The Country/The Country

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20. Two Days Away

He found the gray-haired man, named to him as Marvin, staring at a screen in a chamber that looked like a study.

Not so many books, Keel thought. Lots of folders on a short table. A cut-glass dish that looked like it was meant to hold salted cue-nuts filled with a handful of thought-sticks instead.

The man looked briefly away from the screen and asked, “Are you staying?”

Keel didn’t answer. He had his own questions. “Can I call you Marvin? She said there were too many Kevvens up here.”

The other man laughed, involuntarily, and looked away from the screen again. “Trench will do for me,” he replied. “I call it a ‘gnome’ de guerre. We try not to use real names around here.”

Keel ignored the joke. “But you know mine.”

“I’ve heard it,” he said. “But you can pick another.”

They looked at each other. Jake? Keel could not think of anything more dashing.

“The reason I asked,” Trench said, “is if you are staying, I want to tell Fama.”

“The woman in the kitchen?”

“Yeah, I know.” He shook his head guiltily. “It looks stereo, but Fama insists. She says she can’t eat anything the rest of us cook.”

Keel was not looking forward to the drive back, but the prospect of spending a night inside the plywood bunker did not appeal to him either. He temporized.

“Can you tell me anything about what people are doing up here?” He pointed to the screen. “What are you looking for there?”

Trench appeared to hesitate.

“Is there anything you can tell me about?”

“All I’m looking for,” Trench said flatly, “is a decent weather report.”

Keel, who relied on the local news show for weather (should he expect rain when he takes his walk?), was discomfited. Did the Pigglie infiltration of the networks extend to re-interpreting the weather the way they reinterpreted other facts -- Financial, medical, scientific -- to suit their purposes? Would a time come when the nooz denied it was raining if the leader didn’t wish it to? If it was inconvenient for the government to provide Major Storm Disaster Aid, would the nooz-shows deny that a ‘Major Storm’ had taken place?

‘You must have walked into the shower with your clothes on,’ the Leader would reprimand the petitioners. ‘What a stupid thing to do! Things have to change around here! Those who cannot join the wave of the future will find themselves cast upon the rocks!’

Cheers for the Leader! Go, Pig, go!

Keel walked to the other side of the chamber and collapsed into a chair far enough away to be ignored by Trench; dejected beyond sociability by the prospect of taking part in cheers for the leader. Adjusting to a world of Pigglies would not come easy. Would he cower in his little house all the day, sneaking out after dark with a wool cap pulled down over his eyes to grab a few hasty supplies from a market where they didn’t know his name? Changing his route, going to different markets. Eating less; drinking less. What would he do when they cut off his credit? Why would the college keep paying his pension? Who would take over that institution? When they made up lists and decided who to pay and who not to pay, they would not find his name on the memberships of any of the Pig-loving societies? So why waste funds on him?...

His thoughts found no bottom. They kept descending: Where would the refugees go? The fugitives? Would they look for places in the hills like this bunker, whatever it was called, and build huts of their own without windows? Ha, he thought, a literal ‘dark age.’

Let no one see your light in the window, less it attract the attention of the Pig’s Own Predators? The rollicking, rowdy, fun-lovin’ POP Society!

Would that be their byword?

Where was this stuff coming from? Keel’s day-dreams were all turning dark. Horrid, fantastic, stomach-churning fantasies. But were they fantasies, or were they already happening?

“Tell me something,” he called to Trench. “Where are they now?”

“They?”

“The Pigglies. The ‘campaign.’”

“Pig’s campaign? They’re rolling along. They’re campaigning in a bunch of towns

about two days west of here. They’re taking their time, though. No rush. Voting Days are winding down in Platow. Just a few cities left. The Voting has pretty much been decided, at least that’s what they’re saying on the networks. It’s pretty much just a victory march now. Just the way the Revised Voting Protocol -- the good ol’ RVP -- was supposed to work.”

The man seemed to be talking to himself, Keel brooded.

Was he not afraid?

“Two days,” Keel said, at length. Not cheerful nooz. “What will you do when they get here?”

“I don’t think things will change much over night. At least not all that much.”

“So there’ll still be some time... What will you do with that time?”

“What we can.”

Trent turned in his seat to face Keel now, as if to say, ‘I am not hiding from the truth.’ His eyes looked slightly bloodshot. Did he dream also?

“And what is that?” Keel asked. “What you can?” He heard the edge in his voice.

“Build up, I guess. That’s the way we usually put it.”

“Build up what? An opposition?” Keen did not believe the appearance of a last-minute opposition was likely. It was self-delusion.

“Where,” he insisted, “is that opposition now?”

The reddish inflammation infiltrated the rest of Trench’s pale flesh, as the men shared a silent stare.

“Well,” he replied at length, “you’re here.”

Keel did not like picturing himself a source of hope. Hope and he were strangers. He was not sure that he knew what the word meant. Did it imply a form of belief? Belief in the power of men and woman of good will to bring about change? Keel did not know if he could look at ‘change’ as a hopeful prospect any more. Mr. Pig has appropriated it.

And, of course, he thought, while driving home, there was his local Kevven surveilling a quiet street in Monro. Was that his ‘opposition’?

He would find the man in the car again.

But the late-night congregation of cars around the Dormands’ had thinned out noticeably. Were they meeting somewhere else now? Had the arrangements already been made? Keel walked hopelessly through the streets surrounding the big house on the corner of Pike and Kent Road, hoping to discover some unusual pattern in the parked cars or other signs of habitation on one of the other blocks of the neighborhood, careful of course not to pass directly in front of the Dormands’ house or come close enough to be caught on surveillance, just in case there was surveillance there, which he did not even know.

Kevven, he recalled, had parked out of range. That should be reason enough for him to be careful.

