The descent through the layers of the earth functioned as a shroud of immense layers and depth. He felt: suffocation. He felt: the ground slit his wrists. He felt: the causation of mighty mountains and terrible magma flows. He felt: nothing. Suddenly reduced of terror, he had no being but his mind. He knew he was dead. But the machines wouldn't let him die.
A shuddering took over his flesh at the first sign of reanimation. Cells were furious novae of duplicated nucleonics. The trillion-in-one-chance of recombination did not need the hard luck of tidal baths. The nano-machines provided the force behind the end stage of oblivion, and where his mind met the waking of bodily tissues and the regrowth of fluid systems and nerves stacked end-on-end, the depths of the planet became his shelter, his womb, his self.
Himself. Reborn and terrible with one more role to play. The nano-machines that had entered his blood during the armageddon at the Tower now spoke of an awful new truth. Resurrection of the flesh and the land. As he thrived so would the earth. Damnation! A wicked wind now swept over a forfeit land of broken kingdoms. The last drama was set to begin.
Dulcimer woke up to some type of frying meat. The biomass engines rumbled at an idled speed, so he knew the power on the airship had been flung into the auxiliary ovens. He threw on a heavy fur robe, appropriate attire for the morning weather at 5,000+/- feet.
When he came topside, the unshrouded sun already warmed the redwood deck of the Odysseum. A vista of smooth white clouds stretched in all directions beneath the idled airship and an unbroken dark blue sky was dealt a merciless stab of solar rays. Light hurt his eyes and he tiptoed, blind.
A woman with long dark hair stood over a convection plate, the currents of heated air undulated in the high-altitude chill. Hot oil popped on a griddle. Sizzle, sizzle.
Roxana spoke without looking at him. Dulcimer smelled bacon and blackened toast. It was enough. He grabbed the thermos on a wooden table suspended in a hempen basket. Rich coffee slightly bubbled in the thin air, in his mug. World's Greatest Dad.
-Early time for breakfast?-
Roxana agreed with a china doll grin that barely broke the skin on her face.
-You’re male, and led by suggestions of frying fat and salt. I wanted you to see this.-
Dulcimer already had his face in the greasy, crispy insides of some survivor of the Kill-off. He didn’t see where she pointed until her silence got him to lift his face from the hot cup of coffee that nearly burned his lips.
-You’re slow this morning, Mr. Barlow. How late were you up with the Missus?-
Dulcimer felt grease slide down the corner of his mouth. By instinct, he stuck the mug in his face, the edge a temporary dam until he could use the sleeve of his furry robe. After a reprieve of a scalding mouthful, he responded to Roxana.
-She insisted on staying up. Late. Made me explain to her all the land of the west. Asia. Korea. Japan. Mostly Korea, and…-
Roxana looked embarrassed. Not for her. For him. He didn’t even wait.
-So, what’s it you got me up for?-
Roxana moved quick for her size. She was short, but she moved with the long-limbed twirls of a ballerina. Dulcimer stomped across the deck to keep up with her, into the pilot house. Swinging fabrics were pushed back by their entrance. Dulcimer heard the beads jingle against themselves. The pilot house felt warmer than the chilly air outside, the vented-in air of the idled engines a good deal, if one could stand the smell of engine coolant. Roxana moved with innate knowledge of dark. Dulcimer watched her turn the dial of the radio. A series of squelches later and they both listened in silence to the roar of a crowd. For a moment he could almost make believe that the Cascadian Cup had begun.
A week into the Odysseum's journey towards the wicked east, and already the plume of wrecked tract homes proved easy to find near Ft. Lake Tahoe. The leeward side of the Sierras hid groves of abandoned suburban homes. If the Consul meant to send his superwreckers eastward, he'd need more resources after his fleet passed the detritus-filled hole once called Fresno.
For the last few days, Roxana had piloted the airship below the lowest cloud layer. The first thing of note was the divots on the ground from the wreckers' anvils. Immediately after the sight of ejecta from nearby craters, came the furrows. Deep cuts into the earth. Claw marks across former fields and houses and towns, until, one by one, the weighted sky-plows converged on suburban neighborhoods. Then came the tell-tale ejecta of a twenty-ton anvil impact on the ground. The next series of events happened with even more predictability:
The reduction of materials from the maelstrom of tillage by the plows.
