The vanquished are the first to learn what history holds in store. ~Heinrich Mann

~ ... ~

Gibson looked across the ditch where the moat would be, took an old cloth from his pocket and wiped mortar-dust from his hands, then a glaze of sweat from his brow. He started slowly towards the mounds of rock and gravel that still needed to be carted away. He watched as his men and some of their own hirelings, sighting his approach, turned away from their warming fire. They scarfed down the last morsels of their lunch, they hastened then through a last drink. Gibson quickly made his way down from the base of the outer wall, scampering down the grassy hillside, and was soon standing in the middle of the work camp as one of the foreman came to meet him. The younger man, Simon, was ill-dressed for the weather, which was turning cold. His face too was smudged with dirt and the fine grey dust of mortar mix. He looked ready to drop with fatigue but Gibson cut him off before he could utter a word.

"Get all the men to come in from the sites, Simon. I'd like some words with them."

He stood looking into the fire as word was sent throughout the camp, to the woods nearby, down to the river and through all the workshops and tents that encircled this side of the hill. He heard the banter of the men as they came trundling down the main road from the gatehouse. They emerged from the make-shift shelters with tools still in hand, cursing the wind. They wandered up from the forest's edge carrying axes, ropes and other gear. Gibson stood before the fire, as it whirled and crackled in the wind. Finally, close to sixty men stood chattering quietly before him. A few were children, others decades his elder. Some were glowing with health and the brisk air, others looked run-down and spent. He raised his voice, stern, level and loud.

"Thank you for coming. I know you are all very busy, but it has been some months since we have met all together and I will shortly be asked to report on our progress. The days are shortening and summer has left us I fear, so it seemed the proper time for us to discuss the work."

Many of the men looked down at their feet, some up to the sky at this point. A few of the older ones wore pained looks. The younger ones, many newly hired, just drew closer.

"I will come quickly to my point, men, for surely many of you know that time is running away from us. The work that we've been brought under employ to accomplish goes unfinished. While we have put in place a strong foundation, I must report that much remains to be done. The plans which our patron has for this estate, as well as for us as a community, will be very much in jeopardy if winter arrives early. Simply put, we need to hurry."

This last admonition brought some discord to the assembly. Simon, the foreman, silent to this point stepped forward.

"We still have three months, I'd say, before we see any real snow, sir. And wasn't it us working so fast earlier in the summer that got Donald's leg crushed and put Mr. Lemieux in the ground?"

Gibson could see many of the men nodding at these reminders. He could see their collective frustration and their shared exhaustion.

"Let me assure you, I am acutely aware of how hard you have all been working and the difficulties we have had. It seems to me at times we have in fact run completely out of supplies to work with or the means to do anything with them even if they were on hand. Wood, stone, mortar, rope, tools and just the right workers to use them - we've been deprived of all these elements at one point or another. None of you are at fault here. I am the one ultimately responsible for the state of our works to date. In truth, I am deeply proud of the impossibilities we have accomplished so far. But I am also very worried, about all of you, your families, and the winter that now approaches."

"So what're we going to do then?" asked an older man, Jarvis, standing near the front. He asked this quietly and several further back near the tents called for quiet or for him to speak up.

"We have options, which I will present to our employer, though I can say to you I am not fond of any of them. We could, for the time being, abandon the dig and leave the moat until springtime. Or we could try to raise more hands, try to find more willing to work, although I think this a risk this late in the year and it will only mean more mouths to feed. Or, as a last resort, we could ask the women to work beside us."

Men now were rubbing their eyes, or shaking their heads.

"Either way the gatehouse, the bridge and the outer wall are non-negotiable. As Simon has said, we have three months before the snow begins to fall. After this, I think we will all be unduly exposed should these not be completed. We owe our patron and the family, as well as you and yours, some assurance that come winter we'll all be inside the walls. This was as we planned, as we all agreed."

"Then for God's sake Gibson, we need more stone." One of the masons yelling across the chatter and grumbling of the crowd.

