8a – The Barricades

The sun shone through the smoke like a misty pearl. Paris was swarming like an ancient anthill, or a huge pocked marble monument to the past.  “This process is being repeated all over town,” Denis observed, raising his binoculars, studying the battle through the wagon’s oval window tinted pink by dawn.

After refitting the wagon Vlasav drove them to a square two hundred yards from the Château de Vincennes, beside Montreuil, a working class suburb of Paris. Diogenes, Undine, and Rupert could see the lines of Neb’s troops firing into the gutted storefronts and into the trash border growing around the occupied square, and the invaders. The ravaged civilian defenders of Paris were ducking behind traffic dividers, fortified fences, overturned buses, stumbling on pipes, cans, burnt planks, scrap metal and the unsalvageable casualties they could not remove lest they join them face down on the asphalt.

The soldiers were ordered to stand their ground until nightfall. And they complied.  They could pick off strays but not stop the slow, inexorable process which was beginning to divide them from other battalions, and engulf them in barriers mounting by armfuls of bricks, stones, and thick wooden furniture.  Their reactions were growing increasingly brutal and confused.  The battalion Vlasav drove the recruits to review knew it was getting pieced apart by rocks, single pistol shots, Molotov cocktails, and blinded by the upwind smoke rolling from fires set by Anarchists and proponents of La Flamme.

Denis led them out and they ran crouching toward the square where the Atavists encamped, passing a row of dead Parisians crucified on iron fenceposts, strapped to smoking barrels, crying for help under burning trucks, jumping from fire-bombed apartments and the horror of it began to dawn on them like a black sun.  Reaching pavement, each took turns watching through Denis’ binoculars the soldiers nonchalantly showing off: smoking, drinking, torturing captured civilians, raising their rifles like sportsmen, shooting when or whomever they pleased.  They were imitating the now legendary image of a hunter, though hunting had followed the extinction of animals in the wild, and few of them had ever seen animals wilder than themselves.

Opposing them, the mobs under Anarchist guidance fanned the chaos.  No matter how the troops showed off, or swaggered, a trash barrier was hedging them in.  Some enticements were also working: edible tomatoes, grass wine, old women and boy prostitutes — a dozen invaluable bananas were tossed before the Atavists from one alley niche.  In another a woman’s dress was flung and women furtively showed their bare legs, exposing them to Atavist fire accompanied by calls in high pitched voices of welcome. Several Atavists not shot first by their comrades, deserted to little “party” stations where they would be disarmed, and herded into pens.

“I just wanted you to see this.”  Denis remarked, dryly, as they crouched toward the front line.

“What a waste! Is there no other way?”  Undine breathed, shocked by the carnage.

“This is how unarmed civilians face an army.”  Denis panted.

Rupert shouted, plaintively,   “What can we do?”

Denis stopped them all behind an overturned taxi, confronting Rupert: “Nothing.   Stay alive.  Keep down.  Undine must meet the barge in an hour.  Rupert, you must decoy tonight in the Catacombs.  I have to be here.  You’re here to observe.”

“This is horrible.” Undine protested.

“It’s essential that you know how horrible.”  Denis insisted, leading them behind a small hill of discarded refrigerators.

“Wait,” Diogenes pulled Denis back, “Suppose we let the Atavists see the deathwagon?   Could that be confusing?”

“Because it’s an Atavist vehicle?” Denis snapped back, impatiently.  “Nothing would happen.”

“Suppose we could issue them phony orders?”  Diogenes pressed him.

“You have a head for this, Diogenes.” Denis admitted, second guessing his own impatience, “The invaders did receive scrambled orders by radio.  We tapped their frequency!”  Denis’ haggard face brightened. “We radioed phony messages to several battalions, temporarily inspiring war between them.  But the invaders caught on quickly and re-took their old positions.  The thing is, they are no longer listening to their radios.  While we can no longer inspire phony orders, they are no longer speaking to each other.”

