Dinner at deviants palac.., p.16
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       Dinner at Deviant's Palace, p.16

           Tim Powers
 
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  “Me too,” Rivas croaked.

  They were almost even with the buildings now, and he could see that the street between the rows of wooden structures was a cracked, sand-scoured section of some ancient highway.

  The shepherd was lagging behind, but Rivas forced himself to keep walking at the same pace and, much more difficult, not to turn around constantly to keep an eye on him. So it was almost a relief when the man said, “Oh, say,” and Rivas had an excuse to stop and look back.

  “Yes?”

  “Why do you suppose your man ran north?”

  To see the pretty bald girls, thought Rivas. To go skating with the trash men. “I don’t know,” he said.

  The shepherd nodded thoughtfully. “Well—see you soon. We’ll be in the gun room.”

  You bet, thought Rivas as he turned back toward the dancers and started walking again. Hold your breath till I get there, okay?

  The clapping was loud now, and Rivas could see the spectators lined up on both sides of the street. The dancers were contorting enthusiastically in the rain in spite of the two feet of chain that linked every pair of ankles, waving their arms over their heads, some skipping in short runs across the pavement and some Bo Diddleying in place. Their clothes slapped wetly around their ankles and wrists, and the ones that weren’t bald snapped their wet locks and beards around like whips. Most of them had their eyes closed, and on each face was a nearly identical expression of quiet satisfaction.

  Rivas walked right down the middle of the street, trying to stay out of everyone’s way, for no one gave any sign of seeing him.

  The section of highway ended not far beyond the dancers and soon he was walking on wet sand again. He was sure he could hear a faint booming of surf now, and he peered ahead worriedly, fearing that he might not, after all this, be able to find a boat. I’ll ditch this kid and swim if I have to, he thought. I wonder where the penitence cage is, and how long it’ll take that shepherd to catch on that I’m not coming back.

  The sand was giving way to old concrete again under his aching feet, and then to his astonishment he was walking on what appeared to be new concrete. In some ways it struck him as more miraculous to be able to make and lay concrete than to be able to manufacture ammunition.

  He glanced to his left, which was southeast, and dimly saw tall pale buildings in the distance, made into abstract geometrical shapes by the night and the rain and the miles that separated him from them. And it came to him that what he was seeing was the Holy City. The shabby structures on the glass and sand behind him were like toolsheds tucked away out of sight at the back of a big estate…

  The ocean is the front door, he thought; the gate the wagon brought me in through was the back door—the servants’ entrance.

  Rivas stopped and stared… and then felt goose pimples prickling his arms, for he’d noticed a sphere suspended in the air above the buildings, and it had to be huge to be visible at all at this distance, and there was no glint of light at its bottom to indicate a fire, and he was suddenly sure that the bald girl had meant helium balloons… but where could Jaybush be getting helium?

  Though slumped as loosely as ever, the boy suddenly began speaking, and Rivas was so startled that he nearly dropped him. “Who is it?” the boy had burst out. “Oh, him. When will the fool learn to come around to where I can see him, he knows I can’t roll over….”

  Rivas was very glad this hadn’t happened when he was talking to the shepherd. There was no mistaking it for anything but genuine speaking in tongues, and far-gones could no more decide to escape than they could fly.

  He’d noticed a dark band parallel to his course on his right and he’d been slanting toward it, and now he could tell by the sound of the rain falling there that it was a wide trench full of water. Looking to his left he saw another one further away, and now he noticed a similar band ahead that diagonally connected the two. Canals, he thought. Newly constructed, too, unlike the ones in Venice. Why is Jaybush so fond of canals?

  When he arrived at the canal edge he crouched and rolled the young man off his shoulders onto the new concrete, and then he stood up and simply luxuriated in the ability to stand up straight and feel cold rain on the back of his neck, before climbing down into the water. It was warmer than the rain, and he swam out to the middle of the forty-foot-wide watercourse to see how deep it got. He discovered that even out here he could stand on the bottom and still have his chin out of the water. He went back and fetched the kid and then, towing the limp body behind with a collar-grip that kept the sleeping face above the surface of the water, he began moving down the canal toward the sea, sometimes swimming and sometimes wading. The buoyancy the salt water gave them made southward progress much less strenuous, and Rivas wished the canals had extended all the way up to the bleeder huts.

