Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Cascadiad







By the time Dulcimer heard about the landslide at Donner’s Pass, the People Authorities already had him in custody. The three hundred or so souls who died beneath the deluge of ice and mud stood in place of Dulcimer’s trial. His execution would come quick, as per the directions of the Social Contract.


He sat in a cell, the light growing dimmer by the hour, reflected by a series of mirrors in the halls and ceilings, until even that light had faded and he was alone in the dark. With the passage of time, he saw the last shapes of his shadow on his wall. By the time his shadow vanished, he could hear the rattle of keys from the jailer.


The approach of a single jailer confused him. When the People Authorities had first seized him they came as a mob. Everything they did was through the masses, and had been, ever since the Blackout. Dulcimer was old enough to remember.


This was not the case. The jailer, a woman he had never seen before, approached him, with her face held in the small hole in the door, lit from below by a gas lamp. Dulcimer could hear the hiss from the burning wick, almost mistaking the sound for a sound of disapproval. She looked like many of these law types. Severe. Her hair was tied back in the bun. But not too tight. A few strands of gray hair fell down on the sides of her face.


She didn't say anything, didn't need to. He heard the sound of metal keys scrape against the lock, the tumblers soon fell into place. The door opened. The moment of his judgement had arrived, and Dulcimer, since grown tired of his role as a Developer for the energy consortium, accepted the judgement of the dead. He lifted his tired frame off the wood bench and stepped through the door, his jailer leading him to his execution.


A heavy blow hit him on the back of the head. His last thought was from before the Blackout, standing in a hot shower. Pissing on his leg. When he'd had two of them.


***


Dulcimer Barlow came to in a bright green pasture, or at least he thought so, with his first moments of waking up. The light seemed boundless, the air seemed fragrant. His imagination did the rest. He could have been anywhere on this bright, green earth.


-He’s awake.-


-How can you tell?-


-I think he has a...-


-Really? Really?!-


-Sshh! Lets do this right!-


He heard a boy and girl through the roar of pain in his head.


He braved an eyelid to check his surroundings.


A fan whirled under the power of a momentum spring. Leaves of a green forest were painted on the ceiling. And he smelled something. Incense.


Laying on his back, he pushed down with one of his hands.


A cushion.


He considered rolling over on his side. But the rise of a painful throb in the back of his head overrode all other thoughts.


Instead he groaned, rubbed the base of his skull, and opened his other eye. Seeing nothing but the inside of a room, spray-painted with the fields of elysium, he rolled over on his side.


Two people sat on a couch. He’d been right. A boy and a girl. Behind them lay a painted scene of a cascading waterfall. The two -- barely out of their teens, maybe -- seemed ready, in wait, for him. He almost felt special.


The boy didn’t seem to agree.


-Ready to hear the death count?-


Dulcimer’s eyes grow wide with terror, his thoughts aware that the moment of judgement had arrived and he might soon die. Finally. But there was something else.


He slowly sat up, not an easy things these days. His body frame trembled with the addition of weight since his operation.


Kids, really. Wearing flannels, not nearly identical, but close in the patterns, if not in color. Their faces held a pained expectancy, in-wait for Dulcimer's answer.
-If you are going to kill me, do it. Be the will...or whatever the damned Contract calls it-


The girl beat the boy to words.


-We don't want your death Dulcimer Barlow. Or the deaths of the people...-


The boy with a neckbeard fought back.


-I think it would do a good thing for this Developer to understand what happened. Does he have any idea what happens when an ice-wall melts and slides down the face of a mountain?-


She cupped a hand over his mouth, and in that brief time he had a moment to put an idea together about their identity. Cascadians. Rebels of the Commonwealth.


-What good will that do? We need to give him a chance.-


Dulcimer looked around the office to be sure, knowing instantly in the decor of a doctor’s office from the past, before the Blackout, that he could only see the staging and the players in the act, but not the directors behind the curtain. No.


The girl looked even more serious than the part in the middle of her straight hair.


-Every year the Vigilance Committee organizes a Safari into the Peripheries. It’s a big social event for the Commonwealth, and the families of the Kingdom are allowed to go with them, to see the power of the People Authorities. We want you to infiltrate this Safari.-


Dulcimer remembered, then, why the accidental murder of three-hundred souls did not bother him in the slightest, nor why his execution for their death did not trouble him a bit. He wanted to die, and had for a long time now. Sadly, he realized he would not.


-Why me?-


The girl spoke on the end of his question.


-To earn back the life of your daughter.-


***


There was no road less traveled in Oregon country. There was only one road. All the resources of the country had gone into the resurrection of the former interstate thoroughfare. The Commonwealth’s addition of manpower and innovation further augmented the mighty route of Greater California. The pavement and concrete made the perfect foundation for the Trans-Commonwealth Express.


Dulcimer boarded the steam train at the Salem-Eugene nexus. The TCE was a long dragon of refurbished steel held together with iron from the yards of the north, the passenger carriages double-decker trailers of former semis. Dulcimer sat in the standing-room section -- most of areas of the train were standing room only -- and he grabbed a leather strap. The steam train rattled and rolled with terrible force down the former I-5. With the speeds the dragon hit, he feared disintegration. The press of travelers held him upright, fatigue did the rest, and he fell into a fitful sleep.


He woke up just as the face of his dead daughter returned to him.


Night reigned outside and most of the other riders had deboarded, perhaps workers at the Crater Lake Boilers, he guessed. The light came through the cut-out holes in the passenger cars. The globe of the moon was further broken apart by feathery clouds. The furious rattle and roll of the train had ceased, and in its place, the groan of eighteen engines. Grant’s Pass.


Dulcimer felt the real meaning of the lurch of iron and steel, as a jolt sent him forward, onto a pile of cushions stacked up against the wall. He fell down into the mess and felt something hard in the jumble. He smelled the thousands of unwashed bodies who’d sat and lain upon the cushions. But they smelled nothing as bad as the dark form that lurched up through tangle. Long hair and burned-bright eyes of blue greeted him with obscenities.


-You damn well should no better than to wake a sleeping man on the way to his death sentence!-


Dulcimer kept a small dagger in his boot. He reached for it now.


The grime-covered shape held a machete his throat.


-Already cut one man’s head off...-


Dulcimer tried hard to smile, but only grimaced.


-You don’t want this head. Wouldn’t be much use to you.-


The grime-covered filth moved away from Dulcimer. The moon’s light illuminated a night-glo panel above the thing's head. His eyes dulled for a second. Lifeless for a time, and he explained.


-Only men running from a crime take the late express. You and I, then. That's what I will call it. The death ride.-


Dulcimer readjusted himself on the pillows. The plastic edge of his artificial leg cut into his leg, and he needed to put some distance between him and the machete. The stinky thing, too. But since the thing with the grimey, long hair was a man, or had been at one time, and he resumed a way of speech that Dulcimer better appreciated, even related to.


-Why are you leaving the True North, son?-


Dulcimer looked past the man's dead eyes and peered through the cutout holes. Windows to the outside. Except for the sky, only the dark sides of mountains appeared. Black walls.


-Having a job, a purpose, a way to not have to think about the next day. I can't bear to think of not having something to do.-


The man sounded to Dulcimer as a man who tried hard to laugh, but could not. The effort couldn't overcome the melancholy that Dulcimer heard ring in his voice.


-And that's what I will miss too. A job, some call it. But I will miss the adventure. The task. That is Cascadia. Lots to do here, right?-


Dulcimer felt his leg begin to ache.