"As I said at the beginning, I will report on our progress and we will gauge what more resources we can muster. I understand your anxiety, all of you. But please consider some of the other options I have put before you tonight, talk amongst yourselves how best you believe we can reorganize. I make no pretence to having an ideal solution, you are all skilled builders and workers, you all know what these measures would entail. We will talk again in the morning. Thank you, each of you, for your patience."

Gibson's hands were trembling as he turned his back to the crowd, now all talking and debating, swearing and sighing at once. The foreman Simon took his side, put his hand on his shoulder.

"There'll be no more work today, then. But tomorrow, they'll have an answer for you, you know? I can warn you of that right now."

"Hopefully, after talking to her Ladyship tonight, maybe I'll have access to one or two of my own. But every word I said was true Simon. The work on the walls cannot linger. I do not want all these folks toiling with stone and lime into November. By then we should devoting as much energy as we can to putting down food for winter. Sooner or later, our little refuge will begin to look quite inviting to the locals. I should like us on the warm side of four feet of stone long before it comes to that."

The two of men looked to the ridges of smoke - hearths and campfires - rising in the distance from the nearest town. Down the hillside, in through the forest, it was no more than half-a-day's march. The workers of the estate spent half their energies, hours and hands, going to and fro, buying, bartering, salvaging food and other stock from the local countryside. This was the other reason the defensive works had been delayed. It wasn't just they lacked materials, it was more and more of their collective effort was spent keeping them simply fed. After talking a bit more on this, Simon felt it would be wise to gauge the spirit of the men and the tenor of their deliberations. This he went off to do.

Gibson returned to his tent to wash, rest and dress for his audience this evening. He even began practicing his report in his mind, reciting the pressing figures and proposals to himself, stressing the urgency, emphasizing certain options. And finally while he lay there, eyes closed, a picture in his mind of the whole estate, the surrounding encampments and the quarry, the riverbed and the timber mill spread out before them. He could see how close they were to nearing some completion, he could see all the men, women and children going about their works. He could even imagine the moment they all began to lay down their work, pack their tools, gear and tents and finally begin the slow migration up the hillside, through the gates and inside the walls and relative comfort of the enclosed estate. And it was in this state, at first preparing and then imagining, that Edward Gibson for the first time in a great many months since his life and world had vanished, found himself quite suddenly praying.

~ ... ~

Excerpt from manuscript correspondence (artisan paper letter, heavy cotton fibre) in the hand of Ms. Kate Williamson of Sudbury to Andrea Jarvis of Bathurst, sent by courier over land, late summer, 2019 / first page missing:

... came back from Sarnia, where she'd been checking up on her mother and she wrote me just afterwards. This gave me the idea to write in turn to you and others, to see how you had fared. She went on at some length about the state of things there and where I gather the federal government had established some sort of encampment and pavilion.

Now her mother was fine, mercifully, as the retirement home had some apparently masterful emergency planning process put in place and all sorts of contingencies worked out - round-the-clock staff, good security, very well provisioned. What struck her though, what most of her letter relayed was how terribly chaotic things were beyond that little compound. It sounded awful. It very much seemed, for example, that the government centre had been all-but-overrun with people trying desperately and quite unsuccessfully to get across the border. She said in particular the poor, they all seemed to be trying to head south. Some people had dragged their whole families into the queues looking to cross over and make their way who knows where. You can probably image the insanity. This was a bit like Y2K back in the 90s, or swine flu in '08, or the global bank runs just a couple of years back ... all rolled in one.

The other thing that really put her on edge, even from a distance because Sue said she didn't actually get inside the perimeter, were the guns. All the big government agencies were there, quite visibly armed. I mean RCMP, Border Services, the Army is one thing, but even the Public Security guys and the Emergency Response, Immigration and Passport folks were brandishing very serious weaponry. So the general confusion and panic, along with the martial aspect, it was deeply disturbing it would seem. Adding to this whole intense atmosphere was total frustration, I gather, because the agents were working very slowly, making lists and creating files but in the end turning so many people away and were providing little or nothing in the way of information or assurances. Now this was this was early days, mind you, maybe two weeks after everything went dead. But even then I guess the standard official response to almost every question was basically - Stay calm. Assistance is coming. Relief is being delivered to the major urban centres on a priority basis first. Help is coming. That was almost three months ago now.

