9b – Paris Nights

PARIS NIGHTS

Rupert and Aloysius jogged through a minor square with a headless statue, peeling tins signs, bank plateglass window shatterings, a burnt out supermarché, and a vandalized fire sprig, far from the crowds assembling on the Seine or still worshipping La Flame at Place de la Concorde.  Alone, sharing a cigarette, they paused before shimmying down their designated hole.

Beneath their feet the sewer mouth resembled a public toilet in a squatted gas station.  Their last glimpse might be of wet glass shards and excrement.  Paris seemed enclosed now, like the inside of one psyché, entertaining utopic schemes of salvation and primal fears of defeat while surrounded by a ring of hostile invaders, and below, within: Neb’s troops, black caves, death, a graveyard.  They had to taunt the Atavists or Blunts into a chase, instructed by the Catacomb blueprints, snarl the troops and risk that the acoustic imaging blind migrants cultivated in mountaintop seclusion, and Diogenes discovered in convalescence, would succeed confronted by violence.  At twilight, the wind lulled.  Rupert cautiously bid Undine au revoir through the cooling air.  Aloysius wistfully watched a star blink in the smoggy sky.  They parceled out the flares Denis left them to light their way.  Each stuffed his half into his pocket to keep them dry, propped his elbows and knees against the sewer, inhaling one last breath from the slimy sewer mouth, then pulled the manhole cover shut.

Landing in mud, they peered up at a slight cone of light filtering through the ring from the cover.  Fearful of leaving their entry hole behind, Rupert rehearsed the Catacomb-plan and Aloysius envisioned the by-passages from which they’d lure or spook the Atavists into operational anarchy.

They waded into stagnant water and floating shit suddenly silhouetted in red as Rupert lit a flare — ignoring rats and cockroaches.  They knew if Neb destroyed Paris success here would leave Belgium, Holland – all of Scandinavia — to gradual blockade, a few fuelless winters, raids, onslaught, a mop up, occupation. They considered the menace of Neb himself: Neb releaser of carnivorous Flies, destroyer of the Acropolis, dropper of Bomb on Belgrade, Neb scourge of hapless refugees, Neb the misogynist slave-master and slave.  Yet his acts were symptoms of Neb Our Need to be enslaved; Our Incarnate Revenge, Our Self-Contempt.  Decay fed his mystique, and, as an individual might commit suicide, rather than grow sick or old, Neb would oblige us and destroy of City of Light.

They found a cavern leading to a lower tunnel and slid into a yet lower chamber of collected muck. Rupert and Aloysius wasted a second, a third flare at the far end of the chamber groping for the Atavist entry point, since Neb’s plan meant this wall to be breached to ensure double access to and from the Catacombs.  Eventually, they cleared away rock from a sinking mound of clay, crawled through a gap in the mitered brick, and shimmied into a drier cavern littered with laughing gas canisters and broken amphetamine capsules.

Following gunbutt and bayonet scrapings against moist walls, Aloysius noticed another, smaller mound of clay, dug up and reburied.  Rupert shoved his hand into the mound extracting a damp Atavist uniform and yellowed orders, unfolded them, and discovered their names in print and a photo of Rupert: a copy of Atavist orders.  Speculating on their movements since Prague, the report quickly listed Rupert’s assassination of Grabmaler, his travels with Aloysius, and how they infiltrated into the Implacable One’s Prague court, dressed as women through infamous traitor Claude Mckay, black impresario and spy.

On the reverse page they found seven small doctored photographs of the recruits, including Vlasav. The orders implied that the French National Authoritarians fled yesterday, ceding victory to Neb after the supplying the recruits’ location, yet the lying spy travelogue must have puzzled even the dimmest mercenary.  Why slow down a huge operation for two crossdressers, a Czech truck driver, a paralyzed philosopher, two young girls and a clown?  They both had to laugh.  It was an insane security breach. The picture of Rupert taken as late as that morning in Paris concluded with a warning to all armed ‘liberationists’ — FOR  CATACOMB TROOP EYES ONLY/ SPIES (ALIAS: ALEXANDRA AND DORA) AND TRAITOR MCKAY IN POSSESSION OF PLANS FOR UNDERGROUND SEIZURE OF PARIS/ PENULTIMATE OPERATION IN NORTHERN EUROPE WILL NOT BE FOILED/ UPRISING WILL PREVAIL/ TERMINATE SPIES IN CATACOMBS /VIVA N’s EMPIRE/ NEB, EMP.

