There wasn’t enough electricity and paper in the capital, so there were no newspapers or web connectivity, hence there was also a shortage of bad news. Some people believed that the moral decrepitude of the times had spread to the sub-atomic level and that electricity was lacking because the charges had started acting on their attraction to the same instead of the opposite charge. Other people were quietly discovering the easiest, the most natural form of heroism, which is, against disaster and the fear of war, to remain the same. Negotiations between Colorado and Utah had broken down and re-started yet again. Feeling the need to agree on something to show for their efforts, they’d decided to draft a pair of joint non-binding resolutions entitled “Things We Can All Agree Are Cool” and “Things We Can All Agree Are Lame,” and had just finished up the second list with the concluding item “Names that end in Roman numerals.'” It took the Mormon delegates especially long to peruse since they insisted on reading them through glasses with stone lenses. But after they finished, then what?
At least both sides had an interest in maintaining the peace. The Mormons found it difficult to keep a fighting force in the field, when their best soldiers were continually being raptured up to heaven at such a rate that a squadron could vaporize before a bullet was fired. The army was becoming so short of soldiers that recruiting officers had started staking out hospitals, drumming their fingers in the waiting room and cheering on surgeries and births in the operating room. At least, having banned TVs long ago as a form of satanic propaganda, Utah had avoided the ill effects when the broadcast networks in the now hostile foreign metropolises of New York and Los Angeles simply began broadcasting irradiating waves, which had reduced much of the Coloradan population to lurching, catatonic zombies. For this the countless herbal doctors, as they did for everything, prescribed medical marijuana, which failed to revive the population’s lost dynamism. Both sides needed a miracle. The Mormons prayed to God for one, while many Coloradans performed yoga exercises to become more centered, figuring it couldn’t hurt.
Clearly survival, though a simple goal, demanded convoluted tactics. But spring had come again, or at least the three months of oscillation between winter and summer which passes by the name there. The year was one of drought; farmers feared they might not have a harvest of grain, the vintners feared they might not have a harvest of grapes, and, with the rivers at a trickle and no hydraulic power, the light rail conductors feared they might be able to operate their silently advancing trains and gather their harvest of distracted pedestrians.
The Supreme Elder of Utah was busy confusing and frightening a lot of people. First he’d gone to war against Las Vegas and burned it to the ground, consistent with his age-old hatred of casinos and all the sins they represented. But then he had declared war on Colorado, and still no one knew exactly why. Then he had declared peace just as abruptly two years later. Confused analysts attempting to divine a logic, though, did not know how much he loved to sign his name. Every order that he signed–troops sent into battle, troops withdrawn from the battle they had just arbitrarily provoked, import duties raised, then lowered, dueling statements from the ruler fondly supporting and fiercely opposing the same position–provided the set-up for a counter-order negating it and a second chance to sign his name, doubling his pleasure. Sometimes when a document included space for the signatures of all his ministers, he signed his own name in every space. He loved everything about signing a document: the heavy scratching sound, the firmness of the paper, the aggressive curls of his name posturing and threatening the last paragraph of the document.
The President of Colorado, meanwhile, was preparing to launch an operation which he hoped would give him a stronger hand in the negotiations. He had raised the subject in his council meeting with the circumspection befitting a highly secret mission: “I want to launch a black op deep in Utahan territory.” “You mean an African-American op?” his chief of staff asked. “Alright, fine, we need to launch an African-American op of the highest risk.” “Is it African-American because it’s so dangerous?” asked the Director of Public Relations bitterly. “No, it’s dangerous because it’s a black op–” “African-American op” said the chief of staff. “Whatever. The point is, they’re dangerous by definition.” “I see,” said the Director of Public Relations.
