The speaker voice is back again, harsh and leaving no doubt, how the gang would react should they find resistance:
“Save yourself the speeches! You are not on the usual north-route! Dismount! Step forward! Each of you, line up next to the front wheel! Should you have any weapons, hand them over, now! And don’t try anything stupid, except you don’t want to continue travelling!”
They do as told with heads and eyes down. Better not to play hero! The Desperado behind the barrier lifts his hands, fingertips pointing straight at them. They light up red as if they had tiny light-bulbs in them. He sweeps them up and down, slowly and repeatedly, all over their bodies, obviously operating a special camera or scanner. Whatever it may be, - anger rushes through Femina. It is a reflex reaction to this unwelcome intrusion into her privacy but is good for nothing. She has to bear it, no matter what she feels or thinks.
As calm as she may appear on the outside, in her head it is a different story. One thought chases the other, sweeping her mind clear of any sugar pink clouds, reminding her that there are worse things to life than death, - and, that she better prepares for a horror trip, - in case they’ll be given transit through the Desperado’s innermost territory. She also wonders how they will view the knives they carry in their luggage. Though they only serve their camping needs and are well packed away, they could be weapons, in a willing hand. She also asks herself for the first time, if her friends might be armed. So far, she never even gave it a thought, but under recent circumstances, and now this event, - it is possible. After all, they knew the local customs, at least to a certain extent. They could anticipate what kind of problems or dangers they may encounter along the way. To carry a weapon, just in case, was not that unreasonable.
At last, the red fingertips turn to take aim at bikes and luggage. Despite her overall unease, she feels relieved that her travel companions are unarmed. As she sees it, armor-bearers are no easy-riders, and she basically distrusts everything and everyone, that needs or wants a weapon. She finds the wish to carry arms odd and, strange, just as she would find it strange if someone wanted to drink fuel instead of water. But, as one can see on the example of the knives in their luggage, tools and weapons are one and the same. Only the purpose of use is different, actually as different as day and night. However! What the Desperados think and how they will react will soon enough be revealed, at least, when they find the ambiguous objects.
And there it is, the voice screaming at them: “You have knives in your luggage, weapons you did not disclose!”
Only Ger’s smooth voice and skillful rhetoric saves them from losing their bikes and being chased away, if not worse, getting a bullet sent after, as the voice threatens. Over and over he reassures that they only came this way in expectation to find his brother, that the knives were only part of their camping gear, that they did not hide them, but simply forgot to mention them, being utensils not armory…….etc., etc., etc.
“Then prove it, show us the evidence!” The voice is still sharp and unforgiving but at least offering a chance of reappraisal. “Hand over your papers and anything to make your case, but stay where you are! What’s in the luggage, stays there!”
Dan and Ger immediately reach into the inner pockets of their jackets but Femina stiffens, worse than she already had. She has no papers! She came on this trip without consideration or preparation, without even really knowing what she was doing, she just did! She turns her head, catches Dan’s eyes and rolls hers, slightly shrugging her shoulders at the same time to indicate that she had no papers whatsoever.
Ger on the other hand has several documents and also pictures of him with his brother. He collects Dan’s ID and without even looking at Femina he steps forward to hand over the lot to the waiting guard who nodded permission for him to approach.
‘He must have seen my gesture’, she concludes, feeling miserable. She is convinced that her failure to provide any paper will cause even more problems. Saying nothing she waits, like the ignorant lamb that is driven to the slaughter-house. But, above all, now she knows for sure that she still is in this damn house, caught in, bound to and, unmistakably ruled by, because only there are papers, laws, authoritarian conditions and, all that comes with it, forced upon her, only there is nobody able to do without that kind of rubbish.
The Desperado sweeps over the documents with the back of his right hand, and then they wait while he hangs on to them. Femina wished the sun had hands of a clock instead of the hot and burning arrows relentlessly fired down on them, for it would give measure to the time passing, instead of turning the wait into eternity. Besides, she believes she is the reason for the delay, wondering however, why she has not been questioned as yet. She is even more perplexed when the voice, addressing them again, does not ask any questions about her or, why she has no prove of who she is.
