I had assumed that when Helgo reported sensing a second deader in the area, Julius would send the necrological engineer and I out to capture it, as we had with Betty. To be sure, this was done. However, he also sent Marco along with us 'as an added precaution.' My expedition leader's new-found concern for my safety in made me feel even less so. Marco had sat behind us in the ornithopter, the scraping sounds of his knife against the whetstone audible over the howl of the airsteam. My carefully-constructed gambit for freedom crumbled in my mind's eye, for the truth of the matter was that there was no second deader and no way to reformulate a new plan with my co-conspirator.
When we landed near a stand of hoodoos and began setting up our march, Marco announced that he would guard the rear of our little column, and unslung his rifle in a manner that left no argument. Helgo shrugged and set off as if he were tracking a deader. I sighed and picked up the crate containing the net trap and extra coils of rope.
Marco had the habit of talking about whatever popped into his mind. As we marched, he extolled the virtues of hornswill over moonshine. I had sampled both and found nothing redeeming about either. He also gave an unfortunately detailed inventory of the trulls that worked the air docks and aerodromes of Paradise City. He hinted that his endorsements carried substantial discounts and exclusive services with certain ladies.
He paused only briefly after a series of ancedotes involving tavern brawls to address me directly.
“So you think you have the knack, Professor?” Marco said.
“The knack for what?” I said.
“For getting lucky.”
“I'm sure I don't know what you mean.”
“Well, I mean that we go after a deader maybe once or twice a year, and it happens on your trip. Then someone as green as you plays bait and comes out of it alive.” He took a long swig from his canteen.
“Then, on this same trip, we find another deader. Ain't that damned lucky? I've never been on a job where we found two deaders. And here you are, carrying the bait box.” He nodded at the crate in my arms that held the trap.
“The bait box? Is that what it's called?” The last part I directed at Helgo's back with a hint of acid in my voice, though he didn't seem to react.
“Yeah, because we make the bait carry it. And when he opens it...” Marco laughed.
“Yes, I figured that part out,” I said. “And I'll do so again, when the time comes.” Or smash it over your head, I said to myself.
“I ain't never heard of anyone making it as bait twice, professor. Like I said, you must be lucky.”
“You bet Julius I'd survive last time,” I said.
“Yeah, that's because he was giving fifty to one, so I figured why not? This time though, the odds ain't that good.”
We hiked for an hour, Helgo changing our direction about every five minutes as he tracked the phantom deader. I dearly hoped he could find his way back to the ornithopter, because I was thoroughly lost. Finally, he called a halt next to a dry river bed.
“We set up here,” he said.
“It's about time,” Marco said, pulling out his canteen.
“You can help me set up,” I told him. Maybe he would come close enough so I could wrestle the rifle away from him, or wrap him up with the net.
“Nah, that's okay, professor. Julius told me to keep watch, and that's what I'm going to do.”
I set up the netting and frame, while Helgo stamped out arcane symbols in the dirt. Marco looked on. I racked my brain for a plan lure Marco under the net. If I could not, I wondered how long I would have to lie in the sun before waiting for a deader that would never come.
“When it comes, it'll follow the gully,” Helgo said. He pointed down the river bed. “I'll be just down here. Marco, you cover him from the bank.”
“You're not in charge here, corpse-spinner,” Marco said.
“Necrological engineer,” Helgo said absently. “then do whatever the hell you want then, but if you spook the deader, Julius will take the selling price out of your hide.”
“Don't worry, corpse-spinner, Julius said I get a cut of whatever we sell this deader for. I know my job.”
Marco scrambled up the embankment. Helgo had me lay down and he drew a small knife.
“What's your plan now?” he asked.
“I'm working on it.” I said.
“Think faster, or you'll be dead before sundown.”
“I'll have to cut you.”
“For appearances' sake, I suppose.” I said.
He gave me a tight smile, blackened teeth surrounded by desert-cracked lips. “Just so.”
He drew the knife against my forearm, a shallow cut that burned every time I moved my fingers.