Saving their next flare, Aloysius reasoned close to the dying embers of a match that they were spotted during the speeches by the FNA, since arriving in Paris.  Rupert’s second photograph disclosed FNA collusion but Neb must have consulted with both groups that very day. For no one but a Blunt could have taken the first shot two years ago in New York — even if since lost or forfeited to the Atavists at gunpoint.  This required a deal between Blunt and FNA leadership while holding back the security leak from Neb’s troops at the barricades.  The recruits rested on their heels, musing.  Neb needed his exterior troops to fight.  Broadcasting the leak would incite mutiny.  Exactly what happened that morning, and now, throughout the day, at the barricades.  What, how or who contained the leak?

They squatted in a funk.  They now had their own security leak but it still demanded the same strategy on their part: suck the Atavists into the blind logic of their chase as they slid behind schedule, lure any leftover Blunts into direct confrontation with the Atavists and suck them counter-clockwise down their own drain before the Atavists surfaced for their major commitments.  The Atavist strategy had to remain the same: blow the last few functioning communication centers, the “brain” out of surviving telephone lines, pollute the main water sources in downtown Paris, trash the major buildings so that barricade troops could liquidate suburban resistance after jamming main highways leading to Paris.  Having lost any element of surprise greatly increased their risk, but changed nothing.

Aloysius rose and dropped his pants in the dark, changing slowly into the Atavist jumpsuit.  Incredulously, Rupert listened to Aloysius  meticulously adjust his belt and work up his sleeves, wondering why he bothered, “Still dressing in costumes?”

“By assuming the mask of my enemy, by wearing his costume,” Aloysius answered from the shadows, “I offer him the mirror of his iniquity.”

“No one will sees a mirror in the dark!”  Rupert scoffed.

“Just watch!”  Aloysius retorted, drowning his former trousers with a rock.

“Suit yourself.”  Rupert snorted.

“I have! I will!” Aloysius laughed, pickily dusting off his Atavist uniform.

The recruits lit a fifth flare and crept towards the Catacombs proper, discovering three full gas canisters stashed beneath their first ribcage.  They rolled the canisters deeper into a niche, quietly concealing them by dragging several full skeletons they discovered deeper along the cavern walls.   They doused a flare.  They heard a crunching of bones under boots not far from a light splashing in nacreous puddles formed from water dripping from sewers and broken pipes.  At least a dozen men were meandering their way, guns knocking on ceiling stone, boots in puddles, bayonets or flame-throwers poking into skeleton piles.  Rupert registered the pattern suggested by their heavy steps, how they poked into recesses, habitually turning right from fatigue.  Aloysius and Rupert locked in, drifting in parallel along their flank, through a left-handed passageway, shadowing the leaping flashlights toward the Catacombs proper.

They were Blunts — flags on lapels, weapons in clean and relatively good shape, smoking hay cigarettes laced with pain killer and speed.   Rupert recognized the scent from his first stay in Paris.  Blunts staged right-wing putsches after instigating immigration riots which they peddled to every European national interest as each nation failed.  Mostly white, with real weapons, the Blunts, unlike their rivals, favored incendiary weapons to scorch civilians in street battles.  Rather than scream for swarm tactics to smother urban enemies like the FNA, or often, the Atavists, they trapped them by rolling drums of burning fuel, backed up by flame-throwers, and herding them into pits which the Blunts  quickly bulldozed over.

The Blunts joined the FNA to economize their mutual revenge against Arabs, North African Blacks, Jews, Romanians, reclaiming every immigrant’s apartment, even their rag platforms and street cardboard.  They printed propaganda fliers for the FNA, graphic imitations of newspapers blaming immigrants for the Collapse.  All in a quest to purify France.  Ironically, while the FNA opened France to its enemy, the paid-off Blunt’s leaders fled East, doublecrossing Neb by leaving this contingent to follow old orders, and most likely, to die.

Rupert and Aloysius drifted for a heap of bones as the torches crept closer to a fork between two tunnels, then began to cover themselves, bone by bone.  Aloysius burrowed carefully, resting pelvises on his lap, stuffing a bouquet of tibias into his vest pockets, trying on skull caps.  He gaped but in mock fright because he knew that the living and not the dead would harm him. Both burrowed vigorously, clearing skulls once possessing flesh, fit with noses, lips, eyelashes, with tongues lolling centuries ago in French, some indeed dying in the first French Revolution.  Crawling crablike into skeletons stacked for economic burial, for a Museum featuring a twisted show of mathematic resourcefulness, arranged neatly by fastidious Pascalian mind-police, they rubbed against juices leached down from asphalt, soaking through thousands of marrows to stain their living flesh — juices leaking poison to drip through their open pores.

