But commands never came.
All who saw the apparition materialize in the sky above the desert battlefield stopped their activities. Even the rare commander who still survived said nothing more.
He stood nearly twelve feet tall, with a glow like a cherry ice cream smile, above that dusty land. Except with a beard -- a hairy Stay Puft marshmallow giant.
While men had waged war for a continent, he had struggled against a wizard of technology, and won. Now victorious, his vanquished foe sent back to the weaponized-laboratory (from whence that daemon came), he could move freely on the earth in a state of suspended human form. For events in the world still begged his attention.
The battle was over, but not the war.
The soldiers of both armies followed him, and he reluctantly allowed them to pursue. He even slowed down his pace. This proved hard. Given powers by the nano-machines, he could easily bounce off this rocky planet and explore the cosmos. He was tempted. The planets and stars called to him. But human needs in the west necessitated his presence. His intervention.
He knew one of them.
"Charlie! You made it?! The long dash across the Great American Desert actually worked! Boy, kid, do I have a story for you! Do you have any idea what those scientists were doing? Do you know how they meant to stop the electricity, so they could let everything fall apart, and allow provoke human evolution?!"
He wanted to say more. But he noticed that his imaginary conversation manifested as a physical form. And the world of men only heard tongues of fire. Skyward.
Soldiers began to fall to their knees and speak the names of a god. Jesus. Allah. Buddah. Oprah.
He guessed he must have looked the part of a Hebrew god of old. And he hated it, he resented what the nano-machines did to him. He might become a god so easily. That was why he had meant to destroy them. But in his quest to reach Xanadu, hubris killed him. In place of his humanity the nano-machines transformed his dead body into something new.
Just another machine? I'm Ironman. I. Am. Iron. Man. Cue Black Sabbath. Next to Smoke on the Water, it was the first song you learned on guitar. But he doubted he could make a powerchord now. Now?
He would just have to make due with fire. Because he could do some fucked up shit with that, dude.
Glad he remembered the Californian vernacular, he flew towards the west. The broken armies of the east followed him. It was the final countdown.
The Odysseum flew treetop level, no longer in need of cloud cover to hide behind. It could cruise in the wide open skies now. The craft belonged to the glories of the Commonwealth. No shame. California over all.
Roxana piloted the ship from the pilot house, safe from the spinal peaks of the Cascades on her right. She flew as a permanent shadow over the TCE. Comfortable to travel the entire length of the TCE’s mile-long armored column, which bristled with the artillery of scorpions and catapults. Desert brown Cali-corpsmen waved bottles and machetes at the airship. Victory over the east.
Roxana turned the airship into the wind, with the Alvord Desert at her back, and headed west. To the Pacific. Her hands turned and pointed the nose of the Odysseum skyward, and forced its climb over the coastal headlands and hills.
After the bank of thick fog on the highest peaks, a field of sand dunes and the white thrash of the sea came into view. A strong wind roared off the ocean’s surface.
Another chance came for Dulcimer to speak to Roxana. But as the sky turned to purple then black, Dulcimer’s silence seemed to steel Roxana's emotions -- a guard of sky-soldiers led him to the cargo hold.
-She's a bit conflicted, isn't she?-
The sky-soldiers delivered him to the cargo hold he knew so well. The damp wood and cold darkness chilled the sweat on his body. He was pushed inside, the door rolled back on its wheels, and closed. A few shafts of light greeted eyes not ready to accept total darkness. He saw a face in the smallest beam of light. Personable eyes in the sunlight said hello to him, even before Dulcimer heard anything.
-Now, I'd thought I was the only one on this shit boat to the Emerald City.-
Dulcimer tried to place the man's accent, but couldn't. He instead chose to squat in the darkness. A fart later, and properly introduced, Dulcimer gave up what he knew.
Amber eyes flashed ambivalence.
-Yea, I’m Gen Zombie. I guess there's a great many things I missed. Or so I've been told. But the last few weeks have made up for that. The Second Battle of the Four Corners, they're calling it...and the war, which is over. Some of us are allowed to celebrate. Some of us….-
Dulcimer tried to get a better look at him. It was all about where someone was from. And when he knew that he could say these things.
-California’s on a streak. There's going to be more they’ll ask you to do, rest assured. You in here? Well, it’ll be temporary. Some of us, though, aren’t so lucky. Some of us, unfortunately, are going to get what’s coming. And it’s coming or happening, depending how you like it. So, have some respect, kid. There’s going to be more killing before your life is done.-
The young man turned his head and lost the bead of light that fell on his face.
-But it’s already over. Not my life -- the war. And I’m in here. And no one’s saying why.-
Dulcimer laughed a little, caught himself, and waited for the man to finish. He couldn't have been more than twenty.
-...I didn’t even see it...this something, that….some say I found….-
-Ah, you’re a discoverer, are you? Well, discover this - you didn’t witness anything. Or more likely, knowing the tricks that your eyes can play on you in the Wastelands, what you saw was constructed for you.-
Dulcimer stopped, punctuated his failing conversation with a cough. Moved on. Painfully.
-You ever heard of the television shows before the Blackout...there's this one, it was like, called ‘Walker O’Brien Ranger’?-
Dulcimer still couldn't see the face of the young man. He talked into an empty room for all he knew. The voice eventually returned.
-Are you talking about the legendary 'Walker Texas Ranger?'-
The youth of the electrical winter. Dulcimer finished.
-Nevermind, forget it. The man I’m thinking of right now, he was a high school teacher. Mr. O'Brien...and that Mr. O’Brien became, is, now, the Consul of California.-
The young man must've felt compelled to return to the sun. Dulcimer took his attention as a yes, sir.
-You see, you're fine, man. Imagine if your middle name was ‘Texas.’ Or if you kidnapped his girlfriend. Then you could moan.-
A moon savages might've danced beneath rose at the far end of the ocean. But the brightest light leaped up and down in the foreground. A bonfire. Sky-soldiers wrestled in the glow of its orange flames, and the wind moved through them all, fire and flesh. Sounds of howls and other ghoulish moans serenaded the beach from the heights of stone cliffs. And some men sang about Southland girls with plastic tits and 'BMX' gangs who warred against the 'dog town thrashers.’
Dulcimer was just glad he'd never see California again. Which reminded him...
Their captors hadn't allowed Santa Monica to come out and play. Sure, he insisted that people call him ‘Lance,' and that name added a lot to the possibilities. But now, with the perfect name ‘Santa Monica Lance,’ Dulcimer really thought more of a chance existed that this California kid had really seen something in the Wastelands. On that cursed ship, the same ship of death that spit out survivors that Josef and him found cooked alive. The C.S.S. Modesto.
Eventually the party died and the Oregon Lyceum awaited.
The fog was thickest against the hill side. For the first time, the sounds of the whip of fabric came from behind the shrouds of white. For a moment, nothing. Then, one by one, pyramid shapes poked through the opaque mists. Five in number. Tents. The one farthest in distance among the number glowed with lights. The hanging of lanterns. Behind the curtain of fog, human voices called to one another. Men. The words cut in and out. Conversations about the mundane. The wind gusted and the tent fabric rattled against poles and its own ruffled materials. Then the gusts pulled back the covers.
Dulcimer was stranded in the white fields, until the trail ended and he stood on flat ground. Trees served as landmarks. But even the tallest were half their size, the other ends submerged in the mist.
A man in a leather jacket stood outside the entrance. Better it was to never see a highwayman again.
Folds of the entrance gave way to Dulcimer's push. Get this over with. He almost rushed into the tent. Inside there was more than light. Dark history. Things not spoken of since the beginning of the current electrical winter.
The People Authorities call Dulcimer Barlow to the stand to await sentencing.
A sea of torches parted. Evil version of Dulcimer walked forward. He had a mustache.
The crowd hissed and, as soon as he'd entered the circle, they clasped hands and bound him inside.
The top of the Space Needle smoked from the leftovers of the Scorched. The smell of vigilante justice still hung in the air, and the children were nationalized by the Commonwealth.
Inside the circle pretenders of the movement called the People Authorities wore the hazmat suits of the previous administration. The consensus was that crimes of the past paled to those of the present. The Scorched had gotten their's. No other justice remained to be done.
So they'd looked and found suspicious causes of the death of his daughter.
The People Authorities will now carry out the sentence.
He wobbled in place on his crutches. The stump of his leg looked shiny and painfully red. Fresh blood stained the bandage on his head. His condition was a mystery. They'd found him this way. And this way they'd send him.
Dulcimer always believed he'd been spared by the graces of California. He would believe that story until the day Walker O'Brien told him otherwise.
The grisly shapes at the end of ropes were new. They stayed behind as the Odysseum lifted off. A reminder that any renaissance would pass into the mists of time, and disappear.
-What'd they tell you?-
Dulcimer leaned back against the wooden wall of the hold, bothered by Santa Monica’s question.
-Nothing. It was me. They wanted me to tell them something.-
Santa Monica and him shared the same beam of sunlight. Not the same thoughts, anyways.
-Why you? What were you going to say?-
Dulcimer never would’ve guessed that Santa Monica Lance would have a care in the world. Especially about Dulcimer and the tent. But there it was, Santa Monica cared about something else. He was a noisy dickhead. Dulcimer thought he could throttle the kid, and ask him the obvious. Like, ‘Did he know about the Oregon Lyceum?’
-Since the formation of this 'commonwealth,' the Cascadians have been very clear in their disapproval. They resent the Californium. But I think they've never really considered what the Consul might be thinking. They’d like to know, if anything, what he thinks.-
This didn't mean Dulcimer couldn't show Santa Monica what he already imagined. His surfer looks took on another appearance, his attention, sharpened in the light.
