Friday, January 20, 2012

Badlands Journal -- Part One

Exerpt from The Cursed Treasure:  Poetics of Reclamation in the Badlands, by Nelson Conrad 

"While gasoline, high-carbon steel, canned food and other refined artifacts lure many to brave the dangers of the Badlands, it is the possibility of capturing a Deader that brings a gleam to the profiteer's eye. Creatures of the wastes, deaders appear from a distance to be human, though it soon becomes apparent they are little more than mindless animated corpses. The flesh is putrefied, consistent with an expired body of five to ten days. However, the decomposition is somehow arrested from progressing any further. It is unknown how long a deader can remain in this state, but several specimens have been in service for over fifteen years. The deaders, like the pavement of the Endless Highway, seem to be immune to the ravages of time.

The interesting part of the deader condition is that the energy that sustains the quasi-dead state can be harnessed. Necrological engineers have the ability to subdue deaders and bind them to necrodynamic engines, which in turn power our airships, generators, and other assorted machinery. The efficiency, energy output, and reliability of the dynamos are outmatched only by the rarity of their power source."

The college's operations office had assured me that my berth with Julius McMurtry's Expeditionary Reclaim and Salvage was the safest option for a trip into the Badlands.  Would I need to bring a gun? Why not at all the owner said with a smile. I was assured that all security precautions were taken to ensure my safety, and my status as noncombatant observer underwritten by a hefty chunk of my department's grant. One week into the trip, the click of his revolver's hammer told me my money's guarantee had run out.  

Julius pressed the pistol to my ear, the sun-heated metal searing against my skin.

"Now you see, Nelson," he said, "we gotta send someone with Helgo to go get the deader, and I can't spare anyone else."

"And what about my retainer?" I said. "It was enough so you could have hired on someone else to go with your corpse-spinner."

"Yeah, I could have, but I didn't." Julius scratched at his beard, sending little puffs of dust flying in the air. We were all coated in dust, fine red particles that found its way into all conceivable crevices. Julius looked like he had been dipped in rust. His pistol was immaculate.

"Without that deader, I don't make my payroll. I don't make payroll, then I may as well throw myself onto a prop blade; it'd be less messy by the time the crew was done with me. Tell you what, if you survive, you can have your retainer back."

"Thank you." I could have told him that any more payments on my part were over, but I thought it best not to argue with a searing gun barrel in my ear.

"Excellent, Helgo is waiting for you." Julius withdrew his weapon, but kept it free of the holster as I walked across the camp to the corpse-spinner's ornithopter. The other men looked on with a mix of amusement, pity, and relief. Julius' crew hadn't struck me as superstitious or cowardly, but it was well known that Helgo's partners had the unfortunate tendency to die.

Helgo, a thin man with twisted dreadlocks and black braided beard, sat in the ornithopter's open cockpit, grinning at me with blackened teeth and a knowing smile.

"Drew the short straw?" he said.

"The only straw there was," I said, climbing into my seat.  

"Don't worry, they only die when they forget the rules. You're a good learner, aren't you? Know anything about deaders?"

"I hold doctorates in anthropology and applied philosophy from St. Yingwe's," I said. "I read several papers about the Badlands in the department archives that mentioned deaders, among other things.

Helgo shook his head and started up the ornithopter's fans. "That's two strikes against you. Can you play the harmonica?"


"Three strikes then." Helgo lowered tinted goggles over his eyes and pulled his bandanna over his nose. "But I'll hold out hope nevertheless."

The howl of the fans and their kicked up sandstorm swallowed my protests.

The noise of the airstream made conversation impossible, which suited me fine.  What should have been a simple, relatively low-risk trip into the badlands for my field research into the Endless Highway had taken a turn for the worse.  I was definitely going to file a grievance with the Administrative Board when I returned. Assuming I returned, I reminded myself.

From high up, the badlands looked almost beautiful with its red cliffs and striated hoodoos. The black ribbon of the Endless Highway wound its way as though the canyons as though it had cut through the rock itself. Occasionally, we found greying remains of buildings, flying around such ruins to avoid any chance of a bandit raider with a rifle taking us down with a lucky shot.

Helgo's black beard and sun-bleached dreadlocks whipped in the slipstream. Red dust coated his long black jacket, obscuring the silver runes stitched in columns down its length. He kept one hand on the control yoke, and tapped some kind of rhythm on the air with the other. Occasionally, his free hand would stop in mid-tap, and he would alter our course. After four such corrections, he put the 'thopter into a stomach-clenching dive. He pulled up just as I was certain we would make a rather spectacular crater, and landed the craft with a bounce.

"This is the place," he yelled as he shut down the fans, "get out."

I rubbed feeling back into my knuckles and alighted from the 'thoper.

