In the dawn they were not yet noise. An aural shadow, an irritation in the little snow let down by a sky of iron cast uniformity. Something as yet uncast. A subtle undercurrent that with the ceaseless rotary motion of the spheres burgeoned into an indistinct mass transmitting across the plain its mass. Fine grains were unsettled from their places. Branches shook. The first to be parceled out of that growing clangor were engines. Then lowing. The sounds of animals. An inharmonious conglomerate of human voices. A pandemonious sennet that with a lift of fog became in a rusty cloak of dust Americans driving a motley herd of chattel across the wintering plains. Thousands. Perhaps ten thousand. More man than beast but cattle aplenty and mules and other stock and no proper sorting save a few osmotic pockets favored by the species. Columns of long tracked twelve tons trundled along the flanks and pale horsemen darting between them mending the darker chained trunk of the herd and others of their disposition swaggering afoot like hominidic cats regarding all with a casual dire.
Dachni in her cypress eyrie shrunk. Procession evoked out of the ages by curse return to the ages. Go by go by. Peletons of driverless tractors lumbered accessorial harrowers forks scrapers cutters rakes raised as if in salute. One leading a train of the unruly, their yoke chain hooked to a rotary tiller to deter uprisings. They slowed to cross the bridge upriver and the footmen fanned out. To point and call and come her way. She drew up her knees. No hurry imbued them nor concern and they stopped on the far side of the ravine and helloed her.
Hidy, she said.
Dachni uncovered her face and lifted her chin above her knees. Hidy.
Are you American?
When are you gonna be?
When comes to armyin. Isnt that their say? Ye army an ye get creditals.
Thats what they say, said the man.
The man who called was a clone of Corrigan. Tall and rough looking, unraveled of the same genetic code, this issue tattooed and through the brass bullring he wore in his nose hung a curtain of leather strips in which teeth were spliced.
Kinder wanted ta keep ear a bit, she said.
Said wanted ta keep loned whiles.
I know you. Come down.
Never seed ye afore.
Corrigan spat. His impatience settled upon the nearest man and this man moved towards the shore.
Dachni stood. She looked at the ground and hugged the trunk and climbed down and gathered her things from the hollow and studied the ravine for a place to cross and upon stones painted with the shells of turtles crossed. They walked back to the drive. A radio was clipped to Corrigan's shirt and he pushed to talk. Stop her, he said.
Over, said Dachni.
He looked down at her.
Post to say over.
On the road the manacled shuffling was rising to a blaring permutation of din. The drivers laughing, waving their hats as those in victory. Some on foot hewing the herd with sheer pride and others who soldered their breaches with whips, some electric whips that crackled like thunder in the hand, moving among the dark tide as if through a tamed sea. The trucks slurred off road spraying clump ways of mud. Packmules were arrested by their longears and unloaded. Troubadours danced by in motley and mock pomp juggling their coxcombs to enliven the morbid courtesans failing to keep their dresses unstained. Paladins of the Scottish Rite in gothic power armor planted their reliquary within dueling distance of the blistered acolytes of Hectavasad who by their evangelizing had emptied the mankind of old with all his dusty tomes into his mortar and grounded them to dust with his mighty pestle and sucking out the breath of life set them new upon the face of this fresh hell, the times indeed changing. Came vinters. Came victuallers. Meat wagons where swarms of carnivorous wasps darted angrily out their paper nests between the spokes. Husbandmen and tillers and the hackers of wood, the porters of water, and paleontologists transporting enormous skeletons like the drastic issue of Kottos or Briareus. Herdsmen shepherding flocks, erecting paddocks, corrals. Swans rose and snapped back at the end of their tethers, the wings slapping each other down in their search for current, the uppermost veering as if ensnared in the lines of a gyre and colliding with another before crashing down again. Two tanks shed their cloaks like rain and charged forward, their barrels Boaz and Jachin wanding over the columns as if ensorcelling them and drummers aboard beating their numbers upon the hatches and now composer and ensemble trumpeting to the delight of fickle demimondes cuckolding a quartet who hats in hands endured their scorn and the labors of an army of shoeshiners who migrated boot to shoe to blucher in hope of coin like ants and elsewhere carpenters and elsewhere blacksmiths upshopped for queues already forming and a barber throwing down his chair sat a customer whose locks he had been shearing walking. Feed was spread for cattle and chattel and burnt offerings were made upon portable altars and alterchrists were crucified and posted outboard to bay the vengeful wroth of the insatiable spirit of god. Servants dashed to every to, every fro and by their efforts mazes of metals rose draped in canvas, huge ratty tents, one having as frame the bones of dinosaurs and whales, the ribbed spine set between the massive knobs of vestigial femurs capped by a furrowed brow with skulls rung round and the whole of it armatured in human skins all rising amidst rising masts unfurling their black gallants like a carnival metastasizing in a waste.
