligerence worried the Council also. Was there such a thing as doing one’s job too well? Some nearby towns “ruled from the rear”, allowing citizens to use anything and only forbidding what proved harmful. They seemed to be doing alright, but Merridel had read enough old manuscripts to know that approach had its dangers. Where was the balance?
She checked the shelves in the science section, familiar with most of the books and papers, but unfamiliar with Dale’s project. Finally, in a thick, hand-scribed manual, an illustration of rods extending between odd devices caught her eye. She scanned the words and although not mechanical-minded, got enough to agree with Dale. This was a variation on pulleys, which were fully allowed. Thoma had overstepped when he accused without first checking the details. But how had Dale gotten this? Merridel didn’t remember seeing him in the library. In any case, a complaint was warranted. And maybe that new committee was needed.
That evening was an Outreach Guild potluck; Julia, as mayor, would attend. And Merridel, as partner, should at least make an appearance. She sighed—she wasn’t much for politics. But outreach to other towns, to wandering tradesmun, would affect Jarvis and the other situations. Thoma was sure to be there. So after work, Merridel trudged back to the Council offices. The buffet was in the largest chamber, with its yellow-washed plaster walls and simple concave molding. The west-facing windows were radiant and the lightwell provided more illumination. Tables were pushed against the walls and chairs grouped in small circles, already full of Guild members and guests. Even though it was Spring scant-time, there was a savory variety of preserved foods along one table. Merridel’s mouth watered at Vencat’s pickled beans and Albas’ spiced salt beef.
The Guild was hosting Fuller’s Bend, an even more restrictive town—all Church of Christ Survivor—10 miles upriver. The Bend representatives were identically dressed in indigo tunics, wide pants, cropped hair and no body adornment. Merridel knew they frowned on transfolk, because several had moved here before coming out, but the lack of clothing and grooming differences—the men were clean-shaven—almost gave them a uni-sexual look. Except for the hefty gray-haired woman with enough bosom for three. They were solemn as they chatted with Guild members, not straying far from each other. “Circling the wagons,” they used to call it.
Before she could fill a plate, Julia tapped her on the shoulder and gestured her into the adjoining scribe’s room.
“Thoma is threatening to invoke another Revision!” Julia exclaimed, on the edge of tears. “I don’t want the town pulled apart on my watch!” She sank into a chair, and put her face in her hands.
Merridel patted her shoulder uneasily. “Rumor has it that he’s being eased off technology decisions. Is this about power?”
“Ha!” Julia burst out, then realized Merridel wasn’t punning. “I can’t tell if he’s just self-important or really an ideologue. Either way, he’s threatening to ruin my tenure.”
Merridel was more worried about the town than her partner’s status. She liked things the way they were. But that was the problem, wasn’t it? Things never stayed the way they were.
“It’s true that traders are using or selling some new devices—the horseless cart, the cold box on the butcher’s wagon, the solar fresnel welder… that scared the heck out of me!” Merridel said.
Merridel shrugged. “Maybe some traders found a mechanic-minded town. Maybe some town miles from here has revived a steel mill or something.”
“You need old power for one of those!” Julia picked up and tapped a quill against the side of the writing desk. Merridel hadn’t seen her this anxious since their wedding.
“I wish I could tell you why now—but they’re showing up, so we have to ask: do we use them or not?”
“That’s the town’s decision.”
“Of course. But you and the Outreach Guild provide the info for the vote.”
“You as librarian, also. Can’t you find some fact that will get Thoma off my neck? Dammit—look over there!”
Through the door, Merridel noticed Thoma by the keg in the corner, gesturing with one hand as he lectured nonstop, clearly trying to convince Venkat of something.
“He’s sidestepping proper channels!” Julia exclaimed.
“Definitely out of bounds,” Merridel muttered. “I’ll go tell Venkat that Winter Gardening’s back.”
She’d barely stepped into the room when the main door opened and Dale, Yallow and a red-haired boy stepped in. Their faces were set in tense frowns and at first Merridel thought there’d been an accident. But Yallow pulled a small notebook from her pocket—Merridel recognized her own work—and in a hog-calling voice announced, “We would like to address the honorable Guild members, their respected guests—”
“What’s this all about??” Thoma rushed over, his hand raised to grab Yallow’s shoulder.