  The canal walls tended to throw every splash and gasp back at him as echoes, so he had no hint that he was being pursued until he saw a ten-foot line of blindingly bright yellow light appear high up on the canal wall a dozen yards ahead and then instantly sweep back, past him and well over his head, and recede away northward faster than any bird.

  He gaped after it in wonder, and several seconds later realized that it must have been the beam of a searchlight. Rivas had read of such things, and though he wasn’t sure whether or not they worked by electricity, he knew they required a level of technology he thought had been lost many Aces ago.

  He resumed dog-paddling down the canal with his bobbing, sleeping burden in tow, a little more quickly now.

  Chapter Seven

  “CAREFUL WITH THAT STUFF!”

  Rivas snapped out of his doze and glanced around at the dark, malodorous space under the pier. Boots slowly thumped against the boards over his head; the men on the pier carried lanterns, but little of their light reflected under the pier and it was more by the phosphorescence of the water that Rivas was able to see that the bald, toothless boy was still moored safely to one of the pilings by the back of his shirt, which Rivas had looped over a projecting nail head. The breakwater stopped the waves half a mile out, and the rain tended to flatten what waves there were inside, but Rivas had been worried when he’d moored the unconscious far-gone there that even the gentler rise and fall of the sheltered water might float him loose—in which case, of course, he would quietly have drowned.

  Rivas unhooked his own arm from over the cross brace he’d selected for his personal mooring, and as he worked fingers and elbow to get the circulation going, he stared at the dim blur just above the water that was the boy’s head. Rivas wondered what he’d do if the kid started speaking again, or even snoring. Drown him? Certainly wouldn’t be difficult.

  But he knew he couldn’t, even though any dog or cat—hell, hamsters, mice, bugs—had more intelligence than a far-gone. Somehow ripping the throat out of that trash man, on top of having tried to knife Frake McAn and having killed Nigel and the two hooters and that shepherd, had broken something in him. He felt crippled by pity, by empathy—he felt that now it would sicken him to kill flies.

  It scared him to realize it, as if he’d suddenly discovered he was losing feeling and control in his left hand.

  “I said careful, damn it,” came again the voice that had waked him.

  “I’m being careful, brother,” came a petulant younger voice. “You want these in the water yet?”

  “Nah, they’re cool enough in the rain. You can tie the baskets on the rings, though. And use square knots, will you? Like I showed you. Last trip two of the baskets came loose and sank, and I caught all kinds of hell for it.”

  “Okay.”

  Slow footsteps and a clinking drag of chain moved from behind Rivas to over his head and then out to the end of the pier, and the strangely cowled hull of the big boat there went down a little and then rose. Low waves spread out through the pilings and gave Rivas a salty slap in the mouth.

  For quite a while then there was no noise except for occasional chain clinks and footsteps from the boat and aimless humming from the
man on the pier above—Rivas had plenty of time to wish for food and dry clothes, and to decide that his increasing ability to see was due to the imminence of dawn rather than a gradual improvement of his night vision. Then he heard the sudden shifting of a length of chain on the boards over his head.

  “Look sharp, Brother Willie. Shepherd.”

  “Right. Thanks.”

  Soon Rivas heard hoofbeats… and then he heard them with agonizing clarity as the horse was ridden right out onto the pier. “Good morning, brother!” came a new voice, tense but trying not to show it. “Are you alone?”

  “There’s Brother Willie, too, on the boat, getting the baskets tied to the gunwales. Nobody else.”

  “Have you seen anyone else tonight?”

  “Uh… not since the worried lads left for the dance. They through yet?”

  “Not yet. Slowing down, though. Well, here, take this thing—don’t point it at me! Idiot. It’s a flare pistol. If you see anybody but your regular crew, shoot it. You pull the trigger, here, let me show you—that thing. Okay?”

  Rivas saw the boat dip and rise again, and guessed Brother Willie had come to the rail to look. Again a little wave surged past, and Rivas glanced worriedly at the far-gone. I hope, he thought, that Jaybush doesn’t get up—and start thinking—this early.

