6a – Occupied City

Bidding goodbye, they dropped down the bluff, forced the horses to ford the river, and waded into the thick of the refugees, steering to the gravel edge of their flood.  It was one thing to see the hoard from Friedrich’s hilltop funeral, another to step night and day against the stumbling exodus.  Yet even the most ravaged tried to discourage Rupert and Aloysius from journeying North to Prague — pleading, pulling at their sleeves or at their boots — emaciated shadows shaking heads, pointing fingers warily over their shoulders to occupied Prague.

As the tide of refugees ebbed, they felt relieved that they had made it through them unmolested.  Which seemed fortunate since anyone traveling to Prague could be seeking business Neb, with a regime responsible for uprooting the refugee’s lives, who were dislodged as ‘hostile occupants’ from their burned down or ‘liberated’ homes, or apartments.  Since Neb centered his PostCollapse Empire in Prague he needed to reward those who followed him with land and plunder.  And Neb preferred to keep his most ambitious troops close to the Palace, or court, so that they could be condensed into smaller groups called hives, to keep an eye on them and constantly expose them to propaganda.

Yet the refugees saw nothing in Aloysius or Rupert but fellow homeless heading into Hell.  They could reach up or shout, feebly dissuade, warn, but they had to keep trudging themselves, scavenging enough food to stand, to walk, to put as many kilometers as possible between themselves and their destroyed apartments, and the loathed dictator, as they could, without asking for more trouble on the way.

As the day passed, Rupert and Aloysius began to find still decipherable signs marked Praha.  Now they could veer from larger arteries back to local roads and know they were still closing in.  But as it approached midnight, they began to hear loud truck engines roar at the outskirts.  The vehicles seemed to be vans or wagons performing some kind of work.  As Rupert and Aloysius kept approaching, they more often had to step off the road into the brush, as they the number of vehicles and their activity kept increasing.  Finally they had to hide their horses from the asphalt into a ditch behind a clump of mangy bushes as they were dead on sights of one such wagon howling their way.   It had a welded gun turret on top which was fitted with a rough swivel mechanism.  The wagon was sealed by steel slats riveted over every window except for a small circle cut in the windshield for the driver, a hatch cut in the rear to ventilate the engine, and a door in the rear, to load and unload cargo.

Swinging heavily around a corner, quite close to where they were crouching, one such van’s back door swung open when it swerved and a corpse tumbled out into the ditch: an adolescent dressed in work trousers, hair still plastered by sweat against a cold brow blistered by a gun shot wound through the temple.  Down the road, the wagon stopped and joined a convoy backing up to a dried out reservoir, flinging cargo doors open.  Workers were shoveling lime then swinging limp corpses by dozens, and dumping them into a mass grave.

With heavy hearts, Rupert and Aloysius snuck their horses warily out of the ditch then up a wet asphalt road, barely lit beneath thin fog by starlight.  Finally, rounding a long cone-like hill, beyond a clearing of blasted pine, they saw Prague rising at dawn — nearly deserted, and metamorphosed, smoke twisting from trashcan fires and old incinerators.  It looked grimy and unkempt except for pinpricked spires and bridge towers puncturing a charcoal red sky dawn, buildings rising with patina rooftops, distant lavender friezes.  It seemed unreal to them — a dirty jewel of perfect architecture under the pall of some private Antichrist.  And even though the Charles Bridge bristled with guns, and the elbows of Vltava river seemed to be clogged, swirling with bodies — the soft splendor of the city whispered something through the morning fog, something perfectly evil, something approaching the Fall of Man.

They rode cautiously down, heads hung, silently concentrating on the weedy rims of the road, slipped down onto a long line of rusted train tracks, and walked the horses along the tracks, letting the city rise above their heads.  Walking under a shadowy overpass, they espied a young man lurking behind a cement pylon.  Rupert and Aloysius, having decided to give the horses away, once inside Prague, signaled that he could have the horses and graciously handed over the reins. Enshadowed, the recipient smiled cautiously, accepting the steaming horses in low fog, inspecting them, wary of being tricked,  skeptical, though eager to accept.  He finally approached them, and asked in Czech who they were and why choose to hand over gift horses to him.

“We cannot use them now,” replied Rupert.

The Czech replied, “Oh, but do you see?   I already have transportation, look in bushes, over there!”

They focused carefully beneath a gnarl of vines and a trashpile and spotted a camouflaged van or deathwagon which the Czech had been hiding:  “You see, my parents were carted away from me in this van.  I jumped on roof, I killed Neb-bastards — see!”  The Czech demonstratively slit his throat with his fingers.

“Yes, we see!’   Rupert and Aloysius rang in, backing off.

“I’m Vlasav!”  He glowered, “Nebuchadnezzar’s enemy!”

Rupert and Aloysius told him their real names, unawares that they still dressed roughly as Alexandra and Dora.

“You have men’s names … ”

“You don’t want to know why.”

“Maybe it’s interesting — to the resistance!”  Vlasav lifted his rather bushy eyebrows.

“Forget it.”

“But you see, I have gasoline, and a gun!”

“We don’t need them!”

“I stole new engine, cleaned it!  I know Neb’s court.  I have real contacts.”

“What are you getting at?”  Rupert looked at him suspiciously.   He seemed a good enough fellow, but the “enemy” declaration, no matter how worthy given Neb’s crimes, had put them on guard.

“You want to stay in Prague?”

“No, we’re just visiting.”

“No one visits Occupied City!  Heart of evil!”

“How do you know?’

“We both know. “  Vlasav smiled suddenly, looking them over, “Here, let us climb up, and I will show you.  I speak your language … wish you spoke mine.”

Vlasav hid the horses, which, he explained he would trade for parts and oil that morning.  They stumbled along the same bank of the river as the Palace, then scaled a hill and watched the sun complete its work.  Rupert pulled out his map of Prague, and Vlasav traced out directions, then after an hour of chatting Rupert decided to reveal to him the identification papers as assassins for the Empire.  Vlasav laughed.  He stared again and again at the description of the crime and examined them triumphantly, with a kind of cheerful irony writ on his often somber, slightly freckled face.

“I smelled conspiracy!” he snickered, congratulating himself, then examined them again and claimed that they did not look like assassins, and reassured them that they were not alone.  He reminisced with them now, growing more personable, claiming that he dreamt of building an armored boat so that he could sail by night inside the city along the Vltava River with other conspirators and shell the Atavists.  He grew more serious, pensive, relaxed into his English and revealed he was a gentle but frustrated victim, homeless and alone.  He cautioned them about just how to enter the Palace.  He told them to use the morning congestion at the gates.  This might help since they were — as yet — badly disguised.  They were to follow the merchants and hangers-on already streaming up hill, slip through the usual daybreak gawkers around the Castle walls, walk in with their papers out, have them ready in their hands, but not gratuitously to offer them to the guards.  If they made it in without arousing alarm, they were to contact an impresario named Claude, who had approached Vlasav about possible transportation.  They were to penetrate the wider Castle grounds, and contact the impresario.   Nothing more.

“Never approach a guard unless they approach you.”  Vlasav repeated,  “If you wave the papers you may get in — again do not offer them.  You do not want them to study your faces.”  Apparently people died daily for showing up with wild ideas of seeing, or begging mercy from the The Great Whore.  Vlasav paused, meditating, lit a brownpaper cigarette stuffed with something close to hay, adding, “Then do me a favor … and kill this Ape.”