Thursday, September 18, 2008

Bare Hands

Bare Hands

He sat in the very back, which meant we had to crane our necks to see his scars. He looked patched together, and not very well, with big red lines of stitching. He had his sleeves rolled up, and three circles of bite marks on just his right hand alone. He had one thumb to go around, and no pinkies.

The rest of us drank lots of beer, and played a game. The game was called “the first person to get drunk has to ask what his story is.”

With Park, and the Guide (Joseph) there were seven of us. Since the rest of us all looked the same, there were no illusions to go around. New white collared shirts, and large cheeks, and sunglasses bought at the airport.

We were white, middle-aged men off to shoot the hell out of an elephant.

Michael Gerrard (47) was the first to break, after six beers and constant, sneaking-looks.

“Hey, Park,” he said. His voice wavered between aggression and politesse. We still weren’t sure how you acted like a man, in the savannah. “What’s your business? Or story? Are you shooting with us?” There was some lingering hope, in the bus, that he was here to haul gear. Although I figured that Joseph would’ve picked a guy with two thumbs for the work.

Park grunted. He held out mangled hands. “I’m not shooting with you,” he said.

“So why’d you just stick out your hand---“

“I kill animals with them,” Park said. Park was missing some teeth. Something had happened to Park’s vocal cords. He sounded like a man with a boot on his neck.

Joseph, driving the bus, began to giggle.

“I kill them with my bare hands,” Park announced, and grinned.

We all looked at each other. Among other things, this was going to be damaging to our self-esteem.

“How’s that going to go?” Edward Weiner (51). “It’s an elephant, right? It’s not like it’s got a throat you can choke or whatever.”

This set off Joseph again. He pounded on the battered steering wheel. Joseph understood us. The bus had air conditioning, but he had kept it off, so that we could sweat in Africa.

“Worked on the shark,” Park said. He hunkered forward, and we all followed him, beers forgotten in our hands.

“A shark? You’re joking,” said Thomas Littlefield (55). “They’ve got no throats, and aren’t they covered in sandpaper stuff? So like you’ll cut the shit out of yourself if you grab hold or whatever?”

Park examined his hands. They looked like sandpaper, themselves. If he had any arm hair it had long ago been cut or burnt or ripped out. He looked like he could open cans with them. “They do have tough skin,” he conceded. “But they also have remoras attached.”

Then he leaned back, and nodded at us, sagely.

We all looked at each other, eyes wide, and swigged more beer from Africa. Many of us had bottles of whiskey in our bags, because of Teddy Roosevelt, but authentic African beer had been a stronger pull.

“What else have you killed?” Teddy Morley (42, the baby) asked.

For the next hour and a half, we listened to Park’s roll call of animals that he had killed with his bare hands.

The easiest had been bugs, naturally, which he had gone through in a long weekend post-college. Park had simply gone off to Big Sur and stomped around. The hardest parts had been keeping track of them all, and which bug was which. And, of course, when the bee stung him back.

“I nearly died,” he growled. “Allergic to them. I woke up two days later, covered in ants biting the shit out of me.”

“Did you… kill the ants?” I asked. An alcoholic haze had settled in for the long haul to elephant land.

Park looked confused. “Why would I? I had already killed one. I was done.”

We all nodded, impressed. Park wasn’t just a man of action. Park was a sportsman.


Joseph left the crappy roads shortly before dusk, and we trundled down dust ruts. Empties rattled on the floor, between us. The Guide had discretely turned on the air conditioning some time ago.

“What’s the hardest animal you killed?” Teddy asked. He was the most impressed, and leaned nearly to the edge of his chair, frequently staring at his own accounting-practiced hands.

Park had to think about this. “Penguin.”

“What, because they’re all slippery? Or because they’re cold and it’s hard to get to them, that kind of thing?” Edward asked. He had his arms crossed, and scowled at Park from time to time.

“I would’ve thought like a bird that flies around all the time, or whales, or something like that,” Michael chimed in.

“Birds have to sleep. Penguin,” Park said. “Definitely Penguin.”

“Because they fight back? Or…”

“Penguins look at you,” Park interrupted. Then stared at the floor. He flipped down his shirt sleeves, and his scars disappeared under.


