The Country/The Country

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24. Vikings of the Road

A thousand motorcycles, at least. The owners having ripped off their pipes in a paroxysm of joy.

“Let ’em rip, boys!”

So boys had ripped.

They must have stuffed their own ears with compact wool from the under-down of Arctic birds, Keel thought, then covered the stuffing with the fat industrial earplugs used by workers accustomed to handling dangerously loud machinery, if they meant to have any hearing left.

Closer to hand, his own tortured ears could almost hear the footsteps of Monro denizens emptying from their homes and workplaces, driven by the thunder of the approaching wave. A human, and human machine-made, tidal wave, Keel thought.

The noise drove him out of his own home.

On the doorstep he glanced up, panicky, at the sky. Planes overhead? Jets?

No one could flee the bombs if they could not hear the planes. But skies were clear.

The rumbles and roars came from the roadways. The earth trembled. Keel found himself hunched in an unconscious, reflexive crouch.

People remembered their sins. Some fell to the earth and prayed. Those and others, perhaps, did not know what it was, the tidal-wave rumble of pandemonium that engulfed the senses. Keel knew, or guessed rightly. Pig’s arrival: the cataclysm of history. The calving of a monstrous human glacier. The world would end not with a whimper, but a mighty bang.

He wondered when the screaming would begin.

In his mind’s eye he saw heavy trucks rolling over the curbs as drivers cut the corners too closely on narrow side streets that fed into the old, pre-automobile capitol zone, following in the wake of the heavy bikes that had already arrived at the grand entryway to a Capitol Building hallowed lest by history than its fortunate absence. From the epicenter of the Capitol, a jumble of stone-front structures, brickways, and ill-suited modern additions spread astride a long gently sloping greensward for a block and a half toward the secular state of business as usual.

Old Town Monro, past its peak a century ago, clung to both ends of Mansdowne Street. City Halles (old spelling) was still found in the center, close to the City Public Library and the oldest Universal Church. Plus the brick edifice that had once been a high school and was since refabricated into expensive condoms -- not, not the right word, Keel chided himself, suddenly tired, overwhelmed. Condiments? Candy mints?

It was too loud to think with the roar of the engines of Pig’s approaching army. Well, they did call it a “campaign,” the term borrowed from the military. And Pig’s arrival looked to Keel to be an invasion.

The Pigglies who traveled with the leading candidate (so he’d read) called themselves

“Road-Kings.” Some special in-group faction of these christened themselves “V-8 Kings,” a motorhead term that sounded to Keel like Vee-Kings, raising echoes of an ancient, perhaps legendary wave of invaders called Vikings. So in Keel’s thoughts they became Vikings of the Road.

However named, or nameless (dreams told him), they arrived in force, overwhelmed their opponents, ferreted out opposition leaders, especially those critical of Pig, and hung them in effigy from lampposts. Sometimes, if the opposition did not cave and cower immediately, but stimulated the deeper foul and feral instincts of the attackers, they hung women too, letting their colorfully draped bodies swing in the air as warnings to the locals and stimulants to the sadism of their own followers. A subterranean current of angry rapacity they could tap as needed. If they turned it on, it would flow.

In his own dream-haunted, Mrs. Nathan-psychically roused consciousness he saw the engines left to roar even after the vanguard arrived and secured the Capitol Zone, pulling their machines up onto the grass and staking them on the broad lawns. Tents would be planted there soon and on other nearby green spaces, the few square blocks of city commons where an occasional monument served as a tent pole.

He saw more; day-dreamed more deeply. He could not turn away.

The newcomers surged over the landscape, set fires to warm themselves, broke out their canteens and flasks, smashed a few windows when they found doors locked against them, rousted out a mayor’s aide and a handful of councilors from City Hall to serve as guides and local reference sources (the mayor himself, a secret Pig ally, having been tipped off and allowed to flee to the city’s sub-lands), then began to tamp down some of the engine-roar so long as the local populace remained suitably cowed.