As for word from the rest of the world, I'm afraid all I have little concrete to relay. Though I've written a great many letters, as I explained it took what seemed like forever to contact a courier outfit still able to give me even a half-hearted assurance of actual delivery. I understand this letter made most of its way to you by boat, of all means. I've had no response yet and I suppose this in one aspect of communication we shall all need to get used to again - that is the waiting. Instead of news then, beside the first experiences I've relayed, I have only a sea of unsubstantiated rumour, panicked speculation and unanswered questions. I almost hesitate to put some of it in writing, so tangential and unfounded is much of it, but one the off chance that we can even compare or corroborate any of what we're hearing we might be one tiny step closer to grasping at the edges of this world we never made...

~ ... ~

Gibson took a deep breath, folded up his papers and lay they on a side table to his right. He shifted back into the armchair and waited in silence for some reaction to his report. Behind her desk , the lady of the house was still in thought, taking down notes in a brown-leather bound journal. He noticed a row of perhaps a dozen identical notebooks on the upper shelf of a bookcase just behind her to the right. There were quite probably near five thousand books lining the walls of the estate library where they now sat. In the year Gibson had been in her employ, he had been summoned here upwards of twenty times, more often at the beginning of his tenure. He knew the collection had been a centrepiece of her family's legacy for five generations, going back to the establishment of the house and the estate which supported it. Once he'd been asked to meet with her so that she could review the arrangements they'd made to buy the quarry, a small local operation a few miles away, but some other business had detained her. So he had been left for more than an hour, alone, to walk the perimeter of the room and review its content. He'd ambled case by case, shelf by shelf, half in awe and envy.

"You said you were considering tasking some of the women, possibly even some of the children." Her voice had a disapproving tone and brought him immediately back to the substance of his report. Ms. Jarvis had set aside her writing and was now looking at him intently, her hands folded before her on the desktop.

"Yes. I am not at all fond of this, but the measure seems to me a necessary evil. We are three months from the onset of winter and I have two undertakings to complete which are non-negotiable. The first, it goes without saying, is the solid fortification of this estate and the peace of mind this should bring you and yours. That was the reason you at first took me on, it was the task and terms I agreed to, and I have every intention of honouring that agreement. The second and newer obligation, which frankly I did not anticipate but has come by your accord, is the housing of all our workers and their families through the winter."

"I take it by that last observance, Mr. Gibson, you do not approve of our offering shelter to our workers?"

"Far from it, ma'am. Under the circumstances, it strikes me as astonishingly generous. Certainly I can say it has made a miraculous difference for the families working here, has redoubled the efforts of all. You have made yourself something of a saint in our camps, you should know, in fact it may be this aspect of the commitment that worries me most and spurs me to hasten the effort in whatever way I can."

"By which you mean, what precisely." She now stood up from her chair, picked up her notebook and moved from behind the desk. There was another heavy, Edwardian armchair to Gibson's right and she promptly moved to it and sat down with a sigh.

"By which I mean these are nearly two-hundred good, honest but very desperate people Ms. Jarvis. I am going to speak rather bluntly now. I was hired originally to build you and your family a very sturdy and impressive wall to keep the world out. To give anyone with ill intentions a fair bit to think about before even approaching your gates. And I agreed to that - praying of course for good luck, the right weather, some decent men and proper materials. Most of all, it seemed achievable within the year. Even under the circumstances we find ourselves reduced to. But protecting and provisioning more than two hundred people through what is bound to be a detestable winter is a project I would never have envisioned."

He was wringing his hands and was shocked to look over at her, in the chair beside him, to find Ms. Jarvis very clearly grinning.

"Gibson, I remember why I hired you now. There were a fair number of other capable applicants, surely you recall that. Many younger, many with wider experience. But only you would characterize the wholesale collapse of civilization as 'the circumstances we find ourselves reduced to'. If it didn't know you as well as I do, or seen your work, I'd think maybe you were a monk before all this. Either that or my grandmother reborn."

Ms. Jarvis stood up from her chair and smoothed out her dress. She moved around her desk, looking out the bay window behind it and looked out into the courtyard behind the estate house.

