Saturday, September 7, 2013

Xanadu



Charlie stomped down the redwood deck of the Odysseum and onto the concrete platforms of Port Angeles. A blue, white, and green Doug Flag whipped in the breeze, but it was the bleak jagged peaks of Mt. Rainier in the distance that signalled her location. Fuckin’ Cascadia.


She dreaded the celebrations to come and the banter. There was always the banter. The folks of the freeholds wanted to know all about her. The girl who’d lead the Rise Up. And the mysteries. They always wanted to know about those facts too.


Facts...


But the questions never seemed to get their own facts right. Like how’d she been a woman then. She was an old woman know. The long gray hair that tumbled across her face in the Pacific winds teased her memories. It hadn’t been one person who led the Rise Up. It was a people.


The younger generations always forgot that. So she made peace with their nostalgia, steeled herself for the arrivals of the crowds, and sure as shit, like every year, they arrived to talk to Charlie Matheson.


She looked at her magnetometer on her wrist. One hour until liftoff for the Odysseum, then sweet, sweet, sweet blissful freedom just below the cloud tops, with a world beneath her feet and the stars in her hair.


Gray hair. The crowds swarmed around Charlie. She scanned their young faces. A cultural renaissance made everyone look pretty, and Cascadians looked better than most.


She always picked the same type of person. Someone who reminded her of a girl like herself. Green eyes and near-amber hair. Long limbed, ready to crank back the arm on a crossbow and let rip a bolt of sharpened iron at a squad of militiamen.


But today, a face grabbed her attention. A boy. He would be a man someday, maybe, and if he did, he might just have the face that grabbed her memory now. If she correctly remembered the picture her father had showed her, that lone snapshot from another age. When her father had been young, playing ‘armyman’ with his best childhood friend. Before the Blackout.


The boy she now looked at had curly blonde hair and two blue eyes that made the whites stand out. He had just begun to lose his adolescent fat, and soon, he might get the physique of the man she thought of now.


Every year Charlie picked one fan from the crowd, took her to a tent, and for one hour, told her after a session of lovemaking, about those events of yesteryear. When power was owned by the few, the world was in darkness, and a people rose up. The Rise Up.


This time it would be a boy. The crowds murmured their surprise, and the concrete harbor of Port Angeles, filled with so many other docked airships, now cascaded towards one point of attention. She grabbed the boy by the hand. The boy that looked so much like her father’s best friend.


Sebastian Monroe.


***


Riding a boy made quick work of her insides. But Charlie’d been used to being a maneater. Since the Blackout. How else was she supposed to get by?


After the boy with the blonde curls finished, she rolled her butt to the sky, grabbed a cigarette, lit a match against the bedpost, and looked up at the naked wooden beams. Drywall, asbestos insulation, and every electrical wire had been stripped. The Cascadians still lived bare.


Smoke drifted among the roof boards. She plied her nails across the boy's hard chest. There was still some flesh around the sides. She dug around in his navel and came up with some lint.


So you wanted to kill, Monroe?


She tuned into to his sweet voice. So easy to choke out. But the sound made her think too much about her own loss. The first time. The first time with a boy. A kid. Not Monroe, no. Better.


I wanted to get rid of that guy.


She threw off the sweaty sheets and strode over to the window. The moon rose over the pines of the Olympic Peninsula. If not for the summer, she might’ve been able to see the snow-covered plateaus of the Cascades. It was too hot. She smelled sex and candy. She thought about some weed. Decided against it. Just say no.


Why would you kill someone who’d...?


Charlie was almost afraid to admit it. A deathwish can lead to the lamest reasons.


Gold, my dear boy. Gold.


***


Bass rose through the night with his body wet from the sweat, the blood, the spot and drool of the fight. To make a man bleed and ruin his insides until he couldn't fight anymore wasn't pretty. It wasn't a fight club for the boy-bands of the world. Just a way for a wounded lion to remember for a moment what it was like to be king of the beasts. But in this jungle....


The campfires of New Vegas failed to give enough light to reveal his passage from the fight ring to his tent, a little corner of the settlements built by the hospitallers. But the light was too much for his liking. Just the other day Feds from the re-established U.S. government had posted wanted posters with his image.


Wanted: Sebastian Monroe
AKA "General Monroe."
For treason against the United States of America


Bass would leave tonight. If he could. Already people in the camps knew the man who’d pummeled younger dudes for the last few month belonged to a special class of Americans, the warlords that had sprouted up to replace the loss of order. Now, with the return of the U.S. government, men who once commanded militias were on the run. Especially, men like Bass, who’d lost a kingdom and all its men.


Luckily he’d traded it for a horse. That’s how the hell he’d get out of New Vegas. Ride west if he had to. Maybe do some farming in California. Now, see there Miles, I can be funny too.


He waited outside his tent. Sure as shit, he saw a few young toughs on the prowl inside. They had already gone through the place to see if he was home. Now they waited. Everyone else who slept there barely said a word to the searchers. This told Bass all he needed to know. They had guns, and men -- smart men -- still ran from men with guns. The return of the U.S. government -- whoever they were -- hadn’t changed the dominant paradigm of Blackout America. It was still a dog eat dog world on this darkened continent. Shit.


Luckily, the horse Bass had traded in for his “kingdom" came with a spare bag. Better yet, both lay not far away. He walked to them, a short jaunt down a sideway between tents. He passed a few revelers on the way. Drunken, prostitutes on their arms. Some in no condition to fuck. But here and there, Bass already saw it on their faces. The recognized him, not as the brawler, but as the man on the flyers. General Sebastian Monroe. The restorer of law and order, and founder of the Monroe Republic. Now a criminal.


Herein lay the reason to run. He wouldn’t stop -- he couldn’t. The U.S. government...these self-proclaimed “patriots”...promised to bring men like him to “justice.” Men who’d restored order from the chaos of the long-night of the Blackout.


Who’d been the patriot then?


He whipped around the corner, until he faced the posts with tied-up horses. There was an Appaloosa with his name on it. A nag to ride until the sun came up. By then, he’d be close to the border of the Plains Nation.


As he thought of the flight he was about to make, a story came into his head. Something he’d heard while in boot camp, as a U.S. Marine. They hadn’t just sent you to the best rifle school in the world when a man joined the Corps, he was forced to sit down and be a student once more. Military history. One tale had stuck with him.


Hannibal. One of the greatest military leaders of the ancient world. He nearly brought down mighty Rome. And how was he remembered? Exiled, hunted, and...


A blow hit Monroe over the head. The ding-dong of doom when off in his night. He knew when he awoke....