-The task?-


-Sure. Thats what I called it. A chance to ride the Columbia into the east. Into the Wastelands. A silvery thread, a way to convince myself I was doing something good.-


But Dulcimer had already fallen asleep. For all the man’s talk about the east, Dulcimer did not mean to travel that way.


He'd lived in the Wastelands long ago.


***


Beneath the hills that ringed the volcanic anomaly named Mt. Shasta, the disembarkation of wagon traffic traveled in the four directions: into the volcanic highlands; into the lower valleys; into the coastal highlands; into the impassable woods.


While Wilburys boarded the TCE, Dulcimer deboarded and waited for his ride. To pass the time, he walked among the chow-camps beneath the frozen glare of Mt. Shasta. He ate horse-meat tacos with spicy pesto and drank ice-chilled mead from glacial pools. Even in Jefferson, Californians were foodies.


Dulcimer lounged on the back of a wagon. For a brief time, he enjoyed the space to stretch out his legs and watched the hordes of Wilburies roll across the volcanic prairies.


He also thought about the Columbia River, where he'd spent much of his life. Before the time in the Emerald City, the defection of his wife, and the murder of his daughter.


A man rose out of the glare of the setting sun. Dulcimer knew his contact had arrived, and so he waited, as the darkened silhouette transformed into a man.


-Mr. Ulysses.-


Dulcimer moved slowly onto his feet, his step shook a little, the ground was uneven beneath his feet. The stranger with the military cut and eyes hidden by sunglasses approached much too quickly. He wore a pressed suit, and his tall boots nearly had mud to the top. A thin mouth turned into a smile upon Dulcimer’s greeting.


-You’re the agent?-


-Highwayman Brannan at your service.-


His voice betrayed amusement, and, if Dulcimer’s memory served him right, the accent came from the Southland. Made sense. Therein lay the cradle of the Highwaymen.


-We could’ve taken the Express into the capital.-


The Highwayman shook his head.


-Not always the best way into the Kingdom, I’d say.-


No, guess not, Dulcimer thought. He didn’t understand this world, least of all the politics of California.


-So now?-


The Highwayman showed Dulcimer the way with outstretched arms, taking in the entire valley filled with the ejecta of volcanoes.


-We become Traveling Wilbury’s.-


***


The family of three died screaming at the hands of the Highwayman’s long knife. Dulcimer. He’d meant to stop Brannan from killing them, but by then, the little girl’s screams had gotten to him, and then. He ran away as far as he could bury his head in the ground. Backwards from one-thousand.


He came back to the scene of the crime. Only a lone streak of blood evinced the drama of the place. The bodies were gone. Just the Highwayman, cleaning his knife, jumping on the back of the wagon, and igniting the steam-engine.


-Are you ready, developer?-


Dulcimer jumped in back of the wagon. He saw a doll the girl had left behind. The loud racket from the engine covered up the sound of Dulcimer’s sobs. Racking.


***


-So we are going to walk right into the Kingdom?-


The Highwayman couldn’t hear Dulcimer over the chortling steam-engine. But he must’ve sensed his question, enough to turn around and motion towards him.


Dulcimer didn’t walk up the wagon bay. He crawled on all fours. The wagon bumped over the pits in the State Roads. He’d already fallen and wouldn’t take the chance again.


Dulcimer repeated the question, and the Highwayman laughed. Dulcimer thought he heard him right the first time, but he wanted to make sure. The killer of families repeated his answer.


-We need to get past the Canal. You’ll find a ferryman. He’ll take you to the port.-


Dulcimer didn’t move back to his seat. He sat too close for his comfort, at the left hand of the Highwayman, as he steered the rudder of the rear-wheels. But he stayed his place, looking for a brief second as the scenery of green hills and forests above blurred with the passage of his attention into a kaleidoscope of thoughts and feelings he’d need to master if he wanted to save the girl.


What girl? To call the Cascadians’ directions vague was an understatement. If they’d meant to keep him in the dark, they’d succeeded. He tried to think about these questions along the way. To make conversation over the loud chortle of a steam engine tested the strength of the loudest voices, least of all a traveler’s patience. He’d once had more experience on the State Roads. But he could only guess that many a traveler had spent their journeys in silence. So he did, too, in an attempt to enjoy the scenery of a river bottom, it’s green-lined banks barely interrupted by the collapsed columns of a highway overpass. Welcome to the Bear Flag State.


Later that night: Dulcimer managed to remember his most-pressing question, when in the hollow of a giant redwood, the Highwayman and him paused their travels. The forest was dark, it murmured with approval, and the final dings of the water in the steam boiler dropped down to a bare level. Here and there, the crackle of the fire. And a stick popped alight with sparks.


-What exactly am I supposed to do in the Kingdom? On this Safari, which I am surprised the State can still do. That thing was dead when I last saw it.-


Dulcimer waited for a flash of the fire’s light, or a sound of contemplation, to signal the Highwayman’s answer. Dulcimer got nothing. Not quickly, at least. Just beyond the range of his hearing, Dulcimer heard what he thought was laughter.


-A terrible 12 year old. The worst. She desperately needs a teacher. So, what better place is there, than, for a lesson, than during a raid from the city into the Peripheries. Have you ever seen the cities eat the suburbs, Mr. Ulysses? It’s quite a sight!-


Dulcimer was quiet. He let the darkness of the night hide his thoughts, his interests, so the Highwayman could finish. But all he heard was the sound of the dead girl. The doll. Years had passed since he’d thought of his own daughter. His family had never forgiven him. He’d never forgiven her.


-Rumor says the Governor is quite fond of her. She plays piano at his parties in the Kingdom. So, its good for us: she has his ear..-


The Highwayman’s face reached across the fire.


Dulcimer suddenly felt tired...he imagined the cities eating the suburbs.


***


He awoke just as the Sun’s rays began to warm the ground and the first campers walked out of their tents, to rouse fires from gas stoves, boil water, and heat up pans. Soon bacon and eggs and other starches popped and browned. The soft voices of morning joined the songs from electrical devices.


Dulcimer dreamt of the time before the Blackout. When the world was much older. When he had a wife and daughter. When another life existed.


While his wife broke down the tent, Dulcimer sat beside the fire. Ana sat beside him, her big, brown eyes transfixed on the steel percolator. As the heated water rose in the cylinder, Ana’s eyes laughed at every bubble in the top of the percolator. Earlier, he’d explained to her how the thing worked, and every time, she'd grown bored when he'd swept away the magic, he no doubt knew she saw. What she wished for.


Papa?


Yes, dear?


Why isn't the forest free?


It is free...


No papa, we paid. We paid the man to enter here. And stay.


Because. People have to look after this place.


Why? Who says people have to?


They have to make sure it doesn’t get all used up. So it can remain like this. Forever.


Why?


So we can enjoy it. So we can celebrate it.


...I don’t understand...


Celebrate our beginnings. Where we, as a people, came from.


Where did we come from?


This...


Dulcimer meant to explain to Ana about the wilderness and Americans. But the lights went out. When they turned back on, the Highwayman held the bloody head of his daughter in his hands.


***


The State Road stopped at a fallen highway overpass, and from there, the Highwayman camouflaged the wagon and led Dulcimer on foot, marching across a field. The ground was soft beneath their feet, the grass and other growth, bare, and the path well-worn by human foot-traffic, as well as other beasts. A herd of cattle ruled the edge of the horizon, with a few sentinels on the approach to the travelers.


The pace of the Highwayman's boots quickened.


-The cattle barons allow some traffic, but they can't all be tested.-


They saw nothing for an hour. And that hour turned into another still moment of ceaseless time -- seemingly -- until a sight stilled Dulcimer and he stopped.