Helgo walked to his spot and took up a chant, rocking back and forth on his haunches. I still had no idea what to do. Marco laid on his stomach in the meager shade of a dead juniper tree, his rifle seemingly pointed not over my head, but at it.
There was a time at the university where I heard about a psychology experiment. Doctor Johansen postulated that when stressed in an otherwise boring situation, the mind overreacts to new stimuli. She placed a subject in a room empty but for a chair, and told them they would be called on shortly for the “actual” experiment. In one group, the subjects waited for fifteen minutes in a normal room. In the other group the room temperature was increased as the subjects waited. The two groups then tried matching pairs of cards flipped in quick succession. While there were certainly some subjects from the heated room that struggled, fitting her hypothesis, many more did not. Unfortunately, the next round of departmental budget cuts came at the same time as a second experiment was proposed, so Doctor Johansen was never able to fully explore her idea.
Perhaps, I thought, there was something there. The question was just a matter of whether Marco was the right kind of subject. After I felt a sufficiently long time had passed, I got out my field journal and began writing. Helgo certainly noticed my movements, but kept chanting. After a few minutes more, Marco called out.
“You're going to spook the deader! Quit moving.”
I pursed my lips and waved dismissively at him like he was a know-nothing undergrad, something my departmental head marked me down for on my last performance evaluation. I stood up and began walking around the trap, tapping my pencil against the framework and shaking my head.
“Helgo, make him get down!”
“You know, I can think of several improvements on this,” I called out, pushing on the rickety framework.
The necrological engineer seemed to take no notice. I turned my back on Marco and gave the frame another push, causing it to sway.
There was the sound of tumbling rock and swift footsteps. I was about to make another quip when the world went white and I fell to the ground. Pain blossomed in the back of my head. Above me, the shadowy outline of Marco stood.
“Stay down!” his rifle butt rose for another strike.
“Deader!” Helgo shouted.
Marco looked up. I rolled, knocking the frame over. Marco cursed and thrashed, unable to raise his rifle against netting designed for creatures of unnatural strength. It was only a single data point, but I was now inclined to believe Doctor Johansen's hypothesis.
We flew back with Marco bound up behind us on the cargo rack, deader-style. We landed short of camp and left him on the rack while we prepared our caper.
“We need to get in and out quickly,” Helgo said.
“I wasn't planning on lingering,” I said.
“Then you get the stone, I'll get Betty.”
My stomach lurched. “Why don't you get the stone, and I'll get her instead?”
“Because she's powering the whole camp now. You trying to unplug a deader would be like trying to handle hot coals with your bare hands. It'd raise all kinds of hell if you tried taking her out of the grid instead of me. I just need five minutes to get her out quiet-like”
I thought of suggesting to just leave her, but a twinge of guilt hit me at the thought. Maybe I couldn't prove it, but I was beginning to suspect she was once human. Maybe Helgo was just going after her to sell her on the open market, but I could fight that battle later.
“Point taken. I'll see to getting the stone.”
As we approached the camp, I planned my route to Julius' tent. He had his crew on watch of course, but vigilance had become lax over the past weeks; those on guard tended to walk the same paths. Despite this fact, visions of all the ways I could be discovered flooded my head. I put them aside as best I could and wiped the cold sweat from my forehead.
I crept though the shadows towards Julius' tent while Helgo slung Marco's old rifle and went around the other side of the darkened camp toward the humming generator. With his black coat and hat, he melted into the shadows within seconds. Across from me, I recognized the guard as Vince, a tall lanky man whom none of the others would play cards with because he cheated. He stared blankly at the shadow in which I was hiding. I froze, avoiding direct eye contact, even though the phenomenon of feeling being watched had been debunked in the psychology department for decades.
Vince stared for what seemed like hours, but he eventually turned and paced to a new position towards the south end of camp. I made my way forward, past the tents filled with sleeping gunmen to Julius' tent. I peeled back the flap and peered in the darkness. I could just make out Julius' form on the cot, chest rising and falling with even breaths. I entered at a crawl, feeling my way forward and to the sides with light touches to avoid obstacles.