When the operation had been agreed and the councillors were leaving, the chief of the army and the legal counsel conferred. “With what the President is asking of us, I’m becoming worried about him.” “Or her,” said the legal counsel. “No,” said the chief of the army, “it’s a him.” “Could be a her.” “No it couldn’t, the President is a man.” “Doesn’t have to be.” “Of course it does! Were you not just talking to him?” “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you meant this President, upper-case p, is a man. I thought you meant that the president in general, lower-case p, is rightfully a man.”
And so the African-American op was launched. To lead it the government did not choose a heroic, many-talented special forces soldier, a crafty master of ruse and infiltration, or even an unstable hothead with some mysterious personal animus. They probably wouldn’t even trust one of those type of characters out of fear they would run over the mission budget. Instead, they chose the head of the Department of Mystifying Public Art, charged with ensuring that new monuments not veer far from the standard set by the demonic horse out by the airport or those ethereal animate Q-Tips dancing behind the convention center or the mysterious giant blue bear peering in through the window in front of it. And they chose the rest of his department to carry it out. In fact, the director, whose name was Anton, had tried convince his superiors that his department was fully capable of performing any task up to and including high-grade military operations, as a way of expanding his budget. But that was not the reason he had been selected. In fact, his superiors were fairly confident he and his underlings knew nothing about tactical military matters. They had had selected him for the African-American op because it was so high-grade that if the team in charge of it did understand what they were doing and how to do it, they would know too much.
As it happened, the inexpertise of his department for this task was even greater than might have been expected because he had managed to insert his entire family onto the payroll, including his five-year-old daughter, whose role was defined as “educational.” Actually, they constituted the whole of the department. This was possible as privacy laws in Colorado were such that no private information about any government employee could be requested, including their name, unless they were suspected of wrongdoing. Which was somewhat hard to arrive at when no one’s name was known.
Kata, his wife, was very upset to learn that she and her entire family had been drafted into an off-book military run. She commenced to inflict a sex strike on him. However, he did not know this until she announced it a week later.
“Oh,” he said. “Then what have you been protesting the last six months?”
Anyway, he had no control of the situation now. She needed to find a way to get at the powers that be. However, she soon learned you could only evade an order, not defy it. At first she planned to pass her children off as a pack of German Shepherds and herself as a minimalist armoire.
“But none of you look anything like those,” objected her husband.
“Even better,” she said. “So they won’t even be able to draft us into service in that capacity.”
“I was just going to try to bribe my commanding officers.”
However, these orders came from the highest levels, and power has a dividing line, like a tree line, above which bribery is just a tribute.
“Can’t you hire some new employees and send them?”
“We have no budget to afford anyone–at least not since you went to Cherry Creek on Saturday.”
“Can’t you just turn it down?”
“Are you kidding? For me to know about this kind of thing and refuse to serve it would be considered treasonous.”
“Well, there’s no way in hell the children are going, government officials or not,” she said, while packing juice boxes into big army backpacks. She had promised the kids that they were going to stay with their grandparents in South Park.
“Are you going to tell them differently now?” she had asked.
They had met for the first time in the summer after a rain. He saw her standing atop a marble railing in Civic Park, with the sun upon her, wreathing her head like a halo, and he mistook her for a statue. He’d just started working at the Dept. for the Mystification of Public Art, and the fact that this statue had gone up without its knowledge or participation was less disturbing than that the statue definitely seemed to conflict with the department’s mandate. But a moment passed, and he saw more clearly through the sun’s glare, and then she moved.
She was not the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen, but she did seem to make Denver a slightly smaller city. Even if only by a couple of master planned subdivisions and maybe that mountain with the weird “M” on it in Golden. She was standing on one leg, both arms plunged shoulder deep up into the sky. For some reason he felt his position gave him pretext to talk to her.
“Why are you standing like that?” he asked
“What? On one leg?” she said. “I’m just one leg away from levitation.”
“I could just take you up a mountain. Wouldn’t that be faster?” This was before the war.
“I don’t like mountains.”
“Do you come here often?”
“Sometimes. I’m taking a break.”
“From having them?”
“No, from taking care of them.”
“You have children, then?”