The transformation of churned-up wreckage into a liquid-like material for the retro-sluice.
The act of the cities to devour the defunct suburbs represented the great drama of an expanded California, and the newest great thirst of California.
Drink it up -- and the Commonwealth had.
Today: the suburbs of Fresno, no more.
Dulcimer stared straight at the debris plume, while his head was on the score of the last ever Cascadia Cup, when his beloved Sounders fell to the Timbers. He'd gone to that game. With Ana. More than a decade and a half ago...
Roxana stood at the open-air steeling wheel, her concentration breaking his own. She wore goggles over her eyes, the flaps of her leather cap suspended by the steely mountain winds.
The airship's speed made good time. The fall-line of the eastern slopes lurked behind. To the south, Mono Lake was a mottled satellite on the below topography. Every other cardinal point of the compass was filled with the Nevadan plateau, a barren gas giant orbited by extinct seas. And straight as the arrow of the nose of the airship, rose the pillar of the plume cloud. Dark. The turned up soil of suburbia.
Dulcimer looked concerned. Roxana’s understood enough about humans to register the worry on his brow.
-We’ll be at a safe distance. No biggie.-
He still worried the whole time, even if Roxana stayed to her word and kept a safe distance from the wreckers. Dulcimer used a telescope for a better view. He saw nothing. The wreckers lurked below the horizon. Roxana kept the airship's path on a wide circle in their approach to the debris cloud. He looked back through the telescope, and didn’t stop looking the entire time. He only saw the black turbulence on the horizon, where land met the sky, both stirred up by furies. Dulcimer remembered the superwrecker that’d nearly killed him and Columbia back in Yerba Buena. With the drop of the anvil -- smash.
Dulcimer heard the slap of angry sandals against the redwood deck. He didn’t need to turn around. He merely heard the agitation and said in kind.
-Get below. Now-
He heard Columbia sigh again.
-What’s with all this crazy driving? Everything’s sliding around below deck!-
He could see the corner’s of Roxana’s grin. How long could they ignore a thirteen year old girl, one with fixations on a world that no longer existed? As long as the fun could last.
-I said get your butt down below deck.-
Columbia was dressed in her furry, white coat. A shiny green wig accompanied her neo-romantic look. He could also smell her. She hadn’t brushed her teeth, which bothered Dulcimer the most. They were small teeth, and the words out her mouth possessed their own stink. He’d promised to be her tutor. Now, he had a daughter.
Roxana still kept that satisfied grin.
-Lady, you’d best buckle up. I’m not going to slow down.-
Columbia rolled her eyes.
-We’re not even goooinnnng the way we’re supposed to.-
Dulcimer swung his arm around her.
-Not this again.-
Columbia wiggled out of his grasp.
-Don’t say this is some geography lesson!-
Dulcimer grabbed her again. She squeaked and evaded him. He only had a handful of hair. Brown hair. Caring less, he pointed across the bow of the airship.
-This...is all about geography.-
If Columbia could roll her eyes anymore, she’d be a jackpot machine, he thought. If he’d said that, he would have gotten the same attitude. She didn't make friends easily. And they weren't...friends.
-Ooohhh. Lemme guess - ‘this is about how we order things’ and ‘talk about things?'-
Dulcimer would’ve crowed with pride at his student if not for the rapid movement Roxana made with the wheel. Pretty soon they were in each other’s arms, grinning, but still pretty awkward.
It began to hail as soon as Roxana touched down the Odysseum. Pebble sized bolides. But large enough to obscure the mooring cables of the balloon mines. Luckily Roxana saw the obstacles before they'd steered into the magnetic fields of the explosives.
The matter of why the Consul would choose to deploy the balloon mines didn't mean the Consul wanted to ward away followers in the air. To use balloon mines meant there was something on the ground. Roxana made the decision to investigate the mystery.
From the air the destruction of the suburbs, which left behind waste tillings, gave the appearance of polka dots. From surface level, the ruinous harvest of tract homes looked like a cake sculptor’s ambitions run wild. Tilings of homes, worthless materials to the wreckers, formed frosted funnels and lacings across the land. Fifteen years of the first victims of the Blackout now reduced to a creamy pulp.
