When he turned ten, age-day tradition dictated one wish. He walked up to the table where his father sat, and he spoke, as he was not supposed to do.
-I want to be Def Leppard.-
The great search began. His father and mother tried to locate the great book of fads. More popular than cookbooks, and all the rage with the colonial @ffiliatez. If they could find out why he wanted to be Def Leppard, then they might get through to this boy. It had been nearly a year since he talked.
When they found out about Def Leppard, they soon wished he would never talk again. Their son wanted to bear the spandex of a rockarolla? For what? A public strut. It was bad enough this outrage already infected Waterloo-capital. Men like birds. Now their son? But he didn’t care
-I. Want. Rock-n-roll.-
Youbetcha. Tradition supported his wish with a capital T. Texas style. He manipulated and connived. He had allies for his corruption. In this case, he got the music from a baby sitter. Evangeline. A former royal from the TexArkany east.
She played the records backwards, so he could hear the satanic messages. For that, he wanted to kiss her feathered earlobes. She said the darndest things.
When Shiloh MacKenzie traveled, people always noticed he never looked out the window, and they asked him about that, which he quickly gave an answer. He liked surprise. He liked to travel and arrive without the knowledge of direction, the way, and the change in scenery. Mystery, he called it. Magic. But like many of the things he said, it was all made up. People would have liked to hear the truth—he did not. In reality, motion sickness struck him easily. The minute he looked out a window, the nausea turned into a round of vomit. No, better it was to lie. To his family. To his friends. To the comrades on the road who had played beside him in the bands of his youth.
And for this fate, he should have thanked his abductors, for they had covered his head with a sack. He never saw where they took him—no matter his social station among the Notables! But now that he could see his surroundings, and the view from 30,000 American feet in the air, it was not the sickness that returned, but something else, that feeling he had begun to feel ever since his return to the Palace. The most important days of his life were upon him, and he couldn’t feel any worse than that.
He thought back to the disorientation of his surrender, the near escape from the crazed crowds and riotous streets, then, the running gun battle with the partisan freaks. With a push in the back and a prod from a gun, his abductors forced him onto a jet-rocket at the air-docks. They left the Palace in a hurry, but by then, his abductors had put a hood over his head. Not that he had needed it of course. As a more-than-willing captive, he would have thought that compliance, as well as status, would have afforded him some respect. But the hood only meant to please the man who held his chain, and more likely, thought he always would.
Shiloh dared the motion sickness, and could now look out the air-window and see the curvature of the Earth below him. A thin line of white atmosphere separated the terminus of land and sky. His line of sight followed the wing of the airship. Back from the horizon to the fuselage and cabin of the craft. A lobby filled with American couches. And American goons. Urban camoed, mercenary-supreme. At rest with drinks in their hands, babes on their arms. A good time for all. Time to celebrate victory. Someone thought they’d won the Super Bowl.
Jeff Davis was a line in the sand you crossed just for the humor. He wore an all-black suit with the vest and the silver-clasped cufflinks, and Shiloh knew...Shiloh knew this Sheriff of the Commandments finally had him. Davis leaned up against a statue of a classic cowboy. His hat was off—Davis'—the bronze cattle herder could not be imagined in anything but the dressage of the range. Davis, for that matter behaved like his armed confederates. They let it all hang loose. With his head bared and black hair slicked back, Shiloh realized what a big forehead Jeff had. It was white and perspiration shined off it with the light from the sun, nearly level in the high-altitude sky. Shiloh tried to ignore him. No luck there. Not even the drone of the airship’s prop-engines could drown out Davis.
-What can I get you, Mackenzie? Having what the boys are having?-
Shiloh looked away to search for Ewarian. The little boy lay where he had for the last hour. In an unoccupied chair. Asleep. At least Jeff's goons had that much respect.
-I see Thorogood's spared no expense for you scumbags.-
Jeff hadn’t heard. He started to show off the lobby of the airship. It was big and wide, plenty of space for someone to stretch out their legs—and in the case of Jeff and Co—go ahead and hold an orgy. Not with the kid around, please...
-The Don Meredith has it all. Mothballed by the old Billy Bob Kings, Lord Thorogood has brought it back in style!-
Shiloh felt two-dozen eyes of weary goons sight him. Well into their drinks, the alcohol had not dulled these Carthage Grays enough for Shiloh’s liking. Still, small mercies existed. Their fingers played more with the buttons and straps on the negligible clothing of the escorts than with the weapons they had refused to give up at the door. Good for that, and better there were some naked women in the lobby. Better than Shiloh's shot up corpse. Ah, but the Tyrant of Texas would be upset, wouldn't he? Naked women—hells bells! In this airship, Shiloh was in the Godstate now. Home sweet home.