Burying themselves, they felt the anonymity of the bones’ owners.  Nameless millions reduced to mere joints, nihilated into stacks, unearthed from a public cemetery, Les Innocents, to Denfert-Rocheraux placating the Catholic taste for an underground Necropolis. The crypt voided each body’s past, with each bone stacked by kind: femur upon femur, clavicle upon clavicle, hip bone on hip bone, ad nauseum, sucking out individuality as one sucks meat from a lobster claw, only to pack them into neat piles, an anonymous Empire of the Dead.  More or less what Neb plotted for the whole world.  Though Neb would never bother with stacks.

Finally, puddles began to splash.  Cans were being used.  They heard gas sprinkling, percolating through the bones.  The Blunts, rather than face the Atavists, were going to smoke them out.  The same would happen to Rupert and Aloysius.  The smoke would smother them if the bones did not go up like so many sticks or logs.  Gas wafted to their nostrils, superseding the mold.  The Blunts’ rifles knocked on the Catacomb walls.  Rupert stopped nestling backward, a spine stuck in his shoulderblade.  Pulling up their feet from the floor as the gas seeped in, they watched the first of the Blunts crowd into their recess.  Blunts grunted a barbaric French, joking crudely about the female dead, some holding their lamps and cigarettes gingerly, poking steel rods into the stacks, preparing to smoke out the whole area.

Rupert hid his face and prayed to a mnemonic blueprint of the Catacombs.  If the Blunts set this corridor on flame it would suck air from those just North, the planned Atavist aggregation cave.  Fire would  siphon all oxygen, the Atavists would come running, but the Blunts and many Atavists would survive.  Or they could provoke a chase, lure the clever Blunts into catastrophe.  Or, Rupert and Aloysius could panic.  This seemed as good a time as any.  Spotted on the streets, they would help cede Paris to the Atavists, and, failing to surface at all, Paris would never know what transpired beneath its feet, save for smoke plumes escaping from manholes.

The Blunts ignited the first stack.  Rupert and Aloysius could only slow down the conflagration now by drawing attention, ideally by crashing backwards, into another chamber.  It was time to stop hiding. They had to lure the Blunts into the Atavists’ lap so that the two postCollapse militias could smother each other within a confined space, giving the Revolution a chance to progress above their heads.  Yet there was no guarantee that the skeletal wall behind them could fall.  Given this was the only way, they kicked hard back against it, damning the noise, while bones splayed heavily against the wall of the cave behind it.  A wall of porous brick and rotten limestone behind crashed. They scrambled free.  The Blunts set off an eerily loud siren, and the main contingent thudded in with a blaze of small rifle fire to reinforce the dozen who made the discovery.

A flame fed by liquid napalm and gasoline boiled the ooze of the marrows and steamed away ground water until the bones smoked like poisoned logs in a forest of death. Flames licked their feet as they ran tiptoe towards the fireball’s nucleus, veered left to an intact wall, hid, and re-buried, rapidly.

Though Blunts wore fireproof boots, the tunnel became impassable with the mess left behind, so the Blunts experimented with blasting through bone piles with machine guns.  The Blunts inflicted injuries by ricochet on themselves until they gave up and followed fast to the cubby hole into which Rupert planted the gasoline cans. The boys leapt suddenly to the left, inciting gun fire, and the cans’ explosion laid waste the first dozen Blunt scouts.

A silent runner of gasoline convulsed, snake-like, through heaps of thigh-bones, leaking from an upper cavern, dropping below to Blunts seeking a path around the smoke, and as the cave echoed with the screams of incinerating men wild to douse fire mounting their legs, their higher comrades crawled to better breathe from the cave floor, while reaching uselessly down from this upper deck, to their frying comrades below.

The Blunt field commander shouted and assembled his frustrated men and re-directed them to move in force beyond their own fires and follow Aloysius and Rupert into the darkness without using flame-throwers or gasoline.  Fire proved useless and the Blunts were disciplined enough to forgo it after taking losses.  Henceforth, all parties ran into utter darkness, as the Blunts conceived it, into a dry run of entrapment.

Blunts at the rear, still enveloped by smoke, did use flashlights, but the hundred more at their heels were running blind.  Rupert and Aloysius poured it on, Rupert crouching beneath the low cave walls, then they locked quite intuitively into the blind stealth they once learned from the Birds. They found themselves listening, reacting instantaneously, to the echoes, to their own footfalls, to the clankings of the Blunts’ weapons behind them against separate Catacomb walls, and to the rebounds of their own panting breaths, and both of them were astounded that they could run, dodge, and leap without seeing. Yet with that astonishment came enough self-consciousness to help them fall from their stealth, the intuitive Bird radar, and both Rupert and Aloysius stumbled.

