The flesh quickly remembered which sensations excited the nerves. The mind wasn't too far behind. But while memory served as a strong motivator, memories went beyond the mere recall of thoughts and images. Fleshy machines humans could be. Survival motivated his life now. Not the mind. Biology.
In his body's old life, conflict never appealed to him.
It did now.
He'd awoken in the catacombs, the fugue of resuscitation sprites hovered above, and his nakedness damp from the pool of coolant that, just like the nano-machines that reassembled him, began to evaporate when his first breath touched the piped-in air.
Let it begin, the voice commanded from the depths of the catacombs. Without a chance to adjust to his new body, he rose on a pillar of earth.
His mind: visions of his past. His eyes: witness to the creation of his memories. His flesh: the architect of a fountainhead of design.
Arena rock. Live at Budokan.
The flesh liked to rock and the nano-machines gave him power. Powerchords. Then the apparation materialized at the foot of the stage, and it. was. on.
An old man with a beard and hair the same color of gray. He waved a sword of rainbow light over his head. Catch the rainbow. This was real. Real steel, real metal. Heavy metal.
His mind returned, not the hive-construct that orbited overhead. The surface world.
It's really Jimmy Page on a VHS tape. The Song Remains the Same. Smoke on the water. Smoking schwag out of a beer can.
He fell into and out of these thoughts while he battled the wizard. Lyrics collided. It was dark magic against the light of electric guitars. Alternate currents. Direct currents.
He struggled against an airship that would not fall like a led balloon. But when his nemesis rose as a zeppelin and chose battle against his own command of electron currents, he saw another airship, one piloted by two females, who flew a black banner above their heads. When he read the banner's inscription, he felt like himself again.
"Give back my AC/DC shirt!"
Dulcimer fought the cold in his bones, his lungs. Even his brain. Perhaps the best place to sit had not been a cold snowbank, so he furiously walked back and forth on the frozen tarmac. Highwayman Brannan and the rest of the flyers stood near their planes. The sun would take hours to rise high in the sky and warm the ground. But the air would remain cold. Dulcimer's breath already looked the same as the banks of steam that rose from the Crater Lake Boilers. He felt colder already.
They'd flown all night. When the sun rose as jagged razors through the windshield, the museum P-51 Mustangs descended from cloud-top level into the Jefferson borderlands.
New growth forests and the foot of the Cascade Mountains. Mt. Lassen's alpine lakes. The lava beds in the northeast. And a dagger right through it. The north-south tracks of the Trans-Commonwealth Express.
Dulcimer saw the steam of Crater Lake before he saw the light bounce off the surface of water. The mountains around Grant's Pass obscured the long vista. At times he thought he could put his hand out and touch the Cascades. P-51's handled the twists and turns, the sudden evasive maneuvers of each mountain valley, but not Dulcimer. He got sick on himself. And he didn't sit in an agile Mustang, but in a two-seater Dauntless. If you were a Battle of Midway nerd they you'd understand why he threw up more than once. Then the Crater Lake Boilers came into view, the planes went into a dive, and only the cool wind broke the return of his nausea.
On the ground he'd failed to warm up. Regret seemed the right response for his decisions of late. And he didn't mean the snowbank he'd first leaned against. But his misery was better than what Roxana and Columbia might've faced in place of his sacrifice. Where they, and the Odysseum, were now, he didn't know. Perhaps in the Wastelands. With the gathering of armies in the deserts -- and the promise of a battle -- they might just catch a break and escape.
Dulcimer watched rivers of steam rush from out of the Crater Lake Boilers.
He saw: a million furious red hot gravity-rails plunge into the icy waters; magnets gain charges to push/pull tectonic-pistons; momentum-weights flung down the tracks towards the metropolitan megaregion.
Even hundreds of miles away in New Astoria and the Emerald City, the ground shook.
With all that energy, Dulcimer still felt cold. Perhaps he knew too much of the violence at work. What the Commonwealth had wrought was mighty. For this bioregion, wrong. It went across the natural order of things, and...