The Odysseum settled onto the flattened house plots, knocked over a flock of plastic flamingos, and belched scalding steam from its exhausts. The plastic melted and the landing ramp lowered into the pink goo. Out came Dulcimer, Roxana, and Columbia, wearing gas masks in case of toxic residues. Reno no more.
Ground level, and Dulcimer felt his leg go unresponsive to his commands. It could've been some extract from the harvest, or a chemical by-product in the tillage. He'd never know. He merely bent down and loosened a bolt in his knee, until he felt his robotic leg gain more ease of motion. When it did, he began to walk again.
The whole time Columbia noticed his distress and stood by his side. She held an umbrella over him. Hail stones dribbled off the velvet top harmlessly. Thunder broke over the nearby Sierras. The ground steamed from the touch of frozen ice. Heat from the friction of mechanical subduction, the enterprise of the wreckers, still emanated from the earth. Dulcimer made eye contact with Columbia. Knowing he had her, they walked towards Roxana, who inspected the sides of the Odysseum.
The tethers of the balloon mines criss-crossed the sky as silver threads of metal, connecting a sky of darkened clouds and a mogul field of dumped waste from the wreckers. Somewhere on the other side of those steamy pyramids, the Commonwealth did not want trespassers. Dulcimer agreed with Roxana. They both carried wrist atlatls, prepared to throw some death.
The hail stopped halfway across their march across the skeletal remains of the murdered neighborhood. Dulcimer kicked his way through the mushy ground. He heard his footsteps, Columbia breathe through her mouth, and, just after a thunder boom died, Roxana made a sound somewhere his name and a sigh.
-What is your first memory, Mr. Barlowe?-
Taken aback, Dulcimer thought hard about the place around him. He thought of the chalk outlines of murder victims, made famous, not by his actual sight of one, but from the homicide television shows that used to be so popular before the Blackout.
-You probably couldn't relate. You're a city...girl. You don't know about the countryside. Small town life. How cruel it can be....-
Dulcimer noticed a silence so profound that distant thunder fell silent and Columbia even listened in, as Roxana filled in the space.
-You've never told me much of that. Your father. Your father was a machinist...-
-And the best fisherman in the Salish Sea area. Horrible drunk. Nearly cut his arm off in front of me. Many times too. Made me finish a bottle of vodka with him once, while we cut parts of sheet metal out for a camper...right through his forearm. Like it was butter.-
At this moment Columbia put her ear muffs on and the hail began to pelt the ground. Roxana spoke louder.
-You don't like where you come from.-
She got it, he wanted to say, but didn't. There was something else he wanted to say. Needed to say.
-I just think back to where I come from. My roots. And I think of how it's in our nature, it's always been in this nation's nature, to worship the provincial, the simple, the ignorant. Really. I'm not making this shit up. You can't make this shit up. But that's what we are -- ignorant, backwards -- by nature. And it's worshipped.-
He thought of his home. Cascadia. He continued. You don't forget it when your dad throws a litter of blind, mewing kittens into a lake.
Roxana made the most human face Dulcimer had ever seen her do.
-I may not have memories the way you do, Mr. Barlowe, but I do know a thing or two about the people of the countryside. Remember: I saved you from the Tribunes. I know the peasants are capable of revenge cloaked in justice. But you mustn't forget: it was the city that gave rise to the Vigilance Committee. There's a fair deal of ignorance from the urban polities that rule the Commonwealth.-
Dulcimer felt it was his time to upset his own face. He did, unsettled that Roxana's wisdom did not permit her to look inside the land from which he currently bemoaned and condemned for its ignorance, or at least some of the people of Cascadia were wanting of a word one hardly used to describe the darkened continent. Politics. They needed better politics. Too much conservatism and hatred of government had already condemned Cascadia. Yoked to the fate of a 'greater' California.
A greater fate lay ahead in Dulcimer's future, one he needed to climb over, the pyramid of industrial moraine that was straight ahead. All three began the ascent. Feet easily slid in the earth with each step up the hill. Dulcimer forced Columbia to crouch down, not for better balance, but because there was no way to tell what awaited them beyond and what the balloon mines defended.