“As Mayor,” Julia’s voice cut through the surprised babble, “I am minded to hear her out.”
Thoma turned in shock, took a deep breath, then pursed his lips. His eyebrows nearly met over his nose; his frown would’ve won Old Granny status at any fair.
With a panicky glance, Yallow continued, softer now that she had the group’s attention. “We respectfully ask the Guild to add two seats, for citizens between the ages of 16 and 19.”
“There’s a proper meeting for this!” Venkat protested.
“But you won’t put us on the agenda,” Dale countered. He visibly braced himself.
“And you’re making decisions that will affect us more than yourselves!” the redhead added.
And this morning I was worrying about things being too routine, Merridel thought.
“Actually, I believe a discussion like this should come to the General Counsel, where all citizens are represented,” Julia said.
“The youth aren’t,” Yallow retorted, then looked apologetic. Merridel was impressed—she’d thought her scribe was a shallow young thing. But apparently she was interested in town affairs. Maybe she had found the info for Dale?
“We’ll give you a half-hour at the next meeting, and take it from there, shall we?” Julia said smoothly, walking up to shake their hands. “I appreciate your alerting me to an issue I wasn’t aware of.”
She escorted them from the room, and immediately the chatter grew loud. Merridel heard “… nerve of them!” But also “… have a point. It’s their future…” Guild members apologized profusely to their guests, who looked both disapproving and smug. Always good to know another town has it worse.
She suddenly realized Thoma had left. She hurried to the front hall; Julia and Thoma were arguing—obviously Julia was trying to stop him from slapping an infraction on the young folk—breach of peace, or being young without a license. Merridel bit her lip to keep from grinning. It really wasn’t funny…
“Machines lead to destruction!” Thoma was saying.
“Only if they’re used badly,” Merridel interjected, walking over. “They’re just sophisticated tools.”
“No—they do something to the mind,” he argued, gesturing furiously. “Once you have a capability beyond human abilities, you cannot help but use it.” He faced them. “Did you know they used to take hearts out of bodies and put others in? My grandfather told me.”
“Divine spare us! That’s impossible! Why??” Julia exclaimed.
“It was possible then,” he told her. “And why? Because they wanted to live forever, and they found out that stealing someone else’s heart gave them a few more years. I heard rumors—not that I believe this—but some people were trying to turn themselves into machines, or put themselves in a machine, thinking that they’d never die.”
Merridel shook her head—she’d seen some very old magazines, with horrible pictures, but it still seemed impossible. She’d assumed those were the famous horror stories the Oil Culture enjoyed.
“And people walked around with metal hips, knees, or whole legs made of machines,” Thoma continued.
“But in any case, Dale had no intention of anything—” Merridel protested.
“It’s a slippery slope! The reason we instituted sustainable labor was to avoid being helpless without machines. And now they want to overturn our well-thought-out rules!”
“All we know is that they want to be part of the discussion,” Julia said. There were spots of red on her cheeks; Merridel knew she was close to saying something she might regret.
But Thoma was oblivious. “Besides, it disrespects the divine complexity of Gaia,” he continued. “In order to have machines you have to have square-cut mind.”
“Square-cut…?” Merridel was puzzled.
Thoma gestured impatiently. “In order for machines to work, they had to cut things to the same size; they had to toss and waste anything that didn’t fit—and that included humans!”
“But without some standardization, things like Morse code wouldn’t be available, and surely you don’t think that—” With a sinking heart, Merridel realized Thoma did think that was too much.
“People should just tell each other—dots and dashes take the life out of the message,” Thoma muttered.
“Without telegraph, we’d have no warning of bad weather,” Merridel argued. “That storm warning last Fall saved lives, and we got a lot of the oats more securely stowed.” Something crystallized in Merridel’s thoughts. “Thoma, you’re trying to avoid making mistakes.”
“Of course I am!” he said scornfully.
