Tripods 2 The City of Gold and Lead John Christopher (1967)


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Tripods 2 -- The City of Gold and Lead -- John Christopher -- (1967)
(Version 2003.02.15 -- Done)

1 -- Three Are Chosen
One day Julius called a conference of the instructors, and all training was canceled. The three of us -- Henry, Beanpole, and I -- decided to use the free time to explore the upper reaches of the tunnel. So we got picnic rations from the kitchen and half a dozen big, slow-burning tallow candles, and set off up the long winding slope from the caves in which we lived.

At first we chattered as we went, hearing our voices echo from the confining walls of rock, but as our progress became more slogging and arduous we talked less, conserving our strength. The ancients had made the tunnel to house a Shmand-Fair -- a railway as it had once been called in my own language -- and the metal tracks went up and up, interminably it seemed. The candles gave only a small and flickering light, but a sure one; there was no wind, not even a breeze, that might blow them out. We were climbing a mountain, but from the inside.

I puzzled over this, as I had done before. It was one of countless riddles left by our forefathers, but more baffling than most and, of course, nearer at hand. Even with the wonderful machines we knew they had possessed, it must have taken a tremendous time -- years -- to hew such a channel through the heart of this stony giant. For what purpose? A railway leading to a mountain top, perpetually covered with snow and ice? It made no sense that I could see.

They had been a strange and marvelous people. I had seen the ruins of one of the great-cities in which they lived...with broad avenues that ran for miles, crumbling buildings still soaring up against the sky, huge shops into which all the houses of my native village could have been packed, with room left over. They had moved in ease and splendor about the earth, splendor beyond measuring, almost beyond understanding. And despite all this, the Tripods had conquered and enslaved them. How had it happened? We did not know. We only knew that, except for the handful of us who lived here in the White Mountains, men did the Tripods' bidding, and did it gladly.

The way in which they kept their domination, on the other hand, was plain enough. It was done through the Caps, meshes of silvery metal, fitting closely round the skull and woven into the very flesh of their wearers. Capping took place in one's fourteenth year, marking the change from child to adult. A Tripod took you away, and a Tripod brought you back. Those who returned, apart from the few who cracked under the ordeal and became Vagrants and thereafter wandered aimlessly from place to place, had had their minds changed and were free no longer.

We went on, higher and higher, through the tunnel. Occasionally we rested, easing the ache in our legs, sometimes at places where there were openings through which one could see out of the mountain side to a vista of more mountains and cold, deserted snowfields lying in their shadow. If we had realized how long and arduous the journey would be, I doubt if we should have embarked on it, but having come so far we pressed on. We found small things -- a button, a carton that said camels and had a picture of a beast like a humpbacked horse on it, and a scrap of newspaper, printed in the German language which we were learning, that spoke of incomprehensible things. All these were more than a hundred years old, we knew, relics from the world before the Tripods.

At last we reached the cavern where the railway ended. There were stone steps, leading to a room in what seemed like a palace. Higher still, in a vast wooden hall, we stared through gigantic windows at a scene of wonder. There were peaks all round, guarding a valley through which a river ran far into the distance. But the peaks glistened white, dazzling in sunlight that hurt the eyes, and the river was a river of ice that yet seemed to flow. Had a king perhaps lived here -- a king who ruled the world, and chose to live on the world's roof?

But would the hall of a king's palace be filled with small tables, and have kitchens adjoining it? We explored farther, and found a sign: HOTEL JUNGFAUJOCH. I knew what a hotel was: a large inn that accommodated travelers. But here, on a mountain top? The idea was as mysterious as the idea of a royal palace, and more stupendous. It had not been a king and his courtiers who had walked through these echoing rooms and looked at the river of ice among the eternal snows; but ordinary men and women. A strange and marvelous people, indeed. In those days, I thought, they were all kings and queens.

I gazed out. Nothing changed there, nor had changed in a century. For me, so much had changed.
Six months earlier I had been an ordinary schoolboy living, as I had always done, in the village of Wherton, a day's journey by packhorse from Winchester. My cousin Jack, the companion of my childhood, had already been Capped; and I was to be Capped the next year, along with Henry, another cousin, but an old enemy rather than an old friend. After that I would be a man, working as a man, in due course taking over my father's mill, living in Wherton and at last dying there, to be buried in the churchyard beside the square-towered church. It was a pattern of life that everyone took for granted.