“I wish. Then I could tell them what to do.”
“So you’re nannying?”
“Not at the moment. Though I have no idea what the parents do if they need a turkey sandwich when I’m not on call. Maybe they call 911.”
“Why don’t you get some sleep?”
“There’ll be time. The youngest is already 10.”
Her eyes nonetheless did droop as she stood there and almost closed, but the rest of her body stayed perfectly upright. He wondered if this was the position of her body at rest, the position it would take in zero gravity or underwater.
“Do you come here often?” he asked.
A bum walked up to him. “My name is Jake,” he said. “What’s yours?”
“Cool. Now that we’re friends, can I borrow some money?”
Anton pulled a five out of his wallet. As he was handing it over, he noticed it was actually a 20. Still, there was no losing by it: Jake was happy, and the girl must be impressed. If she thought 20 was a lot for him, it meant he was generous, and if it was very little for him, it meant he was wealthy. Win-win.
I wonder if he’s buying drugs from that guy, she thought.
She had gotten bored with the conversation, so she asked: “Would you like to meet me again?”
Not that night, but before the month was out, they had switched skins. One night they both unbuttoned, from nose to crotch, took them off and swapped them. The whole of the penis, balls, breasts and birth canal all the way up to the ovaries detached with the rest. They wound up doing that many more times in the coming years. Until it got confusing.
Now they were driving West again, as their ancestors had, as maybe they never should have stopped doing. Kata stared out the window with unfocused eyes at the still-standing telephone lines passing by, swooping down and curving up from pole to pole like a very languid heart monitor. She imagined the birds perched upon them, pulling them tight then rubbing their feet to produce notes, plucking the wires from time to time with their claws. She could imagine, when they sang, the seeds they had ingested flying out again through their beaks and up onto the tree branches, where they would burst into flower. At times, she saw refugees leaving the high country with flowers in their beards as well. In many fields crops of money plants had been sown, but the drought was such that much of the fruit had wilted while still tiny pennies and dimes, well before they’d ripened into quarters, much less blossomed into paper money.
Once they entered the mountains, they saw less people streaming East, and greatly more bears. They’d heard tell that those that refused to leave their homes even when they were burned and destroyed in the war often took to the trees and streams, or wandered between the peaks at night, where they turned into great brown and black bears, many of whom got shot by soldiers on both sides anyway.
The rule of Colorado law came to an end among tundra bushes and marmots on Loveland Pass . When they crossed it, Anton decided he needed a gun. When they reached Breckenridge they asked the first suspicious character they saw where they might find guns, but he became suspicious of them. The second suspicious character they talked to was addled, and the third claimed not to understand their accents. Finally they found someone who directed them to the last right turn in town. As they reached it a couple of fighter jets came roaring overhead. They weren’t strafing or dropping payloads, but that’s not to say they wouldn’t. The street instantly cleared. Anton veered off Main Street onto the road just as they passed over. Utah? Colorado? Predatory third parties? Who knew? In front of them lay the shells of a few ruined hotels, and they found a low cavernous building with an intact side entrance. They stopped the car and walked up to It. A sign over the door read “SKI LESSONS.” Kata looked down at the threshold and saw a large red smear where it looked like a body had been dragged in the door. Just like how she remembered ski school.
“My prayers go with you,” she said.
“But you’re an atheist.”
“I may not know who to send a prayer to, but I do know who to send it for.”
Upon entering, Anton saw a room stacked with army equipment. Piles of automatic rifles, and not the restrictive models for civilian use imported from the East Coast which would only fire after you’d tried to verbally resolve your dispute. These were real military-issue. This place must have been a small-arms depot during the war– and perhaps the site of some final standoff as well.
Near the far wall sat a bearded survivalist-looking type, and he did not have the look of a man engaged in a service profession. In addition to the many guns piled up around him, he had a desk, under cover of whose air of respectability he probably had a couple more concealed. A taxidermied owl head mounted on a plaque hung on the wall behind his head.
