7a – Death Wagons

They listened silently to the tires haunt the wet pavement, the braking, the heavy accelerations, the steel slats clanking against windowless frames. the revolving rivets and the rattling of the turret gun –  barrelling downhill in the circular maze of streets below the Castle, then thundering over the Charles Bridge.

Undine stretched Claude out on the floor, propped his back and head and held down his shoulders, while he clutched his wounded hand and lay there, eyes gleaming, softly cursing Neb’s name.  Their wagon pulled up briefly on the other side of the river, wedged in by incoming wagons, tanks and reconstructed taxies without tail or traffic lights, scraping against cement road dividers, ignoring pavement gaps, fallen signs, metal scraps, blared downtown jostling over broken asphalt and trolley track spines, until Vlasav careened them into an alley, onto a sidewalk, and made for a smoother road, and raced for the outskirts.

Prague Castle had disappeared.  It was drizzling that night In Prague.  They all sighed relief.  Vlasav put as much distance as fast as he could without drawing attention, following the normal route to the pits.  Aloysius revolved the huge gun in the turret.  At Claude’s insistence, they smeared gray makeup over their faces, and into their sweaty flesh.  They remained fixed on looking every inch dead, if stopped.  They stared into the abyss, incessantly handing back and forth the paste, rubbing it in, and planning how they might splay themselves out if inspected, since corpses were sure to toss, roll and converge unsecured in the chaos of their last ride.

Still, Rupert was bursting with questions as the three of them bumped along, unseeing.   Diogenes could sense him staring his way:

“I can feel your eyes crawling over me like a snail!”

“Can you blame me?”  Rupert asked.

“Unless you’ve learned to see in the dark!”

“Get ready!”  Vlasav groaned. “Trouble!  We’re slowing down!”

“What?  Oh, no!”  Undine cried.

A roadblock had been set up just at the outskirts of central Prague, near a burial grounds.  They all completed their make-over into corpses, without mirrors or light.  Vlasav slowed up then rolled down his window for soldiers holding torches and rifles, blocking the road.  They could hear chattering in Czech, the back door yank open, and cool night air rush the cabin.  Flashlights crawled over their faces.  They tried not to twitch, felt their pupils involuntarily contracting.  The slightest sign would betray them all, splayed out to approximate the untended dead.  The guards interrogated Vlasav, then saw Undine:

“Beautiful as a kitten!”  The guard sighed.

The other guard flashed his light up and down Undine’s body.  Rupert had to repress every sensation within him not to strangle him:  “Still looks warm!”  The second guard panted.

“No.  I will never do that again!”  The first barked in a low, haunted voice.  “And I’m not going to help you.”

“No, but I thought … ”

“Then don’t think!  We’re already half-human!”

“You’re right, we only have a half hour.”

“Officers, can I go?”  Vlasav asked, obediently.

“Yea, do the dirty work!  Security’s tightening up.  Rumour is Big Neb is on a rampage in the Castle.”

“Down the road, to the right?”

“Yea,  closest pit.  You know that!  Get out of here!”

The door slammed.  The escapees exhaled.  Vlasav punched into  gear and they jerked along a smoother road, the slats rattling less.  They  felt glad they could neither see the pits nor the too slowly receding silhouette of Neb’s Prague in the horizon.

Finally Claude spoke up. “Damn.  Someone say something.  Tell us your stories, so I can forget that Fuck, and my ruined hand.”

“We’ll wrap it.  The bullet passed right through.”  Undine purred.

“Please, tell  me your stories to pass the time.” Claude pleaded, taking a liking to Undine,  “The pain is killing me.”

“Yes, you seem back from the dead, Diogenes, why don’t you tell us your … story ?”   Rupert added.

“If I don’t have to shout,”  Diogenes horrumphed, “And if you don’t expect a story.  I’ll start with my seeming disappearance for Rupert’s sake.  Is that what you want to hear?”

“Our inner ears moisten in expectation!”  Rupert replied, a little disgusted.

