Dinner at deviants palac.., p.14
Dinner at Deviant's Palace, p.14Tim Powers
The sweat from his moment of panic cooled him and he had nearly relaxed back to the degree of tension he’d been in before it, but suddenly he tensed up with fear again, for the light had dimmed and the air was a degree or two colder and he knew that they were even now under the high stone arch of the gate… and when the brightness returned and the chill passed he felt only worse, for he knew he was now on the inner side of the high white walls. As if to emphasize it for him, the gates slammed loudly behind the wagon.
The vehicle was riding perfectly smoothly now, the wheels making a featureless noise like water being slowly poured into a metal pan. Rivas had begun shivering among the tumbled bodies in the wagon bed, for he could tell by the very scent of the air—a sort of garbagey sweetness with burned overtones mixed with the fish smell of the sea—that he was in entirely unknown territory. He was pretty good at faking and bluffing the Jaybirds in the camps and stadiums and meeting places out there in the hills, though not even too successful at that lately, but now he was in the house of Norton Jaybush himself, the man—if he was a man—through whose generosity the Jaybirds had whatever they had of power and fearsomeness. In here he might find anything.
There are only two things, he thought, that I can be reasonably sure are in here to be found: Uri, and my own death.
The wagon slowed, and a man’s voice said, “All of you—this way,” and the sounds of the wagon’s pedestrian escort—the babbling of the far-gone, the snuffling and sobbing, and the thudding of all the footsteps—receded way to the right while the wagon resumed its course straight ahead, in a silence that only strung Rivas’s nerves tighter.
Quite a while later reins flapped and the wagon came to a stop—after a weird sensation of sliding that made Rivas wonder if they were on a vast sheet of glass—and the shepherd in the driver’s seat spoke: “One dozen as promised, Mister Trash Heap, sir.” Rivas heard the other man on the driver’s bench laugh nervously.
And suddenly there came a sound that made Rivas’s eyes open wide for a moment in pure astonishment; it was as if a man had channeled a whole valleyful of wind through one mouth-sized hole, and then for years experimented with holding all sorts of inorganic but flexible instruments up to that focus point of wind, exploring all the ranges of sound that could thus be produced, cooings and whistlings and bass rumblings, until finally he was able to approximate human speech.
“Yess,” sighed this implausible voice. “Run along you now, shepherds. Roentgens and rads like to bald you here in minutes only.”
“Right,” agreed the driver cheerfully. “Rags and rajahs gonna make me bald. Probably why rajahs wear rags on their heads, do you think? To cover it. Help him get the sleeping guys out of the wagon, will you, Bernie?”
“Okay,” Rivas heard Bernie say in a strangled voice.
The wagon rocked as Bernie hopped down, his boot nails audibly clicking on the ground. Bernie began hoisting up a body on the far side of the wagon from Rivas, but a moment later there was a sound like someone trying hard to sweep a tile floor with tree branches, and then Rivas felt something thrusting between himself and the floor of the wagon bed. It rolled him over, and he had to open his eyes just a slit.
After a few seconds of stunned staring he decided that the thing prodding at him wasn’t a tall fat man with a bucket over his head and bits of cardboard and rusty metal attached all over himself, for Rivas could see blue sky through many gaps in the thing’s neck and chest. He saw now that it had bits of glass for eyes, and some arrangement of rusty tanks and dented copper tubing inside the stripped baby carriage that was its chest, and its head was mainly an oversized cocktail shaker in which, in this silence, Rivas could hear something sloshing.
Somehow it didn’t occur to Rivas that this was the source of the windy voice, that this thing was in some sense alive, until it spoke again. “Wakeful, this one is,” it whistled, “or near.”
Then without any clear transition, though obviously much later, Rivas was thrashing with nightmares on a cold hard bed in darkness.