The Highwayman turned around, but he didn't stop walking.


-Don't stop. We don't have time.-


The elevation of the place came with privilege, the terrain afforded views for hundreds of miles, . One stood on the last plateau of the distant Cascade mountains, to see in the distance the California, below. The place down there.


It wasn’t Cascadia.


Dulcimer picked the components of sight, apart. He looked beyond one horizon of green, as it ended with an expanse of grey -- the alternate horizon of the sky -- and just at the edge, towers of steel and concrete.


-Is that...San Francisco...-


Dulcimer could barely make out the city’s features and familiar landmarks. He saw a twisted shape on the northern eastern flank, but could barely make sense of the slumping lines of gray.


The Highwayman didn't cease to walk.


-It’s not what you think.-


Dulcimer looked for the waters of the bay. But all he saw was more gray. A desert of oblivion.


-So this is the capital?-


Dulcimer thought he heard the Highwayman murmur disagreement. But another sound interrupted. Whooshes -- a series of them separated by seconds -- leapt through the air. By the time, Dulcimer reacted, a groan informed him about the Highwayman. A long arrow protruded from the back of the Highwayman. He staggered backwards to remove the shaft of the arrow, his hand awkwardly backwards. He could not reach it.


Then, a bolt of pain took over Dulcimer’s leg, with an arrow added to the misery, just below his knee, sticking through his lower calf. He heard a whimper and realized the source. Himself.


The Highwayman continued to make comic attempts to reach the arrow. Dulcimer heard rustling. He turned to see cows on the move -- they walked on two legs. Like men. And when he heard a soft mew behind him, a sack was put over his head and the drubbing began.


***


The round-pen was full of the condemned, who stirred endlessly, powered by their anxieties. Each person wore a sign around their necks. On it, words in red paint. I killed my wife. I illegally sold my energy rations. My wife and I violated territorial sanctions.


For Dulcimer, I am an unregulated motherfucker (I killed 300 people).


Above him and his fellow condemned, armed guards stood with steel-tipped pikes. They watched the scene with little interest. One picked apart a chicken carcass and threw the bones into the pen. Desperate prisoners fought for the bits.


Dulcimer could only hop, barely stand, and for most of the time, he leaned against the wall of the round-pen. His captors had taken his artificial leg.


The wooden gates of the round-pen swung open slowly. Men with pikes, dressed in metals pried from the sides of automobiles, looked fierce. With the tips of their weapons, the guards forced the condemned to exit. Quick whacks with the blunt ends ended the few voices of protest.


Dulcimer was the last to leave, hopping through the gate.


A dirt path led from the round-pen, and the condemned followed it, more or less, by the urging of force. Doom led them, really. That’s what Dulcimer thought, anyways. He hopped, noticing the dirt road had once been a suburban street. A ruined city street with the gutted and stripped feted by the frayed insides of streetlamps. And where the houses once lined the block, broken foundations contained city debris. Scavengers. A few fires smoldered inside the structures. But it was smoke Dulcimer noticed. Lots of things burned in this hamlet. Would they add more?


The condemned hobbled down the dirt road. Dulcimer hopped, grew tired, but didn’t fall down -- he didn’t dare. He knew the guards worked for the agency of the People Authority. Judgement would come from the “People,” not it’s guardian. But they wouldn’t refrain to use their pikes. Along the way, Dulcimer saw a few prisoners grow weak, fall, get pummeled, and fail to move or rise. Nevermore.


The protest of a prisoner caught his attention. Questions. The weakened and scared man needed answers. Dulcimer had them.


-At some point, we can expect them to take us to a Tribune. Then we will be judged.-


Dulcimer noticed the younger version of a man beneath that grime and filth. His sign: I spied for Texians. This guy was hella dead. Shit. Dulcimer was becoming NoCal.


-I've heard changes are coming. Close to the capital. The leader of the Senate, the Consul...he promises jury law.-


Dulcimer laughed. He didn’t mean to, it was a cruel laugh, but it needed expression. And he’d heard of this Consul, the author of the Contract.


-There’s no Vigilance Committee here. And that means -- all of us -- are in the hands of a Tribune. Forget the Consul. Look at this place.-


Dulcimer left the young man to whimper in peace, and read the former suburban landscape, since broken up and carried away by unseen hands. It was catch-all-if-catch-can. Signs of the horrible energies that once birthed the Commonwealth.


The guards suggested a new direction with the ends of their pikes. A long building squatted in the middle of the block. Cement usually ended in disaster. Broken windows didn’t contain one piece of glass. Those that did grinned a terrible smile. Above the protruding fangs, black flags of the People Authority whipped in the northern California wind. Dulcimer read a sign. Home of the Bulldogs. They’d called his high school sports team the same thing.


The guards led the condemned around the school, through the broken pavement on the playground where a sportsfield yawned before them. The grandstands still stood intact, and, to know this, Dulcimer feared. Since the Blackout aluminum was worth more than gold, and, with the grandstands, the People Authorities made a strong point: they would preside over life and death.


Monstrous representatives awaited the condemned. A cheer went up, most from youthful throats.


The Tribune.


Dulcimer couldn’t bare to look.


The condemned were forced over the circular of a track and field, cratered by scavengers’ picks in search of asphalt. In the middle of the field, lurked a forest of overgrown weeds, risen high to their wild potentials. He saw nothing else. Unseen hands shoved bags over their heads. Dulcimer thought a funny thing. It really was the warning track.


***


It was always yesterday in his mind.


Ana developed severe anxieties in her 8th year. The doctors-of-the-time were the best of the pre-Blackout years. But they could never explain why her heart had grown weak, her blood had thinned, her life seemed in danger. They could only advise him to monitor her stress levels. He spent the rest of her life ready to throw a pillow under her. To cushion every fall.


She begged her father to continue her piano lessons. He tried to explain to her what would happen. Eventually, she would have to play a recital in front of people.


This is exactly what happened.


The same week that the lights would go out forever -- at least until the dawn of the California Commonwealth -- he took her to the opera house. The place no longer stood. It burned down long ago during the Social Wars. Back then, though, it served as the place for her recital. Little Ana ready for her big moment.


And then her anxiety returned...


***


Bonfires had begun to rise on the place that was once a football field. Youth and strength still held serve, though. Big strong kids tossed telephone poles onto the flames, the fires took hold of their materials, and Dulcimer, knowing what would come next, listened to the litany list of crimes begin.


After the first round of hangings he heard his name.


The Mouthpiece of the Tribune -- that old standby of California justice -- was hidden behind a flower-shaped megaphone at the summit of the grandstands. When their tiny voice reached the field, the woods were distorted beyond all recognition. That didn't impede the Tribune from their mission. Boos erupted from their small mouths for every crime. Clenched fists were lifted to cheer on every execution.


Hands ripped the hood off Dulcimer’s head. When he could see through the smoke of the bonfires, he found what he'd expected. A stack of bodies. The grandstands filled with the judges of the Tribune. Big strong hands pushed him and the other condemned towards the wooden stage. Dead bodies decorated the atelier, hanging from ropes for the briefest of times, until cut down. Successive thumps hit the stage.


His moment on stage reminded him of a time before the Blackout.


He could also imagine the lights of the bonfires backlit an audience, and he stood beside Ana, when she gave her first piano recital and he walked on stage to soothe her anxieties.


The expectancy. The cheering. The bowing...


Strong hands forced him down on his knees...to put a noose around his neck.


Dulcimer felt as if every eye was trained on him right now. This made sense. Among the condemned to take the stage, his crimes attracted the most attention from the Tribune’s sentences.