In the belly of that ossified chimera Dachni and Corrigan sat on stools around a space heater watching the mayhem outside.
Corrigan swung up a tobacco pouch and clenched it in his teeth and rolled two cigarettes and lit them. His proffer she took. Sweet smoke to breathe.
Can ye spare that book?
She ripped out a match and scraped her thumb over the head but it didnt ignite. She tried again and again and then she raked it against the coarse strip in a fright of fire that trembled down the stick towards her nails. Blackened them. When she looked up Corrigan was holding out a necklace of painted teeth.
Never lost sech a thing.
Corrigan watched her tiredly. He took another draw on his cigarette and draped the necklace on her knee. Dachni didnt touch it. She looked outside at a passing upholsterer hugging pillows. A naked spearman clutching his jeans. A computer technician. Beyond them all the blacks.
Iss is stock drive, she said.
Corrigan exhaled through his nostrils a blue smoke that seeped through the leather chords like a mist and the muscles in his neck strained and the smoke was sucked away.
You look like you were fed through a meat grinder.
Her gaze dropped to the asphalt. Cracked and rough feeling bumpmap. Theys no easies. She smoked and shook her head. Nevered seen ye afore.
Never said you had. I said Id seen you.
Oh. Was it now? By the river?
Corrigan took a last drag on his cigarette and rubbed the stub of it out on his bootheel and rolled another.
Do you have a map?
Lets see it.
She rummaged through her rucksack and got out the map. He leaned across the space between them and took it and produced a second map of his own and hooked a wire between them.
Installing a program.
Ye mean like a Temple?
He didnt say. He navigated the options on the screen and then he just stared at it until it chimed whereupon he disconnected the maps and handed hers back.
She spread the map in her lap. Floating over an empty spanse forty miles southwest of Uralsk near a lake was an icon. Different colored lines announced the routes most favorable to reaching the destination and they were none more than a week away.
What is this? she whispered.
She touched the icon and the map zoomed in on a structure in all that emptiness. A church. The necklace slipped from her knee and she stared at it where it had pooled before her bootsole.
Now what? she said.
Stay here the night.
Can ye make a fire?
I can do that.
Can ye do it now?
He could. Gravel fire of gentle hypnosis. Warm on the hands. Channeling down their scars as if they were veins for warmth. The hours passed calm and slack. The noise outside subdued but for a wind that shrieked snow across the plain and rippled the walls of their shelter like water. Others entered and arrayed themselves around the fire. Someone grounded coffee beans with a jasper doorknob. He poured them into a strainer and took up a kettle and flowed the water through them. An older man lit cinnamon incense. Dachni drowsing wrapped in a cashmere blanket like a bride. Someone was recounting his adventures in the cold jungle wonderland of Argentina. He told them how revolutionaries had fished his eye out with a j-hook. How he watched in the unpreserving shade it prune in his palm.
I quit that year. Chartered a ferry to Charleston much of it as there is and hiked from 26 to 40 and ended up in Knoxville. The queerest thing I ever saw were these mannequins all along Gay. I camped in the collapse of a department store and those things were staring at me. There were square dancers in the parking lot and a tagger had painted silhouettes in the spaces that moved and I swear it was them that cast the dancers.
Lively times, said the old man.
