The Country/The Country

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51. Whatever It Was, It Had Better Come Quickly And Do Its Work

A dose of cold water, Keel said to himself.

He stood among the recovering cases in the grassy Recovery Area, where the blue-clothed medics were speaking gently to those who had suffered a loss of consciousness. He walked behind one or two, offering his own two cents of encouragement to those whom the docs pronounced satisfactorily recovered from the stress, or shock, of the dousing.

Oh my word, Keel said to himself, you foxy old witch. What did you do to that water?

By the waters of forgetfulness -- he heard the words form in his mind -- I shall lay me down.

He was among the first to notice the arrival of the trucks.

Pig’s army, at last. Men with long guns, men with revolvers shoved in their belts, men lugging heavy hammers, baseball bats; some wearing helmets of various shapes, a few with bullet proof vests worn openly over their jackets or sweatshirts. They dispersed from their vehicles, stared in one direction and then the other, looking for something that no longer existed. Most headed toward the Recovery Area, where they saw a densest gathering.

The Place of Pools, the destination their bosses had given them, was strangely empty now. It looked like the right place, the place their bosses had seen on the monitors mobbed with some confused milling of bodies. But almost nobody was there now. Some garments, hats mostly, floated on the surfaces of the reflecting pools. A few people, Populi whose work was done but felt no urge to hurry off, sat relaxed on the concrete benches bordering the pools and paid no attention to the newcomers.

The men with guns and clubs shook their heads at the altered scene, ignored the loiterers, judging them too few to be the source of trouble.

They looked instead for the ‘rioters,’ the multitude of enemies who had somehow contrived to attack the boss’s parade. But what happened to their people? The boss’s people?

From where he was now standing, a rise of ground clad with a few trees offering shelter, Keel could see what the new arrivals could not. The masses of disenchanted Pigglies -- a change of attitude abetted by a combination of psycho-and-chemical brainwashing -- were trudging away from the Sacred Way to a vast parking area filled with the long vans leased to bring them to the Capital City. The waters of forgetfulness in the Pools have done their work, spread their message of disengagement: Recovery of the old good-enough normal, and abandonment of the frenzy of the piggery that drove the desire to tear apart the body politic and feed on its guts.

After the wall of flesh had choked off the parade at the Pools, those in the van, and those still to approach the Place of Pools, began to realize that nobody was marching behind (or ahead of) them, rumors spread, apparently spontaneously (though in fact started and furthered by Populi members carefully secreted among them) that the parade was cancelled and Pig’s Installation would not after all take place that day.

Plans had changed. Some problem had arisen. The candidate had changed his mind.

Plans sometimes did change, a few wise jaws wagged, and even great leaders can change their minds.

“Look!” the rumor-bearers said to the Pigglies who had advanced beyond the pools before the wall of flesh arrived. There is no one following behind you any more!

“Behold!” spoke other rumor-mongers to those paraders who still approached the region of the Place of Pools. No one awaits you! Those who preceded you have already departed!

So by the time Pig’s soldiers reached the swiftly established Recovery Area, they found no riot to quell, no conflict in progress, and no more parade to protect.

It was hard to see what anyone was doing there aside from the healers who by now had brought almost all their patients to their feet, and were calmly taking pulses, tapping veins, listening to heartbeats, and talking soothingly to those wrapped in blankets who had been distressed by their immersion.

Some others, Populi no longer part of the wall of flesh and fully restored to their unique individuality, were policing the line of march to gather up the littered plastic, paper of various thicknesses from nooz-sheets up to cardboard plates and beverage containers ... assorted junk, foodstuffs, clothing items, wet hats, abandoned shirts, or soaked pullovers, tees... some male undershirts and some hard to identity garments that appeared to be still more intimate.

“Cheezis Cryse,” Blackwell, one of Pig’s commanders said to nobody in particular, “what happened? Did they all just decide to go home?”

Pig walked into the paved area between the largest of the pools and contemplated the empty space. People don’t just vanish, he thought. They don’t turn and run away all at once, Something went on. It all pointed to “them,” the opposition he knew existed and suspected was planning something. He had no doubt about that. But how they pulled it off was troubling.