“It’s behind your ears, I worry about. Anyway! I’ll start at the beginning.  Back in Hoboken?”

“Way  back, and make it good.” Claude moaned.

“Oh, this should be interesting.”  Rupert grunted.

“Well, my skin was lacerated from the small of my back to my rib cage, my forearm nearly shredded.  I was bandaged but not sown up.  This should be a lesson to you, Claude.  When I moved I felt the flesh re-separating along my ribs and I knew I would recover if I didn’t move, nor speak.

“If we had decent medical care, a doctor would have ordered me to bed.  I should have  been secluded.  So I centered on thinking forward to my recovery.  First, I ruminated on the shooting, then, as my thoughts progressed, I began to wind back my own life — like a reel.  All these memories became magnetized by my forced inactivity, things I missed the first time around.  It was like collecting discarded memories from a cutting floor of one of those old movie production offices.  Every memory was permitted, and my inner editor — out to lunch.  I let my past return.  Frame by frame.  Resurrecting buried moments returned without me digging, each rising, passing by at its own rate –   new incidentals, true particulars — things to which I never quite paid attention, nor knew, were true.  Not old phone nor license plate numbers nor how many potato chips I ate March 2024.  No.  For once, I focused on the whole body of my life unreconstructed.  Call it self-hypnosis, meditation, navel-gazing — what have you!  Cobwebbed, yellowed mental files, forgotten facts, shrouded insights, benign jokes, motives, all of which I had forgotten when necessity got hot -– revived, when they came, on their own.

“Whole days appeared.   It didn’t take one day to remember one day past.  Yet in that roll, accelerating of its own accord, I glimpsed something of the enigma of time.  And what creates our fictions.  I’ve scoffed at history, you know.  But I took its memory to be mine!  Yet we who have no real memory, need to recollect the whole of our lives, undismembered, to seek a second life, a truer one.   A mortal incarnation.  To undetermine our choices.   To redeem ourselves.  Do you blame me?  You see, I felt if I saw a clock or a calendar that I would snap back into … a calibrated present … and it made me loathe to interrupt the process.  Indeed, there were times when I couldn’t if I tried.  I recalled how we shot two men, how we stained what we thought our ethical conscience, but also how we each intended to do so.  And I also saw that we were rehearsing for a second life.  That death as inactive, passive, reactionary — was an image, a pretext.  A counterfeit created by our conscience — and servicing our cowardice.

“You see, our valuations of events can distance us from their meanings.  Just as in the course of events we dig graves for our truths.  We are frightened of changing the world.  Cowards before our own creations, gestators of political stillbirths.  We are scared by  our real obligations to act.  So it came off as if I was saying ‘No’ but I was really saying ‘Yes’ — to taking on, spying on, Nebuchadnezzar.”

“What do you mean?”

“It was no coincidence we converged on Neb’s court, nor that we escaped after stealing his plans.  Only mild-mannered minimalists and novelists preach coincidence, accident, chance!  We were in the driver’s seat every inch of the way.  Just as Vlasav is now.  We always are, if we are revolutionaries.  Or … we end up stumbling along a road dressed up like our enemies!   It looks like you took the pilgrim’s regress to Prague, doesn’t it, Ruppie?”

“You mean I stumbled into it, yes.  But, on Santorini?  What happened there?  It looked staged, a feigned suicide.  Or were you just ditching me?”

“Neither.  I had just reached the end of the reel of my own life unnoticed.  The flies began to fry.  I had my French grammar.  It was a lovely evening, three days of inactivity had stopped the bleeding.  It was but three days! I knew that you would have to impersonate those girls to get passage to Prague so that we could spy on Neb.  That was your intention! And I knew from the mentality of Neb’s operation that I could fool them into being flown up as an oddity.  Part of my recovery was finished.  So I reached the edge of a cliff, found a path to walk down, which lead to another path, and climbed up. I walked slowly downhill to the town, rested, then over to see you off.  You saw me from the bushes, didn’t you?”

