The Temple at Zelalie

The sign said NO ADMITTANCE EXCEPT FOR AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL, so I barged straight in. Well, I tried to, but the door was locked, and it took me a couple of minutes work with a jemmy to get in. I tried to work as quietly as I could, but you can't jemmy a stout door open quietly, and by the time I got in I was sure the guards were on their way.

Once inside, I looked around for somewhere I could hide in such a way that I could surprise them. I thought there'd probably only be two of them. I certainly hoped so. I'd worked myself up into a frenzy to be brave enough to come here at all, but I was beginning to feel a bit shaky.

It turned out there was only one of them, and he wasn't the brightest guard ever. He didn't even look in the obvious hiding place behind the door as he came in, and I had his throat in the crook of my elbow before he'd even seen me.

"Don't make a sound or try anything funny, and I'll let you breathe. One false move and I'll stop you breathing again."

"Okay. Thanks. Who the devil are you and what are you doing here?"

Well, that's not my idea of not making a sound, but he was talking very quietly and I didn't think anyone who'd not already heard me jemmying the door would have heard him.

He didn't talk much like a guard – at least, not the way I'd imagined a guard would talk. He didn't seem to think like a guard, either – at least, not the way I'd imagined a guard would think.

"I'm Maria. I've come from the village. If I'm not back in the village in a couple of hours, unhurt, they're going to tear this place down, stone by stone. They don't want to do that, they know a lot of people will get hurt and some might get killed, but they can do it if they have to. You know that. Do you understand?"

"Yes, I understand. Nobody's going to hurt you, and you'll be back in your village soon enough. Now can I have my neck back?"

"Okay."

I let him go. I'd played my only card. Either it would work or it wouldn't.

"Does anyone else know you're investigating a break-in?"

"No, but it doesn't matter. Your village friends couldn't tear this place down if they tried, but no-one's going to hurt you anyway, and you'll get home in plenty of time. Why did you come here? What do you want?"

"I've been sent to ask some questions."

"Go on then. Ask away."

"We want to know what this place is for. Why is it near our village? Why is it so different from the temples near the other villages? Why do we have to keep providing food for all of you, when none of you do any work at all? Why don't some of you come and help on the land?"

"You've been feeding us all your lives, and your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents did before you – and you don't know why? We do do work here, very important work."

"I still don't see why we should have to feed you. You don't do anything for us."

"Your ancestors have always fed us. They accepted that it was the way it had to be."

"Our parents still say we should feed you. But this is our time now, and we've agreed that we must at least question why."

"Fair enough. But you'll have to be ready to learn some very complicated stuff."

"I can do that. I've got one of the sharpest minds in the village – that's why I was trusted to be the one to come here."

And because I'm a tough nut who doesn't take no for an answer, and because I'm a girl who can out-fight most of the men, I thought, but I didn't mention that.

"It's not something anyone could learn in a couple of hours. You'll have to come again another day, and again, and again. If you're really sharp you'll maybe learn enough to understand what we do here in a couple of years."

"I've got to have something to tell them back in the village today, though."

"And I'll have some explaining to do to the rest of the people here, if you're going to be coming here again and again. The main thing you can tell your villagers is that we're friendly, not people to hate and fear. And that you'll be coming here regularly for science lessons."

I wondered what on Earth science lessons were, and why, if the gods were friendly, none of them had ever spoken to any of us before. But there were specific questions I needed answers to to take back.

"I've still got to explain to the village council why we have to keep feeding you. It's all very well to say you have important work to do and that you'll explain it to me eventually, but it's not important to the people in the village. They're fed up of feeding extra mouths."

"Believe me, it's very important to you, as much as it is to us."

"I don't see how."

"Without us doing what we do, everyone around here would get sick and die. At first it wouldn't be very bad. But after a while it would get very bad, and we – villagers as much as scientists – would all die out in just a generation or two."

That sounded very like what the gods had said in Obridan, but the villagers pulled down the temple there anyway, and nothing bad happened afterwards at all. Inside the temple, they found two very scared young guards, eight of the girls who'd gone missing from Obridan over the years, and the gods – who were just three very fat old men.

The 'just a generation or two' touch was clever, though. It was only a couple of years since they'd pulled down the temple in Obridan, but the gods there had promised instant retribution, and it hadn't happened. You could die worrying about something that wasn't supposed to happen for years.

But this temple was different. You could see the stones Obridan temple was made of. As far as anyone could see, this temple was all carved out of one piece of stone, and not some soft, easily carved stone, either. This god probably wasn't lying when he said we couldn't tear his place down if we tried. And he'd promised to explain to me what it was they were doing to keep us safe, and what the hazard that they were keeping us safe from was. Even if it was going to take a year or two to explain.

"Your temple is different from the temples in other places. Why aren't there temples like this one near any other villages?"

"Actually, there are labs very like this one in other places – but they're a very long way away, that's why you've never heard of them."