“Where are the bodies?” he asked a man in the uniform of the Capital constables, who had just emerged from the official Capital Police cars.

“What?” chief constable Enver Gant replied, puzzled.

“The casualties. The dead,” he added when the constable persisted in troubled silence.

“There aren’t any,” Blackwell called.

Pig stared as his commander walked toward him.

“No casualties,” the tall, bullet-clad man repeated. “Nobody got killed. A few knocks on the head, but as far as I can tell but they all got up and walked.”

“Strange business,” the conspicuously armed man added, at a loss. Who could he fight? There was no around to fight.

Pig’s expression turned cynical. Some of his followers must have been carrying firearms. They were the people who carry firearms, some never going anywhere without them. Why didn’t they use them? Why didn’t they defend themselves against an enemy intent on breaking up their march?

“Then where did everybody go?” he demanded, turning from Blackwell to glare at the approaching constable.

The constable stopped about a dozen feet away.

“I don’t know what you’ve been told, Mr. Pegasso,” he said, his gaze level. “But nobody got killed here. Nobody was left on the ground... Some individuals fell into the pools apparently. They were wet. Whether they chose to enter the pools, or” -- a shrug -- “got helped in by somebody else we don’t know. But there was no trouble when we got here. Just some people wrapped up in blankets.”

Pig could hardly berate him for not keeping a closer watch on his supporters, since the parade was unsanctioned. He would find something to say in public, though. And, he vowed, he would say it strongly.

Some of the soaked Pigglies must have needed transport, Keel thought as he waited in the recovery area, because a couple of thick-wheeled vehicles now crawled slowly across the wintery grass back to the place where the medics and healers were packing up their gear. He looked about, yet failed to see any patients still needing emergency transportation. The drivers of the vehicles, the kind of foreshortened truck called an SOB (“Safe on Board”) used by small businesses or by families to ferry mobs of children or dogs, turned off their engines. One of the drivers wore earphones.

Keel walked down a gentle incline toward the broad rounded plain of the Place of Pools, thinking his time must be coming now. He was not surprised to find Karol Pegasso there. Behind him, a woman got out of one of the SOBs on the passenger side and walked toward the figures still standing at a loss on the Place of Pools. She wore a black beret and a somber scarf loosely folded around her throat. She possessed no optical apparatuses, but had very strong vision; her eyes had been tested in the preparation phase. She gazed at the two figures, one of them the Capital Constable officer.

“C’mon,” she murmured, well out of hearing of the standing men, “get out of there. Go somewhere and get warm.”

She noted the deep blue of the commander’s uniform, not the formal dress worn for a sacred occasion such as a real Installation, but braided enough to signal his status when he arrived on a locus. She saw the line of his trunk tense forward, then lean back.

Pig was nodding now, apparently satisfied, or resigned. But a tension still ran through his body, nailing him to the ground.

She exhaled as she saw the constable take a half-step backward, then turn slowly and walk away from Pig toward a group of his own officers waiting with some interest at the edge of the circle.

“Good,” the sharp-eyed woman muttered, “keep going.”

She watched the interval widen between Pig and the departing officer, repeating to herself the exact words of her instruction: “Enough space to take only the one.”

When she judged the clearance sufficient to be absently certain only the ‘one’ would be taken, her instructions were to hiss a single-word command to the SOB driver through the mike concealed in the fold of her stylish driver’s scarf.

Keel was certain his moment had come. But, like the female observer, he worried that the commander of the Capital Constable, doing his job like the assured public servant he was, had stepped untimely into the scene.

Growing more anxious by the moment, he waited for the command that the messenger, the nameless female -- who reminded him of Fama in her assuredness, but was older; less daring perhaps but more judicious -- and who had taken his hand during the long night of Populi training, had told him to expect. It would have to do with Pig. It had to. What other sort of purpose could someone like Keel, aging pot of flesh that he was, be expected to serve?

Get close to him? That was all that he had done so far.

He would be used, Keel reasoned, to set up Pig. Isolate him. Engage him in conversation on something, anything, of sufficient moment to hold him in place just long enough.