“Yes …”

“Would there have been room for me on the helicopter?  Would you ever have left me alone?  Will you ever leave me alone?”

“No. No.” Rupert laughed.

“So I did what was right for myself, and for you.”

“Yes.  But earlier in the jet!  You could have waked me up earlier and we never would have crashed!”  Rupert insisted.

“Bullshit! I was just as much under the gun as you.  If you wouldn’t have taken any sleeping pills, they would had to draw a gun earlier.  I could not have wrested the gun from them by myself nor waked you without them knowing.  I did lean over and help the cabinet trap Dora, did I not?  We were lucky they didn’t think of me as a spy. They could have tried to bludgeon your head while you slept, then I would have moved.  But if I tried something and failed before the time was right. Well!  But we had to resist Nebuchadnezzar — we still do.”  Diogenes replied.

“But, all those things that happened!  The take-over of Tombstone!”

“Stop crying over spilt milk!” Diogenes scoffed,   “Were you going to run or inherit a corporation set up on crime?”

“Why not just tell me that you were … recovering … and not paralyzed?”

“You knew that already by the answers I offered Lazarus and yourself, after we crashed.”

“All you said was ‘No’.”  Rupert persisted.

“Each time ‘no’ made sense, no? Yes? Didn’t you want me to make sense?”

“Then why did you talk to me that night around the fire in Santorini?  You practically offered a dissertation!”

“I did not!  If I ever offer a dissertation, kick me in … the shins!” Diogenes sneered, mocking Rupert’s masculinity.

“Answer the question!”

“I warned you!  I overheard the women plotting right at my cabinet.  And I told you I would meet you in Prague.”

“Then why didn’t you say it?”

“What?”

“‘Watch out!’”

“I did!  I warned you and Tiresius — if you would have listened.  Tiresius got the message but he was too weak to flee.  They did it while I spoke, in fact.”

“O.K. I give up!  Now what do we do?”

“Find out how Undine got here.   Stop bugging me; Rupert!  You’re insatiable!”

“What about Nebuchadnezzar?”

“Defeat him in Paris!  That’s what it’s all about, right? “

“Should I have shot him?”

“No, you should not have killed him.”

“Why?”

“I’ll answer that!”  Undine broke in: “It was my decision not to kill him, afterall.  Not yours! It would not have made a difference.”

“We brought down Tombstone by … !”

“In self-defense.  And that was a private affair.  The Atavists will fall when they are defeated in battle.  It’s not a corporation it’s a land mass governed by a mystique and fear.  Someone else would have taken over anyway.  The man would have been shot but the success story of Atavism would have marched on.  Besides, I thought it was understood it really is no good just to take a human life.  I mean, we’re not in the movies or in some cheap novel.”

“Yea, right.” Claude chuckled.

Undine smiled, she was still enjoying the danger.  Her voice sounded resplendent with danger.  It nearly frightened Rupert.  She had matured into a … revolutionary.   She loved risking her life, perhaps even his.

“I can’t help regret … we had him right there.”  Rupert sat perplexed, his face heavily smeared.

“No one kills anyone else, ever, if one can help it.  You know that.”

“Yes. I know that.”

“Claude, do you know that?”

“Yes Claude knows that.”  Claude moaned.

“You know,”  Rupert reflected, “Perhaps every revolutionary is on the same road.  If you can see where to go, where the road leads, one does wind up together.  You’re right Diogenes.  We’re all on the same road.”

“Very pretty.”

Undine then, turned to Diogenes: “Wait, I have a question for you, “What did you do in Santorini after Rupert and Aloysius left?”

“When the expedition arrived I got back in my cabinet, acted as if I were some paralyzed oracle!  Tiresius laid it on that the ‘natives’ thought me a god or oracle.  Real bullshit. They fell for it.  And flew me directly here!  Free ride. Rupert, walked! Ha!  Ha!”  He laughed till his eyes teared. “I had some lovely days conversing with Tiresius, fishing, sunning.  Brushing up my French. After the flies died one of the mumblers regained, partially, his power of speech.  But then they took him too … ”

“He was shot with the rest of the mumblers.”