-Why would a bunch of old white men care what the Consul thinks?-
Dulcimer enjoyed how the cold wooden boards felt through the back of his shirt.
-Because their revolution has too many different ideas to really work.-
He could think about that. Someone needed to anyways.
Astoriana. And there, the nomenclature of the day ended. Between the mouth of the Columbia, crowded with white sails of ships, and gorge country of the upper river, lay the new growth of an old city with a new name after its long winter of desolation. Where buildings of the old regime were gutted by fire and blown outward by explosives, and wide swaths of neighborhoods suffered a pox of craters and the secretions of tailings in every former city block. Each towered upwards as mounds.
Santa Monica crowded Dulcimer.
-Damn. This I know. Used to be Portland, eh?-
Dulcimer nodded, and spied the guardships that lurked over the city's remains. He recognized the nearby super-wrecker Hiram Johnson. It hovered over the river with its mooring cables rigid tendrils hooked into the city’s veins. In the distance, an auxiliary wrecker lumbered slowly. Dulcimer guessed it was either the John Brodie, Steve Young, or Joe Montana. Screw-wreckers always took the name of San Francisco greats. A bloated and loaded blimp-barge lurked nearby. Since it was a newer model -- Dulcimer could tell from the sky-ram -- the air-transport must've been either the Michael O'Shaughnessy or John McClaren.
And he'd thought the Social Wars had done their worst. Before the Commonwealth defended its Eastlands, the natural Nevada, Portland had been made a desert for peace. Feeding time was all the time. Gravity-anvils and sky-plows still cleaved and slagged the urban peripheries.
Dulcimer smelled the same trademarks of the Safaris. But his body must bend -- to the thrust of the Odysseum. They continued north, its passage by Astoriana hardly a thought for its pilot and captain. Roxana the turncoat. But Dulcimer could go either way.
The absence of motiles in the sky alarmed him. Astoriana was right down the road from the Pacific Slope Engines. The little matter of tectonic-booms and their cargo of downhill energies mattered too. But the absence of motiles mattered more. The things warded off the plague of nanites that prevented electricity since the Blackout.
The absence of motiles in the sky could've meant a number of things. Strangely though, his last glimpse of the city showed nothing to indicate the return of electricity. No street lights. Nothing. He remembered the destruction of the Crater Lake Boilers. Perhaps they'd really been destroyed by the orders of the Consul.
Astoriana receded from sight and mind, but not his body. Dulcimer coughed for a while. He'd inhaled the residue of city. Melted plastic, pulverized dust from concrete, the mixed bitters of tar and asphalt. A stagnant haze over the city reminded him. The exhalations from the most drastic action in the Commonwealth. Urbanicide.
Santa Monica chuckled.
-I saw some comedians do a skit about Portland once.-
Dulcimer no longer needed to cough.
Company. Long ago Dulcimer hated it. At work he'd welcome the assignments that took him to a remote location in the Sierras. Given the chance to camp out and watch the operations of a catch basin piston-net, he took the solitude every time. Put him on a team with other machine-elves, forget it. No wonder they'd kidded him, mocked him behind his back, and played tricks.
Central Washington was lost under a spell of clouds, and the sole landmarks, mountains to the northwest and a few mighty peaks directly ahead served as familiar landmarks. A string of islands in a great white sea.
Up ahead could've been Ultra Thule, or a necklace of pearls around the neck of hope.
It was hard to appreciate things.
For the world seemed out of reach. Distant, tomorrow already here, and the present never fully lived.
A globe turned quickly under them. Travel was faster.
Dulcimer felt perfectly aware of his place in the world. The better decision lay in the embrace of the alterations by time, his failures, and an impossibility to remake anew. It made no sense to pretend.
He snapped back the latches on his robotic leg and took it off his thigh. With one final thought, one he forgot as soon as he thought it, he tossed it overboard. With the way Santa Monica jumped, he and Dulcimer could've been complete strangers to each other, having just met for the first time.
-This ship gets weirder all the time!-
Santa Monica plucked out his eyeball and threw it over the side, with a grin as he did it, and a look -- acceptance? -- that maybe he'd done alright by Dulcimer.
Since no blood hit the ground or squirted into the chilly, thin air, Dulcimer was glad. If he'd just started a revolution, at least it was a bloodless one. He looked at the hole in Santa Monica's face.
-Just don't look at me.-
There once was a plan to send emissaries to the Old Orient. They’d decided upon a princess to go forth. She was too young, too pretty, and too vicious to go without a final visit from her royal tutor.
“Good thing you're not dead, because you have to help me pick a song to sing.”
Reunions. Fingers on piano keys. Sustained bass and out-of-tune strings -- he could almost imagine the songs she once played.
“Walker says he's going to build a fleet of ships. To travel to the Old Orient. And I'll be his diplomat and charm them all -- in KPOPLANDIA! That’s why you have to help me pick a song to sing to them.”
He tried to make the little princess understand: An alternative vision of her home. A reconceptualization of the place. A vision that involved commerce; and how she's only serve that, by her membership in the mission.
“I'm a kid! I like kid stuff! That's all I understand. Not these lessons about geography?!”
He struggled to conceptualize it himself: her home's origins, and formative days, were a binational project; and her, and the entire image of freedom, only served a terrible empire that sullied what she stood for.
Headway was lost. She’d get her hair done, and that was that. Nothing more to be said. An interlude sounded. On cue. He thought he heard the sound of a piano on the air.
But tickles, and the pinch of sound before the swing of the hammer on strings, didn't belong to facts. They couldn't be. He'd imagined it all, similar to most of his fascinations: a piece to fit the puzzle in his life. When there were so many empty places, what was one to do? He could only make it up. Only for awhile, anyways.
In silence they spent the rest of the descent in a white field of playful clouds, until the airship dropped above a pasturage of verdant forests parted by the iron wake of the TCE.
Ahead lay belches of burned-off biomass from the power plants of the Emerald City. Mt. Rainier and the sisters guarded the mysteries behind the banks of dank clouds. But before one could pass through the veil one had to travel above the palaces of Olympia, or "Cybelle." Green waters of the sound lapped at the old capital's edge. Except for the black canopies of the metal eaters and flocks of nemophilists-in-pilgrimage, the university town looked still, except for the cries of flocks of seagulls.
Shallow, smelly depths lay beneath the flight path, and to the west the forests of the Olympia peninsula loomed, with a sentinel peak of the same name. More biomass clouds burned in the east. The ruins of Tacoma housed energy plants in the urban carcass. Towers of fire leapt into the sky, each one the secret heart of a power plant.
Dulcimer didn't see one motile in the sky. Nor did he see lights. Just the furnaces of biomass that glowed in the quick advancement of the glitter in the pre-twilight.
The screw-wrecker Elvis Grbac dragged the airship towards the Salish Sea. Boarding rigs of rope secured the combo. Too early to call them anything else. Behind them lay the excesses of the Emerald City. An overpopulated hangout for the masses that flocked to the first flicker of energy after the Blackout. The Emerald City swam in the sea of Seattle's frontier memory. Any attempt to uncover the city beneath the built-up system meant to lose everything that convinced them. The loss of magic. Some cities were better left untouched. Mysteries confirmed exterior truths. Even banalities.
The northeastern post-Seattle neighborhoods were blighted voids of craters and furrows, until the lands vanished into a more natural force of erasure. The surge of the Pacific into an inland channel. Swift waters of Juan De Fuca Strait, that's who. Dulcimer saw the big and little craft on the waters. Steam and biofueled powered barges and scowls and other ships. Some enroute to port. Some to the fecund fields on the north. The upper tier of Cascadia. Pods of orcas swam playfully in each wake. They leapt and jumped. A silent cheer escaped, audible perhaps to men on boats, and not to those who rode the air.
No one could've complained about the visibility. One could look down the length of the strait and take in the stories. Forests on the foothill peaks, nature in redoubt. And the slagworks of upended earth and residues up pulverized materials -- this, the final frontier of the Commonwealth. As a commentary, the harvest of the development tracts was much too recent to say, but one could almost believe in the virtues of a super-wrecker. The ruination of suburbia did nature a favor.
Dulcimer didn't believe forests nor mountains needed help. The force of the channel that swept out to the Pacific earned its force from the watersheds on mountain sides that ran as channels and emptied into the Salish Sea. The Odysseum was at too low of an altitude to really see the topography. But Dulcimer knew the real causation for ruin. To build any developments here risked disaster, Californium cometh or not. Everything on land ended up in the sea.
On the edge of the sea, where the mountain foothills rolled to the coastal plain, super-wreckers and kin must've forgotten something. A city stood alone. The core that remained of Vancouver. Pillars of steel and cement, urban downtown inviolate. A dirtied crown, but unbowed. The Blackout had moved through the place, and the Commonwealth meant to stay, but the name remained the same.
Below laid flecks of islands in the strait. Victoria's gardens, and straight to the north, the Georgia Strait, bordered by a dark green mass. The big island called Vancouver. After the wrecker finished its tow of the Odysseum and dropped them onto the polo fields of Old Vancouver, Dulcimer knew he'd sour on patriotic bunting real quick. He just hoped he wouldn't need that leg.
Another prison yard -- or his first one -- depended on the new perspective. For Dulcimer had visited a couple in his travels. But he couldn't compare the yard and it's parapets, sewn together by razor wire, to anything else.