Instead, the voice, still sharp and commanding but not threatening anymore, says: “Okay! You can pass! Follow the road, we’ll send you an escort along the way. But no foul play! You would never escape us, so don’t even try!”
They get their papers back and the foreman rejoins his group. While they mount their bikes, they hear the start-up of the others’ engines. Curious, they watch them retreat. As if on command, one Desperado after the other turns to the open road and, speeding up fast, the whole departure is not only smooth but also incredibly quick. They hear the guard at their back follow suit, not exactly at the same time but well timed all the same and, well organized, just as one would expect from a military operation. In a good distance away from the barricade, they see the rockets light up, followed by roaring thunder. The troop gains altitude so fast that soon they are only black dots again which vanish as quickly, leaving behind only a trail of rolling thunder that lingers on for a good while.
Turning their heads back to earth, Ger with a sigh of relieve and while putting on his helmet, says: “So! My brother is here!”
Dan only nods and puts on his. Femina hesitates. She has too many questions for the two. She does not even know where to begin. Her head is a beehive, full of busy bees but instead of producing honey they produce thoughts, faster than she likes. So what’s the hurry to get ready for travelling anyway? The barricade is still closed and who knows when the heralded escort will turn up! But Dan is of different opinion and right he is because, suddenly a motor noise cranks up and, the big blocks of stone begin to rotate around their axis while the log, with the metal grate beneath, opens like a gate. Quickly they start their engines and roll over the rail guide track, which may have the additional function of a monitoring device, on top of the primary purpose to keep the metal frame in place and the blockade securely shut. They can hear a clicking noise as they cross and, as soon as they pass the opening radius, the barricade closes behind them.
Femina is impressed, again. These Desperados do not just operate advanced technology, they are indeed intelligent, not something she would generally associate with street robbers or gang culture. Obviously, these are criminals of a different kind. It is intriguing and, it is high time she revises her views on intelligence! So far, she used to categorize intelligence only in the light, the positive spectrum that is, but now she must acknowledge the negative aspects and, go through its darkness. Her emotions may revolt as much as they want, mind and feelings may fight with each other as hard but, no longer can she overlook the fact that intelligence has its positive and negative side, depending on who employs it, just as it is with weapons and tools. Now, this type of community or society, gang or syndicate, or whatever social form it may take, belongs to the negative world order, born in and from it, at home there, developing within it and, cultivating its own sinister potential. It has its own evolution and finds expression in the individual and in the group collective. As far as she can remember, she never entered this “other realm”. At worst, she only dealt with the ‘fall-out’, that is the damaging effects caused by its or their actions, or so she thought. But now she stands at the entrance of this world, in fact, she already has stepped inside.
Despite the heat of the day, goose-pumps erupt all over her skin, her inner eye presenting a picture that is far crueler than her own fantasy could ever paint. It shows her a hell for which one does not need to be dead. After all, this hell belongs to life as good as the Amen to prayer.
So! She was swept into an adventure that she would not choose voluntarily. But she cannot complain! After all, driftwood has no goal or say. It just drifts. Wherever or, in whatever it may be caught in or, caught up with, is irrelevant. The journey itself is purpose and meaning; the content serves other objectives. While sitting in her waiting room, moaning and wailing, a big junk of her lost memory was able to surface and re-enter her consciousness, a process that stripped off moral platitudes from the meaning of good and evil, clarifying it from nebulous misconceptions. Justifiably so and, liberating too! The positive and negative dimensions of existence are measures of magnitude not judgement of moral values. Moral after all is just a uniform, forced upon all members of society to which they belong and, regardless if it actually fits them all or not. No uniform so far has made her feel comfortable. Finally finding out why, freed her, lifting off a heavy weight. Indeed! Moral is nothing essential. It is just a mental construct, abstract and relative, a tool used by intelligence for the better or worse of its communities, depending on who wields the power and makes the rules. Interestingly, civilization and clothing are linked together in a misconstrued way, just as if humans should be ashamed of their naked bodies. But in its original purpose, clothing meant protecting delicate and vulnerable bodies from nature’s brutal elements and not, as some societies will have it, prevent immoral exhibition or intentions. In fact, the more a society wants you to cover up for other than practical reasons, the more it incubates and breeds immorality. Piling on layer after layer of cloths is suffocating, but does not make people chaste, it just makes them prudish. The next step then from cloths to uniforms is only logical. And so it happens that Intelligentsia creates its own kingdom and sadly, its own hell.