His head throbbed painfully and he was terribly thirsty, but every time he got up and went into the kitchen and filled a cup from the water tank and started to drink it, he realized he had only dreamed of getting up and was still in the comfortless bed. Finally he actually sat up—and knew he hadn’t done it before because of the unprecedented way it increased the pain in his head—and blinked around at a dim, long room with beds standing every few feet along both walls. The air was stale, and smelled faintly of fish and garbage.
For a while he had absolutely no idea where he was. Then he remembered his fear of losing the job at Spink’s, and he tried to get his memory to let him know if that was what had happened. This looks like one of those jigger-a-week rooming houses in Dogtown, he thought, and to judge by how my head feels I’ve been abusing some truly horrible liquor.
He rubbed his face, and was dismayed to feel a four or five day growth of beard—all over his jaw, too, not just on his chin. That’s it, he thought sadly. You’re ruined, Greg. Drunk and bearded in the gutter. Bound to happen eventually. If Uri could see you now, wouldn’t she be sorry! The fresh-faced boy her father drove away thirteen years ago now nothing but a…
He paused in this bathetic reflection, for thinking of Uri had reminded him of something. Of course! How could he have forgotten all that? She’d gone birdy, and he’d risked his life to save her but she’d been taken into the Holy City. That made it an even sadder story—young lovers trampled to bits by an indifferent world—though it would be better if there was someone to know about it, a properly anguished audience… maybe he’d go birdy himself, voluntarily this time, just to be to that minimal degree with her at last…. What a touch!
Someone in a nearby bed had been gasping and sniffling for a while, and now let go a couple of loud sobs.
“Shut up,” whispered Rivas impatiently. Goddamn noisy bums, he thought.
He heard the person sit up. “You’re awake?” came a whisper.
“Think I could sleep in this damned outhouse?” The other person sounded like a girl. If she only knew who I am, he thought bitterly. She probably grew up singing my songs.
To his annoyance she stood up and shambled over to his bed. Jesus, he thought, she’s not only sloppy fat but a sport too. Bald as a stone. “I wasn’t sure you’d make it,” she said. “You looked real bad when they brought you in. One of the trash men hit you?”
So I’ve descended to getting into fights with trash men, Rivas thought with something like satisfaction. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” he told her. He felt the back of his head. His hair was stiff with dried blood, and there was a lump back there.
“I guess you tried to run.”
“Oh, yeah?” said Rivas, stung. “Bastard probably snuck up behind me.”
“Snuck up behind you,” repeated the girl in a tone of polite but absolute disbelief. “Right.” He was about to argue, but she went on. “I’ll be one myself soon,” she said sadly. “Lost my hair a while ago, and got the fever bad now. They’ll probably put me in one I helped to build.”
“Probably,” Rivas agreed, not caring what she was talking about. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to—” He stopped talking, for he’d glanced at the window in the far wall, and all he could see through it was night sky… and there was no place within Ellay’s city walls, except up in the ragged towers, from which one could get an absolutely unobstructed horizontal view of the sky. He stood up, breathed deeply until the sudden dizziness passed, then hurried to the window and looked out.
A glassy plain, flawed with yards-long cracks here and there, reflected the bright stars, and in the distance was the straight white line of a wall dividing the glass from the sky. And then he remembered his decision to follow Uri inside, his meeting with Fracas McAn, the thing that was made of old litter but walked and spoke…. He could remember nothing beyond that, but clearly this girl must be right, he must have tried to run, and been chased down…
He was thankful
At length he turned away and stared at the form beside his bed that was the girl. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I must not have been making much sense just now. I had… forgotten where we are.”
“I wish I could forget,” she said.
“What do you—what do we—do here?”
“Oh”—he saw her spread her hands—“work. There’s machines that need tending, and the helium balloons always need patching—”
“Yeah, big old things for observation along the coast. I don’t like that job. I always burn myself with the iron, and the glue makes me dizzy.”
“Ah.” Obviously she means hot air balloons, he thought.