I first checked the footlocker, on the off chance Julius would have laid the gun there, but all I felt was its bare surface. If he had placed the gun in the locker, all was lost. The creaking of the locker's hinges would surely give me away. However, I couldn't see Julius being out of arm's reach of his weapon. Step by step, I made my way to Julius' cot, feeling under it, around the edges. All bare.
My heart hammered in my ears, and I felt like I was about to pass out from taking silent, shallow breaths. I took a moment to steel myself, and reached out. My hand was seized instantly, and a blinding light appeared in my eyes.
“Hello, professor,” Marco said, “Miss me?”
* * *
It seemed to me the purpose of a firing squad was to diffuse the responsibility of murder among a group to save the delicate sensibilities of an individual executioner. At least that is how I would record such thoughts in an academic paper. My actual thoughts centered around Julius being too much a coward to pull the trigger himself. Such was my state of mind as Julius told his crew to take aim.
Helgo, sat to the side with his harmonica in hand. A rope ran from a steel collar at his neck to Marco's hand. 'I always got a knife you don't know about,' Marco said of his escape. Since he didn't have to worry about stealth, it was a simple matter for him to run ahead of us, warn the camp, and play body double in the cot while Julius and the others waited in ambush. Helgo was caught a few moments after he reached Betty.
Too valuable to kill, perhaps my execution was more for Helgo's education than my punishment. Helgo's face had that same impassive quality to it as our first meeting, but I thought there was something about him that seemed a bit diminished. I was seeing the breaking of a man, I realized.
Facing my own impending death, it seemed I was noticing many things for the first time. All of life's mysteries seemed simpler now, the purpose of life, under all our pompous pondering and searching for greater meanings, is to draw just one more breath. Finding purpose and meaning is just a way to keep ourselves distracted while our lungs inhale and our heart beats. If we didn't have these distractions, perhaps we'd just get in the way of life's purpose and end it prematurely.
“Last words, professor? Last chance to ask for forgiveness,” Julius said.
“No regrets, Julius. Just let me die with some dignity.”
Julius pursed his lips and nodded. “Indeed, professor, indeed. Just to show you I don't take it personally, I'll give you a small boon.”
“Helgo,” Julius said, “play the man a dirge.”
Helgo raised the harmonica, and let out his first chord. The breathy notes came out in a slow cadence, powerful, defiant. Like a great airship clawing its way up from the ground. It was a touch too much from the Badlands for my tastes, but under the circumstances I appreciated Helgo's interpretation given his limited repertoire.
“Ready,” Julius said.
The staccato of bolts sliding back penetrated into my bowels, and my legs went numb. Were it not for the rope securing me to a dead juniper tree, I would have collapsed.
“Aim,” Julius said.
His crew, the men I'd shared food and drink with for the past two weeks sighted over their rifles. Some muzzles were aimed at my heart, others at my head. I caught Vince's eye staring at me over his gun barrel. It wavered then dipped as he took a lower aim. The mouths of the barrels grew bigger and seemed darker. I took in another sweet breath of air and held it. I closed my eyes.
The shots sounded like a single cannon, and a giant's hammer crushed my chest. My breath whooshed out. Funny that I hadn't even heard Julius give the order to fire. So this was death. Then I took in another lungful of air. That wasn't supposed to happen was it? Then the cries of alarm reached my ears, and I opened my eyes.
The camp was on fire. A black column rose in the air at the far side, taking on a mushroom shape. Julius, gun in hand, was waving his men toward the explosion.
“Fan out, watch the perimeter!” He pushed one of his crew who stumbled around as if lost. “South side – go, go!” He turned to Marco.
“Secure the 'spinner under cover, then spin up a 'thoper and give us cover.”
“What about him?” Marco pointed at me.
“Leave him.” Julius said. He ran towards the chaos.
