June 2011


All nonsense, everyone agreed. You can’t change the Imperial court just through words, no matter how shocking, nor cause the Emperor, the Son of Heaven, to give up his mandate simply by demanding it. The eunuch who had dared speak thus was quickly and quietly put to death, stabbed in the heart under a heavy dose of opium before being carved into pieces that he might wander the hereafter in such a state.

In time, though, doubt began to eat at the Emperor and his advisors. Had the eunuch shared his inflammatory opinions with others? After all, he had seemed a dependable and loyal functionary at lower levels of the bureaucracy–could not he have been silently spreading contagion throughout the Imperial household for years before his outburst? Or, worse, solicited peasants or nobles to join an uprising?

To be prudent, close associates and family members of the offending eunuch were put to death, though they were spared any dismemberment as their guilt was only suspicion and not certainty. If anything, the whispers became louder–audible for the first time even to the ears of the innermost court. The only sensible act was to execute people with only brief contact, or who were already suspect and may have been pushed over the edge. Soon purge followed purge, and each caused rumors of rebellion to grow stronger.

The time came when the doors to the Imperial court were battered down, and the Emperor himself was put to the sword for his wicked deeds in killing so many. The Mandate of Heaven passed to another line, one that ruled more justly than any of the departed Emperor’s complacent predecessors. By planting the seed of doubt in a place he knew it would be watered and shaded, the eunuch was able to affect more through his death than most men are through their lives.

The Dead City…who could say they remembered its real name, before it was claimed by howls and snarls and vicious dissonance?

Nothing ever came out, save a rank odor when the winds were just right and the occasional howl of something inarticulate and unknowable (or perhaps just metal on metal). Things occasionally went in–explorers, scavengers, missionaries even–but it was as sure a death sentence as dangling from a makeshift gallows or facing down a firing squad as far as most could figure. People gave the Dead City a wide berth coming and going, with signs warning the unwary away the only part of the old road that saw any maintenance in those latter days.

Yet lights still shone in the night, even though the power had been cut, dried out, or redirected practically forever ago. People with binoculars could see movement from a safe distance, but an inversion layer kept it shimmering and indistinct. Smoke rose from chimneys and stacks as if the city were alive.

And, if anything, it was that illusion of life that filled people with bone-deep dread.

Not many know that Sly Whitmann harbored aspirations well above and beyond the world in which he became famous, the smoky jazz and blues clubs of Bourbon and Beale. Patrons at the venues where he performed often remember being dazzled as Sly switched instruments mid-set, moving from his signature coronet to the alto sax, the trombone, even the honky-tonk piano. For year rumors swirled about Sly’s personal life as girlfriend after girlfriend left complaining that he didn’t seem to have any time for them. When one of Sly’s relatively few studio albums dropped, people noticed that it included a full symphony orchestra backing up the usual quartet, but hardly anyone read in the microscopic print that Sly had orchestrated the various parts himself.

In fact, Sly Whitmann harbored a desire, long and keen, to write for an orchestra. Those nights away from clubs and girls were spent in classes, or poring over correspondence courses. Sly never earned a degree but over his lifetime he put in enough coursework and practice to qualify for a degree from Juliard. It was his dream to infuse the raw passion and popular sound of the clubs into the whole range of instruments, something akin to Gershwin in scope but far more modern and experimental. But try as he might (behind the scenes, of course) no one was willing to commit the resources to allow him to write, record, or perform anything but club music.

That all changed when Dr. Rutherford Scheer directed the pioneering film “Carnivale et Amour” in 1968. He hired Sly on the spot to record music for his picture, and the posters proclaimed that the film was to feature music by one Sylvester J. Whitmann. But it was not to be. A fickle audience at a preview was all it took for the producers to remove Scheer from creative control, recut the film, and distribute it with no original music at all, only a selection of pop tunes licensed from the Decca back catalog (which completely clashed with the Mississippi River setting). Scheer was able to preserve the acetates of Sly’s music, but never got the chance to present them to his friend; Sly died of a heart attack onstage less than a week after he received the news.