***


Bass ran over the muddy ground, water splashed up in his face, and for a second he looked at the darkened earth before him. Minutes to go, maybe, and the sun would rise. And still, he had this moment by himself before the light of day would reveal his competitors at his back, all around, and ready to chase him down.


He sped up and chose a shortcut. Cold water splashed up from a chilly river that ran low this time of summer. The mountains loomed above, cut a cold shadow on his approach, and his breath hovered before his face for just a second before his pace cut through it, and he was gone, up the trail, over the boulders, where the runners behind him might try to pursue him, if they would risk to break an ankle to pursue an old man on his jaunt across the boulders.


He reasoned one or two might decide to follow him on this shortcut. He didn’t have time to turn around and check. He humped over the last of the rocks, his backpack tight against his upper back, military style. That was the purpose of the game. The Soldier Sprint. Most kids paid big money for the chance to race against each other, to see who had enough cum left in their sacks to defeat the obstacles, each other, and, most importantly, that little boy inside everyone that said to quit, quit, quit, the pain is too much, give up now and end it.


Why had Bass decided to take this on? He hadn’t needed to prove to anyone about his martial fitness. Tours of Iraq had done that. Why then, did he decide to enter the contest on his furlow? He barely had 24 hours until he’d return to base. To Miles. To the disapprovals of Miles.


He did it because somewhere, at the end of all this mud and water and young boys, she waited for him. She who he’d met through his best friend. If he could just take the abuse of a 21 kilometer obstacle course that was ridiculously modeled on “special forces” tests, then he could put up with the stress that came along with the love for another’s man’s wife.


Layla, you got me on my knees!


She said she’d wait at the end of his foolish exercise in masochism. She said.


Meanwhile he huffed and puffed and blew himself with all his self-doubt towards the end of the race, knowing obstacles awaited, younger men closed in on him, and the person he really ran from was himself.


He ran.


***


It was hard to look at Charlie Matheson. It wasn’t the look of her mother that bothered him. Bass never had a problem with a woman’s beauty, no. Just beneath Charlie’s look of disgust lay the glare of disapproval. She looked too much like her father, now.


Luckily, the biggest part of his view involved a good view of the ugly idiots that Charlie had brought along with her. They couldn’t have been much older than her. Suckers. Whatever Charlie had involved herself with, it meant a few boys with guns must’ve followed her. With one mission. Well, welcome to the party.


He’d woken up with a headache and sat cross-legged on a cold floor of some basement, in some building. He wasn’t in Kansas anymore, or New Vegas. His captors had been thoughtful enough to wake him with a douse of cold water. The water dripped against the cold floor. He had a few moments to collect his wits. Then he let them loose.


-You fucking all these losers, Charlotte?-


The boys -- three in number -- walked over. One wound up and gave him a hard kick. Good, go out fighting. He said that more or less for himself. Or to himself. Hard to tell, the head hurt like hell.


Charlie did her best Darth Vader and stood with her hands behind her back. She spent a good minute with a view out of a dirt-covered basement window, the light that shone through looked dull and muted, and when she turned around, the girl he remembered for a second old and graven. Cruel things had wound about her. They wouldn’t let go,or she couldn’t shake them. Maybe she didn’t want that to happen.


The boys pulled in tight around her, waited for her, watched her, until a taller one with a jock-hawk, as they called the hairstyle back in the day, spoke to Charlie. And Bass could tell, oh yes, she’d fucked him, and he’d follow her around until heaven or hell, whichever came first.


Bass couldn’t hear what Charlie said. He could only read the eyes of her boys. They looked at him, and for a second, he saw fascination behind their attempts to shoot him hard looks. A little star-struck, maybe.


-Well? Now what?-


Charlie walked out of the huddle, she didn’t look down at him. But he didn’t like it. Something seemed different about her. The boys might pretend to be hard, but she was the real steel.


-General Monroe, you need to answer for your crimes.-


Bass liked this much better. Finally, reality.


-Good. I’d like to hear the first questions. Are you going to ask me? Tell me, that for all the terrible things I’ve done...-


She didn’t look at him. The boys next to her practiced more tough looks. This could be good. Just get him out of his bonds.


-You need to answer for all the evil.-


-And you’re the one to do that?-


-No.-


If she’d seemed without purpose before, she had it now, and walked over to Bass. Her boots made soft sounds against the concrete.


-I’m not the one to do that. There’s others...other’s I’ve known, who’ve died because of the things...you’re responsible for...their deaths will judge you now.-


Danny. Danny. Bass remembered the beatings of her brother well. Not just the death. That happened later.


-Long ago, I might’ve been the person to judge you. But I’m not that person. Not anymore.-


Bass agreed.


-You look different, Charlotte.-


-How would you know anything about me?-


Bass thought a second about telling her about the pics he saw of her long ago. From Miles.


Charlie now looked through sorrowful blue eyes at Bass, and he felt right with his assumptions. She looked a little old around the edges, but a person could hide an injury or two, and adjust a step. But you couldn’t change a person’s eyes.


-There’s a Marine Corps depot. It’s not far from here. They say some Recon awols stashed gold there.. A cache taken from banks in the Southwest. You’re going to help us find it, break in. You can, because you were Recon. You know their booby traps.-


Bass chuckled. His outburst then turned into a hard series of laughs. He had a good time at Charlie’s expense. A man who faced death could be forgiven these excesses.


-Excuse me, but really, Charlie. I’ve heard stories like that since the power went out...’Army deserting posts and stealing money’...’Hoarding it in the desert’...’Then they all went crazy and killed each other’...’No one knows where it is’...Stories, Charlie. And...-


He laughed again. Looked down to the ground. Then looked up. Charlie didn’t smile. Not once. She seemed nothing like Miles, and that bothered him.


-Listen to me. If you really want to play ‘treasure hunter,’ it’s not gold you want. Believe me. You were there in the Tower. You saw what games Flynn was playing.-


Charlie kneeled down to face Bass. She studied him for a second, and he guessed she saw the same things he saw in the mirror. Hatred. You can’t change a man’s eyes.


-I’m not just looking for gold, Monroe. I’m looking for a hole. A tomb. Somewhere to toss you, so everyone will forget you. So they can never find you. And you’ll disappear.-


Bass laughed but not as he’d done before. It was more like a nervous chuckle. He didn’t like what Charlie had become. He’d seen it too many times. Lost in the American wilderness. He was fucking responsible for that one. He was. Children had come to him, they’d trusted him, he’d put guns in their hands, and sent them off. Now one had returned. To exact revenge.


-So, with gold, you intend to do what? Hire more boys?...-


He looked at the toughs that hovered over Charlie.


-...or maybe find some men....-


As sure as shit, the boys flexed. Too funny. Clearly none of them had dipped into Charlie lately. Good girl. She’d make a good commander of men.