Anton was wondering how he was going to broach the subject of buying a gun, without being immediately relieved of the money he planned to buy it with.
“I’m looking for a weapon.”
The guy got up. He was wearing very bright red sport shoes. It was hard to tell from this distance whether it was because he was a man of leisure with unscuffed shoes or because they came straight off the foreign aid pile. He pointed towards a pile of guns. “Like this?” he asked. Then he picked up a little stone from the ground and a rubber band from his desk. He made a slingshot out of it. “Or this?”
“Whichever one has greater range.”
“Depends what type you choose.”
“Well, I already have a rifle–I just need a back-up.”
“Yeah? What type is that?”
“I’m not sure exactly, I got it second hand.”
“Want to produce it? We’ll soon see.”
“I don’t have it on me–it’s outside.”
“You could go get it.”
“What are you so eager to see it for?” He felt that outflanking inquiry with general paranoid distrustfulness ought be a familiar and relatable stance for a gun dealer.
“So you want me to find you a match for a gun you don’t know the make of and which you also won’t show me. Why shouldn’t I just rob you instead?”
“Because I have a gun!”
“Well, it’s not here now, is it? Alright, I’ll give you a gun. But you better not say that your money is elsewhere too, or I’ll take something off of you that you can’t help but know when it’s gone as payment.”
“I won’t. I only have Colorado money, though.”
“That’s fine. As far as I’m concerned this will always be Colorado territory, even if the border runs around the four walls of this building. How much do you have?”
“Come on, you think I’m just going to accept 90% of whatever you brought just because I have piles of these and I’m trying to unload them before the final treaty?”
“No, I think you’ll take it because we’re heading west where there will be even bigger piles with less takers.”
“Alright, I’ll do it, only because you’ll need it if you’re going that way.”
Anton handed over 400, all brand new bills he had gotten for the mission.
“Course, that one’s currently lacking a clip,” the guy said as soon as he had the money in hand. Then he pulled open a drawer and drew out a long chrome-plated pistol. “But this one isn’t, and if I want to make Colorado’s claim to this store more than a personal opinion, I’ll be needing the services of it and all the rest of these weapons.” He pointed the pistol at Anton. “You should go back where your laws as well as your currency are accepted. Your feet or your car or your donkey has led you too far west.”
Anton turned around and left the store. He turned right from the exit and picked up the rifle that was still sitting on the chair near the entrance where he must have abandoned during the fly-over and then forgotten it. It even had a clip sitting next to it, which was something. There was also a grease rag and a cleaning brush, but he left those, just as a reminder that no one gets by without trust.
When Anton’s wife saw him, he had a rifle in hand and showed no signs of being pursued. That would have to serve as a solid enough foundation for faith. Perhaps the god she’d prayed to had come through, despite the notable handicap of not existing.
As they approached the Utah border they saw a blast wall laid across the highway, with a single desk and a man in a black suit and porkpie hat sitting behind it, flanked by two armed guards.
Anton stopped the car before the wall, and he and his wife got out.
“What is this?” he asked the man, not even bothering to gesture.
“Judgment,” said the man.
“Oh. I thought this was Utah.”
“It is. But we can’t let just anyone in, in these times especially.”
“What if we just go around you that way?” This time he did gesture, to the mountains to the north, with a palm-up waiter-bearing-a-tray gesture.
“You think you can skirt judgment off to the right? It will find you wherever you are, one way or another. Might as well stick to the road and find it here.”
Anton thought for a moment. “Hey, by the way, what do you do about this desk and papers when it rains?”
“Oh, it doesn’t rain on us here. We’re not that kind of station.”
“And on what basis will you plan judge us? You don’t know us.”
“But you know me, which is a good start.”
“Well, you knew someone would be waiting at the end of the road.”
“I thought maybe to welcome me.”
“Maybe someone will. Now, shall we begin? Name?”
