Empire of Dirt: Chapter One

Gonnemas Surrender

By M Blackman

The small trench he had dug himself, which had been cool in the day’s heat, was now filled with cold dew.  He had, after a long period of fear, fallen into an agitated sleep. Although at what time exactly he had done this he could not tell. The stark evanescence of his memory of the last days and months had now become so much part of his daily forgetting that it no longer perturbed him.  Waking, he wiped the dead soaking leaves from his face, which had acted as a small cushion against the rocky earth.

He slipped himself up from the trench allowing his eyes to draw just above the parapet.  He knew that he was safe in the dark. They would have gone back to their houses, their camps, their towns, their cities, down the flat beach plains that were sheltered by the mountains.  They never searched for men in the dark. But one could not be sure; dusk was a time where the confusion of light sometimes kept them at the shore – standing and mumbling to each other in their language.

There was no sign of them in the faint orange light of dusk.  He lay there for a while shivering slightly, waiting just to be sure that it was dark enough to move about.    When he raised his head above the bushes he could see no figures moving across the shale of the plains. But here where he lay the dead bracken that hid him was thick and so it was difficult for him to see precisely what might be close amongst the twisted brushwood.

He eased himself out of the trench, slipping slowly underneath the dead branches of the bushes, closing his eyes so that they would not blind him.  His face was so scratched from doing this that it was painful to move his features in any expression of emotion.  More concerned with the chill of his body than what he looked like now he forced his head through, fervently moving towards the sea. The last time he had seen his reflection was at the time he escaped.  That was perhaps three months ago, though it was hard to tell.

He moved slowly on his haunches pushing the branches aside with his face and hands searching for the next obstruction.  It was something that he would do every night; crawl down to the sea in order to feel along the rocks for mussels.  His dark thin body – he wore only a dirty white vest and shorts – slipped along the promontory that ran from the thicket of bracken into the sea.  The sliver of rock, which provided an entry into the small bay before him, was splintered slate and it cut into his feet as he grappled his way across it.  He walked bent, half in pain and half in fear of being seen, even though he knew they would not be here tracking for him.  Moving slowly, opening and re-tearing the cuts from the nights before, he found the steps that lead into the sea that had been cut from large granite rocks and engineered into the slate that surrounded them.

He sat on the steps – steps which descended deep into the ocean, far deeper than he could swim down to. There he picked at his cut feet, checking to feel if there were any shards of stone in them. He slid his hands along the level slippery stairs and if he had had the emotions for feeling anything he would have smiled at their smooth perfect workmanship.  Those who had made these steps were only known to him as ‘the culture’ – nobody he had ever spoken to knew more than that.  As a child he had walked on these steps and had climbed up the loosely stoned pathways that these men had left on the mountains.  He had asked his father and grandfather about them.  But they had not known.  They were men, they had told him, men with heads of stone.  Too concerned with the sea and the mountains. A useless kind of man.

They had left in their ships with no wish to return.  ‘Thank god they had gone,’ his father had said.  ‘What use are men with heads of stone.’ But whatever they were, he knew they were a race of engineers, of men who saw a need to cross the mountains and enter the sea but they were said to have had no use for monuments, no use for houses to worship their god in and no use for channeling water.  Foresters, who had no doubt lived in the tall trees of Caapsdawn before the climate wars and the saline and infrequent heavy rains washed them and their trees into the sea.  They had left, no doubt, when the kelp had started growing on the land and the small dead and dying vegetation, poisoned by the salt rain, had begun to only half live.

He slipped down the steps and into the warm Atlantic, which gently lapped against the rocks. Feeling his way along the wall, he dived down at a place that he thought might be the one he had mined some months ago, where a thick wall of mussels had gathered.  There was nothing there. He searched further and further along the rocks, finding only the broken edges of the mussel shells still clinging to their beards. He had ripped these from the rocks in the last few months. He slipped his swollen fingers along the wall and felt the biting pain of the salt in the small abrasions. He pushed out and with measured strokes he realised that he was nearing the point. There he searched at the furthest most tip, feeling the strong current surging past him only meters away.

