The Country/The Country

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49. The Place of Pools

Back in the now underpopulated bunker, Mrs. Nathan searched her mind for images of the gathering of all those summoned by her call. She needed them. She needed every one of them.

She was building her wall of flesh.

She knew how forests grew, through fungal nodes and fibers that ran from tree to tree. She would summon, imprint, install invisible fibers of her own fashioning to connect nerves to nerves, mind to mind. But the people of the Opposition, the newly christened Populi, must also weave themselves into a forest of humanity. They must stick together, literally, person to person. They could not break the fleshly connection from person to person, body to body. They could not drop locked hands, linked arms, rubbed shoulders.

The night before Pig’s Installation march, all those summoned by Mrs. Nathan, already linked by leadership drawn from their own ranks, stood together in the waste fields and parking areas on the north side of the Tannin River, practicing to build her wall of flesh through most of the moonless night’s hours.

Circles inside of circles wound and spiraled through the gathering of the thousands of Populi and other anti-Pigglies attracted spontaneously to their force fields. Friends grabbed their friends’ hands and looked for the nearest limb of the fast-growing spiral of ‘all-of-us-together’ to plug themselves into. Friend grabbed strangers’ hands, bands of no previous commonality interlinked, and looked for other limbs to further connect to. The entire multitude must be connected. No fragments. No bodies left out.

Those who had begun to grow the chain waited the longest for the wall of flesh to be complete. Some took advantage of irregularities in the ground to sit when they grew tired without breaking the link. People exchanged places, moving with care, mindful never to break the connection. Cloth worn by other bodies could serve as fleshly connection; you could hold sleeves if fingers grew sweaty. Many hand-mates willingly kept their fingers interlocked to safeguard the flow and increase the invisible strength of the wall.

What the great chain of the Populi built in the end was not a great circle, but more of a labyrinth, the rings winding inside themselves, spiraling to a steadily denser interior. Rings overlapped other rings, inevitably, handclaps crossing under or above other handclasps because no governing cosmic personality could look down from a heavenly perspective upon this fleshly work in progress and perfectly direct the individual strokes of humanity who made it up.

But that was good, Mrs. Nathan told them, through her thoughts, because it bound the whole more tightly. It was warp against the weave. They would need that depth, that strength, that redundancy, she thought.

When her wall went into battle.

Keel’s feet turned to tender stumps as the Populi practiced unified movements for hours, slowly widening careful gaps between curved lines of the spiral, moving by stages, exterior line first, then next interior, working inwardly to tighten the rings at the center. Then tightening further outward, closing the spaces between the lines, solidifying the wall.

He knew the term for this, he thought. Defense in depth.

Keel felt his partner, one of them, changing hands, a complicated maneuver they had already practiced (though Keel questioned his own ability to recall it accurately) that involved several adjacent participants bringing both hands close together, so that positions in the line could be exchanged without a break in contact. A new set of fingers gripped his, and the familiar ones slid away, sliding over the new partners’ flesh to find her new place in line.

Ah!

He felt a charge, an exclamation in the blood, when the new presence linked with his, and thought at once of Marga Dormand, his Lady of the Kennels.

But when he stared into the new partner’s features, the face was not hers. This was someone new to him, entirely. Marga Dormand’s age perhaps, or, probably, older. The flesh and bone of her fingers felt as aged and knotty as his own.

He looked away, but her hand squeezed his, with intent. He turned his gaze once more on this new hand-mate’s features, willing himself to see now, even in darkness interrupted mostly by the little unplugged lights from devices worn on the clothing of those who had come prepared for this eventuality. Her eyes were colorless but focused singularly upon his.

“You know,” the new voice said, the words little more than a whisper, “what you must do.”

And upon hearing those words, he did know.

Yes, tomorrow, the Populi would form the wall of flesh. All would take part.

Almost all. Keel would step to the side.

The parade, the triumphal progression to the place of Sacred Installation, entered a wide stretch of open ground that lay along the packed-earth and crushed-stone path to its terminus, at the Temple of Ages.

The open stretch of ground called the Place of Pools encompassed a wide expanse of paving stone arranged in the circling patterns that mirrored the ancients’ understanding of The Way the World Worked. Situated along these patterns were a dozen reflecting features called the Planetary Pools. At their center was the beautiful green pool of Urth.