The armed guard towers at every corner didn't have the same featureless stockyards of the People Authorities. Nor was there the same barbwire desolation of a concentration camp on the Jefferson frontier. The only meaning belonged to the descriptors of a prison complex. The walls and barracks might've been a school once, but now meant more than afterschool detention.
The incarceration of a hooded breed -- an insidious type. These numbers prowled the old soccer field. Trapped. They moved with a purpose that their efforts might locate a way to escape. If they'd failed that, they didn't show the signs. Hands thrust into their pockets, cigarettes passed from one to the other, they spoke to one another with each pass in their circle. The words were exclusive. A flame exchanged, lips that moved soundlessly beneath a jacket's collar, and then they walked away.
Dulcimer walked towards the center of the field. He meant to get a better look at all of them at once. In a matter of minutes, he realized they looked at him too. Or into him. The activity went on like this for an hour, until a man waddled across the field. Then towards him. Dulcimer expected a number of questions.
He had a young face but old hair, gray at the temples. A long jacket nearly touched the ground.
-You're standing in the middle of the pitch, man.-
Dulcimer hadn't thought of that, but it made sense now. As as he hobbled away on crutches -- with a curious eye on the man -- little groups from all around the field organized themselves. A soccer ball was dropped to the ground, and soon kicked around, foot skills admirable enough to demonstrate the proper way to pass and kick -- even the hotshot midair dribble.
Dulcimer watched from the sidelines. They were good. He noticed how the stumpy guy still watched him. Something was in his mouth, and he chewed it, maybe to practice the words before he said them.
-You play man?-
Dulcimer thought his lack of a leg would've answered that question.
-Only goalie these days.-
The stumpy guy brightened, then brushed a gray sideburn.
-We could use a sub, actually.-
If that was an invitation, Dulcimer took it, and hobbled awkwardly to the scrimmage yards of drills and shots on goal. Faster players ran around the sides and dribbled past ferocious slide tackles of defenders. Clumps of grass flew with each near collision. Speed met strength, and a few shoves to the ground later, a full-fledged game emerged from the warm ups.
The stumpy guy moved up to Dulcimer.
-Some of these guys could've actually played pro, you know?-
Dulcimer waited for a break on goal to unfold before he responded.
-What's your place in all of this?-
The stumpy guy turned away from the defense's clear-out of the ball.
-Local guy, one of the first to end up in this place. I was lucky enough to play, once, so the guys like me, though that's maybe more for my past trainer work -- I worked for the old Whitecaps.-
With a few long passes, the offense moved the ball up the field at-will.
-When did you start warring?-
The shrill calls of defensemen made the stumpy man's voice hard to hear. For a while Dulcimer only heard shouts.
-Never man, never. When the wreckers started trashing the suburbs, Vancouver fell fast. The fight ended pretty quick up here, and it soon became a convenient place to put all the insurgents. They put me in here to be 'daddy.' These kids are the rowdy bunch. You're looking at the worst of the worst, man.-
The offense drilled a shot on goal that landed in the high corner of the net, perfectly out of reach of an outstretched goalie.
-They play pretty good ball.-
Dulcimer watched the flustered goalie give his defensemen the lash of the tongue. It would be hours later that Dulcimer would speak to the rest of them. He learned that the old pro league trainer he'd spoken with was an insurgent too, a bomber of a school filled with children of Commonwealth administrators. They were all kid killers these days.
By the time he'd processed that thought, rough hands pulled him out into the cold night. And then he was forced to talk to the highwayman.
But things happened in a different order.
Dulcimer hadn't gotten much sleep. He slouched in his chair as the lecture droned on. The sunlight came in through a high widow, and the ceiling fan powered by momentum-springs made circuitous shadows on the wall. The air felt still and sick -- harder still from sleep deprivation -- and it was hot, no matter how hard the air currents were moved from side to side.
Brannan looked puffy.
-The Consul wants more than anything to put his victory with the East front and center in everything he does from now on. And, because it's better to get everyone on board with the feelings of good time in the West, he's planning something impressive. It might even deal finally, once and for all, with the feelings of hostility between Cascadia and the Commonwealth.-
Brannan sat behind the big desk and the mirrored glasses. He was as close to a person that Dulcimer had ever seen since the highwayman had been elbow-deep in the guts of that family. The same one he'd killed long ago.
-And this is about the time when you give me some model rocket fuel so I can set some hippie on fire.-
Dulcimer hadn't thought much of the events in the Cascades until the last few hours. When he'd been woken up and taken outside by some men of the woods, the days of fire came back to him. Not only did the survivors of Brannan's sky-borne attack wake him from his bed, but another face from the fiery day returned. The young woman with the unfortunate of 'Charlie.' They were all very much alive.
-I haven't had much time to talk to him since his return from the battle, but he's made it very clear that....-
Dulcimer zoned out. It wasn't Brannan, but it was him. Really. The matter that churned Dulcimer's groggy mind involved the possibility that the hills would come alive. The woods threatened to do more than move too. From out of the forests around Vancouver, the men of the woods promised to return, and this Charlie, AKA Charlotte Matheson, who'd traveled across the deserts of the Wastelands, would join the acts of reprisal.
-...and I hope you've been listening to me.-
Dulcimer thought real hopelessness meant the knowledge of events that no one else knew, and the permission of apathy to allow the chain of events to unfold.
-I just want to know what I'm supposed to do, so I can see her, and so I don't have to hear anymore ideas come out of your mouth.-
Brannan rose from his chair without a sound. No breath, nothing to indicate his change of position. As if he'd stood upright the entire time. To look down on Dulcimer.
-You're going to end up messing this all up, Mr....-
He stopped his small little lips beneath the reflected glare of his shark gaze. Dulcimer saw him twitch. An effort to smile died there on his face. The words he had left were rotted, they stunk, and Dulcimer couldn't make sense of the logic that the highwayman came with.
-I know Dulcimer Barlow, what your name is, who you are, and what you're going to so before you're dead -- all those terrible things you've waited until the final end to complete. I'm not oblivious to your role in the little chain of events that are going to unfold.-
Brannan the killer of families was correct about one thing, or rather a whole slew of things. But right now Dulcimer tried to prepare for the strange collision of events that wouldn't really be conclusive, but merely perpetuate a fresh cycle of sufferers to walk the earth.
-The only thing I want from you all is a new leg. Nothing else.-
Dulcimer realized where he'd seen the look on Brannan's face now. The highwayman looked lost in a hopelessness of responsibility. For a second he teetered. Then the killer of families returned. But it wasn't the same.
-Just get out of here. You...you...cripple!-
Brannan stood, so Dulcimer did too. It took him a minute to leave though. He hovered by the door for a bit. Then he split because the sight of the highwayman saddened him a little, and he didn't want to remember him as a mere bureaucrat.
-You didn't have to say that.-
A whole wave of fresh attacks on Commonwealth personnel might've been promised by his midnight visitors, but Dulcimer found the more important issue involved the ability to push off one leg and leap towards the shots on goal. He missed the balls more often than not. But the effort of a one-legged goalie warmed the hearts of the players. He made the team, and the man named Mackenzie was more than the de facto coach. For a fat guy, he moved fast.
-Listen up, gentlemen. Good for us, the Consul's gonna set up a match. Us versus California's best.-
A dozen or so guys in cutoff shorts laughed -- and not at his French-Canadian accent. Guys spoke out in rapid fire. First guy to get it out took the cake. Pond was kinda a dick, already. Mackenzie wasn’t done.
-That's nice some of you are feeling competitive, but it's going to break your hearts when I say we ain't staying much later than halftime. For one, I'm looking forward to the chance of ruining the Consul's celebration.-
Nods went all around the tight circle. But Dulcimer noticed a few didn't join. The stumpy trainer for one. He didn't do anything. Some bearded and raw-faced guys around him too. They didn't say anything either. Pond was still a dick, but he had his admirers, who nodded when he spoke.
-We'd like to see if they can really play, that's all, major. We ain't had many victories to cheer. And I'm speaking about the people.-
The 'here, heres' carried much more support for the game then Dulcimer would've thought.
-It won't matter how well we play and give something for this city to cheer, captain, if we just still have an iron heel of these Californians on the throat...-
-Sir, I've never challenged your orders on the field of battle nor...-
-Then don't do it on this pitch, soldier.-
Dulcimer watched Pond's stance of folded-arms defiance gradually transform into a half-assed salute.
Later on, while Dulcimer subbed for the goalie, he learned that Mackenzie and Pond had once served together in the Cascadian First. Terrorists. Pretty good at it too.
Days went by and Commonwealth officials came and went. Some visited Mackenzie. More guardsmen patrolled the grounds then usual. When the prisoners played on the old football field, other guards showed up and watched from the sidelines. They laughed. On the third day some distinguished men sat in the bleachers and took notes. The guys had fun with the attention and pretended they didn't know how to play.
At nighttime, during dinner in the mess hall, some guards walked in with a new prisoner. Dulcimer recognized Santa Monica from his eyepatch. He sat far away from everyone else.
-He's a plant.-
Some nodded at the trainer's announcement, so loud Dulcimer thought Santa Monica must've heard. Poor Lance. He looked down from his pariah station at the end of a bench, looked blankly at Dulcimer, and went back to the shovel-shovel-shovel of beans into his mouth.
Dulcimer didn't sleep that night. An expectation of visitors in the night kept him half-awake. They never came because he never gave them chance. He was up and out of his bunk, to sneak out of the old school portable and into the dark grounds. The night was still and he could make out a fleet of clouds that rushed out of the north. A faint glow was cast of the undersides of the clouds, along with the creation of a silhouette of the guard towers. He didn't know where the glow from the city's downtown came from. The city was not attached to the Pacific Slope Engines, even with the Canadian Rockies nearby.