Dinner was buffet-style. By which was meant, Joseph wrapped potatoes in aluminum foil and tossed them into the fire, along with a big tin of beans. If you wanted a potato, you raked one out of the coals, and saw how burnt it was, and then you ate it.

“This isn’t very Africa-y,” Edward grumbled. “I eat these beans at home. Every god damn Thursday night I eat these beans.”

Park liked them. He slurped them down. I wondered about his history. And also how he had paid for this trip. We had each paid upwards of ten thousand dollars for the chance to shoot an elephant in the fucking face. And that with the understanding that 1) we might not find an elephant, and 2) if we found elephants, we would only get to kill one, out of all of us.

After dinner we sat around on camp chairs, watching the stars, and trading stories about how completely horrified our wives and neighbors were that we were off in Africa killing elephants.

“You always hear the same thing. They’re endangered. Every time. Even if this is your best friend, and you know he’s personally killed like thirty thousand deer, and he has a bumper sticker that says “Nuke Shit,”” Thomas griped.

“My wife thinks I’m in Europe,” Teddy said. “On business.”

“No shit?”

“Yeah. I even booked tickets and a hotel in Germany. I’m counting on the fact that she doesn’t speak German.”

The stars twinkled. Park sat cross-legged, with his eyes closed. He looked like he was meditating. That didn’t make much sense. We all had pounding headaches.

Edward, the oldest, motioned for us all to join him in the back of the brush, out of the campground. We followed, obedient, and hunkered in a circle.

“Boys, something I’d like us to think about. One, there’s only one elephant to go around, and I want us to have it.”

“What, instead of Park?” Teddy said. “Man, he if he can kill an elephant with his bare hands, he’s welcome to do it. I’m not getting in the way of that.”

We all hissed disagreement. “He kills shit every damn day!” Edward argued. “He’s already way over his limit on killing! It’s our turn! I didn’t come all the way to god damn darkest Africa to watch some guy work out his aggression towards the animal kingdom!”

The five of us voted, 4-1, that Park was not allowed in the elephant killing club. Teddy was the hold-out. I strongly argued that he wasn’t likely to abide by any one-elephant limit anyway, so we should safeguard our own. “He probably wants a smaller one, anyways, not a big elephant. It’s got to be really hard to kill a huge one.”

“That brings me to my second point,” Edward intoned. “I don’t think he’s here to kill an elephant with his bare hands.”

He looked over at the campfire, lit with African wood. “I think he’s here to kill a person.”


None of us had slept well. We had set up a watch, clutching our guns. But all of us had stayed up, watching the stars, and waited for scar-riddled hands to choke us to death. It was not comforting to think that Park had only confessed to killing one of each animal. I was one of each animal.

Other doubts had arisen. One animal meant dogs and cats, didn’t it? Had he killed someone’s german shepherd? A Labrador had gone missing in the neighborhood. Was he responsible?

No one spoke to Park, that morning. He had shaven, first thing, and we treated this with suspicion. Who shaved on a hunting trip in Africa? It was insane.

The sun rose over a long landscape of light brown grass, with the occasional spindly tree. It didn’t look very foreign.

Joseph explained, to all of us, the correct and proper way to shoot an elephant. This was a practiced and rehearsed speech that included a few jokes, to lighten the mood. He didn’t get any laughs -- we kept watching Park, who was flexing his hands and appeared bored.

“Human is the new elephant,” Edward whispered, behind us. He had a very expensive rifle, and had also strapped a knife to each side, so that he could presumably carry two knives.

When we boarded the bus, once again, Edward made sure to sit in the very back, so that Park would have to go in front. If he noticed our new lack of enthusiasm, he didn’t mention it. Edward drank a beer, and gestured for the rest of us to join in, so that everything would appear normal, in our elephant-killing expedition.

And then there they were, our elephants. Five of them, spread out in an arc around a few black trees with long branches. They milled around, and, happily, none of them were babies. This was the culmination of a life-long dream for me, ever since I first saw Dumbo, as a small child. And it was ruined by the silent presence of this weirdly-specific angel of death.


Tension mounted. Joseph sat us halfway between bus and targets. Five men with sweat-stained pits, and Park. Our Guide went to check on the elephants, or something.

“So, how are you going to do it?” Michael said, with enforced casualness. “Some kind of… elephant killing pinch? Or is there like a spot beneath his ears?”

