In keeping with changes in concepts of publishing, this following novel is being featured chapter by chapter on Delirium Liberty, partly as a challenge for myself and partly because I wonder if this method can be a viable alternative for today’s readers.
The Cage, Chapter 3
“Wire round a nail. I got a much better way than before, I can tell you. Saw a resistor they made up in Carpa. They can get signal all the way from Exavy—five hundred miles. You get your hands on some of that copper, and I’ll set us all up.”
“When we get back to mucking out the tiger cages. If I can sneak it out. We just need a good place for it.”
“We got to get our hands on crystal. We get some pure sound then, brother. The devil on the wire, if we want.”
“Look at this new stuff. This new stuff, some weak material.”
A tattooed face sneers up like a threatening dog.
For one, trembling moment, the crusted, resisting handles tear Mouse’s palms—and then the mud slides. Shovels make clean bites in the glistening mound. Clumps are flying, slapping down. A trowel grates, scraping the border along a field of drab. Floats hiss on a slick, gray shine. Mouse wangles the wheelbarrow slowly around. Wheelbarrows are advancing along planks, the pushers goaded: pick it up! Pick it up! Tattooed arms stretch. Trowels dab and spread like the women of Draka mixing cakes of clay for starving litters. Shovels rip, the tone of each reporting determination, strength, and consistency of mud.
Mouse staggers behind his handles. The wheelbarrow rumbles down the plank. Ahead of him, among pyramids of sand and gravel, the bending, shovel-and-rake prickling throng is like infantry: a striped, confluence of reptilian energy flexing around curse-drawing burros and massive tipping, lurching carts. Mouse follows his wheelbarrow off the end of the narrow bridge of plank, rolls past sand thrown at tilting screens. He edges the wheelbarrow near the two men wielding shovels. The moment the iron heels skid down, another wheelbarrow, heaped and weaving, a pale, contorted straining face behind, pushes past.
Mouse releases the handles and shakes his torn, blistered hands. With the angry lights burning down on his shaved head and bare shoulders, he wipes the sweat from his eyes. His stomach is heaving and slick, his arms spattered with drying mud.
“Rose Bush! Take up a shovel and stir! If it’s not too much trouble!”
Mouse blunders about, throwing glances.
“In the bloody pile!”
He stumbles to the slope of sand, pucks out a shovel, and drags it to the platform. The three of them, on the deck of splattered boards, work the lip of a crater, spilling sand and pebbles into a pool, stirring the gray soup in the center. We still beating the civi crews? Watch the feet—when that mud starts to burn, it’s like fire—you will go crying for mama. Over their reflections, the shovels are ravenous bills slicing in a gray cloud. The soup thickens to gruel.
“Need more water. Hose, Rose Bush, grab that.”
Mouse spears the shovel into the pile of sand. He gathers the wet hose and leans, the trunk of an elephant uncoiling behind him. He twists the iron mouth, and a thin rope drops out and spatters.
“Open that up! Rose Bush, in the name of all devils! We want it one day this week!”
“It is open; it is open,” says Mouse.
“Bull piss on a rock!”
The stream weakens. Shovels fold a thickening mud. Mouse can hear shouts down the line of mixers. A great pair of shins stations itself in the dust at the edge of Mouse’s vision. We’re dead boys. Might’s well go easy. Tell me you are joking, brother; I got everything invested in this.
The shovels pull back. The dead hose drops. A gold-furred face, like a cub lion, juts from a long neck.
“That tank is just there! Wheel up that cow!”
“Not ours, they say.”
“Rose Bush, run this rubbish out there and dump it around. If we don’t find no water, we don’t want a big, bloody turtle shell on board.”
Thick, dry mud is heaped in the wheelbarrow. Mouse gets behind, drops his shoulder, drives his heels. The wheel breaks into motion, bumping over pebbles and up, onto the plank. He steps the load around to dump it.
“What are you doing?” shouts Tattoo-face. “Bring up that mud!”
Mouse adjusts the load and guides it to clutch of shoveling men. His breath tearing in his throat, he heaves up the handles.
“What is this rubbish?”
“No water. We just have to get rid of it.”
Tattoo-face curses. His shovel plunges the heart of the dry mud.
When Mouse returns, it is just him and the other: the soft-cheeked, pumpkin-goateed inmate. They work slowly, scraping the mixing platform, filling the wheelbarrows half full, wheeling the loads out and dumping and spreading.
Mouse tips his wheelbarrow upside-down against a hill of gravel. He kicks a seat into a heap of sand and lets himself down. He works his back against the sand for greater comfort. Within the high-wired fence, in a scraping, hissing, rattling din, blue dust churns in the light: a herd of cattle lost in the bombed deserts of Ar-Anduls. On the shining field of concrete–about half of the formed-up, graveled area–figures crouch on miniscule boats.
Pumpkin-goatee rolls down off the plank, tips his wheelbarrow beside Mouse’s. He trudges to the sand pile where Mouse is sitting. He does not sit.
A man with a veined, bald head red under the light, his arms thick and knotted like polished hardwood, is facing a clutch of men packed close, squatting or standing behind shovels, lips drawn from teeth.
“Don’t tell us no water. We got burn riding on this!”
“That’s our water, thousand bloody gallons!”
“Devils! If that be somebody’s water, what devil parked it in our patch?”
“Add it up.”
“I’m adding, String, but I don’t like what it adds up to.”
“Nobody does, brother. What do you want me to do?”
The gate jingles. Two screws are dragging it closed. One of them snaps the lock. Others are moving up. They are staggered along the fence, now, electric guns in their fists.
“Ooeemama,” says Pumpkin goatee. “Who put stove oil in the pot to boil?”