“Sorry, I don’t mean your name. I mean your nation or tribe.”
“We belong to none anymore.”
Suddenly a gust of wind from west lifted up the man’s hat and hurled it towards Anton.
“My justice hat!” he cried.
Both of his guards whipped out pistols and shot at the hat as it sailed towards Anton. Only one of them connected. Like a firing squad, no one would ever know the actual shooter. The hat fell like a dead bird before Anton’s feet.
“Thanks,” said the inquisitor.
At that moment a host came thundering out of the distance to the south. The line of it grew lighter and longer as it approached. It was enveloped in dust. The guards, already with guns drawn, stared suspiciously towards it, but unable to see clearly who approached they refrained from firing. Suddenly several gunshots caught both of them in the neck. A bunch also missed them entirely, and a couple winged them in the shoulders, but nobody cared about those. The inquisitor jumped to his feet. Anton and his wife retreated to the car. Several howling maniacs in war paint emerged from the dust and one of them beheaded him at one stroke with what looked liked a croupier stick made of steel and sharpened to an edge. Then the whole raiding party surrounded the car. They lowered their weapons and one of them motioned to roll down the car window. Anton lowered his a crack.
“We’re not connected with them and are only trying to leave this land peacefully. Who are you?”
“Historical reenactors,” said the warrior.
“Yes. We had this idea, instead of just replaying the original battles, which our tribe always lost, we should see if we could get the best of them this time.”
“I think that makes you insurgents.”
“No, we’re redoing history, correcting it.”
“What difference does that make for us?”
“Well, we’d probably kill you instead of letting you leave our territory.”
“You killed those guys,” with a gesture towards the bodies like dropping something softly.
“But we’re letting you leave.”
“Suits me. That’s all we want to do.”
The circle of warriors did not move.
“Sooo….” Anton murmured, releasing the brake and letting the car coast forward slowly.
“I think you misunderstand us. We claim all this land outside the circle. I only said you were free to leave our land. That leaves only the area within it.”
“That’s not justice. Is this even your ancestral land?”
“No. It’s several days’ ride south. Very desolate, but still we were able to operate a couple casinos and live decently, until the Mormons came during the war. You know how they feel about gaming establishments. Look what they did to Las Vegas. So you see what we do to them in return.”
Kata and her daughter were the only women in the company. So far their captors had restrained themselves beyond what one could reasonably expect from marauders on horseback, but she didn’t know if they were just deferring. Or maybe they just lacked warm blood. The greater part of the troupe were actual skeletons, their clothes mere ossuaries into which which they packed their skinless bones with gauze and bubble wrap. Because not all the members of the tribe had escaped the casino where they’d lived before the Mormons set the torch to it. To see them now was like seeing its ruins, broken columns and charred I-beams, raised up to ride again in vengeance.
It soon became clear the horsemen were headed in one particular direction. It became clear they were headed in one particular direction because they kept going in many directions chaotically. Or more precisely, they kept striking off in a direction, then stopping, then huddling, then muttering, then backtracking, then striking off again in a slightly different direction.
They had seen smoke rising beyond a ridge that they were climbing, and as they crested it they saw a parched valley and a village below them. When they reached its outskirts they saw seven or eight women among the sparse trees, hanging laundry on lines strung between the trees. They all seemed to have children hanging on them or running around in a frenzy. It must be washing day for the village housewives. Then one of them looked up, saw the warriors and shrieked. The rest then raised their heads and similarly descended into hysteria. They snatched up the children and then all ran into the same house.
When Anton and Kata reached the courtyard, warriors were chasing the women around in a frenzy. The chief though seemed more fascinated by the children. He was turning a screaming baby around in front of him, inspecting its little sweater closely, looking up at it from below. After a minute he asked:
“Who says his words for him?”
He thought for a few minutes, perhaps contemplating the treasures that could be looted from the village. “We need bed sheets,” he said.