“Something to build on.”  Diogenes reflected.

“Indeed.”

“Bear with me Denis.   I just want to understand this.”

“So do I,  Diogenes.   So do I!”  Denis confessed.

Forging ahead with Rupert and Undine, Vlasav ran hard, despite his wound, anxious to see real fighting, “Glad we left Ulrike behind …  noise is terrible.”

“Better she mends the wounded.” Rupert shouted.

“Better work than wounding.”  Undine panted.

“It depends on who is getting wounded.”  Vlasav shouted, running ahead.

They scrambled near the epicenter of the Atavist encirclement.  Soldiers became individual men, shooting, ducking, tossing bricks hurled at them into steel cans or flinging them back.  The recruits could see the strain now in the Atavist effort to dominate the confusion; for all the tangible horror and the noise, the trained army facing civilians behaved as if they were in some perverse theater — they were becoming actors.   The soldiers had no right to believe themselves right nor brave.  They had the real weapons: small mortar launchers and primitive cluster bombs which they launched against buildings, showering the pavement in shrapnel.  The Atavists strafed civilians with automatic rifle fire, some bullets striking home, others ricocheting, or whistling into the vacuum of alleyways.  The civilians had nothing but their courage with which to fight.

They followed the piecemeal building of the barricades.  From the far end of the square several fruit carts filled with lit trash rolled towards the Atavist line.  Their runners managed to add to the outside of the barricade but, one by one, were shot in the back or legs as they scrambled for cover.   A woman motorcyclist tattooed from head to heel with Anarchist slogans then barreled right over the junk barrier — flying in an arc, screaming slogans through a taped-on megaphone before she was bucked inside the Atavist encampment, and bayoneted.  The cycle did land just into the soldier’s midst momentarily igniting a noxious trash fire.

An aging Anarchist, followed her in, pushing a heavy steel cabinet on a wheelbarrow for the line to further squeeze and focus the Atavist avenue of escape into prepared alleyways.  The old patriot, wearing a tricolored scarf, strings of white hair in braids, scrambled by himself to hoist a two hundred pound steel filing closet up and over the barricade.

“He’s not going to make it!”  Undine desponded.

“That’s a hero!”  Vlasav exulted,  cheering the old man’s progress.

“They’ll shoot him before he makes it!”  Rupert bellowed, feeling nauseous.

“They’re wasting ammunition at a million rounds an hour!”  Denis replied, after being handed a megaphone by an Anarchist who finally recognized him,  “Let them fire!  Go crazy all day! Let them run out of bullets, bastards!  Grow tired, fed-up!   Lack ammunition as you withdraw,”  Denis now harangued the Atavists, through the megaphone: “Atavist potlickers! You’ll not subject France!  We’ll harass you right out of France.”

“You count bullets?” Vlasav yelled, “When a man’s losing his life?”

Vlasav did not heed Denis’ warning nor feel Rupert’s hand around his waste to dissuade him.  He sprinted for all his short legs were worth for the cabinet, shouting: “Free Prague!” in Czech, to crank his nerves, and, making it to the old man, by now wounded, and fallen, draped, dying over the cabinet — Vlasav pulled him off his cabinet and maniacally finished his work, hoisting it over the barricade.  The recruits watched Vlasav grab a megaphone from the corpse of the woman cyclist — shouting in German, in Czech, in English — at the soldiers to lay down their arms, go home, march on Neb, free Prague and carry Neb’s sinful head throughout Europe as one would after capturing a rare monster.

“Get back here!”  Undine pleaded.

“He’s made his choice!”  Denis stayed her, seeing Vlasav stranded in the middle of the urban no-man’s-land.

“Give me your megaphone!”  Diogenes shouted, “Let’s announce we know their plan.  Distract them!  Save Vlasav!”

“Ruin the operation?”  Denis upbraided him.