After which they began looking for stuff. Drink and provisions came first, of course. Then girls, a little later.

The nearby markets were quickly looted. Employees fled at the sight of the approaching Pigglies, their beards, their bellies, and their girth; and their flesh marked with arcane symbologies... He recalled momentarily the opposing symbols of guerilla graffiti artists; the comparatively harmless ‘Kevvens.’

Keel left Survy home. Sorry, girl, he apologized, but she was already hiding under his bed, paws over her long sensitive ears.

He headed toward the general direction of the noise, guessing where it had come from. Smoke drifting over the city center was visible when he approached Broad Street, and he heard distantly what sounded like a coach from hell bellowing on a megaphone alternating with something like music, but vile and pulsing.

Keel lived a mile and a quarter from Monro Center. It was not a walk he made routinely, but he wouldn’t hesitate to do it. Now he kept off the main roadways, hearing from these wider spaces the aching sound of car alarms, loudspeakers, and the screeching of brakes typically followed by the deeper bang of collision... but on this occasion simply by louder sirens. He did not walk toward these noises.

He followed the residential streets that looked as if the sirens had done their clearing work, for now nobody was venturing out of doors, even to stand on a porch and crane a neck at the sky.

Block after empty block. Angry noises in the distance, no one on the sidewalk or the streets. The occasional vehicle pawing slowly up to intersection to take a fearful peek before making a turn. Its driver rigid and anonymous behind the wheel. The corner shop closed, locked down for the night hours before nightfall. Dog owners bade their pets to stay inside and hold it. The cats were in closets, whining.

By the time he came within blocks of the Capitol Zone -- the distance of a long shout in the street that no one would hear -- the compounding of sirens and amplified PA noise rose to a volume beyond which ordinary conversation could not be attempted. Keel imagined pointing to his ears and shaking his head if anyone else manifested on the street, but no one did.

Faces appeared at the upper windows of the four and five story apartment blocks, looking dumbstruck, dazed. Beyond the last brick building, the view opened and he spied a few scurrying figures, walking hurriedly away from the center, their bodies hunched forward as if lowering the head to protect the ears. They did not look at Keel or anyone else, but hurried past. Homeward, he supposed -- or hoped. Unless their homes had already proved unviable, commandeered by the intruders or rendered unbearable by the constant noise or foul exhausted air, and they were now hastening to some more distant sanctuary.

Fugitives from the party: hands shoved deep into pockets, features raw, red-eyed, perhaps from passing through smoky patches.

Keel thought about trying to stop someone, forcibly, to demand an account.

What’s going on? What are you afraid of?

But it would be like trying to lay hands on a tempest.

Then smoke reached his senses, flowed thickly in streams, borne by the wind.

He ducked into a narrow alley, a final sanctuary between cramped buildings, and studied the prospect of Capitol Plaza between volleys of smoke. He saw the bonfires, wood fires sprinkled with trash, burning on the Plaza lawn and others spread across the old town green like pustules from a raving fever. He saw the brightly colored tents, planted here and there where the green space allowed.

He saw what he took to be dummies, effigies, hanging from the lamp posts. Some clad in what looked like business suits. He heard the loud pulsing sounds of what he supposed was meant to be music. What did they call it -- Crash Music? Train Wreck? Dead Mental?

A small knot of men, suited but not wearing overcoats, huddled on the stone portico outside the main entrance to the District Capitol building, the old stone heart of the Capitol Zone. Its carved columns gave little protection from the elements, the stiff late-winter wind, whiffs of smoke blown by a cross-breeze into their faces.

One of the men, gray-headed (possibly the mayor, Keel thought) began to cough.

The noise grew, as if amplified by open space. He did not know what he would do if

anyone approached him, but no one did.