-Glad to see you've given me all the comforts of Captivity. I don't know if I will be taking privilege of any, to tell you the truth, but it does show that Thorogood...-
Shiloh brushed aside his first thoughts. Usurper, destroyer....
-Lord Thorogood, so wise, will allow me to see your Captive.-
Jeff Davis drew a blank.
-I can't answer that. No one said that's even a possibility.-
Shiloh drew up to him.
-I didn't surrender myself to you and your thugs so I could cavort with Dallas cowgirls, and maybe watch some classic Super Bowls. I'm here to see my cousin, lowlife. I want to see the Empress.-
The Waterloo-capital gleamed with the polished light that could only come from the concerted efforts of the best retro-engineered powers imaginable. Shiny plasteel encased the concrete that still rose from the base of the old city. Re-steel was fashioned into barbs that poked through pantheonic domes. The old city of the moderns was remolded to stand anew, protected by the greatest efforts to protect concrete and steel from further erosion and rust.
Every time Shiloh looked at the city, he knew how the builders had failed in their efforts. For the new city's intention to not obscure the old city merely highlighted the passage of time and the futile efforts to stop decay. It was more like the capstone on a crypt, where American Revivalism would fail, and then die. A dinosaur of the second age of Texian empire.
The Don Meredith came to rest on the air-docks outside the city, and a cavalcade of auto-zzz waited to pick Shiloh, Ewarian, and their armed escorts up. Piloted by the silent minds of dumb-puters that lurked in some nearby technocentrist hive, Shiloh opaqued the window next to him. Motion sickness might get the better of him. But it was ghosts of the blood-soaked barricades on the Avenue of the Texians that he had a better mind to avoid, their memories still fresh in his mind. A failed revolution had come to this—his return to the city of his ancestors, for what might be his final ride.
The cavalcade crossed William Robert Bridge over the Colorado Tunnel, the rotunda of the capital dead ahead. Greater Texiana. Their cavalcade took a wide left to the Old Governor's Mansion. It supposedly looked as it had for more than a century. Shiloh always thought the neo-classical building symbolized a dead end. The Governor's Guard waved them ceremoniously through the gate, and all at once, the auto-doors clicked open so quickly that the guards barely had time to greet them upon their exits. Shiloh brought Ewarian to his side, commanded by Jeff Davis and his goons into the mansion.
When Shiloh saw her an image of contraband records and games of spin-the-bottle came to him. A tiny red-haired woman in a long grey coat greeted him in the main hallway. She had no one else beside her side, and for a very brief minute, he acted as if he barely knew her at all. Jeff Davis followed the guard, and they walked for a very long time in silence. It was painful.
Shiloh bided the time with his refamiliarization to the portraits of great men on the walls. Jocular men, muscular men, ones who would talk to you at the urinal. Big Texas.
But doors always presented themselves in a place like the mansion, where Shiloh knew a great many deals were made. And for that, escape existed. For Shiloh and Ewarian, their door opened soon enough, and here, they took their leave of Jeff Davis and his goon squad. A brightly lit garden room awaited Shiloh and Ewarian. Some windows let the hot, heavy sun into their room, and Shiloh could feel the humidity more than ever. There was a bench to sit on, and they did.
Always the gentleman, Shiloh helped the tiny woman to her seat. Once settled, the robot menagerie of birds began to sing, an old holdover from the vanished days of the William Robert Kings. Shiloh joined in.
-Baroness Von Evangelion. Radiant, as usual.-
He lied. Age had worked rapidly upon her. So quickly. Lines where none had been before. Her green eyes were still lucid. Prying. Inquisitive. With a secret joke behind them. But time had cruelly set worry upon her face. He had never seen her like this before.
-Shiloh Mackenzie. A liar, as usual.-
And she touched his arm, which he viewed as an invitation, and he leaned closer to her and embraced her. Even in his youth, he always had thought she might break upon physical contact. But like then, she did not. She was made of sterner stuff. He knew that.
-I told you I would be back.-
-There never was a question. Can you answer some questions? To see if your betrayal is true?-
-Of course, my lady.-
-Is the army still being built in Kansas?-
-Southcross continues on pace.-
The Baroness sprung into a more settled poise of position.