Apart from being intrigued, Femina was never impressed by customs or etiquette, of any culture. She only sees the human being, naked, just as it is, not as he or she pretends to be. But it needed the waiting room to regain pieces of information from her past that she could then re- integrate into her current existence. Not only helping her to understand life and herself better, it also demonstrates that she essentially is an “easy rider” and drifter. Therefore it does not matter into what adventure she walks or stumbles into. Every experience is of value, in whatever way it may unfold. And, while moral is not her concern, integrity but is. Because integrity is the skin she lives in, which, to the contrary of clothing, cannot easily be changed or simply discarded.
They follow the road in expectation of the escort to show soon, but while the mountains are closing in on them and the woods are getting denser by the minute, nothing happens. The sun deep down now, casts long shadows across their way, alternating with stripes of golden rays. As the forest thickens, gaps close and finally all brightness disappears. The road starts to climb and tighten. Small bridges cross over quiet pools and gargling waters and, more and more rock walls and noses bulge forward, some densely clad with vegetation. The road has to wind itself around them, becoming as curvy as steep. As they gain height the air gets cooler and moist, but there are opening vistas on one side again, offering glimpses to the plains far down below where they had traveled all day long. The rays of a red sun cast a red golden glow that fades as quickly as the sun sinks beyond the distant horizon. Speckles of light appear, spread out in small clusters, twinkling and, far more numerous than Femina would have ever expected, for their journey had been void of people and signs of settlements. ‘Ah, what the hell’, she thinks annoyed, ‘always questions and no answers! How come, that they let her pass without papers anyway?’ Also a question for which she has no answer, but really, really wants to know.
As they approach a small road-side look-out point, they find the escort or pilots whom they were told to expect, waiting for them. They are four guys on two bikes, in jeans, high boots and leather jackets. The two on the back wear helmets but not the drivers in front. Their helmets sit on the tanks before them. As soon as they see them coming the helmeted jump off and wave them down. Femina is told to get off and climb on the back of one of their bikes and, while they order Dan and Ger on to the back seat of theirs, they themselves jump on to the front. Femina, to her dismay notices her driver holding a handgun, which she can only see now, since she was behind him. Meanwhile, the other helmet-less biker busies himself by carrying around some rags, which turn out to be sacks and, throwing them over her friends’ heads and helmets and, finally hers. Though it was nearly dark anyway, now she can’t see anything at all. Her driver starts moving, putting on his helmet or so it seems, and then there are two shots. The engines start up and the journey begins, with her bike in front, as she can hear the others behind her.
The road still climbs, again with so many bends that she has to hold on to the driver otherwise she would fall off. Besides, he likes to ride fast too. But that is not the worst; that is yet to come as nausea sets in and, as the journey goes on, gets the better of her. If it does not end soon she will have to vomit, something she does not want at all. ‘Don’t show any weakness! Don’t fall into a heap! Don’t become needy! Don’t turn victim!’ She repeats it like a mantra, hoping her body will listen but, does not oblige. Just as she is close to the inevitable, help is at hand, given by the road which runs now more or less a straight line. It buys her some relief, though not for long. Descending now, the curves are back with a vengeance. Bugger it! In desperation she is ready to give in and let her body rule. If it cannot be avoided, - so be it! But she will not ask for help! She will take off sack and helmet while riding and, spew, to the side as good as it gets. She will not soil herself, the hell with it! And why begrudging her poor stomach? If it wants to vomit so it should! Not her stomach is to blame, the situation is! Fair enough that her stomach wants to spew on it! Hopefully the driver behind her will get a good dose of the same!
