The story starts in the early morning, when The Ascendant gathers the Loved to him for morning prayer. They’ve been in surplus and have been celebrating with their traditional fights and low-level rioting in the airfield, black eyes and broken teeth abound; but Preen is missing entirely.
The Ascendant asks what has happened, and Rum, a tall, rangy hick with an Adam’s Apple the size of his nose and a frayed leather cap, announces that he drowned the little fucker in the swamps last night. Felt good, too; about time someone put the twitchy bastard to rest, and he’s got a taste to see someone else turn blue this morning! He asks who oughtta get it, and Joseph suggests it ought to be Rum himself.
That divides the Loved, half of whom start chanting for Rum’s blood, the other half grab for rocks and make to stone Joseph; but he’s wearing his heavy trenchcoat even in the humid heat of the Watch and just gets knocked off his feet a while. The Ascendant steps in and asks Rum who should drown next – Rum suggests Hugo, a fellow with a squared-off, pockmarked face and a shock of black hair.
“Very well,” announces The Ascendant; “Hugo, choose a weapon. The two of you shall fight, and the loser shall be drowned.”
“What if I kill him in the fight?”
“Then you shall be drowned.”
Hugo thinks a second, then announces, “Guess it’s fists, then.”
Jonker comes to watch what’s happening, climbs the chain-link fence and perches on the corner of it like a fish-hawk, watching the fight and keeping his silenced Magnum handy. Rum wins it easily, though; and the Loved snatch up Hugo to parade him through the streets before taking him to be drowned.
Meanwhile, Absinthe and Dylan are meeting Jackabacka in the orange groves, trying to find vehicle parts. Jackabacks’a a little dude with olive skin, white hair. Jackabacka says it’ll cost them, but not so much if Absinthe’ll just lay down in the orange grove with him for an hour or so. S/he tries to manipulate him into deferring that to another day, but Jacakabacka gets pushy then, shoving hir around and lifting a hand for a good hard slap before s/he catches his eyes, and he freezes while Absinthe draws hir massive handgun from the small of hir back and trains it on Jackabacka’s head.
Dylan asks how this changes things, and tries to read him – but gets nowhere; in fact, Jackabacka realizes there’s no fucking way Dylan’s going to help him get back at this skinny bitch; so he slowly explains he doesn’t even have the parts, but knows a guy who can get them if he gets back to Cholo City. Absinthe tosses him an orange, and he backs into the pearl-grey pickup and tears away.
At the back of the parade, Joseph opens his brain to the Maelstrom – like opening to the shared consciousness of the entire world at a breakneck speed – and sees a duplicate of Jackabacka and Rum glance to each other and nod as Jackabacka drives past the Loved.
Headed to the swamps, The Ascendant sees a thick column of greasy, black smoke rising from the swamps and opens his own brain. (He BRICKS the roll and I reverse Augury on him, summoning up the ghost of Preen.) The maelstrom feels to the Ascendant like all the hate in the universe in concentrated into one point. The smoke turns into a totem pole of Preen’s face, and everyone can see that!
Jonker asks, “What the fuck is going on?”
“All the hatred of Preen was released in his death, proving he is … Unloved.”
So now Jonker watches the smoke instead of the Loved, and realizes that the shade of Preen stuck in the maelstrom wants the Ascendant “brought low.” Meanwhile, Joe watches Jonker carefully, and sees that the gunlugger feels digusted with the entire situation, intends to wait to learn more about the situation, and doesn’t give a rat’s ass what Joe does right now.
Dylan and Absinthe come back toward the workshop, but seeing the plume, Dylan opens his mind to the maelstrom. He sees that for everyone the Loved kills from here on out, their victims’ face will appear beneath Preen’s, and if the pole hits the ground, they will all be released – and this would be a Very Bad Thing for the Watch. He establishes that the maelstrom is an invigorating, muddled clarity, like a good early-morning beer buzz.
Mice, a little fragile-looking kid, between 8 and 12 with Asian features, comes to ask Absinthe what they’re going to do to his daddy Hugo.
“Can you borrow me your gun?”
“What are you gonna do?”