A little point of light interrupted the black fugue of misty cold. For a few seconds the light was an illuminated insect that flashed off and on. Then it's signals were really just the lighted tip of someone's cigarette, and to prove it, all Dulcimer has to do was look for it, and he saw a repeated appearance of smoke. Then it vanished.
He walked over to Mackenzie. Even his one leg went crunch-crunch on the ground up gravel.
-Can't sleep either, can you engineer?-
How he knew that, Dulcimer had no idea.
-You know who I am, sir?-
Mackenzie smoked his cigarette through the pinch of his fingers and thumb.
-Maybe. I knew your wife.-
The skin of Mackenzie's nose shined in the dark.
Mackenzie laughed, or more or less chortled. His face disappeared in a cloud of smoke. All Dulcimer saw was his grin.
-Fuckin' with you chap. But I did know you daughter.-
Dulcimer thought about that one.
-People think there was something going on between the two of us.-
Dulcimer nodded. Mackenzie took a big meaningful drag and his face disappeared when he exhaled. Only his voice.
-Maybe it did, maybe it didn't. Do you know how many kids I've killed?-
Dulcimer shook his head and watched Mackenzie's shiny face return.
-I don't know. Maybe none. Maybe a hundred. But I've never asked. These things just happened, and I never got too close to anyone who could’ve told me, made me reflect on it. At least during this long war, that's for sure. Until it was too late. But now...now, we'll get the chance....-
It stayed quiet for almost an hour. Then Dulcimer wanted to open his big mouth.
-Do you ever feel like you've done such a bad job that they’re going to get let go, any minute?-
Mackenzie mumbled and ground his cigarette into thin air.
-We're finally going to get a chance...-
The next day Santa Monica disappeared. Just when everyone spoke aloud of his absence, he returned that night with such drama that it forced an abrupt silence of the entire mess hall. For a second he stared at Dulcimer with such ferocity that some thought a fight was on the way. But it never came.
After breakfast came roll call on the grounds. Loudspeakers blared the numbers each had been given. All responded with their names. It was tradition.
While a distorted Commonwealth anthem erupted from speakers, Dulcimer imagined a hand cranked generator behind the power. Nothing else suggested the return of electricity.
He hobbled around the grounds as guys did exercises, smoked, or walked around the track. They talked in silence. California guardsmen watched them with their carbines ready. Dulcimer imagined the leg Brannan would bring for him, for that would make his next plan easier. He had an appointment to keep tonight.
Lt. Pond carried a tin cup of old coffee around the place, until done, he tossed the contents away. He got the team together. Ball drills and talks of strategy turned into a game on the full length of the field. Full speed too. When Dulcimer subbed for the starter, the drilled shots came fast. He missed the first goal, pounded his fists into the mid, and his defense laughed. While he caught his breath on the sidelines, Pond motioned him over, gave him a few pointers about hip directions and head fakes, and pushed Dulcer back into the game. Dulcimer could smell the stale coffee on his breath. He went back in. Another break on goal happened as soon he was under the posts, and with an aggressive lunge in the anticipated direction of the striker's charge, Dulcimer knocked the ball down just as it left the offense men's foot. They tumbled together into a broken heap of arms and legs -- sans one.
Pretty soon fists were thrown and Dulcimer caught one in the mouth before the taste of blood fired his own beat of fists against skin. When the rest of the team pulled the two apart, Pond was the first one he saw. Laughing.
Lights went off at nine, but some stayed up. A person could hear the few conversations die off, one by one. Them the dark turned into an impressionable weight that no one could evade. And if they’d already set their mind. Get up and run.
Dulcimer crept out of his bunk, hopped on one foot, with his crutches in one hand and a jacket in the other. No ordinary jacket.
Once outside, a lone light from a tower shone from the closest tower. Dulcimer ran the opposite way. When the shadows turned their darkest, and a chill made him put on the jacket, he was away. He used the crutches the last of the way until he got to a shed. Inside the jacket, there were keys. He took them out, inserted them into the lock, and the metal piece swung open heavily and nearly landed on his foot. He got into the shed, but left the door open. For he planned to leave soon. Under a tarp, he saw what he'd come for, and when he pulled off the cover, he sighed with relief. Just as Santa Monica had told him. A steam-powered motorcycle. To get it started, he had to stand in front and pull the starter cord. On the third try, it did. A single headlight flooded the room, and Dulcimer could see his glorious disguise. The red trimmed dress coat of a Cali-corpsmen.
He only needed one leg. So he jumped on, released the hand brakes, and the bike roared him. Through the open door. The night felt colder already, himself suddenly overcome with a sensation of hairlessness in the air's chill.
Only the fence and the guard towers impeded him. Usually that was enough. But he felt a lot of things insured he could get away with anything. The key in the leather coat.
The bike growled along the track. It was loud. He couldn't hear nothing but a rumble in his inner ear. He steered away from the guards in the watchtowers, just in case they wanted to say something. The turn of the accelerator at his hand increased the speed. It dizzied him. But he had to make the jump over the cement barrier, and with just enough speed, he could. He did. The bike left the cement ramp and flew over the wall. Objects appeared to fly past him. He came down nearly horizontally. But it worked. Sort of. His wheels spun when he tried to accelerate again, and too many things went through his mind simultaneously. Like those guards who ran out the gate towards him. They might open their mouths, but they made no sounds over the engine, and he didn't stick around to listen. When he turned the accelerator back as far as it'd go, wheels spun in the gravel -- his ability to steer nearly compromised. For he wobbled as he raced off. And those objects that raced by his head were really dangerous. Californians fired bullets.
Places had his name on them. A street worn away by semi-trucks. Drainage canals from a former mountain creek. Rows of hills covered with houses, and the foundations they'd slid off. Then mountain slopes filled with mogul fields, former ski runs, and a burned down lodge.
When he'd shut the engine off, music was the first thing he heard.
The Cali-guardsmen brought him into an office, where he waited for a long time, until he heard the sounds of a piano. It couldn’t be Columbia. The overhead momentum-fan matched the cadence of boots down the hall. But they never arrived. He used the time to think what he'd say.
The campfire was more of a bonfire of pallets than sticks and logs, and the kindling replaced with leftover motor oil in plastic containers, so when the entire pile of detritus went up in flames and obscured a night of a moon in wane, and it's last fallen blue light on white-topped mountain peaks and dark green forests.
Men of the woods sat around the roar of a fire, flesh the orange color of the oily flames. The men of the woods didn't seem to mind the body, even with the efforts that went into their teeth and claws. Sharpened into razor points, less personal weapons lay at their feet. Dismantled rifles and revolvers would eventually be cleaned, but first the edges and points of machetes and spears were hit with the steel. Then a woman rose from the circle, her long bronzen hair dropped down both sides of a leonine face.
Dulcimer recognized her from the time in the Cascades. They called her Charlie. So far she was only known for her father, one of California's foes at the Battle of the Four Corners.
-I'm wearing a shirt now. And that's ironic, but not in that silly Alanis Morissette way. Maybe it's just more appropriate. Because your aggression towards the occupiers is going to get a lot more naked. Like punk rock.-
Dulcimer was more with her than the rest. But they still gave her leeway, and forgave the errancy in her speech -- these were nice people after all. Charlie didn't seem to notice how close to the edge she stood.
-I'm sure your parents were all members of the Sub Pop Singles Club, right? So you all know something about independence. It's in your blood.
Dulcimer heard the call of the spotted owl, the things people hated, complained about, and wondered why the hell anyone should care. The men in them went back to the work to make the knives sharp.
Charlie raised her crossbow against a sudden gust of wind.
-I know, like your heroes Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder, you will do more than give the corporate ogre an incurable case of herpes.-
Blank faces turned towards a horrible purpose. He thought: They hated us, we hated them -- they couldn't end...the war.
-And that's what you'll face.-
Officer Brannan rose from his desk and walked over to the window. The gaze from the window was just as mysterious as the objects of his attention. Dulcimer didn't have knowledge of either one. The need to just be on his way overcome any other wish. And the highwayman might stand in that spot for this entire appointment, and still Dulcimer wouldn't leave -- only wonder -- about the view, or the gaze upon a madman's mind.
-I can't do this anymore, officer. This is just another chance to dismantle things like government...-
Brannan didn't move.
-I wish you could have heard the Consul talk about the Pacific Slope Engines last night. He invited me over for dinner, and his guest -- well, of course you know her -- played piano for us. Anyways. The Consul asked what the difference was between a nation-state and a bioregion. They're both human inventions....-
Dulcimer's mind fixated on Columbia, until his mind found salvation in politics, and that great project of union that imperial California represented. Social welfare. For that purpose the Pacific Slope Engines were constructed.
A type of condition of melancholy afflicted the features of the highwayman's face.
-Last night was the first time he'd spoken to me, since his return from the East. You'd think he just watched a horror movie, with the things he's seen in all, what with the rebellion...-
Dulcimer heard the door open next to him. No interest could dissuade him to wonder if Brannan really knew about the rebellion. Just silent and patient. In wait for the highwayman to continue. For a second it was possible the story might take a turn towards some unknown creator.
-...all he's talked about is zombies in the Wastelands....-
He left the building with a new leg.
Dulcimer couldn't remember the order of events, specifically how he got home. He just did. Bike and all. Back to the camp. It was morning, and the other inmates were on the field. Calisthenics and coffee.