They panted together, sweating, muting their coughs, listening to the clatter of advancing Blunts, absolutely blind in a smoking tomb, waiting co-cremation, or decay. Their imposed blindness summoned the stealth constituting space outside their bodies. They tried to re-imagine it emblazoning their mind’s eye, tattooing an escape route on their retinas, a bat or an owlike neon blueprint illumining electromagnetically their inner ears to compensate for the utter blackness and terror around them, determined not to let it fright their effort, just as the dead would not hypnotize, nor the inky blackness paralyze, as they defied the Blunt’s rush, and bolted again.

They knew the Catacomb graveyard was not very large. They began to circle slowly, back to the Atavists.  The Blunts charged at their backs, gaining by the yard.  They listened to the cacophony of rattling arms, the shadowy roar like the Tiresius’ flies.  The Atavists lurked ahead, waiting for them, following the oddly personal orders.  Rupert stopped short.  Aloysius nearly rammed into him. The courage they had built up, the cavalier attitude evaporated. Rupert shivered, exhausted.  Aloysius sweated bullets inside his two layers of clothing.  Their feel for the dark, the Bird Radar, gave out, and they were two unarmed, diminutive civilians pissing their pants in an underground graveyard.

The Blunts swarmed not a hundred circuitous yards behind them now, yet they had to let them catch up. Smothered by the noise of their own run the Blunts were heading straight for them, and, no doubt, the Atavists.  Yet the Atavist losses had to be heavy before they rubbed out the Blunts, or the chase was pointless. The Atavists, afterall, threatened Paris.  The Blunts had to be drawn in at least in two directions — to wedge them into the Atavists at two points.  Rupert and Aloysius staggered forward, panting,  spotting a light.

In the flickering shadows, a lone figure stooped, holding a lantern beside an idling three-wheeled motorcycle: a cross between a dune buggy, with mountainbike shocks and gigantic tires, a wheelchair, with protective steel stirrup rests for each leg, and a throne: a red velvet seat with a built up headrest decorated by an odd insignia, a crest. His lantern swayed, momentarily illumining a vicious face at rest.  He was hunched, fat, mumbling into a skull fit with a ham radio.  They snuck up closer.  His back was turned toward them, dressed in a bulky felt cape studded on its shoulders with jade, and hundreds of diamond skulls and crossbones.  The fat man had a copy of Atavist orders holding the reverse page with the doctored photographs in one hand while cradling the skull-radio in his other, stringy red hair dripping sweat audibly on the page, exhaling a rapid, scraping ‘shhhheeeet”, as he shook his head.  He wheeled around suddenly, hearing them and they were staring right at, swollen with rage, Neb’s face.

Neb was dressed, outrageously, in Claude’s Green Man costume as a kind of camouflage, with padding over the buttock Undine halved when she shot him, pulling out an original photograph of Rupert from a leather pouch on his motortrike, cursing himself, “Goddamn me if this still can’t work!”

Aloysius, dressed in the Atavist uniform, stepped out before Rupert could stop him, to the edge of Neb’s lantern light.   Neb squinted at him, and shouted, with the condescension by which he addressed mercenaries:

“You dare sneak up on me?” Neb appraised his loose-fitting uniform, as Aloysius edged up just far enough to keep his face enshadowed,  “Are you my scout, slave, or no?”

“I am your scout.”  Aloysius, mumbled in a gruff voice.

“You no paid in coke to spank da monkey, fuckhead.  Where are the spies listed on my order?”

“I  … spotted them.  They’re resting, hiding behind us.  They’re not going anywhere.”

“Where?  Where?” Neb seethed, glaring, nearly losing his balance.

“Not a hundred yards around those cave walls.  Shhh!  Listen!”

“I do hear something!  Muffled, growing!  Maybe too loud?   No, they had to come!  Perfect.  Quick, relay  back we found ‘em.  No, stay here.  I’ll radio. It’ll all be wrapped up soon! I’ll fill a fishbowl with formaldehyde, make them chew each other’s dicks off, plop their wee-wees into formaldehyde so you can show your drinking buddies! Ha!  Give them to your kids to play with.  Can you conceive children?”

“Can I ask you something, Sir?”

“I’m your Emperor, not your Mother.”  Neb burped, staggering as he shifted to a general channel on his radio.

“That is why I am asking.”

“Wipe the cum from your lips!  I hate time-cuntsuming slaves!”  Neb  frumped up his nose.