“Then no. But when you do, there are guns in the shed. Your daddy joined the Loved by choice. You got a momma?”
“No. But I’m a good climber. Daddy Hugo pays me to climb up the orange trees, and he keeps Pepper offa me.”
Pepper’s a bigger kid with movie-star looks in Hangar 2. “If Pepper bothers you, well. You’ll figure out what to do, but if you don’t stop him, he ain’t never gonna stop.”
“Then why don’t you stop the Ascendant?”
“He’s doing his job. Our job’s climbing trees. The Ascendant’s job is leading the Loved.”
Absinthe brings Mice to Jonker, still watching that smoke. “Do you love your daddy Hugo, Mice?”
“Moren’ anything. You love your daddy, Absinthe?”
“That piece of shit? No. Jonker?”
Jonker looks at them both and says, all seriousness; “My daddy’s my world, my momma’s my universe.”
Meanwhile, The Ascendant circles the Loved to put the pillar behind him. “This is an example of when one dies full of hate, unable to purge themselves and understand what it is to love your fellow man. Rum, do you feel hate? Did you feel hate when you killed Preen? Have you filled yourself with hatred?”
“Hell yes. Little fucker got what he deserved.”
The Ascendant sighs. “You have learned nothing of love. Everyone. Drown Rum.”
The Loved, like they’re on a switch, set Hugo down and seize Rum. One of them snatches his ballcap and sets it on Hugo’s head, and they start chanting for Hugo to do it, let Hugo do it, let him show them how a man can kill without hatred or vengeance in his heart.
Jonker steps forward then, cradling his rifle. “Hey. Hey, Ascendant! You don’t you let Rum walk through the swamp to meet Preen again. If Rum can make it back, he’ll be cured, won’t he?”
The Ascendant smiles ambiguously. “Jonker speaks wisely, my Loved. Rum, go forth and redeem yourself. Reflect upon your hate and anger. Shed yourself of them. When you return, I wish to hear your thoughts.”
Jonker starts moving the flock away from the swamp, looks at Rum: “Preen’s got something to say. Go.”
The Acendant turns to Hugo and says, “Hugo, you think on what happened today. Your strength will be needed, but also, understand what hate almost caused to happen today.”
Mice throws himself into Hugo’s arms: “I love my daddy,” he says, but he’s giving the Ascendant this stare while he says it, and he’s whispering into Hugo’s ear the whole time he carries him home.
Jonker walks to Absinthe. “Nice job, sweetheart. Wanna grab a beer at the canteena?”
“Why not? It’s nine AM.”
Joseph, though, has been turning the pairing of Jackabacka and Rum over and over in his mind. He’d heard tales of a place called The Ska, opposite side of the world from the Watch, where water actually turns solid and floats on water that hasn’t turned solid yet. Those stories say that you can just see the tip of that frozen water, and it’s what’s underwater that cuts people to shreds; and in the maelstrom he sees a berg like that with Jackabacka’s face on it, just like Preen’s on what I am henceforth calling “The Smoking Pole.”
He wants to go after Rum, and asks Dylan if he would mind coming along. He offers to help him with research later in return, and Dylan – those spooky, creepy eyes looking for any sign of tracks – heads into the swamp with his crowbar in his hand. They’ve almost lost him but then they hear the screams and find Rum, stuck in a gator’s death roll.
Joseph dives into the swamp with a big skinning knife he carries stuck in his belt and drives the gator off – but he can’t help feeling like he’s missing something important afterwards, something the gator or Rum left behind in that blood-soaked water.
Joseph tells Rum, “You’ve only got a few. Tell me what Jackbabacka wants you to want me to want him to know I know.”
Rum spits up blood and whispers, “Fuck you, creep. Fuck you and your family.”
At which point Joseph smiles and brings around his violation glove, rooting around in the dimming lights of Rum’s mind. He finds that Rum doesn’t want to turn Mice over to Jackabacka, and that his lowest moment was when Jackabacka made him watch all those little bodies in Cholo City, tied to clean, bright, steel operating tables, waiting for the scalpels to arrive.
Joseph lets him go, watching his body float away and slowly slide underwater, still unable to shake the feeling he’s missed seomthing important …