“It’s already your strategy!” Diogenes protested, “Let’s snarl them in paranoia!  Use their vehicle!”  Diogenes cried, following Vlasav’s progress.

“That’d ruin everything!”  Denis shouted.

“Look!” Undine cried.

They heard a partial cease-fire at the line closest to Vlasav.  He kept on shouting, then they heard several soldiers return shouts in German.  Vlasav signaled for them to surrender.   One rose from his nest with a soiled but recognizably white kerchief and strode up to Vlasav smiling, apparently ready to comply.

“Behind the barricade!  Don’t trust him!”  Denis shouted at Vlasav, through his megaphone.

“Still counting bullets?” Vlasav retorted, through his own megaphone.

The obliging soldier walked with his hands up, waving the kerchief.  Vlasav opened up his arms to the soldier, congratulating him for deserting, for being a pure soul. The soldier pulled out a small revolver and fired directly at Vlasav’s head.  Vlasav fell.  The Atavists erupted en masse with roar of derisive laughter and jeers. The soldier waved his “surrender” kerchief, bowing, did a little dance, hopped behind the barricade back into his nest.

Rupert tore away, ran to the barricade, hid behind the cabinet, and when rocks and chunks of metal began to fly from the Anarchists to cover him, and as the soldier danced, he lifted up Vlasav, pulling him behind the barricades.  He slung Vlasav over his shoulder, followed by a roar of Atavist gunfire, jogging to safety, while Vlasav mortally bled from his wound.

“Prop up his head.”  Diogenes said, carefully helping Rupert with his body.

Vlasav glanced up deliriously, his face half paralyzed, and coughed, “Occupied city!  Heart of evil …  Should have killed him … “  coughed again, and died.

“Come back to us!”  Undine lamented, pulling a sweaty lock of hair away then closing his eyes, kissing his bloody brow.

“Can we carry him to the wagon?” Rupert asked softly, and found himself wishing Ulrike were here to chant, to consecrate his passing with the “Om nama Shivaya” she thundered at Friedrich’s funeral.  He recalled when Aloysius and he offered Vlasav two tired horses and Vlasav responded by steering them into Neb’s court, connecting them with Claude, then driving all them to Paris.  He was a straight-on aficionado of freedom, a multilingual ferryman for souls over the river of evil.  And Rupert chided himself for not holding Vlasav back, and wondered if Aloysius would reproach him.

“We gave you the plans! You wouldn’t have them without us! Without Vlasav!  Look, see that crazy Czech, that dead guy got us in and got us here!” Undine attacked Denis, bending his head to look at Vlasav, then forcing him to look into her eyes.

“We still have to use it.”  Denis replied, biting his lip, “We must save you for tonight.”

“You’re going to let this go unanswered?” Diogenes supported her, “Don’t you see?  We have an Atavist vehicle!  You’ve already incited intra-Atavist battles!   Build on the rumors you planted!  Why not broadcast a warning, that a mutiny is raging?  Broadcast their strategy out-loud as evidence, as ‘proof’ that their tactics have been blown, by their own army!   Then we’ll drive in and you can use the gun!”

“Are you doing this for yourself, or for Vlasav?” Denis wriggled free, exasperated, scoffing. Yet, feeling he had stepped over the line, Denis lowered his voice, and argued, “If these troops escape, reach other Atavist commanders, they’ll know we know their operation.  We’ll lose tonight!”

“Then we can’t let the soldiers reach other battalions, can we?”  Diogenes countered.

Denis sat there contemplating the gamble, then looked up with a rascally twinkle in his eye, “Alright, let’s risk it.”  Denis laughed, then restrained himself. “But stay inside the wagon.  If you see a stationary soldier anywhere not running from the middle assume they are taking aim. I’ll drive and I will pull out if they use heavier weapons to penetrate the metal plate.”

“Deal.”  Diogenes added shyly, “But we have this … pact amongst ourselves … never to kill other human beings.   So how do you suggest we use, if at all, the gun?”

