Blood Zombies on Parade

Banditry is just another matching pennies game. In the movies, you can get away with hollering, “You take the high road; I’ll take the low road,” but all this does is split your forces. Any responsible Dungeon Master will tell you point blank that a split party is a party doomed for TPK. And here, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. A bandit organization can either cover a large geographical area or have a large enough raiding party to take down a decent-sized convoy. Not both. Dealing with natural constraints on ambition is the art of living, whether you’re a butcher, a baker, or a tribute-taker. Complicating the game is that it’s Bayesian. There are two types of traveler, you see. There’s the big, juicy cattle-wagon train, flush with hired guns (and sometimes light artillery) on the one hand and the light, fast, fly-by-night courier type on the other hand. If there were only the big trade convoys, raiding parties would set up appropriate ambushes along the most-likely used trade routes and attack in full force, leaving the old rough, slow logging roads and county blacktop free and clear. Contrarily, if there were only penny-ante quickfoot traders, the bandit organizations, assuming they are interested in maximizing their returns, would disperse, leaving one- or two-man teams to hold up any and all passersby (maybe leaving just enough seed stock to make sure next year’s crop isn’t stunted). The bandits don’t know beforehand which type they’re dealing with, and sending scouts ahead to find out is costly. Similarly, merchants don’t know whether the roads will be staked out by dispersed squads or by a massed force. Under this sickly green sky, it pays to buck trend. The mixed strategy ends up being the most common. Unless, that is, everyone agrees to collapse the uncertainty function and agree to a set of reasonable institutions. It’s costly to raid, and it’s costly to defend. This is the old wisdom, and it’s why we once had police in blue uniforms. Yes, they would shake us down, but they ruthlessly enforced their own self-contained monopoly on violence. And the shakedowns were executed through the tax code so it didn’t feel like a shakedown to most people. And feelings are important.

Between about Eureka and Portland, at least the last I’d heard, a single bandit organization styling themselves the “Northwest Passage Federated Trade Protection Alliance” forwent the opportunity to shoehorn a clever pun into their acronym in favor of providing their own roughshod brand of law-and-order in that region of the land where the dreams did not die. By organizing, by contracting out with otherwise heavily-armed trade convoys, there could be a general disarmament. The convoy would pay a little tribute, leave most of their guns at home, and get a protection chit good for the length of the I-5 corridor, spanning the mountains to the east to the ocean. Anyone violating the chit would reveal themselves an outlaw and could be hunted for sport by anyone in the territory. When I told Anika of the scalp houses at the old Tillamook dairy, she practically begged me to go. Naturally, we bent for the coast in search of legacy footpath trails. The revival of police protection in the Pacific Northwest was a boon to legitimate merchants, but unless I was willing to part with a cut of my loot for a chit card, I was resigned to smuggling. I was not willing to pay tribute. It almost made me rueful for the days when my obeisance to the sovereign came straight out of a paycheck.

Before The Thing in 2008, I knew a great many people who spent most of their lives sitting square on their flabby asses. I’ll even cop to my fair share of sedentary behavior. So it’s perhaps easy enough to forgive folks who imagine that hiking downhill is pleasantly conducive to cheerful conversation. It isn’t. Gravity is not your friend. Much of your attention on a downhill hike is squandered on easing the force of extra-long footfalls and maintaining your balance. If you must have a conversation, the wise bottle it for a stretch of flatland. It took Anika the walk from the bayou to Orchardland to learn this little lesson, but she got it eventually.

Anika: “I had a dream last night.”

Me: “Get used to it. They’ll last until we’re out of salmon country.”

Anika: “You and me and Templeton were sailing on an ocean filled with blood.” Her words came intermittently. She was old enough to have dreamed as a toddler, but not so old to be closely familiar with the experience. “There were other boats. The men in the other boats were dead.”

Me: “You know that we all used to dream once. Everywhere, not just here.”

Anika: “The dead men were covered in the blood, but it was sticky and black. They had a hard time working the sails because their hands kept sticking to the rope.”