Surprisingly the urge to vomit subsides. Obviously her body agrees with her plan of action. Though still feeling sick, it does no longer revolt, as if it was saying thank you for understanding. Even Fortuna seems to want to help now, because the road goes straight again and, not long after, the ride slows right down to a halt. The engines idling she hears the noise of a big door being opened. Rolling on briefly they stop again, this time for good. Somebody taps on her shoulder and tells her to dismount. There are many other voices around her. Someone takes the sack off and she can after all do the same with her helmet. Glad to have solid ground under her feet, her spinning head is another story. She must grab hold on the bike to prevent falling. Still feeling sick she is but not sure which is worse, the head or the stomach. Dan is suddenly on her side and asks if she was okay. Stupid question! Of course she isn’t, but she nods yes, after all, she is alive, isn’t she? He calls out something to someone and Ger appears soon after with a chair, both determined to sit her down, with her objecting to move at all. She is far too unsteady but also unable to put up much of resistance, sitting down after all under Dan’s firm grip. There is a lot of to and fro around her, noises and bustles and laughter. May be they laugh about her! Whatever! First she must settle down before she can pay attention to whatever is going on. So she sits up straight, eyes down to the ground, concentrating on her breath. In---out---and pause, in---out---and pause……..
It does not take too long to calm down her internal uproar. Now she can look around without the merry-go-round. They are in a huge cave like hall or bunker, far reaching, she can’t see all there is, but what she sees is impressive enough. The ground is concreted throughout. Ceilings of variable heights and walls are mostly of sheer rock and stone. Concrete pillars or thick wooden posts and solid beams in between, serve as support and subdivisions. Where she sits is the bikes’ garage. All big bikes, in several rows and along the sides, how many there are, she cannot say. Not far from her to the other side is a solid stair leading up two flights, and beyond seems to be a garage for cars, harboring various types of vehicles, from fast, if not racing cars, to Utes and, other big four-wheelers or small trucks. There seem to be work-stations as well. From under the stairs further towards the back, she sees a couple of small rooms, likely utility or changing-rooms. Men moving in and out, some with their bike gear on, some returning without. However! There is no hint of where the specific gear might be in which Femina would be particularly interested in!
Dan and Ger go off to ensure they know where their bikes are, but they return quickly, being told to stay with her, while her driver comes to take his bike away. Overall, the attitude towards them has changed for the better. Though not friendly, there are no more threats and, no guns pointed at them either. Someone even handed the guys a can of beer. Of course, as Femina notices, they are under constant surveillance, monitoring cameras are everywhere. Most likely they keep an eye on everyone and everything, but for now, they certainly would focus on them in particular. She also notices that she herself is an object of interest for the men around. Repeatedly one or the other would pass by, pretending to attend to some dubious business somewhere close, sizing her up and glaring at her as if she was a piece of meat in a butcher-shop window. She is glad to be still in her travel gear, because these guys are creepy and their attention is unsettling.
A door at the top of the staircase opens briefly. A young man appears who quickly descends, making a straight line towards them. Ger’s face lights up and next you know the brothers are embracing and hugging each other under expressions of relief and delight. “Ah, so good to see you!” “At last! After all this time….!”