Park didn’t say anything. He kept closing his eyes for long periods of time, and breathing slow.

He swiveled, and stared at us all.

Five rifles pitched in his direction.

“Don’t do it!” Edward screeched. “This is elephant shot! They’ll have to identify you by toe prints, because it isn’t leaving any teeth behind!”

We all waited for each other to take the first shot. But we weren’t nearly drunk enough.

Park, the scarred monster, looked puzzled at our shaking hands and rifles. He shrugged, and turned into the brush.

“He’s going to kill our elephant,” Teddy murmured. But we were all too relieved to be alive to react. Instead, we shouldered our guns, and watched Park.

He walked for the first hundred feet, purposeful. His feet, we realized, were bare. He passed Joseph, coming the other way. Our Guide tried to grab at the man, and Park shrugged him off, pushed him down into the grass. Park started to run, towards the grey wall of pachyderms in the near distance.

We all just watched, slack-jawed, and sweating in the heat.

Park had picked out the largest elephant. It had the most wrinkles, and huge ears, one with a chunk bitten out. He stepped in front of it, shirt sleeves rolled up once more. We couldn’t hear him over the stifling and dense air, but he was shouting something.

“Maybe we should do something?” I ventured, and received no support.

The bull elephant reared, front legs in the air. It trumpeted, and that we could hear. Park danced backwards, just ahead of the crashing tree trunk feet. It stamped dust into the air, momentarily hiding him from view.

We only saw him once more, for a moment. And that was when he jumped into the elephant’s mouth. It was an impossible leap, but he grabbed the teeth, scrambling up towards the animal’s open lips. The bull reared again, this time confused and agitated. Park saw his chance, and slid right into the elephant’s throat.

That was the last we ever saw of Park.

The elephant stopped prancing. It tried to chew, then swallow, its throat working furiously.

“He’s choking it?” Teddy said, like in a dream. “Can’t it just… breath through its nose?”

Park had apparently worked all of that out. The elephant crashed to the ground, a minute later, and laid still. The other elephants circled it, as baffled as we were.

Joseph reappeared a moment later. He looked a little sad, but not much.

“Did you know that was his plan?” I asked him. “To, um, choke it to death?”

Joseph shrugged. “I hired him to carry the gear,” he told us. He looked apologetic. “That did not count against your elephant. Come forward, we will get ready for your shot.”

We all looked at the dust, past our middle-age spread. “No thanks,” Michael said, and the rest of us, mumbling, agreed.


Since then the five of us met, once, in Vegas. We held a funeral by burying a stack of beer cans. Teddy suggested that we all kill a bug, in his honor, but our hearts weren’t in it. We haven’t gotten together since.



By Kevin Deenihan

“Please take your seats, gentlemen,” the Transition-Sergeant said.

Andrews sat in the back. His ass hurt.

The three-hundred and thirty-two August Members of the One-House had been obliged to transport themselves to the Front. The War-Field Chairs had been brought out from storage, dusted off, and dragged across muddy terrain to the battlefield. Andrews had shared a busted carriage with four other back-benchers. The loose, shuddering cab had been built for three, and Simmons was a fat man.

“Nice day,” Watte said, settling in besides him. His rural constituency had somehow looked past his red-spotted face and acid-laced language. Most of the other One-House members were vain men, used to new fashion and alert to the political advantages of a well-tied half-cravat. Watte preferred an old black coat and a horsehair wig, and he looked like a country judge against the assorted finery.

Andrews half-suspected that he had simply tongue-lashed his opponents into quitting the race, unable to bear the severe lack of basic courtesy.

Probably he just had money.

“Not for long,” Andrews said. He nodded at the distant gold pavilion, glinting in the heat of the sun. The Deity-Czar could just be seen, decked in glinting metal and perched on a shattered gem dais. The Czar had decreed a bank of stormclouds just behind his throne, and they lingered there, coloring the mountains in hard shadow.

“Not really fair,” Watte observed. “The man takes our sunlight. If he wants it to be a shitty day he should have to take the consequences.”

“Sad business,” Andrews said. He watched himself around Watte. The florid man had connections and friends. Andrews was new to the gaseous acid of political gossip, but it was no secret that Watte was suspected as a hatchet-man for the Party. Emplaced in the back, in his grasping outfit, to keep track of the rancid undercurrent of back-bencher dissent.

