Empire of Dirt: Chapter 1 (Part 3)

The Paladins, in their black combat fatigues, came into the room removing their bicorns. They were tall and heavily built.  Only the golf professional could come near to matching them in height but their frames so filled their uniforms as to make their dark presence in the office overwhelming.  Their huge bare forearms and gloved hands rested calmly at their front, exposing the thick brilliant steel rings caste around their left wrists – the steel symbolic of their will within The Empire.  But the giant figures did not talk to Michael, instead they looked at him for a few moments from the far side of the office while the professional informed them of how he had captured the abject figure before them. Michael sat on the chair saying nothing and staring unfocussedly passed them. The professional spoke on. The Paladins made no sign to silence him but nor did they suggest that they were heeding any of what he was saying.

Then, in what seemed like prearranged movements, they came towards Michael. Gently moving his arms, which were still locked behind his back, they scanned his name and serial number into their steel Tablet. Next they lifted his vest and took pictures of his stomach and chest.  The one pointed to the strange collection of old raised scars that encircled Michael’s stomach and back. ‘Was dis?’ The Paladin asked.  But Michael did not have the will to answer, his thoughts were filled with the smarting of his body from the beating and the pain of his sickness. Instead half unconscious his head fell back and then rolled awkwardly onto his shoulder. The Paladin dropped the vest and began to inspect the cuts and bruises on his face with a doctor’s eye. All the while the other took photographs with his Tablet of the injuries his partner pointed to. Then the one who was inspecting his wounds shone a torch into his mouth and ears. ‘Nam? Was ist nam?’ The other said, with the deepened tone of authority while holding his Tablet to Michael’s mouth. His head fell down onto his chest. The other then recorded.  ‘Yoot Gudianne. Mindal helf ney goed. Neu abrayshons, brooses. Nutrishious defitient. Abuse bi profeshonal cler. Defness possable.’  Then two black-gloved hands, one under each armpit, lifted him into the air and swept him out of the room.

Michael went without resisting. His eye was still bleeding slightly and was swollen, his stomach hurt from the assistant’s kick and the sickness was still surging through his body. The Paladins carried him to the back of the bakkie, lifted him up the step into the cage and placed him there on his knees. With his hands shackled behind his back he could not manipulate himself onto the one plastic bench to the left and so, facing downwards, he lay down on the woven synthetic mat of the vehicle’s floor.

As he lay there looking out, his vision blurred by blood and tiredness, he could hear talking as The Paladins recorded further notes into their Tablets.  Before they revved the bakkie’s engine into life, the back door opened and he felt a rough shepherd’s blanket thrown on top of him. The last sight Michael had of the clubhouse was of the janitor standing outside it. He was staring anxiously out towards The Paladins’ vehicle, the sleeves of his standard navy blue overalls were rolled up as he leant against his mop.  Michael’s stomach churned again and he lifted his face up from the woven mat and turned it so that he was no longer lying on his damaged eye.

At some point, he did not know when, The Paladins had given him some water and food.  These lay next to him and he woke to the pleasant smell of the bread.  His captors had, he found, unlocked the irons on his wrists, although now he realized that his ankles were in chains. He tore off some bread from the loaf, put the piece of crust in his mouth and sipped some water. This gave him the strength to get up onto the rough plastic bench and lie down.  He then pulled the blanket over himself again and fell back to sleep.

It was a long drive through the two cities and then up through the snow covered mountains. Figures in the cities, dressed in either blue or white overalls, gazed dumbly at the vehicle and its prisoner as it past them in the streets. One person in blue stepped towards the bakkie as it drove towards her and hurled an apple at him.  The apple smashed into the grate, sending juice and small cubes of the fruit into the cage and over his face and blanket. ‘Dassenta Trayta!’ She screamed in a tone that left Michael with a helpless sensation in his stomach. ‘It is for you that I am here,’ he thought to himself and then admonished himself immediately.  ‘No, it is for me that I am here.’ At least he knew that much.  Lying there he picked a small piece of the apple that hung from its skin off the grate of the cage and placed it in his mouth, sucking the juice from it before swallowing down the meat of the fruit.  ‘Perhaps it is poisoned,’ he thought.  It did not matter if it was.

They were now driving through the outskirts of the second city. He could see out the cage that they were passing Location 22 or ‘Old Wigan’ as it had been newly named; an area close to the mountains that had been demarcated for ‘ruin’. It was a location that he and his comrades in The Group were familiar with. A 13th century roofless and windowless Franciscan friary had been built at the crest of the road. A process of demolishing and rebuilding was taking place here that involved the construction, with sun dried clay-bricks, of semi-detached Edwardian houses along the winding streets up the foothills towards the rocky beginnings of Overtsberg Mountains. The chimneystacks of the houses were four storeys high and towered over the structures beneath.  They were built despite the fact that domestic anthracite fires had been banned some 30 years ago under the Smoking Act of 2275.

