Malachi wanted to be alone to think and the Barn had seemed the best place. All the same, he wished he'd chosen somewhere else.
For one thing, going into the Barn without permission was strictly forbidden. It was just one of many often arbitrary rules, but, if the Sheriff found out, Malachi would be flogged for disobedience. The Uppers, as he knew only too well, believed that only severe physical discipline could control the lower Ranked Villagers. It was also extremely uncomfortable perching on that narrow ledge. To get up there (and no-one in the Village except Malachi was agile enough to do so) you had to stand on the cattle trough, grab onto the beam directly above your head and haul yourself up. But, once up there, you had the only real privacy in the entire Village.
Malachi peered through a crack in the Barn's roof, gazing at the fluffy white clouds in the sky above him and letting his mind drift far away from the Village and its rigid hierarchy, a system which meant that who your ancestors were had a big impact on how you were treated. The Villagers were divided into four Ranks - Uppers, Middlings, Lowlies and Outcasts - and it was impossible for anyone to switch to another. If you were born, say, a Middling, you stayed a Middling, you married a Middling and all your children were Middlings too.
Houses in the Village were, of course, segregated. The Uppers lived on the south side, in the comparitive luxury of two-storey housing, while the Middlings were housed to the west. Both the Lowlies and the Outcasts had their homes to the east, the side nearest the fields bordering the Village. To the north stood the small Church, a stone building with its bell housed in a tower reached via a wooden ladder; the Punishment House was next to it. The Barn, plus several smokehouses and silos provided storage for the Village's food supply. Finally, in the centre of the Village, there was a School which only Upper children could attend.
Malachi himself was a thirteen-year-old Lowly with black hair cut into a short bob and deep brown eyes. He was good-looking by anyone's standards, lithe and with fine, even features on a slightly rounded face. But there was something enigmatic about him, something that made other Villagers wary of him. Indeed, many of them said he had a way of looking at them as if he knew their deepest secrets, which wasn't quite true. In fact, Malachi had a few secrets of his own and he had come into the Barn in order to think them over.
"Malachi!" It was Simeon's voice. "Get out of there or I'll report you!"
On hearing the shout, Malachi scrambled down off his perch and hurried outside. Simeon's threats were not something to be taken lightly. He was an Upper and, as such had the right to report any Middling, Lowly or Outcast he saw breaking the rules. No-one outside his own Rank liked him (they even called him Sneaky Simeon behind his back) but Malachi positively hated him - and the feeling was mutual.
"Listen," Simeon said as Malachi brushed hay off his grey tunic, "it's time for Church and, if you don't want to get in any trouble, you'd best head there at once."
It was only then that Malachi's mind registered the tolling of the Church bell. Today was Sunday and everyone in the Village had to attend the mid-afternoon service. As Simeon hurried off in the direction of the Church, Malachi silently cursed himself for losing track of time, knowing that he would be in serious trouble if he turned up late. His only hope was that Simeon might not tell on him . . .
As Malachi ran across the Village, he saw a girl named Roxane hurrying across from the Lowlies' quarters, her white apron flapping. She was ten years old, with long flaxen hair and blue eyes, and she and Malachi had been friends for several years. "Sorry, I dozed off," she said as she drew level with Malachi. "Am I late?"
"We should just about have time," replied Malachi, watching as Simeon disappeared into the Church. But, as he and Roxane drew nearer, they could clearly hear the first hymn being sung.
The two children tried to be casual as they passed Joshua, the crotchety old Church warden. But little escaped his notice. "You're both late!" he snarled at them. "And, you!" He shot an accusing finger at Malachi. "What were you doing in the Barn?! See the Sheriff later for your punishment!" Malachi's heart sank; Simeon had told after all and he would be flogged not only for lateness but disobedience as well. As the hymn ended, he and Roxane entered the Church and quietly sat down in one of the pews near the back with the other Lowlies.
