The Country/The Country

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50. 'Stop pushing! Please, stop pushing!'

The Leading Candidate’s campaign had taken over the Temple of Ages, the ceremonial Place of Installation. The candidate -- the Triumphant Candidate, the now-proclaimed new Ruler (though he himself had done the proclaiming) -- was pacing back and forth on the upper floor of the temple where an open balcony overlooked a view of the Sacred Way. It was a space used mostly for waving at crowds of admirers. Staffers busied themselves, or pretended to (at this stage there was little for them to do) on the lower level. Their heads were down and they tried not to look at one another as they listened fixedly to the pacing above them, hoping at each moment to hear a shout of triumph.

Fearing one of displeasure.

“Where are they?” Pig turned and bellowed to the empty hall behind him.

The plaza below wasn’t empty, but the body count wasn’t close to what they’d expected, and consisted largely of rabblers, tatooed roughly dressed men, head-shaved and bearded, many of them carrying clubs or other weapons.

Not the look that Pig wanted to present to the network cameras on this of all days. Where were his thousands of respectable-looking, normal Pigglie UZ?

After a moment’s silence, in which the ancient building appeared to be holding its breath, a young aide came running up the stone stairway, an arcane black hat poised precariously on his head and a fat red flower bobbing its pretty face from the lapel of his equally anachronistic coat. He carried a portable screen.

“What’s that?”

“You should see, Sir.” The youthful face colored. “I mean, you may wish to see for yourself -- Sir.”

Pig restrained the urge to explode.

He seized the monitor from the frightened youth swathed in his awkward, angular ceremonial duds, and held it out, arms extended. His eyes worked better at a little distance.

He who would be ruler stared, struggling to make sense of what he saw.

“It’s them,” he said, looking at the chaos on the screen and talking to himself. ”Damn! Why didn’t we find them first?”

He remembered he was not alone and lifted his eyes to glare at the youth.

“Get this thing out of my sight.”

The aide took the device and backed away toward the stairs, but stopped at a fresh command.

“No! Behind me!” This was the crisis, the big man thought. He was needed in the field. “We’re going after them.”

Pig descended the stairs rapidly, but with lips sealed. He would not shout at anyone. All they would see was steely resolution.

He expected to find stricken faces, men (almost all men; women to him were mothers) cowed by events or afraid of his reaction. Instead, a tense low-voiced discussion was taking place between members of his inner circle and a man in gray clothing, unsuitable for the black-clad ceremony of an Installation, and holding a pair of binoculars to his eyes.

Marek! The Caretaker appointed by the Sacred Commission, whose tenure the Triumphant Candidate was about to terminate. What did he want?

“It’s the strangest thing, Mr. Candidate,” the Caretaker said, lifting his eyes at Pig’s arrival. “There appears to be some kind a riot going on. Yet everything seems to be happening in slow motion.”

“A riot?” Pig said. “Is that what you call it?” He hesitated, then gave the other man the detested honorific. “Mr. Commissioner?”

He had hoped to hear a different title from his visitor’s lips: Ruler-Chosen.

The two regarded one another. Marek was gray-eyed, silvered at the temples, precise in his conduct. A natural judge. A master of all precedents. What was the precedent for Pig? Caius Kaesar? Patrius of the Sacred Fire? Carolus Magnus? Promeo the Thesian?

“I’m not sure what to call it.”

The Caretaker had been appointed by the Commission to take over the reins of government since the time-servers left in charge by Kevin O’Rhule’s departure did not appear capable of handling the events pulling the country apart. Marek was a judge, an adjudicator. He had not sought the appointment, and even in the role of temporary ruler he chose his words carefully.

“How about an unsanctioned parade on the Sacred Way?” he suggested. “Shall we call it that?”

Karol Pegasso sighed, playing the part of ‘the man of the hour.’ The role his entire life had prepared him for.

“I have no wish to bandy words, Marek,” he said, with less civility. “I have a fire to put out. So if you will leave us now.” He gestured: the exit is there.

The wide gates of the lower gallery had been thrown open hours before to welcome the happy throng.

“I have come here in my own person,” Marek said, ignoring Pig’s blunt invitation, “in order to instruct you to disperse your followers from the Sacred Way. And tell them not to return until the proper time comes... If it does.”

