Step, step, wheeze. Step, step, wheeze. The deader's feet scraped against the ground behind me. My muscles tensed, ready to spring, twitching with each footstep. Parts of me railed against lying here in the dust, waiting to be eaten, but Helgo's warning kept me in place; running away would assure my death. The skin on my neck itched where I imagine the deader's teeth would bite down. Still I waited.
The worst part of the waiting was Helgo playing AC/DC on the harmonica. The corpse-spinner stamped his feet in lieu of drums while the harmonica took up the rest of the song. It seemed most incongruous that my protector would be playing traditional songs of the Badlands while death plodded towards my unprotected back. I would have rather he drop the harmonica and use the shotgun at his feet, but damaging the valuable deader was out of the question. Maybe the shotgun was for me, I realized.
Rather than examine that line of thought, I began reciting the words of the philosopher Largo the Ponderous, who postulated that reality does not physically exist. I wondered what Largo would have made of a deader at his back, perhaps ten feet away. Its wheezing synchronized to a corpse-spinner's harmonica and stamping foot.
All the world is an illusion, and when we die, our souls inhabit shells within another illusion.
Shuffle, shuffle, wheeze. Eight feet away. The deader's tread pulled at pebbles. A musty smell on the air.
Though illusion, we must act as if it were reality, for we are part of the illusion as it is part of us.
Largo's loophole, as I remembered it though my professor marked me down on my essays for calling it such. The deader's shuffle kicked a pebble into my leg. I tightened my grip on the rope in my hand. Pulling it would trigger the trap, and only then could I move to safety.
We cannot know if we share our illusion with other conscious beings or soulless automatons who imitate thought.
The deader was now very close. The wind carrying the deader's wheeze to my nose. Surprisingly, there was no stench of decay, more like the wet paper smell of mildew. The wheeze seemed loud in my ears. Soon the jaws would close on my flesh. I desperately wanted to pull the rope, but wait, I must wait!
The harmonica's song abruptly changed. I felt the deader jerk behind me, and I rolled away, pulling the rope with all my strength. The deader snarled, and I felt a lash of fire on my back. I fell to the ground, scrabbling on all fours back to Helgo.
“Get the rope, idiot, before it hurts itself!” he said.
“My back --”
“It'll be fine,” he said, “unless Julius doesn't get his prize. Move!”
I ran to the coiled rope stashed behind Helgo's and tossed one end at Helgo. The deader's arms thrashed though the holes in the net. It hissed and swayed under the netting's weight, looking like it would topple over at any second. The corpse-spinner and I ran at the deader with the rope between us. I managed to duck under its grasping arms make a few passes around its ankles while Helgo secured the upper body. He gave the deader a push in the chest and slowly played out the remaining rope to bring it gently to the ground.
Helgo removed a charcoal pencil from his jacket and knelt next to the body. “I'll be a bit,” he said, “clean that scratch on your back as best you can.” He tapped a rhythm on his breast bone, started humming another traditional Badlands song, and began writing symbols on the deader's exposed skin.
When he had finished, the deader was free of the net, though still bound at the ankles and wrists. Its skin was covered with the same symbols embroidered in Helgo's hat and jacket. Right-angled line segments and precise arcs crisscrossed across the skin connecting the glyphs in patterns so complex it began to look like a tattoo of tangled fishing lines in an arcane alphabet soup.
“She's ready to go,” Helgo said.
“She?” I said, though on further inspection it was apparent that the deader appeared female.
“They come in both kinds,” Helgo said, “I think I'll call this one Betty.”
“Isn't that just a little sentimental, naming a future engine part?”
“I think she likes it.”
“Oh come on, they're mindless. How can they like anything?”
“You remember the song I played to bring her in here?”
“Some traditional Badlands fare, I couldn't place it.”
“That, my man, was AC/DC's Shoot to Thrill, and she totally dug it.”
“I was too busy trying not to get killed.”