On his second pass, he took a wider circumvention of the target house, trailing along several inconspicuous blocks of Herringbone Avenue, then turning left on Colby, streets he seldom bothered with in the past. Houses nestled tightly into their plots here, no room for a car park, all vehicles parked in the street. Nobody would choose any building here for a meeting unless the participants were arriving on foot. No point going down this way any farther, he told himself, and turned around abruptly.

But when he began walking back toward the Pike Street, still a half dozen blocks away, he became aware of a vehicle moving slowly behind him down the street. You drove slowly on Herringbone to avoid clipping the parked cars on either side of the road, but this vehicle was barely moving as fast as he walked. The driver was either looking for a house number -- or following him.

Keel paused at the corner. The vehicle paused as well. He heard a window roll mechanically down.

He waited, hearing nothing.

Distant tires rolling up ahead on Broad Street. The sky quiet. He could not stand about in the dark on the street corner, pretending he was not calling attention to himself.

“You might as well get in,” a voice called softly. Barely audible.

He thought the car might be Kevven’s. But the voice sounded female.

The door on the passenger side of the vehicle squeezed open slightly. A tight fit.

He would have to step into the street, take hold of the door, and slide himself into the front seat beside the driver before his senses could form any impression of who ‘she’ was. It did not appear that anyone else was in the car and so if anything about this act could be considered ‘safe’ it was that the driver was alone.

Keel gave himself up to this chance. Stepped into the street, got into the car. He closed the door, found it heavier; a bigger vehicle than he was used to. He could see the driver now, from profile, but she did not look at him directly.

“Do we know each other?”

“I’ve seen you,” she said. Her voice soft, controlled. “I know who you are.”

How? He thought, but came to no conclusion. “Were you looking for me?”

The driver moved the car forward and turned down Colby Street, driving only slightly faster than before. Needs to keep moving, he thought, but wants to talk in the car.

“I didn’t want to go to your house,” she said after the car had traveled a block.

“Surveillance?”

“Who knows?... We’re all pretty much driving in the dark here.”

“Mrs. Nathan doesn’t know everything.” He took a chance, mentioning her name.

“Mrs. Nathan,” she repeated, softly.

The word a touchstone; a code. How else would they know they were on the same side? The side he was now thinking of as ‘the conspirators’?

“Why were you looking for me?”

“Got a message.”

He waited. “Tell me,” he said, at length.

“OK.” The car put another block between the target house and their own position; maybe that was the goal.

“No more meetings at the house,” she said at length. “So there’s no point wandering around there at night trying to see what’s going on.”

“Drawing attention?”

She glanced, minutely, his way. Still in profile. “I hope not.”

“Are they meeting somewhere else?”

“Doesn’t much matter... now.”

Because something was happening soon? Or some other reason?

“The meetings don’t matter any more. He’s coming. The whole circus is coming, that’s what matters.”

“Do we know when?”

“Pegasso’s people don’t exactly release their schedule.”

“But... there are other ways of knowing.”

“Yeah.” She did not elaborate. “We know when.”

She was still driving, leaving the neighborhood now -- so not exactly giving him a lift home -- and heading toward the city line, the place where he would go to look at the stars, an activity that now struck him as hopelessly romantic. What help were the stars?

“So the message is what?” he asked. “Keep away from the Dormands? Don’t do anything to draw attention?”

“Yes, that’s it. Basically.”

He felt -- disappointed. Then ashamed. What did he think he could do? A man his age? With no connections?

“And wait,” she added.

“For what?”

The driver pulled to the side of the road and stopped the car. She made him wait for an answer.

They were paused at the outskirts of Monro, gazing at the old lots where the state fairground used to be. The city had pulled down the buildings. A big hanger-like barn for the animal shows. Long rows of booths. People showing off giant squashes, perfect fat tomatoes; huge multi-colored peppers grown entirely in water. Old-fashioned stuff, lingering from the days when people still kept animals, grew vegetables. Caged creatures sold for pets, the size of cats or a little larger, but created from reptilian DNA. ‘Little Dinos,’ he remembered, but could not remember why. The craze for them was long over. They never could get the biting gene completely out of them.

“The right time,” she replied.

The two of them looked straight ahead at the empty lots. Weed trees and vines growing up against patches of wire fence.

“What will happen when he comes?”

“It’s the end of the campaign, probably. End of the Voting Days. After the Voting in Platow he’ll have enough triumphs to be proclaimed the winner.”

“But why come to Monro. Why not go someplace really big?”

He sensed her shrug.

“Here? Anywhere. It doesn’t matter. The media does whatever he wants. Tells the story to the whole country. His story -- his way.”

What does matter, then? But he didn’t bother to ask it. It’s what she, his nameless driver, hasn’t told him. Wouldn’t -- or couldn’t? Neither did Mrs. Nathan. Or Trench.

She turned so that he could see her face now. Even in the poor light, he recognized her. The hairline. The bright, hard perimeter of the upper part of her face.

Something caught the light, reflected from the car’s headlight, bounced back off a metal post: a thin renegade stream of electrons yielding the tiny ornament shining from the lobe of her ear.

He saw its shape now: a tiny, silvery triangle. Shining. He had noticed it on the woman who sat in the bare, pro-forma kitchen with her head turned away from him and Trench as they passed through on their way to Mrs. Nathan’s chamber.

She spoke again.

“We will contact you.”

Then she faced forward, causing the three-sided ornament to disappear from sight. At least he knew who she was now. Who had sent her.

“Do you have a name,” he asked. “A name you go by?”

“Nah. No names. I’ve already forgotten yours. But you can recognize a voice, right?”

He did not reply at once.

“You can remember mine, can’t you?”

“Maybe if we sit here and talk some more.”

She laughed. “No can do.”

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