He left the alley and walked slowly toward the smoky fires, a jumble of waste wood and garbage at their base, dismembered chairs dispersed among them. Toward the human figures dispersed across the lawns, some edging in or out of tents: the central one of these a big circular, party-looking big-show shelter; the others triangular, monochrome, with tent-pole spines and a revivalist aspect. People gathered, unhurried, looking at home here unlike the fugitives hurrying way. They wore big-shouldered jackets, sports caps, belts with chains; men and women dressed alike. Figures merged, broke away, threw their heads back and laughed, lifted cans or bottles to their mouths. Some strode purposefully away from the plaza lawn to the town green on the other side of a rectangular big-shot parking area, the green’s civic monuments now draped with the tent cloths and plastic layers of improvised shelter. Others strode from the green back toward the plaza, pausing to slap hands or greet others, shouting hallos to acquaintances.

The carnival air of these ambulatory figures contrasted so strongly from the cowed, fugitive aspect of those escaping the city center -- and (he noticed) the huddle of anxious figures planted outside the city hall entrance -- that Keel struggled to understand what he was seeing in this transfiguration of a once familiar setting; to assimilate these new impressions.

Festival? Or conquest? It took him a moment to convince himself that the people he was now critically regarding were the campaign followers of one Karol Pegasso...

The Pigglies. Creatures of his dreams, nightmares...

Their dreamlike aspect changed as a pair drew closer. Noticed him, exchanged a glance, turned his way.

Large men, two of them.

One heavily bearded, wearing leather colors, a red bandana, a low black working-man’s hat, a thick black belt cinched around an equally thick girth -- so tightly that Keel, involuntarily staring, groaned at the thought of carrying so much corseted gut through space and time.

His companion was short-haired, coiffed, clean-shaven, square-jawed, with eyes like icebergs. He had seen photos of icebergs in nooz-sheets that appeared warmer.

Not just Pigglies -- his chest tightened -- but Pig’s guard dogs.

The two closed fast. He could smell alcohol in the breath wasted upon him by the open maw of the bearded man.

“You a reporter?”

Keel shook his head.

“Whatcha’ doin’ then?”

“City Hall,” he said, forcing out the first words that occurred to him.

“Yeah? Whatcha’ want at city hall?”

“A dog --” Keel began, sharing a glimmer of that first idea. He was here to complain about a neighbor’s dog.

The short-haired one cut him off. “I think City Hall’s closed for the day, chief. Some big doins’. Maybe you noticed?”

Bearded one turned his head to address his companion. “I wonder what he did notice?”

“I couldn’t say,” short-hair replied. “Let’s ask him.”

“Whadda ya say, old man?” he addressed Keel. “Notice anything different?”

One of the effigies strung from the flagpole twisted slightly in the wind, and showed a face.

Keel caught the image in the corner of an eye. His stomach turned over.

Bug-eyed. Flesh blue, thin hair plastered on one side of a grimly bared head. Neck unnaturally crooked.

“Seen anything new?” the short-hair repeated.

Beard-man turned his head and caught what Keel was looking at.

“I think Granpa’s seen enough.”

The man’s hard-eyed glance aimed first at the short-hair, then at Keel.

“So what?” short-hair replied, his own expression revealing a close, personal knowledge of what Keel had seen. “Who cares what he saw?”

“I didn’t see anything.”

Keel turned on his heel and walked.

“Hey!” the bearded man called.

Keel did not respond. He told himself not to alter his gait. He was a harmless nobody who found that City Hall, surprisingly for a Monday afternoon, was not open for business. Now he was going home.

“Hey, old man!” the short-haired Pigglie called after him, in a colder, sober intonation. “You see any reporters, tell ’em to come on down. We’re ready for them.”

He kept walking.

“We have a story for them!... A hell of a story!”

For some minutes he walked without thinking. While the sirens and bike engines had largely died away, the pulsing hollow beats of amplified music made it impossible to tell whether other footsteps could be trailing his. Finally, when it appeared no one was following, he risked a glance behind.

He understood now why the others had walked away, and why they looked the way they did.

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