The charges began: the accident of the pneumatic pump; the hot water that escaped the seals; the melting of the ice dam and the flume of debris that ran down the side of the mountain.


Then came the matter of the three-hundred dead. A town wiped off the earth. Dulcimer waited for them to wave the bloody shirt. All manner of deadly things was given his authorship, and Dulcimer Barlow stood naked before the Tribune, convicted of the crime, ready to receive sentence.


Young, strong, angry children pushed him towards the single wooden beam of the gallows. The rope around his neck was flung over the beam, and Dulcimer waited for the trap door to open beneath his feet.


For a few brief seconds, he said goodbye to all he’d known. He was the last thing he held onto. And when he could let go of that, there was nothing left.


A lone figure moved closer to Dulcimer, and crowds of the Tribune responded, and surrounded the person. He saw a face emerge out of the orange glow. A woman’s face. She began to talk to the members of the audience. Dulcimer watched this for what seemed like forever.


Every reason existed for the trap door to open beneath him. Empty air, a moment of weightless, until gravity grabbed him, and yanked his neck.


But it didn’t.


-...it would be a shame to rid our Commonwealth of such talent...-


Fragments of conversations drifted through fire, smoke and frontier justice, and arrived at Dulcimer’s ears. Another figure had walked down the steps of the grandstands and emerged from the crowds on the grandstand. The Mouthpiece. They were barely out from his teens, a face scarred from acne, a yellow-and-blue HAZMAT suit-of-old, oversized and  handed down from the old regime. Justice was to be rendered onto California. The boy held a steady hand up the rest of the assembled Tribune, and in a few short seconds, their throaty anger obeyed and stopped their clamor.


-It was men like him who caused the Blackout.-


Dulcimer's life lay suspended on this statement. As a Developer of the web of gravity pumps on the Pacific Slope of the Sierras, a job well done did not just mean power to move the cranks and levers of the Boilers of the Cascades -- it meant no one should suffer from the failure of technology again. If anyone was to die, it would be Dulcimer. This was the search for regulation that held together the Social Contract.


There was something else at work here.


-...Allow me to take him to...the Down Below...to the children of the Hostages...-


Dulcimer's thoughts ended on Ana, her recital, and the applause of the audience. She would be dead within a few weeks, when she hadn't needed to die, at all. It could have very well been him. It should have been. But she found the will when he didn't. To end her shame when he couldn't, or wouldn’t, or whatever her game had been.


***


It had been a long time since Dulcimer had seen a machine fly in the air. Whatever it was. The shape seemed to extend long tendrils down to the ground. A far-away-man-of-war. He tried to get a better look at it. Eventually, he could tell it was a dirigible of some kind. But it always moved away from him. Suspended just beyond reach. At times he thought he could hear the machine. But the range of hills on the horizon buffered its sound. Pretty soon, he lost sight of the object, as the trodden path went below the horizon.


He struggled with his crutch.


For half the day, he only saw the ocean. It swirled in its green agony, the breakers hitting the beach with terrible force. He didn't see one boat upon its waters. Then, the sun began to set, and for a few minutes, Dulcimer could watch the belts of red and orange fan out from the implosion of the light. The earth continued to dry up half a world away. But here in Northern California, great efforts had been made to keep what remained intact.


Roxana led him through earthen paths that dove in and out of the woods, until completely swallowed up, and lost. Old timber equipment, trucks and cranes, appeared from time to time, overtaken by green growth, their cabins invaded by mosses and weeds, and nearly rusted through from the desolation of 15 years.


She’d since given up her white robe for a woolen coat and a big floppy hat and boots. Dulcimer guessed she must've been in her early teens, and a member of the first generation never to know the lights that challenged the dark, or a world powered by electricity.


But he came to learn that, as a child of the Kingdom, she knew a great many things. In the metropole of the Commonwealth, she saw the energies of labor that came closest to the replication of the old order.


Roxana was strong for her size too. At the very least, her endurance impressed Dulcimer. She marched him up and down hills without a pause, he listened in to hear her heavy breath -- and didn't -- and she spoke the whole time about her cousin.


-If I were you, I would drop the power struggles immediately.-


-You have nothing to worry about me. I am not a Cascadian. I gave up politics after the Blackout.-


-Then you haven't been following me, Mr. Ulysses. I am referring to my cousin. You'd best not try to challenge her.-


-And why is that?-


Roxana stopped her march and turned around. Dulcimer realized she was a little person, small and delicate, her face a small porcelain bowl with two brown eyes set in the exquisite oval dimensions. Dulcimer almost thought she was a doll. She talked and walked like one too.


-You won't get done what you need to get done if you decide to engage in debates, Mr. Ulysses. Your job is to teach her, in any way you can -- nothing more, and if there is nothing else I can do for you...-


Dulcimer noticed something behind Roxana.


-Can you move out of the way?-


Roxana was a robot, so she obeyed, and Dulcimer had a full view of the valley below. She’d led him to the peak of a mountain. A stone sign behind them had read Mt. Tamalpais. He had the best view of the Down Below.


He could see the tops of other tall hills, and below them, separated valleys. Within each one -- little villages. He saw none of the signs of scavenging that had beset the world after the Blackout, and since, marked the new politics of the California Commonwealth. All the homes, quite palatial in their spheres, remained intact, and even stronger. Some estates had grown and enclosed more properties behind stone walls. Here, electricity -- if rumors were believed -- still flowed through the circuits and wires of each palace. Here, was the Kingdom.


Just beyond, where the waters of the San Francisco Bay should have lapped on the shores, lay an empty quarter marked by striated terrain, the former sandy bottoms of a former body of water. A desert. With a few stranded ships and the stranded hulk of a rusted-out oil tanker. Just for kicks.


Further out, San Francisco lay, and above it, a storm of things that flew, terrible tentacles hanging to the ground.


***


Not all the waters of the San Francisco Bay had disappeared, however. Dams did protect a series of lagoons near the former shore, and a canal connected them. Human traffic floated up and down waterway. Big, strong men used poles to push barges up and down the Canal.


Roxana and Dulcimer stood on the bow of a barge. They both watched the traffic pass them, Dulcimer noting the affluence of the families, marked by rich clothes and the visible consumption of food. He heard strange accents he'd not heard in a long time. Californians. Hella, hella, hella.


After a while of their meanderings -- for the Canal did not follow a straight path, but rather bent and twisted with the watery contour of the land -- the barge docked at a wooden jetty. A dockman in rich, velvety robes approached and threw a rope to them, while the barge’s steersman secured them to the dock. Roxana lept to shore, Dulcimer followed on one leg, and for the next hour, the street peoples of the Kingdom impressed with Dulcimer with the envies of the Commonwealth. Everywhere else was met by walls. Betwixt and between, Dulcimer was led by the nose to affluence.


A carnival of food and music rushed out of tents, not to mention the mouths and instruments of artisans. Dulcimer saw houses improbably set up like before the Blackout, until he gained a closer look, and saw the slight additions. Properties had been extended by walls and gates and covered porches. Windmill farms and solar collectors stood on the roofs of some. Steam rose from boilers in sections of town. He heard pneumatic pumps and the whirl of generators. But not one electrical wire in all of creation. He truly was in the land of the Hostages, the flesh-and-blood, political-capital of the Vigilance Committee.


He entered the gates.


***


The ascent up the hill proved steep. But to reach the fine houses of the piedmont, one had to struggle to the top. With crutches, the effort was difficult. At one time, Dulcimer realized, inhabitants faced little trouble with the climb. Automobiles had worked then, of course, and so many other things of the machine past.