-Gold, Charlotte Matheson. What do you need gold for? Hopefully, your grand plan isn’t...-


He smiled, words on the tip of his tongue. I love it when a plan comes together.


-...you need my help...to help you build a...militia...?-


Charlie flashed him two blue eyes that might’ve killed him in her fantasy.


-Your militia days are over, Sebastian.-


-Don’t be so sure. There’s plenty of men who’d hire...-


He stopped himself, prepared for all kinds of opinions. He invited them. But Nothing. Not from the ice queen anyways. She really was Rachel's daughter. He eased up from the cascade of thoughts that spilled forth from his memory of her.


-Okay, then. What? Why do you need gold?-


She took a deep breath, looked at the boys next to her. They huddled closer to her and spoke silently. Bass couldn’t hear. Charlie shook her head at their words, and returned to him.


-You just worry about getting me in. You were a Marine -- once. When we get the gold, I’m putting you back where you got it. And I'm gonna bury you there...sonuvabitch.-


She hit Bass with such force he never would’ve guessed she possessed. His eyes filled with white for a second, he tasted blood.


It was good to be back with a Matheson.


***


Before Ranger School and Frogman classes, Marine Recon hit the books and went to school. Classes began at 0730. Tardy students didn’t face the same punishments as a grunt, and nothing close to the classrooms most remembered from adolescence. They merely endured the repetitious humiliations of Professor Clausewitz. The Nazi.


The professor was spare with his notes. Maybe he'd written a few academic terms on the blackboard.


Hannibal of Carthage (247-182)
Roman Republic
Second Punic War
Battle of Cannae
Scipio Africanus
Battle of Zama
Antiochus III


Everything else, a student either listened and wrote it down, or all was lost. Such was the depth of pedagogy in “Military History: Historiography and Theory."


Clausewitz always produced a miserable story from the depths of his knowledge about the men from antiquity and the bronzen ages of faded glories. The men who meant to become America's special warriors merely listened, tried to keep pace with the professor's droll about this god-king and that one who'd been cast from their kingdoms, and heard about the fates of fallen heroes, who at one time attempted to inflict terrible revenges on their enemies, until the energies of their own hate ran dry and the merciless blades of rivals caught up with their escape, and they were cast down to the dust, never to rise again.


Clausewitz was a poetic dude. Yet most of Recon longed to get out of the classroom. With fantasies of small arms fire and demolitions explosions, the classroom of Marines listened to the final hours of Hannibal of Carthage.


“The hostility which he had to fear was equally merciless to make his escape by way of the underground passage, but he encountered guards of the king, and therefore determined to take his own life. Some say that he wound his cloak about his neck and then ordered a servant to plan his knee in the small of his back, pull the rope towards him with all his might until it was twisted tight, and so to choke and kill him; some, too, say that he drank bull’s blood in imitation of Themistocles and Midas; but Livy says that he had poison which he order to be mixed, and took the cup with these words….”


By then Lieutenant Monroe found himself in a position where the room full of Marines needed humor. When the professor finished his reenactment of the past’s great tragedies…


“ ‘Let us now put an end to the great anxiety of the Romans, who have thought it too long and hard a task to wait for the death of a hated old man.‘ ”


..."Bass" finished the story...


"I love it when a plan comes together!"


Clausewitz went into a fury of barely controlled spit. He tried to embarrass Lieutenant Monroe, and Bass found himself walking the gauntlet between historical dates. The Professor lined them up -- when did this battle or war happen? -- and Monroe knocked them down.


Miles later asked him during Air Combat Control class, if he'd ever seen that scene from the Omen II.


Cause it was like that Bass, it was just like that. How'd you know all that military history? Maybe you got a '666' under that hair of yours? Maybe you are the Devil's son?


***


Nightfall -- and already the descendents of dogs -- orphans of masters who’d fled the suburbs, ruled the eastern plains of the former state of Colorado.


The first thing all wanna-be world conquerors learned in the post-blackout era on the darkened American continent was that the power the late, great Aaron Pittman had turned back on did not stay that way for long. So dreams of uniting the Americas still faced the same limitations they’d faced before. Time to get a horse, damnit.


Charlie and her cavalry of three -- plus Bass -- rushed across the grounds for the better part of the day. They carried the heavy carbines of the State of Big Texas, Colt .45s. Bass laughed and called Charlie ‘Ms. 45.’ She didn’t get the joke. He’d forgotten how this generation loved his ‘80s, but only when it was Michael Jackson and Madonna.


The plains opened up to their pursuit, long and languid, and it was easy to get seduced by the endless steppes. If not for the bump and grind of a horse’s saddle against Bass’s best friend, he would have fallen asleep. At one point, one of Charlie’s boys actually complained about the landscape -- said he couldn’t stand to take one more endless hill. Well, boy, no one said the invasion of Mother Russia would be easy.


They rode and rode, watered their steeds with the waters of the Ogallala Aquifer, and Bass explained the mystery of the depleted aquifers. When power had come easily to “President pro tempore Monroe,” his spies had learned of a “breaking of the tribes” by a duo of men: “The Twins,” hydrological engineers based in the Great Salt Lake. Their waterworks intended to control the the watersheds and rivers of the plains.


He who controls the spice, controls the universe.


They hadn’t gotten that joke either.


Beyond the dried up riverbeds of this nascent hydrological empire, valleys opened up to reveal abandoned suburban tract homes, since made unsustainable in this low-energy desolation. Each home was an identical skeleton of drywall, picked clean of every precious metal this side of the Mississippi. The Tribes of white trash had been busy -- and moved on. In their place, more dangerous beasts emerged. Packs of wild dogs emerged from the unlit mouths of garages dads had bottled homebrew in. The half-starved/half-mad beasts spooked their mounts, but Charlie wouldn’t let her boys shoot the curs.


Bass told Charlie's army stories of masters leaving the family dogs behind. The wolves had then come down from the hills and fucked them. Pretty soon, wild dogs.


No laughter. Charlie was a black hole that sucked all the fun out of the room.


Further out from the ghosts of the sprawl, they came upon a spot that Charlie identified as the Marine Corps depot. It was a ramshackle of buildings surrounded by leftover shards of a chain link fence. All little indians, all in a row. The compound looked nothing like any military depot that Bass had ever seen. He made a sound in disgust, laughed, talked shit, and Charlie -- she looked at one of her boys -- and the tool slapped him. The great General Sebastian Monroe -- bitchslapped? Hell no.


Charlie nudged her nag closer to the buildings and everyone followed. Bass felt the heat on his cheek swell, but his former look of suspicion never changed. Even upon closer inspection, it didn’t look like any Marines depot he’d ever seen. It did, however, appear like a prison, and an excellent place to make an armed stand. Most of the structures didn’t have windows. In fact, most of the place was temporary. Trailers.