Helgo shook his head. “No, you don't get it. Betty here is partial to AC/DC, Aerosmith, and Mellancamp. A woman after my own heart, at least where music's concerned.” He scratched at that place on his breast bone where he had tapped the rhythm. “She has them rattling around in whatever it is she has for a brain. Necrological engineers like myself hear that in a deader and use it to control them.”
“But do they actually appreciate it, or do they just respond to it? Maybe it's like the snake charmer. The cobra is just following the end of the flute, not caring what the charmer is playing.”
“You're the philosopher, professor. But what's the difference matter?”
Largo couldn't have said it better.
We carried Betty between us back to the 'thoper on a pole. She quickly grew heavy. Helgo said little on the march. I was troubled by his assertion that the deaders had preferences in music. One of the ideas of consciousness was that it could appreciate esoteric concepts such as art and music. If a deader could prefer music, perhaps it actually liked it. Was it more than some kind of affinity, or was there something of a soul behind the limited intelligence? What are the ethical implications of using them as power sources? Did they mind? Did they resent it? Wasn't it the same thing as slavery? The thoughts swirled around in my head to the point that I stumbled over a protruding rock and got an angry curse from Helgo.
“Watch out there, professor.” he said. “One scratch on Betty here, and Julius may decide to see if he can't make a deader out of you in her place.”
“That can't be done, can it?”
Helgo doffed his hat and wiped at his forehead. “I figure they had to come from somewhere. And with all the weird crap out here in the Badlands,why not?”
“Maybe it's exactly right, and the deader has the same tastes in music as when they were alive.”
“Maybe. Come on, we're almost there.”
With the deader secured in the back, Helgo began checking over the ornithopter for our flight to camp. My newly found moral dilemma would have to wait until I solved the problem of Julius.The turncoat expedition leader hadn't expected me to survive with Helgo, but now that I had, I wondered how he would react. Could he risk bringing me back to Paradise City, risking apprehension by the gendarmes if I complained? No, I decided, he could not. Does anyone question an expedition leader if one of his charges is lost in the Badlands? Not at all. Happens all the time.Therefore, when Julius pulled his gun on me and forced me into a suicide mission, my death was a foregone conclusion.
“I'm a dead man, aren't I?” I said out loud. “Julius can't take me back to civilization now.”
Helgo looked up from the port fan housing. “Probably not.”
“Then help me. Let me go. Say I was killed.”
“You'd not last more than a few days before you ran out of water, assuming the thousand ways the Badlands kills doesn't get to you first.” Helgo crouched under the 'thoper's wing and frowned at a stabilizer. “Maybe Julius will take you back, or let you buy him off. At least he can be reasoned with. The Badlands can't. Worst case, at least he kills you quick.”
“You take me then. Fly me back in the ornithopter. I'll report Julius and his crew. You can keep the deader to start a new life. “
Helgo's head dropped, his eyes hidden beneath the brim of his hat. “Can't. If I cross Julius, I won't see the next sunrise.”
“I can protect you.” I didn't know how, but there had to be someone at the university that could, I was sure.
He seemed to consider it for a moment, then shook his head. “It's complicated, but believe me, no matter where I hid, Julius' revenge would find me.”
“What does he have over you?”
Helgo brought out a pendant from under his shirt, a simple silver hoop about the size of a child's fist. I noticed it was attached to a cord such that it hung at the level of his breast bone.
“See this? It's why deaders don't see me as food.”
“Some kind of magic amulet?”
“No, it's an amulet that's missing something. The part of my essence that deaders see as alive.”
“Like a soul?”
“It's a little more complicated than that, but 'soul' will do. Bottom line is I can go maybe a week without being around it, but after that, I'll fade. Either end up dead, or something like Betty back there.”
“And Julius has it.”
Helgo nodded. “I got in a bit of trouble a while back, and Julius bought my way out of it. Until I repay him, he keeps my stone. As long as I stay close enough, like in camp, I'm fine. But if I run or cross him, he'll destroy it.”
“And how many deaders do you owe him?”
“Fifty, plus one every year as interest.” Helgo spat. “I wasn't in much of a position to bargain.”
“And you get how many deaders a year?”
“Two or three.”