The Sheriff, standing at his lectern, glared in anger as they entered. "I see two of the Lowlies are late," he observed. "Of course, I expect it of them. They have always lacked courtesy and something else . . ." He paused for dramatic effect. "Do you know what that is?"
"Subservience!" chorused the people in unison. Every Sunday, the Sheriff found an excuse to ask this question. And the weekly sermon always followed hot on its heels.
"It was a lack of subservience which angered God!" the Sheriff shouted, his pale grey eyes narrowing with righteous anger. "When He made the world, He created Man. Some were born to rule and others to be ruled. In the days of the Old Ancients, everyone knew their place - there was no wishywashy talk of all people being "equal" - and they were content! For they knew that God had ordained where they stood in society! But what happened?!" He pounded the lectern with his fist. "You all know the answer! I tell you every week!"
"One day, the Lowlies rebelled and turned on the Uppers, demanding privileges their Rank did not allow them! And some Uppers, forgetting their own duties, supported them and began to give them control over their own lives, control which God had specifically denied them. This made the Lowlies more and more arrogant - they wanted more and more authority, more and more access to things that should have been the preserve of the Uppers!"
And what about the Middlings? Well, as Superiors to the Lowlies, they should have helped the Uppers bring the rebels into line. But they didn't! Instead, they started saying: "We've been treated nearly as badly by the Uppers - maybe we should help the Lowlies" . . ." The Sheriff paused at this point to gaze balefully round at the three-hundred or so men, women and children who made up the congregation.
"That was just the start," he continued. "Gradually, the Ancients began to treat Lowlies, and even Outcasts, with charity - charity which they did not deserve! At least they had the sense to understand that they must only be allowed to marry within their own Ranks and saw to it that they did, but there were some against even that! So God's Order of Society broke down and respect for authority died. And, when He saw that people were actively disobeying His Laws, God grew angry and sent the Obliteration to show them the error of their ways!"
"First came the blinding flashes, which destroyed the eyes of all who looked on them! Then, whole cities and everything in them were turned to ash as a great storm of fire raged all over the world, destroying everything in its path! Finally, the sun was obscured by black clouds and Poison Rain began to fall, causing those who had survived the Obliteration itself to suffer an agonising death! Thus, by disobeying God's Laws, the Ancients had sealed their fate."
"Only our ancestors, hidden deep in the Bunker beneath this Church, were left alive. In His mercy, God agreed to spare them, but only on condition that they revived the old Ranks and accepted them without question. And, even now, five centuries later, you must still accept your place in society for it was God who put you there and you may not challenge His will!"
"When the anger of God lessened and it was safe to emerge from the Bunker, our ancestors saw the terrible devastation around them. They saw the ruins of the Ancients' cities, the land made barren by the Poison Rain, the skeletons of those who perished! And they were frightened! For they knew that, but for their acceptance of God's Laws, they would have met the same fate!"
"Slowly, God brought the land back to life and the Village began to thrive. But He also decreed that, if people ever so much as tried to rebuild the world where there was no subservience to one's Superiors, He would send another Obliteration and destroy the whole world!"
Malachi wasn't listening to a word of this; every Sunday of his life had been spent hearing the Sheriff ranting on about God's Order of Society and how, if the Village was to thrive, the people must remember their place. Another hymn followed, one taken from ancient hymnbooks passed down through Upper families, and then it was time to go down to the Bunker.
Visiting the Bunker was part of the weekly ritual, a chance for the Sheriff to remind the Villagers of God's mercy. As soon as the hymn was finished, the Sheriff stepped towards a nondescript pale green door in the wall behind him and drew back its heavy bolt. Then, taking a lantern passed to him by one of the Upper women, he stepped into the passage beyond. The rest of the people filed behind him in order of Rank.
The Sheriff led the Villagers down a long metal staircase, their footsteps echoing with every step as they descended deep underground. They passed sleeping quarters, a communal dining area, medical facilities and storage areas before they finally arrived at their destination and the Sheriff called on them to halt. He held his lantern above his head, shining it round the room so that the people could see for themselves the place where their ancestors had survived.