Mr. Highwayman Brannan, Dulcimer wanted to say to the dark shape that slouched towards him. Brannan still wore his flight suit, and he cut quite a figure. He also still wore his mirrored sunglasses. To hide.
Dulcimer ignored him as long he could, suppressed a shiver.
Explosions erupted from the cauldron of Crater Lake.
The murder of the population of Jefferson began. Given something to do besides give the madman glower behind sunglasses, Brannan rallied his flyers into the skies. Soon, every Traveling Wilbury within two-hundred square miles was herded by dive-bomb and machine gun fire into a quick-make camp. Captain Jack.
Dulcimer didn’t get a chance to watch the slaughter from the sky. He stayed on the ground, minded the disaster of the Cascadian terrorism, and imagined the gradual migration of terrified travelers and rehabitants. Chased out of the woods. Frantic shouts and shrieks made in anger. Dulcimer saw some who carried dead children. Memories of the highwayman's last cull of the young finally provoked a reaction. Chilled, chilled. The baby killer, Brannan.
He imagined this anyways.
Smoke from the bombed-out turbines of the Crater Lake Boilers provided a welcome diversion, given that Dulcimer could stand the smell of burnt oil. He could, he did, and he waited.
Smoke. The screams of maimed machine-acolytes in the hospital tents. He tried to volunteer. Minutes later he wandered out of the red-stained tents. He saw a stuffed animal in a watery ditch.
The next few hours were betwixt and between death and misery.
Whoever set the bombs, did not stay around to enjoy the carnage. He guessed Brannan and his flyers barely saw their gift of carnage too. Dulcimer was the only person alive. Later he looked for, but didn't even see the stuffed animal again.
A long shadow eclipsed the mountain top. For a very long time, he thought night had arrived, for it did that in the mountains, and he expected to see fires below. Instead noises, a throb of voices, arose during the end of day. He walked to a higher point. A mass of fused people jammed up the old clearing.
Men in parachutes dropped to the ground and rounded-up the country folk toward the clearing at the base of the mountain and inside the perimeter of Captain Jack.
Daylight passed, but night didn't arrive. Not yet.
Dulcimer guessed the divers came from balloon-platforms. Time rewarded his guess. An airship passed overhead. Clouds covered most of the helium sack, bridge and canopies. The gun-bulb turret pointed towards the east, muzzles limp. Dulcimer knew the warship would not linger long. The east awaited.
The purge continued until the night. Fires burned on the mountaintops. Repairs continued on the boilers. Screams got quieter in the tents. Gunfire ejaculated.
The clomp of horse hooves approached him. Then torches. The larger number belonged to the shadows. Dulcimer waited for them to catch up.
Brannan would never go away. Or Dulcimer would never get away. Or.
Dulcimer tried to eat through the night alone. Fires along the campgrounds held the faces of killers in the light of their flames. Brannan rose from his seat, without a word, and took his mess over to Dulcimer.
He tried to ignore the highwayman and moved some food on his plate until the fork scrapped on the bare metal. Brannan didn’t care, notice, or stop to sit next to Dulcimer. He barely ate. Only the killer of children spoke, Brannan.
The news from his mouth was the latest information from the Wastelands. The battle had turned for the worst for the Commonwealth. The desert filled with despair. Western gates flung open. The U.S. would soon be here.
-I wasn’t going to be content to just stand on the eastern banks of the Mississippi, or walk the Capitol Mall. I wanted to dictate peace terms to the United States in the White House.-
Dulcimer felt hungry again.
-Word is the place has a terrible bed bug problem.-
He started to eat. The news he wanted to hear didn’t involve the clash of arms in the desert. Hopefully, the Odysseum was safely beyond the fight. Dulcimer imagined Roxana on the bridge on the rebel airship, and Columbia, in the middle of a futile argument to go to ‘kpoplandia.’
The thought of the difficulty to find sleep while strangers wailed in the distance consumed Dulcimer.
Captain Jack looked like every camp. Since the better part of California’s history could be explained by forced internment, the operation to set up a perimeter and force individuals into the property proceeded without complications. The wails of women and their children were expected when the menfolk died in the field. The dives and raking fire of Mustangs made quick work of that.