“Yes.”

“What about Tiresius?”  Aloysius yelled, not hearing the conversation much in the turret, but having considered it himself.

“He’s still there!”  Diogenes shouted.  “He talked so sensibly that the inspection team took his advice and thanked him.  He then tried to save the mumblers but they disobeyed him, and ran right into the zookeeper’s cage!”

“Hey man!”  Aloysius shouted.

“Hey!”  Diogenes seconded him.

“Alright, Undine, what happened to you?”  Claude asked, smiling up at her.

” Ha!  Ha!  Well, Rupert, and Aloysius!” She yelled up so that she could be heard, “I drove my own motorcycle!    A black and chrome Harley Davidson 850 cc with leather seats.  I found it amongst the stock in Hoboken!  Damn if I had to leave it behind in Prague.”

“What?  You mean you drove a chopper while we fucking walked?” Aloysius laughed and they all roared together.  Aloysius then shouted, “But how did you get the cycle across the Atlantic?”

“I came over on the barge! That’s why I set you a fortnight!  Takes two weeks to cross the sea.”

“And in a woman’s dress!  Comme c’est gentil!” Diogenes lisped, ribbing Rupert affectionately.

“Cut it out!  What more did you bring in the barge?”  Rupert asked Undine.

“I’m not going to tell you!”  Undine said, chuckling with Diogenes.

“Why not?”

“Tell me, first, who you met walking all those miles!  You were on your feet for three weeks.” Undine blew her nose, trying to sober up.
“What?  Why?”  Rupert pleaded.  Undine continued laughing at him and it seemed even funnier as Rupert squirmed.

“Just tell me!” Diogenes whined, imitating Dora’s voice.  And they all started chanting, mocking him, “Tell me! Tell me! Me me meeee me!”

“Rupert, tell me what you learned from dressing up as a woman?”  Undine asked, drying her eyes.

Rupert glanced up at Aloysius who acted as if he hadn’t heard the question, slowly mulling it over for himself.  “I was becoming a womanizer, a self-indulgent opportunist, and I was no longer moral enough to participate in revolution.  Nor in love.”

“A naïve statement, still.”  Diogenes grunted.

“Didn’t you enjoy experiencing what women go through?”  Undine asked.

“It only proved what Tiresius said, that the desperation behind man’s pleasure is his key to self-destruction.”

“That’s pretty too!”  Diogenes laughed.

“Wait, young men are not, at least now, trained to refuse a woman.  We’re taught sex is scarce, to take whatever we can.  With just a speck of corruption we take anything. That illusion — there’s billions of women in the world — makes us slaves to our desire.  It’s part of the great net by which we betray ourselves, and wreck our lives.”

“Common sense!”  Claude interrupted.

“Uncommon practice!”  Rupert replied, firmly.

“Wait, look there’s someone on the road!” Vlasav shouted back.
“Blast the gun!”  Claude moaned, painfully.  “We’re not thirty miles out of Prague!”

“She’s standing next to an overturned car! There’s no room!” Vlasav shouted again.

“Stop! We’re not going to run a woman over!”  Undine screamed.

Vlasav marveled, after they came to an abrupt stop:  “She’s feeling the hood for shit’s sake!”

Undine slipped outside to walk the woman off the road, as they all held their breath, hoping she could mercifully get her off the road.

“Are we going to stop for every beggar from here to Paris?”  Claude moaned, holding his hand,  “Neb’s gonna get us!”

“Keep still!”  Vlasav ordered.  “Rupert, Aloysius and I are going to pull these slats off!”

“Now, we’re really caught!”  Claude groaned.

“There are no burial grounds past here!”  Vlasav retorted.