Bryson himself took the front bench. Andrews rose automatically for the customary solemnities and ceremonies. The presence of a battery of military men and bishops added weight and heft to half-remembered imprecations and muttered oaths.

“As channels for the will of God, and of England, we are mindful of our business,” he finished.

A standard voice-vote, supported even by the black-eyed glittering eyes of the Loyal Opposition, cleared the localized air and muted the growing sounds of battle. Bryson paused before the ranks of his House. He was a young man, not noticeably older then Andrews himself.

It was not clear if his disheveled waistcoat and tattered pants-bottom was on purpose, to draw effect to England’s battle for survival, or merely the result of sleepless nights.

“Lords of England,” Bryson said. His voice trembled on the clear air. “Our survival is in doubt. And I mean this not to presage loss and death, for England’s spirit has never been stronger, but to highlight the enormity of the task ahead of us.”

“You have lost us England!” an Opposition man screamed. He was quieted by a swift blow from a patrolling Sergeant. War Discipline was in effect.

Bryson bowed his head. “The Spirit of England cannot be beaten on its own soil, by foreign men, sick with the blood in their bellies. But the Spirit must be channeled by mere men, by those before us. If we are not worthy of it, we shall disappoint our heritage. Let us turn to the task.”

“All he lacks is a conductor’s baton,” Watte whispered. His eyes glowed. His affection for Bryson was nearly unmatched among the discordant choir of the party back-bench.

“I found it.. perhaps too.. negative,” Andrews said. He sniffed at a handkerchief, soaked with red perfume from pre-war France. An effeminate gesture, and a sign of weakness. But the scent of gunpowder sent his heart beating, floated his mind in a wash of nerves.

He did not need distraction.

The black-frocked clerks descended on the weighted tables.

Half clutched empty rolls of thick paper. The other carried standard war-forms and old bills, tried and true, weather-legislation and related provisions and regulations. From his perch Andrews could see the thick blue folder of Storms/Rains. Around it, thinner folders were arranged in precise order. Green for laws related to the vegetation, unlikely to be used in the simple fields of heather the Czar had chosen. Brown for earth laws, powerful but difficult, a mental strain at the best of times. And a single red file.

Fire laws.

“Men of England!” the Czar’s voice shook the field. He spoke clear English, with a mere trace of accent. Legend and rumor said that he learned the mothertongue during secret sojourns to the Isle, taught by whores in long romps through the East End. Others felt the truth was prosaic: his hatred and admiration of England well known, it was mere intelligence to command a working use of the language.

“I command the assembled ranks of Europe, brought together not by force of arms, but hatred for the Conforming Legislation. The perfidy and arrogance of the British propelled me across your beloved Channel, broke your silly Laws and Oceanic Regulations like burnt sticks. Bowing is not required. Merely accept what I am, and the people I represent,” the Czar said.

Andrews shook his head. If he was instructed by prostitutes, then they were unusually well-schooled whores. The man’s voice was cultivated, his sense of rhetoric precise.

Bryson ignored the imprecations. The Party eyed the Loyal Opposition, dared them to voice the first sign of agreement. None moved, but under the combined weight of a majority of stares they shifted and turned their eyes to the battlefield.

“My assembled lords,” Bryson said, “I draw your attention to War Bill Number 2962, a Bill to Send Breezes Behind the Backs of Our Troops,”

“He means to strike first!” Watte said. He rubbed his hands together, and his smile unveiled unusually poor teeth.

Andrews noted with added distaste that he had a wart on his left thumb. If he didn’t wish to Invoke Privilege and have it struck off by Act, then it was common politesse to at least wear a glove.

The Fast-Scrivener read the Bill in his quicksilver voice, rushed through the necessary provisions and addenda. Reading was necessary, but the Bill to Send Breezes was old law, tested and sure.

“Time for Opposition,” Bryson said. All eyes shifted towards Michaels, the reedy, tall Opposition Leader. A mere two months before he had strode the floor like a black peacock, dispensing favors and grants. By the end the Spirit had flowed so quickly through him that he shimmered in the air, bathed in the wealth of England like a cloak of fat.

