Clip recognized the sound of the whipping blades. Without his vision he was struggling to walk in the sand and tripped up frequently. Hands on his upper arms kept him upright and moving forward, but other than that there was no courtesy in the assistance. Often times he felt dragged when his feet couldn’t quite keep up with their intentions. Wheezing through his nose and pushing air around the gag was as close as he could come to breathing which was already made difficult by the thin air.
This air had a little bit of moisture in it, not like the rest of the desert, more like the cell, or whatever prision he was being kept in. The windows had been replaced by thick boards. He remembered it not being up very high when they put him in there because the elevator wasn’t moving for very long, but the garbled announcement from the little box didn’t offer him any more clues. Moist air wasn’t an immediate benefit, it was a few weeks before things started to change.
First it was the air, it changed from one day to the next, desert dry for weeks, and then one morning it was damp like it was in the garden before he burned it. Then water in wasteful amounts. It was another four weeks or so, Clip struggled to keep track of the days of their imprisonment so he couldn’t be sure. It came out of the faucet, like when he was a child, and went down the drain as if they didn’t need the rest. Someone had to show them how to use the toilet, which was even more wasteful. Why would you put your shit and piss in a bowl of water? Clip thought at the time. They aren’t thirsty.
Threats from the woman were needed to get them to use the toilet instead of their bucket. Their keepers grew tired of dumping the bucket, he imagined. He told them they could simply let him go outside to do his business and they wouldn’t have any bucket issues, but they, rightfully, didn’t trust him. Clip wouldn’t have trusted himself either. He would have made a run for it at his first opportunity.
Into the little pond then for his poop and pee, and the others as well, flushing after every poop so they don’t clog the toilet. With this much water, water to waste on such things as feces, these people must be the richest in the world. They could buy anything with it, anything that was left anyway. This old Bob must be swimming in it, and all the riches it comes with.
Clip made sure that the others, Badger, Weed and Zeb, didn’t get drunk on water. They were weak minded and could be seduced by it. Not like Clip, he was strong because he had to be, because he was now the leader of the team. He didn’t like it, he wished Jacko was still around. What has his tenure in the role been like? Jacko is killed fighting with that girl, and then Clip is suddenly in charge. Right away he and his men are taken prisoner, and there they were day after day, just prisoners. How much leading can a man do from prison? he thought.
“Don’t get drunk on water,” he would say. “Only take what you need. Stay thirsty. Thirst makes us strong.”
They were fed once a day. At first it was just enough to keep them alive, but then the meals became more elaborate, more varied. By the end of their tenure they would have been able to feast, if Clip had let them. “Just enough,” he said. “No more than you need to sustain yourself.”
He was a true soldier of The Dragon. Now he was being shuttled off somewhere with the rest of his team. They said “released,” as if he were in some sort of prison from the before-world. He continued to trip in the sand. The canvas hood over his head blocked out the view, only letting the light in through tiny pinholes. In the darkness of the hood the light was blinding when his eyes caught it. At least the hood kept the sand out of his face as it was blown up from the downdraft of the helicopter. He was right up on it, so the sound told him. The engine noise grew distinct from the whipping blades and, sure enough, he heard a door open.
The helping hands that gripped him now pulled his head down and pushed his body up into the flying machine. He had never been up in a flying machine before. As he sat, as his legs were being bound and his body bound to the chair, he wondered what it would feel like to be up in the air. Without seeing it, would he know if he was up or not? He hoped they would take off his hood, but they didn’t. They bound him to the chair and then moved on to the next man. All four of them were bound. Clip could hear his commrades grumble as they were being shoved up into the machine and strapped in. Had they ever been up in the air in one of these machines, or a plane, or anything that flew?
The noise made all other sounds like whispers in the wind. He could hear that there were people talking in front of him, perhaps in the piloting area of the machine, but he couldn’t make out a word of what they were saying. He imagined it was talk of where they were going, how fast to go there, how high to fly. He had fooled them, he thought. They were going to set he and his men free. They thought they’d broken them, or convinced them to keep their mouths shut in exchange for their lives, and their freedom.