And there everything changed.

There, the triumphant, roughly good-humored Pigglies encountered the first inklings of an Opposition.

The Populi and all their allies among the anti-Pigglies waited there. They waited for the weaponized vanguard of the Pigglie progression to pass by, taking their boasts, bravado, and beastliness well out of hearing. Behind those brawlers came the great middling mass of Pig’s followers, followers by nature, minds vulnerable to the fogging of the mass-hysteria brain-clouding practiced upon them by the orgiastic shouts of Pig’s rallies, the practiced stimuli of mob-release, the chemical odor of personal gain and triumphant vengeance, a product of the black-science commandeered by Karol Pegasso’s Animal Firm and spread by subtly altered microbes through the air waves.

The networks unknowingly spread the infection. Here gathered the infected: The average, ordinary, mediocre Pigglie, in their thousands and tens of thousands. Pig had needed their votes. Now he needed their numbers, their massing. He had summoned them. The subliminal hitch chafed on their well-being. They could ease it only by chivvying one another to make arrangements -- expensive, uncomfortable, inconvenient thought they were -- to travel to the Capital and take part in Pig’s March of Triumph.

These many, the soft-minded multitude of mediocre Pigglies, were the target. Both their bodies and their minds.

Keel trudged along unremarked among these followers of Pig, who numbered him among the inexplicable fellow travelers Pig picked up along the way. House pets. Harmless and inexpensive to keep. Didn’t eat much or take up too much of anybody’s time. His own guard and minder, Cloten, had stopped guarding him and wandered off on some weak errand of his own. Keel walked his stringy little dog and awaited summons from the Boss. And to all appearances, that was all there was to him.

But he knew ‘they’ would be there. The shock troops of the Other Side. His side.

The first signs of an alien presence were the effigies

The Pigglies did not know what they were, but they could not miss them because they were bigly.

Three stories high at least. Animated by the light airs of the Aprille breeze, limbs of wicker and cloth floated back and forth. Figures of color and striking appearance. Some white with red stitching; perhaps a sign, a word, or even a slogan. Others, nearly as tall, were all black with conical hats suggestive of the witchy qualities traditionally associated with women such as Mrs. Nathan. Their wand-like bodies were hinged at the center, so they bowed gracefully or swept forward aggressively depending upon the play of the breeze, lunging out with a downward slash of what appeared to be the representation of a wand but in fact was a hard brambool-pole that fell among the approaching marchers apparently at random. Some of the Pigglies laughed at the sight of these figures, which resembled the large comedy-like characters their children watched on their screens. Coming closer, some of the sharper-eyed marchers took in their aspect and guessed they represented something beyond their own campaign, some vague commentary from the “nutters” (as they thought of them) whom they’d glimpsed in the distance failing to fall in line behind them. Others lamely assumed they must be part of Pig’s big show.

At the very least, they were a distraction. Something to stare at and speculate about. That was their point.

The Pigglie marchers’ humor changed when the brambool-poles fell hard upon their heads or slashed across their features.

“Bloody thing!” a squat fellow wearing a red ‘Big Pig’ cap cried in protest when the pole struck him in the face. He wiped his nose and found red streaks on his cuff.

A comrade fell straight to his knees from a blow’s impact striking the back of his head, and sprung back up angrily looking for someone to blame.

The parade swayed away from huge witch-like effigies.

“One two three four!” voices chanted from somewhere. “We don’t want your blood and gore!”

The chant confused Keel, though he had heard it the night before, seeming to contradict the message and behavior of the effigies, whose hard limbs struck randomly on the upper bodies of the now stalled and outraged Pigglies. Maybe the dissenting Populi wished to extract their own modest price of ‘blood and gore,’ so to speak, before some new understanding was brokered.

Was vengeance a value, or even a goal, of the opposition? he wondered. Should it be?

Keel wasn’t close enough to the effigies to get a clear view of what was happening. He had known (via one of those internal signals that no longer surprised him) to stay well behind

the vanguard of Pig’s paraders, the campaign regulars and weaponized rabblers, and to fall in close behind the special-pleaders -- those who had something to sell, whether weaponry, perhaps, or overpriced properties, private-gaming facilities that nobody wanted, or producers of unpopular chemical products that could be dumped on the marketplace at a loss once the tax code had been ‘reformed’ in their favor.