“Why  endanger yourself — being here — for two nobodies?  If I read this latest order correctly … ”

“Not for them –  Me!  This is it, the BIG ONE.  Red flares will stain the sky tonight, la, la, while I trash the City of Light! Like the melody?  Arrogant, French pansy-FUCKS!  What good are nice buildings, art, wine, flowers, perfume now? Do the French think they are immune? Think they can keep their past and not find Me in it?”

“But you do want these nobodies captured?”

“Wait, who’s that behind you?  And, I hear a group!  Big …  Bigger than two transveshites!” Neb cupped his ear, shouting into the skull: “Scouts claim infidel discovery.  May have backups!  Hurry to my location or be gassed.”

“Good job!”  Aloysius nodded.  The Atavists were thundering their way, the Blunts roaring up. “Nice costume!”  Aloysius commented.

“I’ll have your cock sucked!  That’s why you’re dumb enough to address me directly, right?” Neb did a little jig, delighted, and stumbled toward Rupert, curious as to why the other scout stayed silent when helping him corner “the spies”, and avoiding recognition for possible reward.  The thunder of two armies converging, mounted, throbbing the cave walls, loosening dirt from the ceiling: “Come here, so you … what?” Neb hysterically held his lantern right under Rupert’s chin, “GODDAMN! SONOFABITCH!”   He bellowed, purple neck arteries pumping blood to his temples, “THINK YOU COULD STOP MY ARMY? WhatAAAAA?”

The Blunts slammed into the Atavists as both jammed the small chamber, alternately lit by flame-throwers, machine gun fire and darkened by smoke and flying boneparts. The Atavists fired and Neb’s howls, the shrieks of the wounded, ricocheting bullets, sirens, concussion bombs — everything was snuffed out as Atavists stampeded the Blunts to co-opt being fried by Blunt flame-throwers — a collision of profane armies, a maelstrom swirling in an enclosed, underground chamber of rock.

Falling into a stack of skulls, Aloysius and Rupert shimmied through a small crack between two walls, sidestepping or hurdling spilling bonestacks, then split up.  The two armies fought at each other’s throats yet they had to lure some Blunts toward a second Atavist flank.  Each let themselves be spotted after doubling back from separate tunnels: Rupert drawing backflanked Atavists, Aloysius, deserting Blunts.  They ran toward a fork in the tunnels near the old Museum entrance, drawing a fast, vicious pursuit from the Atavists, and after some taunts, deserting Blunts, chasing Aloysius as he tried to run them into the thick of the same Atavist contingent chasing Rupert.

Barbecued or not, and despite how remarkable and strange it felt to encounter Neb here, it was his army they feared.  They sprinted blindly into the dark, escaping incendiary bombs, grenade explosions, toppling walls and fissuring with the spreading gravel beneath their boots.  Scrambling over fallen rock, they fanned out in parallel, and squeezed in on the main skeletal stash, and the old, now smoldering, Museum of the Dead.

With the Blunts outnumbered, their survivors proved hard to coax, preferring escape to revenge. Aloysius, taking notice, slowed then crouched near the only open shaft and source of oxygen of which he, or they, knew, the old Museum entrance: a spiral stone stairwell, missing steps, vertically leading to the street.  Aloysius played dead as the Blunts staggered in, tramping this way and that, arguing, beneath the shaft.  He covered himself by tearing off a uniform from a larger dead Blunt asphyxiated after their first backfired flame-throwing, completing his second disguise by yanking a half-rotted beard from its corrupted roots.  Aloysius lay prone, splayed-out, disguised, as the Blunts congested the chamber, desperate to survive, wondering how it all went wrong, how they became leaderless.

Rupert, nearly fainting from smoke inhalation, found it easier to hide amongst bones which had only smoldered except when directly doused with gasoline or ignited by flame-throwers.  After nestling deeply, he heard Atavists charging in, having separated from the larger contingent, apparently trying to find their own way to escape into the streets.   He took stock of the Atavists Neb had relied on for victory, and they were very heavily armed, wired, and able to maneuver light and fast, even underground. These were different troops than those at the barricades.  Neb had plucked them from experienced, roaming mercenaries hoards and trained them mercilessly to nimbly carry an arsenal, emphasizing plastic explosives, rockets and missiles, offering them the cream of what he hoarded in technology from his years in the arms trade.  Rupert could feel the pathological discipline suffering a slowdown while burning up on speed. Further, Neb had dragged in something personal with him, interfered, and they were snarled up underground before killing one civilian. Knotted by speed, claustrophobic, loathing Neb, grinding their teeth, they saw Neb for the first time, here, dressed up in a foolish costume, hysterical about spies. Now, before beginning their mission, they were suffering casualties, and hungry for pure, diamond bullet-in-the-brow murder and rape.