The guards grabbed him first. Everyone on the pitch just stopped their play and watched. When one at a time they approached, their noses turned upwards. The smell of the campfire's dirty magic hung on him. Bravery finally arrived with comments. First came Mackenzie, the cigar muncher, then Pond.
-There's no escape, Steve McQueen.-
Along with the rest of the team Mackenzie and Pond took him behind the shed. A guy sat there. The starter goalie. Not as big of a lug as Dulcimer, but not so nearly as intuitive to block shots on goal. He laid his leg on the deck, between a gap in the steps, and looked up at Dulimer.
-Go ahead mate, go ahead, and do it real quick.-
Kingdome II was frozen with anticipation, the lower levels of the pre-fab stadium were a tomb. The foundations were weak. Corrupted. The construction dated to the first pains of a fully expanded Californium. But the stadium was only recently completed. And still no roof, so not really domed. The cruel elements could show up uninvited, and they did. Snow in July. By the look of the northern tiers of cloud banks, more would be dumped. The threat didn't deter near enough a hundred thousand fans to attend. They politely sat in their seats. A greater worry kept them seated, prowlers in the stands and on the grounds. Cali-guardsmen patrolled the crowds.
Over head was little different. Two wreckers. Super-classes. The Sutro and the Phelan. And dreadnaught airships. The Paso Robles, the San Bernadino, and the Bakersfield. Airborne spikes fresh from the front, backlit by another tempest from the north. Grey. Blacks. Some terrible greens where the sun shone through the hidden blue sky. The clouds ripped apart, and the airships stitches against the dawn.
When Dulcimer did his warmups on the grass, he saw the Odysseum float out and join the flock of airships above the stadium. He thought for all the terrible things that'd happened, more acts of terror remained.
The stumpy trainer threw a hoodie at him. He took a few minutes to put one arm after another through the long sleeves, then over his head. The hood was left up. The trainer still talked the entire time.
-This might be the most normal game ever.-
The rest of the prisoners ran onto the field, dressed in the white uniforms and a single vertical green-blue band down the front.
-This game is bullshit, and you know it, it's weighted against us, you, and everyone who gives a shit.-
Mackenzie strode over towards the referees. He smoked the entire time. Pond and his captains began to line up.
-You think the Consul doesn't care? He stands to get embarrassed too. You know who's here. Look up there...the powers of the West.-
And the trainer pointed to the half-finished sky boxes over the stands. That's all Dulcimer recognized. He didn't have time to stay and find out. Warmups, and then the call from the loudspeakers about the numbers, teams, and nations from above and below. This and that mattered most. The wind picked up speed. But it didn't snow.
Electrical power was trumped up through the grandstands by an amplified voice. The bombastics came from the direction of the unfinished sky boxes. Two figures walked out and thanked the crowds, their hosts, and the weather. All provided play for the day. The men who spoke only belonged to formality. The weather was actually terrible.
-Our father, before his passing to Kolob, gave us a mission to follow, one that, we believe, your Commonwealth embodies.-
Dulcimer heard a succession of spit sounds from disgusted men on both sides of the line he stood on. Shutupmormons! Rumors went down the line to accompany the horrible place each player thought of. But the team trainer always found a moment to fit in.
-One of the twins from the Plains Nation. California’s buddies in the east. You want to talk about bioregional tyrants? They’re your guys. Fuck ‘em.-
The trainer slunk away before Dulcimer could get a question off. He was left with images of the battle in the Wastelands, California's triumph, and the other flag-wavers on the continent. It was a long way to the graveyards of the patriots. Of course, the United States would never return. Again.
Arctic wind through a microphone and a ring of feedback expanded Dulcimer’s perspective for the gravity of topics. He heard the mention of things he'd not heard allusions to in a very long time.
-The old builders of the world expected gratitude; for it was, truly, a new religion. They gave us machines to make us happy, devices to take care of our lives, so we wouldn't need things like government, or even community. We'd have ourselves, being taken care of by the machines.-
Dulcimer couldn’t see the twin who spoke, his appearance, especially. He was just a cypher against the concrete palisades of Kingdome II. But Dulcimer let him be Kevin Costner from “The Postman” -- and the next brother who walked forward, to speak? Well that was Alan Cummings from “Titus.” That was the alternative mythos of this revolution.
The so-called “Iron Wolf” was shrill.
-And that'd be fine, you'd think. But we grew vain and lost all that in the Blackout. That version of our world was drowned in the long fifteen year night.-
The litany of reasons from the two sons of a hydrogeologist seemed an acceptable explanation to Dulcimer. He'd trust a science background to explain his own obstacles. Everything else was therapy. Failure started with the plan to start a family, and his wife and him, they'd never been close. He'd hidden behind (or within?) his computer models, the imaginary of a new societal order.
The flywheels of truth spun, for he now acknowledged that he would've killed his wife if not for Ana. She was the saint. To his daughter all his passions towards people were directed.
After all, his wife was a twenty-first century woman. Suffer unto the times she had. While the machines swirled around them -- between them -- similar to the neighbors, no one knew each other beyond their bedroom, until the lights went out, and the survivors stumbled forth.
Reverie ended. The speeches by the Twins of the Plains Nation were met by muted claps and whistles. Nationalized-school children of the California state pranced onto the field and sang one of many multiculti bear flag anthems, 'To Califa in Heaven.'
Captains Mackenzie and Pond met the sons of San Francisco, children of parents the grizzled old Cascadians might've killed during the Social War. The handshakes between the teams were limp limbs joined by intense glares, the two Cascadian captains a study in opposites. Mackenzie planned to kill their babies. Pond would humiliate them on the pitch.
Whistles signaled the teams to take to the field. Dulcimer jogged out. Cascadian colors accompanied him. The odd man out -- he was the goalie -- he'd chosen a black polo. It fit. For with the second whistle kickoff, red-shirted Californians invaded with a quick succession of kicks and passes in between, and the underworld of officiation took over. Gloom was the color of his jersey.
Mid-field turned into a scrum, and the Cascadian defense crumpled. Out of the collapse of bodies, a mixture of jersey colors and limbs, the forward attack of California set up a shot on goal. The first strike bounced harmlessly off the goalpost.
No so fast.
The rebound put the ball in play and near enough the box that the defenders could only stick out their legs to trip the rush of offense. No one risked it. Too well coached. A red-socked leg connected with the ball, a point blank blast on goal.
Dulcimer met the airborne threat with a lunge and outstretched hands. Deflection. With a frenzied scurry on hands and knees he quickly covered the ball. Safe.
A whistle blew and a referee pointed at a Cascadian defenseman. A push and a shove of a Californian player in the box. Free kick, outside the box, but still -- the Doug Flag defenders pleaded their case. Free kick, all the same.
Dulcimer took a position. Opposite him a tall red-headed Californian stood behind the ball on the line. Both teams jostled for position. The whistle flew, a cleated foot connected, and the shot flew towards the goal. Dulcimer guessed. Wrong.
Too easy, too fast. First blood.
Mackenzie exploded on the ‘ref’ and got himself a yellow card. Way to go. Pond was clipped from behind, and a valuable injury substitution couldn’t be helped.
Dulcimer spent a minute water break with the rest of the team. That's when a familiar figure cut through the barricades against the multitude, all watched over by police of a beloved race.
-Your wife. I'd like to talk to you about her.-
Dulcimer fought off the stares of an agonized Pond on the bench.
-What were her politics?-
-Only sports, right now, man.-
He walked away. The highwayman yelled after him. Dulcimer didn’t hear, he didn’t listen.
Dulcimer passed by Pond, his leg administered by the ice packs from the trainer. Teeth clenched. Grim.
The proclivity of prodigious vermin arrived fifteen years ago, and still, no easy solution offered itself to their removal. Poisons and recombinant pesticides later, and rats remainded. Big creatures the size of cats. They'd since devoured the feline race.
Now without threat of fire or loud noises, the rat packs followed human communities around their urban haunts. All that was perishable already belonged to the rats. Everything humans might possess of any value, well, the successors of the animal kingdom would take that too.
At brief times during the match, a stray vermin would walk on the field, sniff around, and head back under the stadium seating.
Another stray pass in front of the goal gave another California striker the chance at glory, and the resultant score left a frustrated Dulcimer to kick the ball back into the net. He could hear his defensemen mutter behind him.
After national-schoolchildren threw more fire crackers at rats on the field, Dulcimer ran back onto the pitch. Whistles blew from the gloomy referees blew. He passed Mackenzie, who took another long drag of his cigar and extinguished it in the earth.
One more whistle.
The game continued behind a screen of smoke from the California mid-fielders. They got away with murder. Pushes and shoves on the Cascadian midfielders and the way was open to the goal again.
Dulcimer barked orders for his defensemen to push the winger-with-the-ball far wide -- make him take the wild shot towards the center of the field. At least that worked. The ball popped up, the hang time to kill for, suspended in the air. All types of men converged on its spot in front of the box, two colors of jerseys jumped up and bodies collided. Heads meant to strike the ball, but forearms came down hard. On top of a foe's head.
Dulcimer pushed off from his wooden leg and leapt. He grabbed the ball. When he went down, he was knocked out. The first thing he saw were stars. But it wasn't even dark yet.
Dulcimer's eyes played tricks on him. In the minutes the lights of the stadium turned on to chase away the shadows, he saw little fluttery things before him. Dancers on the air that flashed on and off. His groggy head couldn't make sense of much, much less of the lights. What he saw: Mackenzie's harsh prods (getinthere) chased him back onto the field to play. At least there was Pond.