It seemed like now there were no mussels anymore, at least not on this side of the outcrop of rock. Past the point it was too dangerous to swim.  At last, retracing his way back, running his aching hands along the rocks, he found two limpets near to the steps just on the waterline. These were more difficult to find in the dark and more difficult to get off the rocks under the water. As he had touched them he had felt their grip tighten with the terrifying strength of survival. He trod water there keeping an eye on the two shells that were just about visible in the light.  He spat out the lapping waves that slapped up against his face. He waited some two minutes, waiting for them to relax their tightened hold. And then smashing down at them with his palm, forcing the shell downwards, he loosed them, catching them as they slid off the rock.  With each blow he almost screamed with pain as the sharp pointed shells cut into his skin.  He felt weak but the urge to have something in his stomach was still strong enough to do this.

He slipped them into his shorts with some relief. But he knew now that he would have to move further down the coast, away from the safety of his bushes and further towards the danger, in order to find a new source of food.  He swam up to the shore with an annoyance that was tempered by fear. Struggling through the kelp forest, he pulled himself towards the beach, unwilling to suffer the biting pain of walking on the rocks. The fronds of the seaweed seemed to be grappling with him, pulling at his arms and legs with their warm slimy enticements.  Urging him to give up.  Enjoining him down into their peaceful depths.  He slung them off, keeping his eyes on the line of the white sands of the beach.  Then a swell of water helped to untangle him and lifted him effortlessly towards the grating shells that the sea kept churning at the shoreline.  Slumped in this mess of breaking shards he lay exhausted for a minute catching his breath, allowing the swell to wash against him. Getting up, his legs buckled and then straightened repeatedly as he moved up onto the white sand.  He stumbled through the thicket on the beach’s verge, then onto the rough and fell onto the grass of the golf course.

He singed the flesh of the limpet on the flame of his lighter that he kept wrapped in plastic around his neck, he then took out of his pocket the small piece of flint, that he had been working into a blade, and in the light of the moon he scooped out the flesh and swallowed down the small piece of slippery grey meat. He repeated the action on the second one and then got up and made his way towards the green on the 18th hole.  As he walked a pain had begun to grow and he clutched at the lower part of his stomach.  He rushed and sat down in one of the bunkers that ran down towards the beach and expelled more of the black liquid that he had been passing for the last few days.  The shellfish must be bad.  He had seen at night the phosphorescence in the small lapping waves of the ocean.  There was red tide about and he had been told that that wasn’t good for shellfish, but it was the only food he knew out here.  What he needed was water.

He moved circumspectly up towards the clubhouse.  The course was blanched in the blue glow of the moon’s light that reflected off the manicured grass of the fairways.  The stillness and the warmth of the night offered him a small sense of comfort.  On warm nights such as this he slept on the seventh green that was raised above the rest of the course and which looked towards the mountains where he came from, but thirst from the mussels and the biting salt of the sea that smarted in his mouth forced him to the clubhouse.

He could see through the large glass sliding doors that the red LED light of the alarm was on. The beams were active.  He had been caught a few times by the beams in the first few weeks but he had mapped them out and could slip under and between them to get to the shelter of the eaves.  Once he was there he could check the windows one by one.  They quite often left a change room window open and he could pull himself up the wall through the small square opening and get onto the metal lockers above the alarm sensors.  There were towels up there and the occasional half-drunk sports drink and the drinking fountain with filtered water was just in reach if one could bend down low enough.  This time, as he felt along the row of frosted glass windows, he had a sense that he was not in luck.  But then going back to the one that was the most difficult to close from the inside he realised that there was just the slightest give to it. It was shut but not locked.

He slipped his fingernails between the metal frame and the window.  He could feel that it was open but his fingers were too sore to effect the pulling that was needed. He took out from his pocket the small piece of flint and pushed it into the gap.  The window popped out of its frame and with some considerable effort he managed to pull himself up and onto the lockers.  There he crouched for a few moments.  His eyes took some time to adjust to the lack of light.  Wet towels and a few items of clothing were at his feet and hands as he moved his way along, feeling out for any of the sports drinks that may have been left up there.  There was one.  He tore the top off, draining the last of the bottle and licking the sweet stickiness of the inside with his tongue.  The metal lockers rocked slightly as he moved along them towards the water fountain at the end of the room.