“I'll make you a deal. I'll get your soul back from Julius, and you fly us back to Paradise City.”
Helgo slipped the pendant back under his shirt, and his pale eyes stared at me. It seemed like a long time before he spoke.
“If you can stay alive long enough, and get it, you have a deal. But I've been looking for Julius' hiding spot for five years with no luck.”
“Just leave it to me,” I said. I hoped that I sounded more confident than I felt.
As Helgo landed the 'thopter, we were met by Julius and and several of his armed crew. He rested his hands on his belt, near the wood-grained pistol butt sticking out from its holster.
“Well, Helgo,” Julius said, “I see you managed to bring one back alive this time. I guess I owe Marco a beer,” he said, turning to frown at a small dark-haired man who shrugged despite the ammunition-heavy bandoleers strapped across his chest.
“Had to happen sometime, boss” Marco said.
“Yeah, I guess it did.” Julius said. To Helgo: “Did we get the deader?”
“She's in the back, prime condition.”
Julius grunted and turned to me. “Well, Nelson, no worse for the wear?”
“Apart from the sliced hand and lacerated back?”
Julius waved a hand. “All easily fixed.” Marco's mouth curled up in a small smile that set my stomach churning. Time to put caution to the wind.
“Still,” I said, “on the whole, the experience was quite edifying. If the opportunity arose, I might like to tag along once more.”
Julius narrowed his eyes. “Why would you want to do that?”
“Helgo here says that deaders have individual tastes in music.”
“Well, as you recall, I hold a doctorate in applied philosophy. The implications of deaders having individual preferences are staggering. It would turn the department upside down if they found out.”
“Really?” Julius' hand moved almost imperceptibly toward his pistol.
I put on my best abashed face. “Well, perhaps not. The senior faculty is a rather stuffy lot. But at the very least I could present a paper.”
“A paper.” Julius' tone didn't change. Marco's thumb hooked under his rifle's sling. I wondered if they would shoot me before I got out of the ornithopter or wait until I was somewhere that wouldn't make such a mess. I said the first thing that popped into my head.
“Well, you know what they say about academia: it's publish or perish.”
Julius stood still for a moment before bursting out laughing. Marco's hand eased from the rifle sling.
Julius said, “Publish or Perish! Indeed, professor, indeed! Go see those scratches are dressed.” He walked off to his tent, chuckles erupting like aftershocks.
I looked at Helgo, who was unloading Betty from the 'thopter. He wouldn't meet my eyes, but gave a slight nod.
Helgo told me to look for a stone the size of a child's fist, a lump of white marble shot through with blue and green. Julius seemed to be allowing me my status as a guest without any camp responsibilities. I took advantage of this status to play the obnoxious university professor, passing off my nosing around as gathering information for my paper, though I always felt either his eyes or Marco's on me at all times as I made my rounds.
Much like Helgo had feared, I couldn't find any place that made sense for Julius to hide the stone unless it were somewhere on his person or in his tent. The camp was too accessible to all for Helgo not to have found it in the common tents or the vehicles. Julius' mistrust of his crew made it unlikely he would have someone else stow the stone in their personal gear. That night, I approached Julius' tent, racking my brain as to how I would be able to search it without being too obvious.
I opened the flap to Julius' tent. Inside were a few low canvas chairs, a footlocker, and a cot. Julius was reclined on the cot, reading a book with a faded cover by lantern light. He set the book aside as I entered, and I noted that even here he kept his hand close to the revolver on his hip.
“What can I do for you, professor?” he said.
“It occurred to me that Helgo is the only necrological engineer I've ever been in close contact with, and perhaps his methods are different from others. It could, I would suppose, undermine my paper if this were the case.” My speech was starting to come out in a rush. “I was wondering if you could tell me if you've ever used other necrological engineers out here in the Badlands? Do they always use music? Has anyone tried anything else?”
I tried to keep my eyes on Julius, and away from the footlocker. He stared at me for several seconds while the fingers on his gun hand drummed on his stomach.
