The hose slipped out again. Chan cursed, and shoved it back into the incision he'd made, adjusted his mask, and bent over the pump. He yanked the cord, and the pump started to life with a cough of biodiesel. It bounced on the sand as it grumbled away. Chan kept one hand on it and held the hose in place with the other.
If fucking Fathers would spend the bone on a new one, I wouldn't be all night at this, Chan grumbled. He ached for a smoke, but didn't have the hands to spare. Plenty of hands here, he thought as he glanced at the riverbank. Some of them even had a pulse.
"Hey," he said to whoever was closest.
It was a sunbather. A walker who drew enough bone to slot time on the beach without having to fight for it. She had each arm draped around a man, both of them tattooed in the same place with the same sigil. Chan was jealous. Someday he'd have his own numbers, but they'd be women. All of them. He was old-fashioned like that.
The walker answered without raising her sunglasses. "What?"
The walker sighed. "Fourteen? Fourteen, help the worker eh? Shut him up. And stay out of my light."
One of the tattooed men obeyed without a word. The scars on his mouth told Chan that he'd probably sold his tongue and most of his teeth. He produced a cigarette and a lighter from a skin bag. A tattooed one.
Chan smirked. "Nice bag." The most expensive purses were cut from fetuses, but this one was a knockoff. Street seamstress using stray meat, most likely, but Chan didn't give a shit where it came from. Too many fucking kids underfoot anyway, so what if a few vanished under the bridges?
The walker's Fourteen pressed the cigarette in between Chan's chapped lips, and lit it with a pink rotary lighter. Not a cheap one, either. Chan grinned around the smoke. "You need to refill that, come see us. Chan 328. Bargain."
Fourteen smiled, but didn't answer. He found his place in his walker's embrace again. Chan puffed away while his pump worked. His bucket filled, and the sleeper at the end of his hose got smaller around the waistline.
Chan picked his way over the mounds of sleepers, edged around the other workers like him. Scriveners, carvers, skinners, tanners, even a few leeches were out, collecting maggots for use in the clinic hives.
Then there were the walkers. He gave them the road. They were the well-to-do, rich in bone, stepping over everyone else, alive or dead. Marching their numbered slaves along with them, all tattooed in numeric sequence, shuffling along single-file, carrying burdens, clearing obstacles, pushing corpses aside, or parting the crowds of vermin.
To the walkers, Chan was vermin. He kept his head down. Chan had learned early not to look anyone in the eye, and eyes darted from every corner and window and doorway.
He passed a bonfire fed with spent sleepers, gutted of everything useful. Beyond that was a prophet, standing atop a mound of severed feet, foaming at the lips as he recited the Syanide Sermon. His eyes reflected the firelight. He was good. Chan listened for a bit, and was half-tempted to drop his fat-buckets and go for a permanent swim in the river. The Syanide Sermon was clear. Too many people. Need to thin the herd. The crowd around him was rapt. Chan wondered how many of them would go home and slit their wrists, or smother their families. He'd heard legends about prophets whose sermons inspired workers to set their entire hives ablaze.
The prophet suddenly dropped out of cadence and leveled his gaze at a cluster of little ones, led by their Fathers.
"SINNERS," the prophet roared at the group of men. "SINNERS. The mouths you make will starve us all! How many have you tithed, loin-pigs? How many given over to the butcher's stables? ONE for TWO. ONE for TWO. It is law."
Around him, the throng began to repeat the chant. One for Two. One young kept for every two left on the butcher's block. One for Two. It was law.
The Fathers formed a ring around the children, and one brandished a cudgel of driftwood bound in twine. Shards of glass glistened from one end.
"We've given plenty over, you deadfucking pile of shit. These are the last. No more."
The throng cleared away from the Fathers and their little ones, until a clear path lay between them and the Prophet on his pulpit of feet, flies buzzing around him.
A trickle of drool leaked from the corner of the prophet's grin. "Show the bones, then. One for Two. It is law."
"It is Law," the throng murmured. Then louder, "Show the bones! Show the bones!"
Chan felt his fingers tighten over the handles of his buckets. He glanced around. Middle of the crowd. If this turned ugly, it would be a bloodbath, and he'd be caught in the middle.
"Show the bones!"
The Fathers looked at the crowd and at each other, jaws clenched, ready for a fight. The one with the cudgel - the leader - finally nodded. One by one, each Father produced a bag made from hair. Each one gently opened his bag, and drew the contents forth, laying them on the ground with devout care. Before long, each Father stood behind a row of small skulls. They had no teeth or lower jaws. Those were kept by the butchers.