-Fireflies! Makes sense. I bet there was a jungle here, once.-
The crowd was hushed by the dance of lights. From above, so below, where the ball players played in the last minutes of the faraway sun.
Dulcimer noticed that the dispersal of the Commonwealth air fleet. To take positions, no doubt, if city trouble started early. The scent of the air before it rained. It screamed for the obvious.
The Odysseum was gone also.
He pulled his goalie gloves on tight. Gloomy whistles shrieked. Dulcimer saw a flock of bats emerge from under the stadium lights.
California resumed the attack. Passes, a questionable offsides across the first line, and already, the crimson invaders were in position to knife the Cascadian defense.
Dulcimer saw a stumpy midfielder -- one of his own -- step in front of the ball and kick it back up the pitch.
The crowd gasped -- so must've Mackenzie. For the cigar he'd his held in his teeth dropped out of his mouth as the ball arced towards him. He chested the high bounce of the ball to his foot, before he calmly looked upfield -- and there was that stumpy Cascadian again.
It was the trainer. And he was in front of the goal.
Mackenzie, his cigar still a smolder of smoke around his feet, passed over the heads of the sons of San Francisco, and the trainer, whose name Dulcimer never remembered, but all of Cascadia would soon know, tapped the pass on the second bounce into the corner of the goal.
The refs conferred, and Dulcimer walked over to the bench. To Pond. He still grimaced under the packs of ice. Dulcimer fretted. He hated the night of the game. Whistles blew at his illegal move to the sidelines. But Pond, though pained, looked with delight to Dulcimer's walk over to the sidelines. The night was young, and so was the injured captain.
-These guys are tired. It's all that fucking. It's hard to keep that up forever.
With permission to go for broke, Dulcimer ran onto the pitch and grabbed the jersey of the first fullback he saw. Joseph.
When the Californians figured out that officiation wouldn't help, they ran the ball out.
A white-uniformed streak stole the ball. Joseph the flat-nosed kid. Surrounded by red jerseys, he passed it way back. Backwards. To Dulcimer. Who kicked it back up the field. This wasn't just keep away. All of California and Cascadia could make a play on the ball.
Mackenzie put out his cigar. And the fireflies came out.
He was in the middle of the field and he didn't look like he had a play to make. White jerseys ran towards him. Red men ran in blind oblivion. For what?
A fight emerged in the scrum of legs and shoves and bodies thrust into the maw of confused kicks for the ball. Whistles turned urgent. Shrill things turned into peoples confused, angry, sick-of-it-all shouts.
Dulcimer turned his horns upfield and charged the scrum of locked arms and the spray of spittle from angry mouths. He craned his head around, towards the bench, eager for support. Cascadians were already in a full sprint towards the bedlam, and behind, and overhead them, the crowed roared. Awake.
Dulcimer heard the screams of Pond. Wecanbeattheseguyswecanbeatthem!
Halftime, the bats came out, and Dulcimer and team headed for the locker room. The shouts of thousands of spectators serenaded them. Even the rats in the tunnel looked scared.
The silence in the locker worried Dulcimer. He expected the rousement of excitement from men, but he didn't hear nothing. Just the metal taps of cleats on cement. Lockers opened up. Clang, clang. Other things might interest them. So Dulcimer looked closer. At men on benches, tables, and a-lean-to against the walls. Finally, what he'd expected, happened. The trainer spoke, to the room and the men around every stall. The first words were the rah-rah, the missed plays and passes -- the general opportunities that might have made it a closer game.
Time ticked, and felt wrong somehow.
Dulcimer knew the speech was a cover the second no one mentioned the officiation of doom. And when a hand signal was passed from a Cascadian stationed by the door, to a Mackenzie in-wait for such signals, the team captain rolled his hand. He meant to tell the trainer to continue his speech, and the trainer did, while the rest of the team snuck back with Mackenzie. Into the shower room.
Dulcimer wasn't invited. But no one barred his entry. He caught them in the act. They had pulled pieces of tile off the wall and floor, until drywall and boards remained. Those were removed too. Once in a pile, there was just a black hole big enough for people to crawl through.
Out of the dark emerged the porcelain face of Roxana. Then her mechanical body, no longer clad in Air Marshall golds and blues. Just a black trenchcoat and aviator goggles. She was even smaller than usual in that black hole. On the bottom. Her childish face peered looked for recognition. Up at the faces above. Then she found Dulcimer. And winked.
-Quickly. We have to go. You can fake a refueling airship only do long. Until they don't smell the methane -- please. We have to go.-
Stop. Stop it all. Dulcimer wanted to know why. Why the change to the side that would end up lost? Mackenzie's big mouth opened, potentially to give answers about Roxana's defection. Pretty soon Dulcimer realized. Probably not. Blood. That's what was up.
-Is the girl with the crossbow and the pretty hair ready to go, on my orders?-
Roxana uh-huhed, and then went clockwork.
-Yes, more or less, Charlie is totally ready.-
-To lead the men of the woods out of the hills, and kill every Commonwealth officer, every family house bombed, every building that flies the bear flag? That’s what she wants to do? Well, fine then. She’s got her revenge, and we can have our’s.-
Mackenzie looked -- or tried -- to make eye contact, and failed. Dulcimer didn’t want to be here. No one must've. He heard the shuffle of feet.
-I've fought my whole life for decolonization. And I believe this: it's got to be painful for the colonizers. So, I’m going now, just as we talked about. To war. If you come with me, you're not coming back. Not after tonight.-
Some of the men started to move towards the hole. Fully prepared to enter. And come out the other side.
Dulcimer heard the sound of crutches tap against the unbroken shower tiles.
-What’s this war against decolonization that I hear of?-
The room felt painful, Dulcimer, himself, particularly shamed. Pond.
-I still don't know, after years of fighting, what decolonization is going to look like as an outcome? I know the process. And I can take death. Of myself, for one. But that's easy. But the outcome...that won't look like anything like the state before occupation. If this is for freedom, why is it that I think I’m being led, even commanded?-
-What’s always been in control? The order of nature. And the things you can't organize. The mountains, their runoff, and the debris of life and minerals. That which seeds our homes. And has been made into something else. Something alien. Foreign. And unnatural.-
Pond bounced his crutches on the shower tiles.
-We leave now, then, we'll never have the chance to know if we could've beat them, even when they've tried to stack everything against our play. We were brought to this lowly place to play ball. Anything else we try, and we can't trick these lords.-
Roxana struggled halfway out of the hole, and she looked at Dulcimer for a hand. But he knew how deep the hole went. So it was just Roxana.
-Fine then; and this is what I see: the wreckers can't kill you on the pitch; the guards can't shoot you when we score; the kids won't remember this when more babies are pit innationalized schools. None of you can make a decision until there’s more than one option on the table. That’s what the Consul used to tell me; for he did see the future in the time tombs of the Wastelands; and that future is some crazy ass shit.-
Half the team froze. Some mumbled. But no one else moved. No one. And it had nothing do with Roxana’s epiphany of a lost memory. Dulcimer understood that now. He could see.
Just Mackenzie and his hand with a lit match put against the tip of his cigar. Bunch of smoke. Some puffs. A big exhale later.
-Right now, in the future, we’re slaughtering innocents. And right now, we’re also playing the second half. Pond...You're the same kid that turned into a man when you killed Californians -- didn't you Pond? But let’s see how long we can play their game, right?-
Pond limped towards Roxana.
-Let's just see how long we can trick them.-
Brannan intercepted Dulcimer on the way out of the tunnel.
-We need to talk.-
Dulcimer noticed the highwayman's nervous gazes towards the luxury skyboxes.
-It better be about the game.-
Brannan looked over his shoulder again and made eye contact with a higher authority.
-I've been thinking. Your wife wasn't just one of the Scorched, she was a Native. Which makes me wonder: did she ever buy the idea that you can just name things after native places. Like the Seahawks and the Salish Sea. Because this place is crawling with believers.-
Dulcimer ignored him, and ran towards his goal. That's too much politics, highwayman, so just shut up.
As if on command, he was gone. Dulcimer saw: a form that slunk back into the sea of a crowd at high tide, held back by nervous Cali-corpsmen.
Things got too real.
The floodlights. The amplified loudspeakers. The resumption of play in one minute. There was power in the air. Rats were gone. too. And the bats? No more flew across the sky. Even the clouds parted, and there was the moon. The first waxious phase after the new moon. It might've even been a few days after Tuesday.
Dulcimer coached his fullbacks up the field to play box-to-box, and the great offensive began as soon as the kickoff from the middle of the field. Mackenzie set his midfielders and called to the rest to join an attack. Cleats dug furiously for traction. The earth was turned up by one frantic push towards the goal.
The Californians responded to the threat through the use of big defensive bodies in front of the goal. That meant Cascadian threats were pushed to the ground repeatedly. The referees were nowhere to be found. Men jumped up from the cold pitch -- furious.
Dulcimer watched the press of his defense yield nothing but frustration and protests that fell on deaf ears. He looked to the bench. Pond had stood up. He still didn't have crutches. And he held out an arm. Fireflies swarmed around him.
A side judge held up a flag. Substitution, #10.
Pond ran out, nearly stumbled. The fireflies followed. He shouted the same thing repeatedly.
Dulcimer turned his back and only face around when the whistle blew. Goal kick. California side.
The opponent's goalie took it out and patted it to his own defenseman. White jerseys sprung forward in a massive front. Decision time. A few tricky steps from the Californian and then a chance to set up a shot upfield.