It was around the seventh or eigth week of captivity that they started asking Clip what should be done with he and his men. He remembered the doctor woman asking first. She was so gullible. Clip told Badger, Weed and Zeb to agree with them, to agree to keep their mouths shut and never go back east to tell the rest of The Dragon about any of it. Sure enough, the doctor lady brought up others to talk to Clip and his men. They all stuck to the same story, they all agreed to never tell anyone about the city, the building, the water, the women, none of it.
Eventually things got formal. They, the survivors, set up a new room on the floor with a row of chairs on one side, and a single chair on the other. Clip was escorted in by the dangerous lady, the one who killed Jacko. He wanted to hurt her so bad, and he sensed that she wanted to do the same to him. She was rough with him. She didn’t need to be, he wasn’t putting up any fight, but she seemed to need to be mean to him. Nothing was said as they moved into the makeshift parole board. She simply pushed him down in the little chair opposite the panel of people.
“What’s your name?” the old man asked. He was at the center of the panel, along with the doctor lady.
The rest of the panel was all women, of whome Clip recognized two or three, one he had bedded, at least from his perspective that’s what happened. There were twelve of them up there. Absenst was the fierce fighter and the pilot.
He gave his name, and answered all their questions truthfully. It didn’t matter to him that he was giving up the details of The Dragon, where they are, where they might be going, which he didn’t know. His goal was to convince them that he wasn’t a threat, that he would be just fine if they let him out along with his team. If it’s just one lie among many truthes he thought they might buy it.
Clip might have believed his lie, even made it a truth had he be given other options. He couldn’t grasp such a thing. It would have required him to have been given an opportunity to be a part of some other type of community, a group not bent on the completion of Nature’s mission, some survivors, perhaps. Such a scenario couldn’t have occured to him, he simply had no experience that he could recall that wasn’t something like The Dragon, some group that shit on the little guy in order to raise itself up. Even with Tynon’s seemingly altruistic mission, it still put The Dragon above others, above all those who are trying to survive. They were worthless bags of water and meat. Clip’s only experience with survivors who were just trying to live turned them into prey. He couldn’t and wouldn’t want that for himself. To him, even the panel of 11 women and the old man still looked as though they should be hunted.
Burying those feelings was all he had to do, and convince them otherwise. “I’d like a chance to start over, somewhere else, somewhere where they don’t know me, where I can blend in and just live out a normal life,” he said. His words hung in the air between his lonely chair and the 12 judges. Dripping with filth, each letter of it, he could hardly read the whole phrase without choking on it.
They tucked him in a little room afterward. He was joined, one by one, by each of his men. Then they were finally shuffled back to their original prison with the running water in the sink and the toilet that bathed their poop before wasting a gallon of water to send it to the wherever.
His words, their words worked because now they were being loaded into the helicopter to be whooshed away to a new home, at least until they’re out of view. Then they’ll burn it to the ground, kill everyone in sight, and work their way back to Toronto.
It was a week after their grilling that the doctor lady came to tell them the good news. “You’ll be sent to an outpost far away. It’s a place Angel visits on his trading routes. They have enough supplies to keep you fed. You’ll have to work, and work out what else you can do for them. Eventually you’ll be able to head out on your own if you like. We don’t have any formal agreement with them. We just know they need some help.”
Clip and his men all nodded eagerly, but not too eagerly. The plan was working perfectly. These dopes bought the lies.
She went on with some of the details and why they might have to wait. The helicopter was not quite ready, they hadn’t contacted the outpost yet and so on. But it wouldn’t be too long, just a few weeks, she said.
* * *
Up, up went the flying machine, shoving Clip’s heart into his stomach and pinching his throat. For a brief moment he felt like he had to pee. It was very smooth, and not windy. Even with the doors closed Clip thought it would be a little windy, but the air inside was just air, like that on the ground.