I felt I'd got enough to keep everyone happy for a while, given that I was going to be coming back to learn more, but there was plenty of time before people back in the village would start worrying about me. I'd begun to quite enjoy my chat with the god – he really seemed quite a decent sort, not a bit like the Obridan gods. Not that I'd ever seen the Obridan gods, but I'd heard what people said about them.

"You're not really a guard at all, are you? You're one of the gods, aren't you!"

"No, I'm not a god or a guard, and this isn't a temple. There are no guards, and no gods, here. But I think you'll have to have quite a few lessons before you can really understand what this place is, or who I am."

Thus began my regular attendances at the temple – I mean the laboratory. I still had to do my share of the work in the village, I didn't want to risk being accused of joining the gods in their parasitic existence. I didn't know how long the rest of the young adults in the village would accept my assurances without more detailed explanation, but if it was going to take me a year to learn enough to understand, how quickly would I be able to explain it to them? I didn't feel very confident.

I got to know the gods – scientists – very well, and came to understand why they didn't mix at all with the villagers. I felt very privileged to be allowed into their temple – I'd actually become one of the authorized personnel! There were seventeen of them, most of them my parents' age or thereabouts. Grimm, the god whom I'd first met, was the only one as young as me.

Grimm was a trainee, and he was the only one who regularly had enough free time to spend teaching me. We spent an hour and a half together every day. The first few days, he showed me all around the laboratory – that was a new word to me, and I'd no idea what it meant – and introduced me to everyone. I felt very uncomfortable meeting them, because they seemed very uncomfortable meeting me. They didn't shake my offered hand, and they seemed to try to avoid breathing in my presence. I felt as though they thought I was dirty – and later I learnt that that was exactly how they felt.

Grimm was different. He accepted me as I was, completely. He explained to me about hygiene and cleanliness – and how he understood perfectly that village hygiene was actually pretty good in a practical sense if not a cosmetic one, and that laboratory hygiene was often more apparent than actual. "And that's even in a laboratory like this, dedicated to keeping the environment clean."

I didn't understand what he meant by that. Even in the village we understood very well how dirty the environment was. Or we thought we did.

I learnt a great deal in the first few months, and Grimm was very pleased with me. But I felt as though I wasn't really learning what I wanted to know. None of what I was learning seemed to explain what all this interesting science was for, why it was so important to everyone, not just to the scientists. I was finding it increasingly difficult to persuade my peers in the village that I wasn't just fobbing them off, too.

Then one day when I arrived at the lab, I was met by Petra, the chief scientist, instead of Grimm. Petra was wearing a mask and gloves, even though she knew I always scrubbed myself very clean before coming. "Grimm's very ill," she said, "he won't be able to see you for a while. Please don't come for the next couple of weeks. After that, we'll see if he's fit enough to see you."

That made my life very difficult. I was sure Grimm really was very ill, and I hoped he would be all right, but my peers were sceptical. "Don't you see, they're just fobbing you off now. You wait, in two weeks' time they'll tell you he's still too ill to see you. Or they just won't open the door for you at all."

Luckily Rita backed me up. "We can wait two weeks. We'll see what really happens in two weeks' time."

I felt very nervous climbing the hill to the laboratory on the fourteenth day. The laboratory looked as forbidding as it had that first day, when I'd broken in – and this time I didn't have the adrenalin I'd worked up in the meeting when I'd been chosen to do the deed. I hoped against hope that Grimm would open the door to me.

But it was a stranger who opened the door. "You must be Maria," she said, "I've been looking forward to meeting you." And she offered me her hand – ungloved.

"How's Grimm?"

I had to know.

"I'm sorry. I think you'd become quite attached to Grimm, hadn't you? Come in, sit down."

I knew then how Grimm was. "No! He's not dead, is he?" My guts knotted up inside me and I felt physically sick.

"He died two days ago. I'm sorry."

I couldn't say anything for a while, and the stranger didn't say anything either, but she put her hand on my forearm and held it gently.

"He caught some village disease from me, didn't he! We've all got immunity to the ordinary village diseases, but he hadn't."

"No, it wasn't a village disease. We're immunized against all the village diseases. It was a leak down in the repository, a bigger one than anyone was ready for. They've contained it now, but Gretel and Fiana also got a big dose, and they are very ill as well. I don't know if we'll save them, but it's looking more hopeful by the day. Some of the others are ill too, but not in danger."

"Who are you, anyway?"

"My name's Margret. I've tranferred here from Imienda – but of course you've no idea where Imienda is."

Actually, I did have some idea where Imienda was – Grimm's lessons weren't confined to science, he'd been teaching me geography, too, amongst other things. But I'd no idea how anyone could possibly have come all the way from Imienda in just a few days, or how the people in Imienda had known about the leak so quickly.

"Just now, things are pretty hectic here, with so many ill, me being new on this site, and another temp who doesn't know the place either. We've got no-one spare to give you lessons for a few days. But if you come up here again in three or four days' time, I'll try and pick up where Grimm left off."