-What a trap that pagani is building for herself, for everyone in the Palace. It was wise you left when you did.-
-Didn't really have any choice, did I?-
He recognized her attempt to keep something hidden from him, and he could not let it go.
-What the hell was Jefferson Davis doing there? Screwing things up. When he showed up, I had to leave.-
-I think the allies of Thorogood are really desirous to move ahead. First the head of the beast has to be cut off. So it won't be long now. Kansas has always been the near abroad. Its just Kir-sten’ya’s bad luck she lives there. All the Billy Bob's have claimed it. Even the Thirteenth, the Unlucky.-
-Hmm. Kir-sten'ya solved that...didn’t she? Speaking of—where is she?-
-Can you get me there?-
-Dear Shiloh. I am all that stands between you and destruction. Thorogood doesn't trust you. If your plan is to work...-
-I will need my sweet old baby sitter. Can we listen to Def Leppard on the way. Like the good old days?-
-Can we listen to something better?-
Twilight was upon the old American southwest. That made it easy to see the landing lights of the luxury craft from the Notables of the Von Strauven Imperium. They formed long lines in multiple directions, and like a web, Shiloh knew everything came together here. Back to the Empress. Sky traffic told Shiloh many things, most of all that the plan he lad long suspected was still on pace. Airships from all over the imperium arrived, semi-parked in the flight paths above Vegas, and backed up as far as Shiloh could see. After he threw up, he spoke to the Baroness.
-Bold, aren't they? Celebrating so soon?-
He had begun to feel better. A bag of his vomit lay at his feet. The Baroness looked over the controls of her private flivver, while the dumb-puter found a place to park.
-The Eye-NC is filled with rumor-threads. People want a good seat with the @ffiliatez. No one wants to miss a second to join an authorship.-
The flivver docked into a park-port. The systems lit up with electricals went dim and the doors popped up. Shiloh jumped out, slid the seat forward, but Ewarian had already climbed out through the gap. Shiloh ran around the other side to help the Baroness out. She took his arm.
-Stay close Ewarian. You're not gonna want to miss a thing.-
He looked up at Shiloh with his stone-dark eyes.
-Is there going to be a circus?-
The Baroness laughed.
-It already is! Look.-
Other private flivvers already filled the park-port. Auto-zzz attendants had their hands full. Already arrivals from the nearby colonial franchises, suburban fortresses, and non-governmental communities filled the lots with their trail-along bags. They wore the finery of clothes from the nostalgicist wares, the modern eras fully represented, and the demi-serfs and indentured non-partitioned in tow, to show that the classes that separated the laboring from the owners still existed.
Shiloh helped the Baroness, but she led him. Through the mobs of auto-zzz-men in their construct-icon orange. Overhead float-monitors glowed with the information they simulcast in loud electric-crier voices. Shiloh saw Ewarian put his fingers in his ears. He quickly gave the little boy some earplugs. An attendant waved a part of the crowd towards a pneumatic-lift, and held the door open, as the crowd swarmed inside. The lights turned off and Shiloh felt the thing begin to ascend. Soon the walls and ceiling turned into representations of everyone's ID-auras. No one said a word. Shiloh just watched what seemed like a hundred psychic representations flit across the sides of the shaft. If he plugged into his own media-station-ez, he feared they would see his own topsy-turvy ambitions.
The lift thumped to a stop, the lights cut back on, and they exited through the open doors. Shiloh looked beyond and saw a larger sea of people who filled up a vast glass sky plaza. They, like the rest of the crowds, prepared to get into position to see a show. One Shiloh hoped to emcee.
-Where to now?-
The Baroness slowed down, the crowds did not, and the swell rushed along. Shiloh clung to both of them. The Baroness clicked her teeth.
-We need to see the Muskrat Bitch.-
Colored water sprayed out of the ends of robotic statuary that twisted and turned with the movement of the sun. The water formed puddles on the smooth tiled floor. Green-and-blue screens reflected off them, the circuits off-line, until an analog connection was made. A netted wire mesh surrounded the circumference of the room, and every now and then, electric sparks would erupt from different locations on the mesh. A faint hum seemed to make the room vibrate. Ripples touched the surface of the off-line visualization puddles, and a woman waded through them in hip-high boots. She was a pharmaceutical blond, her eyebrows darker than the hair on her head. She refused to stop while in conversation, and Shiloh had to track her across the open-air room. The motion almost made him sick.