Bass saw a sign that elicited a response.


-I knew you were barely legal, Charlotte, but this is too good...This is a school.-


Charlie didn’t look back.


-It was a school.-


Bass got it.


-Of course, and by the way, like all Matheson’s, you’re a terrible liar.-


Bass looked at the ghosts of the place.


-What booby traps!-


Charlie didn’t stop her horse.


-They didn’t hole up here. They hid something here. That’s where you come in...-


Better yet...


-Gold, here? In the open? You see how everything else is stripped around here? You don’t think raiders would’ve found it?-


She finally stopped her horse at the gates.


-I never said what kind of gold.-


She’d said enough. Fool’s gold. He looked for other diversions, not quite ready to die, and read the name of the school outloud.


-’New Harrison Elementary Rams.’ Funny name for a team from Colorado. Should be called the ‘Broncos, or something. Or the cowboys…-


He made a decision to die with his boots on, and talk shit.


-And by the way, fuck the Dallas Cowboys. Or any team from Texas. In fact...-


Charlie stopped and turned around. She made a sly nod of her head, her eyes were narrowed and cruel.


The dude with the jock hawk pulled back his hand -- Bass caught it.


-The next time you hit me, you’re dead.-


He caught Charlie's eyes. She had a lot to say, but he was the only one to say it.


-Give a Chicago Bears fan a few moments to think about a world he’s never going to ever see again -- before you kill him.-


A wind rose from the north. Charlie's angels looked in that direction, as if on cue. Bass looked past the stump of a flagpole and saw a canopy of tall black clouds on the far edge of the lonely range. He thought about all the Pledge of Allegiances that might have happened in this spot, how none of those children had ever thought there'd be a day when that flag didn't fly. Bass guessed most of those kids were dead now and they’d never guessed the new meanings for the flag they’d looked up to as children. He was struck by the reminder of the time he’d looked at the flag for the Monroe Republic and come to realize it meant terrible things.


He thought flashes of lightning danced on the edge of the storm, and his skin crawled. It made him think too much of events in the Tower. Not many times existed when he felt cuckolded. But he’d lusted after power, and in that awesome moment of its possession, her soon realized. It was never his.


Their mounts began to whinny as they crossed into the quad of the school yard. Charlie pulled up, looked back at her boys, and they felt her expectancy of purpose. One by one they saddled up to her. She spoke low to them. A few gazes were shot Bass’s way. He was glad that was all. But if they meant to throw him in a hole, well….


Charlie directed her horse over to Bass.


-You’ll go with Hawk…-


-Hard to tell them apart, they’re all so ugly, Charlotte.-


She smiled. Her eyes didn’t.


-Funny, but you won’t laugh at the end of the day.-


He dreaded this.


The dude with the jock hawk walked his horse over to Charlie. The other got off their horses. So too did Charlie. That group left their horses, unholstered their Colts, and walked inside the Main Office. They didn’t look like the types to sign in. But since this was whatever was left of Colorado, guns in schools were the only thing they needed. Bass looked at the jock hawked boy. He jumped off his mount and pulled Bass down to the ground. He caught his fall with a loose hand and felt warm horse manure. Well, good. He flicked it on the ground, but not too long, as the boy used his gun to prod Monroe along.


Towards the gymnasium. The doors had been ripped off. Bass walked up the steps, with a gun in his back. The place was dark, his eyes adjusted, and there in the middle of the place, lay the hardwood floor. The elements of rain and snow and wind had rotted the surface, blackened and stained and, here and there, a depressed pothole of filth just big enough to break a man’s ankle. Broken skylights let in more than the weather, even more light came in than planned.


Their footfalls were broken by the weathered and moldy state of the grounds. Earthy and damp. Grass grew in clumps. Tumbleweeds sat in the torn out roots of the former bleachers. Bass could look at the walls and see the discolored locations where sports banners had flown. 2-4-6-8. Who do we appreciate? Rams, Rams, Go Rams.


-I always wanted to play quarterback, but the coaches...they thought Miles made a better…field marshall...I always had a better arm, though...-


The jock hawk boy pushed his revolver into Bass’s back.


-I’ve heard a lot about you. You...kidnapped Charlie’s mom.-


Bass didn’t look at much except himself.


-That’s not I hope she told you I did. I was...I was a big deal. held back the vandals of our day, the destroyers of American society, I mean, look at this place! You’d never have seen this in the Republic. Backwards tribes -- hippies, really! I mean, this is some dark age nonsense.-


-If it wasn’t for you, there never would have been a holocaust, with the destruction of…-


-Ah, the wicked east, eh. Where you from man?-


Bass stopped, turned around. The boy pressed his gun deeper into Bass’s side.


-Keep walking, war criminal.-


-War criminal?! now you’re talking! You’re from Texas, then? ‘Big Texas?’ You play much ball down there? North Dallas Forty? Varsity Blues? Friday Night Lights? Debbie Does Dallas? Texas -- the cradle of fucking American civilization!-


Bass heard his voice echo. But the hollowness was inside himself. Above him loomed more than the cavernous hold of the gymnasium. The heavens had opened up and the storm loosed its rain through the holes in the roof. It fell hard, and at the touch of Bass and his escort's first steps, the floor transformed into a shallow swamp of puddles.


Boy's Locker Room


Bass turned his rain soaked face towards him.


-You first.-


The gun indicated another choice.


Bass grabbed the handles of the double door. One of them buckled at his touch, barely attached. He thought of something funny, and could barely hide a grin.


-We got a problem here…-


He pulled back on the handle, barely, and feigned a stuck door. He didn’t need to look back at the jock hawk dude to see his interest in Bass’s progress.


Bass moved his feet apart and prepared to yank harder. When he did, the force toppled him backwards. Towards the kid with the gun.


The sudden momentum allowed Bass to swipe behind him. In his hand he held an object.


The door handle.


He landed it on the side of the dude's head. With the thump -- and crack -- of metal against bone, the kid was knocked out cold, and Bass had an open door in front of him.


Bass straightened out his shirt.


-Don't mind if I do.-


Thunder boomed. He’d take that shower in the boy’s room now.


***


The water was freezing and the current was strong, but he forced himself upstream and pulled himself along with the rope. Other men surrounded, young and swift like him. All fellow competitors made the promised to help each other along the course. Special forces style -- ‘no name left behind.’ But he wouldn’t ask for a hand, if he struggled he waved off the help, and he overcame every obstacle by himself.


He could feel the thrash of a men all around him. Up ahead booted feet kicked and pushed against the surface of the creekbed for any amount of leverage. He pushed and strained. The current fought him -- he fought harder.