To Diogenes’ surprise, Denis understood his ambivalence, “You aim at the center, there! See it?  At the communications desk!  That’s what needed to flush them out anyway.   Let them see the death wagon.   Force them into the streets, where they can be enticed by food, prostitutes, civilian clothes –  the citizens will net them into holding pens ’til its over.  The point is the same.  Break discipline.  Broadcast their tactics.  Make them believe they’re battling themselves.  But if you fire the gun …. ” Denis added, “before I give the orders then you will get us all killed.  We’ll lose.”

“We will win!”  Undine sang.

“And we’ll follow you.”  Diogenes broke in, and they all shook hands, and respectfully carried Vlasav’s body back into the wagon,  “After you radio and I make the announcements, we fall back and Rupert and Undine will pick us up.”

“Right.   I’ll radio my people in the alleys.”

“Let’s go.”  Diogenes nudged Rupert, who was staring miserably at Vlasav.

“Right”  Rupert straightened himself up.

” C’mon Rupert,  drive.”  Undine urged him on.

“If you fire the gun …. ” Denis repeated, “before I give the orders then you’ll get us all killed –  and Neb wins.”

“I won’t.”  Undine reassured him.

Diogenes crawled forward with the megaphone, turning it up, taking advantage of a lull in gunfire as the Atavists gloated, breathed into mike then announced: “Attention! We know you won’t join the troops in The Catacombs.  We know you’ll never see red flares!  Your operation is blown!”

The Atavists hushed.  All Anarchist attacks ended by Denis’ radio directive.  A nervous silence hung heavily over the urban battleground, over the trash barricades, over the wounded, and the dead.

“The flares won’t go up ’cause the troops inside are no longer on your side.”

“Bullshit!” An Atavist shouted back, grabbing his battalion commander’s megaphone from him.

“How can they  surprise us when you’re surprised we know?”

“What?”

Denis huddled with his radio, requesting nets and rope be brought up from the alleys.  He warned of the deathwagon’s approach and ordered that everything be sent at the Atavists, right after the turret gun fired.  Intently, he whispered, “Aim everything at the center, everything! As the Atavists fan out — they’re sure to swarm — every enticement to break ranks.  Get ready.”

“Why so coy?”  Diogenes continued,  “You’ve been betrayed. Is Neb really important?  He’ll be sending deathwagons after you soon.”

“Prove it!”  Another Atavist grabbed away the megaphone.

“Think!  Listen!  The proof is in the message.  Can you read the stars?  They’ll be no shooting tonight but stars, wrapped inside cowls of smog.  The red flares will be buried underground.  The dead already feel lonesome in the Catacombs.  Go down there and look around!  Or the flares will be violet. You’ll have to walk back to Prague on your own.  The battalion in the Catacombs is — no secret tryst.  It’s all around town.  Toast of the town.  Escape now.  It’s a party, or Apocalypse.”

“You’re guessing.”  Another Atavist wrested away the megaphone. They were holding their commander  back, inching towards a bargain.

“I did pretty good, though, didn’t I?”  Diogenes persisted.

Now the hodgepodge of nationalities began their endless translation  amongst themselves as the message Diogenes delivered in French itched each mercenary ear.  Though Neb’s court chose English, the Empire had no one language by which it communicated.  So each soldier demanded to hear the bad news for himself. And, since they could not communicate with other battalions by radio, the strategy which made them wait till nightfall to subject the center of Paris, seemed clearly flawed.  Neb’s mindless self-indulgence now appeared as gross neglect of the most elemental laws of warfare.  If the French knew their plans, it was clearly possible for troops told to assemble in a sewer system to revolt.  Perhaps they were about to battle each other.  It happened just that morning.  And dying for a reckless tyrant who cared more for his dick than their lives, seemed pointless. The real soldiers resisted, arguing that no army of their size challenged by mere civilians could lose if they doubted such propaganda, shouting “ Don’t listen to them!”.  The shouts within the Atavist battalion were the only sound in this smoky square as Denis organized a 360 degree attack, a blockade of all streets leading from the square so not one Atavist could escape to tell what the Anarchists knew.