Pig turned to his nearest followers, an odd paring of the high-level capo Niko Cavo standing beside a hired goon.

“Show the gentleman out. He’s becoming offensive.”

“You’re asking for more trouble, Mr. Candidate,” Marek said, turning away, “than you realize.”

“What are you going to do?” Pig hollered after him, “Call out the troops?”

It was a dare. He hoped the Caretaker would take it, since Pig believed he had already come to terms with the Commonhope’s high command. They had shaken on it. The high command’s needs would be addressed -- fancy new aeronautics; weapons that would never be used -- when he became Ruler.

“Somehow,” Marek replied, pausing, “I don’t believe that will be needed.”

The Caretaker turned his back once more and threw his shoulders out -- a rude gesture among the commonfolk of UZ and highly out of character for the judicious Marek, meaning something like ‘I turn my back on you forever.’

Pig looked for someone to give orders to. Where was Bains? Kinslicker?

He shouted a litany of names, those of his captains mixed liberally with vulgar names for elimination, other bodily functions, and the performance of intimate physical acts with animals. So much for the confident commander’s sang froid.

When men with anxious expressions ran into the gallery, Pig shouted again:

“Get everybody into the trucks!”

At the Place of Pools the wall of flesh was putting out the fire -- the blazing roar of Pig’s intimidating putsch, that is, which had run through the Commonwealth of UZ like a wildfire of greed, Big Selfism, and petty resentment -- by dousing his unsanctioned march to power in the Place of Pools.

Inside the great oblong the Pigglies were outweighed by the densely-fleshed, labyrinthine arcs of interwoven bodies coiling around them and, now, collapsing inward in choreographed pulses.

The entrapped Pigglies felt their personal, bodily space relentlessly squeezed by the contractions of a giant serpent, its inner walls digesting them by turns and spitting them out into the pools.

Screeches.

Curses.

Splashes

Howls.

“I can’t breathe!”

“Stop pushing! Please, stop pushing!”

“My name is Robine,” the woman whose face was inches from hers replied. “We are here to save the country.”

The female Pigglie glared in reply and squeezed harder against the heavy-coated man beside her. But there was no room for escape.

“What’s your name?”

The Pig supporter shook her head. Her name was Gertie; but she’d be damned if she would to share it with this -- ′type.′ Her breath came heavily. What right did they have --?

“Go home,” Robine said softly. “And wake up.”

Gertie took offence. “Who are you to tell me to do anything? What do you think you’re doing here anyway?”

“You see what we’re doing. We’re putting an end to this.”

“The march? We’re just doing our rights!”

“I mean all of it. The intimidation. The fear. People afraid to vote. Shamed. Shamed in public.”

"Shamed? What’s that?”

“You don’t know about shaming?”

Gertie, squeezed still tighter against those behind her, lacked breath for speech. She shook her head.

“Ask one of them.”

A gasp. “Who?”

Robine turned her face to the front of the march. “Pig’s bullies. His army.”

Gertie flashed a desperate look, but the wall slid a unified half-step forward again, constricting around its prey like the peristalsis of some many-headed animal’s insides, and the ordinarily bold figure’s undefended trunk slipped behind a taller woman, robbing her of sight.

Twenty yards away Dame Molie Dean was swinging her pocketbook at the man in front of her. Or trying to. But the belly of the bag was caught up among the limbs and shoulders and elbows of others who, exactly in her own condition, were hard pressed by the arm-locked bodies that had seemingly popped out of the earth and were now pressing her and all those she had walked beside.

“Piggies!” they had called gaily to one another at the outing’s start. “We’re all little piggies, aren’t we?”

Now they were so tightly together that Molie Dean could no longer see where body, arm, and the intended missile of the bag ended and where somebody else’s appendages began.

Whatever happened, thick-chested Beyer Rudrick was not going down without a fight.

Two men were planted in front of him, their arms bound together somehow and bound also with a pair of doxies, cross-stitched like, and things got bollixed up so quickly he could barely make out his opponents’ faces. But while these dopes might have surrendered the use of their arms and fists, if they thought that was some trick to keep him from using his’n, they were somberly mistook.

Rudrick stiffened and threw back his right elbow to get leverage,

“Yoo sunza-beesties!” he bellowed --

but felt a crack when the elbow hit something hard behind him before he could bring it forward. Next thing some little guy was tearing at him, yelling stuff and gib-rush.