Ideally, distract his attention from the looming threat.

Yes, this was the moment, and this was the place. Having escaped being inadvertently crushed among the Pigglies by the Populi’s wall of flesh by following in the wake of Cloten’s bumper-car advance, he had lingered in the Recovery Zone, waited for the pool-drenched victims to recover, gather themselves, take the dry clothes or blankets offered them, and head off with unspoken relief toward hotels or buses. He watched as Pig’s soldiers arrived too late in their fierce, but now useless people-bearing trucks. When Pig waved off his aides, dismissing the whole whacked-up business, to stand alone amid the wreckage of the day and contemplate the place where the tide had turned, Keel left the Recovery Zone and moved slowly toward the Leading Candidate...

expecting at any moment to receive somehow, via the intuitive certainty such commands had always possessed, the exact knowledge of what he should do.

Whatever ‘it’ was, it had had better loom quickly and do its work. Regardless of his disappointment, Pig was unlikely to stand about for long brooding.

Even now as he ambled slowly toward Pegasso, he imagined hearing, “What do you want, Keel? You’re not needed here. I’ve got some work to do, and I don’t mean just flapping my gums.”

No, Pig would not engage in a drawn-out postmortem. He’d be planning some new stagy ‘triumph’ to wipe the memory of this day’s debacle off the networks.

So where was the signal?

Pig poked at a bit of trash with the toe of an expensive shoe, then looked up and saw Keel approaching.

Keel could not make out his expression. What the hell, he thought, and kept walking.

Some little stabbing something, a prickling of neurons, stung him in the chest, the taproot of emotion. He quickened his stride. A second later he was running.

Pig’s eyes grew large. He turned slightly, to face the oncoming Keel directly, a look of surprise and then a fierce curiosity on his features. He knew something was up, this expression told Keel, but he did not know what.

He was ready for everything, Pig’s look shouted to the approaching Keel, that soft barrel of flesh rolling his way.

Except for what was in fact coming.

Keel felt the drop in the atmosphere, the molecules and atoms of air itself rushing to get the hell out of there. Perhaps the other man did as well. Something had charged the ions, cowed the fury of the ever-beaming electrons, carved out a new space inside the space that was already there.

The roar of the world burst upon the ears of the living, emptying all other sound from the auditory powers of those possessed of the power of hearing. Even the gull wheeling against the gray veil of clouds changed direction and shot away from the scene.

The vehicle, the single, supra-muffled SOB, flew up the incline and streaked through the pavement toward the figure standing alone between two of the reflecting pools.

The calculations had been predetermined and programmed into the thing that raced forward. The roar of its throttle was swallowed by the emptied space. The peel of the tires sucked backward into some prior instant, already unheard. The grind of gears and shear of wind emptied of their forewarning.

The target: trapped.

Potential flight hemmed by the pools, ringed by their concrete banking.

Pig would not hear fatality approaching. His eyes locked on the approaching Keel.

By the time the vehicle of his termination showed itself, it would be too late for escape.

Then something.

Keel shouted.

Pig wrinkled his nose, sniffing betrayal. Bare minutiae of distant decibels reached his senses, but could not coalesce.

No one heard the vacuumed shout.

Pig’s stare mushroomed into shocked apprehension that the other man was struggling to communicate something to him.

A threat? A warning?

He took a step backwards, toward the nearest of the pools, when the swallowed peal of the engine broke on his senses

He was mid-step backwards again when Keel’s shoulder drove into his chest and both men left their grounding and tumbled, silently screaming, over the low barrier wall into the pool. Pig fell awkwardly, undefended; and heard the crack of bone. The smaller body of the other man (Keel? truly?) pushed against his own, then rolled aside.

The universe fully, now, reclaimed its ears.

The programmed killer-truck roared past as its target tumbled backward into the pool, companioned by some unforgiveable interloper who should not have been anywhere near point-zero, the two breathing creatures vanishing before the eyes of the disbelieving driver-thing.

Keel’s nose and mouth filled with water, silencing anew the shout in his lungs.

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