Michaels rose. “Nothing at this time,” he said, and sat down. The measure passed on a resounding voice vote.

“Means nothing, means nothing,” Watte said. “If he intends to scuttle this ship he will not do so while there is still time to bail.”

The breeze swirled from behind them, shot over their heads and sent hats flying. Below them, on the slope, the massed forces of Infantry cheered at the sudden shift in weather. They advanced down the green field, towards the sloppy mass of the enemy.

The clouds over the War-Czar shuddered, split, and raced down their own slope. It was polite to fight in valleys, so that opposing commanders had full view of the contending forces. Although Napoleon was famous for his Lightning Wars, tempting the enemy with seeming-traps, then bottling them up in dusty canyons.

Then he would kick up dust with a duo of wind and quakes and blind the other side. Next he would kill them.

Wellington had often modestly attributed his victory at Waterloo to the natural rain, silencing many of Napoleon’s tested decrees.

Their Wind reached the onrushing edge of clouds. There was a sudden hiss of indrawn breath as the Spirit warred with the massed power of the Czar’s enactments.

Andrews felt weak, suddenly, as if the breath in his body had fled. The air shimmered with the sparking fairy-light that accompanied the Spirit. Even Watte looked delicate, surrounded by the lightly-colored tones. It flowed in barely-perceptible currents towards Bryson, who was surrounded by a large aura of the wavering heat.

“He bears it well, very well,” Watte said. “Michaels exulted in it. You would think the Spirit flowed up and into his cock.”

Andrews turned, shocked. Even in times of war this language was barbaric. He held for a moment of indecision, then turned back to his busted chair.

This was no time for backbench bickering.

The Party cheered. The storm clouds turned aside, split around the marching men of British arms. The sun shone once again on their fine uniforms. Andrews cheered too, his sudden anger forgotten. He even turned to Watte and said “Not a bad start, eh? A bit of breeze cuts down the Russian Bear.”

Watte shook his head. “Look at the veterans, the front bench,” he said. Andrews followed his outstretched arm. The men with grey hair sat, and their eyes were wary and drawn. “That was in the way of a test. Could the Czar bring his full Spirit to tell on our own shores? It took quite a bit out of us just to dissipate his prepared strike. And what did it cost him? Nothing.”

“Here we go,” Watte said, gesturing at the field. The Russian soldiery parted neatly, left open a narrow path in their center. Bryson immediately turned and gestured for the brown folder.

A clerk fumbled as he picked it up, dropped it on the ground. The continuing breeze scattered the waft of papers therein, and the assembled Lords groaned at the incompetence.

“Thus is war lost,” a nearby backbencher said, disgusted.

Bryson abandoned dignity, dove to the ground. Other clerks batted and jumped in the air, salvaging white parchment, some of them aged and yellow. Some of them bearing the initial signatures of Kings and Queens, and some burnt and torn.

Andrews kept his eyes locked on the field. A moment later, the first shudder of broken earth hit the Russian Path. It dislodged the entire ground as it grew towards the British Army.

“It looks like a giant worm, under the ground,” he murmured. The British received orders, and knelt to receive the first blow of the shaking earth.

Bryson gave up the hunt. “My Lords, we will do this by memory,” he declared. “A Bill comma to quiet the shaking earth comma, in conformity with the Combined Acts of Standard British Warmaking Full Stop.”

“Dangerous work,” Watte observed. “Mr. Pitt once forgot an apostrophe during a Memory Read, and the incorrect coordinates sank three ships of the line.”

Bryson was speaking as quickly as he could, now. His eyes were closed; hopefully, Andrews thought, to read off an accurate facsimile entirely in his own mind.

The Russians charged.

The shuddering worm beneath the Earth hit the front ranks of the troops. Even braced, huddled in their uniforms on hand and knee, the churning vibrations picked them up and flung them from side to side. Hard men flailed, slamming into their comrades. A few screams broke through the baritone shaking.

“Wayward bayonets,” Watte mentioned. He had both of his narrow eyes on Bryson’s staccato reading.

“…For the grace of god and the Queen of England full stop!” The disheveled Minister screamed, over the din. “Voice vote!”

“No! Time for opposition!” Michaels screamed back, rising to his feet. He wore a black overcoat even in the heat of the day.