While all the back patting and slapping goes on, Femina has plenty of time to have a good look at Ger’s sibling. ‘What a beautiful young man!’ She is baffled. ‘How come that this blond angel affiliates with robber knights?’ He is tall and toned with muscles in all the right places without being a ‘muscle man’. Jeans and T-shirt, washed and faded out from plenty of use seem to caress rather than just clothing him and, make his bronzed skin shine even more. A tuft of thick hair down to his neck, shimmering like a field of ripe corn swaying in a summer breeze, his face finely chiseled with blue eyes so big as if they were the sea itself, it raises the desire of letting oneself fall into, without a second thought that one could drown in there. He has charisma, is so full of it that it oozes out of his pores like the silvery light of a full moon. Femina is struck with awe but, at the same time and, to her surprise, he does not strike a chord in her. She finds that rather extraordinary. Immediately and, to her dismay, it raises questions, more questions, as if she did not have enough already. How she longs for the past times, of her journey through arid lands and empty spaces, void of humans, where silence was food and nectar for her soul.
“These are my friends, Dan and Femina.” She hears Ger’s voice say
“Oliver,” says Adonis and shakes Dan’s hand, but not hers. For her he only has a smile. “Nice to meet you,” he continues. “The friends of my brother are mine too. Come now, let’s go up! I want to introduce you to Wilson. But first let’s take your stuff to my quarters, that’s yours’s as long as you are here.” His voice is pleasant. And yet! It has little warmth.
While they sort out their belongings and what to take with them, only the brothers are chatting animatedly. She finds herself entangled in thoughts and feelings. Perceptions wrangle with logic so it seems, because nothing fits neatly together and, her memory has no data that could be of help as reference or advice. ‘Of course not!’ Her intellect is bewildered. ‘These are brand new experiences! Besides! Why would you want to compare the old with the new? Why give prejudice a chance or, fear? Because it would enhance your judgement, lets you make better decisions, makes you feel safe in an unsafe world? Non-sense! Stop your desperate struggle for control! It’s good for nothing, don’t you know?’
She pauses. ‘So true! Nothing is safe! Life itself is uncertain, unpredictable and, uncontrollable. The desire for control is the wretched attempt to want to eliminate fear. But one could just as good chase ‘Phantom’. Neither he nor ‘absolute’ control exist. Though it is true that known fears can be controlled, fear itself is rudimentary, it cannot be eliminated; it is in fact essential to life, for very good reasons.’
There is a tap on her shoulder. They are ready to move on. With Adonis leading, they climb the stairs to the upper level where a solid door without handles, knobs or buttons brings them to a halt. Recessed in the side wall is a little screen where he presses his fingers against. The door, opening quietly, brings them into the underground cellar, he explains, proudly stating, that it was essentially the core functioning and practical working unit of their organization. It served also as their physical training center for strategic and, recreational purposes too. Of course, they see nothing of that! Apart from some passages leading off from where they are, it is hard to imagine what there might be, though everything looks very different to the level below. The floors are still concrete, but the walls appear to be man-made. They are whitewashed and all is very clean. Neon light tubes run along the ceiling and there are air-vents, pipes and cables, neat and well maintained and, of course cameras. What a pity that Oliver does not give them a tour of what might be an extensive complex, well planned and organized. Most likely, only the initiated know about this underground facility, though….. She wonders about Oliver’s trusting nature, telling them all about. Femina is certain, it serves more than just the daily requirements for running the Desperado’s “house-hold”. Most likely, it has safety and defense purposes too. It is an excellent robber knight’s stronghold, their fortress if you like.
They walk up another flight of stairs to a small landing and another door with no knobs or handles but a red glowing buzzer next to it. Adonis pressing it as they arrive, of course, under the watchful eye of another camera, they end up in a little hall or foyer with walls of stone roughhewn, a few doors and a passage way to the right.
“My quarters are to the left,” he says. “We are in the main building but this part lies at the one end, separated from the communal areas in the middle. The rooms here are mostly used by Wilson’s close personal staff and the occasional trusted visitor. At the other end are the offices and inner sanctum of our organization, including Wilson’s private rooms. Access there is of course limited to certain members, except on the occasion with his permission. The passage connects you to the general house,” he concludes, pointing to the right.