He closed his eyes, feeling the motion of the machine floating through the air. Clip wasn’t nervous at all, even though he had seen the machine, or one just like it, crash out of the sky. He was flying, it was amazing. And he and his team were about to be free again. After all they did, they were still going to be free.
Justice wasn’t going to find him, not that he knew what justice was. It was just another word from the before world. It meant nothing to him.
He could hear the pilots chattering again, but still couldn’t make out what they were saying.
Soon the machine went forward instead of up. He could tell because he got light for a second, and then heavy toward his back, and the sound of the blades changed and the whole machine tilted forward.
I wonder what the ground looks like from up here, he thought. Everything must be so tiny, I could probably crush it beneath my foot. He smiled under his hood, but no one could see it. He decided to close his eyes and let his other senses feel the motion of the machin through the air. Little pockets would bump into the blades and give the machine a slight jostle, or lift it up briefly on one side, or drop it altogether by a few inches. It was so smooth in recovering, he had never felt anything like it, or at least that he can remember.
This is what babies feel, he thought. Their mothers carry them around and they are blind to the world, just like me. Then one day they emerge, and open their eyes, and they’re free, just like I will be.
They flew for hours. Clip didn’t know how fast helicopters could fly, but he imagined they must be more than a hundred miles away from old Bob’s outpost. He didn’t care how long it took. He was loving the feeling of floating through the air. It was calming in a way that nothing else was. He even dozed off a coupld of times, abruptly awakened by a jostle and dip.
Finally he felt the machine dropping from the sky. His stomach climbed into his throat to let him know. More chatter came from the front as the machine finally landed on solid ground. The jostling, the bumps and dips and all the other air feelings stopped. Engine sounds started to taper and someone opened the door. A dragging sound, like a pair of feet on metal, slipped behind his seat. He rightfully guess that one of his men was being taken out of the machine. Then the door closed again and he could hear nothing but his own breathing through the gag.
Excitement overwhelmed him, his freedom was at hand. He started to plot his way back to Toronto, how he’d be careful to avoid Chicago, giving it a wide berth. They would train and practice fighting each day before they set off toward their city. They’d find outposts and not even ask them any questions before killing them. They’d eat more than just the people, they’d find any kinds of fruits or canned food as well, like the stuff they got in prison.
The door opened again, interupting his dream. Another man was scuffled off and the door closed. He wondered why they were being taken one at a time. Maybe they have to untie us carefully, he thought. They don’t want us showing up looking like prisoners, or dangerous people. The Bob at the outpost might not like that we’re being dropped off. That’s probably it. Oh, Bob, you don’t know what’s about to hit you. You poor wasted bastard, I can’t wait to kill you.
The door opened again, another man off. I’m next, he thought. In a few moments I’m going to be free and we’ll go back to Toronto and we’ll tell Tynon about Chicago and old Bob and the crazy girl and the doctor and the flying man. He’ll send us back with the whole army and we’ll take Bob’s output and blow up the garden again and break the toilets and the sinks and the train and the helicopter again. We’ll tear it all down so that no one can use it again. Not even old Bob could rebuild it, especially because he’ll be dead.
The door opened one last time and hands untied Clip from the helicopter seat. His hands and feet were still bound and his hood and gag were left strapped to his head. The hands dragged him off. The engine had shut down completely and the only sounds he could hear were his dragging feet in the sand and the footsteps that accompanied them. The wind was still, and the sun instantly warmed the moist air within the hood. Clip was sweating an excited sweat. He was about to be free.
His two captors stood him upright on his monopoded feet, making sure that he could balance on his own before they let go of him. One of them pulled the hood up in the back, just enough to untie the gag and pull it away from his head. Then all at one the hood was removed.