Bryson gritted his teeth. “I yield to our loyal opposition,” he said, forcing the words through brown-stained teeth.

Michaels simply stood in his pitted chair. Then he sat gracefully back down. “I merely stand to remind of the privilege, my lord.”


The front ranks of the charging Russians were mere yards and a leap from the prostrate infantrymen. Andrews could even make out their down-pointing muskets, set to spear and puncture British men clutching torn clumps of grass.

“Aye!” he screamed.

The Spirit took. Andrews, half-rising to lend his voice, was pushed back to the leather of his chair. The old patched and cracked cushion was increasingly welcome. Watte was breathing hard, but his eyes sparkled.

“A Bill for Smoke!” Bryson declared.

The ground quieted too late for the first rank of Britain’s finest. It was small comfort that that place of pride went to convicts and debtors, given a choice of service. In red coats they were indistinguishable from honest British men.

There were few bills in the red folder; fire was uncomplicated. Blasting-forge heat for attack, smoke for withdrawal and maneuver. This clerk was sure-handed. The slippery-handed clerk had been dragged to the side of the platform and beaten by the Transition-Sergeant, as a welcome example to the others.

Watte had stood up and raised his hand. Andrews was treated to the blistering, untreated scent of his armpit.

“Motion for a rider!” he declared, a nasal voice splitting over the white wigs of the Party. Bryson, waiting for the smoke-read, turned sharply at the unexpected voice.

“For what cause?” The Minister demanded, crossing his arms. Even the Opposition was dumbfounded. Andrews could see the Opposition Leader muttering to his Whip, another reedy man who wore his skeleton close.

“The Diffusion of the Recently Discovered Chloride Element on the Battlefield, Within Certain Coordinates!”

“If you are to speak, be understood,” Bryson snapped.

“It will spread the smoke around, sir. Good, British science,” Watte said. He was attempting to be persuasive. It was quietly disgusting.

Andrews waited for Bryson’s nod to the Transition-Sergeant for a beating. Watte had clearly lost his mind. Braining gibbering fools was acceptable, if from the Minister’s own party.

“Very well,” Bryson said, and shrugged.

Watte bellowed his bill over the confused mutterings of his own party. The wigs were turning to look, now.

Down on the battlefield, the front lines of sterling and red British soldiery met the front ranks of the enemy. Andrews had expected to be able to tell the starved and lined Russians from the fat, panting ranks of Germans, but nothing distinguished the hordes. They set to with a will, and steel flashed like cutlery as they savaged red coats.

Bryson grew increasingly impatient. “Vote!” he yelled, as soon as Watte finished his interminable dirge.

“Aye!” Andrews said, in the back, along with the other young men of the Party. But this time the old men of the front ranks were slow to rise, pantomiming aches and pains as they creaked out of their chairs. Watte growled from the base of his throat, and even Andrews was appalled. A slow-rise was acceptable in Parliament, to grumble about some ill-considered move, or to placate the constituents at home.

But on a battlefield? Madness!

Finally, an old man, with a red nose like a seared piece of meat, stopped even his slow rise and assent. Andrews waited, breath held back, as the man turned to glare at Watte.

“Smile, damn you,” he whispered, to his neighbor.

“If I smile it’s a smirk, if I do nothing it’s a sneer,” Watte said, accurately. He laughed, instead, directly into the man’s tenderloin-broiled face.

“I dissent!” the man said, in an old tobacco-stained voice.

“As do we!” Michaels, the long stick of an opportunist, saw his chance. He leapt up, unfolded his body. “We reject and deny!”

“Motion carries!” Bryson had not lost track of the vote. Andrews slumped. Fire-spirit always took heat from a man, left him cold and chattering. Without the support of the opposition the taking was worse, left him frost-bitten and iced. Even Watte shuddered.

Bryson, motioning with a cane, pointed out the dissenter for a perfunctory beating. But the burnt-nose man was spry, raced between bedraggled clerks, and plunged into the waiting ranks of the less-loyal opposition.

“We accept Mister…” Michaels leaned down to learn the man’s name. “We accept Mister Smythe as a loyal member of this Opposition!”

Smoke poured onto the battlefield, but too slow to hide disaster. The Deity-Czar had committed his cavalry, the Several Hundreds. They flowed from beyond his throne, their leader, Godling-Prince Ravan, carrying the Ball-Flag. Spirit hung on the long lance, and lightning crackled off and on it, arced through good British flesh.