-I watch enough programshipz to know what you tried in Edessa, Lady Andramadeus. How can I know it's the real Empress Kir-sten’ya? How do I know you're not trying to trick me?-
The peroxide blonde spun towards him. Shiloh had never met her before, so he realized what big blue eyes she had. The better to see through him.
-That's the same thing all of us are asking about you! Your little speech in Kansas stirred the pot! What was that about?-
-They were rioting before I even said anything.-
-We shouldn't have had to send that disgusting Sheriff to go get your royal ass!-
-Again--and this is what I told the Baroness, here...-
The Baroness curtsied. Shiloh barely saw it. He looked more to see what Ewarian as doing. He had pulled some type of doll out of his pants.
-This issue, Lady Andramadeus...besides the obvious issues about who-is-who, and all these clones--where did they all come from?--this issue...this issue...is do you have the Empress or not?-
Lady Andramadeus spun back around in time to see an electrical explosion against the wire mesh.
-It looks like her...-
-It did in Edessa, fooled everyone. Nearly got everyone killed.-
-Like moths to the flame. We don’t need another hero. Doesn't matter anyways. Just some rockarolla barbarians.-
Shiloh thought that interesting. Just some…barbarians. Latter-day Visigoths was more like it.
-Does it smell like her?
She spun back around.
-Smell like her? Does she, does she have a smell?-
Shiloh had smelled enough to know.
-And you call yourself a revivalist.-
-Better than your classicism.-
-Does…she sound like a…modernist? I would think you’ve come somewhat successfully to brainwashing her. She is impressionable.-
-Does she complain a lot?-
-Depends on the music I play.-
-If it's not Def Leppard...-
-So I've heard. Anyways. Nasally voice. Spits when she get excited and talks.-
-Spits like a snake when she's mad?-
-Oh, stop trying to hype her up, Vizier. What’s with this she’s-a-serpent-initiate-witch campaign? This reminds me that it doesn’t take long to get into the stupidities of this entire 'Kir-sten'ya' phenomenon. That is why we can’t entirely trust you.-
-Do you think she would kept me around if I was terrible at making her popular? No. Keep talking.
But do it because I don’t trust you either. Anything else you can tell me about her? I need to know if you have her.-
-Yes. She has a question for you.-
Shiloh hadn't expected this.
-How does Shiloh make sure he doesn't get carsick?-
Expectations failed Shiloh again.
-I call shotgun…-
Shiloh stepped forward.
-Show me the Empress.-
In a world of goons there were goons—and then there were G.O.O.N.s. Guardians of the Ohio Nation, creatures of Lady Andramadeus. They came out of the walls and wheeled their captive out on a gurney. Bandages covered the top of her head. A few strands of gray hair poked out through the surgical tape. Her brown doe eyes looked red, irritated. Sad. She seemed to have little to say. Until she saw Shiloh.
-Leave us alone.-
Shiloh had forgotten how backwardness of Kir-sten’ya.
Lady Andramadeus gave a brief hand signal to the G.O.O.N.s. They followed her, back through the walls. The Baroness waited to say something, her lips moved, nothing came out. She thought better of it, and turned to go. Shiloh and Ewarian gingerly approached the bed-ridden Empress of the Earth. Shiloh was almost afraid to breath on her.
-You look terrible.-
-I feel terrible.-
Ewarian was overcome with a great shake of fear, and he trembled over to the bedside of his empress. She lifted a paper-thin hand, he clasped it.
-It's ok, Ewar. I'm fine. Terribly fine. But fine enough.-
Ewarian began to weep into her hand.
-Never leave again! Never leave us again.-
She hushed to soothe, but never took her eyes away from Shiloh.
-So. My Vizier has returned.-
His cousin had never looked all that healthy. Maybe a brief time when she'd filled out, and had a robust shape, but usually way too thin for his taste. Now, her cheekbones teased through her skin. The bones in her hands were way too evident. Ready to snap, maybe.
-Do you have any self-respect? What the hell happened to you?-
She prepared to answer him, as Ewarian nestled his sobs against her breast.
-Let's see. I was an only child. My mother was what the moderns call bi-polar schizoidphrenic; my father dealt with her illness through long, protracted trips upriver; I witnessed the death of my home city when I was 9; was nearly burned alive and/or drowned by the floods, ran away and found my father's corpse; survived the largest locust infestation in the history of the South when I mistakenly drank a bottle of pesticide...-
-Never mind. That's old news. The new news is your abduction. I've heard your speech. It's been kinecast all over the Imperium. It's...-
His cousin, known by the paganified of the lowercased-earth as the Empress Kir-sten'ya, but called by him, as she had always been, Kirsten Satan Navarre, began to cry.