Rupert, just yards on the other side of a fork from Aloysius, monitored both militias closing in on the same Museum exit, the stone spiral stairwell, watching several disgusted Atavist begin to lighten up, dropping ammo belts, ripping off flack jackets, helmets, preparing to climb up and escape. He could hear Blunt flame-throwers through the closer Atavist armament rattling and knocking, and quietly collected the farther-flung discarded flack jackets and jumpsuits, dropping back to dress up several skeletons to resemble wounded, or sleeping soldiers, propping, patting them into shape.  Since the bones were in by-kind stacks he had to slink around in the dark, selecting as shoppers once did in supermarkets, filling collars with skulls, jackets with ribcages, pants with femurs, draping sleeves over gunbutts, tugging caps over eyeless sockets, arranging them to resemble soldiers in position, eager and ready to fire, completing six Atavist replicas.

The deserting Blunts and Atavists now had no way out except up the stairwell.  Winners could scale the spiral staircase for the street.  Both deserting contingents closed in, merely yards from each other. Each thought themselves shrewd to desert.  Neither wished to engage in needless battle. A half dozen Blunts shuffled past Aloysius, flame throwers first.  Aloysius disinterred and joined them, shadowing, infiltrating their ranks, and spotted, with the aid of their flashlights, the replicas Rupert laid out.  He figured out Rupert’s ploy, slipped to the fore, and yelled, “WATCH IT! They’re over there!” scooted back, crouched, hid, stripping off his Blunt disguise, with the disgusting beard. The Blunts fired on the dead replicas as hundreds of Atavists heard them.  Aloysius threaded around several corners to the Atavists, dressed in his original Atavist jumpsuit and leaping up and down, pointed them in the direction of the Blunts.

When the Blunts fired at the dressed up dead, the foremost were scorched as the gasoline-soaked, dressed up corpses exploded. The Atavists fired grenades into the explosion, fearing it was directed at them, until a tight cyclone of battle consumed the traffic jam of bodies, giving way to larger explosions — until the cave walls shook, fissuring the entrance tunnel, dumping bones, clay, stones and men with smoking rock, while a suction of flame swirled up the entrance hole, slowly closing the only oxygen source to the surface.

Blown forward by the cave in, Rupert scraped skin from his ribs, forearms and forehead. Aloysius crawled to lift him up, hearing Blunt survivors in breakneck retreat, now reversing their way.  Behind them, in the echo chamber of cave walls, the whole army of Atavists were in pursuit, resolved to end this thing, agitated to madness by speed, and in need of a quick fix, a final solution.  The recruits decided now simply to run for their lives.  Aloysius lead, scrambling over Atavists fried by Blunts on their way out, sprinting down labyrinthine series of tunnels, not looking back, not acting as decoys, until they stopped momentarily, panting, stunned to still be alive and dying for  a breath.

Aloysius fell down to shed his top uniform right then and there while Rupert panted and damned Aloysius for taking time to double-tie his bootlaces, and adjust his cuffs.  They listened as Atavists swarmed the spot they just vacated when a series of explosions rocked the entire structure of the Catacombs.  Rupert pulled Aloysius up, inciting him to sprint as Atavist explosions seemed to rain everywhere in the caves, chambers and tunnels, as ceilings fell and no wall seemed solid and no direction seemed safe from collapse.  Eventually, full scale bombs were used, no doubt by the Atavists desperate to finish off the Blunts, deserting Atavist troops, the reported spies, perhaps Neb Himself, and engage in their prime mission of assembling to escape, or take Paris itself, now, for themselves.

This was followed by a rolling cave-in, several tunnels gave out, crashed, weighed yet others down, blasting a volume of stale air and fumes their way until Rupert and Aloysius were running for their lives  –  not from armed mercenaries but the succession of crumbling chambers as the very structure of the Catacombs imploded.  They felt an odder feeling than their Alpine vertigo — a claustrophobia mixed with fear of stumbling not from a height, but into a living burial as tunnel after tunnel closed up and it was useless to try to guide themselves from the original blueprint. They were completely lost now, choosing passages because they were open, discarding others because they were blocked or hearing them progressively crumble, dashing blindly, tripping, running into walls, as the Radar went spotty, and as the avalanches of wall after wall caught up with their fear.