A motion sensor was visible just above him as he lowered half of his body down towards the drinking fountain. Pressing his feet and one hand onto the ceiling his stomach muscles strained as they were forced against the top corner of the locker.  Always making sure that he was directly under the sensor so as not to set it off.  He was not unused to this kind of position. Working in the mountains he had often contorted himself up and down precipices and gorges and he regularly had cause to face downwards to help some of the inexperienced climbers up through cracks and gullies, up towards, what was then, the safety of the caves near to where he was born.  The lockers rocked slightly as his one hand stretched towards the button.   He pushed and the spray hit him in the face, some shooting up his nose.  He had to repeat this action several times before he could feel that he had had enough water.

He knew that he was weaker than he had ever been.  Normally he could hang in this position for some five minutes but now he could only manage a few seconds before he had to climb back on top of the lockers for a rest.  He groaned after three such attempts and then propping his head up on some towels, he lay there and began to shiver. He pulled a towel over his body and, after some time of looking out at the light coming through the frosted glass, he fell into a feverish sleep.

The door opened. If he hadn’t started so violently he could have slipped out the window and into the bushes without being noticed. But the janitor looked up at the sound and saw him. And as their eyes encountered each other’s his feverish limps did not respond to the urgency.   The janitor let out a yell, which alerted the club professional and the young three-handicapper who worked in the proshop. He made a dive for the open window but the lockers rocked underneath him and toppled over. His hands, which had always contained a wiry strength, gripped at the windowsill but gave in as he tried to pull himself up and he slipped in-between the lockers as they fell to the ground. Clawing at the floor he slid along the tiles trying to get through the janitors legs but by this time the pro and the shop assistant had got there and were grabbing at his arms and were calling out for the security guards and telling the receptionist to call the paladins. ‘Jesi Choshin! Fuggg!’ screamed the shop assistant, ‘weed got thes defil.’

He tried to grab for the flint in his pocket but the golf pro and the janitor had twisted his arms behind his back with what seemed like a terrifying strength.  He felt the sinews in his shoulders tearing and he let out a shriek that echoed along the tiled surfaces of the room. Dragging him to the office reception area the assistant swung a fist into his face.  ‘Roape! T’tie thes peg,’ the pro screamed as they dragged him along the floor into the bursar’s office.  He kicked out and he received another blow to his head.  They got him onto a chair and the pro shouted as the janitor came running in with a strap from a golf bag and they tied his hands awkwardly behind his back.  Months of bad diet and the diarrhoea had left him too weak to resist.

‘Nam? Fugg oo. Wu is nam?’ The grey haired golf professional asked for a second time and then lashed out at him with the back of his gloved hand, driving it across his face.   He refused to say his name.  It was tattooed onto the inside of his forearm so there was no reason for this.  The pro took another swing at him this time making sure that the heavy gold bracelet that he wore on his right wrist hit the man across the temple.  He fell from the chair, the top of his eye split open like a boxer’s and blood poured out onto the light beige woolen carpet.  The shop assistant let go a kick to the stomach and then made sure that his plastic spikes raked down the young man’s bare uncovered stomach.  ‘Mihale,’ the pro read off his arm. ‘Bit oo zwun auf uz? Yap?’ He lay there bleeding, staring at the wall in front of him. His guts had let out a small amount of ooze with the shop assistants kick.  And now the smell was beginning to fill the room. ‘Hisa smelu defil tiz,’ said the young assistant as they left the room laughing.

The security guard had come in and had pulled him back up onto the chair and examined his cut. He cleaned it with a towel grunting. ‘Fifty peg,’ the guard muttered as he placed his hands in irons. He left without saying anything directly to him. He sat there for a while trying to blink the blood from his vision.  He could see when the paladins arrived.  They were outside at their bakkie speaking to the security guard and the pro.  The shop assistant was there too, smiling and chatting to a well-tanned blonde woman in her forties.  He was gesticulating and laughing clearly showing the woman just how they had effected the capture.  She looked shocked and was shaking her head in seeming disbelief.  At some point she stopped the young man from talking and answered her phone and then moved off to the first tee.  He saw too that the men standing around the clubhouse turned their heads to watch her walk away.

The paladins, in their dark combat fatigues, came into the room taking off their bicorns. They were taller than the others.  Only the golf pro could match them in height but their muscles were much larger and their bare forearms seemed twice the size of any other man’s. They didn’t talk to him, nor did he try to speak to them. They gently moved his arms, which were still locked behind his back, so that they could write down his name and serial number. This the one noted down with his gold Mont Blanc pen into his moleskin note pad. ‘Cume,’ the other said slipping his black-gloved hand under his armpit, helping him to his feet.

