Empire of Dirt: Chapter III

Image: Chad Rossouw, In The Camps only are you free, Carved Stone, 2015

In The Camps only are you free. This was carved in small upright letters – so unlike the ringleted Gothic font of The Empire – into the rock face high in the mountains on a shelf deep within one of the uninhabited smaller caves. Some days after Michael found and joined The Group of the National Liberation Gonnema, Franz’s partner, had taken him to see it as part of his initiation. Like many, who came from The Empire to join the Dissenters up in the mountains, he had seen these shapes before. As he lay on his back next to her, staring up at it in the illuminated light of the flickering bulb of the small wind-up torch, he told her that he had once seen this whitewashed on the black granite of The Capitol on The Fifteenth of March Independence.

The letters, however, had been roughly painted in a sanserif script so unfamiliar to those schooled in the gothic of The Tablet as to make the message almost illegible.  And what was more those denizens of The Empire who had read that phrase and had uncoded its shapes had kept its words hidden deep within their thoughts, never speaking of its presence within their memory. To be sure nobody really knew what it meant even if they knew the words. And certainly nobody ever said those words aloud in New English. The words were those of Dissension, that much was clear, but why they was so and what their meaning was nobody in The Empire truly knew, nor for that matter was it clear to any member of The Group. Even the carving itself was disputed. Some claimed it was a copy of those painted words on the Capitol, others that it was its original utterance. It had been found, Thami had told them, when he arrived in the mountains with his parents more than sixty years ago, but others remembered differently.

Michael had been living with The Group up in the stone clad peaks, away from the snow, for some weeks before it was mentioned in public. The Group had gathered from all the various caves of their encampment to sit beside the waterfall that ran next to a natural henge which was made by the arrangement of monolithic sandstone boulders. It was a place that they used as a meeting area because the clamour of the waterfall echoed so loudly amongst the sarsens as to drown out their talking from The Hearing if it was present in its random wanderings in the mountains. It was a place where they could speak in New English without fear of being heard by Alrak and his agents. On most occasions they gathered there to talk of civic matters but more often than not by the end of these gatherings they would begin speaking of when next to act against The Empire or, like that night, what notion of freedom, if any, could be associated with The Camps.

‘The Camps,’ said Thami, who was the oldest member of The Group, ‘are not places that anybody would go willingly. They don’t have the resources to deal with the amount of people who live there, but they are self-governing.  They are democracies, properly so-called, even if life there is pitiful and they have not the hydroponic and technological advancement of The Empire.  And it is the techne of The Empire, it should be said, that is the only thing that keeps even us up here alive,’ he said disconsolately.

Gonnema was sitting next to Franz as usual, half hidden by the presence of the towering rock behind her. Her curly mass of variegated hair was iridescent in the light of the burning pile of anthracite and her dark amber face flashed in and out of the light.  She had been sitting there in silence for some time before she broke into the conversation.  ‘It is deception,’ she said in frustration. ‘It is sanctioned antipropaganda. It works for The Empire to have this phrase in public knowledge.  They use it to uncover any potential Dissenters. If you get people to believe it they might expose themselves and be easier to track. It makes some Dissenters even willing to go to The Camps.’

Oliver, one of the younger members of The Group, clucked his tongue in anger.  ‘But we were told by Cteeba that they are not camps at all.  They are the other nation-states which have survived the Climate Wars. It is they who have placed sanctions on The Empire and refuse The Leader a open presence in the world. ‘The Camps’, as Cteeba told us, comes from the word Cumpsbouy, which was a city-state far to the west, across the deserts. That much we know surely? We know that Cumpsbouy existed from the early version of The Tablet, although The Empire has deleted this record.  Why is that so difficult for all of you to accept. You still cling to The Empire like it is your mother’s breast!’ At this Franz’s tall slim figure rose in the darkness, his shadow falling over Gonnema and the others sitting behind him.  But he did not stop Oliver from talking. ‘My god!’ the young man continued, ‘it disgusts me that we have such a feeble temper as to suck upon this corrupted nipple.  The fault is not fate’s but our own. We should go to Cumpsbouy to join with them to fight The Empire, not sit here like weaned and indolent children stealing at mother’s breast.’