The airship drew a thick black line against the cloudless sky. Dulcimer never thought he’d lived a charmed life, but luckily for him, Brannan was a fountain of information. City-class airship, the C.S.S. Bakersfield. Enroute to the crumbling front.
People at work.
The camp’s chainlink frontier formed a permeable barrier. Men with guns walked across the crusty ground. With prisoners to escort or loose ropes to coil up, their purpose still required a turned-up muzzle and lip.
Brannan kept Dulcimer close. A murder of the remainder of men in the camp. Gradually the cull of males -- gunshots behind curtains, and bloodstains -- resulted in more rounds of wails from women. Before long, Brannan led Dulcimer to the last man in Captain Jack.
And for a second Dulcimer thought of his real name. He went through a number of names he could say.
Time to come back.
The locked gates and fences of the wire stockades gave him focus. The surviving population walked in a tight circle. Three men in fatigues and helmets exited a lean-to, looked at Dulcimer, sneered. They held at the end of a rope, a large naked man. Hair covered almost every part of his body. Except for his head. A large wolf was tattooed in his neck. Jaws open.
Dulcimer tried to listen into the conversation between the highwayman and the sky-soldiers. Their lips barely moved. As if to even keep words secret from each other. The highwayman seemed to sharpen himself with a task, and Dulcimer didn't need to look anymore. Memories guided him. His first time with Brannan. The family in the forest. A forgotten stuffed animal that escaped. Survivor of the highwayman's carnage.
Dulcimer turned away and the holding pen grew cold. Brannan, after some swift motion, pulled ahead of Dulcimer. Ghosts forced his head around.
The naked hairy prisoner followed. Back into the sun. More sky-soldiers lowered their shoulders to the dead and flung them over the chain link fence, onto the steam wagons. The busy work was silhouetted against a fleet of malicious clouds that raced from the west. The sky darkened. Horns bleated overhead from the Bakersfield. Ropes dangled and the first cadre of sky-soldiers was hoisted upwards hundreds of feet.
The naked hairy man blew his nose on his hand.
The highwayman pointed towards the east. Dulcimer could hear propeller engines. And Brannan began to chuckle.
-You're going to repay us. The Commonwealth kept you from jail.-
The naked hairy man sneezed. Brannan raised his arm in mock defense against snot-borne germs. Dulcimer could sense great excitement in the highwayman.
-Someone's spent the night hunting our men. And they're still somewhere out there, getting John Rambo on us. Crossbows. That's the way to kill, I suppose. You'd half expect these Jeffersonites to use a door bolt gun. Guess not.-
He produced the broken shaft of, what Dulcimer first thought, appeared to be an arrow. But Brannan was the barber here, so Dulcimer took his logic and the broken arrow, and he made sure to put his thumb to the tip. He had half a mind to plunge the thing into Brannan's neck. Since his last attempt to kill the highwayman resulted in failure, the best option was to give it back.
Behind mirrored sunglasses, Dulcimer could still see Brannan narrow his eyes. He might just stab him with the arrow.
-This grass eater will help you track this hunter. These rehabitants are. When you find them, kill the grass eater and make a fire with his body. Here...-
Brannan handed him a tin bottle. Rusted. Model airplane fuel.
The naked hairy man sniffled. The highwayman spoke in a reserved hushed tone. Dulcimer hadn't seen that coming.
-...burning human flesh makes a thick, black smoke. It's oily. We'll see it from the sky. Then we'll take care of the rest.-
Dulcimer's questions were drowned out by the sneezes of the naked hairy man.
The second night in Jefferson was colder than the first. Morning, and Captain Jack was extinguished. A blackened ring burnt into the grass. The camp was gone.
Bodies of dead sky-soldiers formed a grotesque stack. Arms lay distended across the breasts of dead comrades. Twisted positions of heads. Eyes were forced shut.
Dulcimer felt sickened at the abandonment of bodies. The bears would have their way when they emerged from the hills. The bears did that now. This was Jefferson. This was still California.
A mysterious red glow rose in the east.
The hirsute man didn't talk. He only collected weeds. It seemed like he deserved the name grass eater, until he stuffed the dried weeds under the dead men.
