The fires of Kansas.
At first the re-ignition of the rivalry of jayhawkers and bushwhackers targeted the shops in the various commercial squares. Then the fighters ransacked the administrative centers of the palatial government. But as the street fighting intensified, this was not enough. The two sides went after one another's camps.
Some said the origins of the violence lay in the Battle of the Sea of Kansas, six impossible months ago. Others quoted the Viscount Robert Paul Luke. For he had said the creation of the artificial inland sea would reopen old wounds in the splintered and divided Americas, and ancient hatreds would be re-inflamed. Yet the late-Emperor Hirohito had ignored his majordomo's advice and marshaled air, land and water for the construction the Sea of Kansas.
Some even grieved that the late Cobra Warlord had not lived to see the fulfillment of his prophecy.
Someone apparently had listened to R.P. Luke.
Now the fires raged out of control. The streets of former-rivers, first, filled with the rival factions of combatants, now, overfilled with women and children. Those who traveled on the Palace streets did so at their own peril.
Armed-to-the-teeth Carthage Grays surrounded a cheerless group, one headed by Catal Huyuk and Abrax-zeez. In the middle of the weaponized perimeter, Jeff Davis strutted by the side of Shiloh Mackenzie. And Louisa walked between them. A captive who promised to lead Jeff Davis to his final goal.
One of the heroes of Kansas.
Something off in the distance grabbed Shiloh's attention, which made Jeff Davis, that Sheriff of the Commandments, almost an afterthought.
There were darker beasts on the streets of Kansas.
Louisa hmmffed under her breath, though she could not shake an old thought of her's. Something Janus, the Sergeant-at-Arms, had told her once. Shiloh, indeed, acted just as Janus once claimed. Way too chummy with Jeff Davis, a sworn member of the Vigilance Committees that opposed the Empress, a man who armed squatters and border ruffians, alike.
But so too had Shiloh's whole arrival in Kansas always seemed too convenient -- and Louisa had not formed this opinion from the influence of Janus. After Louisa’s time with R.P. Luke, she had come to her own conclusion.
Louisa looked at Shiloh. Even under Jeff Davis’ thumb, he seemed to give directions. Jeff Davis even seemed to differ to him. What did Shiloh know? He knew whom Jeff Davis meant to find. Why, then, did Shiloh help him?
-Which way then rocker?-
-We can take the Arkansas to the lifts for Pottawatomie. But to get there, we need to take a back way through the Nicodemus Colony. Once there, we can find Janus and the rest of her Engineers holed up. Waiting.-
Jeff Davis smiled a line of snot.
-This place is laid out like...ancient Kansas?! I would have expected orientalism to take root here. But this classicism? This is too good!-
-I guess you can take the boy out of the Old Republic, but you can't...-
-Oh, you wish you were a Free Soiler! The rock-n-roll has been good to you, has it not?-
Shiloh failed to answer.
Louisa looked up at her kinsman, Catal Huyuk, and since the air stunk anywhere near Abrax-zeez, she located his location too. Abraz-zeez or the Monkey Messiah. She had a hard time seeing his daughter in his face.
Louisa wondered more about her kinsman, though. Him of the obsidian sword of the Mysterium. The big dark warrior gave nothing away. His dark flinty eyes did not even give away the light. He shielded the shrunken man behind him, Abrax-zeez, from the terror on the streets.
All in all. All inhabited their own worlds.
Just on the other side of their domain lurked the hidden machinations of Jeff Davis, and tied up with him, the will of Shiloh.
The greater part of their world also formed a vain veil of protection against the violence of the streets.
Everyone else was on their own. Even Shiloh, definitely even Shiloh. And by far, the dreaded Carthage Grays who surrounded them. Catal Huyuk seemed ready to slip away from them, for Louisa knew her kinsman well.
She was the only one who could not escape, and she remembered, the last time, escape had been permitted.
Come sit with us, sister Reformer!
Louisa had led the boy Ewarian for hours across the gentle green hills of the Soviets.
Narrow dark woods separated the rolling pastures where even narrower brooks divided their shadowy bottoms. She had once heard R.P. Luke talk about this place. The undeveloped parcels were Wild Nature. And what spirit did her and Ewarian chase now?
Every now and then they came across the rust-covered ruins of a farm machine. Then they resumed their travel. For a while the monotony of the landscape inspired them to boredom. But without the chase from G.O.O.N.s Louisa had expected, she finally enjoyed the trip, as her steps had less speed and she walked slower and slower, not from exhaustion, but in order to enjoy the view. Ohio was so boring, you could not help but find something to do.