"What now, corpse-spinner?" I asked. Maybe the man would see reason. "I'm hardly suited for this kind of thing. I'm not even armed."

Helgo held up a finger. "One, it's 'necrological engineer' not 'corpse-spinner.' " He extened a second finger. "Two, weapons won't help us collect the deader. Three, you're probably the most qualified man Julius ever sent. So go get that crate tied to the back, and stop it with the questions already."

As I untied the crate, Helgo put his tinted goggles into a pocket of his duster and withdrew a black felt hat covered in the same silver runes as his coat. He reached under the pilot's seat and withdrew a sawed-off shotgun that went somewhere under the folds of his jacket.

"I thought you said weapons wouldn't help with the deader."

He shrugged. "Won't hurt either. Nobody but a fool goes into the Badlands unarmed."

Another point to bring up with the Administrative Board. At least I had my field notebook. I began composing my opening statement for the inquiry.

We hiked in the afternoon heat, Helgo leading and humming some kind of melody.

"Where is the deader?" I said.

"Close, pretty close," Helgo said. "We need to find the proper ground."

It turned out that the proper spot was a dead-end slot canyon. Helgo directed me to open the box. As I flipped the catch, an edge sliced into my hand. I let out a yelp. Blood flowed from my palm and was greedily sucked up by the red dust at my feet.

"Here, take this" he said, holding out a rather dubious scrap of stained grayish cloth.

"I'll get tetanus from that -- or worse," I said.

"It's either that or keep on bleeding over the ground. Julius will have a thread and needle at camp to fix it up right," he said. After a pause, "He may not even charge you for it if I put in a good word."

I was creating a rather ghastly circle of dark spots around myself. I wrapped the least stained portion of the dirty rag around my hand as tightly as I could, trying to tell myself that it would be better to die of tetanus in a few months rather than bleeding to death in the next few minutes.

Helgo upended the crate. Wooden poles, cording, and hemp net clattered to the ground. Helgo quickly assembled what I assumed was to be the trap, though I doubted its efficacy.

"It's no more than a frame with a net on top. Won't the deader just step around it?"

"Deaders are basically stomachs with legs," Helgo said. "They don't notice much around them once they get the scent. Besides, you're going You'll also need to lie down on the ground, and stay still until the last second. Deaders sometimes spook if their targets seem too lively."

I was the bait. Of course I was bait. So obvious, really. Next time, I'm sending a graduate student out for the field work. More details assembled themselves in my head. 

"I take it deaders are attracted to blood."

"You guessed it."

"Why my blood and not yours?"

"Someone's got to play this." He held up a harmonica.

"You jest."

Helgo shrugged. "They respond to music."

"That wasn't mentioned in any of the papers I read."

"That's because I doubt anyone writing them ever bothered coming out here."

"So what are you going to play, a lullaby or something?"

"You need to play the right kind of music, or it won't work. You gotta know what they're going to respond to." Helgo waved the harmonica. "I'll be playing this to keep you safe."

 "I'd feel better if you were hanging on to the shotgun instead."

"Deaders full of slugs aren't worth anything. We need 'em intact."

"What happens if I don't get the net on it right away?"'

Helgo shrugged. "Just don't let that happen."

 "I won't do it," I said, "Take me back."

"I could, but Julius would shoot you and use your corpse as dead bait, even though it doesn't attract deaders all that well. Either way, you're going to have to lie under that trap. This way is better, isn't it?"

I stepped toward  him, ready to pummel him and take my chances flying home in the ornithoper. But he anticipated my move, jumping back as the shotgun magically appeared is his hands.

"Hold on there, professor," he said, "I'll hobble and stake you if I need to, but I swear you can do this and come out alive if you just do what I say."

"Your history around camp says otherwise."

"They panicked, and dropped the trap too early. Deaders can be deadly quick when spooked."

More details snapped into place in my head. "Deaders are too valuable to risk damaging," I said, "and Julius can't trust any of his hired guns not to have a weapon stashed if they're used for bait."

"Just so. We usually have convicts for bait. Bad idea, really. Have to tie them up so's they can't get away, and they're usually dead by the time I can open the trap. Death Row was empty this month, so Julius improvised."

Helgo held the shotgun on me. Through the opening of his coat I could see the manacles I had assumed were for the deader would fit my limbs just as well. 

"The only way out of this is with a captured deader?"

"Just so. Your best chance is to do this my way."

I stared at him, his pale eyes seeming to glow under the shade of his hat. They didn't waver, but neither did they seem cruel.

"Fine," I said, "What do you want me to do?"

Helgo lowered the shotgun. "The rules for luring the deader into a trap and surviving are simple."

So it was that I found myself lying face-down in the dust as Helgo played AC/DC on the harmonica.  My eyes glued to Helgo's rules in my field journal, I fought the urge to run as shuffling footsteps approached.

To Be Continued...

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