The geniuses who’d designed this course so any able bodied warrior and athlete could test themselves deserved recognition as a well-educated sadist. It was his opinion that ‘button pushers’ like those operated the drones and other killing things he’d seen in Iraq. They’d said in the tours that men like that “saved lives.” Back home they tested lives, and that was what he’d sadly realized upon his return. A nation that wanted to honor its soldiers through acts of pretensions to be soldiers. He was just glad none of these people would ever have to experience real war.


These thoughts and diversions came naturally to him along this part of the obstacle course. As soon as he reached the end of the stream, he rose from the water, and immediately noticed the pain in his arms and legs. He lifted his feet through the water and grabbed the bank with both arms to raise himself out of the stream. A few competitors held out their hands to help him up, but he take the offer, he didn’t. His tired body struggled mightily to power him up. He finally did, though. He finally rose, tossed himself over, and looked up at the sky. For a second he had a second to rest. A second. The sky was blue with white wisps of clouds.


She’s got eyes of the bluest sky.


And her hair, he thought of her hair that he longed to play with.


What a time to think of this, fuck you, Miles….


He threw himself up and ran ahead of the pack.


***


The dogs began to howl, yip, and bark.


-Get your ass down there, Bass.-


Through each break in the gusts of wind and the torrential splats of rain, he could hear gunshots. He’d heard more in the beginning, when he’d first walked up a hill during his escape, and turning around, he saw the dark shapes of men on horseback that raced towards the school on the edge of the ghost town. He knew nothing good would come of this, and he was right.


He’d grabbed a plastic sheet from behind one of the trailers and punched holes in it, making a serape -- “First Blood-John Rambo” style. Then he hunkered down in the rain. He waited. Hope grew that the horsemen in the shadows did not belong to the larger developments taking place on the plains. But he knew the “breaking of the tribes” had birthed some bad men. Some of those terrible representatives bore down now on Charlie’s angels.


He’d heard the phrase the “tearing out of hair” and he imagined the phrase described him now. The internal debate kept pace with the intensity of the storm and the phrasing of gunshots. As the rain died down and the number of shots slowed, he chose his moment to sneak back onto campus.


The raiders, maybe a dozen or more, had swarmed towards a building. Bass snuck down there now. But first he needed to go “John Rambo” on their asses. With the Colt .45, he went to work.


He found an undisciplined group, most likely Thompson’s boys. They’d set up a firing line behind their mounts. A lone gun -- another Colt .45 -- fired return shots from inside the building. Bass didn’t know if this was Charlie. When the mystery shooter reloaded the raiders would assail the building with a scattershot of rifle fire. Tough guys. In the meantime there was the shouts to buddies, calls to one another, the leaning on horses and laughs about the task. A good time for all.


The rain storm had largely passed over them, but here and there, a thunderclap boomed. Bass waited and sprung with his finger on the trigger. He waited, and… The thunder arrived and he fired his gun at the closest guy who’d picked the wrong time to put his finger up his nose. Brains and skull? Nah, just a neat little hole in the head.


Bass took his rifle, thank you, and moved behind another building. He had a few little other raiders to pick from. The one with his rifle aimed at a window, where someone returned blind fire -- that interested Bass. So he made sure to shoot that guy. His buddy turned around and Bass showed how it was done. Another hole in a man, this time in his throat. It was weird about the geometry of murder.


Now came that inevitable hard part, when the other six raiders -- Bass had made sure to count -- learned that life had just gotten that much harder. Bass remembered the part of “First Blood,” when the sheriff deputies realized, one by one, that John Rambo, Green Beret, could hunt them down at will. Bass didn’t have that advantage, no forest to hide in for cover, no way to take advantage of the foliage and adorn his face with mud and wear leaves as garlands of war. No. But he was on a former school campus and the place was laid out so every target was visible, in the open. So it turned into an exercise of who could shoot first, the fastest, and not miss their targets.


Six little dead indians, all in a row. Bass had made quick work and, as if on cue, the heavens opened up again with another downpour to anoint his murders. He splashed through the puddles and ran into the main office.


Charlotte!


He saw her. She lay on the floor of a room that said “Detention.” He saw blood. But it was his blood. Her? He picked her up, she barely moved, and he made sure to apologize for all the blood he’d gotten on her.


***


For the few moments Bass had with Charlie, he looked at her face and swore he could see the hope he’d once harbored. Long ago, he’d dreamed for this kind of outcome. In the sweet moments of love, when a man dared to hope for a child with the woman he loved, fantasies about the child’s appearances were the strongest.


Bass looked at an unconscious Charlie, who convalesced beneath the blankets, and thought, yes, this is how I hoped our child would like. It would’ve looked like Charlie. She would’ve been just like her mother.


He couldn’t take any more of the wish fulfilled, while the knowledge played in-full about the different order of events. Life had happened while he’d made other plans. A certain cruelty described this moment, it’d worked out the other way. Charlie did, indeed, have the appearance of that fantasy child. She did look like her mother. But the father. That was different.


Bass leaned against the wall, his head bent low, and pain turned into a flash of anger that he unleashed as quick movement. Out of this room. Out of this thought. He couldn’t get out of his mind. But he could leave for a few minutes, or hours if he dared, for it did appear Charlie would get better. She’s only been beaten unconscious. Bass was the one who’d been shot. But he felt condemned to walk, deep in thought, tortured to think about the things he’d once hoped for.


His kingdom for a horse? He would’ve traded it all for love.


Outside the Tribes of Collins were assembled on the valley floor, in their caravans of beast-drawn wagons, as they waited to break camp and travel again. West. Towards the safety of the mountains.


A circle of women bearing beads, feathers, and crystals saw Bass exit Charlie’s lodge, and they rushed by him, heavy with the stink of patchouli and incense. He’d heard of white flight, but these Californians were ridiculous. Still, he’d appreciated their help with Charlie.


A man with dreadlocks and armed guards approached. He'd gone gray in the hair, and where he'd pulled his hair behind his head, the frizz gave him the appearance of a grandma. Bass needed to look once more at the armed raiders, to remind himself that this white-dread could and would pierce Bass' skin with a hook and peel it off with each turn around the Sun-Pole. Grandma? This hippie with the dreadlocks and tribe under his command was no grandma.


Yet he deserved his label as a plastic shaman. But Bass would talk to him about that later.


-Gots lots of women for you General, if you’d like, sweet mommas for a daddy.-


-The girl who tended my wound, Big Man.-


The tawny-skinned nursemaid. Her age, not more than...18. Hopefully not more for what Bass wanted to do. He felt for all his heroism, and he really thought he deserved the title, a strong compulsion existed inside him. He wanted to dominate. A body.