Then, one day, Ozymandias came to the village, a Vagrant seemingly, a big, red-haired, red-bearded man, who sang songs and spoke lines of poetry, and mixed sense and nonsense when he talked. He sounded me out, and finally revealed himself and his purpose. He was not a Vagrant, but merely posing as such so that he could travel without hindrance or suspicion. The Cap he wore was a false one. He told me the truth about the Tripods, and told me also of the handful of free un-Capped men who lived far to the south. He asked me if I would be willing to make a difficult and dangerous journey to join them.

So, with the map and compass he had given me, I left my village. Henry surprised me while I was making my escape, and I was forced to take him with me. We crossed the sea together, and in the land called France found a third -- Jean-Paul, whom we named Beanpole because he was so tall and thin. Together, we went south. It was as difficult and dangerous as Ozymandias had promised. Near the end we fought a battle with a Tripod, and with the help of a weapon of the ancients that we found in the ruins of one of the great-cities, destroyed it. And thus came to the White Mountains.
There were eleven of us in the training cadre being prepared for the first move in the counterattack against our enemies. It was a hard schooling, in body and mind alike, but we knew a little of the task before us, and how heavy the odds against success were. The discipline and hardship we had to endure might not shorten those odds by much, but every bit counted.

For we -- or some of us -- were to conduct a reconnaissance. We knew almost nothing of the Tripods, not even whether they were intelligent machines or vehicles for other creatures. We had to know more before we could hope to fight them successfully and there was only one way to get that knowledge. Some of us, one at least; must penetrate into the City of the Tripods, study them, and bring back information.

The plan was this: the City lay to the north, in the country of the Germans. Each year some of the newly Capped were brought there to serve the Tripods. They were chosen in different ways. I had witnessed one such way at the Château de la Tour Rouge, when Eloise, the daughter of the Comte, had been made Queen of the Tournament. I had been horrified to learn that at the end of her brief reign she would be taken to be a slave of the enemy, and go gladly, thinking it an honor.

Among the Germans, it seemed, there were Games each summer, to which young men came from all over the land. The winners were feasted and made much of, after which they, too, went to serve in the City. At the next Games, it was hoped, one of us might win, and gain admission. What would happen after that was unknown. Anyone who succeeded would have to rely on his wits, both in spying on the Tripods and in passing on what he had learned. The last part was likely to be the hardest. Because although scores, perhaps hundreds, went yearly into the City, not one had ever been known to come out.
One day the snow was melting at the foot of the tunnel where we exercised, and a week later it lay only in isolated patches, and there was the green of grass, dotted with purple crocuses. The sky was blue, and sunlight flamed from the white peaks all round, burning our skins through the thin, pure air. During a break we lay on the grass and looked down. Figures moved cautiously half a mile below, visible to us but taking cover from those who might look up from the valley. This was the first raiding party of the season on its way to plunder the fat lands of the Capped.

I sat with Henry and Beanpole, a little apart from the rest. The lives of all those who lived in the mountain were closely knit, but this strand was a more tightly woven one. In the things we had endured, jealousies and enmities had worn away and been replaced by true comradeship. The boys in the cadre were our friends, but the bond between us three was special.

Beanpole said gloomily, "I failed at one meter seventy today." He spoke in German. We had learned the language but needed to practice it.

I said, "One goes off form. You'll improve again."

"I'm getting worse every day."

Henry said, "Rodrigo's gone off. I beat him comfortably."

"It's all right for you."

Henry had been chosen as a long-distance runner, and Rodrigo was his chief rival. Beanpole was training for long and high jumping. I was one of two boxers. There were four sports in all -- the other was sprint running -- and they had been arranged to produce a maximum of competitiveness. Henry had done well in his event from the start. I myself was fairly confident, at any rate as far as my opponent here was concerned. This was Tonio, a dark-skinned boy from the south, taller than I and with a longer reach, but not as quick. Beanpole, though, had grown increasingly pessimistic about his chances.

Henry reassured him, telling him he had heard the instructors saying he was coming on well. I wondered if it were true or said for encouragement: the former, I hoped.

I said, "I asked Johann if it had been decided yet how many were to go."

Johann, one of the instructors, was squat and powerful, yellow-haired, with the look of a bad tempered bull but amiable at heart.