“Ahm on yer oon side, ya big oaf! Look watcha’ doon! Ya nearly put me eye out!”

He couldn’t even make out where the damn ruckus was coming from.

“What the hell!” Rudrick shouted in the face of the two youngish men whose chests were now pushing up against his own. “Where the hell do yoo t’ink yer pushin’ us?”

But his antagonists’ tongues were mute while their faces wore the steady look of men who felt their side was triumphing in some significant contest, even though they themselves were mere cogs in the greater wheel beyond their purview. They were mere privates; linesmen; mates in the ranks. Links in a chain.

The voice Rudrick had heard, belonging presumably to the man whose forehead had interrupted his elbow, began yowling again.

“And now yer stompin’ on my feet. Are yer too weak to stand on yer own?”

The big man’s ears rang with confusion. He was backing up again. Somewhere not too far behind, he began to hear splashes.

“I’m falling! O Cryse!”

“Oh-oohh! It’s cold! I’m so wet -- and cold!”

Some people fainted, their bodies held upward by the press. Others were suffering stress attacks. Panic attacks. Pigglies were pushing against other Pigglies now. Looking for space. Breathing room.

The calmer types were telling the emotional types to stop screaming. It was, after all, only water.

Those still giving ground heard splashes around them, followed by shouts of anguish and outrage. Some were sprayed by the flailings of the fallen.

Some pleaded with the still-advancing press of their arm-locked antagonists to back off and let them go home: they just wanted to go home.

“Just back off a little, willya’, and gimme some breathin’ space.”

Some of the men found themselves forced to appeal to phalanxes of women.

They promised to go grab the next highway-bus home and never come back.

They didn’t belong to this mob, anyway. They had no idea how they let themselves get talked into coming to this goddamn silly-roadie-show anyway. They hated the Capital City!

A splash!

A scold!

“Get off me you big oaf!”

“I’d love to, sister, but there’s nowhere to go!"

Already, however, as if all were attuned to the same silent network, some members of the wall’s outer arcs, bricks in the walls of flesh, were unlocking their hands, breaking closure in orderly succession, opening passages through their ranks for the blue-clad medics. Some of the Pigglies who had passed out were being handed over the heads of the people of the wall, whose uplifted arms formed a forest as they transported limp bodies overhead to the Responders of the Recovery Center, set up in a pre-planned choreography on the grassy verge that surrounded the Sacred Way. In a some cases, swift resuscitations were undertaken. Space was cleared beside the pools, as if some huge creature had opened its jaws, and the more gifted among the Populi poured out to kneel over the victims, Mrs. Nathan’s mind-flow compounding the skill of the healers who laid hands upon the prone and offered the breath of life.

The walls yielded, arc by arc, twist by twist, as passages opened for those who wished to depart. Almost everybody did now, many of them dripping from a soak in one of the circle’s nine reflecting pools.

A kind of restorative amnesia appeared to be taking over the minds of the departees.

“Damn!” a man said, squeezing moisture from the sleeves of his jacket. “I just bought this suit.”

“I don’t know why I came here in the first place,” an older man complained to a companion who looked to be his son. “Whose idea was it? Was it yours, Ferd?”

“No, Dad! It was yours! Don’t you remember? You were crazy to go to Capital City. You insisted!”

“Well! Crazy is the word for it, all right!”

They were starting to forget -- to forget what had just happened and also what had happened before to make it happen: to put the past behind them. Looking at their watches. Remembering train and bus schedules, or where the van was parked.

Details came back to them. When and where their wives, or children, or parents, were expecting them. Who had been waiting all day for a call back. The reason they were not worried about luggage: they had not brought any. There had been some promise about new clothes for every man and woman who marched in the whuddyacallit, their share in the spoils of victory.

Victory? What victory?

Many paused in their retreat to stand in the afternoon sun and wring out as much of their garments as they could. They looked at the vernal sun and tried to remember how their clothes got so wet. Some sort of accident; some sort of confusion.

But in the end, they felt a growing sort of reassurance that a tragedy had been avoided.

Nothing could take away that instant of watery impact, though. The memory of the cold, clammy impact of the plunge. They were all still wet. And looking to get somewhere warm.

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