  “Shoot it at whoever?”

  “No. It’s a flare gun. It shoots flares. Shoot it up into the sky, okay?”

  “Sure. Who is it we might see?”

  “None of—well, why not. We think an impostor may have come in on one of yesterday’s wagons. A guy broke out of one of the bunkhouses and apparently killed one of the constructs and kidnapped a donor. I actually saw him last night, but he had a leg band and I thought he was a trustee. So it’s important to me personally that we get him back. If you’re the ones who first see him… I won’t forget, understand?”

  “Sure, brother. We’ll keep our eyes open.”

  “Be careful. I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but it seems fairly certain that Gregorio Rivas was at the Regroup Tent a couple of days ago. They grabbed him, but he had corrupted a sister, and she freed him. She’s in the sister city now, appropriately enough, undergoing remedial discipline. He hasn’t been seen anywhere else since, including Ellay, so the guy here last night might be him.”

  Rivas had winced and bared his teeth during the shepherd’s statement, remembering Sister Windchime—her hair the color of the dry brush on the hills, her long athletic legs, her alertness and repressed compassion, and her evident doubts of the faith—and then he made himself stop remembering her.

  “Uh… sun coming up,” put in Brother Willie. “We better be getting the Blood into the baskets and into the water, huh?”

  There was a silence then that even Rivas, under the pier, could tell was awkward.

  “I mean, uh, the harvest powder,” Brother Willie amended nervously.

  “What did you call it a minute ago?” asked the shepherd, possibly through clenched teeth.

  “I meant to say harv—”

  “What?”

  “Blood, brother,” admitted Brother Willie unhappily.

  “Why did you call it that?”

  “I don’t know, I—”

  “Why?”

  There was a pause, and then Brother Willie said, sniffling, “I been around. I had Blood once or twice. I know it when I see it.”

  “Ah.” The horse stamped and flapped its lips. “If you are the ones to spot our intruder, I’ll overlook this.” The horse galloped back down the pier, and then the hoofbeats receded away into the steady whisper of the rain on the sea.

  “You… damned…idiot.”

  “Aw, Jesus, brother, all I—”

  “Shut up! Say Jaybush if you want to swear! I’ve met far-gones smarter than you. Yes, get the harvest powder into the baskets and over the sides. And make sure the tarps cover every bit, hear? If sun gets in and ruins one pinch of this batch, I think you’re gonna wind up manning a hose in a bleeder hut yourself.”

  For a while there was just a lot of clanking and grunting from above, then a big cubical object wrapped in a tarpaulin descended jerkily into Rivas’s view on the end of a rope, hit the water, and with a lot of bubbling and flapping of the tarp sank until three-quarters of its bulk was under the water. Another followed, and then another, until the side of the boat that Rivas could see was adorned from bow to stern with a full dozen bobbing black bales connected to it by taut cables. He could hear the tactless Brother Willie performing the same operation now on the far side of the boat.

  Rivas wondered how the boat was rigged. Even with the strange cowling visible around the bow, it seemed to him that it should be impossible to sail with all those bundles hanging along the sides.

  “You know,” Brother Willie called at one point to his older companion on the pier, “I hope old Rivas does come by here. I’ll shoot that flare gun right at his head.”

  “Ahh,” the older man said, and spat, “there’s somebody raising hell here, I suppose—but it ain’t Gregorio Rivas.”

  “How do you know?”

  “Man, there ain’t no such person as Gregorio Rivas. That’s just a booger man. ‘Rivas is here, Rivas was seen there, look out for Rivas.’ It’s just to keep us all hopping.”

  Another basket of Blood splashed down in the rain. “Nah,” said Brother Willie decisively. “Nah, man, a guy I knew seen Rivas! In Ellay.”

  Rivas could tell the other man had shrugged. “I knew a guy once that swore he talked to Elvis Presley. Had one o’ them old liquor bottles, was like a statue of Elvis Presley. Said his ghost lived in it. I listened over an hour, didn’t hear nothin’.”