They smashed into the British center, where Captain Marrowe commanded the Regulations, crack troops, with the British Orders slung on their sides in huge tomes.

“Time was that each book would crack bones apart just by reading the index,” Watte said.

“What are you playing at with your chemicals and elements?” Andrews hissed. Nor had he forgotten the rank imposition of Watte’s armpit. “You’re splitting the party for science experiments!”

Watte shrugged, and showed off his bad teeth. “Do you believe I act for anything other then the honor of Britain?”

The ugly man was well known as a duelist; he had killed men and laughed at them, barely within the boundaries of decency. Andrews was past caring. “I believe you are mad!”

Britain groaned. Both sides groaned, as the Several Hundreds achieved a crack. A pulse of flared lightning sent Regulators into the air, burnt and ruptured, their standard flying back with an arm still attached. The smoke had allowed only the wings to fall back to higher ground, while the Center died on the field, the best that the Island could produce.

Michaels shuffled papers without apparent concern. His party stared, sullen, at his disheveled figure. It was clear, now, that his appearance was due to sloth and neglect, not an artful display of noble concern. He juggled Brown and Green folders, as if considering.

“A bill for vines and air!” he announced, at length, and seemed bemused at the catcalls and abuse. An anonymous member threw rotten fruit, guaranteed to be flecked with flyshit, and barely missed the Minister. Cries of “defeat!” and “infamy!” burnt the air.

“A Bill for Change!” Michaels announced, bounding to his feet.

“He should just stay there,” Watte observed. “He looks like a jack-in-the-box, or one of those Swiss wind-up toys.”

“Shut up,” Andrews said, from between gritted teeth. Vines and air was defensive. No, call it what it was. Retreat and surrender. Giving the field of battle. And their men were split, the wings divided by cavalry. The long, broad plain was fully Russian, now. The Deity-Czar wasted Spirit on a stirring drumroll and crash of cymbals.

“We shall consider your bill after mine,” Bryson said. As the heat increased he grew increasingly placid, almost sleepy.

The Opposition Leader seemed surprised. Bryson had any number of parliamentary options to delay. He had reneged on them all, staked his government on a bill for vines and air, of all god-damned things.

And, like a rancid pickle in a barrel, Watte was rising to the top once more.

“Another rider,” he announced, face set. He braced himself against a sudden torrent of abuse and thrown objects, and was not disappointed. Tomatoes, elderly apples, and three canes all pinwheeled up into the back rows. Many glanced off the stocky man and richocheted into his swearing, immaculate neighbor. There was even a shower of grapes, which seemed actually around for eating, until the owner became enraged.

Bryson nodded. “Quickly, man!” he commanded, glancing over his shoulders. The Deity-Czar seemed unable to believe his luck. He was positioning his men like a chessmaster with time to kill, with an eye to cutting off lines of further retreat.

“A Bill For The Diffusion of the Well-Known Hydroxide Element on the Battlefield, Within Certain Coordinates!” Bryson said. This bill was short, only a few lines, with a set of incomprehensible by intimidating numbers. Andrews felt like sobbing. To not only watch the death of British Empire, but to contribute! To sit placidly by the architect and let him build his decrepit bridge!

“This government has gone mad!” Michaels yelled, and summoned his full height. He lit from behind, from Spirit. “As the next Prime Minister, I will personally summon a lasting peace with the Deity-Czar, instead of…”

“Sir, you are out of order,” Bryson reminded him, halfway through his clerk’s mumbled reading of the Vines-And-Air Bill of 1450.

Michaels, grinned, turned to his assembled birds of prey, the white hairs looking this way and that in response to his direction. “Am I out of order?” he screamed. “Or am I saving this country from both war and incompetence?”

The Opposition streamed with Spirit. They wrapped it around their leader, and Michaels burned with it once more, that aura he had so loved during his old Chief Minister days. Andrews and the Party shouted “Treason! Treason!” as it surely was, but none had any heart in it.

“So much for the “loyal” portion of the opposition,” Watte said. A sickly grin, like that of a corpse who had died badly, had planted itself on his face.