Nonetheless, he would not allow raping, though he did permit as much plundering as the tribe wanted. Anton later asked him why.
“Because the land and all its fruits belong to us by right, but not the people on it.”
One house in the village was considerably larger than the others. It was covered in a bulging layer of flesh and skin. The warriors began to cut long strips out of it. They cut cleanly with their croupier sticks and there was little blood. Underneath the flesh the house looked to be made of white stone rather than wood. When they had collected about enough meat to grow another house with, they decided to move on.
Unbeknownst to them, word had reached the negotiating governments in Denver of a border post overrun and villages put to the sack. Both sides put aside the their ongoing negotiations to join together for the urgent task of pinning the blame on each other. The Colorado military intelligence unit probably could have helped but, after the top-secret African-American op had been compromised, and unable to find Anton, the department had shut itself down, as the director was not able to be certain that even he himself hadn’t turned.
Finally, after desperately scouring every possible alternative, the two sides decided to cooperate. As the tribe was last seen near Green River, it was decided that Utah would supply the troops, since they were closer, and Colorado would pay for them. The Colorado Minister of War then gave a rousing speech exhorting the nation’s prostitutes to make an extra patriotic financial sacrifice in aid of their new Mormon brothers and sisters. The Utah government, outraged to learn this would be the source of their support, angrily returned the money.
Meanwhile, the tribe was pushing through the San Rafael Swell on their way to get around at Salt Lake City via the lake, which the chief regarded as an extremely crafty strategy, and also because he’d never gone sailing before.
Whatever sensations he hoped to experience from taking to the waves, however, the endless ragged sandstone upthrusts on the way to them produced near the opposite. This route had its advantages when the Utah army decided to follow its new motto of safety first (which helped to protect its fragile troop numbers but hadn’t exactly set the recruiting trail afire), by sending its first wave of pursuers to give chase in tanks, which stalled out at the first ridge line.
The defenses in the town of Tooele, in a valley just beyond the south end of the lake,rude to a wild burst of overly wildly imaginative counter-strategic thinking, had actually been designed to guard against a secret attack across the lake, but those whoring degenerates in Las Vegas had never pulled together sufficiently to undertake such an operation before their city was burned to the ground. Now the fortress, entangled with and gown out of the old army depot, just obstructed the town, and weeds had grown all over the gun emplacements like little illegitimate gardens.
The commander of the fortress didn’t know from whence the threat to watch out for lay, but he did know that the Bonneville salt flats lay not far away–trouble could arrive in a hurry. Of course, he spent almost every leave day prospecting in the hills, and he always brought the girl that secretaried for him along, for all the phone-answering and visitor-receiving at the dig site.
He wanted to control an army of prospectors to scour the hills for him. He already controlled an army, so he just needed to make prospectors of them. Most days he had the whole garrison off in the hills, swinging pick axes. For a while they took to stripping off their uniforms to work under the desert sun, but this he soon forbade, because without their uniforms they quickly got confused and started to forget who outranked who.
The Indian band had turned the corner and begun riding north up the Tooele Valley. The chief had to be talked out of riding over to the salt flats to see if his horse would gallop faster there. At night he sometimes talked to Anton and Kata because they were not in duty bound to respect him.
“Ruling the desert, there aren’t enough people to take prisoner. We are mostly proclaiming our might to the lizards and the owls.”
“But there have also been no soldiers to contest your claim,” said Kata.
“Why would they want to stymie our progress? They probably think we are going to throw ourselves in the lake.”
“I thought that was the plan.”
“Nonsense. You’re going to enter the nearest town to it as our pale faces and purchase us a yacht or two. See if they make longships anymore. That would set the right note.”
That night, as the chief lay in his tent, expecting to sail into battle the next day, an apparition visited him. The chief took him for an angel or an ancestor, standing as he did outside the fire, not illuminated but somehow clearly visible, not shimmery but rather indistinct, as if a concentration of the colors around him. Tattoos were etched into bas reliefs on his arms, swirls and hoofs and extremely detailed hand prints.