As a Lowly, Malachi ended up stuck near the back of the throng, unable to see over the heads of the people in front of him. But, had he been able to find a better vantage point, he would have seen the Sheriff standing by a huge wallmap of what had once been the United States of America, the location of the Village marked by a large red dot. Smaller dots marked the locations of other Bunkers, but it was commonly believed that there were no survivors from any of them - at least not nearby. The Village was located in what the Ancients had known as the State of Colorado and, as far as its inhabitants were concerned, they were the only human beings living there. Not that anyone would have dared to so much as hint otherwise; the Sheriff and the Uppers held too much power.
Below this map stood a broken down Computer, the Computer which had held the files on all those who had been granted refuge in the Bunker. It had ceased functioning in the early 22nd century, about fifty years after the Obliteration, but rumour had it that it knew everything about the Villagers. The Sheriff knew this, of course, and he was quick to exploit it as a means of keeping people in line. He began to address the people, his voice echoing off the concrete walls.
"Look upon that which sees all and knows all!" he intoned. "Remember that God's eyes and ears are everywhere, as is the power of the Computer! Remember your Rank within the Village and accept it without question! Remember the conditions on which God spared our ancestors and be grateful!"
"We will be grateful," chorused the Villagers.
The Sheriff stepped away from the Computer, his hands clasped in a position of prayer. "Amen," he said, giving the signal to return to the surface. He and his family led the way, closely followed by the other Uppers, then the rest of the Villagers.
As the Lowlies set off up the long corridor, Malachi caught sight of his mother, Sofia, standing nearby. She caught his eye, nodded her head for relationship's sake and turned away. Her only son frightened her with his enigmatic ways; she could never explain it, but being around Malachi unnerved her. So she had as little as possible to do with him and only spoke to him if she had to.
Malachi knew Sofia disliked him because of the way he seemed so - he searched for the right word - odd. Had he been born with some physical deformity such as seven toes on each foot or one hand larger than the other, things might have been better. Since the Obliteration, many children had been born with something wrong with their bodies, although they seldom lived long and the few that did survive generally had very mild defects. But, when he was about three years old, he had started "hearing" the voices of some of the other Village children in his mind. This would not be accepted by the Uppers.
He had never told anyone; a strange sense of self-preservation told him, even at an early age, that he would only bring trouble on himself if he did. But he remained suspect, knowing things it was impossible to know. At first, it was trivial things such as knowing he was wanted by Katie, his eldest sister, even though she had not called him. Malachi had been almost six when he was heard saying the following words to Sofia during a Church service: "The 'Bliteration was a long time ago, Mommy. It can't happen again, can it? Why does that mean man keep talking about it?" He had been flogged for the offences of heresy, talking in Church and impudence, while Sofia received five strokes for failing to teach her young son better manners. The Sheriff had never forgiven him for it and had personally clamped down hard on Malachi ever since.
And then there was the incident which had happened just over two years later . . .
Roxane had wandered away from the Village and had been gone for nearly three hours before the Middling women responsible for keeping an eye on the small children realised she was missing. By nightfall, she had still not been found. Malachi had been out in the fields with the other Lowlies and some of the Middlings; they returned at dusk to find half the Uppers out searching for the five-year-old girl.
Malachi was helping his sister, Lilith, lay the table for supper when he suddenly "heard" Roxane calling his name. Before Lilith could stop him, he ran out of his family's cabin and sprinted across the Village, heading in the direction of the "cries". They seemed to be coming from the forest to the north, although he couldn't yet tell exactly where Roxane was.
In the forest, Malachi paused and tried to make contact with the little girl. He and the other children like him had already discovered that they could "talk" to each other with their thoughts, but this was the first sign that Roxane was telepathic as well. "Roxane?" he transmitted urgently. "Roxane, it's Malachi. Where are you?"
"In a ditch." Roxane was too young to go into details, but that didn't matter with telepathy; all Malachi had to do was focus on her transmissions and she would lead him to her.