The Kingdom had risen high soon after, with the gravity pumps and their energies within easy reach of the nearby Pacific Slope Engines. But success also meant the depleted waters of the Bay. From the hill Roxana had led Dulcimer up, he could witness the desolation. He made himself a guest within the palisades of California’s hostages.


Every mansion had a family room to admire airbrushed scenes of the tidewater, and Dulcimer followed an imaginary protocol. He made sure to enjoy the view from the privileged piedmont. The ruin and rally of the Commonwealth was no more than a quick glance out the wide windows of the mansion. There was no one else in the house but Roxana and him. He imagined a lonely wind. Plastic bags covered all the furniture. Dulcimer didn’t feel welcome, yet didn’t have the urge to sit, either. He wanted to stand for the sunset. And the lights began to change. Behind him gas lamps burned and all the polished surfaces reflected a green ghoulish, methane light. The mansion became dark. Roxana disappeared.


Dulcimer heard mystery hands play a piano. Somewhere upstairs. He did not recognize the tune, so he fell asleep on a couch, as the last light of the sun fell behind the black silhouettes of former San Francisco.


He heard someone call his voice.


***


Loud bangs woke up Dulcimer. His dream had ended. The police had just taken him into custody. The last face he saw was Ana’s.


More bangs, far away from his dark room, and he rose from bed. Disoriented. He thought if he laid back down and closed his eyes, the noise would end. A few seconds turned into minutes, and eventually, restful hours of sleep. Blessed rest. He finally rose and the sun was overhead and all-around and bright. The windows framed the Kingdom below, with the meander of the Canal a blue crescent through the townships of refurbished condominiums, and the walls of the laterday patricians, dancing a dance that could no longer be danced again.


Dulcimer opened his eyes. The realization struck him. He had slept the entire time.


-Wake up, Mr. Ulysses. Wake up. It’s time to go. Our bags are packed. You're the only one we're waiting for.-


A coffee was pressed into his hands by Roxana. Without a handle, the heat of the cup burned his hands. Roxana slid off into the darkness. Dulcimer saw a few glimmers of green methane lamps, mostly from a far off corner and beyond the room he slept in. For a few seconds he waited there. Until he grew self-conscious. Bitter coffee burned his tongue. He waited a few seconds, then rose from the mattress on the floor.


The bang he heard before, began again. It was a hollow sound, and Dulcimer imagined his pace quickened with it, moved to the sound, as he gathered the brief stuff Roxana had given him.


A HAZMAT suit of the People Authorities.


He stuffed the suit into a bag and strode down the hall, into the gloom of methane lamps, where the front hallway of the mansion beckoned as the focus of many primitive suns, and the chill of the early morning was darkest before the dawn.


The front door was wide open and men with torches waited outside. Dulcimer exited between their uneven rows. The guards in robes and jewels barely noticed him. He paid more of a mind to the weapons on their belts. Pistols. One did not see many guns these days. Those who did never lasted long.


The bangs returned -- louder -- and this time with a metal timbre upon the air. He saw in the morning blackness and chilly fog, the shape of an airship, a small zeppelin with a man standing next to its long, cigar-shaped body. He banged a hammer a few more times against the metal body. The engine struggled to stay in rhythm. Each beat of the hammer appeared to correct its irregularities, momentarily, until the heart of the machine returned to its natural state. A chaotic cough of decline.


Roxana emerged from the steaming darkness, a shawl over her head, and a pair of goggles over her rakish eyes of brown.


-This way, Mr. Ulysses, this way.-


With Roxana’s hand on his back, he stepped forward, into the carriage of the airship. It didn't wait for him, so much as introduce itself.


The Odysseum soon after rose into the sky.


***


Thousands of feet above the desert of the San Francisco Bay, and Dulcimer had his first look at the machines that trolled the air above the capital. But he had little time to sightsee, nor to make sense of things.

The slap of angry sandals distracted him.


The Odysseum flew over the iron ghosts and the dust-covered crypts of Treasure Island, the air thick with the smell of rust. He stood on the prow of the airship, and suddenly, heard tiny footsteps behind him. The slap of sandals against the redwood deck.


In the days since his liberation by Roxana, he’d learned that the Governor of the Commonwealth had a daughter. This was the girl Dulcimer would tutor.


Columbia.


He had little else to prepare him for the meeting. The Cascadians vagaries gave him little and the Highwayman’s insinuations were mysteries. He didn't know what mess he would step in.


It was about 5’2”, with big fluffy hair and bright anime eyes.


He struggled against the forces around him. Treasure Island’s ruined art deco monuments looked pale beneath the full moon. Columbia wore a big, furry coat with a long tail. And Dulcimer took a long time to say anything.


He also felt the forces within. Beating.


Wind swept through the deck of the airship. For a brief time, Dulcimer felt alone with this young girl. He drank in the moment, the sight of her fluffy hair in the high altitude airs -- blowing. The realization of a long moment since he’d felt this way...


The sudden appearance of a crewman on deck broke the moment. Dulcimer felt guilty for a second and corrected himself. His eyes left Columbia. The second passed. When he returned to look, he only saw the train of her fur coat. Gone away.


***


The first sights of the capital, the former glories of San Francisco, burned with the lights of the Pacific Slope Engines. Strange brown lights showcased the hallowed husks of buildings destroyed during the social upheaval of the Blackout. But much had moved, slunk forward. The lights had begun to turn on and people began to fill the city again.


Personal narratives were embedded in the metropolitan shell, the forgotten shouts for vengeance and the brief furies of a rope thrown over a light pole and a body hanging by sundown. The worst was behind the city. The bloody path of the Vigilance Committee was barely visible. From those energies had come the Consul and the Social Contract. Carved out by opportunity, the Commonwealth had sprung forth from the void, with the blunted spires of San Francisco as its capital.


Dulcimer felt strange beneath the muted colors, and reckoned the development of the bay influenced his perceptions of things. The efforts of the Perimeter Dam and the Seawall must have counted for something besides desolation. Cool ocean winds still dominated the concrete avenues of the city, as a knife in the streets. But the downtown of the city was a dry bone.


Progress. The Developer he’d once been should’ve rejoiced at the sight of electrical power. But he didn’t feel that part of him come alive. Instead, he followed Roxana and the caravan, as it entered the former library of the city.


This, too, was a shell. But through the pieced together rubble and the pitfalls bridged by planks of wood and sheets of metal, the lower levels of the place glowed with the attention of electric lamps, and, like the lights that shone miraculously from the high places of the city, the air was brown and sickly, and the shadows that were cast served as mere shades, easy to banish to the darkness, perhaps, but with only the green fires of methane to cut through the gloom of the doldrums.


Roxana led them into the basement of the library. There Dulcimer began to build his classroom. He worked through the nights.


Upstairs he heard a piano. Laughter. Screams. And the sobs of a little girl.



***


Electricity powered the catalogue of books. Couriers introduced by Roxana ran to retrieve maps. And Dulcimer prepared a lesson.


Very soon he had set aside a wall in an old conference room and pinned against its cracked drywall, the topography of, not only California proper, but the Sierras and the Nevadas; the abandoned metropoli of the Southland; the farflung Mojave, Tehachapi, and Imperial deserts -- and the near abroad of the Pacific Northwest -- Cascadia.


After three days of putting together his notes, Columbia emerged from the catacombs of Old San Francisco. The hood of a black sweatshirt was pulled completely over her head. Her sandals made slaps against the musty cement. She carried a small tiger-patterned cat in her arms.