“We have to be going now.”  Diogenes broke in, after a nod from Denis, “Your Atavist enemies are about to show!  Have fun fighting yourselves.  Idiots.”  Diogenes flung away the megaphone.

Rupert started up the engine and drove it towards the line.  Pulling into the square Undine aimed the gun directly at the center of the communication desk. The translating stopped. The Atavists saw the deathwagon: “proof” of a security breach.  Undine punched out one warning blast to punctuate the point.  A roar of shouts rose violently from Atavist doubters.  Discipline began to fray. The deathwagon appeared to them as a traitorous line of their own troops showing its Atavist nose.

Diogenes and Denis jumped inside and took the wheel from Rupert and drove closer.   Some Atavists shouted at those trying to dissuade their doubts.  A commander pulled a gun and shot the most vociferous, the same soldier who shot Vlasav.  Others began to duck, slink to the side.  With one more pause, directed by Denis, secure inside, Undine let rip the entire belt directly at the center.

The gun chewed away bits of the communications desk.  Anarchist and Atavist alike watched without any of them knowing exactly what to do.  This theater of cruelty had been turned upside down.  The Atavists did not want to fight themselves.  The civilians were tired and frightened.  Neither the troops nor the citizens had enough to eat.  The civilians particularly were devouring calories they didn’t have, and found they could barely sustain the activity.  With that ferocious burst over, a moment of disbelief and sweet fatigue set in. Denis let it hang there until the Atavists began to swivel larger guns their way, then nodded, and the Anarchists responded: Molotov cocktails, bricks, pipes, bottles, cans — a garbage dump fell on the Atavists from alleys, from windows, and from the streets.  A group of Atavists broke, swarming over the barricades, and they were demonstrably congratulated by prostitutes, offering grass wine laced with morphine, greeted as heroes with dandelions for all the other reluctant Atavists to see. The deserters were whisked into buildings where they were bound and gagged beyond the view of holdouts.

Some replied by firing at the deathwagon, their bullets rocking but not piercing the metal plate. Some Atavists shadowed the first wave deserters.  Some fanned with their guns roaring.  As battalion discipline frayed, some had to defend themselves against their own comrades, and many, as in any crisis, waited to play it both ways, eager to copy the survivors.  Civilians stormed the center of the Atavist camp while Denis replaced Undine in the gun turret, firing into a knot of soldiers still fighting for discipline, then at a number who were running for the next battalion not eight blocks East.  Yet Diogenes’ voice over the megaphone broadcasting their plans put the hook into the majority inside the barricades, until the bulk of them drifted to party stations or were pushed by Anarchists now inside their encampment, until the center broke: swarming began.

To dissuade the soldiers from over-running the Anarchist party station or tipping over the deathwagon Denis fired the turret gun along the pavement, before the toes of several hundred men while calling on Rupert to grab the wheel: “Get us out! The Church, now!” Rupert reversed over a curb, plowing through several piles of dismantled soccer stands.  He swung around as civilians surged forward to rope in more Atavists and barreled through a cloud of trashfire smoke with thousands of Parisians swarming from alleys to destroy at least this one Atavist battalion, to capture this one square.

The recruits reached the church, jumped out of the deathwagon, and marveled at the result:  complete chaos in the square and cooperation of determined civilians had destroyed the battalion. A few angry pockets of firing Atavists endured but they too were being picked apart, each separated from the other, and as the buildings began to overflow with prisoners, as civilians struggled to shove all of the troops into several of the still floored apartment houses surrounding the square they cannibalized the barricades of its larger objects  sealing every doorway and lower window frame.  Denis was still barking orders over the radio while Undine, Rupert and Diogenes watched the herding, the stuffing of the soldiers into the buildings by homeless patriots, the filling up, the blocking of entrances.  Through the cement dust, and raging fires, the old beige buildings began to resemble anthills, and the busy citizens triumphant ants.