“Who are you?” asked the chief.
“A representative of the heavenly army,” replied the specter.
“Have you come to join the fight with us?”
“No, we just wanted to wish you a happy birthday. We didn’t know you were fighting. Who’s the foe?”
“Salt Lake City.”
“Ooh, that’s serious, you must watch for the angels guarding the Temple. There are a lot of them, because the Church takes in a lot of revenue, they pay their angels quite well. We very much enjoy the virgins that you sacrifice to us, but you know, it also wouldn’t kill you to pour us out a real drink once in a while.”
The next morning, as they made their way through the hills due west of town to avoid being seen, they ran right into the pack of soldiers from the fort prospecting for their commander in the hills. Hardly any of them had weapons besides their shovels and picks, but they still wore uniforms to avoid confusion, so the tribe, surprised and frightened and thinking themselves ambushed, fell upon them at once.
The tribe began to rain bullets and arrows onto the army party. A couple of Utah soldiers sustained arrows to the eye. They really had no way of fighting back except one or two that discovered a talent for hurling a pickax end over end like a dagger. They ran up the rocky slopes where horses couldn’t follow. Several of them tried to roll boulders down on the tribe. When groups of them fled in different directions, detachments from the tribe rode after them until they fell. Finally the main body of them collected on the other side of a high ridge. The rear guard protecting the ridge’s front side was composed only of dead bodies.
And then a white flag went up above the ridge. Blood prints and mud stained it in spots. It looked like a soiled bed sheet. Maybe they had made off with one of the tribe’s. Then the figure holding it appeared, slightly shielded by a pinyon pine. He raised his right hand high for silence and called out:
“Best two out of three?”
“My people and ours have already fought a match or too,” the chief answered. “But I will tell you what I will do. I will allow all your troops to leave, if you go straight West from here and don’t return for any reason to the town. We will be there, and leave the lights on to warn away any stray travelers.”
As it turned out, there were no yachts on the lake to pilot. Or longships, or dingies, or anything except for a couple little boats with outboard motors. Several of the tribe were able to fall back on remedial boat-making skills, a few went to go pillaging in the town, and a couple even started looking for logs to float. A huge soldier named Dennis started lifting giant boulders and heaving them into the water.
“What in God’s name are you doing?” asked the chief.
“I’ve heard that at least one kind of rock floats,” he said. “And so I guess I’ll test them all until I find it.”
Anton paddled the canoe that he and Kata were floating in such a way as to stay near the pack while keeping a little behind and off to the right side, as if to try to present the possibility, to anyone watching on the shore, that they were not actually part of the raiding party, that they were just sort of doing their own thing nearby.
As they approached the shore, the chief began brandishing his rifle wildly at the city before them. Then a sudden gale kicked up, ripping it out of his hand and sending it into the water. Without hesitating he ripped a twig off the log he was riding and brandished that in its place. Dennis plucked the rifle out with one hand as his pumice boulder floated by.
The wind soon blew up into a chinook off the Wasatch. “Cover your nose and mouth!” shouted the chief. He feared it might be a coversionary wind. He had seen whole armies during the war marching into battle, decimated in a matter of minutes by that cursed wind, suddenly ready to join the Mormon side and celebrate at the victory banquet with apple juice.
When they reached a dock, the chief ordered that all the vessels be tied up neatly. All except the huge pumice stone. That Dennis picked up and, seeing a nearby boathouse, hurled the rock at it, staving in half the roof.
“Well, when were we going to start acting like invaders?” he asked.
It was a very quiet summer evening. In the orchestra hall in the city an audience in jackets and evening wear were listening to the nightly performance of crickets. The night was dark and the shore was miles distant from the city. Though the tribe might well have the element of surprise, they could hardly fight while swallowed by the darkness, which hindered their movement as much as having their arms and legs all plunged in different alligators’ mouths. They would have to find a steady light to burn it off and allow them fight themselves free again.
