Sunday, October 23, 2022

The City of the Dead: Burying the Past

Jeremy looked up and down the street from the doorway of his apartment building for a long time. Then he set out for the northern gate.

Silver moonlight spilled across the center of the lane like a snowcap. Whitewash loomed gray on the buildings’ faces, and people drifted silently for the gates laden with bags like spectral stevedores. Jeremy arrived at the northern gate and saw that the great portcullis was unguarded, that the sandbag positions lay empty. He walked through the passage beneath the wall, a good 20’ thick, and set off into the hills.

Jeremy knew of a cave which was a destination for those hunting the relics of Twinmartyrs’ history, given that the old shrines were large enough to run beneath the city’s adjoining hills. The stars were a vast audience to the carpet of dark in the trees and hillsides. Jeremy was guided from a great distance by a pinprick of light at the place where he knew the cave to be, frowning at the thought that others had had his idea. By the Burning Eye, he thought, perhaps they’d cooperate and delve down with him. By the Burning Eye, he hoped that their desperation had not made them into predators.

Slithering through the dirt of a leafstrewn hillside, he found something else entirely. A fire was crackling on an outcropping by the mouth of the cave, but those tending it were not argonauts from Twinmartyrs. They were men in black leather coats, black boiler suits, black sweaters, or black undershirts. They had blood red cravats, red badges on berets, an assortment of red bands here and their across their bodies. They were an Anarcho-Syndicalist vanguard.

Jeremy saw shovels rising and falling from the earth of the outcropping, dumping soil into subtle piles by the edge of a pit he couldn’t see down into. Periodically men stood up within, wiping their brows and gasping steam into the air. They were pale in the firelight, thin, and wore weatherbeaten blazers, collared shirts with buttons yanked out from being dragged by the collar, dirty spectacles. These were no militiamen, they seemed to be clerks or researchers. Jeremy pressed his face into the cool soil, deploring his luck, and then began circumnavigating the outcropping on his belly.

“Keep it up, gentlemen, it’s about time you did some real work…”

An officer stood above the diggers and was speaking in a bored drawl. He had on black slacks, a black longsleeve shirt, a red bandana around tied his neck, and he had a leather holster suspended from a long cord. A silverized, pearl-handled pistol was in the holster. A guard in a black leather overcoat stood near the officer with a heavy rifle in his hand, the butt resting in his belt.

One of the diggers, a balding, older gentleman, stood up and spoke with steaming breath.

“We laid the groundwork for this entire movement!”

“And for that, we thank you. We succeeded pretty handily out here in the Gorge…”

The officer was smiling. Jeremy glanced across the faces of the other militiamen and watched their movements. They were all drunk except for the leader. Only the guard carried a rifle; the others had teepeed their weapons near a 5-ton truck which was lurking in the shadows. The fighters hadn’t left a weapons guard. Jeremy shook his head in wonder and began slithering towards the rifles.

“The movement never would have succeeded without our scholarship! Without our justification! We made it legitimate!”

“Yeah, but people like you tend to be troublesome once things have settled down, and who likes you anyway? You’re not workers, you’re not fighters, you’re not foremen, nor are you engineers. You can barely dig your own graves. Are any of you married?”

Two of them stopped and raised their hands earnestly.

“Your wives are gonna thank us for this, trust me.”

One of the theorists gazed up at the officer. A drunk militiamen leaned forward from where he sat on a milk crate.

“Keep digging or I’ll pull your head off, pencilneck!”

He kept digging. The officer lit up a cigarette.

“You’re bourgeois anyway, and all your fucking theorizing is only gonna muck up the movement. Splitting hairs creates all kinds of factionalism, and for example, who wants to liquidate the Anarchists this close to v-day?”

Jeremy had reached the edge of the outcropping and began pushing himself towards the rifles, laying utterly flat against the ground. His cheek was on the earth, his arms were flat against it, and his groin was pressed against the dirt. He paused between every rotation of his arms and legs, his sleeves filling up with dirt.

The cave gaped darkly in the firelight. Jeremy could smell the liquor the militiamen were drinking and saw their bottles as he moved. There was priceless brandy from the cabinets of statehouses next to everyday liquor taken from the racks of neighborhood grocery stores. 

“For ten years, we’ve never been anything but loyal!” cried one of the diggers. He was choking up and tears gleamed on his eyes in the firelight.

“Guess you should have gone Illegalist when the denunciations started. Though that would have meant having some balls.”

Jeremy reached the rifles. He grasped the base of a structurally superfluous weapon and tipped it back slowly, slowly, so that the barrel rested on his shoulder and the buttstock was in his fingertips. Then he began sliding towards the bottom of the two-ton truck.

“How could you betray us?” cried another intellectual.