"Go back to the men tomorrow and tell them to continue their fine work. By all means, encourage them to hurry as best they can. But leave the women and children to their other duties. Concentrate on the gatehouse and wall if you think this is prudent, but please do not be distraught. Things are progressing as they should and I believe we will be ready."

Gibson looked at his hands, worn-down and cracked. He knew the lines on his face looked much the same. Aged from worry, effort and uncertainty.

"Andrea, please. How can you possibly know that, given the state of things?"

"For the same reason I knew to hire you, Gibson. Because some of us saw this coming."

~ ... ~

Excerpted letter continued: ... I'll start with the theories and rumours of what has actually happened, as that seems the only logical place to begin even if very little of what I have heard makes much coherent sense. As you know, on the first of May 2019, at 4:11 pm EST, power outages were reported in almost every major urban area in North America. These were also accompanied by more localized, but still widespread, failure of nearly all electronic devices. This part I can report firsthand because I was on the Metro in Montreal, just exiting Peel Station downtown. We were plunged into darkness, no one could use their mobiles or tablets, and it was complete chaos as we made our way back to the platform and back up to the street. Web-reports, streaming news, satellite radio had all gone dark. Reaching the surface, it was immediately clear that it was not simply the electricity that had failed. Everywhere you turned the cars were dead in the streets. All our devices too - the handhelds and tablets, wearable and implants - just lifeless screens reflecting our confusion.

Over the next couple of days, the facts quickly became much more slippery. After I finally managed to track down friends in the city, the wild mix of second-hand news and speculation had already begun. I suppose this is now what we'd call news, but at the time I recall that it all sounded ridiculous. People claimed that far-flung, isolated radio operators and some rural networks were somehow still operating. The general consensus was that most of the North American power grid was off-line. This news was accompanied by a near-universal anger that there was no apparent word or movement from government in all this. Again, I was in Quebec, and most of the older folks I met had distant memories of earlier ice storms and blackouts. They were all seriously frustrated with the non-response but seemed sure aid would eventually arrive.

The tone and atmosphere began to seriously devolve I'd say about day five. By this time, enough of the population had run out of money and food that tension began to bleed into fear. Everything was still closed, so incidents of looting began. Without communications, the police could mount little in the way of response, and even where they did it was counter-productive. I was no longer keen to wait and simply wanted out of the city. I was very clearly not alone, as the flight impulse had struck a great many people. Caravans of people on bikes, with strollers, backpacks and such began to coalesce everywhere, all wanting to swap stories and find out where everyone else might be headed. Some to farms, some to the suburbs, the most distant, vaguely-known neighbour suddenly became a possible fellow traveller. This was the first time I think I thought about how different everything had suddenly become.

By the time I finally left Montreal, more than a week had passed. I eventually found myself on the sailboat of a friend-thrice-removed, gliding slowly westward. I secured passage as far as our supplies would take us, in exchange for a vow of compliance, my promised toil and the white-gold wedding band I wore. With the darkened towers of the city behind me, and the shadowy plumes of smoke rising from all over the outskirts, I can say this bargain did not bother me. It was also on the course of that trip, over the next two weeks as it would turn out, that I heard more not only about what had occurred, but everything else. The how, the who and the why. One of the others on the boat was a young assistant professor at McGill, a member of the Royal Society of Canada. He was an old high-school friend of the captain and he quite honestly never stopped theorizing about recent events the entire voyage. For this, we deemed him 'the Professor' and though it was good fun at the time, I took it rather seriously enough to write most of it down. Much of what he speculated about I have since seen borne out by events, or echoed in the news of others, but his was the most coherent explanation I have heard even now even if much of it is impossible to substantiate. Here is the gist.

First, he ruled out the impossible. What had happened was not an accident. No simple power outage or computer glitch could be responsible for so total a failure. It was not some kind of cascade effect, such as the cities of the eastern seaboard had experienced fifteen years ago or the one that had crippled much of Mexico in 2012. This implied it was, in some way, engineered. He also felt obliged to rule out any form of computer virus. Even with near-universal inter-connectivity these days, the sheer number of platforms and operating systems would have resulted in some resilience across systems and devices. I took this basically to mean not everything would have gone dead all at once had it been a bug, but I may have missed technical nuance. So not a simple blackout, or even series of power failures, or some kind of killer code.