Nausea and fatigue scrambled their nervous systems, as they got up again, keeping just abreast of the successive thunder — until it stopped, and they fell on their faces in the muck.  They panted as coal miners might — or dogs — incapable of drawing a full breath, lungs greedy for any full cup of oxygen.  Yet just as they felt like dying, they felt a rush of defiance, saw, as brothers in despair, the refugees, the deathwagons, the leering Nebuchadnezzar, the now reversed image of Diogenes dream claim: “We were buried in the sky!”, and imagined the millions in Paris rising forever above them and the whole tomb coming down around their ears.

They got up scrambling blindly, legs aching, explosions billowing,  minds threading an imaginary ‘point just beyond the brow’ through which they would sprint.  Their bodies carried on of their own accord, and each flashed on matters distant from their desperate effort to survive the complete collapse of the caves.  Each saw their evening in Aloysius’ hut, rehearsed their conversations about Revolution, and like a reel saw their lives rolling before their mind’s eye, without truly being conscious of where they were or what they were doing.  Their Revolution came to Paris not through class warfare, battles, spies, restoring national, tribal or religious sovereignty, but from damning everything except and sprinting through that point.  They could have been running now into sewers or down starlit roads of thought. They had no idea how many Atavists or Blunts were dying behind them, nor what was going on above their heads. Their Revolution meant, nothing, at this moment, but running. Neb, Atavists, Blunts, all would be buried right along with two ‘democratic civilians’ baiting them.  Their roles as men, or women, Neb, horror at the barricades — nothing mattered but running, toward where, they could not see, for what they could never say.

The largest explosion yet quaked, drawing up the ground beneath their feet and raining dirt down upon their backs.  They had already fallen to their faces and were half-buried again.  As the explosion shook outward from its epicenter, rocks fissured the streets above them down and they were scrambling on hands and knees, feeling supernaturally sleepy, coughing, grasping, wheezing forward like emphysema-stricken moles.  It utterly destroyed their personalities.  They were no longer really human, scraping rock with broken fingernails, slithering on bellies, clawing facelessly forward, feeling the earth tremble their bones, metamorphosed into mere frames, skeletons in skin-wrappers, as the explosions dissolved the tunnels.

As they could no longer even stand, they gave up, determined to be conscious when they died, for whatever transpired under or aboveground. They were canceled, zeroes, gasping beneath a surface building, or street.  Perhaps the surviving Atavists blew up the Catacombs on their way to laying Paris to waste.  Perhaps they were left to perpetually fail at threading their way out, and Neb won.  Did it matter, now?  Their legs stiffened, their thighs and stomach cramped trapping the small light inside their heads in the same microwave as their lungs.  Revolution or no, within hours they would be no different than any Catacomb bone.  At least Vlasav died with his head up beneath an open sky!, Aloysius groaned.  Their friends would carry on beneath the stars.   Undine would drift into another man’s arms, Rupert moaned.  They would die eating the dark, profane earth.

Yet the Atavists were really too great in number for the space in which they had found themselves.  With the press to charge forcing many into blocked passageways, in the rush, clogged or crushed columns behind kept running forward, trampling over and into each other, many divided and trapped by cave-ins. Finally the heavily armed Atavists  panicked, used missiles trying to blow themselves out, and it was they, the fearsome army, and not Aloysius and Rupert, who were responsible for their burial, when Atavist fury brought the whole octopus of walls, tunnels, and skeletons crashing down.

They crawled to their feet, toward what they hoped was the Seine, steering by internal compass, praying that they would someday surface.  They would stop to listen but heard nothing but their own footsteps, dripping water, a crunch of falling rock, deafened by stillness. After dragging themselves nearly a kilometer beyond the battle, they encountered squatters, stumbled over several in a small band, stepped on someone’s hand, and could not decipher their French curses.  Rupert felt glad to encounter their scorn, elated to hear the squatters try to fright them off, relished the spit on his chin, as they, two strange, filthy Citizens of the World in the miserable dark sank to their knees and panted, coughing, kissing mud silhouetted by natural light.

Rupert tried his best to comfort Aloysius as he sank down beside him but he was shaking with resentment. He was born innocent and condemned to live in a box!  Crash in an ocean! Walk through a wasteland! Preen as a woman for a dictator! and now this! He broke down demanding clean air, food, warmth, a house, a future, all in English. The French squatters watched him warily, hunched or resting on their heels, encamped near a sewage stream.  Aloysius, stumbling, shook his fist at the end of human history, ripped off his clothes and stood there naked denouncing humanity’s failure.  Something snapped inside Aloysius –  burst like an old rubber band, though Rupert could understand, he wondered if they would not have to tangle now with squatters to survive.