Louisa barely expected Ewarian to make good company. Maybe the original Ewarian Machellis would have done better. But he had since died, nearly 100 years old, and the clone Kirsten had ordered to replace him...well, this Ewarian had a few “quirks” to work out. The med-ologists said these quirks might or might not disappear over time. For the moment, they just called his malady a modern name for the humors of the flesh. Autistic, as Louisa had heard the name used once or twice. Ewarian never talked, and except for grunts and the act of pointing, barely communicated.
Luckily, the chase from their pursuers gave Ohio some much-needed excitement. At one point, she heard propellers over their heads. She grabbed Ewarian by the hand and dashed into the nearest stretch of black woods. They waited for a few minutes and saw a dark shape cross the overcast sun. Soon enough, the patrol-zeppelin moved away from them, until the only sound was the water of the nearby brook. They soon hurried out of the woods.
Louisa had began their escape the same way she had continued the journey. She had no idea where they should go. So, when they encountered the Crick, they followed it upstream. She remembered that R.P. Luke's ducal-estate, where the Star of the West lay, also lay on the edge of the Crick. She just hoped this was the same one.
For a very long time they had followed the course of water. Beneath the tall dark trees, some with long branches that touched the waters edge, they hid and moved upstream. Every now and then, Ewarian would dash into the water and pull out a salamander from its muddy bottoms. Yet every time he presented her with one, she told him to put it back. Usually she would have considered these creatures good omens. But Janus, in her martial wisdom, had told her about the robotic versions of life that Octopi Incorporated had seeded throughout the Soviets. River monitors-- literally -- to watch over the backwater lands.
The first thing she smelled was the kindling of a fire, no doubt from moldy wood that still could catch fire and burn. Then she saw the smoke and a newer scent. Food of some kind was being cooked. Carefully, for she did not know about the residents of the Soviets, she approached the fire carefully, until, there, on the stony banks of the Crick, she came across them.
Louisa found the group of young kids all around a fire. They had thrown an iron grate across the flames, whereupon crayfish roasted and blackened, until they signaled with smells. Ready to eat. Five young kids around her age enjoyed the momentary break in the overcast sky, and the sun shone down and lit their faces. With Ewarian's hand safely in her grip, she stepped out from behind the bush, and cautiously, approached them. Plainly in sight, for all to see.
- Hello there...-
Louisa remembered how Kirsten’s favorite movie involved aliens from another planet who landed on the Earth. Invaders from Mars? Mars Attacks! She couldn’t remember. But she felt like one of those aliens now. The kids stared wide-eyed at them. And she was the monster.
-...I'm Louisa May Lee...and this here is Ewarian Machellis, and in the name of the Regency of Kir-sten'ya...-
The moved slowly, almost petrified by the fear of Louisa's death-ray.
-...we'd like protection under your house.-
The biggest kid rose to his feet. Everyone else did so, but much more slowly. The bigger one had a long piece of grass clenched in his teeth.
A smaller kid jumped up. He wore a pair of blue slacks with suspenders that crossed over his white button-up shirt. In fact they all wore the same thing, as well as the same bowl-cut.
-What's this she speaks of? I thought Hirohito was the Emperor? The ducal-sire's man.-
Another kid pointed.
-That's right. It's the Nippon prince.-
Another strangely dressed kid, even smaller than the rest.
-Never heard of anything you said. Who's...what's...this Kirsten...ya...you talk of?-
-And why do you dress so weird?-
Louisa studied their clothes, their terrible haircuts, and she gained a better idea where she was, and who she talked to. So 2882! Here lay the nymphs and dryads of the Cobra Warlord's 'Wild Nature.'
-I told you. I'm Louisa May Lee....-
The expected look of comprehension never came to their faces. Just blank stares. She figured she just had to say it slower. People talked weird in Ohio.
-Louisa May Lee.-
She looked at Ewarian, then wondered why she did. What help was he ever?
-You've never heard of Louisa May Lee? Freedslave and minstrel to the Empress Kir-sten'ya.-
The looked at each other and smiled tricky smiles. What about the Empress, she asked herself first?
The bigger kid looked at the other ones. The boy with the big wide-brimmed hat spoke up.
-Sounds like a pagani name.-
The smallest kid squeaked.
-Probably friends with the Cobra Warlord.-
And the last kid with the bowl-shaped hair.
-What's your name again?-
Louisa smelled the fire-blackened crayfish, ignored her stomach, and simplified the lesson.
-Well, there’s my album Hustlin Is Not Stealin. Starts with the song ‘The Iguana in the Moon.'
-'The Dark Mark on the Heart?'-
She waited, as the clouds passed in front of the sun.
-'Goldfish Be Here?'-
Nothing, again. She knew now whom she dealt with-
-You're the Amish....-
They nodded fierce and proud, and she silently cursed that, of all the places to run and hide, she had come here. There may not have been a more ignorant people on all the Earth. Of course the folk of her southern Deserite freeholds begged a mention.
-I guess we're more alike than I thought.-
The bigger kid protested and stuck his belly out.