“The secret to looking young is quite simple, really,” Queenie said. “You must first be a pimply and pale teenager. I guarantee you that those finely tanned and toned cheerleaders of yesteryear are like old leather suitcases by now.”

“That…doesn’t make any sense.”

“Think about it, dear!” Queenie cried. “What’s in that goo you so desperately smear? Moisturizers and oils to replace that which your skin no longer produces. The sun dries you out like wash on the line and leeches those precious oils and moisture away, leaving you to sag like a post-Viagra codpiece. By being pale and burning easily, you have no incentive to sun-worship, which leads those teen idols to burn off their beauty and youth so early. Pimples are an expression of excess skin oils and moisture; with a deeper reservoir from which to draw, what losses there are aren’t crippling. You pay for it in high school, dear, but in twenty years’ time you’ll have youth aplenty while those you once envied are crocodile suitcases. It worked for me.”

“Is it true that there are actual voodoo zombies that are living but nevertheless enslaved?”

The late Mr. Crenshaw adjusted his tie and his lolling jaw. “That’s a reckless exaggeration. The so-called voodoo zombies are simply a combination of cultural belief, hypnosis, and narcotics. We true zombies argue that attaching the term to anyone still living is ignorant and divisive. I can take another question.”

“I’m still not clear on the whole ‘flesh of the living’ thing. Can you clarify?”

A noise that might have been a sigh escaped Crenshaw’s bloated lips and he rolled his bleary eyes. “For the last time: like any other creature, zombies require sustenance. Just like the living, we must eat that which was once alive to survive.”

“But does it stop being alive when you hunt it down and kill it, and is it people?”

“I thought we’d been over this. Look, most anything will satiate our hunger for flesh. There’s no danger if you’re smart about things, and there’s no need to fly off the hook. Come up here and I’ll show you.”

The persistent questioner, after a moment’s hesitation, climbed up onto the dais and approached Crenshaw. He held out a discolored hand for her to shake. She took it, and squealed in terror as Crenshaw’s iron grip brought her into his waiting jaws. A few people in the front rows were splattered with what could only be termed leftovers.

“In sum, there’s no danger if you’re smart about things,” Crenshaw continued between bites of coed. “I think we have time for one more from the audience.”

The elementary school teachers passed the booth by the hundreds, gleefully filling tote bags and backpacks they’d brought for the occasion to brimming with free books and tchotchkes. Sometimes they’d even pretend to listen to Henrietta’s sales pitch, only to slip away with a souvenir or two as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

One of the few sane design decisions in the Van Haagen Press pavilion was that, among the styrofoam buttresses and backless chairs, there was a small room isolated from the sales floor and accessible only to the sales team. It was intended to store stuff that the  conference attendees weren’t supposed to see, but Max had run all that stuff back to the hotel already to save himself a trip later, and it wound up being used as an ersatz breakroom.

“Look at them out there,” Henrietta sighed. “Filling up their bags in jeans and t-shirts while I lose half-an-inch of cartilage in these heels for eight hours. They don’t seem to realize I’m paid on a commission basis.”

“And they’re salaried at a level that a Van Haagen bigwig wouldn’t pay an illegal maid,” retorted Max. “They might not get fired for wearing comfortable clothes to work, but they also don’t get paid three months out of the year.”

“You saying we should join them?”

“I’m saying it doesn’t matter. They don’t have any money, we’re throwing it away on baubles. I just hope I can find another job before someone with letters after their name at Van Haagen realizes that.”

“There are dangers out there. Mutants. Barbarians. Savages. Some men speak of the Legion, say that it’s waiting out there to put things right, hidden by the men of old until it was needed. But we didn’t need to go chasing dreams or shadows; we needed real answers. That’s what Jasper Coop brought us.”

“You mean…the guns?”

“The guns are only a part of it, son. A very small part. Jasper helped us make them, helped Cooperston defend itself and trade, but there’s more to it than that. He showed us that there was value in hanging together, in building something that lasts.”

“But he’s gone now.”

“Jasper saw that he had done all he could do, and he went off to seek the Legion and to meditate on the cause of the world’s fall. But we have others who share his vision. Trixie. Kayla. Donald.”

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