“I don't know, professor. Fact is, most corpse-spinners work in the Paradise City factories and power plants. It's not often you see one out here in the Badlands. Helgo's the only one I know of that's been available for hire.”
“Oh, how much are his services?”
“Trade secret, I'm afraid,” Julius said. “And before you ask, he is under exclusive contract for the forseeable future.”
I tried my best to look disappointed. I found myself wondering if Julius slept with Helgo's stone under his pillow.
“You know, professor, now that we're alone, I've been meaning to ask you about something.”
“It's about me putting this revolver in your ear,” he said, patting his gun. There suddenly didn't seem to be enough air in the tent.
“Yes. I recall that most vividly,” I said.
“Well, it seems to me that you would have grounds to hold a grudge for that, plus all the other – ” he waved a hand in the air. “...inconveniences involved with helping Helgo capture the deader.”
He rose from the cot and stepped towards me.
“Now most men can't let that kind of thing lie. Most men out in that camp there would be waiting for me in the dark with their Sunday-best pig-sticker. But not you, professor.”
“I – well I – ”
My mind raced. Again the words of Largo came to me. When others in the world show you hardship, thank them, for it is only through hardship that one can break through the veil of illusion in the world.
“The fact of the matter is, Julius, you did me a favor.”
“I'm embarrassed to say that I have always been known as, uh, well, not brave.”
“Yes, well, while your methods were certainly unorthodox, you did get me out into the wastes and I faced the terrors of the Badlands and lived to tell the tale. And in the process, I have something new to advance my career with this music-deader phenomenon. You sir, made that happen. Thank you.” I stuck out my hand.
Julius looked at my hand for a moment before he smiled. His rough palm grasped mine. “You're one weird duck, professor,” he said.
“That notwithstanding,” I said, “you won't mind if I leave out the part about the gun when we get back? It would cause me nothing but embarrassment.”
“Your secret is safe with me,” Julius said. He let out a gruff laugh. “In fact, I say we drink on it. Care for a snort?”
“Love one,” I said not even lying.
Julius went to his footlocker and opened it. He took out a pile of clothing and some ledgers before withdrawing a corked green bottle and two glasses. I peered over his shoulder into the footlocker, but saw nothing but a few more glasses, and some papers. Unless the footlocker had a false bottom, Helgo's stone wasn't in there either.
Julius handed me a glass with some brown liquid in it.
“To fine brandy, and fine lies,” he said.
I swallowed liquid fire, and doubled over as I coughed several times.. I hoped my lies were better than the brandy.
“Don't worry, professor, it'll grow on you.” Julius pounded on my back, right where Betty had scratched me. My body struggled with the dilemma of sorting out which hurt more, the liquid eating at my esophagus or the re-opened wound on my back.
“Ah-” I went down to one knee against the pain. My vision blurred as my eyes welled up. I reached out to steady myself, and my fingers brushed against something cold and smooth. AC/DC's Heatseeker flooded through my head. Then suddenly stopped as Julius slapped my wrist away.
“Watch what you're reaching for, professor,” His voice held an edge, “some men would kill you for touching their gun.”
I shook my head, unable to get my throat working at first. “Deader got my back,” I managed, “sorry. Thought I was going to fall.”
“Better you let yourself fall next time. Here,” he reached down to pull me up.
My eyes cleared and I had a look at the revolver, still in the holster. The pistol's butt appeared to be wood, but close up, I could see there was something odd about the grain in the middle. Julius turned away as I regained my feet, and put his long coat on, hiding the pistol from view.
“Best you go get that checked back out, professor. It's about time I made the rounds.”
“Right,” I said, “thanks for the drink, for everything.”
“Don't mention it.”
As I crossed camp, I replayed the vision in my head. But for the color, Julius' pistol butt was just about the size of a child's fist.
Helgo came up to my tent later as I was re-wrapping my bandages.
“Any luck?” he said.
“He painted it and made it into a pistol grip.”
“Are you sure?” he said.
I told him what happened in Julius' tent. “It sang Heatseeker when I brushed it.”
“All right. So now what?”
“Now, I need you to find us another deader.”
To be Continued...