In that moment, Helgo pulled at his boot heel. A small knife appeared in his hand and sank itself into Marco's neck. The other man collapsed, gurgling.
“I always have one more knife too,” he said to Marco.
A shadow moved though the smoke near the site of the explosion. Shots rang out.
There was a tug at the ropes. Helgo held the knife in one hand and sawed at my bonds while still playing the harmonica. The tune was the same as the dirge but he played now at a blistering speed. Doubtless some notes were missed, but perhaps the music only reflected the chaos around us.
The ropes fell, and Helgo jerked his head in the opposite direction of the gunfire. There was a shout behind us, followed by the buzz of a bullet passing my head. I looked back to see Julius, legs wide, teeth bared, revolver in a two-handed grip taking aim.
We ran into the brush as another bullet whizzed by. Helgo ran ahead in a lopsided gait, picking a path through the broken terrain to our 'thopter, still keeping up his tune on the harmonica. The sounds of gunfire fell behind us, though the snaps and crashes of Julius' pursuit remained.
Helgo's twists and turns in our flight seemed to come at random; I could only but follow him, lost as I was in this blasted place. His harmonica sang in jerky notes as we ran, I could hear him gasping between phrases. He finally came to a halt before a large boulder, collapsing on all fours with his chest heaving.
“Get up,” I said, “He's right behind us.”
“No,” he said, “Stops now.”
There was a crash behind us, and Julius barreled though a dead bush into the clearing. His face was caked with sweat and red dust, and had the slack expression of someone on the point of physical collapse. If Helgo had made it just a bit further, I thought, we might have made it.
Julius' revolver swung up towards me. I leaped at him, reaching out to knock the gun away. There was a blinding flash, and a roar in my ear. I hit him, and we fell to the ground. I fancied for a moment that I had knocked him senseless and I had him pinned, only to be flung violently backward as he wedged his feet between us and pushed. I landed on my back near Helgo. My chest felt as if crushed in a vice; hot needles rang in my ear. I moved to rise, but Julius was quicker.
“Stay down.” Julius said, bringing the pistol up. At the distance between us, he could not miss.
“My deader's gone. Blew up in that explosion you rigged somehow, professor. Even for killing Marco, I would have made it quick,” Julius said. “not now, professor, not now.” The look in his eye convinced me that pointing out I was tied up during these events would do no good.
“And Helgo?” I said. Julius' eyes flicked to my companion.
“Oh, I got plans for him. I've been too lenient, that's all.” Julius smiled in a way that frightened me more than his gun. Helgo raised his hand and extended his middle finger.
“I'll cut that one off first, corpse-spinner,” Julius said. “But first,” Julius centered the revolver on my head and thumbed back the hammer. As the cylinder rotated, I caught a glimpse of the bullet that would kill me.
Helgo's harmonica let out a trill and Julius fell to the ground. He tried to rise, but the figure on his back grabbed him about the head and twisted back and forth as quickly as a dog might shake out a wet coat. There were several popping sounds, and Julius spasmed. The gun barked, and to this day, I believe my oddest experience in Badlands is that the bullet hit none of us.
Betty rose from Julius' body. She gripped the corpse by the hair and dragged it through the sand towards us. Julius' gun skittered across the ground with its owner, limp fingers tangled in the trigger guard. Helgo kept playing as he knelt down and retrieved the revolver, tucking it in one of his long coat's pockets.
“I thought she had blown up.”
“Nah, just backfed the power grid when she jumped out.”
“I thought you needed five minutes to get her out.”
“That was for getting her out quiet and clean. Loud and messy just takes a second. I keyed her for Back in Black when they jumped me. Come on, let's get to the 'thopter.”
“Right, what about her? Do we need to tie her up?” I said.
“They're pretty docile once they start eating. I wouldn't worry about it.” There was a popping sound, and I turned. Betty had one of Julius' severed fingers her mouth, her jaw working mechanically.
Maybe deaders had consciousness, maybe they even had souls. Maybe I could convince my peers of my suspicions, but Betty's dietary habits would make that job all the harder.