Whitedread Collins slithered in animal pelts and an oversize Carhardt jacket, his guards ready with hunting rifles, a tribe of campers and campfires ready to roll whichever which way but loose from his sneer of command.


-She's as fresh as chicken.-


It sounded good to Bass. He nodded in approval. Collins cackled, his men followed.


-How do I know you're not a federal man?-


Bass still couldn't guess what he meant. While the tribes of the Plains Nation seemed in full flight from the touch of Salt Lake City's purges, the word "federal" could have meant many things. Rumors went both ways about the intentions of the rulers in the SLC. Federals these days could ally themselves with any type of "patriots." The worst patriots of all fought under the flag of the U.S.-government-in-exile-no-more.


-Do I look like a federal, Big Man? I'm cool...I'm cool, Big Man.-


Axel was Collins' name -- that much Bass could recall from Tom Neville's reports about the West. He seemed like an "Axel," too. Ready to start a white riot for nothing at all.


-You ain't never been cool, General. Never been cool!-


Men with green teeth, safety orange camo, and hunting hats laughed at Bass. If they wanted war he'd show them the war -- the long end of each rifle stuck up their ass.


Bass grinned but could barely bear it. Axel and his men deserved more. Whitedread returned a grin for all the shit eaters in the world. Bass guessed it was “whiteboy day.”


-Take our guest to the coop for some finger licking fresh chicken. Real tender!-


***


Hahahahah.


But Big Man Axel Collins didn't joke. His goons did indeed take Bass to a chicken coop. Not quite sex on wheels, but the potential was there. What did one expect of a band on the run? And with the chicken wire and captive girls, Axel lived up to his name.


Bass heard the quarrels of hens, and there in the hay worked the nursemaid who'd tended his underside. She wore a long flannel dress that covered every hint of her skin. Big Man's men used keys to open the door, to pull her out.


While the camp grew busy in the late morning's frenzy of work, an older man walked behind a girl in the last rays of teenage glories. The eyes he made were cow-eyed and forlorn -- and weaker of flesh. He hoped to take her to the downy-fresh pastures of the Coloradan steppes, and kiss the dew between her nubile hips.


But this was a camp with no bedpost, no trees on the sod-carven plains. Between two wagons the illicit sex could continue. The man with the angry blue eyes tore off Laura Ingalls' dress. He kissed her back in a reversal of passion and cupped a breast.


Ever been to Texas?


She shook her head. He undid the bun in her hair.


The biggest city is called Houston, named after General, and first president of the Republic of Texas, Sam Houston. They named the city after him on the very spot where his army defeated the "Napoleon of the West," Santa Ana...Does any of this sound like a "Jeopardy" question?


She nodded dimly in the blackout of pop culture. He pulled down her underwear until they snapped off the calf of the leg she lifted up. He kissed her ear, thought better than to fill it with Houston's borrowing of the Czar’s strategy against Napoleon, and undid the painful pressure that strained against his officer's trousers.


Houston had a promising career before ending up in Texas. If not for a scandal on his wedding night, he might have followed his mentor, Andrew Jackson, into the White House...


Bass played with her insides, at the same time he used his thumb, to gauge her fright. Good...


Some said he'd learned scandalous things from his friends, the Cherokee people, ways of lovemaking considered heathen and wild and wrong...


He considered a question about the location of "Bulgaria," but decided against it -- this post-Blackout generation knew only about Michael Jackson, and no more. Children.


***


Fevered dreams came from unclean wounds. Whatever bacteria had crawled into his bloodstream couldn't quite kill him. But when he saw an impossible object in the sky, he worried. Hallicinations clearly afflicted Bass now.


-I must be crazy....-


The caravan of wagons crawled across the salt beds before the ground's ascent into the first foothills of a mountainous distance where slow opaque clouds focused the accumulation of a gathering light.


Charlie mopped Bass' face. In the back of a wagon, the mountains partially darkened the sky. But he could still see the flying thing, and Charlie soon did too.


A dark line dotted an "i" in the sky.


-Aaron said, out west, that there were new inventions....-


Charlie let her sentence hang, a pause Bass wanted to exploit with questions. Some about that fat computer dork. Most about what Charlie'd been doing 'back in school,' before those raiders had showed up and done their worst to Charlie's mission. But first - and he lifted himself up to ask.


-You were going to leave me there, at that school, for what? For the tribes? For help?...-


He coughed. Charlie covered his mouth.


-You're worth something to somebody somewhere.-


-Comforting.-


He tried a smile, his eyes on the dot in the sky. Charlie didn't return his interest in the mysterious object, nor a smile. She looked pained, the bruises under her eye appeared ready to fully bloom in colors of purple and red. For a second he wanted to put his hand on her shoulder. She must've sensed it, she retracted, and Bass felt that timeless loneliness again.


-And what now, Charlotte? You got what you wanted? I mean, you lost, your pals back there...sorry 'bout that. But you got what you wanted, and...-


A white flash of nausea sent a whiff of bile up from his stomach. After his throat burned, he found himself with a good view over the wagon's side. To barf. When done he found a disgusted look on Charlie's face.


-...wow, I honestly think that...poisoned me...-


Charlie hadn't heard.


-Don't go with me.-


Bass needed a few seconds to think about Charlie's rebuke. He almost played dumb. But that never worked with a Matheson.


-Forget it. You make bad decisions. And if you want to really help Miles and your mother, then, don't be stupid. I'm going with you to stop some evil teachers from taking over the world!-


Bass laughed, with barely a look to see Charlie's reaction. He didn't stop there.


-When you have a second you're going to have to tell me again how Miles came up with this idea that...-


The vomit came again. He had a few seconds to consider, once again, what Charlie explained. Why -- and what -- she'd been doing at that school. Then, he saw flashes of imagined images to illustrate Charlie's story. He had nothing else. He'd never seen a Texan 'field Marshall,' before, and there was no way to get his head around the mysterious man called the "Consul."


Bass caught a look from Charlie, and Miles looked back at him.


-Monroe, there's a place that you never dared to go...and we're going there now.-


Bass pointed at the dotted "i" in the sky.


-I have a feeling we're not the only ones.-


***


He would've won if not for the damn codes of the race. But the competition's decorum overrode every movement in the last stages. There wasn't any way to forget your fellow warriors during the last few miles, terrains of electric fences, water-filled ditches, and pits of barbwire. For every obstacle lay man made walls and narrow planks, to keep competitors out of safe fields, and carry runners over impassable pits.