“And we build the trash men too, to do the really heavy work, though I understand we’re not making ’em as good as they used to be made. People say the Lord is getting tired of everything and doesn’t care so much that things be done just right anymore. And down at the beach the men mainly build and repair boats. That’s probably where you’ll be sent.”
Something was moving, way out there on the glass plain, and Rivas turned back to the window. In the middle distance a thing was limping wearily along. It looked like a huge misshapen puppet that someone had made of papier-mache stretched over a wire framework and had then partially burned, and it plodded along on its uneven legs as if on an errand that would take centuries to complete.
Rivas turned to the girl again, feeling like a child lost in a strange, cold house. “You said,” he began, but his voice came out soprano and he tried again. “You said put you in one of the ones you made. What did you mean?”
“What’s good for the Lord isn’t good for ordinary people,” she said. “We get sick here—and at his temple in the sister city, too, I hear—our hair falls out, and we get, like, sores, mostly on our feet and legs… and any that are pregnant don’t stay that way long… and so when we get so bad we’re gonna die, he—Jaybush—puts us into the… trash men.” She began crying again. “They call ’em trash men even if it’s a girl they put in it. Don’t make no difference, it ain’t anything, not in that way….”
Rivas was breathing fast. “What the hell, can’t you… can’t you kill yourselves, at least? Christ, they let you use tools, right?”
“Yeah,” the girl admitted, nodding. “But… it’s a sin, of course, suicide is, though somehow here in the city people don’t worry much about sins anymore… and anyway they… the trash men… gee, they do last practically forever.”
“Well, that’s fine,” Rivas whispered. “Listen, did a girl arrive here a couple of days ago? Slim and dark-haired with… I mean, a woman with dark hair….” He tried to remember the glimpse he’d caught of Uri in the Regroup Tent night before last. “A little bit heavy,” he finished lamely.
“Everybody in all the wagons before yours, for a week, nobody’s been brought here. They all went straight on south, the men to work on the boats and the women to be shipped direct to the temple in the sister city… that’s where the Lord is right now… and of course all the far-gones were took right to the bleeder huts.”
“Where’s the sister city?”
“I don’t know. We better get back in our beds. They don’t like it when we talk among ourselves.”
“Is it north of here, or south? The sister city,” he added, seeing her blank look.
“Oh. I don’t know.” She shambled back to her bed, yawning.
Rivas looked out the window. The limping thing was a distant unrestful figure far out across the plain. “What goes on in the—what did you call ’em?—bleeder huts?”
The boards under her mattress creaked as she climbed ponderously in. “Oh,” she yawned again, “bleeding, I suppose.”
Well, yeah, Rivas thought, not moving toward, his own bed. I had to ask?
“Tomorrow, probably,” the girl said sleepily. Then, after he’d given up on hearing any more from her, she added, “They’ll take you to the beach settlement.” After another long pause, she went on, “And weld your leg irons on.”
Zat so, thought Rivas. Leg irons, is it, and welded on. But of course, Greg, it’ll just be until you get so deteriorated that they put you in a trash man. My God. Well, I leave tonight.
“Of course,” said the girl, so sleepily that Rivas knew this would be her last statement of the night, “if they make you a trustee, you only gotta wear one.”
That doesn’t change my mind, kiddo, he thought. He went back to his bed and lay on it until he was sure the bald girl had fallen asleep, and then he got up silently and tiptoed down the central aisle to the end of the room. The door there was locked, but it was the work of a moment to poke his knife blade between the door edge and the jamb, lift the bar out of the slots outside and ease the door open. Evidently the authorities didn’t expect the inmates to have any tools—or initiative, probably.
He edged half his face past the door jamb, peered around with that eye, and then stuck his whole head out. It was brighter outside, with the stars and faint webbing of cloud reflected on the plain, and there seemed to be a faint glow emanating upward from under the glass. He didn’t see any of the trash men.
To his right was the same bleak, unearthy vista he’d seen from the window, but the view to his left, which was south, was more conventional; rows and rows of barracklike shacks, pretty clearly identical to the one he was crouched in the doorway of, receded away in the dimness.