Course I nearly died there too. Cause in the morning those sure werent mannequins. Was a fishermen saved me by the sole of my shoes.
Whyd ye come back?
To workin for Bethel?
Ifn its him does drive.
I have to think about that.
The room brightened. They all looked. A kyphotic pantryman gray of beard and bent of bone hobbled in with six poorly clad menials. What they brought was a suckled pig roasted round by blutworst and mashed potatoes drenched in gravy and biscuits and loaves of sourdough buttered and dashed with garlic. There was sauteed trout served on beds of pilaf and lobster and cutlets and corn and apples and tangerines and wines from Moldova and beers from Germany. Last of all a roasted pig dressed in a dirndl, fitted with a blond wig and spectacles.
Dachni watched the men gravitate towards the banquet with her knees drawn and her thumbs flat against her lips. All these stuffs never seen before. Never rumored before. Corrigan beckoned.
Even you, he said.
No hyena eating here. But what first? A lobster tail might contain treasures. She chewed on the tail but it didnt taste good.
The one eyed man took the lobster from her and pulled it in two and gave it back to her.
Thats roe, he said.
Dachni looked at the discolored goo towards which he pointed. She lapped it up and it was delicious. Next he cracked open the tail. Wrinkled white meat the color of snow. She hadnt thought she'd need be taught how to eat. He dipped the meat in a saucer of lemon juice then in clarified butter and gave it to her. She ate it and then she was hording the lobsters upon her plate and then in guilt redistributing them to all. Outside a boy was staring through the entrance and when he saw her notice he went away.
Did ye ever have your say?
I always have my say.
Ons how ye were for back here.
That. Well. I managed to get home. I lived in Washington State. I should have waited for a boat to Texas or Cali but I couldnt. I couldnt. I was done. When I got home I saw my parents but we really couldnt talk and they didnt know want to know where Id been. Id been gone three years. I lived in a suburbs outside Seattle. I got work in a kitchen. But the truth is all that time Id been moving West Id been watching the sun every night going down and. It looked like the apocalypse. Theres not a lot of government anywhere. I couldnt talk to anyone. I wanted to talk to people but I couldnt. I sat in bars a lot. I met a girl I went to school with but she was married. I was pretty jealous of that. I can say that now. I couldnt say it then. When I heard Bethel was in port I signed back up. I didnt feel comfortable around people. I didnt feel comfortable alone. After work I sat at home. I drank a lot. Everyone was getting married or getting pregnant and then getting married.
Where yall goin?
She nibbled at the cutlet. Ta sell them niggers.
Corrigan shook his head. No. Theyve been bought. This is a shipment.
Thass a whole lot to bought? All of em?
Most of them.
Theys machines was murkin ta buy people. Theys pertied far ways walkwise but said cause lookin.
Corrigan wiped his mouth and wiped his fingers on his shirt. Show me where?
Dachni got out her map. Its by the bridge at the next big river. She fingerdrew the letters in the dirt before the fire. Thass whats blue by the river inva map an its at its bridge.
Ok, said Corrigan.
Hey they has flyboats maybe ee can borrow em. Itchel git ye round faster.
Were good with what we have.
Dachni pulled the skin off a trout and mulled it idly. What kinda work would they need em for? Them slavies.
Corrigan tore off a piece of bread and dunked it in a cup of olive oil. Not labor.
She shook her head and the skin flapped about like a dog tongue. Whab den?
Im delivering this to the Pross Institute for Biological Studies. So you tell me.
Dachni made a strange bobbing shrugging motion and then slurped down the skin. Wouldnt know to tell.
They wont be used for labor.
Are you all Americans?
Are yall fightin?
Theres no war.
But theres gonna be.
Yes but I wont be fighting it.
Ill have errands.
She looked at her friend. An you?
He brushed back his hair. No. No. Im lonely. Not suicidal.
At the conclusion of the feast Dachni kicking round asked were any slaves for sale and Corrigan picking his teeth with a jag said he had said there were.
But gratis is yours.
Dachni threw her arms in the air and twirled with a laugh. Wells bugs on you!