From the vault…
The fire gathered them in from the night, shadows that mulled among the trees before detaching to drift toward the flames. They orbited at careful distances, where the gravitational pull of the heat and light balanced that of the darkness and its secrets. Shadow men, some women too, meeting in this place where they had met before, in the Bad Times. And they stayed at that careful distance, where they could believe their faces were hidden and they could lie to themselves that their voices were disguised. Here they came to speak Truth without being known, and briefly unburden themselves of that burden that was their pasts.
The fire crackled and leapt to the overhanging boughs, hunkered down and slithered along the ground, metaphors for the souls that gathered here at irregular intervals that was somehow known by all. Most came from the City; the sky to the south was lit again as it had been Before. Others simply came, from where no one knew, perhaps they themselves didn’t know. They might have been part of the collective cloud of souls that journeyed the surface of the old planet, neither they nor he able to stop and rest.
Kevan Smyth-Reeves was from the City. Like the others he had decided that an extra ration of grain was needed and, though it was late and the stalls were closed, he left Bungalow A42, North Argent Lane, Northwest Prefect convinced he would feed his hunger. Of their own accord, his steps led to back ways, dark passages among drainage lines and through the fences to the forest beyond. It was hunger he was assuaging, hunger fed in the light of the fire.
The shadows were still gathering, but one could not wait. Perhaps he had family waiting and didn’t want them to know, even though everyone knew and no one told. But he was in a hurry and stepped further into the light, not enough to be recognized, but enough to be seen. I killed a man, he said and told how that man had food. Hunger was understood by all. The evenings usually went this way, with the petty confessions, the ones understood and condoned by all, coming first.
The man disappeared from the light and another came forward to admit to rape, followed by a women who had sold herself for food and protection. Yes, yes, murmured the crowd, all very bad, let’s get on with it. And now there was the woman who sneaked among the camps, stealing the children and boiling them down for broth and tallow. And the shadows sucked in their collective breaths. Yes, this was bad, this was terrible. And the woman wept until the shadows forgave her and she backed away from the heat.
A cannibal next. The shadows murmured discontent. Yes we knew hunger. We know it still. But no, wait. The cannibal had food, a great store but he kept it for himself. And the shadows went tense. Yes, this was bad. He used the food to lure victims, and feasted on them later. He begged forgiveness, it was given, and he returned to them.
Thus the evening went on. Tales of rape and murder, pettiness and grandiose evil. The shadows listened to each with varying degrees of patience. They judged each crime and then handed down the same verdict–Forgiven–and the newly paroled returned to their fold. There was always at least one who confessed to causing the Disaster. The shadow jury always listened and pardoned. After all, someone had to have started it. Perhaps this was the one. Perhaps they all had a hand in it.
The rules of the fire kept them from recognizing the faces of their neighbors, or at least of admitting to it, but they kept count of the confessions and the evening became tense when only Kevan remained unconfessed. Voyeurism was not allowed. All must participate or die. And so Kevan shambled forward and began his confession. Louder, cried the shadows, and Kevan began again in a louder voice.
Kevan had led relief efforts at the beginning of the Bad Times and when there was no more relief to distribute he had traveled the land giving help when he could. He was hungry, yes, but always found food for others first. He had meet defenseless women and protected them and did not touch them. He was one of the elite that led his people into the Present, and currently served as Distribution Manager and saw that everyone was treated fairly and equally.
The shadows murmured and circled in tighter. Your crimes, man, we must hear your crimes. What do you regret? With tears in his voice, Kevan Smyth-Reeves admitted his greatest regret–that at the time of Lawlessness, when the fetters of civilization had been removed from all men and women, that he had acted honorably and held to the highest code of honor any man ever held to. And now that mankind had returned from the Darkness, now that laws again ruled the land, Kevan would never again have the opportunity to explore the black impulses hidden in his soul.
And the shadows gasped and argued among themselves. No. No, this cannot be. Some crimes are too great to be forgiven. And then the first stone was thrown. And then more until the Criminal was dead. Then the fired died down and the shadows returned to the outer darkness.