That knowledge promised to make itself known. Nearer to the top of the hill they crawled much slower and lower to the ground. The ridge allow for much of a sight, a debris field of similar pyramids of waste tillings. Far above in the sky they could see the balloon mines. Dulcimer and company followed the mooring cables to the place where they were secured to the ground. A hole.
Roxana said it, and that's how it looked to Dulcimer, but there wasn't much else to a small hole, barely big enough for a person. Then it made sense to him.
-Nah, it's just a test drill hole. By your old, run-of-the-mill machine-elves.-
Someone intended to get his attention. They had.
In the completion of the Pacific Slope Engines, the delegation of machine-and-weight responsibilities followed the geography of ecoregions. To understand how the different systems worked together, simulations of the natural processes in each region needed to be built. In the "electrical winter" of the post-Blackout world, no other way existed to model how the parts of the bioregion worked than to build a scale model of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Nearly the size of a football field, the model of the mountains, watersheds, and riparian channels sat in an old timber warehouse near Ft. Carson Pass. Known as 'The Model,' engineers could walk inside the elaborate recreation of the mountains, to better understand how to use gravity from the different elevations and the descent of varied grades for the generation and transference of energy.
Engineers -- ecoregional 'machine-elves' -- often noted the place had its own natural ecosystem. Rivers and mountain streams regularly washed down from the cement mountain peaks. The waters fed pools of fish and groves of plants, in semblance to the alpine lakes and meadows.
One day a team of workers were ordered to clean out a test bore near Donner Pass. After they pulled out the smart-plumber, they were horrified to find a small human hand. Later on investigators realized the hand belonged to a little girl who'd died long before the Blackout.
While no one ever said or implied that the hand belonged to Dulcimer's dead daughter, Ana, he didn't appreciate the joke.
-No. Ugh ugh. I'm not. You can't make me go in there.-
Columbia already had a rope tied around her waist despite her protests to the contrary. Dulcimer didn't even plan on responding. He was close to her face with a headlamp, ignoring her.
The daughter of the last governor of the State of California went crazy with rage. Bulging eyes and sharpened nails. Roxana helped Dulcimer and restrained Columbia, who still carried on, cried, and asked questions. Dulcimer couldn't tell her the truth. There was no truth. He just knew that the Consul had left behind a clue. Or Dulcimer was merely lead on by his own imagination. Or both. It’s all Dulcimer and the rest had. And they didn’t have much. Hour by hour, the fleet of superwreckers gathered more momentum towards “Xanadu.”
-Please, Dulcimer. Don't make me crawl into that hole. Please!-
Roxana attempted a grin that Dulcimer recognized. She could not make her facial muscles play along. At the best her face resembled plastic. Her only ploy remained to push Columbia towards the hole. Dulcimer gave her credit. She had more tact than him.
-The worse that could happen -- you'll get stuck. Nothing's living in that hole.-
She began to whine. Roxana didn't know how to answer her pleas. She merely played the role of a jail cell guard, who worked for the hangman, enroute to the gallows. Not that Dulcimer meant any harm to Columbia, but he needed to know. What secret had the Consul hidden?
Terrified for a last moment, Columbia let go of her demonstrations of fear and crawled headfirst into the hole. Even for a thirteen year old, she barely fit. That was until Roxana put her foot on Columbia's butt and shoved her into the hole. Sharing looks, Roxana and Dulcimer held onto the rope as she began to crawl down. The test bore was cut at a slope, and Columbia could climb down, hands and knees of the ground, while she wiggled around. Deeper and deeper. More of the rope trailed her. The tension was slight. She descended deeper and deeper…
Another burst of hail started. Dulcimer felt the beads of icy debris ping against his jacket. For a second he could’ve enjoyed this still moment. There was almost something beautiful about the industrial scenery. Sometimes he thought the Commonwealth had the right idea about the suburbs. What a waste of resources of the Old State...without the cities, the farms still grew, and without the farms, the cities fell apart. But what about without the suburbs? Nothing, really. The Blackout had proved that, and...and...