  Suddenly Rivas had an idea. He hoisted his sleeping cargo down off the nail and then, holding the boy’s face up clear of the water, paddled silently out from under the pier and around the wide stern—evidently it was some kind of barge—to the far side. The rain, as heavy as ever, masked any involuntary splashing he might have done, and no doubt made Willie and his companion less likely to stand around peering.

  Looking around from behind the sternmost portside basket, Rivas saw for a moment against the paling sky a silhouette that must have been Willie, leaning out over the rail high above Rivas’s head to lower a basket up by the bow. The men were still desultorily talking, but from down at water level under the curve of the stern Rivas couldn’t hear what they were saying.

  Very gingerly he lifted the far-gone, hooked the back of his shirt over one corner of the basket, and then spent a minute gradually letting the mooring cable take the boy’s weight so that it wouldn’t thrum or move or creak. He then held the basket with one hand and began unlacing the tarpaulin with the other, and when he’d loosened it and peeled it back, he saw that the basket was a metal cage full of boxes made of crude rippled glass, each about a foot long and six inches square at the ends. The basket was held shut by a simple sliding bolt which had been shot through the rings, turned down and wired in place. Rivas began untwisting the wire.

  The rain was letting up as the sky brightened, and Rivas forced himself to work both more quietly and more quickly. At last, when the rain had diminished to a misty drizzle, and Rivas, glancing up, could see the highest soaring seagulls flash bright with sunlight, he was able to work the bolt back, swing the basket’s gate down without dislodging the sleeping boy, and then gently, one at a time, lift out all the glass boxes and let them sink away into the sea.

  On a sudden impulse he re-caught the last box, worked it open and looked speculatively at the three screw-top glass jars inside; and then he looked at his unconscious companion, whose occasional muttering and snarling had, during the rain, fortunately gone unnoticed. Would a hit of this stuff shut the boy up?

  Worth a try, he decided. It seems like kind of a closed loop, by-your-bootstraps idea, but I’ve never heard that anybody’s immune to the stuff’s effects. And there’s certainly more in it than just powdered blood—all those tanks and machineries under the bleeder hut
must have been adding something to the raw material.

  He took one of the jars out, letting the glass box and the two remaining jars join the rest of them on the sea floor, and he unscrewed the lid and carefully held the jar of fine brown powder to the boy’s nostrils and, as the boy’s next inhalation came, Rivas blew on the powder, raising a cloud of it. He jerked his own face back so as not to get any of it himself, but the kid seemed to inhale some, so Rivas twisted the cap back onto the jar and tucked it into his hip pocket.

  Next, with a fervent prayer that neither of the Jaybirds was looking at this basket’s cable just now, he hoisted the kid off the corner of the basket, pulled him around and shoved him inside. He pulled up the bony legs and folded them and pushed them in too, and then he climbed in himself.

  Sitting up in the basket, the water swirled around his chest. He braced himself and leaned way out and down, ducking his head under the surface, and groped with his free hand until he found the basket’s let-down gate. He heaved on it, dragged it up through the water like a comb through hair and finally got it closed and loosely bolted, and then he managed, with his fingertips poking out between the bars of the basket grating, to twitch the tarpaulin back down over them and pull it straight so that, with luck, the untied lacing wouldn’t show.

  At last in the darkness he allowed himself to relax. His companion would presumably keep quiet for a while under the influence of the Blood, and was wedged in with his head jammed into one of the top corners so that, though he might succumb to starvation or pneumonia, there was no way he could drown; and Rivas, though anything but comfortable sitting on a steel grating, chest-deep in salt water and tented under an old tarp, at least felt a good deal safer than he had at any time since deciding to follow Uri into the Holy City.

  Through the sound conduction achieved by leaning his head against the steel bars which were pressed against the hull, he could hear the slow knocking of footsteps aboard—Brother Willie’s, he assumed. Willie seemed to be wandering back and forth aimlessly, sometimes pausing for several minutes at the stern end—Rivas could tell because the knocking sounded louder to him—and probably staring toward the huge distant pale buildings he’d glimpsed last night in the rain. He wished he could see what Willie was seeing.

 
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