The little hall has no furniture, only a collection of empty crates in small clusters which serve as stools to sit on, for social meet ups as empty beer bottles indicate. Cold smoke and the stale smell of beer hangs in the air. It reminds Femina of the beer cellars she used to frequent as a student and, where heated speeches and discussions under loud music dried you up like a sun parched desert, so you drank more than you could handle to make up for it. Of course, this hall is like the morning after, where stale air and unpleasant smells are the only lasting memory.
Oliver’s quarter is primitive too, consisting of two small interconnected rooms with no door in between but from the second room, fortunately with a door, one can access shower and toilette. Mattresses on the floor serve the double purpose of a sitting and sleeping. A table with a small stool and a chair stands next to an old fridge and each room has a cupboard, in one he has some personal cloths, the other contains some blankets. Again, empty crates function as added seating or side-tables and a couple of wall mounted shelves close to the table display a few dreary dust covered glasses. Despite the poor and hardly comfortable furnishing all is generally clean and without stuffy air or pesky odors. Most likely the rooms are hardly ever used, at least not regularly and, they offer some privacy which she suspects, is not a big concern for this brotherhood.
Femina asks, if it was okay with them that she had a shower before they joined the crowd.
“No problem”, says Oliver and fetches straight away bottles of beer from the old fridge, settling down with brother and Dan to drink and celebrate, as is customary for such occasions, while she can attend to her customary rituals of cleansing and refreshing herself.
Out of the shower she searches through her belongings for some suitable clean clothes while the guys in the other room continue their conversation unperturbed. Without the intent to listen she overhears what they say, suddenly realizing that they talk about her, them obviously being unaware of her presence in the next room.
“Does she wear the collar? I have not seen it,” asks Oliver
“No,” says Ger, “she is a stray. We found her on our way quite a while ago. We don’t know where she comes from. She does not know our customs and certainly not the ones common here where they are far more extreme and rigid than in the southern parts of our country. That’s actually where we picked her up.”
“Have you tried, to put one on her?” He asks again, the question likely directed at Dan, who does the answering.
“No, certainly no! She is a foreigner. Besides, I have no intention to put her on the leash. Can’t imagine she would agree either. And I don’t want to force her, coming from who knows where and being so totally naive. I am sure she does not even understand why your guards did not expect papers from her.”
Ger adds: “Yes! You are right! I did wonder why she looked at me so frazzled as I was going to hand over ours!”
“It would be better she had one,” says Oliver. “She is an exotic thing. It makes her particularly desirable. Without the collar, even with everyone knowing that she belongs to you guys, she is free game. Anyone can claim and take her, that’s the rule as you well know. Wouldn’t be the first time that hell breaks loose over a woman. Though it may not come to an open war ….,” he pauses briefly, then continues, “I am your best insurance, because Wilson is the boss and I am Wilson’s partner, but….. Everything is possible! I can’t give you any guaranties. So! Be very cautious! Never let her out of your sight! Never let her be alone!”
Femina opens and closes the bathroom door, firmly and loudly. She has heard enough! Not what she wanted to hear, but gladly never the less, having at last some of her questions answered. Naïve? Indeed, she is! And so it shall be. She rather plays ignorant than getting caught up in fruitless discussions or hostilities. Collar? Being put on a leash? Ph! No, and never! Ph! It makes her shudder and with it, her tender feelings for Dan are shed, like a wet dog shakes himself dry.
Sadly, she cannot shed her feelings of disappointment as easily. Once again she must accept, how different her world is to that of others’. Appearance and reality, though interrelated, do not necessarily reflect the true nature or ultimate truth of things, but is certainly fertile ground for illusions. Thus, acknowledgement and disappointment go hand in hand, becoming the relative whom everyone tries to avoid but who cannot be avoided, being family, like it or not.
To doubly ensure that her presence is known, she calls out: “Ready in a sec!”
Dan shouts back: “Okay! No need to hurry!”
After finishing dressing, she lets herself down on one of the crates to let some reasonable minutes pass before she finally joins them. She feels well now, clean from inside out, ready to make the next step, regardless that it will lead her only deeper into the robber’s den.