At the same time, he also ruled out the idea that the failure (as that was how he generally came to refer to what had happened) as being totally universal. Here he indicated our own eyes as evidence, as we had observed both the contrails of jets and the lights of smaller aircraft in the night sky just in our first few days on the water. This alone, setting aside the rumour of remote radio stations still broadcasting, indicated that there were at minimum some areas where things were still working, if only in the short-term.

All this narrowed, in his mind, the possibilities. The clues at hand tended to point to some kind of coordinated effort, a series of indiscernible actions executed in the major urban centres around North America. In Canada, be pointed out, this would be fairly quick work since ninety percent of our population and infrastructure is clustered in six or seven dense pockets. Even in the United States, at ten times the total population, he believed the same catastrophic effect could be realized targeting fewer than thirty choke-points. Strategically placed, along the key choke-points for transmitting electricity and communications, disruptions or sabotage would plunge almost the entire continent into darkness.

As for who would have the capability to do this or why, at present and likely for the foreseeable future, this would be impossible to establish. Only governmental authorities would be in a position to attribute. Even the short list seemed rather long, and for every factor that argued a party's inclusion there was another that seemed to negate them as a realistic possibility. China, more than capable had too much investment in commerce as well as all those debt repayments to lose. New Korea, with an obvious axe to grind since the stalemate and reconciliation, was still in shambles. Iran, a long war belligerent, seemed still preoccupied with its own affairs. Russia, while resurgent was still a firm partner on the terror front. This seemed to largely exhaust the state-level actors, leaving only various cells, factions, resistance movements and guerrilla groups. Unless some new network or cause had emerged completely in secret, few of these realistically would have the capacity to carry off anything on this scale. For the sake of exhaustiveness, despite already having become somewhat exhausting by this point in the trip, Aaron even tried to make a case for some manner of corporate-engineered attack, but given North America's continued gravity as the world's preeminent consumer marketplace, even this fell down on most any rudimentary logical basis. Those being his words.

We were on our fifth evening out of Montreal, somewhere just past the Thousand Islands, when he floated his worst-case scenario. This was just following one of the more unpleasant episodes in our voyage, as we'd just drifted under the US-Canada span. This was the middle of night, moon and a million stars overhead, but what drew our attention and worries were the constellation of fires on both shores. People had massed on the north shore and the south. But the bridge itself loomed overhead lifeless. As if crossing was never what it was intended for? It was then suddenly in the dark that Aaron whispered that there was another possibility. Almost vanishingly remote, this had just now occurred to him but it was there and had to be acknowledged. It was that all this was somehow a 'natural event'. Some terrible solar storm, or some once in an aeon magnetic shift, maybe some low-threshold but intensely powerful comet contrail. In other words, something completely unforeseen. A global recalibration. A celestial event. Like an act of God.

The prow of the boat bobbed in the shadow of the concrete and steel bridge, a wash of stars drifting in the water around the hull. The only sound amid all that dead infrastructure being the occasional flutter of a bird lighting from one girder to another. And we all fell silent after, and just sailed on into the deepening darkness.

~ ... ~

Gibson had begun his work on the estate in early March with a crew of twenty. Every morning, just after dawn, the trucks would begin to arrive carrying more stone, ready-mixed mortar, loose gravel or sand. This material was stockpiled in a building site a few hundred yards west of the stables. They had mobile cranes and power-loaders, lifter suits and hydraulic winches. The weather was good and they worked steadily from early morning until dusk. All the men were specialists - two structural engineers from the new infrastructure projects in the Arctic, three master masons from Quebec City, six skilled loader drivers from the Alberta tar sands. While each had some background or experience in novel restoration at some point in their career, none had done anything like this from the ground up. Rebuilding crumbling buildings or restoring Victorian-era landmarks was one thing, but constructing a whole fortification in this day and age was like a childhood fantasy. They plunged into the work and progressed quickly.