Bass led the charge of warriors. The organization of the final push took place at fortress gates of poles and walls, and men-on-hand-and-knees crawled across poles and pulled up themselves to scale the palisades, until the next effort of the vanguard hoisted the reinforcements over the top, over the top -- it went on and on like this until the end of the day -- and Bass led the way for the last painful mile.


The fall of the sun brought the chilly splendor of hills that had long ago exposed men to terrible elements of shadowy nature. Bass was lit up by these things, Bass could almost appreciate the way the failings of senses of the light didn't quite matter to a beast inside all that refused to quit. He'd be denied many things, but not what waited for him on the other side. Except victory looked different to each victor. His alone didn't take the appearance of all he'd wanted before.


He'd wanted a wife of martial prowess, but ended up in a marriage to the whore of deep-all-consuming-love.


Fuck you Miles fuck you Miles fuck you miles (he said with staggered winded breath he'd do what he wanted and he wanted her her her when this race was said and done her her her.)


The last 100 feet of a man's wilderness existed as a steep dirt hill. Where the night's fade of lights against the cold side of a hill took a turn for the worst in everyone's negative disposition, to think that one last obstacle awaited, and to defeat it, only meant ignorance to want and deafness to the impossible. That's it. Could Bass rise above the self-hatred, to loathe in the darkness, the possibility that Miles had succeeded where Bass met failure? And what could lay the end of the line but more loneliness. This race. To complete the final challenge did not guarantee a favorable conclusion. Victory without rewards meant the final 100 feet lay as the final futile effort. In the end Sebastian Monroe might be alone. She might not be there to greet him.


Fuck you miles fuck you miles fuck you.


He finished the race. He carried every last straggler across the line. He didn't even see the cheer of the crowd. He waited for hours but he never saw Rachel.


***


General Sebastian Monroe Captured! Long live freedom and the 'new' USA!


The redshirted shock-troops rode like bandits, but they fought in disciplined ranks. Machine gun fire raked the desert grounds and men in horses supported a column of foot soldiers with knives and rifle fire that opened a hole in the hordes of women, children, and the men who stayed to fight.


Charlie was in the thick of things, her crossbow firing. She’d attempted to find cover with an overturned wagon, in sweet ignorance of the splayed legs that lay beneath the wheels. Death came rippin’, perhaps Charlie felt it was better to give it than to get it.


Poor girl, Bass thought, as he carved out the guts of a close combat raider. The warm spray of the last beats of life caught him in the face. He couldn’t care. With only enough time to wipe the human remains from his eyes, another redshirt came at him. Bass barely had time to wrestle the point of the bayonet away from his belly, before they both tumbled on top of each other, Bass on top. Bass was always a ‘top.’


Dust and filthy breath kicked up, two men in the grip of a killer. Each other.


In the midst of a struggle-to-the-death, Bass found time to give the boy a good look over. Except for the red shirt, dyed piss-poorly and almost a shade of dark orange, Bass didn’t see anything to give away the affiliation of the raiders. He needed a better look. So Bass put his knee between his head and neck, and choked the life out of him. The kid...he was only a kid...his eyes exploded out of his head, and the colors of red, purple, and blue emerged, one after another. A last morning of life on this cursed earth.


Bass surveyed the bedlam and the collapsing lines. Chaos marked by ordered gunfire. Other than a few hanger-oners from the Tribe of Collins, it sure wasn’t white boy day. Axel, in a drivel of spit-laced incendiaries, had already gone down. If Bass looked hard enough, he’d probably be able to find Axel’s whitedread head. Son of the Morning Star, he wasn’t. But another dead white man on the plains found a place in the dustbin of history.


He got it now. The redshirted shock-troop belonged to the Salt Lake City hydrological elites. A kid. A stupid kid. Aryans….


Bass knew enough from his recon behind enemy lines to say when a battle was lost.


This wasn't that time.


While scattershot from Collins' men accomplished a partial disruption, Bass ran across the field littered with arrows and parts of men, in the space and time it took the shock-troop advance to fall apart. Not even half a minute. But he made it to the partial bulwarks if torn apart wagons and the flotsam and jetsam of the Salt Lake City attack. Charlie let loose a volley of crossbow bolts. Redshirts hit the ground.


The shock-troops resumed the wave, bullets forced the outpost's defenders to find cover, and Bass got so close to Charlie that, well...he couldn't ignore the din of war.


-There's one man manning that machine gun that's covering their attack. If we can break through and turn it back on them, we might have a chance!-


Bass had yelled so loud for Charlie to hear he was almost sure the shock-troops overheard his plans. But he couldn't even hear Charlie's response -- and she stood right next to him. He could read enough of her Prussian blue eyes though. She was all in. Bass led her out the back of the wagon column's wreckage, towards the worst of the damage, a field where dying woman and children groaned.


Charlie's reaction took the appearance of steel, and Bass was reminded of all the youth he'd meant to protect, but ended up as the agent of their destruction. She was no longer Rachel's daughter. Right now Charlie was his soldier. How long that remained the case didn't matter. They only needed to capture that machine gun, then she could fly to her own destruction.


Back in Iraq, Bass had faced all kinds of weapons of the so-called "insurgents." But, woe to all of them who'd chosen to make war with the beast of good ol' American firepower. Of all the machines that could terrorize the natives, the worst belonged to the gun of the Air Combat Controller. These men of the U.S. Special Forces were the first to be dropped into enemy-held territory. With nothing but a M2 Browning .50 caliber machine gun capable of driving back battalions of counter attackers, the ACC operated as a one-man army of epic firepower.


Bass and Charlie faced one now.


While the redshirted shock-troops swarmed against the rapidly collapsing perimeter of hastily thrown up defenses, the twin .50 caliber machine gun rattled a mighty stream of red hot ballistics at a blistering pace that ignited every object in the path of its flash of gun muzzles.


To get out of the way was Bass' and Charlie's only goal now. While the machine gun operator set down a wide kill-zone, the way was that much easier for the the great outflanking movement to commence.


Bass reckoned a football field separated Charlie and him from the machine gun position. But the loud sounds made death that much closer. The air groaned with the low-end throb of motors. A rhythm of fire that announced destruction. The ground lept at the sounds of the machine.


Bass waved to Charlie. She waved back. Friends. A field of fallen shock-troops clung to the dirt, some barely scratched at the earth to say they were alive. Bass and Charlie crossed.


Nearby, something remarkable happened. Collins’ men rose from the wreckage of their halted procession and followed the tide of war. Men who advanced into the line of fire brought the ire of the twin-barreled machine gun. So more men died. But Bass and Charlie could move on. An objective lay in their sights, so easy to kill. It only meant they had to find it. Luckily it belched loudly, proud in the lives it devoured. It was a childish outburst, one two killers hoped to use to their advantage.