Those were the folks who were now getting whacked by the hard edges of brambool sticks wielded by the cartoonish effigies -- yelping, swearing, and screaming protests and obscenities in response.

“Hey!”

“What the--?”

“Fookin’ crise!”

“Watch what you’re doing, dumbbell!” a bejewelled matron screamed. “You’re hitting us!”

Apparently, Keel gathered, some of these hustler-victims continued to believe the effigies were part of the Installation Parade, a toy of the celebration that was simply malfunctioning. Good, he thought, that would sew confusion, slow response. None of those being struck were at the right angle, or were otherwise unable, to read the red-lettered script on the largest of these, a sky-scraping, endlessly swaying ghost-white puppet.

But Keel knew what was written there: “Kill Pig.”

Where, he thought, have I seen that before?

On the lower side of the Sacred Way, opposite from the plateau from which the effigies had appeared and just beyond the great circle known as the Plain of Pools, where the roadway squeezed into a narrowing neck -- a key feature of the huge cranium of the cosmic giant carved into the face of earth by the titans who once played upon its surface: a figure that could only be seen by humans from the air -- the planned formation of the opposition was taking shape.

Keel felt his hands tingle with anticipation, and also with a tactile memory of sensory contact with the hands of fellow resistors.

More gigantic figures (‘poppets,’ he thought now, knowing the word had once been used for the doll owned and manipulated by a witch) began to flow toward the Plain of Pools. These began bending, and wheeling, as if blown about wildly by some inward gale, striking at the perimeters of the mass of Pigglies, forcing them into cantons of bodies scattered among the dozen reflecting basins of the vast, elliptically designed Plain of Pools. Most of the marchers retreated from them, packing their own ranks increasingly tighter.

Keel saw that the tightly-packed spiral formation of Populi bodies (of which he had been a single cellular hand-clasping unit the night before) was beginning to wind around the great oblong of the Plain.

A gigantic mandala of coiled human flesh, a tightly packed constricting ‘wall of flesh’ (as it occurred to Keel to imagine it now), moved swiftly and systematically to surround both sides of the Plain, arcs of connected hand-to-hand bodies knitting and weaving a many layered noose around the Pigglies. Claiming the space as their own, encircling ranks thickened, their looming presence forcing the marchers to give ground, in some cases pushing right up against the edge-walls of the pools. Those deepest in the mass’s center felt stone pressing into the backs of their knees.

At some point, a telling number of the paraders realized that what was taking place was no longer part of their own campaign’s brilliantly planned exercise to seize powers, was not in fact representative of their movement at all... And began to sense the presence of some alien authority behind the arrival of this new throng of stone-faced ‘others’ -- others who behaved strangely, silently, advanced in lockstep unison, seemingly enchained one to another, and remained eerily speechless as mutes despite the protests, insults, and finally threats hurled their way.

Shouts, they heard, and screams, increasingly more of these, but they came from their own number. A sense of panic began to be felt.

“Hey!” a male shout ripped through the general clamor. “Stop pushing!”

The words sounded less angry than desperate.

Keel realized, with an instant’s shock equivalent almost in intensity to that of the paraders -- as if lifting his eyes to find a huge wave of water about to break over his head -- that the woven wall of opposition bodies was now knitting its dense formation together somewhere behind him, in all probability at the point where the line of march entered the great circle.

He turned abruptly and began shoving his way rudely to the rear, desperate to escape through the ever-narrowing gap before he found himself trapped among the knotted, troubled, trapped, thoroughly confused, and increasingly imprisoned Pigglies.

Stupid!

He was not supposed to be caught in a trap whose plotting he had unwittingly participated in the night before. He had somewhere else to be.

Paraders, Pigglies all, who had not realized that something ominous was going on up ahead, just out of view, continued to push their way into the Great Oblong of the Place of Pools. Some picked up there pace, eager to see what the fuss was about. They glimpsed the surprising height of the effigies, but could not tell what these dangerous puppets were doing.

Keel forced his way back against their flow.

“Hey!... That feller stepped on my foot, Regger!”