Dulcimer understood, and dragged branches to the pyre. The women and their children emerged from the woods to help. Hours later, and a pyramid of wood ornamented the pile of dead corpses.
The eastern red glow intensified just as the hirsute man lit the pile. Women gathered around, little children licked at their heels. The sun shone stood directly overhead. Shadows in mountain valleys lay suspended, and Dulcimer felt the moment grow heavy with intention. For the first time he heard the hirsute man interrupt his pause.
A wind picked up from the east. The red sky's cloud tops looked fiery until the limits of the atmosphere were reached.
A child cried. Dulcimer almost believed an infant could realize what a new sun meant.
-...dearly beloved, we've come here to celebrate this thing called life....-
The flames burned for hours, and for a second he almost believed Brannan would recognize the thick oily smoke of bodies on fire. He'd know the difference.
The hirsute man looked cold and Dulcimer offered him the AC/DC t-shirt. But he refused.
You saying I'm fat?!
The sun's heat burned off the rest of the day, and the wisps of snow not evaporated by the late winter winds went crunch-crunch underfoot the hirsute man, now draped in a parachute and shoed with planks of boards.
Dulcimer tracked this tracker, who hunted the hunter of Brannan’s men. At various times he'd lose his guide, then find him again. Behind a pine, behind a hill. Every time he was in the middle of a task. Each time he'd put a single rock into his robe.
Dulcimer understood the parts they traveled on, and more, he had an idea what the hirsute man collected. They walked on islands. He’d once walked among metamorphic rock layers to recognize the subtle differences in tectonic activity. The warehouse-sized scale model of mountains, watersheds, and fluvial channels. The Pacific Slope Model.
He did again.
In the north section of the model, what the other machine-elves called the "Cascadian frontier," tectonic activity built mountains far differently.
Accretion. The build-up of material from the collision of crustal plates created the Cascades.
As the plates collided with one another, parts of the subducted oceanic crust collected on the edge of the continental plate of North America. Accretionary islands off the coastline took millions of years to collect material, and they rose higher and higher as the process of subduction moved them farther to the east,. Eventually those islands turned into mountains. The Cascades.
Even from the Pacific Slope Model one could see how geologic forces differentiated the Cascades from the Sierra Nevadas.
Dulcimer stood where California truly ended.
-I'm tired and hungry.-
Dulcimer hadn't expected the hirsute man to speak of his wants. But maybe when a person wore a parachute, they gained a little more of their flesh.
-We have trees to pick from. Bark. Moss is always around. Even this time of year.-
The hirsute man heard some bit he'd liked and already had his hands around the trunk of a tree. The thing was massive but it was dead. Quickly now, came the wrestle of dead roots and the frozen ground that would not budge. Dulcimer watched him snap the trunk in half. Snow on broken boughs fell to the ground in clumps, and the hirsute man plunged a thick hairy arm into the soft insides. When he pulled out his arm, he held in his paw a moist woody mass of crawly things. Next came a shameless grin. It took mere seconds to rub the larva in the snow pack. He grinned mossy teeth. It was time for an early din-din.
About this time the sun drew long lines from out of the tree line it shone through. The dance of light and shadow looked better when a person moved through the dense growth. It was easy for a person to think they saw a figure dart in and out among the shapes. That's because Dulcimer did sense someone.
The hirsute man brought the meal to a circle of fungal skeletons, since frozen by a quick frost and preserved under a blanket of snow.
The world around them melted fast now and showed every corpse of the year before.
Dulcimer took the worms from his hand and made sure they barely lasted a second in his mouth before he swallowed them. This was supposed to kill the hunger of the past three days, and it would've, if not for the scent he caught, and continued to catch, in the mountain valley breeze.
The hirsute man took the rocks he'd collected out of his robe, placed them individually so each one faced upwards, and waved his hand over each one. Fossils of seashells.
-Shipwrecked sailors -- quickly!-
He gulped down the last of the crawly things and jumped up with an ursine groan.
Dulcimer followed, his mouth, watery, and not from worms.