The last hurrah of the Tribe of Collins broke down on the sloping plains, while Bass ran undetected from dead man to dying man to a man that, every now and then, he had to kill. Death was quick work with the Colt .45 (thanks Texas) and his Bowie knife (thanks again), until he sat on his haunches behind a blown apart torso, his feet in the pool of blood and dirt, and waited for his next thoughts to swirl together. Right now he could only think of football. The machine gunner sat behind the armor plates, not more than a 20 yard sideline-out pattern away. He could make it.


Charlie rushed behind him, found her place. She worked to give most of their secrets away through the launch of more bolts from her crossbow. A few more dead redshirts, and Bass had to push down her head. It reminded him of prom night. It reminded him of a number of things…


He picked up looked like a rock. It was part of a man’s skull. Without missing a beat, he grabbed the right type of rock, brought back his arm behind his ear, and let loose. His quick release, so loved by his football coach, produced a frozen rope from the end of his fingers. The rock hit between the numbers. It rattled off the armor plate. For a second the machine stopped and the operator stepped out. Just a kid with glasses. Bass couldn’t hit a nerd with glasses. The high school bully in him could. But Charlie seemed, and alway would, like the better Matheson. She was quick and decorous.


The gun operator aimed a service revolver at Bass. For a second Bass was stood in the line of fire. Another one took over.


A crossbow bolt stuck out of the kid’s eye, neatly through one of the lenses of his glasses, without a break or crack.


Great shot kid, that was one-in-a-million.


For a minute the guns of Colorado fell silent. After Bass ran the next 20 yards, the machine gun erupted with new fire. This time it was into the redshirted backs of the shock-troops that the bullets fell. And with Charlie covering his own back, Bass let loose a terrible volley from a .50 caliber that broke the spirit of the invasion.


For a second, all seemed right, all seemed perfect. A man and his machine. With a tool like this, Bass assembled a shed made of human parts. The fallen line of shock-troops tumbled upon one another. Into a hill. Here on the plains you made buildings out of sod. Or out of human wreckage. He was reminded of terrible songs in the ‘90s. Bass saw now he’d entered a Peckinpaw movie. The Wild Bunch. Shock-troops desperately tried to avoid the .50 caliber. Heaps of them began to gather round the base of the machine gun. Come to worship, they fell on their knees, not rising, except a hand maybe. Gather round, ye all.


Bass couldn’t move the machine gun, and when he realized that, he wanted to tell Charlie something. Sorry kid. This was always a one-way trip. Revenge on the brain. The adventure you wanted, well, to find “Xanadu” (a place where nobody dared to go)...that ends. Now.


Redshirts stood poised to converge on the errant machine gun and the gremlin operators…


Then, cannon fire erupted on the plains, right in the midst of their briefly reorganized lines. In clusters, they’d stood. With each fire of a distant cannon, they died. Enmasse.


The shock-troops must’ve thought today was white boy day, Bass reckoned.


Charlie disrupted him from his reverie of watching explosions. She tapped him on the shoulder, and pointed. In the sky. The black dotted “i” had returned. But this was no moon.


A large airship. It’s camouflaged-painted broadsides erupted with flames from cannons. No ordinary cannons. Artillery fire. An M102 howitzer. In Iraq they’d mounted them on gunships and fired them on insurgents. Here, they could kill boys from the SLC pretty well, too.


Bass continued to fire the machine gun at the targets in his line of sight.


The mysterious airship finished off the rest of the shock-troops.


Silence. Until, Charlie tried to say something. But Bass couldn’t hear the sounds from her mouth. He only heard ringing. And a pain in his ears. He touched the side of his face. Blood on his hand. Ruptured eardrums.


The airship began to settle to the ground.


Bass couldn’t hear anything. He leaned against the machine gun, reaching into his jacket, pulling out a cigar. He bit the end off, struck a match, lit the fucker. But before he inhaled…


I love it when a plan comes together.


***


Charlie ripped the sheets from the bed, leaving him to shiver as he passed out and her to stride over to the window for one last look at the night.


Before the earth-ward fall of Aaron's Fire.


She always felt the tingle of the storm upon its first approach. But never when she'd barely finished the tale of the beginning of the Rise Up.


Time moved fast and, like Alia of the Chryse-knife, her memories kept pace with the storm.


Green fire started as lightening flashes in the upper-most atmosphere. The peaks of the Cascades were briefly illuminated by the crackle of energy.


Then darkness fell over an old woman's mind.


The landing ramp of the airship fell to the ground. Men with sunglasses and leather vests walked out. Soon another man emerged, younger than the others, dressed in a brown jacket and pants. He must've been barely out of his teens. His face looked like a younger version of Monroe's. He could've been his son. He looked exactly like...


Focus, Charlie.


Green fire began to fall from the sky's over Port Angeles.


Focus.


Men in sunglasses parted for the younger man with the cold blue eyes. Monroe walked towards him. He ignored Charlie's warning. Monroe looked like he recognized the younger man. Barely not a boy. He spoke about a number of things. California. A commonwealth to the west. A consul -- the Consul of California.


Focus.


Green fire fell more rapidly. The sun began to rise and a halo of green lightening. The ball of light started as a second distant star on the edge of the Solar System and moved closer, penetrating the Earth's atmosphere. A rush of lost air.


Charlie didn't have long before HE arrived.


Focus.


Pride came over Monroe's face as the younger man told him about a secret place, where no one dared to go, where, before the Blackout, the Consul and the Field Marshall were just two school teachers at a professional development sabbatical in Colorado, and fifteen dark years later, when they learned of one another's rise to power across the divided continent, they put the information about a secret laboratory -- "Xanadu" -- in the school same school as the sabbatical...


Charlie could see through the fall of the green heavens, a man inside the sphere. He sat in the lotus position. HE.


Aaron's Fire thundered and roiled.


Almost there.


Focus.


The younger man told Monroe about the coming war. The Consul had built an army for imminent battle with the wicked, oriental east, against the host of the New "USA," commanded by a man named "Neville." The younger man told Monroe to come with him, to the West, and lead this army against their enemies. When the time was right, Monroe and the younger man could overthrow the Consul, and rule the Americas as father and son...


Through the storm of light, HE approached Charlie inside the sphere of green. With closed eyes he reached out with a lazy hand. HE pointed at her, and Charlie could just make out the "AC/DC" logo on his black t-shirt.


Charlie took the outstretched hand, stepped into the green sphere, thinking what she’d thought then, as she watched Monroe board the airship and walk away.


She’d thought then, how, as far as everyone knew, the battle between the east and the west had not even happened yet, and somewhere out there, a father and his child still had the chance at reunion, even if it wasn't in a place where nobody dared to go.






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