He waited for her to say something. She didn’t and moved slowly. He tried not to act disappointed. But it failed -- he failed.


-I’ve heard you. Upstairs.-


Columbia barely moved her head, Dulcimer thought he might have imagined the motion, and he waited for a minute that agonized him in its silence.


-It’s you, right? The piano player?-


Her head barely moved, the lips in the dark cowl of her hood, just a thought.


-Are you going to be like this on the Safari?-


-What about you? Are you going to play for us on the Safari?-


-Play what?-


-Your piano.-


-My cat plays piano.-


-Your cat plays piano?-


-My cat plays piano. She’s Persian. She can play piano.-


Dulcimer had nothing else to say about this, nor an idea about what subject he needed to tutor Columbia. The maps on the wall seemed a good place to start. They said a great deal about the way California thought of itself, its relations with others, and how the idea of California was formed against the backdrop of a ruined world.


-Roxana...-


Columbia threw back her head. Now Dulcimer could see deep into the folds of the hood. He saw her tiny lips move with venomous precision.


-Roxana. She’s my cuz. And more. She’s from the Wastelands. The Consul gave her to me.-


Dulcimer ignored this.


-Your father...-


Columbia seemed in the grips of a greater animation that caused her to further throw back her head.


-That’s none of your business. I don’t talk about my family. Not ever. Nor do you. You’d better come up with other things to talk to me about.-


-Like what?-


-Like why you’re missing a leg. Does this have something to do with the people you killed? As a Developer? Did a Tribune remove your leg, then?-


-No. Nothing like that. It happened immediately before the Blackout. I can assure you...-


-That it won’t affect your performance?-


The cat in Columbia’s arms began to rub against her, and loudly purred.


-The Safari begins tomorrow. And when we travel, I want you to tell me about the lands before the Blackout. That’s because, over the ocean, there’s a place I want to go. And you’re going to tell me all about it.-


Roxana had already told Dulcimer about Columbia’s secret obsession. A place called “kpoplandia.”


-Only if you promise me, one thing.-


-What’s that?-


-Show me your face.-


Columbia dropped her hood and Dulcimer put his fist into his mouth, his teeth pressed his flesh, to hold back an anguished yell.
***


Dulcimer’s finally had the time to investigate the mysterious flying devices -- the motiles. The long tendrils from its belly were tangled in the leftover pile of a downed steel transformer tower.


He heard a whirl behind him. Roxana. She’d arrived in an electric cart on a cloud of steam, pulled up the California Street Rope by pneumatic currents and coasted to this destination. She jumped out, her long legs effortlessly lifted her out of the cart, where she stood by Dulcimer’s side.


-Have you never seen this before, Mr. Ulysses?-


-No.-


But he’d heard of them, surely. All in the Commonwealth had. Yet no one knew the Governor of the Commonwealth beat his daughter, neither. So what people knew mattered little.


-Being able to produce electricity in the capital gives the Commonwealth a big advantage over its rivals to the east. The Wreckers do their job, so the Consul can do his. Sweeping the nanites out of the air is what any modern capital-city must do.-


The nanites. They had ruled the world since the Blackout and disrupted all non-biological electric signals. And the motiles “swept” Old San Francisco of the nanites, unlike Dulcimer’s Emerald City. Nowhere else had electricity been reclaimed.


-This is a far cry from the renaissance, I’d say, which I've seen, by the way. You won’t find many who think this is a good idea. Not where I'm from, despite their...allegiance to the Commonwealth.-


Had Roxana sensed his difficulty with the word allegiance.


-Do you, Mr. Ulysses? Do you think we should go the way of the Cascadian rebels?-


He had to be careful now. He'd come to understand another type of intelligence lurked within Roxana.


-Following the Cascadians would mean rejecting the borders, as they’ve been designed and drawn. That means giving up on a lot of things. Ideas. Of how to order things. That goes to the heart of why the Social Wars happened.-


He’d also begun to notice how Roxana never blinked.


-And how do you think things should be...ordered?-


The total abandonment of the Commonwealth.


A windy gale from the Pacific roared over old Potrero, with its view of electric car traffic below and the power grid system of browned-out lights that alternated luminosity from soft tones to full-on illumination to final blacked out darkness. Power conservation in the capital. The clouds parted for a second and the base of the Twin Peaks Rain Trap was revealed.


The wind intensified and the motile swung about on its tangled tendrils. Dulcimer and Roxana worked to free the silicon appendages from the jagged cement bottoms of old Yerba Buena. They worked fast and with great effort. The last roots of the trunk of powerline towers soon budged out of the cement. The balloon was freed, and it lifted off, into the air.


Terrible San Francisco weather.


Dulcimer continued to think of Columbia’s face and how to save her.


***


On the day the colors of the Safari were raised, Dulcimer finished his invention.


A robot leg.


The caravan of raiders crossed the causeway of the bay, the ruined frontier of pillaged cement that crossed over the terminally iron islands of Yerba Buena and Treasure Island. The bottoms of the bay was wrecked by the loss of water, but the heights of the Admiral’s Mansion on Yerba Buena was a paradise. The altitude favored the growth of trees and grasses. The effects of the Twin Peaks Rain Trap were mitigated.


Roxana commanded the caravan. Dulcimer walked behind her. Columbia moved under a parafoil.


After a long walk up a trail cut into the side of a cliff, a stained house overgrown with weeds lay on a lawn. Human hands had cut the growth back. The caravan followed into the parklike settings. The house still looked intemporal, but the colonial villa of the place commanded some respect.


The Governor of California had strange creatures around him. A detachment of guards intercepted the caravan. They were California issue. Most of them wore hazmat uniforms.


The captain of the guard took off his prismed helmet. The sun shone off his visor. And after he'd taken off his helmet, Dulcimer beheld:


Highwayman Brannan.


-Hello Mr. Ulysses. You look very surprised.-


***


A Superwrecker showed up and floated above Yerba Buena, recently outfitted with munitions at Fort Alcatraz. The balloon-span of the motile was measured in inflatable sections: a Superwrecker not only had behemoth-class dirigibles, but an aftergrowth underbelly that could till the land. How else could the cities eat the Peripheries? This was a raid of the highest order. A Safari. And if the Governor was to organize the raid, then they required the best martial support.


Columbia's bruises had begun to heal. But Dulcimer still found a hard time looking at her face.


-Mr. Ulysses. Could one of those take us across the ocean?-


-Sadly, no. Those motiles need vast resources. Only the land has that abundance. But even that is stymied. By the limits of the Grazed Lands. And by the terrain. Not all wreckers can work like this in Cascadia.-


Dulcimer spied Highwayman Brannan’s attempt to eavesdrop on his conversation with Columbia.


In the Nimitz House, the New Job Corps helped the caravan with its bags. Dulcimer and everyone else did not retire to their rooms, however. Their belongings went somewhere else -- along with Roxana. She disappeared to parts unknown.


Highwayman Brannan escorted Dulcimer and Columbia to the dinner table. The Nimitz House Cordon Bleu Five-star Chef billed the setting-place as a Las Vegas-style buffet. Even for Dulcimer there were limits to what he would call Californian. He’d reached the limit. A buffet.


Dulcimer planned many things simultaneously. He stared at the Highwayman until he noticed him. Then Dulcimer turned away. He touched the screws of the compartment in his robot leg. Time was what they didn't have. The arrival of the Superwrecker had complicated things.