Beginning at the northeast edge of the estate's compound, behind the greenhouse and windmill, they started first to dig a rectangular pit, five feet deep and ten feet across, leaving an inner yard approximately 150 feet along the inner wall to the nearest structure. This would be the foundation wall, which was then filled with concrete. Having enclosed the whole estate in this fashion, the perimeter wall itself was begun, twenty-five feet high and six feet thick. The outer and inner stones were interlocking blocks of granite, quarried nearby, a foot and half thick. The space between was filled with concrete.

In two months, they made enormous headway, given the four walls running around the estate each neared a half-kilometre in length. The entire north wall and half the eastern and western sides were completed, as they had agreed to work in a modular fashion with each 100-metre section its own discrete build. Piece by piece then, the storehouse, greenhouse, woodshed, stables, hen house, windmills, solar array and gardens had all been ensconced in the shadow of sturdy, well-laid stone. What remained now was the main house and gatehouse. At the pace they were setting, it would be perhaps another ten weeks work. Then May Day fell. Just as they were sitting down to a quick dinner, Gibson in fact congratulating them as he always did for a good day of work. The power flickered and died.

They reached for their various devices and found them inert. Someone went to see about the rest of the estate, but returned only to report it was in darkness. So too was the neighbouring countryside. Gibson was just then about to check on their employer at the main house when she appeared in the door. She apologized for the news she was about to deliver, but that it seemed they were fully in the dark despite all her preparations to go 'off the grid' if necessary. Her windmills were still turning, she noted, and her solar batteries charged, but for the moment all the systems of the estate appeared to be completely off-line. She seemed both embarrassed and troubled by this, but said she would inspect the entire network first thing in the morning. She wished all the men a good-night, even apologized for the inconvenience. She said she was sure things would reboot shortly, though the look of worry never left her. Then, given Gibson and his men could do little else, they pulled back the curtains in their barracks, lit a few lanterns, pulled out some cards and bottles from their gear, then began indulging hours of wild speculation.

A week later, Gibson found himself thrown back into entirely other world. He was on horseback, riding alongside Ms. Jarvis at a steady gallop, headed towards a nearby town where church bells had suddenly at mid-day begun ringing and for ten minutes had not stopped. They rode in along the main road past house after unlit hour, car after abandoned car, as people emerged cautiously from their houses and made their way towards the steeple of the church at the centre of town. When they arrived, it was to see a crowd mostly of men, perhaps three hundred standing before the stairs of the town hall, across the park from the chapel spire.

The mayor and priest gave short speeches, confirming the foregone intuitions of those assembled. That whatever had happened had apparently happened everywhere, which meant all the other nearby centres found themselves in the same predicament. Local radio channels were dead, computers seemed to have failed, and seemingly everything with networked electronics appeared to be non-functional. Finally, and here he seemed most distressed, there had been no indication yet that any government aid was forthcoming. Appeals to calm, charity and neighbourly community were made then, entreaties to assist one another as each could best manage. Most of the assembled seemed to absorb this last message with a sort of dour stoicism, given the fact this had been precisely how they had been getting by for some time.

In the end, after the public pronouncements, Ms. Jarvis dismounted and began making quiet enquiries about certain men and their availability for work. Word spread quickly. Gibson soon also found himself off his horse, surrounded by those asking about their need for labour and their terms. Clearly after weeks in the dark, watching what money and food they had on hand evaporate, there were a good many hands willing to pick up what work they could. They rode back to the estate that afternoon, trailed by a dozen men with packs on foot. And over the next week, day after day, entire families began to arrive.

Gibson and his men had left their vehicles and machines like relics were they stood. They became things for the children to play upon. Instead, with cart and pulley, rope and hand, as if moving in slow motion the stonework was brought back to life. Now enveloped in a rough scaffolding of steel and wood, the wall once began to assemble and ascend.