“Vote!” Bryson said, and put all his reserved thunder into it. Cracks of lightning lit the sky behind him, the Deity-Czar’s favored death stroke, already rushing towards the huddled corps of British men. It was a miracle they hadn’t broken and run, much like their Minister had, at heart.

The entire front row of the Party stood, decrepit age forgotten, and stomped into the welcoming heart of the Opposition.

“Vote, damn you!” Bryson said, cursing his remnant. Dazed, they began to rise, to vote “aye.” They were slow enough that Andrews could nearly count them off. Pryvan, whose family was Party for the past two hundred years. Barons of Mercantile, whose bridges to Opposition were already burned. The Radicals, like Watte, a motley band of stinking men with wigs they didn’t care for.

But there were many of them. And they approached majority. Watte stood, at long last, and roared “I approve, out of love of country!”

Andrews realized that everyone was looking at him.

Bryson waited, expectantly, fear starting to crack his mannered face. Michaels looked on, hungry, Spirit sparking even within his open mouth. Watte, immediately to his left, the Spirit already starting to swirl towards the Minister.

The ranks of the Opposition were waiting for him. And he wouldn’t have to sit next to Watte, anymore.

But the Andrews had always stayed true when chips were low.

“I… agree..” Andrews said, the words torn from his chest.

And he screamed. Their bare majority, a sliver of a thing, took its toll from the assembled members. Andrews was torn away, his soul split up and eaten by the Spirit, sent out in a single blow for Vines and Air, of all the god-damned things. And another part of him, from Watte’s evil, useless Rider, from a darker part of his being.

It all flowed into the heart of the battlefield, around the lightning cracks and the trumpets.

Andrews collapsed. Watte stood just long enough to piss himself, then fell backwards into his own chair.

Michaels moved into the center of the floor, shining and beautiful. Even the bare majority had splintered, men moving slowly and sadly to the heir apparent. “The new government will withdraw in good order, and send good men for honest negotiations!” Michaels announced.

He reached Bryson.

The Prime Minister, shivering and wrapped in soiled clothes, didn’t move. He looked out from the platform, at the very edge of the wood, over the battlefield.

“Sir, you may leave,” Michaels said, his lip curled.

Then he stopped.

The battlefield had gone quiet. The only sounds were the rush of winds, according to the bill, blowing at the backs of the remaining British men. They were still hunched behind the pitiful wall of vines, where lightning strikes had already blasted great, smoking holes.

The rest of the smoke cleared, and revealed graveyard.

The Germans were dead, their limbs splayed and their mouths open. The Russians were dead, clasping at their throats, face-forward in the dirt, often on top of the Britons they had managed to kill. A few of the horses still lived, clawing at the ground, but their riders had died, and the Ball-Flag discharged, useless, on the ground. The Prince himself, in his gold uniform, lied grotesque, a corpse.

“A new invention in the grand tradition of British warfare,” Watte announced. He couldn’t stand, but sat in his own piss, grinning weakly. “Chloride and Hydroxide. They make a very efficacious, and very silent, poison.”

He looked at Bryson, and nodded.

Michaels stumbled, and the Spirit left him, discharging with alacrity, jerking his body back and forth.

“Arrest that man,” Bryson said, off-hand. “Treason and Laying Hands on The Government.”

The Transition-Sergeant hastened to obey. Not a single throat in the Opposition reacted when the Sergeant laid Michaels out with a cracked head. A few of the recent Party Elders attempted to creep back to their still-warm chairs, where they were met with slaps from their colleagues.

“Monstrous,” Andrews wheezed. “We are men, not poisoners. This is butchery.”

“Chin up, Andrews,” Watte said. He pulled himself together, looked with distaste down at his soiled pants. “Embarassing. We have killed the Czar himself. Some God, eh?”

It was true. A presence had left. If he looked hard, and squinted, Andrews could just see yet another dead body, only this one on a gold throne.

“Why? Why like this?”

Watte shrugged. But the answer was plain enough. To purge the Party, expose the Loyalty of the Opposition. And he was on the right side because of obedience, the obedience of a whipped dog.

“I will forget the cracks you said under pressure,” Watte said. “Your support will be repaid, if by nothing else, by no longer having to sit next to me.”

The man grinned, and Andrews caught one last look at his foul teeth. “I have a feeling I will be moving up, today.”