“It’s over!”  Denis shouted, for the first time allowing himself a sense of relief.

“My God it’s working!”  Undine smiled.

“This is only one of maybe, what, twenty-five battalions.”  Diogenes sighed.

“But we will use it again throughout the day!”  Denis braced himself, and caught his breath, “We’ve got to keep going!  Get Undine back to the barge!  Organize at the Louvre.  Link Diogenes up with Claude, Langston.  I have to go back to the outskirts — try this tactic all over town.  We’ll  capture more of their vehicles!  Then bring Aloysius and Rupert to the Catacombs.

“What about Vlasav?”

Denis turned, and stared at Rupert thoughtfully, “We’ll give him a hero’s burial in the former gardens of Notre Dame if we win.”  Denis stated, proudly.

“And what if we don’t?”  Undine asked.

“Undine, don’t ask.”  Rupert stayed her with a kiss, “Here, let’s get Vlasav, and ourselves to the bookstore.”

(The Meditation)

The recruits rode in silence back to the bookstore. When they returned, exhausted, Denis left.  Ulrike was notified at the Sorbonne of Vlasav’s death and she came back, personally cleansed his body, laid him out on several planks behind a curtain. and privately chanted over him.   As noon thinned out to evening, Rupert and Aloysius poured over the Catacomb blueprints.  Langston, Claude and Undine made an early run at their respective tasks.  Rupert and Aloysius watched them leave wistfully, studying more, finally allowing themselves to doze off, resting for their big test, dazzled by all that had befallen  and each surrendered to a dreamless, fitful sleep.  Rupert rose eventually, dabbing sweat from his neck, and found an ancient cigarette in the desk once used by writers who slept in the bookstore.

Rupert yawned, shivered, felt mysteriously haunted, turned around, and saw Ulrike sitting cross-legged: her face slack, all of her woes lapsed into deep meditation, her features devoid of expression, yet inevitably she looked delicate, innocent, youthful.   Diogenes sat as he did in his crate, motionless, with a hinted half-smile spread across his crusty lips — distant, calm, inscrutable.  Aloysius, roused earlier from his bed of books and rags, had leaned from the window admiring Notre Dame, stretched, and after arranging a few strips of cardboard, squatted, resuming the position taught him by Ulrike and Friedrich, again perfectly crossing his skinny legs.  Rupert, feeling left out, finishing his cigarette, sat down, and gradually could sense an even greater presence than he did with the whole flock of  Birds.

He ignored the noise outside: the milling Anarchist recruits, a lone crow squawking on the fence, a dog moaning in his sleep, the wind rushing over the pavement between scattered shells falling in the suburbs, and let drop each perception, each thought unravel with its pictures going on inside — down an echo chamber of acts — until the room changed in his peripheral vision.  It was both active, shimmering and absolutely still. He felt his mind turn to ashes, They could have been sitting on books in a torn up bookshop or on the caldera back in Santorini.  It could have been the dream of the academics or the after-vision of those who once were buried in the sky.  It could have been the birds Diogenes pointed out while Rupert was drowning or the dream of blind nomads who hid and prowled mountaintops by night.  Yet all these perceptions too slid away, each no greater, nor more crucial than the next — and he was there.   In, but not of ,the room.  He heard the “ah”, the process of his mind giving up its tenacious separateness.  And when this last perception fell away everything that which made perception possible opened, until an image of the Catacombs, which he had never actually seen, rose before him in the room, as if returning, or reappearing, burning in translucence on a fluid, dancing plate of light, while his spine vibrated, and a sheathe of energy combed his limbs, until the composite hung there in his visual field, as the evening and Time crept back, and basked them all in violet.