~ ... ~

Letter extract concludes: ... while we made landfall three or four times in areas that seemed sufficiently rural and remote to be safe, places where we could thought it might be possible to make contact with others and perhaps resupply, after two weeks we all openly admitted we felt far better away from shore. The four of us - Mr. and Mrs. White, Aaron and I - were clearly not adventurous types. The Whites wanted to drop me as agreed in Sudbury so that I could make my back to my family and their farm. This would be our rally-point. The Professor was going to St. Catherines in search of his mother. Then the Whites would sail on finally to the Niagara region where they had a summer home. It was here, in the warmer clime, they would sooner be than in a cold Montreal apartment.

Once we were out on the open lake, sailing at a very cautious distance from the shores and dark peaks of Toronto's towers, Aaron felt he had pretty much drained the hypothetical dregs of what had happened as a subject of discourse. It was too unknowable, too vast, and too bleak for any of us to contemplate anymore. Sensing our discomfort, he took what small mercy a monomaniac would on a captive audience. He changed tack. Instead of sifting the rubble of the recent past, he turned instead to the future.

Where we're headed, the Professor argued, a world we are no longer very well acquainted with, we'll be looking backwards. To reconfigure how we do things independently again, how to make things, how to mend them. It will mean revisiting our ancestral past. This is why the immediate flight for so many, ourselves included, is back to the places where we came from. It is not just sentimentality, or familial concern, or fear. It is a very hard wired, subconscious quite logical response. Maybe the last proper survival instinct a post-industrial, heavily-urbanized populace can have under the circumstances – the return to familiar ground.

This is how he saw the next months and years coming to pass. The first reaction of people who are able to manage it will be to basically revisit the day-to-day lives of their own families. The patterns of life in whatever community they happened to have come from. We'll all suddenly want to know, with a furious urgency, how it was that our great-great grandparents managed in this cold country. Attics will be ransacked, garages and farmhouses searched thoroughly, and where possible we'll all be undertaking a great self-taught crash-course in survival subsistence and frontier living. We will approach 2020 - how fitting that should be the first year of the new world - much like our ancestors did 1820.

On a wider scale, beyond individuals and households, Aaron suspected already that villages, towns and hamlets were reasserting their own local domain. Old organizations would be stood up again, new influxes reshaping their influence. It had already been three weeks with no power, no transportation, no communication or central authority. We'd been spared a great deal, travelling by boat, leaving the city while there was still food and water. He suspected the big cities would be much more violent and chaotic by this point, and that everyone with the means to leave would likely have done so.

This meant the civic heart of things, the real places of home and safety, would now have to be small, self-reliant places. This puts us back a very long way from what we've known all our lives. Back to when community meant more of a commune and when a commons meant a shared means of survival, not simply sharing for its own sake. He said it would be this first winter, amid fear, misery and dislocation that would be the worst for most of us. Like we had suddenly become refugees in some cold, alien country, even if that country happened to be our own.

~ ... ~

Standing on the rampart of the gatehouse, peering out over the countryside at dusk, Edward Gibson rubbed his hands together and tried silently talk himself out of all his current preoccupations. He swore at the cold he assured himself he did not fear, even though he did, for he never stopped fretting over the estate store of firewood. He made himself banish envy from his mind, though he wished at times he too had some vast hidden reserve of resources like his patron and employer seemed able to draw upon. He told himself he regretted nothing in his life up to this point, yet now wished he too could have been better educated, more worldly, travelled widely. And he was endlessly convincing himself he was comfortable and well-suited to the whole range of responsibilities and contingencies which he now found himself shouldering, though in truth the magnitude of these seemed daily to only to deliver new doubts.

Tiny, crystalline snowflakes were drifting in the moonlight. Winter had arrived. In the last three months, the estate wall and the gatehouse on which he stood had mercifully been established. It had been rough work, hurried in places and likely even in need of reinforcement in the new year, but they men had set to the quarry with renewed energy as the leaves turned auburn and orange. Through some miracle of trade or treaty, Ms. Jarvis had then managed in late October to procure more ten more horses, a supply of solid ropes and pulley, even arranged a great shipment by waggon of new lime and sand. This had carried them through to the last keystone, the Lady of the estate weeping with relief and pride as it slid into place.