The sun set and the woods turned cold and dark. A small light appeared to poke from out of the chilly blackness, a campfire beneath the cavernous pine branches on the mountainsides, a cradle of hands that almost hid the fire, but didn't.
If not for the complete darkness, nothing. The campfire existed, and the hirsute man who called himself 'josef' could find a light in the darkness. But the smell of cooked food made him rant about the common good.
It'd been a long time since Dulcimer heard someone mention 'Wolf Meetings.'
-But you're going to need to shut up now, I'd like to eat more than fish food.-
Josef's 'wolf tattoo' came to mind and made Dulcimer wonder who should shut up.
They crept through the trees and their branches that hung low, to snag and ensnare, and every now and then, shuffle their arms and drop a load of snow.
Dulcimer saw silhouettes flicker across the campfire's flames. Josef did too.
-Whose goat or sheep did they steal? It's taken them too long to roast. So I doubt they know what they're doing.-
-Smells like pork.-
For a few minutes they waited behind a rock. The ice that melted gave the thing a slippery feel. And cold. Dulcimer shivered. The fire invited him.
-Maybe it's men of the woods?-
Josef argued with himself.
-Is it me or am I the only person here who's getting the 'stupids?' No it's me. Better we were eating worms than incur the wrath. Shut up, Josef, you're just stupid.-
Dulcimer kept a hand on the cold rock, another on his chin, to rub it furiously. But the smell of roasted swine made him set the table in his mind.
-Whose wrath are we to...incur, then?-
Josef's eyes glistened from the rock's watery sheen. He was weird like that.
-The Sun's. Come on. Let's get this over with.-
Dulcimer peeled himself off the rock and took a few too many eager steps in the direction of the fire. His imagination already felt the heat. But he had no problem to see what was around the fire. No one.
The fire wasn't even a campfire. Several small fires dotted the ground. No two the same.
Dulcimer saw how one fire had caught the bark of a pine branch aflame.
The largest of the fires lapped at the base of a circular pod. A door was ajar, and a human figure leaned out of the doorway -- head first.
Josef jumped over a fire and excitedly inspected the pod and occupant. He poked at the figure.
-Some black guy!-
No, Dulcimer wanted to say. The pilot of the escape pod suffered a hideous fate. Cooked alive.
-No. I told you...roasted pork.-
-mayday report from the C.S.S. Modesto-
Location: 16673 ft
Bridge: (temp; escape balloon-pod)
Author: 2nd Lt. Huntington
Status: Day 3@UT-NM border; Modesto air support for 3rd Corps; breakthrough achieved; retaliatory strikes from combined US-Monrovians; Modesto attempted high-altitude escape from blast wave (failed); total superstructure incinerated; fuel-coils ignited boilers; SOS; abandon ship; survivors reached escape balloon-pods(?); drifted at 5000+/- ft; northwesterly location; leak in balloon #3; crash landing; location (Cascadia?) [end report].
Three days in, and Dulcimer didn't know what they looked for anymore. Josef led them to more grubs, but the rich protein shake of insects in his stomach made Dulcimer sick. Diarrhea on the third morning foretold a rash after every hour they hiked. Even the break in the clouds and the sun's rays in a mountain meadow did little to cheer Dulcimer's mood, and he finally made a decision.
-I'm going to rub my butt in this snowpack. I'm in agony. And my leg is fucking up.-
Josef threw his parachute over his shoulder in the motion of a later-day centurion.
-I've heard the one about elbows and assholes....-
Josef let his words hang, Dulcimer dropped his pants, and as the ice chilled his parts, Josef picked up the beat.
-What happened to your leg anyways?-
Dulcimer made the conversation as quick as possible.
-I lost it.-
Josef let the cold wind run through his parachute. Dulcimer rubbed the part where the robotic servo connected to his thigh.
-After the Blackout, the People Authorities looked for anything, on anyone, and that meant without computers, word of mouth -- rumors -- became the new database, I guess. So after you've decided to kill everyone you think is responsible for the fall of civilization, you can't stop looking for information on people. Invading privacy isn't an impulse that comes from just having the technology to spy on people....-
The wind stopped.