As they approached the center of the city, smoke was rising out of holes in some buildings, and blasts had eaten away at many of them. The chief called a halt to the party and addressed them all.
“We know this battle well. So don’t disgrace yourself, no survivors, and we will all meet again a month ago.”
To Kata the warriors had come appeal through the chief’s perpetual reference of events to a certain code of conscience, so the command to leave no survivors seemed a harsh jolt. And that was it for inspiration? Except for the bit about going back, which just made no fucking sense.
“What do you mean by meeting a month ago?” she asked.
“Well, you will soon discover, but when we die as we are all like to do, we can all go back to the start of this ride. Heaven is way overbooked with holy warriors, as you might guess, since it was never built to very big dimensions. So none of the dead get to move on, they all just get booted back in time. But we have found it has made our kingdom on earth invincible. It’s a thousand miles wide and a month long, and within its boundaries we haven’t yet been defeated or overthrown. Or rather when we are, we start again from where we began.”
“So when you say no survivors, you mean yourselves?”
“Of course, not that this will be difficult to abide by.”
“There’s really no chance of prevailing?” asked Anton.
“We’ve come this road a number of times already, and never even come close against their numbers and weapons. So then all there is is to die.”
“Because I can say now that I’ve deputized by my government in Colorado to fulfill one piece of a greater plan, and we’ve been riding with you all this time in hopes of seeing it fulfilled. And now if this mission is doomed to fail, I don’t know what will become of the whole.”
“And what is this secret task you’ve been given?”
“To destroy this city.”
“And who was to help you accomplish this.”
“Oh, it’s just us two.”
“And what were the other prongs of this grand strategy.”
“Well, they were going to string along the negotiations to distract them until we got it done.”
As they approached the temple they saw what appeared to be a battle raging. But both sides were wearing the same uniforms.
“Wait a minute, this is where our final stand is supposed to take place,” the chief said.
“What is going on here?” he shouted as he entered the square. “This is our fight!”
Officers on both sides signaled to their men and everyone stopped. One of them detached himself from the enemy who he had in a headlock but whom he seemed to be having an exceptionally long time deciding to finish off. “We decided to preenact your battle,” he said.” The real thing– much too violent. The ground, though littered with bodies, was in fact spotlessly clean of blood.
“How did you know we would attack?” asked the chief.
“Do you see that restricted area over there?” The officer pointed to a large warehouse-looking building on the other side of the square with a heavy fence around it topped with barbed wire. On the gate leading in hung a sign on which was written in some kind of sans serif font: Caution: Spoiler Alert. “Someone accidentally got in there.”
“Why have you done this?It’s our right to lay our lives down in the service of eternity.”
” No, there’s been too much war already. There will be no violence in this square.”
“You can’t stymie us by occupying the square,” said the chief, drawing his long croupier blade. “You all will learn to fight for your lives, if you won’t take ours by choice.”
He rushed at the officer, who leaped back and took off running. “First you’ve got to catch us,” he called over his shoulder.
Then the chief went plunging into the crowd of soldiers hacking and slashing into a crowd of soldiers but they ran dodging and leaping and ducking and evading every whichaway. Finally, exhausted, standing into an emptied-out circle of men, he drew his bow and arrow. But then an officer called “Riot squad!” and sure enough a platoon in armor, helmets and shields pushed their way to the front of the circle surrounding him. He stood defeated, but then he noticed opposite the spoiler zone what looked to be a construction site. The crowd parted for him as he approached he saw a huge cement mixer inside. He broke the lock with his croupier blade, raced inside, raised himself over the edge of the trough and burrowed in. He wriggled out a minute later, covered in cement down to mid-shin. “I’ll have to commemorate myself the old-fashioned way,” he shouted, then staggered back towards the temple. He climbed the first two steps, tried to strike a heroic pose and then stuffed the handful of concrete he’d scooped out of the mixer into his mouth.