“Yes … He’s right!”  Claude rolled over, “We’ll get farther as just another lousy car on the highway.”

“Show us how!”  Rupert agreed, pulling on Aloysius’ ankle until Aloysius extracted himself from the turret.  They let Undine council the stray who had blocked the road while they unscrewed and pried off the slats with ratchet wrenches and passed around a crowbar, carefully piling them up near the back door.  The young men walked along the road to urinate, and stretch.

“It no longer looks like a hearse.”  Rupert observed, appraising the deathwagon.

“We should paint it … with big yellow sunflowers!”  Aloysius joked.

Meanwhile, the burned out suburbs of Prague smoked far off.   Nearby scavengers had lit fires too, as they sifted a dug-up landfill, scavenging for usable scraps.  A huge cloud of peat smoke tumbled their way, Rupert and Aloysius taking the worst of it, standing downwind, anxious to have one last glimpse of Prague.  Neb was still there, each reflected, humiliated and angry, and they shivered a little anticipating Paris, knowing themselves to be traveling between the dictator and his Atavists armies.  They walked back along the rutted road, eased back in, coughing and rubbing their eyes.  Undine surprised everyone by bringing the young woman from the road into their van.

“She in?”  Diogenes asked, perplexed, then impatiently concluded, “Alright, let’s move!”

Rupert buried his face in wet cotton rags, wiping his eyes.  Aloysius felt his way back up to the turret gun. Claude cradled his head in his healthy hand disagreeing with Undine, and now Diogenes’ generosity, while they jerked back into gear, and rumbled back on the road to Revolution.

“And why do you want to go to Paris?”  Undine asked, the broken sunlight now illumining the girl’s chalky face inside the cab.

“I heard Paris was in trouble.”  The girl replied, tentatively, ” I began walking by myself to Prague after I met a stranger who said Paris needed help.  And I needed a new reason to live.  I left a group I belonged to in Austria after attending a dismal funeral.  I told the sighted stranger I would come.  I’m a good walker.  My stranger friend walked to Prague, and we helped him.  But I am tired now, and need a ride.  I’m not used to highways.”

“Ulrike!” Rupert cried, dumfounded, peeling the cotton from his face.

Aloysius suddenly let off a deafening blast of machine gun fire from the turret which shook and rattled everyone’s nerves:  “Sorry, just clearing my throat … and the highway ahead.”  He shouted.

“You’re blind?”  Undine asked, calmly examining her face and eyes, glancing suspiciously to Rupert.

“Yes.”  Ulrike shifted, nervously, “But … I don’t think it’s more dangerous for me than other refugees on roads!”  She bent her head, repressing her excitement at having found Rupert, worried that she would embarrass him, yet tired of defending her independence.

“My name is Undine.” Undine found her hand.

“I know.”  Ulrike answered shyly.

“Well?” Undine asked, but without reproach, for though something may or may not have happened between Rupert and the girl, she saw that Ulrike was a good person. A real rarity in the Postcollapse world. Nevertheless, it was now Rupert’s turn to explain.  At first he pleaded that it was sheer coincidence until Diogenes forced him to admit that several factors shrunk the odds considerably, and they all slowly came to know and like Ulrike, as they drove along the now deserted Westbound road.

They spent the day and part of the night bumping along through Southern Germany, now loosely controlled by Neb’s forces.   Vlasav would not hear of relinquishing the wheel, as he had never been outside Czech territory before.  He relished every devastated mile, each gray hill, every polluted river, each abandoned factory, collapsed wall, or untended field. Even overturned cars delighted him as they pressed on past squatted factories North of Nuremberg and shantytowns South of Frankfurt where the Economic Miracle of a century ago rusted into the economic Nightmare of Collapse.

As the gas barrels, one by one, gradually drained, they had more room to unfold inside.  They would disembark now and then, refill the thirsty engine, stretch out, urinate, breathe.  They did so when they reached the Rhine, before a band of hungry Germans approached them, and Aloysius had to pretend he would use the turret gun against them.  They watched the threatened band of beaten Germans retreat and evaporate sadly into the night, as the great river groaned by, then pressed on.