‘Come now these are not your words,’ Franz finally interjected.  ‘Oliver, you listened to Cteeba too much. You know that we no longer recognize his information, it has long since been discredited. Yes, we are aware there are other states out there.  We have seen their boats, and some of us have seen their people. But this does not mean that they are those who where sent to Cumpsbouy as you call it and it certainly does not mean that they wish to fight The Empire.  Most certainly they do not. For the people we see seem to come seeking refuge and they do not speak either the language of The Empire nor do they recognize what The Empire calls New English. You are right Oliver in saying that we must fight. And let me remind all of you here and now, it is our freedom that we fight for.  It is for the rights to have power over our factories, our means of production, our produce, our techne and our stone houses that we formed. Kaapsdawn is our nation. Cumpsbouy, if it indeed exists, belongs to those people now. The people who are sent there from The Empire have forgotten us and have assimilated into other ways. We do not seek their help because as is our learning we do not seek alternative masters. It is to the houses and factories of Kaapsdawn that we owe our allegiance. Let us not forget that The People of Kaapsdawn are in our care and in our hearts.  It is for the removal of The People’s copper and brass shackles on our wrists that we stand, not for the replacement of them by another set of rulers from another land. Above all we reject the notion of the identification of a metal, whether it be gold, steel, silver brass or copper, in the soul of Man. We seek our own values not those imposed on us by The Empire or any other state.’ There was a loud cheer of agreement from those figures who sat in the circle as well as from the grey shadows who listened from amongst the boulders.

As Michael well knew the arguments about the existence of other nations or city-states was well trodden territory. Even in The Empire there was speculation as to what existed out there and what these states might be like.  The Leader of The Empire were in fact quite open to this discussion as the weight of the argument lay on their side.  Yes, The Leader quite often stated, they were not alone on earth – some others had survived the devastation – but The Empire was quite clearly superior to any state outside of it.  That much was certain from the boats of refugees that were seen on the seas.  What these men and women in the boats were like, however, not even The Guardian class knew. Their boats were, after all, hurriedly pulled back out to sea by the frigates of The Empire’s Mariners. There were rumours that these boats were even sunk with all on board once they reached the horizon.  It was also known that some of these people had made it into The Empire only to be hunted down at the shore by the Paladins.  However, they spoke, as rumor had it, a barbarian tongue unknown to anybody.  Just where these men were taken after capture was again a matter of some speculation.  Some of The Group said they became the slaves of The Leader in the Green Zone.  This Michael could not believe as the workers he had seen in the Green Zone were just the ordinary ‘copper rings’ of The People of The Empire. What was more, private property such as slaves was illegal and although The Leader all had ‘property held in common’ it would be too extraordinary to his mind that they would actually own people. But it was Franz’s talk of the metal bracelets that distracted Michael, making him conscious of the silver ring around his own arm and he, not for the first time since joining The Group, slipped it out of sight up his forearm, hiding it under his thick green merino ski instructor’s jersey

As silence took hold of The Group after Franz’s speech Michael suddenly had the urge to speak his mind. ‘There is a fourth option with regards to The Camps.’ His voice crackled with nervousness.  He had never spoken in a meeting before. In fact, he had never expressed his thoughts in any public forum, the thoughts that he had, that had strayed from The Empire’s, he had kept to himself while he skied or climbed. He had not even told them to Apiwe who was his childhood friend. ‘The Camps I have always been told are the unwanted places of the earth. Where not only men, women and children struggle just to be fed but where the rules of The Empire are still upheld. “Onlee in dethe iz dere fridom.” I read this once, it was gouged in the soil in one of the small dead pine forests above my parents’ chalet. Freedom is death, Apiwe told me. “In The Camps, only there are you properly dead” in that you have no function, no meaning, you are free.  To be free of The Empire is to be dead and to be dead is to be in The Camps. This is what The Empire teaches. But this expression as written suggests freedom is better.  But it says nothing of the state of The Camps.’

It seemed to him a jumbled set of thoughts that had come out of his mouth but when he thought about it it made sense. In the Empire one of The Tablet’s digital texts stated that: The Empire is life, life is found by serving The Empire. Freedom is death to Man’s purpose. In The Camps you do not serve The Empire and so you are dead by the standards of The Empire and so free.  Saying there was freedom in The Camps was the pure cant of The Empire itself, it was not Dissension. Or at least it was not Dissension so long as you believed you were born to serve and that freedom was an empty and purposeless state of being. Freedom is Condemnation, Servitude is Purposeful Life. The Dissension came not in the phrase itself but in the language it was written in and by implication this suggested that freedom might be a value.  But this was purely a metaphysical belief.  One could be free in The Camps simply because one did not have to believe in the idea of meaning of servitude even though one was still under the yoke of The Empire.  But this did not make The Camps any better or any more utopian.  It was simply a state of mind, a state of mind that could perhaps exist within The Empire if one chose to keep silent, to act out ones role, but to remain interanlly free of The Empire beliefs. But it was the implication of the words in New English that implied freedom was more meaningful than service to The Empire that made the phrase an act of Dissension. But it said nothing about the state of The Camps. This is what he had meant to say.

‘Who is Apiwe?’ Franz asked breaking Michael’s thoughts.

‘He was the son of a Guardian, he was older than I. He died in the mountains. His tongue was loose as they used to say of him.’

‘Michael your thoughts are still clouded,’ Gonnema laughed without noticing Michael’s increasingly unhappy expression, ‘you can’t believe in those things that you have been told down there in The Empire.  Whoever the loose-tongued Apiwe was he almost certainly understood nothing.’

Michael stared at Gonnema.  Her bright brown eyes smiled and glimmered in the flickering light of the fire. ‘You must fight against those thoughts held in the Empire,’ Franz broke in, ‘if The Camps are places of deprivation according to The Empire then something opposite or at least different must be true.’ Michael felt helpless when they spoke to him. He knew Gonnema, Franz and many of the others thought he was still like a child who believed in the Ysterkind. But there were still certain things that he believed in that came from The Empire. Things that to him still made sense. Things like that The Camps were wretched places under the control of The Empire. ‘Why don’t you all go there then or at least find out the truth of them,’ he rejoined.

Some laughed and a voice unfamiliar to him shouted. ‘You have not listened to Franz, we seek no help from others who may corrupt our purpose, we search our own freedom as our Text suggests.’

The truth was that there was no proof of any of the talk about The Camps, all of it was simply conjecture. If the people in The Camps were worked to death, what they worked on was never seen. There was never any proof of their workmanship on anything. No food was produce there, for food production occurred in the vertical farm high-rises that towered over The Empire to the south-west. And the factories of The People, to the South, produced everything from furniture, to soap, to boiled sweets. Everyone in The Group knew this, because most of them came from these factories.  Most of The Group was, after all, constituted from the brass ringed class of The People Managers. They had been the accountants, the health-and-safety officers and the line managers of these plants and agricultural departments, some of The Group were even from the coppers rings of The People themselves – Michael alone was from The Guardians.  Franz, Gonnema, Oliver, Jasinta and many of the others all knew the output capacity of The Empire better than they knew the language of New English that they chose to speak in. And they knew nothing ever came from The Camps. What was more, nobody had ever returned. Every single person that had been taken there was never seen again, without exception.

***

Early the next morning, after the night of the argument, Michael dressed into his ski pants and green merino polo neck and began to loop repetitively his climbing rope from his hand to his elbow. He had hardly slept that night, instead he had been lying in the plastic shreds of his mattress staring out at the peaks, willing that the clear weather of the day before would hold. It was rare to have such clear days as there had been yesterday and if there was one again he was determined to put it to good use. As he lay there watching the light of morning, the rushes, that still clung to the mountains brown and dead, seemed to rattle a little more pleasingly in the breeze than usual, as if they too were anticipating the sun. He gazed out every time he woke from his disturbed sleep and he was acutely aware of the temperature on his cheeks. When he realized dawn was breaking to a day clear as the last, he rose.

‘Michael, where are you going?’Gonnema said in a sleepy yet worried tone as she heard him slipping on his belt of hexes and nuts.

He did not want to respond to her. He still felt like a child in her presence. She was not much older than him but Michael felt somehow cowed when interacting with her. He knew that she thought little of him and his ideas. He knew that she thought he was really still too brainwashed to understand their cause.

‘Michael, I am speaking to you.  Where are you going?’ She said softly.

‘I am going to climb Sneeupiek,’ he said and then paused. ‘I want to look across the desert. It will be clear today.’  He looked at her face, it was swollen with the drowsiness of morning. Looking at her he suddenly was aware of the pointlessness of what he was saying.  He knew that she would laugh at him.  ‘I want to see if there is any evidence of The Camps,’ he went on with a rising sense of feebleness.

She sat up from her nest of blankets and pulling one of them across her breasts and tucking its corner under her armpit she gazed at him.  He sat on a camp stool pulling tight the laces of his boots. ‘I…’ he began, but he knew that he had nothing to say to her.  He looked angrily out towards the opening of the cave and took some consolation in that it would be good to be out there climbing, if only as an act in itself.  He saw Gonnema get up out of the corner of his eye and looked instinctively to see what she was doing just as she slipped off her blanket in order to put on her navy overalls. The sight of her slim naked body startled him for a second.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said turning quickly away.

‘What are you sorry about? You’ve seen this before. I mean as a Guardian you must have frequented the gymnasia where all of you perverts exercise naked.’

‘No, I grew up alone in the mountains. The only person I exercised with was Apiwe.  And we did not exercise naked together.’

‘Prudes.’ She said smiling at him.

‘No, it is just too cold up there.’

‘I was only joking.’

‘I know.’

‘You are not used to other people are you? And certainly you are not used to women.’

She laughed and Michael again felt a sense of embarrassment.  He stood up and turned away looking out towards The Empire.  ‘Well…’ he said, and again felt that he had no words to follow this.  ‘I will…I am going to go. I will see you back here tomorrow.’ And with that he swung his small rucksack and blanket onto his back and slipped his head through the climbing rope, resting it on his right shoulder.

‘Have you ever climbed it before?’

‘No, but my mother was one of the few that has. And I know the route.’

‘Wait, before you go.’ Gonnema was searching through her bag of belongings and pulled out a set of binoculars. ‘Here take these. The one lens is broken but you can see perfectly clearly through the other.’

She came towards him holding out the small black leather pouch which seemed, to him, more like a peace offering than a serious attempt to help him.  He took them, feeling the soft leather from another age.

‘You don’t think that I am stupid doing this?’  He asked.

‘No, it might resolve something. But you know that nobody has seen anything, even from there.’

‘But was it a day like this?’ He pointed to the opening of the cave.

She looked towards the peaks far on the horizon which stood out, with a linear sharpness, against the red of the morning sky. ‘I don’t know,’ she said, ‘I wasn’t here when Cteeba is said to have done it.’

Michael knew Cteeba. His father had worked in the mountains with him. Cteeba had been slightly younger than his father. He was, it was widely said, to have been full of anger. Everybody, his father had told him once, had known since Cteeba was a child that he would end up in The Camps. He had made his dislike for everybody clear. What had perhaps saved him to begin with was that he seemed to hate his fellow Guardians while at the same time praising The Empire.  Cteeba had then disappeared for a while – no one knew where. It was now clear that he had joined the National Liberation.  But after some months Cteeba had returned and had wanted to take back his position on the mountains with Michael’s father.  It was then that The Paladins came for him and, it was said, sent him out to The Camps.

‘Cteeba?’ Michael said with a sense of dislike.

‘Cteeba, was a good climber and I think once he was a good man.’

‘No, I don’t believe he was either of those things.’

‘Your dislike of him blinds you. He would not have lied to us. Not then.’

Michael shrugged and slipped the binoculars over his head, placed his ice pick in his belt and pulled the straps of his rucksack tight on his shoulders. He thought of saying that Cteeba may not have lied about not seeing The Camps but Michael knew he had lied about climbing to the top of Sneeupiek. Cteeba wasn’t a bad climber, but he wasn’t a good one either and he was certainly not fast enough to have climbed the highest peak in The Empire and get back down in one day, as he had reported. Michael knew this because even he was not confident then that he could do it, and he was a considerably better and faster climber.

****

Michael had to sleep near the top of Sneeupiek that night. It had taken him the best part of the day to scale the huge bastion wall of the frozen north face of the giant peak.  Even the best part of the day’s sun directed on their rocks brought his climb few comforts. His hands froze in the hoary ice-filled cracks of the sandstone.  What pleasures this silent and freezing mountain offered were not those of a physical nature, they remained cerebral.  Looking upwards onto the glaring surface of the sheer rock face looming over him he squinted at the top. He counted every pull of his arms and push of his legs, knowing each one was one closer to the summit. As he got closer to his goal he felt as if he was slipping more easily through the thinning altitude, into a place unknown and untrammeled by all that lay below him.

But the climb’s costs were severe.  His fingers had begun to show signs of frostbite and he had had to stop on the occasional small shelf that the sweeping cliff face offered in order to warm himself before continuing. Sitting on one such shelf, not far from the top, he noticed a vein of emerald green running in a small fissure no longer than four inches in length.  He ran his finger along it and realized that it felt a little like a more fragile version of the astroturf on the sports fields of The Empire.  He pulled a piece of the moss up and placed it in his mouth.  It was bitter and sweet, quite unlike anything he had ever tasted. It seemed a shame not to eat the rest but as he sat there with his hands in his pockets, warming them in his crotch, he wondered how much moss might be left growing on the land.   He looked at it transfixed, occasionally taking a hand out to caress it.  It was strange to think of what the land might look like covered in this greenery.  Perhaps it would be a little too garish he thought to himself, perhaps a little too much like the world covered in astroturf.

He reached the top late that afternoon. He had, while he was climbing, been trying to look across the deserts to the west and on a few occasions he had taken the binoculars to his eye. But the north face did not look directly onto the deserts, which made it near on impossible to see very much of the flat sands stretching out in the distance.  This also meant, he realized, that Cteeba’s report could simply not have been true. In fact It was only once Michael had reached the summit that he could sit down and steady his hands and look over the deserts of the Kanroor. And there, far in the distance, he could make out a haze on the horizon. What moisture could be there where the sun baked on the dead sands? He asked himself. Surely in the remorselessly sun beaten land there could be no vapours? Was this a sign of The Camps? He sat looking, straining one eye at a time,to such an extent that the shimmer of the light of the desert became, after a while, too intense to bear and his eyes began to burn and water.

He sat there for some hours almost endlessly surveying the horizon.  He knew, after all, by the time he reached the top that it was already too late to begin the descent. And what was more an acid rain had begun to fall, an acid that would certainly melt the ice on the rock face, making his descent now far more dangerous.  On the more sheltered west side of the peak he prepared a bed in a small dryish hollow that was filled with a fine grey sand. He made a small fire from the few pieces of anthracite he had brought with him and sat at the top of the peak for a while watching the sun go down. Perhaps there was, just there, far to the west, far beyond the horizon, a sign of smoke rising. He had worked out before beginning the climb that the horizon was perhaps some 250 miles away. And so the smoke, if it was smoke, might be another 150 miles from that. But whether it was smoke was really impossible to say.

As he lay in his sandy cot, the fire long since burnt out, with the sand and rain whipping about his face, he thought of what he would tell the others. ‘I have seen smoke.’ But the more and more he thought about it, the less likely it seemed to him that it was smoke. No, by the end of that freezing night he had decided that he had not seen anything. He would tell them that there was no sign of The Camps. But that maybe, if they did exist, then they were over 400 miles away.

To be continued…. Chapter 4

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