Presently, he found her in a ditch, her face streaked with dirt and tears. "Hang on!" he called out loud, feeling her relief as his own. "I'll get you out!" He reached out to her and she grabbed his hand, allowing herself to be pulled up. She was trembling slightly, but, thanks to a pile of leaf litter in the ditch, she was not seriously hurt. The only injuries Malachi could see were a few cuts and bruises and those looked as though they would heal in a few days.
When the two children returned to the Village, they found several adults including Sofia waiting for them. Baffled by the shocked looks on their faces when they saw he had rescued Roxane, Malachi took a shot at saying: "She called me." They didn't believe him and took him straight to the Sheriff's house.
No-one could explain it. At first, some of the Uppers thought Malachi had taken the child and left her in the ditch before staging the "rescue"; otherwise, how had he known where to look? But, when it emerged that he had been in the fields all day, they were uneasy. The Sheriff had personally tried to beat the truth out of him, but that only made Malachi more determined to stick to his story that Roxane had "called" him. The confusion and uncertainty gave people another reason to fear him and rumours about Malachi having some sort of "evil" power still circulated.
Now, five years after that incident, Roxane and Malachi stood outside the Church, watching as everyone headed home. They, however, had to report to the Sheriff to be punished for their rule-breaking, so, instead of heading to the Lowlies' quarters, they made their way to where the Uppers lived.
Malachi hated venturing into the Uppers' quarters. Those of lower Ranks were allowed there only under the following circumstances: to serve in the home of an Upper family or to report any transgressions they had committed to the Sheriff. The latter invariably led to a beating and Malachi could feel his heart hammering with anticipation as he and Roxane walked towards the Sheriff's house.
Arriving outside the building (easily recognisible because it was the largest house in the Village) Malachi knocked hesitantly on the door. "Enter!" barked the Sheriff's voice from within.
Not daring to disobey, Malachi pushed open the door. The Sheriff was waiting for him, a long leather strap clasped tightly in his hand; evidently, Joshua had had a word with him after Church. Roxane trembled at the sight and slipped her hand into Malachi's as he transmitted a quick message to her mind, telling her that he would do the talking.
"Well?" the Sheriff demanded. "What is it?"
Malachi forced himself to speak evenly. "Sheriff, we both arrived late to Church today. In addition, I was caught out of bounds. I therefore ask you to correct us as you see fit." He bowed his head as he had been taught and waited for the Sheriff's words.
"Very well - follow me," was all the man said, as he turned to go with the two apprehensive youngsters trailing behind. The Sheriff led Malachi and Roxane to the small building next to the Church, the dreaded Punishment House. It was a dank and grim building which no-one went near if they could help it, but its interior was all too familiar to many. This, revealed as the Sheriff pushed open the door, consisted of a single barred window set high in the wall and a room that was completely bare except for a low wooden table in the middle. Malachi and Roxane looked at it and gulped, knowing what its purpose was.
Once they were inside, the Sheriff pulled a heavy bolt across the door to prevent either of the children from escaping. Then, he beckoned to Malachi, who squeezed Roxane's hand before stepping forward to face his punishment. "Malachi, assume the position!" the Sheriff ordered.
Malachi was only too aware of what was meant by the direction to "assume the position". Slowly, dreading each step, he walked towards the low table and bent over it so that his hands touched the floor and his body formed an arch. Then, he closed his eyes and waited . . . He heard the Sheriff walking towards him and knew the first blow would come at any moment.
Then, Malachi heard a swishing sound, followed by a resounding thwack as the strap the Sheriff was using landed across his back. He felt a hot searing pain but scarcely had time to cry out before a second blow followed, then a third, then a fourth . . . He tried to block his mind so that the other telepaths in the Village would not have to suffer this ordeal with him, but it wasn't easy. The pain was simply unbearable and, as the beating ended (after nine strokes) Malachi knew his back would be badly bruised for a few days.