Eventually they slept in shifts, and Rupert had the odd sensation of being wedged on the van floor between Undine and Ulrike, breathing in gently the gentle incense of their bodies, but keeping his hands pinned by his sides, wrapped in his imagination, and curious thoughts.

After they had passed over what used to be the French border, and woke stiffly, spotting the relics of beautiful old French towns and had to veer off onto side roads, they spotted caravans of Neb’s troops bivouacked right in the middle of a fork in the highway.  Yet, for the most part, they were heading for Paris unmolested, all now grateful for Vlasav’s perseverance and shrewd handling of the wheel.  Rupert finally spoke up, pulling Aloysius down for a rest from the gun, agreeing to take a shift if Vlasav  spotted Neb’s troops coming their way.

“So, we are a hundred miles from Paris.”  Rupert began, “Isn’t it about time we consider what part we can play in this … revolution? We’ve stolen Neb’s plans.”

“Talk to Langston.”  Claude suggested, still up from his nightwatch.

“We have no way to convince anyone to help us.” Undine mumbled, rubbing her eyes.

“That’s right, we can’t just go in there shouting ‘We have ‘em here!’ Or randomly proseletize in the street.  If we publicly announce what we’ve discovered there could be Atavists in the crowd and they will simply alter their plans — or shoot us on the spot, or wait and ambush us.  Could they alter their plans?”

“If we wait until just before the operation begins … what good can we do?”  Undine asked.

“No, they won’t alter their plans.”  Claude observed.  “Not without word from Neb.”

“Perhaps he has or is sending word?”  Vlasav ventured.

“He’s not going to alter his plans … he doesn’t know we have them!” Rupert discovered, as he spoke.

“Let’s not assume,”  Diogenes mused, just as he woke, as if he were sleeping on it.  “Neb doesn’t know.  Claude, is there any chance Neb might know you stole the plans?”

“He would have to tear apart the Palace since I made sure to constantly shift the location of the safe where he kept the copies while re-modeling for his celebrations.”

“You shifted the location of the safe?”

“Not by itself, but with the whole contents of a room.”

“Let’s suppose he did tear apart the palace, found them missing, would he alter the operation?”

“That would be a disaster.  From his point of view.  Changing the whole operation?  And, that would admit that we not only humiliated him but re-directed the behavior of thousands of troops.”

“He wouldn’t have to tell the troops.”

“No.  No.  He might change something but not the positioning of the troops.  I don’t think two or three days at most would be enough time.”

“We do have some element of surprise.”   Aloysius interjected.

“How are we, by ourselves, going to change the course of thousands of troops anyway?”  Undine fretted.

“Langston will know people.”  Claude re-emphasized,  “But he’ll also be shadowed by Neb’s men — he’s due to be shot two days from now.  We have to reach him, anyway.”

“Diogenes?”  Rupert deferred, feeling perplexed.

“If we could tie up those troops!   Break their discipline!  It is a fool plan afterall, if anybody found Neb out, and we have.  The Atavists are trappable.  If we could snarl them up in their own numbers. I guess we need some kind of … bait.”

Ulrike spoke up, “Isn’t it pitchblack underground?”

“Where?” Undine asked.

“In the catacombs … ”  Rupert wondered how or why Ulrike had guessed.

“One blind girl takes on ten thousand troops!”  Claude sniffed.  “It’s Joan of Arc hour.”

“Who’s that?”  Ulrike asked.

“If anyone should be bait it’s me!”  Rupert  ventured, then everyone went silent, and he felt a shiver,  “Don’t everyone agree!”

“Are you waiting for us to object?”  Claude smiled.

“No, no! ” Diogenes objected. “Let’s wait to see Paris from the streets.  It’s too dangerous. Rupert, study those blueprints!  Aloysius you too!  Figure them out!  We’re not going to send make decisions without more thought.”