-Where you come from?-
-Oh, from the lost histories of Classic America, that's where. Deseret.-
-Sure, you'd probably never hear it called that. Most call it Greater Adventium.-
Nothing, and she tired.
All ahhhhed at the same time.-
-One of the Awakened!-
For now, she didn't know what they meant. But they clearly saw it, and the one with the wide-brimmed hat, he took off his hat and bared his head. He was a she, and she continued to say.
-Come sit with us, Sister Reformer. Soon we're going up-Crick for an exploration. We're hoping we see a ghost.-
Louisa thought of Kirsten. A ghost? The kids must have spoke of someone else. She still couldn't help but think of Kirsten, though. Was she truly dead?
-What's this ghost you mean to see?-
The smallest kid pip squeaked.
-She's an astronaut who crashed here. Our grandparents buried her.-
The long blade of grass nearly fell out of the biggest kid's teeth, and he pointed furiously at Louisa and Ewarian.
-Don't go saying that! We don't know who these two are! They might run off and tell the Muskrat Bitch!-
-You don't. But you won't be sorry. I'd love to see a ghost.-
Ewarian jumped up and down, and this told Louisa all she needed to know. Of course they would go.
Louisa looked behind her, as Kansas burned. Where once the towers of Baxter Springs rose at the bottom of the heights and marked the start of the Tidewater, now thick black smoke obscured the Regency-art deco landmarks.
She looked ahead, as the group hiked uphill. The late day burn of the sky was visible, the artificial borealis a brief highlight to the yellows and greens. A few faint traces of the highest columns of smoke floated through the sky, partially in front of the nearest Minuet. Its long slender column twisted with the remains of heated air. But it still stood, the highest parts of the Palace remained tall, and Louisa and the rest of her company continued to take the heights. Uphill, into the Piedmont.
A group of people scurried across the street. The carried nothing on their backs. Other than the overturned carts of vendors, little in the street opposed them. At least they had that.
Bins burned low with more smoke than fire, and the group barely paid Louisa, and the rest, any mind. Until they saw the weapons Jeff and his creatures carried. Then...
She saw the crazed appeared in their eyes, and thought their behavior belonged to one of the chased. The hunted -- and not the hunter. She knew the look well
An explosion boomed somewhere down the Arkansas, in the direction of the Tidewater and to their backs. It sounded off the walls of the buildings and for a second, they looked over their shoulders. Except for Catal Huyuk. Nothing moved him. Louisa turned at the sound of his own booming voice.
For a second, Louisa thought she saw Shiloh...smile. She'd forgotten about its warmth...and the flawless teeth. Must have been nice in the Waterloo-court...She missed him.
-You know, we might want to tag along with those pilgrims. It would be the safest way to get where we want to go.,,-
Louisa watched Shiloh wind himself up, or rather, Shiloh continue to wind up Jeffrey.
-...This isn't a place you want to make bedfellows with. They tend to be strange.-
Jeff Davis made some hand gestures that, for Louisa, at least, made sense in some make believe bestiary. A place only Jeff, and his menagerie of creatures, understood. He pointed with his gun, and his Carthage Grays imitated him.
Guns, guns, guns, she thought.
The group plodded on, Jeffrey looked conflicted, his orders countermanded, while another explosion sounded in the distance.
The boom drowned out Louisa’s cruel, satisfied chuckle.
They entered a tenement, with the folks scared out on the streets. Inside the long lobby, signs of the violence still lingered. Smoke, and occasional music. This from the screams of rioters, somewhere on the other side of the street. And debris. It littered the lobby. Hundreds of pamphlets littered the Commonrealm-era hempen carpets, the images and text on the scattered bills competed with the woven motifs and symbols on the carpets. The mediums and their messages, piled one on top of another, until the obliteration of all meanings.
She knew trouble when she saw it -- and their location too.
Pictures decorated the walls of the lobby, created in a medium she guessed Shiloh knew. She knew the subject of the pictures. A woman and a car. Each picture different, just a little, from the one before. A series a commemorative portraits done for a hero from the battle in Kansas. She only had to ask the author...
-Would you look at what these Sons of the South did?!-
Louisa didn't want to laugh at Shiloh's distress, so she strained to pay attention. Some of the rioters --squatters, no doubt-- had sprayed air-paint across some of portraits. Oh yes, definitively haters of the Regency. "Death to all Yankees and Traitors in Kansas!" She knew many thought no bigger traitor existed than the ex-David of the Godstate of Texas, now Vizier to the Empress. Yet nothing would stop Shiloh and his movie.
-It took me a long time to get Collision's rockabilly look just right...-
Jeff Davis even admired it. Louisa's stomach turned. She then heard secretive laughter. She turned to see Catal Huyuk and Abrax-zeez share a private moment. She wondered about the court of the Monkey Messiah. Is this how those moments looked? Even without his monkeys...his best friend “Bear.”