Pond swooped in and got enough of a foot on the ball to deflect it wildly into play. Anyone could get it. The first with a play was the defense. But they were ill-prepared for a challenge. They tried to pass, but a white shirt stepped up and took a wild shot on goal. The ball careened off bodies. But enough force was on the shot, and the ball flew forward.
Dulcimer watched the ball loop up towards the crossbar and deflect back into play. A big red jerseyed brute cleared the ball. A Cascadian beat everyone to the high kick and headed it back up field.
Dulcimer realized he talked out loud.
-We've tricked them to play with us.-
Pond shot long and scored the equalizer.
The stadium sat on very weak foundations. Now those wooden benches rattled and their vibrations sent severe jolts through the entire complex. The skyboxes gently swayed, and the guardsmen looked disturbed.
If the crowd knew the songs they began to sing them, and Dulcimer had to think back to the last time he'd heard the fight anthems of the resistance. He looked up towards the VIP section. The first thing he thought of was Ana. Then he couldn't any longer. Redshirted attackers dribbled and passed down the field, seemingly at will.
Until the trainer jumped out and stole a deflection, pushed the ball out of the defensive side and passed to Pond. He took it past midfield and found a soft spot. Californians darted and converged on the streak he drew on the soft ground.
Dulcimer thought nothing looked more helpless. He was outnumbered. Laughter escaped Dulcimer's mouth. For he so much wanted to know what Pond thought. Cascadians caught up, formed lines to charge the Californian goal, and the pass down the middle was laughable in its perfection and knowledge of that certain use of force. For it split the seam of men, and the foot that touched it came from a white shirted kid. All alone. It was an easy touch on the ball, away from the outstretched fingers of the goalie, and when it went in, bedlam, bedlam, bedlam, in the stands, in the air, the shouts of the multitude -- the throng. And the great celebration began.
A gloomy whistle came from the pit of the pitch, and inside, if the crowd dared to look through the lens of their joy -- Cascadia 3, Commonwealth 2 -- stood two referees in a conference. Then, the moment of dread intensified and bore open the awful truth.
With the wave of a flag, offsides was cited, and the goal was waved off.
The crowd tore out their hair. Then came a mighty sound. Of wood and bolts wrenched from cement. Planks snapped in the forest of seats and metal groaned from the efforts of an almost endless sea of hands that pushed and pulled and pushed and pulled. Things had to break, and did.
Dulcimer saw the rage of waves of seats come undone and hoisted up, then lifted onto the shoulders of laborers. Men, women, and children turned the seats into mountains of debris. Piled high in minutes. The stands seethed with tectonic activity. Anger sparked fires. In minutes the piles of seats went whoosh from the winds of flames. A ring of fire erupted all around the stadium.
Cali-state guardsmen seemed to have realized that the only use for guns against the multitude was to hold them out as magic wands. But there was very little sorcery performed. And these weren't wizards. Just men without plans to deal with a riot.
The Californian team headed into the locker room for safety.
The crowd sent parts of the stands airborne, and the bolides-in-flames crashed onto the field. Just a thousand yells out of tormented mouths. The fall of the first snow cooled nothing.
Dulcimer felt weird. He didn't see the view of chaos from every set of eyes in the stadium -- he saw their imaginations of possible trajectory of time, both what happened now, and what could happen if the decisions were followed to their full conclusion.
Everyone was going to die tonight.
Dulcimer ran towards the California team sideline. It must've looked strange. He didn't stay long. Upstairs in the skyboxes. That's what he meant to visit. He couldn't, of course. Who was he to pretend? But they'd come to him. For the past fifteen years visits came to him from the actors in the Commonwealth.
-I want to talk politics now.-
-It's not just that. It's important that the crowds not be fired on.-
-That can’t be stopped.-
-If you don't get California's team back on the field, now, it gives the message that the game is over.-
-That decision was made by the spectators.-
-You have to allow these people to think the game will continue.-
-The referees have made their decision.-
-So, let the crowd make their’s.-
Dulcimer ran back to his goal. He noticed the flurry of fireflies that followed.
The big clock with the stone face in the shape of a Californian star marked the final procession of time in the game. Forces conspired to alter time, or at the very least compelled each side to notice the movement of the single hand that indicated the passage of the final minutes. Fans in their seats waved and roared in efforts to will Cascadia to victory, desperate of the clock and that their team should know of the domesday hour.
Dulcimer thought he could hear the stadium take one collective breath, hold it, then let it out in despair.
Another California offensive kept pace with the last ticks of the minute hand. Down the field.
Dulcimer saw Mackenzie hustle back down the field and make the play on the ball just at the second when the striker crossed the box line, and him and Mackenzie tumbled into each other, then both sprawled against the ground.
The hand on the field clock neared zero. Then it stopped. And the referee came out, held up a yellow card, and pointed at Mackenzie.
Penalty kick. California.
Dulcimer realized the player that walked to the line had been California's last substitute, put into the game after the stoppage of the game.
Santa Monica Lance.
It began to rain. Dulcimer heard the drizzle fall into the depressions made by cleats that'd torn up the earth. The icy furrows left over from the first plow started to melt. Just before they vanished, however, he had a chance to remember. He saw: the view from the sky of the ground. There was Columbia. There was him.
Santa Monica realized at that moment the goal he needed to score would come against the obstacle of Dulcimer, and whatever luck remained. The Californian sky-sailor, last survivor of the C.S.S. Modesto, looked crestfallen. He toed the ball nervously, and Dulcimer tried to imagine what Santa Monica would say.
-I died that day. Pretty sure I did. We never should've made it over the mushroom cloud. And we didn't. The minute we entered the plume we caught fire. There went our oxygen...the flames...way too intense. If the fire didn't kill me, the escape must've. But I'm here and that means I'm dead -- but alive too. I've been given this chance to rise again. I'm a dead man who can cheat death. I'm a dead man who can cheat death. I'm a dead man...-
So many things awaited Dulcimer in this moment of possibilities. He saw: head fakes, stutter steps, and all-around misdirection. He found himself off his feet before he knew what he'd done. The fireflies were above him. Voices in the crowd mentioned a shape in the clouds.
He wouldn't remember that. The ball hung in the air though.
The continuum of the score and time was stuck when the ground began to shake. Then the stands. Things really came undone. The upper decks bent, swayed, and a terrible groan from simultaneous moans of steel. Until the cement finally let go and rails burst through the skin of wood and more cement. Both sides of the stadium constricted in terrible accordion motions. Every time the tension subsided the upper decks released a agonized breath. The spittle of wood chips, cement blocks, and human beings was ejected from the collapse. A maw of steel.
Dulcimer realized the sounds of screams came from human mouths. The shakes intensified. Now he could barely stand. With a hand on the ground for stability he wobbled over to the sidelines.
One side of the entire upper deck came apart. First the skyboxes plummeted, then the seats tilted and shook out the contents. Petrified people. Those who were shaken, had no balance, and so hurtled to their deaths below. Some clung to rails and beams and seats, only to prolong their terror of the heights, that they fell to, dashed on the rocks of the lower decks.
Dulcimer's first reaction demanded he put his hand to his ears. To stifle the tumult. The underworld would soon open. He knew that now.
He heard his name. He turned around.
It was the Odysseum, and Roxana leaned over the side.
The earthquake originated nearby the Cascadian subduction zone. It's fury surpassed all past tectonic disasters in the region.
This was the Ring of Fire.
Vancouver, survivor of the Blackout and the Commonwealth, crumbled, and fell into the Salish Sea. The monuments of the era of electricity and the buildings created in the electrical winter all failed the test.
The morning sun greeted horrific scenes of disorder.
The ruined city blocks caught fire. Dust from the pulverization covered the sky in sheets. Dark streaks of flames ran upwards towards the sky.
Other agents of chaos emptied onto the jagged streets.
Charlie's vengeful angels went to kill the vulnerable super-wreckers. The Sutro and the Phelan burst into plumages of white-hot candles on the first touch. When the dreadnaughts responded and came after the launch site of kerosene-powered projectiles, more trails of fire lit up the skies and found their targets. The Paso Robles was engulfed in flames, the San Bernardino crashed after several mortal wounds, and the Bakersfield -- survivor of the clashes in the Wastelands -- limped off with nothing else by a long trail of smoke to mark the path of escape.
Charlotte Matheson went to work. Knives were made busy. Blood ran in the streets. Every official of California was gutted. And the bolts from her crossbow marked another kind of progress. It was different from the social welfare of the Commonwealth, formed from the fires of vigilance and the need for, not only relief, but reform -- improvement. Charlotte’s kills told a story of revolution. The third unmentioned ‘R.’ Frustration marked her passage across the landscape. Frustrated to not conquer frontiers.
An infestation of bureaucrats had taken over America and, unlike her father, she wanted to throw back the encroachment of the civilized. She marked her path with the destruction of the instruments of state power. She meant to have liberty. And Cascadia, long thought dormant, but never asleep, fit her cause. The men of the woods followed her into the obliteration of the world. Blood ran in the streets of the disaster of Vancouver, and pretty soon, all of the town was red. Murder came easily. Once the state was dismantled, only violence would regulate the race.
From the sky, a nervous god watched. He’d once liked to believe that the little girl he’d taught after the Blackout would come to her senses. But she’d always had a bad case of her father. She’d wanted to overturn everything that he’d done. This was her chance.