The sun blined him for a few seconds, it was so bright. He had to squint and everything was blurry. Looking around, at first he could only see a person in front of him and one behind him. He blinked the tears out of his eye and they started to adjust to the brightness. The big machine was nearby, not making a sound or a move. Around him on the ground were piles of clothes, no men in clothes. Mostly men, anyway, some of them didn’t look human, more like burned wood. He looked carefully at the few that were nearby. It was Badger, Weed, Zeb and Jacko, all of them dead or dying.
“We were supposed to be free,” he said.
Hands behind him grabbed his head and held it tight. He couldn’t turn around to see who it was, but he knew it was the pilot, the man they called Angel. His hands were strong, they gripped the controls of the machine that could fly, they should be strong.
Clip wondered if he should scream. There was no one worth screaming too in this place. He recognized it, this was their first stop. This was where they killed Bob and Janice and Kevin. He really liked that day. This was Buffalo. There was no one in Buffalo worth screaming to. The outpost keeper, Bob, wouldn’t help them anyway, even if he was alive.
“You are free to die,” she said.
It was her, the crazy killer woman who killed Jacko. Before he could consider what was about to happen to him, it happened. The hands on his head force him to look down at his belly and it was already bleeding. She had punched it full of holes with a knife. Once his eyes were fully locked on the horror she cut a slice across it, letting the guts spill out toward his feet.
Still standing, still breathing, he looked at her, a fellow killer, and the hands on his head let him nod to her. He accepted his fate and he wanted her to know it, and she did. She ended him quickly afterward with a slice across his throat. As his brain lost its life sustaining bloodflow his mind wandered back to the helicopter, back to the peace of the flight, back to the womb.
* * *
Angel and Hope finished dragging Clip’s body into place before heading back to the helicopter to wash their hands. Such wasteful exhuberance with water wouldn’t have been possible before, and they’d have been left to fly home covererd with drying blood and sand. No one wanted to see them come home like that. They were heroes who got rid of the prisoners, they needed to look the part.
After they got into the air they circled the area. It had taken days to collect all the bodies and get them to Buffalo without anyone really asking questions. All that slow, plodding work had finally paid off in what they were looking at from above.
Like the skywriters of old, Hope asked Angel to send a message to The Dragon, should they ever venture down to Buffalo again. She didn’t want to make it a threat, anymore than 21 dead bodies is a threat. It was more of a request written in the fallen soldiers they sent out to find her, like a truce or peace accord. She wasn’t even sure they’d be able to read it from the ground very well. Propping the bodies up didn’t seem practical as they’d probably fall over in the course of time, so on the ground would have to do.
They considered leaving one of them alive to give the warning. It wasn’t practical either as the survivor would have full knowledge of where they were and all manner of tactical details about the building, and the train, and the helicopter and all the things that were keeping them alive, and all the other people that would be put at risk. These men all had to die.
A simple message in the sand would have to suffice, a request. Something that said, nicely, to please not send any killers after us anymore. Leave us be, and we’ll leave you be. Hope didn’t really embrace that last part, but the message was simple enough that it didn’t make any promises like that.
Circling above Buffalo they felt a little pride in their creation, on the ground written in 21 dead and dying men were the words, “NO MORE.” They were oriented south to north so that The Dragon would be able to read it from their approach from the north.
Angel and Hope didn’t know if they’d ever actually get the message. Maybe they’d just give up on their vengence and stay in Toronto, or move on to New York or some eastern city. Even if they did venture south again, the sand might just as well have the bodies all covered up by the time they arrive. Or worse, just the first word would be covered and the message’s intention would be completely misrepresented.
It didn’t matter, really, if they got the message. Hope and Angel both knew that they would do what they wanted to do. They’d spread, and conquer, and kill and try to bring an end to it all. That’s what The Dragon do.
The message was, perhaps, more for them, the two in the helicopter and those back at the bar. They weren’t going to be bullied by The Dragon, or anyone else. They were done being conquered. They were learning to fight back. The next band of evil that makes it way into their presence will meet the same fate as the 21 corpses on the ground. They’d be wise to steer clear of Jim’s bar, and of Angel’s helicopter and especially of Hope.