Chan didn't have to look at the skulls to know that a name was etched into each one. Instead, he looked into the small shadows huddled behind the Fathers, where the lucky ones looked back at him with frightened eyes.
Seemingly satisfied, the prophet said, "One for Two. It is law. Be on your way, and sin no more."
The crowd chanted "One for Two, One for Two" as the Fathers gathered up the bones and led their young away as fast as they could.
Chan hefted his buckets, kept his head down, and walked. He tried not to think about his brothers.
As he went, he glanced at the prophet. The man was draped in rags. Bones tinkled and clicked from a half-dozen rosaries.
The prophet was staring at him. Smiling.
One of the clocks that hung from the looming hive-piles struck six times. Chan assumed it struck the right time. Sometimes the hive squatters pulled the gears loose so they could sleep in the works without getting crushed.
He hurried. Ducking past a vagabond mob boiling a oil drum full of butcher's leftovers, he reached his home hive. He pulled the curtain aside and waved. Everyone waved back, and the guards relaxed. He threw Poker a couple bone and patted his huge shoulder. The big man transferred his spiked club to his left armpit and gathered the bone with the hand that he hadn't sold.
One of his Fathers edged his way through the throng of squatters and hive-folk to greet him. "Good haul today? Buckets full?"
Chan showed him the load he carried, still steaming. "The tide was kind. River's bloated with rain and new sleepers from up north."
Father smiled. "Bring it in, then," he mumbled through the few teeth he kept, "Chandi's watching the pot. Get you some eat."
Chan nodded and pushed through the crowded chamber, edging his buckets through throngs of sweaty squatters toward the tunnel at the back. He spilled a bit of it on someone's back, but he was too busy with the female under him to notice.
He squeezed through the door, and found Chandi. To his pleasant surprise, it was the Chandi he was hoping for. She stirred the pot over the glowing embers of fat-soaked driftwood bundles, and smiled at him. He shoved a squatter aside and set his buckets down. "Stew good?"
"Of course." She smiled. Four teeth. He'd bought her two of them as betrothal gifts. She hadn't agreed yet, but Chan hoped it would only take a few more.
Chandi ladled him a bowl of the thick broth. Chan said his prayer over it, thanking the ones who died to nourish him. He emptied the bowl in three swallows. Chandi seemed pleased. He would have liked to stay, but Chandi's line was long and Chan had to take his buckets to the other Fathers.
"That all you got?" The Father looked at him critically. The old man was dipping a rack of candles into tallow as Chan emptied his buckets into the mash vat.
"I'll take more buckets tomorrow. River's swollen with sleepers. I can double this, I bet."
"Yeah." The old Father paused in his work and used a candle to light a smoke. The room filled with the scent of herbs and burning hair. "Look, take one of the others with you if you have to."
His brothers. The other lucky ones. Chan's lips tightened. "Father, I can't watch them while I work. They'll wander off."
"They're your elders, Chan. In truth, you should be following them to work."
"You'll take them tomorrow, Chan. That's final. Fill as many buckets as they can carry."
The old man grunted and turned back to the candle rack, and dipped again. Chan knew the conversation was over. He turned and threaded his way through more squatters to the back of the chamber, where the Mothers looked after the young. The young, and his brothers.
Chan was the runt. His brothers were huge, twins, and stronger than five men apiece. Their heads were misshapen, and they walked with a stoop. They looked as if they would happily tear the arms off anyone who crossed their path, but Chan knew that they were as gentle as newborns. As gentle, and just a little smarter, perhaps.
The Mothers were spooning Chandi's pink gruel into their mouths. They had no teeth; the Fathers had sold those long ago, but they kept their tongues. They both smiled and clapped when he entered. "Brudder! Brudder!"
He raised his hands to calm them, then brought out his bag. They gathered eagerly, two hulking men as excited as children. He handed out treasures that he had found during his forages. Pieces of smooth glass. A finger necklace. Broken chips of bone. He'd also found a bit of string and a sharp piece of metal, but he kept those to himself.
As they cooed over their gifts, Chan looked at the Mothers. "I'll need to take them with me tomorrow. Old Father wants me to bring back as many buckets as I can."
The Mothers nodded.
Too easy, Chan thought. The Mothers usually didn't want his brothers out of their sight. "No argument?"
The oldest of them, who still had her tongue, answered. "The prophets have been here. They are demanding more bone." She looked at the floor. "And favors."
Chan's skin turned cold. "Favors?"
The Mother didn't answer, but turned a worried look toward the cookfire. Toward Chandi.
