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But when Tadworthy finds out the Shepherds' shocking and closely-guarded secret, he discovers that beneath the surface of his peaceful community is a world of ...
But when Tadworthy finds out the Shepherds' shocking and closely-guarded secret, he discovers that beneath the surface of his peaceful community is a world of violence and intrigue. He is launched on a dangerous quest through a labyrinth of underground passages to discover that the mysterious Third Seal is an airlock to the closely guarded secret of the hidden learning of the past.
And his ideal society will never be the same again.
I have at last accepted that none of the others have survived. I am alone! No one will ever read this, but I still intend to leave a careful record of the dreadful events that culminated in the loss of our world.
The carefree flock I tend cannot comprehend my bitterness, loneliness and despair. How could they? Despite all my efforts to re-educate them, they remain pleasant, charming and childlike, filling in their golden hours playing. They have no memories of their past, and are as incurious about their future as any cattle bred for eating. And it is all my fault!
The destruction of our society can really be dated from the night my grandmother, Mrs. Agatha Tadworthy the Third, won the most sought after and envied television quiz prize of the year; six beautiful weeks of responsible and prestigious work in the Social Register Centre.
"What a terrific gift--and Ma must be seventy if she's a day," Dad exulted. "Wish it was me."
"Maybe she'll decide she's too old and share it with us," Mum said wistfully over her spinning wheel.
I remained silent. The last time I had worked was for a measly twelve hours when the creek embankment had flooded, and that was only because I was there when it happened. I glared at grandmother's face on the screen, broad, powerful and high coloured with triumph. Why her?
Grandmother had lived through the chaotic era of the final Biological War when there had been full employment. Of course, the way she told it, we were supposed to be much better off in these days of full time leisure.
"You're all spoilt," she had snorted. "In my day, we were lucky to get a few hours to ourselves, and you kids have the lot! Ourlife is one glorious long weekend."
There was no reason for me to resent my grandmother. I was her favourite, and she loved me. I have her blue eyes and curly hair, although my locks are an improbable yellow and hers are bleached lighter with age. I also inherited her sturdy build and square face, while the rest of the family had the slender, small-boned bodies and delicate features set in oval faces that made the people in our community look so identical.
However, Grandmother showed her love by perpetually meddling. She didn't approve of the way I was educated, or raised to defer to authority and co-operate with everyone. Even my pot-holing and surfing came under her disapproval. She dosed me with archaic and foul tasting medicines if I was off colour, and sent me flying with a swing of her beefy arm when my meekness irritated her too much.
Life would have been easier if Grandmother was like the other olds, dreaming out their declining years in the soothing haze of pipe fumes, or even gathered in detached groups experimenting with the hallucinogenic drugs barred the under fifties. I mean, everyone had spare olds lurking around the family domes, but they pottered quietly and inoffensively. Grandmother was neither quiet nor inoffensive, nor did she potter.
She tramped ruthlessly through life like an autocrat; a despotic, overbearing, insensitive tyrant. She was a real live throwback to the barbaric times before the original holocaust.
"The meek don't really inherit the earth, nor do the gutless, or the weaklings," she had jeered. "If you want something, you stand up and fight for it."
It was significant that Mum was never called Mrs. Tadworthy the Fourth. Two Mrs. Tadworthys under the same dome would have been too much. Mum always went by the name of Mary Taddo. Dad was the one man who hadn't married a replica of his mother. I guess you didn't need more than one Agatha Tadworthy in your life.
But the lesson our society had learned very well was that the meek and humble had inherited the earth. Aggression was dangerous. It had been proved again and again through the Sequential Wars, when nuclear holocausts had almost wiped the planet clean of existing civilizations; and later during the Biological Wars, when chemical warfare had exterminated most of the animal and insect life, as well as some of the surviving humans. Our ideal society had evolved policies of co-operation and tolerance to cope with problems. We all lived in harmony with our neighbours and in natural balance with our environment.
Except Grandmother, and now she had won the reward of six glorious weeks of real work. Of course, she did know more about computers and the old systems concerning them than anyone else in the community, but that didn't make it right!
"James!" Dad said insistently.
I blinked. Sellyane had slowed down her pedalling, and the darkening face on the screen danced and flickered into snow before vanishing into blankness. I stared at my father without comprehension.
"Do you want some hot chocolate for supper?" he asked. "And a slice of my strawberry shortcake?"
I shook myself, shifting the focus of my thoughts from the injustice of life to supper in one micro-second.
"An excellent suggestion," I agreed. "Make that two slices of your strawberry shortcake."
Looking back, I realise that death and destruction are determined by the unpredictable influence of timing. It was my sudden irritation with, and envy of, Grandmother that had made me decide to visit my closest friend Ellnell that next morning.
Had I visited even one day later, all evidence of the horrifying reality underlying our complacent ideal society would have been removed, and our eventless lives would have flowed on placidly, with never a ripple to warn of the ugly depths below.