An interruption in the machine-pace breathing of Roxana’s gasmask grabbed his attention. She seemed almost startled and made a complete pivot on her heels. Just as quick, she wound back towards Dulcimer. Her brown eyes were wide. Human alarm looked appropriate on her face.
-I hear propellers just beyond the tiling-hills. Something’s coming this way.-
Dulcimer stopped and listened. He only heard hail. Then between the drop of ice balls, a whine cut through the mountain chill. A distant prop engine. Many of them.
He tugged frantically on the rope. For a second the rope drew tight and Columbia failed to budge. But no. The rope's tension began to loosen. Up came Columbia. Hurry girl, hurry.
Roxana dropped the rope.
Dulcimer thought she'd been shot. Until he shot her himself, though it was just a glance. What are you doing? Roxana read him. Finally, she'd gotten him.
She was right. Decision time.
Columbia was almost out and Dulcimer could hear her yell.
She'd found something.
From out of the hole, she held up a black t-shirt. Stained with dirt, Dulcimer barely had time to read the words on it, before he grabbed it and held it high.
Good girl. Adventures would continue….
...it was just in how one defined an adventure.
Prop wing engine planes roared out of the sky and raked the ground with machine gun fire. When the planes looped back around for another strafing run, they almost possessed a kind of benign elegance. A child at an airshow in some forgotten-by-name Midwestern town must've experienced his first erection upon the sight of the old world war planes lighting up the sky and ground. That kid might've even flown those planes now. But the boy who'd turned into a man could not, and would not, let up his guard for one minute.
Trapped on the ground was the people who belonged to a special province. They were the targets of a particular type of oppressor, who meant to do harm until the cavalry could arrive. They had.
-Hello Mr. Ulysses.-
The man didn't wear mirrored sunglasses to shield his eyes from the mountain sun glare. Not at all. He was more Erik Estrada than John whatever-his-partner's-name was. And Dulcimer had everything mixed up now. But he still knew who did what to whom, he knew a man of action like Highwayman Brannan. This was a man who meant to do harm, even when he grinned.
-Nice shirt. Is this a joke, Mr. Ulysses?-
Brannan still called him by that name. Funny. Dulcimer held up his hands while Brannan's creatures closed in around him with weapons drawn. They threw threw off his gas mask. Apparently they did not fear the toxic reaper of reductivist suburban mining.
Neither did Dulcimer. To show his newfound appreciation for the razing of Reno's suburbs, he'd thrown on the t-shirt that Columbia had found. Back in black, letters in yellow spelled AC/DC. It fit loose on Dulcimer. XXL.
-I was always more into Black Sabbath. And heavier stuff. Even liked grunge. But not that Pearl Jam shit.-
Highwayman Brannan smiled behind his shades. Dulcimer could see the reflection of himself that must've rankled Brannan so much. Harrison Ford looked good on Dulcimer. Brannan barely moved his mouth to reply.
-You got left behind, did you? We'll deal with them later...-
-Your boss must not have told you?-
-He told me where to find you...-
-Then you can guess the Governor's daughter and the minion didn't want to hang out with a guy like me. After, you know, what they found out I did to my daughter.-
He had to lie a little. Dulcimer Barlowe, one time ecoregional machine-elf, responsible for the Donner Pass disaster. None stuck worse than child fucker, and killer.
Brannan moved his mouth just a little bit more.
-We'll have that rebel airship soon enough. What we want is that man, the one the other republics call the ‘Wizard.’-
He pointed to the shirt Dulcimer wore. He could only shrug. A long hour passed when the sun didn't move at all, and the highwayman gave the silent command to his creatures in human skin. He had one more command for Dulcimer, before he was dragged off.
-You can tell the Consul yourself. We're going back to California. Looks like you and I are going to miss the fireworks in the Wastelands....-
Brannan meant to hang Dulcimer on those last words. It didn't work. Dulcimer had to hide his excitement. Sure, they meant to take him to California, but everyone knew about California's exaggerated borders. Ha, the Commonwealth. Dulcimer had told Columbia this was ‘all about geography.’ He’d been right. Dulcimer was going back home. To Cascadia.