Me: “Sheets.” Correcting her on this point of terminology was an old reflex, left over echoes from days of sailing past.

Anika: “They weren’t wearing sheets, they were naked. They didn’t have any skin.”

Me: “No, ‘sheet’ is what you call a rope attached to a sail. If it goes to other hardware or to the shore, it’s a ‘line’.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that I’d had exactly the same dream.

Anika: “Why are we taking this trail? I hate hills. It’s too rocky here. It’s not even that hot. Why can’t we take the interstate?”

Me: “Do you remember The Empire of Texas?”

I couldn’t see her face, but I swear I could feel the color draining from it. Between the motor cannibals and the Guard, Texas was little more than a moonlight scamper from one hidey-hole to the next. I’d made a mistake thinking that the outbreak of apathetic peace characterizing the rest of the lands I’d traveled would have touched the former Lone Star state. We very nearly didn’t live to regret my half-baked assumption. If there would have been a next time, we would have surely hugged the Gulf Coast before crossing the Agave Plains.

Anika: “I followed you at first because of what they did to Templeton.” Something told me she had more to say. We walked in silence for a couple of minutes as she worked up the courage to finish the thought. “I stayed with you because of what you did when they tried to…” She paused again, this time more to search for the right words rather than to summon fortitude. “take me away. No one on the farm ever did anything like that. Helped me like that.” Her voice softened and trailed off.

Of old, our people have divided cannibalism into functional areas. In two genera, endo- and exo-anthropophagy, cannibalism can be

  1. Sacred: consuming the flesh of beloved family, venerated members of the tribe, or other honored dead to pay tribute to the continuity of the tribe or to absorb the power of a terrible foe. This practice is tied to the old virtue of faith, a virtue all but forgotten in this funhouse mirror of a world.
  2. Emergency: stranded thanks to the hostility of an enemy, whether human or nature herself, the desperate will resort to human flesh to parry the grim reaper’s scythe.
  3. Social: whether in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea or under the scorching gaze of the Arizona sun in Anasazi territory, exocannibalism is scary. If you want to keep opportunistic scavengers or raiders off your land, earning a legitimate reputation as a pack of bloodthirsty cannibals is certainly one way to do it.
  4. Art: breaking taboo is one way to stimulate the senses. The taboo against consuming human flesh is a strong one in most societies.

I had to hand it to the Texans, they created a fifth category:

  1. Sport: unmoored from the technological demands of ordering society, Imperial Texan authorities granted free, unfettered open season on unauthorized non-residents. Anyone over the age of five not bearing the “Mark ov Kane” (an open-bone x-shaped forehead scar) was long pig on the hoof. I have no idea how they give each other those gruesome scars without perishing of infection, but that’s the point, isn’t it? The perfect signal of group membership is extremely difficult to replicate, very costly, and likely to earn censure with outside groups. No Texan bearing the Mark would last a week in the outside territories, and in retrospect, I was a damned fool to ignore Anika’s protests as we strolled past the palisade of impaled x-marked heads on our way towards the Houston Bypass.

The sovereign wants what the sovereign wants. Sometimes, it’s beautiful marble gardens. Sometimes, it’s the benevolent ordering of constituents’ affairs. Usually, it’s a nebulous “legacy” that includes, inter alia, the most elusive of human pursuits: not to be forgotten. I wasn’t there at the time, but it appears that their good experiences with the Bush family predisposed Texans to appreciate the benefits of Imperial rule. They chose to install a matrilinear ruler who went Full Caligula right off the bat, except with self-reinforcing consolidation of power rather than mere self-indulgence. I expect that the Empress will be assassinated anon. I do not expect civilization to return to cowboy country. I hope to be proven wrong.

A strange sensation to reacquaint myself with the sentiment of hope.

Me: “There are many paths to Seattle. Some of them are safe. Some of them are dangerous. I put you in danger in Texas. I won’t make that mistake again.”

We dreamed again that night. Bloody, dead sailors feasted on the carrion that fell from shipmates’ bellies. Something roiled beneath the crimson swell. A thing stirs.

Also in this series:

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