-Things are changing quick since I last saw you, Mr. Ulysses. The Commonwealth is threatened by a new power to the East. This oriental despot. General Monroe. To the South, the Field Marshals of Texas. North of them...-


-I know all this. What’s with the Superwrecker?-


-The Consul is preparing for a move into the Wastelands. Before the other nations reach it.-


The Wastelands. No one cared much about the place since the brief 6 Day War between Texas, California, and Mexico. Nuclear accidents make people forget about places.


-Why?-


The Highwayman took a pocketwatch out of his coat.


***


Dinner began.


The New Job Corps waiters rung a bell. The first raid was made on the buffet table. With plates loaded up, they sat down to eat. Dulcimer had an affection for eating breakfast for dinner. Pancakes. Lots of pancakes.


Columbia was a messy eater and he found her fondness for taking food out of her mouth and putting it back on her plate....


He was lucky to be able to eat.


The sounds of forks and knives on plates served as the only conversation. A portrait hung over the dinner table. A man in Roman military armor. The oil paints seemed ready to burst in flames from the gas torches. The painting nearly looked fresh, and the Roman centurion wore an amused grin. He must’ve liked to watch human misery.


Columbia looked at Dulcimer, ready to say something to him, but she didn’t. Dulcimer was quite content to ignore her. The Highwayman had his attention. Neither had tried to say something to the other. Dulcimer's annoyed looks didn't count, apparently.


The silence stayed like this for a time. Dulcimer had loaded up his plate with more pancakes. A sea of strawberry syrup shone from one shore of pancakes to the other. Columbia sighed and grimaced, until she finally found the right time to speak. Exasperated, mostly.


-Mr. Ulysses, I don’t want to hear any more lessons. Watersheds  are boring. So are native plants...native flowers. Nothing about nations either! I want to learn about the places to the west...across the sea, across the ocean. I want to learn about those places. Not here. Fuck California, fuck the east.-


-It’s important to learn about those things: how our continent came to be what it is.-


-Not another geology lesson? I don't care about ‘subduction zones!’-


-You should. It changes a great deal about...why people see themselves a certain way. Or try to, at least.-


-Why? Why does it matter. I heard a rumor that the Blackout is being reversed. All around the world, electricity is starting to come back on. It's just like the capital. But different. They don’t need the flying things to do it, either. They have lots of power...and....-


Dulcimer’s attention was seized by the entry of a big, slow shape. Columbia stopped her retinue -- stopped it cold -- and immediately slunk in her chair. She looked ready to leave, but thought better of the impulse. She instead shot a look towards Dulcimer. Don’t say anything.


Columbia's cat sprinted across the dining room and hid under the table. Behind the cat -- a big dog. The terrier sprinted out of the grasp of a large man. He called to the dog. Reagan. The man provided a commentary for his entry. No one spoke to him, and he didn’t appear to arrive with anyone else. But he still talked to himself. The big man talked to himself, and Dulcimer imagined it was litany of curses for the toils and trials of the working day.


Columbia pushed her plate away from her.


-Here he comes. The mental idiot. The great actor. Fucking fat man.-


Governor Affleck hung up his coat, spun around the room, and his eyes stopped on the people at the dinner table. For a second he looked confused. Then he threw darts at his daughter.


-Darling devil-doll. Your tutor is here. Good.-


Columbia mumbled under her breath. Retard.


Dulcimer readied himself to stand up, to shake the Governor's hand. He fought it. Every bit of will was spent in the great effort to not rise up, to not do the polite thing. He wanted to sit here, wait for the Governor to approach. In the meantime, and before he forgot, Dulcimer began to loosen a bolt on his robotic leg.


Even in a colonial, Panama Jack white suit from head to toe, Governor Affleck looked washed-up, aged by years in office as a figurehead of the State of California. Dulcimer had heard many things about him. One, that he'd been an actor in movies. Action movies. Dulcimer hadn't seen them. Movie star or not, the Governor just looked sodden. Wet and soiled. As if he had a permanent sweat mark on his back or something. He had that smell about him.


-So you will come along on the Safari. Is that right?-


The Governor’s hand still lingered in the air for Dulcimer to shake. He finally did.


-I will be there, Mr. Governor. Your daughter was just...telling me...-


Columbia looked through her teeth at Dulcimer. The Governor may have sensed the prickliness of his daughter -- Dulcimer didn't know, he couldn't be sure.


-I am sure this little devil doll said a lot.-


The terrier dog began to bark. A cat hissed. Dulcimer didn't feel like eating any more pancakes.


The Governor took a seat next to Columbia. She scooted away. Dulcimer could better see her bruises, now, in the light. He made sure to hide his scowl, when the Governor turned his way.


-How was the trip like from Frisco?-


For some reason Dulcimer looked at the Highwayman before he spoke to the Governor.


-We took what's left of the bridges. I guess we will for the rest of the journey.-


-That’s right. California is still a nation of highways! Even with an escorting wrecker. The less time someone was to spend on cursed earth, the better. Dumbest idea we ever had...-


-The dumbest idea?-


Columbia stuck her head up.


-Dumb ideas around here? No kidding?-


The Governor flashed her a look that might’ve been a hand at another time. He looked back at Dulcimer.


-Deciding to kill the Bay. The Rain Trap is ingenious, I give it that. No city has the luxury of using water from the Sierras. Not ever again. But building the Perimeter Dams. The Seawall...Cursed earth-


The Governor laughed. His outburst alerted the dog, who joined his imaginary triumph and stood at his knee. He petted the thing, its muzzle filled with...cat hair? The Governor next looked at what everyone had on their plates. Then he looked at the Highwayman, who seemed engrossed by a pocketwatch. The Governor shook his head.


-Makes me nervous having these Highwaymen so close. I never see them eat, you know. Never have. Not once. They're almost as weird as that...cousin...Roxana...that the Consul brought back from the Wastelands.-


The Governor got up.


-If you'll permit me.-


The Governor fired up the kitchen buffet and began to cook. The Highwayman snapped the cover closed of the pocketwatch. Dulcimer saw his lips move. But he couldn't understand what the Highwayman said.


Pretty soon, the Governor made more...pancakes. He asked Dulcimer if he played basketball and Dulcimer declined. Too tired, he said. The Governor looked sad, for a moment, then returned to the griddle. Fried batter and grease sizzled. The mechanical clock beneath the Roman centurion gonged. Breakfast at midnight in the Golden State.


Columbia looked through her eyelashes at Dulcimer, and responded. Pained.


-You're going to eat what he cooks? I wouldn’t. I'm not responsible for what happens to you. You might get sick. I’ve seen it happen.-


Dulcimer laughed at that one. Her melodrama reminded him of a great deal of things. One person spread out over time. Suddenly incomplete. Vanished.


But he had a chance here, didn't he?


A bolt dropped out of his robotic leg and hit the carpet. The dog lifted an ear at its sound. The Governor lumbered over to a seat. But his spot wasn't at the head of the table. He sat a bit off from everyone else. Except for Columbia. He sat slightly behind her, and Dulcimer could see Columbia wince at his approach.


-Its a nice view, isn't it? A radioactive desert.-


The wooden frame of the Governors chair strained from the stress -- creaked, buckled, and strained -- yet did not break.


Dulcimer thought a second. The view out of the Nimitz's House windows were fine enough. And the clouds over the capital reflected the light of an impoverished moon. But Dulcimer considered another idea.


-The Commonwealth we created is even more arbitrary than the old California you once served for.-


-What can you mean, by that, man?-


-These borders. The attempt to rein in nature. The Perimeter Dams. Keeping water out of their natural watersheds. That’s what the old state tried to do.-


-And did well. You forget. You forget that I am the last Governor of the State...-


-No one forgets that, dude-


The Governor smiled through the mush of pancakes between his teeth.