“But that’s not possible. ‘To err on the side of caution’ is still to err. And Gaia’s plan is dynamic —what was right today isn’t always right tomorrow. So our rules have to shift as things change.”
The door opened and Venkat stuck his head out. “The formal presentation is starting,” he said apologetically and ducked back in.
“I need to be there,” Julia said. “This discussion will wait.” She glared at Thoma, then left.
Merridel faced the Marshal. “I researched today—Dale was correct, and you’ve abused your power. You should’ve asked me to check the details.”
His face flushed. “You’d have been on her side,” he said bitterly.
“Side? Taking sides? You can’t keep the peace with such a warlike attitude.”
“You’ve seen the photos of the ruined cities! You of all people, Merridel, have seen the images of destruction. Why would you risk another disaster like that?”
No one wanted that, of course, but it was like being terrified of rainstorms because someone had been hit by lightning. And Denio’s hiding the reeds was like a child avoiding Mother’s eye… what had gotten into folks?? Something was seriously skewed. Something Thoma had just said niggled at her—when you have capacity beyond human abilities you can’t help but use it. That was true of authority as well.
“Thoma, you can’t unilaterally change the rules we’ve set. You have a choice—rescind Dale’s punishment or I file a complaint. But perhaps you’re correct, and it’s time for another Revision.”
His face lit up. “Do you… mean that? Julia thinks—”
“I’m a citizen; I have my own opinions. It looks like enough has changed that all of us need to discuss this, not just a committee.” And there’s no guarantee your opinion will win, she added silently.
“I look forward to your lending your voice to the motion.” He paused, then added, “I’ll reverse Dale’s infraction tomorrow.” To her relief, he left by the front door.
Merridel paused with her hand on the chamber doorhandle. No, she couldn’t face the rest of that—she needed quiet and solitude. Julia would understand.
That evening, as they were sitting on the back porch with glasses of berry wine, picking out constellations, Merridel told Julia about the infraction.
“So Dale wasn’t at fault at all?” By the flickering oil lamp, she saw the relief and triumph in her partner’s face—this was why Julia had wanted her as Witness.
“No—Thoma was overreacting because he’s worried about all the new devices. Too much too fast.”
“That’s why I said we needed the committee,” Julia said, then put her hand over her mouth.
“I understand—that’s Council business. But like you said tonight, about a bigger forum being needed… I think it’s time for, well—for a Revision.”
Julia almost spilled her wine. “You don’t know what you’re asking!! It could overthrow everything!”
Merridel patted her hand. “I do know what I’m asking—I’ve read the transcript of the last Revision. But I’m seeing the cracks already—love, you can’t hold back change when it’s ripe, anymore than you can stop a bulb from pushing up through the soil in spring. Like I told Thoma, you can’t avoid mistakes, you can only make your best choice and accept the consequences. And who knows? You could go down in history as the wise leader who led us to the next phase of recovery.”
Julia was silent for a long time, and Merridel braced herself.
“Well, maybe Thoma has a point,” Julia said. “Maybe one of our criteria for judging would be how much waste something created—it’s not efficiency if it doesn’t use resources well. But if it does, and it saves some labor—”
“Saving labor in one area frees us to do something else that might be just as important. There must be a balance between extremes, and if we’re careful, we can find it.”
“At least we don’t have the temptations of the Oil Culture—those days are gone forever.”
“And we aren’t foolish enough to think that Divine resources are ‘free’, and therefore valueless,” Merridel said. “And if we stay small enough to know each other, we’ll realize that everything comes from somebody’s labor, and therefore we won’t disregard it. I hope.”
Julia smiled at Merridel. “That’s one thing I love you for—you have a wonderful way of putting things together.”
Merridel was surprised. “You’re the one who’s logical and good detail,” she protested.
“But you have… what did they call it? Intuition. You’re good at putting things together differently. I’ve always been impressed with that.”
Putting things together differently? Merridel was amused and pleased. And it certainly looked like this next year would be far more interesting than she’d imagined. Change and stasis, like breathing in and out. A process Gaia had created, that they needed to honor. She savored the wine and watched the ancient, ageless stars, feeling the wind’s breath on her cheek.