He went without a fight. There was no point, his eye was still bleeding slightly and was swollen, his stomach hurt from the shop assistant’s kick and the sickness was beginning to surge through his body. They directed him to the back of the bakkie and helped him up the step.  He couldn’t manipulate his way, with his hands at his back, onto the bench and so he just lay on the floor. There was more talking outside, the paladins were taking more notes.  Before they started the bakkie the back door opened and he felt a rough woolen shepherd’s blanket thrown on top of him.  His stomach churned again and he lifted his face up from the coir mat and turned it so that he was no longer lying on his damaged eye. It would be a long drive.

At some point, he could not quite remember when, the paladins must have given him some water and bread.  They lay next to him and the smell of the bread had woken him.  They had unlocked the irons on his hands, although now he realized that his ankles were in chains. He tore off some bread from the loaf and put a small piece of crust in his mouth and sipped some water. The sensation made him feel a little better and he managed to stand up and get onto the wooden bench at the back and cover himself properly with the blanket.

It was a long drive through the two cities and then up through the freezing mountains.  They were passing through the outskirts of the second city. He could see out the grilled windows that they were passing Location 22; an area that had been demarked for ‘ruin’. A 13th century roofless and windowless Franciscan friary had been build at the crest of the road. A process of demolishing and rebuilding was taking place here that involved the construction, with sundried clay-bricks, of semi-detached Edwardian houses along the winding streets up the foothills towards the snowline. The chimneystacks of the houses were four storeys high and towered over the structures beneath.  They were built despite the fact that domestic fires had been banned some 30 years previous under the Smoking Act of 2275.  ‘Old Wigan’ was the name newly given to Location 22.

The paladins stopped at one of these houses.  He saw them talking to a woman in a pink dressing gown. Her hair was tied in a silk orange scarf. She smoked a pipe.  Blowing the vapour out, she tucked in a stray end of her hair and shrugged and went inside.   The one paladin looked up at the sky and stamped his feet rubbing the back of his arms, while the other took down more notes in his moleskin.  The woman returned holding a man by the arm. The man was gagged and blind folded and had both his hands and legs in irons.  The paladins took him by the arms – he did not resist and the paladins turned to saluted 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 – he was already wearing his striped prison coat 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.  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 and he lay down on the bench. He knew where he was going. They had found out where he came from and who he was. Where the other prisoner was going he could not be sure.  No doubt into one of the camps across the mountains.

He looked at the man. He was aware that the camera in the back of the bakkie 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.  Certainly he knew that he should have done that.  But for him he understood that there was at least a glimmer of hope.  For Prisoner 4537 there was nothing.  He was probably going 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 ‘challenger’. And this would only result in…well, nobody was sure what happened to those who went to the camps but he knew that he was not ready to go there.

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.  They tumbled and rolled on the woven mat on the floor of the bakkie. 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 he ended up lying with his chin on 4537’s neck.

‘Who is that?’ 4537 whispered.

He 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. It forced them into the opposite corner. ‘Who is that?’ Prisoner 4537 said again. This time slightly softer but nevertheless he was openly speaking New English. He didn’t answer.  He looked at the prisoner in confusion. How could he risk what he was doing? How could he speak like this? When the road straightened he managed to get back onto his seat, leaving the other man lying in the corner.  Two minutes and he would be back in his town, back reunited with his parents.  He would not risk interaction.

The paladins stopped the vehicle and opened the back. They waited for him to make his way to the door and then they helped him down with a reassuring indifference.  They led him to the correctional centre where they sat him down on a whitewashed wooden bench.  His illness was getting worse and he now shook uncontrollably. He saw his parents dressed in their ski instructors’ outfits 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 accepting of his father’s thanks.  The sheriff then motioned to a subordinate to come into the room and to bring him 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 boo,’ they said turning to the paladins.  ‘Hiz na ind in industrutritios imagu. Alwey dreemen. Alwey thiken. Alwey visaging de c.’

‘Bu somfin ellez. Wu wrung wif hi? The subordinate asked.

‘Hiz def.’ His mother said looking at him. ‘Hiz refuz de meditriouz.’

He looked at her fiercely. But his mother 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.’

 Chapter Two