Margret was very good, but she wasn't Grimm. I missed Grimm.

Margret wanted to teach me. Grimm had helped me to learn. I could ask Grimm questions about anything, and he'd do his best to answer them. Margret planned what she wanted to teach me, and stuck to her plan.

It wasn't only his superior teaching skills I missed though. I missed Grimm himself. A lot.

I wanted to know how Margret and Bryn had come all the way from Imienda so quickly, and how they'd known so quickly that they were needed, but I couldn't even get through to her that I knew where Imienda was, and how far it was. But over the next few months I did learn a lot about geology, chemistry, energy and especially radioactivity, which was what she knew I needed to understand to explain to the village council why the laboratory was so important.

Finally, the village council met in the village square one evening almost a year after the meeting where I was delegated to break into the laboratory.

"This isn't going to be easy to explain. It's taken me a long time to learn enough to understand what the laboratory do, and why it's so important to us as well as to the scientists who work there."

The questions started straight away. "What's laboratory? What's scientists?"

"Sorry. The laboratory is what we've always called the temple, and the gods are really ordinary people, but they're scientists. It's taken me a long time to learn enough to understand what the scientists in the laboratory do, and why it's so important to us as well as to the scientists who work there."

"Partly that's a matter of trust. Hopefully you'll trust me in a way that you wouldn't have trusted one of them if they'd come down here a year ago and tried to say this in as few words as I'll have to use. Hopefully you'll trust me in a way that I didn't trust them when they explained things to me at first."

"Partly it's a matter of language. They talk the same language we do – more or less. But a lot of the words they use without thinking about them were quite unfamiliar to me a year ago, like scientist and laboratory. I'm afraid I might use them without thinking now, I've got so familiar with them. Stop me if I use words you don't understand."

For a while, someone or other was stopping me every few moments, but gradually I got used to avoiding words village people wouldn't understand, and gradually they got used to the kind of things I was telling them, and the questions stopped. I was losing my voice by the time I finished, over an hour later.

Well, I thought that was why the questions had stopped, but I was wrong. Most people had simply given up trying to follow.

But Rita had been making valiant efforts. "So what you're saying, Maria, is that long, long ago, there were a lot more people than there are now, and some – quite a lot – of them were very greedy, and wanted to eat far too much, and go everywhere much too fast, and keep themselves warm without having to wear many clothes, and do all kinds of pointless, wasteful things. And they made a lot of rubbish in the process, and one particular kind of rubbish that they made is terribly, terribly dangerous, and they just kept on making more and more and more of it without knowing what they could possibly do with it. I think you called it radioactive waste, is that right? Anyway, now we've got to live in a world with an incredible amount of that dangerous rubbish, and the job of the gods in the temple is to keep it from leaking out and killing us all. Have I got that right?"

"That's pretty much it, yes, Rita. Except that quite a lot of it has leaked out, and the health of everyone everywhere is affected by it to some extent. A lot of places are so bad no-one can live there at all any more. But there's far more of it that still hasn't leaked out, and the scientists are trying to minimize the leaks, rather than stop them altogether, which would be impossible."

Ricardo wasn't convinced. "Well, it's a better story than the story the gods in Obridan had, I'll give you that, but it's basically the same story."

Rita came to my rescue again.

"The big, big difference, Mr Ricardo, is that it's our Maria who's told you the story, not some fat, lazy, lying Obridan god."

"They've bought 'our' Maria, that's all that means."

Now it was my turn to get angry.

"No-one's bought me. Yes, I regard those scientists as my friends now. I know how damn hard they work for us all. I can't say I understand everything they do exactly, but I understand enough to know how important it is, and how hard they work. I'm sorry I can't explain it all to you in an hour. Yes, they're my friends. Two of my friends died working to keep you and me safe, Mr Ricardo, and another one nearly died and will be sickly for the rest of her life. See my belly? My baby's due any time now. My baby's father died working to keep you and me safe, Mr Ricardo, and you'd better remember that."

I still miss Grimm a great deal. But Rita's always there for me, helping me to raise little Grimm. He's a great kid, with a sharp mind like his dad had, and gentle like him too. Everyone in the village loves him. He's even melted Ricardo's heart.

What kind of world will little Grimm inherit? That's anyone's guess, now that Imienda's been ransacked. We've still got a team of scientists here in Zelalie, but with no training school in Imienda and the big workshops there gone, it's only a matter of time.

I asked Margret about setting up a training school here, but she says that for one thing there's too big a gap between what we learn in the school in the village and what scientists need to be able to do, and for another they don't have the equipment a training school needs. She says that long ago there used to be several training schools in different places around the world, but that Imienda was the last one.

If you enjoyed this story, The Land of the Midwinter Sun is in the same genre. What genre is it? It’s SF – in the sense that it’s far future, but without spaceflight or any advanced science or technology; it’s post-apocalyptic, but so far in the future that people don’t know it is; and it’s not really dystopian. You might also enjoy my full length novel, Exile, also in this genre.