The bakkie stopped at one of these new Edwardian houses, some roads down from the empty friary.  There he saw The Paladins talking to a young uncorseted woman in white overalls. He could see her looking passed their black figures as they pointed towards their vehicle. She stood there inspecting him in the cage on the back of the van. She shrugged. He too did not recognize her. Her hair was tied up in a silk orange scarf and she smoked a pipe. Blowing the cold vapour out, she tucked in a stray end of her hair, turned and went inside.  One Paladin looked up at the sky and stamped his feet, rubbing the back of his arms to keep warm. The other dictated more notes into his Tablet.  The woman with the orange headscarf returned from inside the house, holding a man by the arm. The man was blind folded and had both his hands and legs in irons.  The Paladins took him by the arms and raised their bicorns to the woman as she closed the door.

It had been sunny some minutes before but a sudden torrent of rain fell from the sky just as they pushed Prisoner 4537 into the bakkie’s cage – he was already wearing his striped prison overalls and fez with his number embroidered into them.  The bakkie started again and the two prisoners sat in silence together, rocking uncomfortably as the vehicle began the ascent into the mountains.  They felt the heaters come on in the back as they wound up towards the ski resort and the electric shutters of the cage now closed.  The public showing of Michael and the other prisoner was now over as they drove along the unpeopled roads of the mountain range.   He had begun to shiver more now, more from the illness than the progressive cold. He wrapped himself up tightly, his fists clutching the blanket under his chin. He now knew where he was going. They had found out where he came from and who he was. Where the other prisoner was going Michael could not be sure.  Presumably he was being sent out to The Camps across the desert on the other side of the mountains.

Michael looked at the man. He was aware that the camera in their cage was watching them.  He thought that he could slide out a foot to touch the man’s leg to inform him that he was not alone. He could have done that.  But Michael understood now that they were taking him home and that there was, at least, a glimmer of hope for him.  For Prisoner 4537 there was nothing.  He was probably being sent out to The Camps.  There was nothing that could be done for 4537, a sign of sympathy would only confirm to The Paladins that he too was a Dissenter. And this would only result in…well, nobody was sure what happened to those who were sent out to The Camps, but Michael knew that he was not ready to find out.

He recognised the road that they were winding along just by the motion of the vehicle.  He had grown up here and he knew that at any second, yes now, he braced himself for the sharp turn. But he could not stop himself from toppling off the bench, just as his fellow prisoner did so off his.  They tumbled and rolled on the woven mat on the floor. There were two more hairpin bends to go and the paladins seemed to be taking some pleasure in having the prisoners rolling around in the back.  The bakkie picked up speed and then slammed on the brakes again and turned sharply.  They rolled into the far corner together and Michael ended up lying with his chin on 4537’s neck.   Michael noticed the copper ring on his wrist. There was something strange about it, he thought to himself.

‘Who is that?’ 4537 whispered.

Michael lifted his chin up and pushed himself away from this man with his feet and hands. His heart was beating fast in shock and confusion as the car turned again. The sharp turn once more forced them together into the far corner. ‘Who is that?’ Prisoner 4537 said again. This time slightly softer than before but 4537 was nevertheless openly speaking New English. Michael didn’t answer.  He looked at the prisoner in confusion. How could this man risk what he was doing? How could he speak New English out in the open like this when he knew that he was in a vehicle that contained The Hearing? When the road straightened Michael managed to get back onto his bench, leaving the other man lying in the corner.  Twenty minutes and he would be back in his village, back reunited with his parents.  He would not risk interaction.  He looked at the copper ring again on the man’s wrist. It wasn’t the ring itself that was strange but rather the arm that it was on – it wasn’t green.  All those of The People with pale skins that he knew from the mountains had green wrists from the copper.  But of this, the man’s wrist showed not a sign. ‘Trust nobody unless you know them by their face.  And even them only trust them halfly.’ Franz had said.  And then he had added about the The Leader who controlled The Paladins: ‘Remember Alrak – the man nobody knows, who knows everybody –  is full of cunning.’

The vehicle stopped and they waited for him to make his way to the door and helped him down with a reassuring indifference.  They led him to the correctional centre where they sat him down on a blue molded seat.  His illness was getting worse and he now shook uncontrollably. He saw his parents, dressed in their ski instructors’ uniforms, in The Sheriff’s office. He could see that his mother was crying. His father, although clearly upset, was trying his best to smile and looked as if he was thanking The Paladins.  They did not look pleased but they seemed to accept his father’s thanks.  The Sheriff then motioned to a subordinate to come into the room and to bring Michael in.

‘Mi Mi Mi Mi,’ his parents said holding out their arms to embrace him. ‘Wi hipi. Wi zoo Hipi. Too iz ule? Wi zoo apoligee faw this boe,’ they said turning to The Paladins.  ‘Hiz na ind in industrutritios imagu. Alwey dreemen. Alwey thiken. Alwey visaging de c.’

‘Bu somfin ellez. Wa wrung wif he? The subordinate asked.

‘Hiz def.’ His mother said looking at him. ‘Hiz refuz de meditriouz oyel fa’hiz eares.  Hiz goes def wifut.’

Michael looked at his mother in confusion. She grabbed him and in what seemed like a moment of affection she held his head in her arms, pushing her lips into his ear as if to kiss him.

‘SShhh,’ she whispered, ‘don’t speak.’