“Undine, what is in the shipment from the Kronstadt which you’ve laboriously steered toward the Seine?”  Rupert asked, hoping there was a key to their effort in those supplies.

“Stuff.”

“Have we ever kept anything from each other?”

“Need I remind you?”  Undine glanced toward Ulrike, half-kidding.

“We’ll take care of this Black Market barge business later.  Now we must think, plan, and ride this baby all the way into Paris.  Rupert, Aloysius study those plans!”  Diogenes demanded.  “We still have to figure it out.”

“There’s, one: the FNA French National Authoritarians — local right-wing anti-immigrant vigilantes, two, the Blunts — Trepov’s now independent paramilitary thieves, three — Neb’s Atavists, and the Democratic Anarchists –  the group Langston told Claude about who work sanely to resist Neb and turn the invasion into a ‘recognition of spontaneous community’ –  or some such shit, but — who are we?”  Rupert asked.

“Fools!”  Claude laughed.

“I remember a band called The Meat Puppets.”  Aloysius offered.

“Oh, that’s horrid.”  Ulrike giggled.

“Since you were the one who stole Neb’s plans as a woman, why not call yourself … Alex and Dora …”  Claude scratched his head, “No, K.G.B Girlfriends — after their cover story.”

“Alright, cut the shit.”  Diogenes growled impatiently, “Remember  … it’s a French Revolution.  Paris is their City.  We’re of no importance, really.  If anyone asks you what your doing, tell them you’re … recruits. Recruits.  If anyone follows up, ‘of what’?  — play dumb.  Mums the word until we meet the Democratic Anarchists.  Play the idiot, slobber — that should be easy for you Rupert.  He he.  O.K.  Especially f you’re captured by the Atavists.  Keep your shit wired tight, ’cause this is not a party.”

“Right.  We’re … recruits.”  Rupert deferred.

“Recruits!” They all agreed,  each in their own way.

Vlasav drove carefully so they would not be entangled in either the strange mix of migrants or soldiers on the road.  Neb’s army did not wish to waste its substance on small battles.  Nor did they need to conceal their operation.  Tanks, rocket firing mortars, cannon, and, oddly, trailing behind, deathwagons to haul away casualties. The recruits found themselves in the odd position of resembling the enemy, thankful they had at least removed the slats.  It became yet thornier to avoid Neb’s forces when they began to encounter a straggling counter-migration – those fleeing Paris — who were often attacked by those returning to protect it.  The recruits spent the whole evening and the next morning veering off and on the road to central Paris, riding over fields, down sidestreets — bleary-eyed yet fascinated as Vlasav forged on relentlessly.  Thanks to his palpable curiosity, and skill, Vlasav gradually drove by the Place de la Concorde –  right into the entrance of a squatted museum, through several hallways, and parked the wagon.   The recruits covered it thoroughly, in case they needed it later, with fallen plaster and trash.

They walked out slowly — into a cloud of hysteria.   Paris seemed in utter chaos.  Old women shouted, kneading leathery hands.  Bent husbands shattered old plates on their heads in frustration.  Prostitutes near the Arc de Triomph kicked penniless johns.  Fights broke out with hundreds of pacifists in waves swarming two pistol-wielding FNA’s until they were smothered. The hysteria would have delighted Neb. Yet, just the Parisian’s activity, the roars of  shouts, the dust from their feet, the smoke from hundreds of small, open fires, seemed to contain a promise. The recruits had certainly underestimated the size and power of the crowds.  They could barely see anything at first.  Enigmatically, mobs seemed to be strutting to the outskirts to be cut down by machine guns, or breast-beating and flopping their wings, clogging unstrategic squares.  The hysteria, the sheer volume of people made the recruits’ deathwagon studies, their spying, and tiny escape seem utterly minute.  None of it made immediate sense.  This was not going to be an in-house coup or private assassination: but a whole society in the streets.