-I am the last living link, am I not?-


-True. And you would never let the Consul forget that, I hope?-


The Highwayman had stopped winding his watch. The Governor considered him, then Dulcimer.


-He can’t. He needs me, he needs me. The State and his...Commonwealth.-


Dulcimer hoped Columbia would pop up her head -- at least prick up her ears -- to listen. She didn’t.


-Sure. Both of you can agree on how things need to be ordered. For that, for the Social Contract, for the production of Free Energy to erase the Blackout and its moments of chaos, you and the Consul have moved mountains, so to speak. Like damming the Bay. Just like men in the high castle, you think you are. Opening up new lands. But you opened up a tomb. That's what California is. The running-out-of-land...land. Bigger and better. And look what that’s come to mean. More artificial constructions.-


The Governor looked one last time at Columbia, noticed that Dulcimer paid attention to her, and rose his bulk from his chair.


-For all this talk about ‘arbitrary borders’ and ‘artificial constructs,’ would you like to hear another theory. This one’s also about the formation of our ‘Commonwealth.’ For wasn’t it the search for justice that made the ‘Californians’ come together? The people wanted responsible parties to pay for the Blackout. That’s who they blamed anyways. But when you open up the past for investigation, it’s hard to shut that off. This Developer would know that. Oh, yes he would. Would you like to hear why your tutor lost his leg? It has to do with his daughter. The daughter that...is dead. Columbia, my dear devil doll: Would you like to hear what happened to his daughter?-


Dulcimer watched Columbia wince. She barely paid a mind, at least visibly. Dulcimer hoped she thought about a place over the ocean.


-His daughter killed herself. Out of guilt. Or was it shame?-


Dulcimer felt an unnatural silence come over the room. The Governor mustn't. He walked loudly to the portrait of the Roman centurion, and studied it for a moment.


-Your tutor is a...-


The room become a tomb and the Governor attempted to entomb him here. Brick by brick.


-That was his first crime. Before his little mistake at Donner's Pass. Before the Blackout, he stood accused of other crimes. Right, Dulcimer Barlow?-


Dulcimer listened, but his narrative was always different.


-Then, came the vigilant times after the Blackout. People learned what he'd been accused of. Justice worked into the past too. Isn’t that right? That is our Commonwealth. So he was convicted and lost his leg. To lame him.-


Columbia never seemed to hear her father. Dulcimer began to unbuckle his artificial leg. Movement stopped him. The Highwayman. He had caught the Governor’s eye.


-You’re not the only one that has to be put in his place, Dulcimer Barlow. I have some bones to pick: why did they pick me for this role? And would you look at them?...-


The Governor gestured towards the Highwayman.


-The Consul's men. They surround me.-


Highwayman Brannan shifted against the wall, suddenly, uncomfortable for the first time all night. Governor Affleck didn't notice, or didn’t care. The Highwayman took a step.


-What have we done to solicit your distrust, Mr. Governor?-


-You take your orders from the Consul. That’s where your allegiance is placed.-


From out of his jacket, the Governor pulled out a gun and pointed it at the Highwayman. He froze. The Governor smiled.


-Here. Take this gun.-


-Why?-


-To see if I can trust you.-


The Governor looked at Dulcimer. Laughed.


-Watch this, Developer. This is how we do it in California.-


He winked at Dulcimer and held out the gun to a confused highwayman.


-I don’t understand.-


-Grab the gun.-


The Highwayman grabbed the gun in his leather glove clad hands.


Dulcimer made sure to make eye contact with Columbia. She must’ve sensed him. Her brown anime eyes waited for him. Big and moroseful. He detected a plea.


His leg finally detached and he reached inside. Blindly. He looked now at the Highwayman, who pointed the gun at the Governor.


-And that’s all I have to do to prove my loyalty?-


-That's right.-


Pointblank. The gunshot caused blood and guts to erupt from the Governor’s stomach. And pancakes -- Dulcimer swore he saw pancakes, too. The Governor collapsed to his side. Columbia rose up and began to clap.


Until the Highwayman pointed the revolver at her.


A gun fired.


But it wasn’t the Highwayman’s.


***


Shattered pieces of the Nimitz House tumbled down the cliff. Other pieces decorated the green lawn as broken china, and the rumble of the estate’s evisceration roiled up thick clouds of fine dust and the spray of dirt.


The superwrecker swung its field-anvil down on the mansion and the force fractured one more section of the house. The hammer strike broke open the earth. Parts of the house were vaporized by the impact. Leftover pieces crumbled apart and plummeted into the sea below.


The field-anvil swung back in the sky, until it reached the apogee. Gravity, and all those terrible potential energies, took its took and wrecked more of the ground below. Great furrows were soon left in the ground, the debris of the mansion was tilled to the side, and the toil of the machine did not cease until well into the early morning.


Dulcimer and Columbia clung to a cliff. He’d successfully gotten Columbia out of the house, Two dead bodies were left behind -- two more to come if they'd not escaped with urgency, and they had left rather quickly. More guards in HAZMAT suits appeared, in chase of Dulcimer and the girl he wanted to save. Down the cliff they'd gone, the ruined floor of the seabed awaited them, taunted them, ready for them to slip and fall to their deaths.


The climb down worked out fine. He had planned to shoot someone -- the Governor, the Highwayman, anyone -- but didn't know where to go after that. Definitely across the wasted seabed of the ruined bay. Then after that, who knew?


His bed at home sounded nice.


Halfway down the superwrecker began to pounce. The debris of the mansion began to fall down the cliff. Both Columbia and him were trapped against the side of the cliff. They huddled close together. The ground beneath them began to give away. He held onto Columbia, her small body against his.


He was finally alright to die. There was nothing else he could do to save Columbia. But he could save himself. So he made peace with Ana’s death, his role in the matter, and his final attempt to make things right.


At least he could feel better.


A bright light shone on both their faces. Electric lights. Dulcimer didn't dare put his hands up to cover his eyes. He held onto Columbia. He wouldn't let her go. The light got closer, until he could make out a newly risen shape in front of them.


It was the Odysseum.


Roxana’s voice bellowed from a bullhorn. Dulcimer couldn't make out the words. Columbia began to scream.


He grabbed her tighter and jumped towards the deck of the airship.


***


Donner’s Pass seemed small from here, but Dulcimer could still make out the wreckage of the pneumatic pump from high altitude. To see the damage, let alone think about it, didn't bother him anymore.


Roxana stood on the bridge of the Odysseum. She wore a pair of goggles on her head and a colorful scarf around her neck.


Columbia jumped up and down.


-For the last time: WE ARE GOING THE WRONG WAY!-


Dulcimer smiled at Roxana. Columbia began to whine.


-KPOPLANDIA is that way. THE OTHER WAY!-


Her cat scurried across the deck. Even in the air mice thrived.


Dulcimer put his hand on her shoulder. He still looked at Roxana. She considered him with the smirk of her eyes, opened her mouth, then spoke.


-To the Wastelands?-


Dulcimer thought about their choice of destinations. Home called to him. Cascadia, and its war against the Commonwealth. He wanted to be back amongst that renaissance. But greater events aroused his attention, things he had to know. Sure, the Consul had seized control of the Commonwealth. Yet even usurpation seemed a pale threat, when compared to the mysteries beyond the California and its fake borders.


To know how the future was to be ordered, the nature of power must be explored.


But even that seemed boring.


Dulcimer looked sadly at the east. He knew the trip back meant the long way home.
















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