He noticed that each one seemed to be casting a very faint shadow of light, like a building in a photographic negative, but when he peered in wonder he saw that the “shadows” were just even, abraded patches of glass, which reflected the starlight and the subsurface glow in a faint, unfocused radiance. Evidently the shabby buildings were unmoored, and being gradually shifted toward the sea by the wind, like a fleet of very old and slow ships.
Rivas ran silently to the next row of sheds, and snoring from inside the nearest one confirmed his guess that it was a duplicate of the one he’d left. One row at a time, with much fearful peering-about between sprints, he passed ten rows of the long shacks, and except for the one he’d been in and the next two, they all seemed to be empty.
Once there had come a mournful, windy wail from far away across the glass plain, but though he’d snatched out his knife and then frozen, the sound had not been repeated and no motion had been visible anywhere, and he’d eventually moved on.
The tenth row of sheds was the last, and south of him now was only a number of small round huts on stilts. Unlike the barrack buildings, these were arranged in irregular clusters, like huge mushrooms or termite towers, and it was hard to guess how many there might be. The bleeder huts, he thought uneasily.
The shore lay somewhere beyond them, so after making sure his knife was both firmly sheathed and easily drawable, he set off at a careful jogging pace from which he could almost instantly stop, break to the side at a wide angle, or double his forward speed.
He passed a dozen clusters of the little raised buildings during the next ten minutes, but when he drew near the very last one, with only featureless glass beyond, he slowed, and when he was next to it he let his pace falter, and then finally he stopped.
What’s this, he asked himself sourly, pure curiosity?
Well, hell, he thought, how can you not stop and at least peek into something called a bleeder hut?
He moved toward the structure’s four-foot-high ladder as silently as a shadow… and in the sudden subjective silence, without his own breath and heartbeat pounding in his ears, he became consciously aware of something he’d subliminally noticed several seconds earlier.
Soft, regular breathing, not quite snores, could be faintly heard issuing from these stilted huts—and every pause between inhalation and exhalation, every hitch and sigh and occasional grunt, was exactly identical, from hut to hut, in perfect, effortless unison, a subtle prodigy being quietly performed out here on this lake of glass with no audience but Gregorio Rivas and the remote stars.
The ladder was lashed together with wire and old rope, and creaked when he put his weight on it, but he was certain nothing inside the hut could hear any noise he might make; he wasn’t sure exactly what there was to fear in this vitreous wasteland, but he knew there was nothing threatening nearby… certainly not in this lonely, southernmost hut.
The door swung open quietly at his touch—there was not even a token latch here. Inside he dimly saw five beds, but they were leaned up against the walls at steep angles, and when his eyes adjusted to the darkness he saw that each sleeping body was belted to the bed frame; and when he stepped closer to one, he saw that a narrow dark tube was attached to the inside of the person’s elbow, and curled down to the floor, where it disappeared through a hole drilled in the boards.
Rivas felt a little queasy at the sight. Bleeder hut, he thought; I get it. But why drain off the blood of far-gone Jaybirds?
He went to the ladder and climbed back down to the glass, and then bent over and peered under the hut. All five tubes, he saw, fed into a central tank which was connected by metal pipes to a couple of smaller tanks. Something that looked like an old-time air conditioner was attached to the front of the main tank, and it had a metal nozzle projecting from it. He put his finger in the nozzle and felt the grooves of screw-threading… and when he took his finger out there was a dry powder on it.
He sniffed it… and was suddenly reminded of his days as a destitute dishwasher in Venice, for the powder was, unmistakably, Blood.
He looked back at the hundreds of other bleeder huts, standing nearly silent in the starlight, and he was sure that each of them, too, held sleeping far-gones whose blood was steadily being drained through tubes into a tank and somehow being refined into the deadly Venetian drug.
Dinner at Deviant's Palace by Tim Powers / Science Fiction / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes