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The Dream Compass
By Jeff Bredenberg
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Jeff Bredenberg
All rights reserved.
A Letter from Camp
Camp Blade, it's mostly mud up here. And trees, too—specially up northwest, where we haven't logged yet. They say we're a few hunnerd miles north of where Toronto used to be, which is why we only get a truckload of women once a year or so. And that's the heart of the catastrophe I'm telling.
This ain't a casual communication. It's a desperate campaign. I've penned three copies so far, and I am concealing each in the usual manner and sending them along Government Supply lines—south, east, and southwest. A printing press would help, I know, but never have I seen one, they're so illegal. Please read and pass along without delay.
If there is oilcloth to spare, or if there is plastic to be found in your Sector, I would appreciate any covering that would protect these pages better than this cardboard and sackcloth. (And if you must eat while reading, please don't dribble onto the pages. You should see the foul stuff I get up here!)
I am thirty-six. Not married, although I tried once this spring, as you will see. The married campmates lodge in the roomier family barracks, which I had quite looked forward to. They get ten or twelve years there before the children ship off, maybe even longer if the Lawyer is feeling charity.
But I have been skinny to surrender my free time (since a year ago we get two hours) to the what-all demanded by marriage and parenting. Free time I read and write. And the family barracks also are busy places—they say there's always a grubber in your lap, yours or someone else's—and only plumb fools get very showsome with reading. That's the way in Camp Blade anyway, as I'm told it is most places. I lose the sexual convenience, of course, but I can spare centimes for the cathouse every few months. Most of the time I just rub my own bark.
Late an afternoon, it was April 20, one of the Badgers in the lookout tower rang the ka-oong, ka-oong that signals an arrival. Most of the loggers had just bused back into camp, and there already was a fat crowd at the motor port when the troop carrier rolled in. From the whoops and hollers I knew, even down at the warehouse, that it was no wagon of cornmeal. I pulled on jackboots, hauled up the boardwalk, and splashed into the parking lot, thinking to be at a sizable disadvantage for being last there. Stupid feeling really, cause when the match-up starts it's bedlam anyway, no advantage to anyone.
Except that the Badgers go first. There are a couple-twelve Badgers here, but just three were interested, and campmates stood back in a tight circle while they dropped the tailgate and rolled up the canvas top on the truck bed. One lady, old overalls and a standard-issue backpack, jumped the side of the truck and landed in the oil muck on her hands and knees. She squinted piss anger all around and slogged through the crowd. Shouted something like, "I ain't here for this. I'm ticketed to the medical office." Then she mounted the boardwalk and clumped off alone.
The Badgers—what pig pokers—pranced and paced in their uniforms, really sucking in the privilege of first pick. They checked for head lice, held forearms up in the falling light, mumbled questions that I figured to be severely personal. They rumined on the answers all somber. Some of the women were polite.
This was that romance promised in the Government announcements. If you gully those fliers read out at assembly, the females trucked up here are of speckless virtue and upbringing. Not even the dullest of campmates believes this. The women are here for the same reasons as men: Most are mandated; a few are idiot adventurers; one or two, like myself, grew up here; and a few are petty criminals working off sentences in privy upkeep or cathouse duty.
The Badgers carried their brides-to-be off in their arms—no ceremony, just to keep them out of mud. The last, Sgt. Krieger, nodded at us and said, "Your turn."
There was a roar like dogfight gamblers. Some of the women laughed; others screamed in true terror. I felt kinda plumby elbowing my way through, but it was the only way, and I had promised myself I'd try. Ta'ang Beecham grabbed the blonde in the flannel shirt and hauled her onto his shoulders. I'd fancied her, too, but Beecham is a head taller. I was pulling over the wall of the truck bed when I came nose to nose with a face of freckles and red hair.
"Let's go," she said, and I answered, "Yeah." Relieved, I tell you, more to have it over than anything; I could get out of this foolishness and maybe, maybe not, get married. I was starting not to care. I'm no prize by face, and this lady was a match for that. A scar separated her left eyebrow, and her nose had been broken enough that it stair-stepped down and ended in a potato.
The first full-figure glimpse I got of Nora Londi came when old gray-head Jim Freeberg grabbed her thigh. She cracked him on the jaw with the back of her right and stood—6-foot-2, 190 pounds, mostly muscle: "I'm spoken for, Pops." Nora shouldered her duffel and we headed for the boardwalk. She moved like a living pile of rocks.
"You don't have to marry me, y'know," I told.
Nora scratched her nose. "You were there at the truck, and we both went for it. That's how it goes. You're gonna back out, ya?"
"No. But it's custom, not law. I checked with the Lawyer. You have a work assignment, right?"
"Well, you tenny a right to a singles bunk if you want it. Aren't much—a bed with a plywood wall around it and a light hung. It's not often done, understand—by women, I mean."
"I don' mind. Look, I promise not to fall in love, okay?"
We went on long like that, embarrassing, like two dogs nosing each other's butts. Nora thought about it: "It's custom, not law. There's a difference, I s'pose, but they don' talk it up much, do they?" She squeezed my left bicep. "Logger?"
"Supply house. Lifting, uncrating. Move this here, move that there. I can get you anything you want—anything that comes by truck. Hah. Except a woman—we're fresh out."
"I'd like an apple. And tobacco and rolling papers."
I pointed out the temporary quarters, six doors down the boardwalk. We kissed—that's what we were supposed to do, right?—and I went back to work. I had never seen a woman that big.
Pages later ...
My father taught me to read, got me started, least. He disappeared when I was a grubber, like a lot of troublemakers do—readers, brawlers, jesus folk. Who knows where they go? Prisons? Some say you might disappear to a "better" job in a different Sector, which sounds to me a line from another Government flier. Whatever. I don't intend to disappear; sew my eyelids shut, burn the books, or leave them buried—I don't need to read that much.
Ben Tiggle, the warehouse master, is my spiritual father. He is large, dusty, and old, like the warehouse. (The troublous stonework of the warehouse's foundation dates it as a pre-War structure.)
As a tenner I would pry the top off, say, a crate of axe blades. I would wipe the grease-and-straw packing from the steel and mount the blades by number on the storage pegs. An hour in I would find a few pages of scratchings among the axe blades, wrapped in a piece of old raincoat, maybe.
"Instructions," Ben would say, and toss the papers into a corner. "Just instructions. Damned Engerswedes think we don't know anything." But often there were none of the drawings and arrows and such what come with mechanical instructions, and the text was hand-done, nothing from Government presses. Ben has never fessed to reading, of course. I took it to myself that all brochures, instructions, and writings of any kind ended up on a safe, dry shelf and not in the kindling bucket. I still have those scriptings—buried, of course—decades old, some.
The night I met Nora Londi, minutes before lights out at end of free time, there was a rap at my bunk door. I shoved my book under the mattress and said "Huh?" There are no latches in barracks, but most everyone—except Badgers, of course—follow etiquette. Ben Tiggle entered, rolling his big frame onto the foot of my bed (where else was there to go in these little pigeonholes?). He pulled the door closed. His jowly was grim, spoke in low-tone, knowing how the hiss of whispers carries.
"She's a killer," he said. "I'm sorry, but you must stop this now. She has killed six men, and she don' belong here. Now, she's not my business, but you are. Nuff said."
"Pig shit," I said to him, or something like.
"The Transport driver swears it, and he's the one what carries the passengers' papers. Bimmie at the admitting office talked to him. Londi bitch jumped on at New Chicago, where the Transport officers look the other way for a living—for a favor, maybe."
So when the lights went out I was becoming very distressed about my immediate future.
The page was water damaged and torn. The next intelligible words:
... father, I was told as a child, was the first person to use the term Badgers, I forget myself sometimes. Everyone else has. It started as a word play—people who wear badges, and lowlife critters.
The joke was What has a pointed head, a thick neck, and is low to the ground?
The term is official now, and the door I kicked through, while the other campmates lined up for mess hall, read BHQCB, for Badger Headquarters--Camp Blade. Love was not the problem. All Nora Londi and I had, at best, was business: We do this thing together and our lives will be better. But overnight I had developed a frightsome picture of Nora: grinning monsterly, flailing a log chain, a spatter of blood on her work shirt as she lopped off six heads, like Sampson with his jawbone in the jesus folk's fairy tales.
Sgt. Krieger was behind the desk, and his eyebrows rose in that lazy way of Government people.
"They say she's a butcher—Nora Londi. Six men dead, and I've gotta marry her! You guys brought in a murderer!" This I shouted at him, and he was not impressed.
Sgt. Krieger snorted, wiped his nose. "Happens every time we get new blood up here—you know that. Twenty strangers in camp, twenty sets of rumors flying around. And a day ain't passed yet." He jerked open a beaten filing cabinet, flipped down the folders, and pulled one out. He wiped his nose again and read.
"Damn," he said to me. "She's a killer, all right. Happened just a couple months ago. What do they think this is—a prison? Guess I oughtta look up my new woman."
I worked through the day at the warehouse. No word. Ben Tiggle avoided me, staying close to the office. I carted dried beans and powdered milk to mess hall and helped with inventory.
Come free time the Lawyer summoned me to his quarters back of the BHQCB, where the air smells like mold and never moves. He wore a black suit over longjohns, no shirt. He's from the Southlands, where it's so hot, they say, the people shrank. Even at night, the little fellow looked straight out of bed. He was in his official stance: leaning onto the lectern at the foot of his bunk, elbows propped at either side of the Book, which he consulted on all legal matters. (I have never dared ask to read from it. Talk reading to a Government man, and the Monitor would hear of it. Then you disappear.)
He spoke in smoker's voice: "I have ruled your complaint valid. Nora Londi does not belong in free camp. Your tale of butcher is exaggeration, course, but that does not change the legal issue. It seems that, somehow"—he greased a smile—"this Londi woman persuaded a bureaucrat in New Chicago to blur the distinction between prison camp and assignment to free camp. It's unfathomable, I know, but to some imbeciles in New Chicago, the difference is splitting hairs."
"They can't be sending us murderers! I almost married her," I said.
"Murder?" he said, smirking again. "More precisely, it was a manslaughter. There was a large brawl, the report says. The only known participant was Nora Londi, identified by a Badger because of her unique stature. And there was a dead man, a drunk with a cracked skull. One ... dead man."
"Oh. Maybe she didn't kill him," I said, and I was starting to see the mistake. Ag.
"She was involved. And therefore guilty."
"I withdraw the complaint."
"A fart in the wind!" He fluttered his hands at imagined vapors. "She doesn't belong in free camp. Besides, she's gone, shipped off in the same carrier she arrived in."
And we argued on like that and I missed mess call. It did me no good, of course. He had the Book and I didn't. He was the Government and, despite what they say, I wasn't.
So you can see the impossible task, and the help I need from outside. Maps of all Sectors of Merqua would be of great use. And money.
And please locate Nora Londi. Tell her my story. I console myself that anyone might have filed the complaint I did—although none so powerfully as her husband-to-be. I have little practice at emotions, so I am not sure what more to say. Just tell her that I am coming.CHAPTER 2
The Windmill Mountain
"All right, all right. Case number zero-zero-two-three-CB. Twenty-three! What is this place CB that we've had just a twenty-three-history on?" Rosenthal Webb fired out the question in clippy, impatient syllables. He drummed the four finger nubs of his right hand on the polished wood of the conference table.
"Hooo, yes. Camp Blade, by plumb." He should have known, and in a way he did know: The code designations for every Government station, thousands of them, were buried deep in his thought muddle, under the bric-a-brac of twenty years of administrative duties he had performed since his initial training and fieldwork. Now his hair was falling out and his memory was fraying. This didn't feel like a Revolution anymore.
"Sir," ventured Virginia Quale, "Camp Blade is a Northland settlement of approximately—"
Webb clapped his open hand onto the desktop: "A settlement of approximately one thousand—well, maybe fifteen hunnerd by now—people stationed for the purpose of logging and north-post security. It's considered contamination free, relatively speaking, and thus an asset to the gene pool. How am I doing?"
There were seven polite nods around the table. "On the mark, Mr. Webb," said Quale. "We estimate the population well over the old thousand count now, and as for the twenty-three-history, well, from a percentage standpoint, twenty-three cases since we have been keeping records is quite in line with a population that small."
"And this poor piss-plumb number twenty-three," said Webb, flipping a page of the report in front of him, "is a Mr. Anton Takk, we assume, although his dispatch is unsigned. He's a Supply-houser ... um-hmmm. A reader, of course, and a writer." Webb turned another page as he skimmed. "Apparently considering—and this is months ago—going AWOL. We've got some poor plum-sucker in the frozen north who's taken to the old Supply line communique route."
Winston Weet interjected from the far end of the table: "He mentions an axe-blade dispatch. It could have been one of mine, for all I know—we quit those sixteen years ago. Some 'em are probably still rotting in the warehouses."
Webb sucked at his lower lip. "In any case," he said, "we have a reader using a discredited form of communication unknowingly. There's at least a fifty-percent chance that he has announced himself to the Government. Hah. If so, maybe the Monitor will promote him—for taking special initiative for self-education."
"And maybe," responded Quale, "he'll eat him for brekkie."
"Just how much of this letter can we believe?" asked Weet. His fingers repeatedly fripped across the corner of his copy.
Quale seemed surprised by the question. "How much? Why would he lie? He's taking such a chance with the Government in just what he says that they'd surely send him to Blue Hole. And even if the story were mostly balderdash—this 'pile of rocks' named Nora and all of that—it's obvious that there's a man about to bolt from Camp Blade without the least bit of outside experience. He grew up in a logger camp!"
"I've had a little experience with reworking the truth myself," Weet replied. "But I agree. Something is about to happen that we ought to be on top of."
"In any case," Webb said wearily, "I suppose we should try to get to him—preferably before the Government does." There were seven somber nods.
Excerpted from The Dream Compass by Jeff Bredenberg. Copyright © 1991 Jeff Bredenberg. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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