-Sounds like a bunch of shit to me.-
-So why'd they take the leg?-
It'd been a while since he'd thought of Roxana and Columbia.
-I liked to play soccer.-
The wind returned, lifted Josef's parachute, and gave the impression that Josef, since blow up in size, hovered over him.
Josef teased him the rest of the day.
Dulcimer dreamed about airship battles far over the Wastelands. He saw nuclear explosions and the retreat of the Commonwealth's armies. Columbia and Roxana were captured. Or dead.
He woke up to the sound of airplane propellers, but when he left the sanctuary of fir boughs and wiped the tree sap from his face, there was nothing in a clear sky. Just the volcanic heights of the Cascades and another green meadow below. And figures.
People approached from out of the forested border between what was seen and what lay hidden.
Dulcimer yelled for Josef. Nothing. Nowhere to be found.
His first impulse was to run from the men of the woods. But where to go? To run into the forest was to merely return to the men who approached him. All Dulcimer could do was wonder what sight greeted them. He must've looked an awful mess. Sap in his hair and gyre-eyed by nights slept outside. He guessed he looked like them.
The men of the woods were Macbeth's nightmare of a woods that crept on the legs of men. Growths of moss seen into patchwork outfits, with shoulder pads of breaches and laurel wreaths around their heads made of twigs and leaves and bark.
The door-bolt guns partially caused Dulcimer to worry, except for the dirt on their faces, and the sneers underneath the crud and muck. Dark green nature.
-Where's the steward you've been traveling with for the past month?-
Month? Dulcimer wanted to contest that, at least until he remembered how the rehabitants of the lower Cascades kept time. Months were shorter, and they depended on natural phenomena like average snowfall, the first shots of mountain meadow grass, or the return of fauna to a region.
-I don't know where he is.-
When the man of the woods spoke again, most likely the captain, the layers of dried earth on his face cracked with each grimace and turn of words.
-Where'd that guy come from...where'd you meet him?-
Dulcimer didn't understand why they'd not even asked a question about him. The steward should've been the least of their concerns.
The rest of the men looked as earthen as their captain. Dulcimer looked at their patchwork uniforms of brown burlap and denim. He saw the same insignal on their jackets or ponchos -- an eight-legged cephalopod. The black outline of an octopus on a field of white. The symbol of their range-family. Octopi.
The captain pointed to the tree line at the end of the meadow.
-There's two people who want to see you again.-
Dulcimer stood beneath the frozen shafts of the waterfall. The canopy of trees cast a dark spell over the little stream valley they'd climbed into. The temperature was considerably colder than anywhere else in the mountains, and Dulcimer shivered. The rest of the Octopi huddled together for warmth. Sweat glistened on their faces, their hands and fingers greasy with the fatty carcass of the buck they each had their arms in, sleeves rolled up, gorged and sleepy.
The captain of the men of the woods stood like Dulcimer, away from the blankets of fur and warmth of cooked, warm flesh. He looked into the darkest part of the ravine, then whistled.
Two figures walked out of the green gloom. Dulcimer remembered. The two flanneled hairy kids from the university who’d interviewed him in the psychologist's office. When he’d waited for the death sentence of the People Authorities, these kids had shown up and given him the mission that would send him to the Capital of the Commonwealth and into the lives of Roxana and Columbia.
As usual, the young woman with her hair pulled tight in a bun, it was her that spoke first.
-I’d like to say, I never expected to see you again.-
Dulcimer practiced responses like this.
-I was ahead of you on that feeling.-
Brother got jealous. His pants were too tight, and Dulcimer had always guessed he came from New Astoria, what the locals called Portland.
-This has gone on far enough. Can you get near the Consul and kill him? He's drawn to the hostage.-
Dulcimer knew Columbia was far from here. Away from the Consul. The girl must’ve known too. Because you needed age to hide things, and the wrinkled face she made now, could only mean disgust. She’d rather not talk about men who were convinced they had ‘normal faces.’