“It’s really satisfying, actually. Okay, that’s deep enough. Shovels up!”

They cast the shovels up miserably. The drunks came to the edge of the pit and picked them up, wobbling and smiling, or gazing down with taut faces, trying to pin something on the men below besides weakness.

Jeremy had reached the far side of the truck and rose into a crouch, turning and dropping the rifle’s five-round box magazine into his palm, checking the chamber. There was a round ready and the bolt was forward. It would fire with the trigger or a good jolt. Jeremy raised his eyebrows at the incaution of the militiamen and reseated the magazine, creeping up behind a tree overlooking the outcropping.

The militiamen were framed in the firelight, standing in a semicircle around the pit with spades in hand. The theorists looked up at them like terracotta soldiers. The officer flicked his cigarette butt into the pit.

“Fill ‘er up!”

The men began shoveling loose dirt over the theorists.

“Please, no, no!” cried one as soil spilled over his balding head and underneath his glasses.

The officer raised a hand and gave them a wave with his fingers.


Jeremy lay flat, exhaling, the sight of the weapon covering everything on the officer’s body except his head, which was perched along the front sight post like something on a platter.

His squeeze was so gradual that the gunshot’s explosion shocked him a little, as intended. 

The militiamen jumped. Brain fibers whirled in the smoke of the campfire, and the officer lay with his shattered head pouring dark blood into the soil around his shoulders. The rifle-armed guard lowered it at the pit and whipped his head around, mouth agape. He looked down at the half-buried men as if one of them had shot his commander.

Jeremy cycled the bolt with a deft movement. He slipped his finger back into the trigger guard and made the slightest adjustment with his shoulders. He let a breath out from his pursed lips. He sent the next bullet through the armed guard’s chest cavity, and he fell straight to his knees and then straight onto his back with a single motion. His weapon clacked across his thigh.

One of the militiamen bolted for the rifles, but tripped and fell, sliding into the weapons headfirst, collapsing them in a clatter.

Jeremy shifted his torso with a slight stretch, laid his sight at the base of the man’s armpit and fired. The man tried to scream but had no wind remaining in his lungs, or no conduit left for its transport, and lay still. The other two men bolted. One rushed into the cave. The other tumbled down the outcropping, then lay flat as if he would be invisible in his moonlit leather jacket. Jeremy placed his front sight post over the man’s flat cap and blew it off him in a hail of skull fragments.

The theorists were on their knees in the pit, holding each other. None of the shot men moved. Jeremy settled into a comfortable position with his sight picture encompassing the mouth of the cave. He didn’t wait long before the last militiamen crept forward on his hands and knees, peering from the shadows, marked out in the flickering firelight.

“Absolute fucking amateurs,” said Jeremy and shot the man in the head. He fell forward, head collapsing into itself. His throat came to rest in the dirt and his rear end protruded in the air.

Jeremy’s ears were ringing. He stood up, taking the rifle’s warm barrel in his hand, and descended the slope of the hill. He stepped up to the outcropping’s edge.

The four theorists gazed at him from the pit, mouths open wide, dirt speckling their mustaches and dusting their eyeglasses.

Jeremy took the officer’s pearl-handled pistol, grimacing at the shattered skull. He gazed at the weapon in the firelight, murmuring “Pigeon,” and tucked it into his wasteband. He cut a lanyard away from the officer’s neck and took the 5-ton truck key from the end of it.

“Thank you,” a theorist breathed.

Jeremy went to the rifles and began removing their bolts, dropping them one by one into his duffle bag.

“We could put those weapons into use,” said one of the men.

“I don’t think so. It’s gonna take you decades to get the message of what happened here.” He threw the disarmed rifles to the edge of the pit. “But these might scare someone off if they come after you.”
He looked the men up and down.
“Probably not though.”

They staggered out of the pit, so shaky they could barely walk. Two had pissed themselves and someone had shit based on the smell, though it could have come from a corpse.

“How many bivouacs are there?” Jeremy asked, loading a scavenged box magazine into his rifle. The men looked at him blankly.

“How many groups?”

“We came with a very long column of trucks and armored cars. The guerillas have all gone up into the hills, the vehicles are down along the road to Blackbeetle. I don’t know what they’re waiting for. Maybe the dawn. We were the only ones who came this way.”

Jeremy nodded and walked toward the cave entrance, tucking a pilfered flashlight into his belt next to the silver pistol. 

“What do we do?” asked one of the men, clutching a heavy rifle in brittle fingers.

“Evidently not what you’ve been doing. All I can tell you is you better not follow me into this cave. You can go down to Twinmartyrs if you want, but if I come back and find out you’re lording it over people I’ll send a death squad to work you over with some pliers. They’re legendary for that.”

The men gaped at him.

Jeremy walked into the cave.

To be continued

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Art - First Run