Since the last components of the gatehouse had been finished and the great main doors set into their monstrous hinges, all their community turned in a last frenetic burst to one final task: preparing for winter. Pessimistic by professional and personal necessity, Gibson spoke to the entire estate the morning immediately after they had all celebrated the completed work. As grim as it sounded, he felt obliged to brace them for what was still ahead. That the estate, its wall, its gates were just means to a greater, more elusive end. Namely, their safety, health and survival through the five long months of winter were now the immediate concern. Nature would soon set their timetable and govern their movements. This left them scant time. In the next month, we shall have to build or borrow, gather or barter, buy or beg, everything we are likely need for the course of the winter. With more than two-hundred souls now housed within the confines of the estate, this last effort would need to eclipse all others.

Gibson worked his way down the spiral staircase, down into the gatehouse, moving slowly by the wavering lantern light. No wonder the children were all afraid of him, he thought, with his pained looks, his stooped lurch and speeches like that. He lurked around the estate and its work sites, feeling most days more like a ghost than a guide. He emerged from a small door at the side of the stone structure, just to the right of the great archway leading to the estate's main entrance. The moonlight refracted everywhere off a thin veil of snow.

Though it was long past midnight, still hours before dawn, he now heard shouts from along the wall. They echoed in the courtyard. "Someone's coming", they called. Most of the men who took night watch duty were very young, some still teenagers. First one, then two lanky shadows appeared in the moonlight at the tops of the wall. The leaped on their ladders, slid down to the snow and ran to meet one another, then bolted toward Gibson as he set his lantern on the ground.

"Mr. Gibson, sir. There are people coming up the main road toward the gate. I'm not sure how many. They're leading horses, with waggons and carts. It's difficult to tell in the dark but there may as many a dozen. What should we do?"

Gibson winced and rubbed his eyes. They should have set a post at the bottom of the hill, why had they never thought this through? They had abandoned the moat as untenable, but they had never thought of some kind of early warning. Now it was the middle of the night and there was a party of men practically rapping at their front door.

"Wake Stephan and the men with them. Hurry, go now both of you. I will go to the gate and see who our visitors are, what business they have with us. Go."

They sped off at a sprint. Gibson picked up his lamp and walked to through the arched tunnel to the hulking door. He slid aside the small iron portal, no more than six inches across, and peered out down the road. The caravan consisted of ten well-made waggons, each drawn by a single horse and moving a weary pace up the hill. Each horse was led by the reins by a man or woman in heavy winter dress. They stopped fifty feet short of the wall. The horses whinnied and stamped. The two figures at the front of the line approached the door.

"Good evening. My name is Gibson. You are at the threshold of the Jarvis estate. How can I help you at this ungodly hour?"

Gibson could hear the men assembling in the courtyard behind him. Outside, the man and woman in the darkness looked at one another, the woman finally speaking.

"My name is Kate Williamson, this is Aaron Eckhart. I am a childhood friend of Andrea Jarvis and I have to assume from your surprise that she has not received all of the letters that we have written. I have my two tired children and ten other exhausted fellow-travellers with me, Mr. Gibson but we also have as much food and supplies as we could burden our horses with. We have been travelling for many weeks. Do you think we might come in, for we are very cold and ready to drop."

Gibson felt himself grinning, despite himself, in the dark as he set aside his lantern and called to the men to help him with the gate. Soon after, from the doorway and clutching a candlestick, Ms. Jarvis howled with joyful laughter as Mr. Gibson led the party up the flagstone path to the main house. Ms. Williamson carried her youngest daughter like a stack of wood in her arms, wearing a worn smile of deep relief. They all trudged into the front hall, and sensing their almost unconscious state Andrea immediately began leading them two-by-two to parts of the house where they could sleep. In peace, in quiet, at ease. For the first time in a long time.

~ ... ~

{spurred by the 2011 Sci-Fi Quest, and inspired by the research of Harold Innis and Herman Kahn, the writings of Chris Hedges and Rick Moody, watching the Walking Dead series, listening to the Arcade Fire's The Suburbs, playing the Fallout video games, marvelling at the Abandoned images on Flickr and reading my kids the David Macaulay building books - and so in the proceed fielding a lot of questions about how it was exactly that things ever got done for so long without cars and computers}


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