-We best not let our desires make us lose our friends....-
Catal Huyuk smiled at Abrax-zeez's mention of Jeff Davis' drool, and pointed.
-There's still a beaten path for us to take...if....-
Shiloh must have caught this.
-Squatters...not all bushwhackers follow the Badge and the Bible.-
Jeff Davis tightened his grip on Louisa's arm. Oh, you fucker. If only Hessia was here now...she ate fucks like Jeff -- especially Jeffrey -- for breakfast.
And just like that, Jeff Davis communicated to his Carthage Grays, and she was dragged along. Shiloh met her eyes. His pools of emerald green betrayed worry. If he meant to suggest she would be alright, he failed. He didn't even believe it.
They walked down a very long hall, lit only by the burning streets of Kansas. Yet all corners had to be turned, and when they did, Louisa heard Catal Huyuk first.
He called out to a friend.
Just when Louisa was prepared to run into his arms, the shooting of arms began.
Brother and sister Reformers...the name made little sense to her... Louisa kept Ewarian close, and they walked up the Crick.
While their direction led them far away from the real-estate fief of R.P. Luke, other thoughts had taken precedence in Louisa's mind. For the possible death of Kirsten, that accursed and terrible empress, seemed real. She had to think of a new life. And while she knew this was not wholly realistic, she could remember how, in the past, her life had taken unexpected turns, and she had been on her own. To fend for herself. It was a long way from beautiful Deseret....
This might be one of those times.
Along the banks of the Crick they walked. That sun, which could barely cut through the overcast skies, lent a muggy air to their walk. At times, they would climb down the muddy banks and walk up to their ankles in the water. Every now and again, the water grew deeper. Some of the kids dared each other to jump into the swimming holes. But they did not. For the fear of traps for muskrat leeches set by Lady Andramadeus, so scared them that most did not think she had not lay the traps, as befitted her responsibility as the game warden of the Real Estate Association. Some say she did so to ward away the wards of R.P. Luke, lord-protector of the ancient Amish.
Before long, Louisa saw a large structure suspended over the Crick. The biggest kid led them under it, and she came to know the bridge as the First Span. Similar crossings of steel and cement had been built. Like others, the engineering lay with the Estate of Andramadeus. They had intended to connect the rural lands to the crabgrass frontier and undo the thousand-year reprieve started by the Dismantling Congress. So far the American Revival had proceeded, nearly unchecked.
After a time, they walked out of the low valley where the Crick winded through. Vast pasturelands opened to them. Green tracts and narrow woods. The Soviets proper of the Reformed U.S.A. Louisa enjoyed the gentle fields, where they would stumble upon green-choked springs. But when she realized mosquito lion eggs caused the filmy colors, her skin crawled.
Better it was to hike out of the pastures and into the dark woods. She liked this best. Even as bark-rust gave the air a moldy smell, the quiet liars of shadows and the trickle of watery brooks seemed the perfect place. They walked through the mazes of trees, where every now and again, they stumbled upon a tree-fort high in the branches. Deserted and, in disrepair from neglect, she learned they were all that remained. The days of the Crabgrass Wars between the real-estate fiefs.
They emerged from the last tract of woods into another field of green. To their south, a row of hills appeared. When the sun began to set, the light created long shadows out of every single mound. Louisa imagined she saw the hills move, as if they slithered against the horizon. The last light of the day turned the air cold. Louisa felt chilly. They exited the last rays and entered a another valley. At the base she saw another row of trees. When they got closer, she realized all the leaves had fallen from the trees. She then realized the trees were dead. All of them. Dry branches crunched under her feet. The temperature had seemingly dropped a few more degrees. She shivered in the faint light. The sun had long disappeared. Only the illumination of a fuller Luna, as well as a distant Ceres lit her path. She pushed through the last of the branches. They broke upon her touch.
Mist covered the ground, and they walked across a wet patch of ground. A hidden spring lurked somewhere. She saw gravestones. Weathered by years, they sprouted from the mouth of the ground. Teeth bared. Louisa studied them, while the rest moved on. Ewarian bent down to touch one, and she saw him trace fingers in the eroded grooves. Someone's name, lost to time. Yet she pulled him back up, yet saw a date. 1882.
She caught up with the group, who had disappeared through a wall of dead trees and branches. With Ewarian in tow, she broke through the barrier, and there before her, a scene opened up. They stood actually stood upon a hill. Farmlands dotted the land with squares and circles. In the distance, two towers lay. Two identical skyscrapers. An airship was tethered to one of them.
As she gazed upon the fields of the Estates-General, a nearby shape stole away her sight and her attention. The statue of a skeleton lay not a few feet away, and a whisper-- it caressed her ear...