They were up before the sun. Chan struggled to breathe through his respirator, and hoped that the brothers hadn't taken theirs off. The Mothers had tied them all together, waist-to-waist, with hair-rope. Chan was leading them down the canal route to the river. Less chance of encountering anyone this way. No crowds here, which meant no audiences for the prophets, so they stayed away. But there was a price. The canals were choked with sleepers, tightly-packed and rotting, caught in the currents from the river. No water flowed here anymore, the canal was nothing more than miles of waist-deep, rotting bodies packed into a dark sewage tunnel. The stench made the air unbreathable without a mask, and only the odd maggot-harvester was willing to venture down here. The harvesters, and Chan.
They picked their way down the Harvester's Run, several miles of driftwood planks, debris, chunks of old brickwork and makeshift cement that the maggot farmers had strewn over the packed corpses as a pathway down the canal. It was treacherous and foolish.
"Dark! Dark! It dark brudda!" The brothers hated the dark, and the confines of the canal made it even worse. "Brudda! Make light! Make light pleeees!"
Chan sighed. "I'm right here, brothers. I can't make light. Too much gas in the tunnel, it would blow up."
"Yeah. Go boom. Big boom."
"Big boom! Big boom! Brudda make big boom?"
"No. Now be quiet."
They found their way to the river. Chan plugged his hoses into two dozen sleepers, and by sundown he had hung bucket after steaming bucket over his brothers' shoulders. He made them keep their respirators on.
They picked their way back to the hive.
They put down their buckets.
The Fathers were seething.
The Mothers were crying.
The kitchen fires were out, the pots were empty.
The prophets had come, and claimed their favors.
The squatters hadn't seen a thing.
Chan searched for weeks. He knew the way the river currents flowed. He finally found her. Her throat had been cut clear to the bone once they'd finished.
He burned most of her. He did not say the thanking prayer. Nothing of hers would ever go to feed others. Her death was not a gift.
He went about his business. He plugged his hose into a hundred sleepers, filled his buckets, watched, listened. He memorized each prophet's face, where they stood, the sound of their voices.
He watched the people that the prophets humiliated. When they made a group of Fathers turn out their bags of bones, Chan watched. He followed them, and found their hives. He spoke to them, and they listened well to what he had to say.
They spent a week in the canal.
Then came the day when Chan found the prophet on his mound of severed feet, in the middle of delivering the Syanide Sermon.
Chan spat on him.
The crowd grew silent, no breathing. They all watched the prophet, who wiped the spittle from his face and said, "That was bold, candle-maker. You're lucky I don't punish you for that. Luckier than most, I'd wager." His tone was thick with meaning.
Chan nodded, and raised his voice. "I'm here for my Fathers. To pay a debt in bone."
The prophet surveyed the scene, his eyes narrowed. "I see no bone, nor butchers."
"To the Canal, then. At the mouth, there will be butchers aplenty." This was true. Flesh carvers frequented the river end of the canal, to scavenge from the recent sleepers there.
The prophet measured the crowd, and Chan, and his chances. "Very well. The mouth of the Canal, then." He raised his voice, "And if this worker does not meet me there, let his life and bone be forfeit!"
There were cheers. The prophet smiled. Chan only nodded.
The mouth of the canal became a carnival. Word traveled, and within the hour all the hives had emptied. The river was choked with sleepers and walkers and workers and numbers, all clamoring for a glimpse of the bone-drawing to come.
And prophets. Maybe not all, but many. Gathered to see the bucket-worker laid low.
One prophet stepped onto the charnel river at the canal's mouth. His feet sunk into dead flesh. Flies erupted with each step. He paused in the center, facing the mouth of the dark tunnel. "I am here, candle-maker! Where is my bone-payment for your brothers' lives?"
From the darkness, Chan stepped lightly. There were maggots in between his toes. He carried a skin sack.
"I've come to show the bones," he said. "I've come to pay my debts."
The prophet grinned. "Show us the bones, then! One for Two!"
One for Two, One for Two, One for Two, echoed the crowd.
Chan drew out the sack, and loosened the strings. He pulled a skull from it. A skull with four teeth. He held it up. All eyes followed it.
"Her name was Chandi. I loved her."
No one was watching his other hand, or the rotary lighter it held, fueled by oil from Chan 328.
The prophet's eyes dropped from the skull to Chan's other hand, and the flames, as they licked backward along the trail of wicks planted in the river of the dead, feeding the flammable stench from miles and miles of darkness and death.
The prophet's mouth opened in a silent scream. The canal became a dragon, breathing the vengeance of the dead upon the living.
The streets erupted in flames from hundreds of sewage drains. The stench of burning dead filled a hundred thousand noses, and many debts were paid in full.
The next day, children were born. None protested this.