-I’d like you to meet someone named, Charlie. She’s going to help you kill him.-
There must’ve been an army in-wait back there. Out of the black walked a woman with a mane of curly hair that hung in front of naked breasts. She had her head and shoulders thrown back. One of those hair shampoo commercials from the days of the TV.
None of the other Octopi paid her any mind. Just the sound of slow teeth at work on fatty muscle. Someone snored. People picked teeth and boogers. They ate those too. Burp.
The woman, who couldn't have been more than twenty, spoke.
-You done eye-raping me.-
Dulcimer glanced from her breasts to her leonine face back to her breasts. Her cold green eyes stayed in his mind and continued to watch him, though.
The captain spoke.
-She's been helping us hunt the Consul's men. And she's good. Real good. Walker Texas Ranger good.-
Dulcimer's gaze stopped at the crossbow on her back. The crossbow.
The girl continued to show her off.
-She's told us some interesting things about things in the east. That the electricity works again. That the destruction of the boilers in Crater Lake -- the Consul's men did that....-
The woman's face was expressionless. Her nipples were hard. And none of what the the sister and brother said made any sense.
-The Consul is planting spies in...whatever you call this place.-
The foliage parted, but not by itself.
-...Cascadia...Charlie Matheson, you’ve come to Cascadia…-
-...or should I call you Charlotte Matheson: daughter of Governor of the State, General Miles Matheson, Commander-in-Chief of the the Grand Army of the Second Monroe Republic.-
Done with honorifics, Josef stepped into a shaft of wind that twisted and routed its way through the ravine.
He held something in his hand. The tin of model airplane fuel that the highwayman gave to Dulcimer. With one instruction.
Josef began to follow those orders now.
A match was struck.
Josef lit the fire to himself and the wind sucked the thick column of black smoke upwards into the open sky.
Clouds. Wind. And a familiar smell. Bacon.
Memories of pork. Images of laughter. Adventure on the deck of an airship and a world beneath their feet. Her feet.
Ruined suburbs and ravenous wreckers. An android and a teenager. My pecker.
He had to wake up. His knee itched. And he couldn't stand up. Crawling....
The hill was on fire. Naked now. Old snow, new shoots of grass, and a blanket thrown over him. Next came a sensation of hands underneath him, and strength of arms.
He might just be okay.
Until he opened his eyes.
"We're going the wrong way."
-Please don’t be mad, Dulcimer.-
After a long conversation with himself, Dulcimer finally opened his eyes. He saw who he'd first seen when the Odysseum rose above him. Roxana at the helm, rescue on the way.
The napalm from Brannan's bombs robbed him of every stitch of clothes. But he could wait. He expected to see Roxana and Columbia. He did. Sort of. The outlaw airship lowered itself down on puffs of steam, hovered, and a rope ladder was tossed down by someone on board.
Faces peered down. He’d prepared himself for Roxana. Her doll face did look down on him.
He just hadn't expected to see Californian sky-soldiers aboard, nor Roxana in the yellow regalia of an Air Marshal of the Commonwealth.
Roxana used a towel to clean Dulcimer’s face.
-You can shit on a place you've lived all your life. you can hate it. But there’s nothing that compares to sight of victory by your homeland. It stirs what you'd call balls, Dulcimer.-
-What do you mean?-
-I mean, I saw it. I was there. Defeat...turned around. The Commonwealth has achieved victory over its foes. The US, and its Monroe sapling-state, thrown back. The mysteries of the Wastelands belong to California. The Wastelands -- California’s Eastlands. And the continent. ‘The world is yours, Tony Montoya’!-
Roxana seemed suddenly human and Dulcimer didn't give a shit about any of this.
Roxana could look human when she felt bad for Dulcimer.
-Please, Dulcimer. I asked you. Please -- don’t be mad.-
There was only one answer Dulcimer did not want to hear. And Roxana didn't know.
-She’s with the Consul. Where else?-
He stood up to run and throw himself overboard. Thousands of feet to his death. He knew for a brief minute he’d feel the illusion of flight. And freedom. He wanted to leave this dream. But freedom couldn’t happen. He was California dreamin. And it was the California steel from sky-soldiers that turned him from his task to run away.
He dreamed of soccer games, but not much else.