Gods from the fires of machine science, formed in the underground laboratories that'd survived the fall on the West, crept out in their superhuman splendor to survey a world they could alter with a touch, but inside the exterior of omniscience lurked an overweight man in a heavy metal t-shirt who felt pain at the sight of the abilities of humans to hurt each other. That kind of guy didn't have the ability to ignore that. He was a sucker. Yet he wasn't dumb. In twenty-four hours the full weight of the Commonwealth would fall on Cascadia.
-Tell me about it later. After we’re out of this mess.-
Dulcimer grabbed the handholds in the pilot house of the Odysseum. The airship's engines strained to make the commands speeds. Bursts of smoke leapt out of the exhausts, for a second the entire deck of the airship nothing but fields of night. Morning skies poked out, and Roxana threw the wheel into a position that only she knew.
-Which I will do. As soon as we deal with that airship.-
The screw-wrecker Elvis Grbac began the early morning as an invisible force. Only Roxana's trained eye recognized the tell-tale heart of a smoker's contrail against the sky. They'd been followed by a vengeful hunter, and very little would end the threat, except for distance between the Californian predator and the pride of a Marinland kingdom.
The screw-wrecker obliged and closed quickly on the Odysseum. The sound of overdriven engines, and the shift of propellers that cut through the wind, burped-and-gurgled loudly before a dark shape rose above the starboard side.
Dulcimer heard a ping, a hiss, and a thump. Roxana latched the wheel in place with a rope.
-They tagged us with a sky-anchor.-
Dulcimer ran out of the pilot house and looked up at the Elvis Grbac. He could only see the underside of bristles and thorns -- and a silvery cable. It ran from the screw-wrecker to the topside of the Odysseum. Someone was up there, and Dulcimer -- fit and proven -- scrambled up a ladder to the top of the airship, where the main lift-balloons lay. He smelled hydra-helium from nitrogen-cooled pipes and the exhaust of chug-chug motors run by the auxiliary steam engines. A chill made his skin rise, and the sweat from exertions made him shiver, but he emerged from the blackness of the maintenance pipe into the topside world of a blinding sun, clouds flattened against the heavens, and a man who'd unhooked from the sky-anchor's cable, the passage of the Californian screw-wrecker, now a jagged silhouette against the evil sun.
Brannan strode over to him, the grin of his eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses.
-Mr. Ulysses. Dulcimer Barlowe. Walker O'Brien. You're all those things now.-
-You'd dare attack your Consul?-
-Maybe I’m the real Consul?-
-You've always been the Consul!-
The grapple of hands turned quickly into the hurl of punches and kicks to the face and body. Dulcimer took more of Brannan's than he would have liked. But he thought of his balance. He was precariously perched on top of an airship's hull. A fall would be the experience of a couple thousand feet. Yet since he wanted more than anything to remember these next few hours, he had to make a decision -- and he did. A fight to the death only required one to die. Not both.
-You're the son of a thousand bitches -- all bastards like you. And your father!-
As he stabbed the highwayman, the great killer of families, in his face, Dulcimer only thought about Brannan's sadness. Dulcimer saw: a man who'd grieved that his master had ignored him. Walker O'Brien needed to pay.
And when Brannan slid off the surface of the blimp-shell, and disappeared into the sky, then Dulcimer regretted everything he was about to do. Because he hated confrontations, really.
-We don't have much time, Mr. Barlow....-
California returned en masse.
The Bakersfield showed no signs of the fires that'd afflicted it's superstructure and, as a leader of the counterattack, wreckers and airships joined the veteran of the Battle of the Four Corners. The super-dreadnaught Salton Sea was joined by the Fresno and Atascadero. When the storm of fire blanketed Vancouver's urban remains, the American president class super-wrecker Ronald Wilson Reagan finished to salt the earth. No city would rise again.
Flames of a cityscape illuminated Dulcimer's passage from the Odysseum to the mansion on the hill. The place was silent. The only thing he heard was the rhythmic thump of a sky-anvil onto the ground.
-I might not see you again.-
Roxana pulled up her goggles. He saw no lights inside the home. The sound went whump-whump. He thought he heard the sound of the Odysseum's engines transform into the passions of flight. He opened the door. Dark. His first steps touched hidden objects in the dark. Bottles...or vases that could've been glasses...they all rattled across the floor. Black shapes became lighted chairs and tables and couches in the light of Vancouver's inflamed skyline.
As the light shifted, and he saw the interior of the parlor, the litter of long-past parties inside, he pulled out a pistol. To step deeper into land between a night and a day that tortured in its slowness meant forgetfulness of the auctions that'd occurred here, and the parades of youth -- that was all immaterial now.
A sheet over a chair moved. Dulcimer shot at the movement. The voice of a man shrieked. Suddenly awoken. With the sheet slowly pulled down from his face, Dulcimer looked at Walker O'Brien. The Consul of California looked hung over.
-Geez, you asshole! Be careful with that! I thought I'd sent all of you highwaymen away....-
Walker stopped. Dulcimer knew how well new words took form in a drunken brain. So he waited. His hand on the gun.
-Where is she?-
Walker slowly pulled the rest of the sheet around him, and attempted to get up. Dulcimer waited for the Consul to rise. He wondered how well the fires of Vancouver touched up his own face. What he must've looked like now to his old boss, and how easily he was to recognize.
-I haven't the foggiest idea, what you mean, man-with-the-gun-pointed-right-at-me. Out thataway...-
Dulcimer fired the gun over Walker's head. At least he tried to. The bullet appeared to graze his cheek. For he winced in pain and put his hand to his cheek. Dulcimer couldn't shoot. But he could talk.
-Don't give me that shit, now, where is she?-
Walker held out one wrinkled hand. One he kept hidden inside the sheet. The withered hand of the Consul of California.
-Again, I have no idea...-
-Columbia, you fool! Where have you put her?-
Now Dulcimer saw a smile break over his face, for he knew it was okay to laugh.
-Governor Affleck's daughter? The little girl with the bad breath?-
Dulcimer didn't enjoy a laugh from Walker that could've been meant for him.
-I want to know where she is.-
Walker rose from his seat, his bed for the night, suddenly a source of gravitas from the sheet around him.
-If you've come to get her, you're too late. She's gone. Along with the rest of the Scorched. She rode the last wave of the aftershocks. Towards this place in the East she kept blabbering about.-
Dulcimer cocked the hammer back on the pistol. Walker's calm disregard of bodily harm changed into surprise.
-I didn't come for her.-
Walker O'Brien moved gracefully for a partial invalid, his eyes a study of weapons aimed at his heart.
-You came to kill me -- to shoot -- your consul.-
Dulcimer could think of little to say. He'd try something else.
-Why did you do it?-
-No. I know why you did that. It's the same reason you've been entertaining your nationalized school kids, here, at this place.-
-I'm a regular guy, like you, then? Is that what you think? Because that's what I always thought. Then, what is it you ask of me?-
-I want to know why you did it?-
-And leave her with you? Really? I know your kind, too well. It's my kind of people!-
Dulcimer left him to his sudden excitement and a moment of unexpected loneliness, as he searched around in vain with only one choice but to continue.
-I never could be a father, but I could be another type of patron, or father figure. For I've always seen what needed to be done, and what can't be done, with the likes of you and your kind, talking about freedom, and the right to this and that, when none of you had the nerve to do what was right?-
-You mean blackmailing me, into thinking, I'd done what I'd done.-
-Listen this isn't easy to explain without a good drink on hand. Do you mind, Sir?-
Dulcimer obliged with the wave of his gun. The Consul pulled his sheet tighter across his torso, and grabbed a half full glass of wine. It looked white in the light.
-You see, this...external reality that's been created by your isolated mind...it's the worse for the rest of this part of the world. I, by my recognition of the way this...race...can go their separate ways in a moment of pretended liberation, decided that it was in all of our interests to be the tyrant, be the kingmaker -- be the government. And for that -- I mean just look at them, would you!-
Dulcimer didn't buy it, nor did he look at what he could imagine was the still life of the final judgement on Vancouver.
-Is that all?-
Walker threw his head back.
-The mission of any government, when there is a vacuum, is knowledge of the wasteland, and how quickly society, in moments of disaster is nothing but a...procession of the dead, damned for nothing but living in the wrong place, at the wrong time, when the natural order is upended.-
-So what does this have to do its me?-
-How should I know? You're the one who showed up. You're the one who feared the wasteland, the one who was shown fear in a handful of dust, and reacted with....-
Sky-anvils thump-thumped in the distance.
-Is there anything else you want to say before I continue?-
Walker O'Brien, failed school teacher, head librarian of the Vigilance Committee, restorer of the State of California, and Consul of the Commonwealth, wrapped his makeshift robe once more around him.
-No. But isn't there something you want to say?-
Dulcimer hadn't thought of any last words, or what he'd say to Walker before he killed him, but he did think the moment deserved its own kind of silence. So he listened, not to the sound of the distant wreckers, but to the sound of a woman's voice he'd not listened to in a long time.
-Are you done, Mr...-
The flash from the pistol's muzzle went through Dulcimer. But before the bullet reached him, he imagined a portrait of a map. Or a piano. Being smashed. When the shots from the gun terminated, the killer of families yelped in pain. It'd hurt to do that.
He listened for a moment. Silence helped him appreciate the view of the end of a city. Just beyond the flames something stirred and caught his eye. Through the windows, he couldn't see the shape in the smoke just right. Time to leave.
The Odysseum had since departed and the wreckers were done with their busy labor. A seat on the grass served as the best place to watch last flickers of light from a brief electric dawn. He imagined: his wife's hands on his shoulders, him leaned back against her, as the stars begin to fall.