-...it's a disaster...I'm so scared...-
Shiloh got closer to her, put his hand down on her bed.
-It it means anything no one cares what you have to say.-
-Thanks for making me feel better.-
Shiloh began to touch his forehead to hers. He thought for a moment, and said what he had wanted to say for the last six months.
-Do you think...do you think...you and Anacreon might...get back...you know...-
He nodded. She yanked her head back and whipped a pillow at his head.
-I've been outwitted, and dumb witted enough to cede by identity over to an antiquated form of female bondage...-
-Yes, you're technically supposed to kill yourself.-
-Right! And, here I am, held by the Estate of Andramadeus, for it appears, as part of some hostage for a set of demands by...-
-Thank you! And you, ask me, if I want to continue a...relationship.-
-Physical. Sexual. Emotional...definitely emotional.-
-You're psychological, dear cousine--and your Creole is terrible. Always has been.-
She slumped her Atlantaen shoulders. He always won. His poor backwards cousin. He was going to have to shine her turd.
-What is it that you would ask me to do?-
Shiloh put his hand on her shoulder.
-Do you wonder why you're still alive?-
Kirsten had begun to stroke Ewarian's hair. He continued to shake. Sometimes Ewarian reminded Shiloh of the original Ewarian—before the cloning. Kirsten though, sometimes surprised him with her not-so-silent lucidity. At times like these, neo-cola classicism served her well.
-They need me to do something for them.-
Here Shiloh had to admit that he had crossed into fear. This part of the idea he kept in his head demanded some heavy-duty risk taking.
-Don't be afraid to do it. They think if you consent, they've won. You need to play around. I suggest you make fun of them. I suggest you ‘other the other's other.’-
Her doe brown eyes stabbed with their bloodlessness.
-Yes, the secret weapon! This means I can use magic tricks. This means parody.-
She got it.
-You have to play the game. I really believe...I really believe that only good things can come out of this. I really think...Hessia is about to have her break out role.-
Kirsten hit him in the arm.
-Oh stop, this isn't your movie. This is my ass.-
-Which you’ve been writing checks with, Kirsten. And you might be overdrawn.-
-As my personal banker, what exactly do you have in mind?-
They huddled up. It was the right thing to do with his cousin. She had been a high school quarterback after all.
-So basically you’ve shit your pants. All you can do now is dive in and swim.-
The Baroness was such a modernist. Shiloh watched her look over her electronic controls more than a dozen times, and that was all during the time when nothing but automated factories in the field lay below the overhead sky paths of airborne super-causeways. Smooth sailing, as the star sailors would say.
Shiloh summed the day up for her.
-What a day I have had. I have traveled with the scumbag of the universe, Jefferson Davis, in an hydrogen-powered airship named after a former American quarterback. I have seen the ancient capital of my ancestral Texas, and been reunited with the best babysitter I ever had, to go to the City of Ancien Vegas to talk to my cousine, who just happens to be the Empress of the Earth—and the present captive—of a woman who has allies behind her who wish the Empress to kill herself as part of some elaborate ritual of conquest. Soon I will be in the City of the Emperors, the Second City of the Americans, The Windy City of Chicago. To give my demands to the Congress of Notables. It’s days like this when I am glad to be an American.-
He looked out the window and sighed.
-Why then is it that my hand trembles with this letter?-
The Baroness barely looked at him.
-You seem to be doing all right. Even though you dumped that kid off with the Empress.-
-That…that was his idea. Besides. Where I’m going…there are no roads.-
-Is that why you are looking out the window, now?-
Shiloh saw through the open window of her flivver as they dashed across the Eisenhower Tunnel Complex. 3 miles above the earth. All Shiloh saw were pointed peaks. The High Deserts of the Endless Summer. Barren tops and watersheds. Dead earth, dead earth.
-This is a letter of demands from the Empress Kir-sten’ya. She is, technically, still the Sovereign. And until the Act of Immolation, she is still able to issue a Eurasian Eukase. Here…she has…-
The Baroness finally looked over at him. All for two seconds.
-What then has you so ready to look out an open window? Doing dope again?-
-No. I just got to get ready to ride shotgun, that’s all.-