At night, only ever at night, they arrived in twos and threes. The tinkly bell at the main gate announced them. I waited to hear Jesse’s door open and close. The murmur of his questions, their answers. If he refused them, they went away. Otherwise the hinges sang out, and they shuffled in. With them came their silent lamentation. Memories of chill mornings on empty stomachs, river crossings, shallow graves. Smells, too. Campfire smoke, unwashed bodies.
Jesse would get them settled. Jesse would make a record of their arrival. Jesse was competence itself.
Naturally, the Authority always knew, and each morning after a new arrival, it would dispatch a team. We heard them coming long before they reached us. Just past Dry Creek they’d abandon their rovers and begin climbing the mesa on foot. Soon there’d be at least one standing outside each gate. There they’d stay, a silent menace, until sometime after nightfall, when they crept back down. The sudden roar of their rovers in the darkness was terrifying to the children. The Authority knew it would be.
Once I asked Jesse what it’d been like, being selected to work for the Authority.
“I don’t remember.”
“You don’t remember?”
“Do you remember anything from your earlier life?”
“Not even your mother’s face?”
Of course I knew that we would eventually run out of space. Most days, though, I managed not to think too far ahead. Which was helpful, as the work was endless. The more recent arrivals needed food and medical care. The children who had been with us for a while, if we were lax about their deprogramming, tended to regress. Those who had completely returned to themselves, I trained to work with the others. All that, not to mention the hundred mundane tasks associated with supplying and defending our Masada.
Tillie was a great help with those. She’d been one of the first to arrive, years before, leading her younger sister out of the Containment. In those early days, I had no clear idea what was happening there, and so I was baffled by the children’s behavior. Tillie would sit and mumble to herself, softly, monotonously. She’d chant real and nonsense words, with a fondness for the ‘z’ sound: “laser hazer razor taser, laser hazer razor taser …” Or it might be that she’d echo something I’d just said to her: “brush your hair, brush your hair …” She also made odd movements of her arms and hands, as if she were miming over and over the same fragment of some action. In contrast to this flow of sound and motion from her older sister, Anna never spoke a word during her brief time with us. Nor did she move of her own volition, and if one of us moved her, she remained in that exact position afterward, no matter how contorted.
Later, I asked Tillie what she remembered from that nightmarish time.
“I remember everything. It was strange. Some part of my mind was unaffected. It was up on some high place, looking down on the rest of me.”
“And what were you thinking?”
“I saw that you and the others were trying to help us. I didn’t want you to stop, especially for Anna’s sake. I couldn’t tell you that, though. I couldn’t even thank you. Because I knew, somehow I knew, that if I stopped saying those words, I’d never find my way back. I’m sure I seemed crazy. I don’t know if this will explain it, but do you know how, when you glance up at some clouds, you suddenly see a face? Or the shape of an animal? Well, from the inside, so to speak, everything I said made sense to me. Every cloud had a familiar shape.”
“What about the way you moved your hands? It was like part of a dance.”
“No, it wasn’t dancing. I guess you could say I was working. It was like I had built a wall to protect us from the Authority. Anna and me. My wall kept collapsing, and so I had to keep rebuilding it. Over and over and over.”
“But you were already safe inside these walls. Real walls.”
“The wall I was building when I first arrived was real. And it was going to be higher, so much higher and stronger than yours. It had to be.”
When I recounted this conversation to Jesse, not long after he himself joined me on the mesa, this is what he told me:
“The Authority calls it the Gift.”
“I don’t understand. How can …”
“They’re programmed for it. The children.”
“But why? Why on earth …”
“The system requires randomness. Without it, the Authority will, as it were, devour itself. I suppose you could say that the children, the children in this condition, are the Authority’s final problem to solve. As long as it is working on the solution, as long as it’s searching for a pattern in the randomness, the world as we know it continues. When the Authority’s calculations come to an end, so does the system.”
“What about Anna? Was she given the Gift, too?”
“No. Anna was a mistake. A glitch.”
In the years that followed, when we weren’t struggling to invent new ways to shelter still more children, I had ample time to perform my own calculations, calculations on the problem of evil. The numbers, though, never added up. No equation ever produced an answer. In the end, I stopped trying to understand what, it seemed, could not be understood, and instead I lay in the dark, listening for the faint ringing of the bell, the hesitant knocking at the gate.