“Hey pal! That was my wife you barged into!”

He pushed determinedly into the line of advance beyond both Lady Regger and Regger self, who shouted an insult (“Stoopid fooker!“) his way before returning to their own march forward.

“D’ya’ see what it says, Reg?” dear wife demanded. “Up on that white thing?”

Keel ducked behind two usefully tall marchers, paid-liars by their biz-suited appearance, to escape the attentions of a stream of irritated Pigglies. Took a side step but then came face to face with an intimidatingly broad-shouldered he-mon whose occupation of the acreage was inconvenient to his progress. Looked hesitantly up into the man’s face, seeking the quickest way around.

How about them Soxers? Little chilly today, huh! Whuddya’ got goin’ this weekend?

But something familiar in those thick, unsubtle features, that fleshy jaw...

“Cloten?”

“You!” the man growled. “The boss was looking for ya! Hours ago!”

“I know. Help me get out of this mob.”

Cloten spat out something between an oath and a sigh. “Get outta thish-it ennyway.”

He turned and began shoving people out of his way with the flat of his shovel-sized hands. Keel slipped in behind.

“Kill Pig,” the flowing script demanded.

Where, Keel prodded the authors of his fate once more, have I seen that before?

When the Pigglie marchers had fully engulfed the Great Oblong of the granite pavement and its twelve reflecting pools, the throng of the opposition began to push in from the sides. Some of the Populi were chanting the sort of slogans people brought to Voting season.

“No truth, no sleep! Promises are ours to keep!”

What sort of promises were these? The Pigglies ignored the chants. Word could not hurt them. But the ground sloped away on both sides of the Place of Pools, and made it impossible for the paraders to see the multitude of opposition bodies gathered into their tightly-packed formation surrounding the plaza.

Now the Populi and their followers wound their woven walls of flesh across the neck of the Sacred Way shutting off the egress from the Place of Pools, while other phalanxes tightened their noose around both sides of the Oblong, crowding the ranks of the Pigglie paraders ever more tightly against themselves. The increasing pressure on the bulge of the march, like a belt cinched on a bloating belly, produced a predictable reaction of shouts of anger and annoyance.

“Hey! Outta the bloody way! You’re blockin’ the march!”

But the arm-locked arcs of the Populi had the weight of numbers behind them, pushing forward, closing all the gaps, and the physical grind of two masses of bodies now confronted one another at fast-collapsing distances. Employing the maneuvers practiced the night before, Mrs. Nathan’s mind-crafted mandala of densely packed flesh tightened its wall around the Sons and Daughters of Pig.

Keel heard the noise, the shouts, the jagged swell of panicky protests growing louder behind him as he followed the bullying forward progress of his minder Cloten who plowed a fugitive passage against the stream. He turned his head to look behind him, relieved to have escaped the mass entrapment at the Place of Pools. Beyond the impressions of an ever-tightening entrapment he could not see much. Only the back of the tightly-woven wall of flesh winding its constrictions around the victim it meant in some fashion to consume.

People were falling into the pools.

The wall closed in around the trapped and panicking Pigglies. Obeying a psychically enhanced series of signals, the arcs closest to the encircled victims slipped a half step forward, every body moving at once, squeezing the trapped bodies like the coils of a many-headed constrictor.

The ‘installation’ paraders shouted, demanded, grieved, cried protests, wailed oaths and threats, balled their fingers into fists.

The army of the opposition, arms now firmly locked, gazed back without expression in obeisance to The Rule of Silence. Their faces were bland, unemotional. They did not avoid the eyes of the Pigglie marchers, but they didn’t stare either. They followed their training. They were bricks in a wall. Cells in a body that was knitting itself back up, after a wound.

“I’m warning you!”

Voices raised. But the threats sounded hollow to the ears of those who made them.

Pigglies looked to their neighbors for support, direction, an answer, but seeing in the neighbors only a reflection of their own confusion, sank a half step back.

A woman shouted.

Splashes were heard.

The water in the twelve basins of the Place of Pools was not deep. Two and a half feet of water, approximately, a little less in some places. It would be hard to drown in one, so long as you remained conscious after you went in. But if you fell awkwardly, hit your head, your might be in trouble...

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