Finally, one of the French squatters lit a valuable match and drew it to a dry newspaper and peered at their faces, and signaled Rupert to calm Aloysius.  The squatters examined them both.  The squatters had heard and felt the explosions, and speculated on the meaning after they stopped trembling. Eventually one of squatters started chatting and Rupert deciphered that, despite the rocking of their cave walls, he was rehearsing the legend of The Green Man, who traveled alone and without light in the vast caves of Montsouri; The Green Man could see in the dark and could magically jump from one wall to another, and whoever had the mischance to cross him  would die, with all his kin.  The legend thrived here, underground as a kind of mythic doomsday personification of how the quarries, tunnels, caves and sewers would finally flush the squatters out. Another woman, brushing the storyteller aside, whispered respectfully to them that if they had tangled the Atavists, even if they were foreigners, they must have fought the Green Man.  A young woman, a very delicate type with sallow eyes and thin, spindly limbs drifted over and whispered that everyone should share, and weakly offered them a tin of water.  Rupert almost pushed it away, before seeing her harmless eyes and delicate fingers.   Feeling as if they were hallucinating, they heard a motorcycle or engine approaching from inside the tunnel from which they just emerged.  Neither Rupert nor Aloysius cared.

The squatters collected their meager store of dry newspaper and made a small fire in which all of them were visible.  Rupert and Aloysius, nearly passed out, drunk for a moment on the simple communion, safe, numbed, throats clogged with soot, and lay down.  Aloysius ruminated on the chaotic flame, trying again to see the core of the burn — the yellows and interloping crimson and deep blues of Santorini then recalled the dream he had on the jet, before they crashed, and inexplicably shivered.  To offset the sensation, he asked Rupert how to brag; “Art is invisible to the mirror of iniquity,” in French. Rupert told him and he sputtered out the French phrase and the squatters tugged their lower eyelids to express mock skepticism, and chuckled, used to making wild remarks themselves to pass the time, and ease the pain.   Aloysius shed his boots and sat down to wash his feet.

They spotted a beam of light making their way, from inside the Catacombs, but Rupert spotted an opening above, as he got up and wandered off.  He saw a Paris night parading above their heads, and he began, finally, to breathe freely.  They heard people cheering, and it sounded, though quaintly distant, as if it came from another world, a world above ground, a carnival amongst surface-dwellers.  The distant cheers sounded exotic, like a wavering flurries of canaries.  They glimpsed thin violet trails sailing across the small hole above their meager fire, scattering like a flock of fireflies.  Strange, colorful lights silently burst.

The squatters suddenly stood up.  Rupert and Aloysius, still closer to where they had arrived, escaping the Atavists — saw a silhouette — a flashlight, and a damaged but running motortrike behind him.  Neb, still in camouflage — Claude’s Green Man costume, advanced, bent over, face ruined with pain, his right arm missing,  burn marks on a torn sleeve all blood and caked dirt, with nothing to fill it but a mushy stump.  He was no longer red.  His veins no longer bulged.  He was really a ghost of himself, walking bowl-legged pained by a wound greater than his lost arm.  He reached down, fumbling, hissing contemptuous plaints, yet pale with disbelief, and now illumined by the small fire the squatters built, he carefully peeled a blood-soaked flap of his shredded pants away, shifting something from his pocket.  There was no zipper — just a smear where a grenade or mortar exploded, either in the air waste-high before him, or while sailing between his legs.  He stared down, in horror, castrated. “You!” he whispered,  sweat dripping from his brow, staring at Aloysius, somehow confusing him with Rupert: “You … I saw you mirrored in the dark  …  and found what I was looking for!” Neb  glared now at Rupert, You still dressed up as a devil?   You cannot fool me.  Not now!” Neb slid a gun from his torn pocket through the open flap in his trousers where his zipper and penis should have been. He pointed the gun through his fly, leering.  The squatters scrambled for cover.  Neb aimed at Aloysius. Aloysius attacked him, while Neb squeezed out two shots before Aloysius pummeled him with a rock repeatedly over his head, until The Last Atavist, the Emperor, the Great Whore’s once feared head flattened into pulp. Aloysius swayed, and fell backward.  The young girl who offered them water slumped into the stream, face down, and the squatters hysterically tried to revive her, praying in the half-light, to the night above their heads, to La Flamme, for her soul.

Rupert found Aloysius, and pulled him over to rest beneath the passage to the surface so that he might die seeing the sky, resting him on his back under the street’s falling cone of light.  He saw Aloysius’ eyes glaze, a distant Roman candle playing across his unseeing retina.  Rupert could not tell what Aloysius exhaled, whether it was “Finally … free … ” or,  “free me”  before he sank away.