Henry asked, "What did he say?"

"He wasn't sure, but he thought four -- the best from each group."

"So it could be us three, plus an extra," Henry said.

Beanpole shook his head. "I'll never do it."

"You will."

I said, "And the fourth?"

"It might be Fritz."

He did seem to be the best of the sprint runners, as far as we could tell. He was German, and came from a place on the edge of a forest to the northeast. His chief rival was a French boy, Etienne, whom I preferred. Etienne was cheerful and talkative; Fritz, tall, heavy, taciturn.

I said, "As long as we all get through."

"You two will," Beanpole said.

Henry leaped to his feet. "There's the whistle. Come on, Beanpole. Time to get back to work."
The seniors had their own tasks. Some were our instructors; others formed the raiding parties to keep us supplied with food. There were still others who studied the few books that had survived from olden days and tried to relearn the skills and mysteries of our ancestors. Beanpole, whenever he had a chance, would be with them, listening to their talk and even putting up suggestions of his own. Not long after we met he had spoken -- wildly, I thought -- about using a sort of gigantic kettle to push carriages without the need for horses. Something like this had been discovered, or rediscovered, here, though it would not yet work properly. And there were plans for more remarkable things: making light and heat through something that had been called electricity was one.

And at the head of all the groups there was one man, whose hands held all the threads, whose decisions were unquestioned. This was Julius.

He was close to sixty years old, a small man, and a cripple. When he was a boy he had fallen into an ice crevasse and broken his thigh. It had been set badly and he walked with a limp. In those days things had been very different in the White Mountains. Those who lived there had no purpose but survival, and their numbers were dwindling. It was Julius who thought of winning recruits from the world outside, from those not yet Capped, and who believed -- and made others believe -- that someday men would fight back against the Tripods and destroy them.

It was Julius, too, who had worked out the enterprise for which we were being trained. And it was Julius who would make the final decision on which of us were chosen.

He came out one day to watch us. He was white-haired and red-cheeked, like most of those who had lived all their lives in this sharp, clear air, and he leaned on a stick. I saw him, and concentrated hard on the bout in which I was engaged. Tonio feinted with his left and followed up with a right cross. I made him miss, hammered a sharp right to his ribs, and, when he came in again, landed a left to the jaw, which sent him sprawling.

Julius beckoned, and I ran to where he stood. He said, "You are improving, Will."

"Thank you, sir."

"I suppose you are getting impatient to know which of you will be going to the Games."

I nodded. "A little, sir."

He studied me. "When the Tripod had you in its grasp -- do you remember how you felt? Were you afraid?"

I remembered. I said, "Yes, sir."

"And the thought of being in their hands, in their City -- does that frighten you?" I hesitated, and he went on. "There are two sides to the choice, you know. We old ones may be able to judge your quickness and skill of mind and body, but we cannot read your hearts."

"Yes," I admitted, "it frightens me."

"You do not have to go. You can be useful here." His pale blue eyes looked into mine. "No one need know if you prefer to stay."

I said, "I want to go. I can bear the thought of being in their hands more easily than the thought of being left behind."

"Good." He smiled. "And you, after all, have killed a Tripod -- something that I doubt any other human being can claim. It is an asset to have that knowledge that they are not all-powerful."

"Do you mean, sir...?"

"I mean what I said. There are other considerations. You must go on working hard, and preparing, in case you are chosen."

Later I saw him talking to Henry. I thought it was probably much the same conversation as mine had been. I did not ask him, though, and he did not volunteer anything about it.
During the winter our diet, although adequate, had been very dull, the staple item dried and salted meat that, whatever was done with it, remained stodgy and unappetizing. In the middle of April, though, a raiding party brought back half a dozen black-and-white cows, and Julius decreed that one should be killed and roasted. After the feast, he spoke to us. When he had been talking a few minutes, I realized, the excitement almost suffocating me, that this, almost certainly, was the moment for announcing the names of those who were to make the attempt at reconnoitering the City of the Tripods.

He had a quiet voice, and I was with the other boys at the far end of the cave, but his, words were clear. Everyone was listening attentively and in silence. I glanced at Henry, on my right. In the flickering light, I thought he looked very confident. My own confidence was ebbing rapidly. It would be bitter if he went and I were left.
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