Slog started life
as a short story– basically just Part I (below). It was one of my earliest
pieces of short fiction. It ended, by design, with the main characters left
hanging. So, it was fairly easy to continue the tale with one sequel and then
with another and another; almost by accident I had a novel on my hands. To
date, it remains my only full-length novel, though I have managed two
novellas and dozens of short stories. Slog
both gains and suffers, I think, from being an early work. Youthful naïveté is
balanced by youthful exuberance. About a decade ago I made a stab at revising
the novel for a limited publication, but found that I could do little to address its
flaws without damaging the merits, too. Other than updating a few technological
references, I let it stand. (The print version remains available on Amazon and from
me directly, in case this online version stirs your interest in owning one –
which, yes, is one reason I’m posting it.) Very much the same considerations
restrained my reediting for the 2013 version below. So here, for better or
worse, with only minor tweaks to the original, is Slog.
History is a pack of lies. “Bunk” was Henry Ford’s famous
monosyllable. The official version flatters the powerful. The revisionist
version flatters those striving for power. Politics. I should know. I made up
most of the lies myself for both camps in what is now called Morrisbourg. Just
for fun, here I intend to tell the truth – or at least such parts of it that
don’t embarrass me too much. My name is George Custer. No, not that one.
Another one. One of the advantages to these times is that only a few people
know enough really old bunk to make jokes about my name.
Time is creeping up on me. The memories of my youth are much
more vivid to me than what happened last week. My grandfather used to say that,
which is a particularly unsettling vivid memory. It seems only yesterday that I
sat by the edge of the swamp and skipped stones across the black water. Ripples
on the surface flashed red from the rising sun. The temperature had cooled to
90 degrees overnight – or rather 32 on the only scale for which anyone under
age 30 has a feel anymore. A five meter long alligator lay motionless in the
early morning shade on a narrow strip of beach.
The flying insects were enormous by the standards of the old
days. A dragonfly with a one-foot wingspan hovered over an algal mat. After the
climate change, many insects reverted to ancient forms. This strikes me as odd,
since it was always this hot in equatorial regions, and the bugs of last
century remained small in those parts. Somehow the movement of the subtropical
bands north and south triggered the change, possibly by activating dormant
genes. The insects were lucky. All that human genes had to say was that they
world had grown too hot.
The humidity, as usual, was near 80%. The temperature
typically hit 120 at midday. Even the dragonflies seek shade. An eerie quiet
descends. Then a breeze picks up in mid-afternoon, and insect wings resume
Climatologists once enjoyed arguing about the contributing
factors in natural swings in earth’s climate evidenced in the geological
record. They also argued over just how much human activity was warming the
planet. The sun played a mean trick on them. It proved itself to be a variable
star of an atypical type. While the climatologists’ theories may well have had
merit as far as they went, when the sun without warning suddenly began burning
hotter, it overwhelmed all other influences. The effects were devastating.
Unexpectedly, disease initially was the biggest killer. Some diseases were
known, such as Marburg
and Ebola, but they were no less frightening for having names. Others never had
been seen before. It is not known where or how they arose, but some folks
harbor the dark suspicion that they were unleashed biological weapons. If so,
one hopes they were loosed by accident, but it is not beyond possibility that
people of apocalyptic mindset released them intentionally. One must search hard
in the universe to find anything more lethal than a human being with a cause.
Other deaths followed the social breakdown. Global population dropped 7 billion
in a decade. Now there are too few of us to affect the climate if we wanted to.
The diseases eventually burned themselves out as the population became too
sparse to maintain epidemics. It no longer is a death sentence to meet a
stranger. It is just unusual.
A handful of northern governments remained intact throughout
the chaos enough to preserve a tiny fraction of their population and some
semblance of order within a small portion of their territories. Most survivors,
though, were like me: living alone in a wilderness of jungle growth and ruined
cities. My jungle was New Jersey.
I made my home in Morristown,
where the concrete and asphalt put up some modest resistance to the riotous
growth that had engulfed the suburban outskirts. For years I had the place all
to myself. Two months ago the population had risen by three. I was feeling
I turned away from the languid bayou waters and walked up
the narrow path formerly known as Pine
Street. I turned left onto South Street and withdrew my machete to
hack my way through newly grown tendrils. Straight ahead was the old Community
Theater where I had taken up residence. It was a century-old red brick edifice
with white columns and steel doors. Originally a movie theater, it had been
converted for live theater performances in the years prior to the disaster.
Yet, oddly, stacks of movie reels remained in the old projection room. As I
entered the building, Gene Kelly was singing in the rain. The colors on the
deteriorating stock were awful.
I trudged up the stairs for my daily scraping chore on the roof.
The solar cells powered an air conditioner and a few other circuits, but they
required constant maintenance. Fungi and green plants spread rapidly over the
panels. The air conditioner kept the temperature inside the theater under 100.
As I emerged onto the roof, I saw Joelle standing by the edge. She was peering
through the canopy.
Joelle was the first of the new arrivals in Morristown to show up. One
day while I was fishing off the New Jersey Transit bridge over a flooded Morris Street, a
motorized dinghy with a collapsible canvass roof puttered into view. I was
astonished to see a petite young woman in immaculately clean khaki and pith
helmet at the helm. Her pale countenance looked totally out of place. She
spotted me at once and steered for the bridge stairway which rose out of the
waters over Morris Street.
She tied up the boat, clambered up the stairs, and said, “Hi there. Could you
direct me to the local hot spots?”
I sat there gaping until she tried another question. “What’s
your name” she asked.
“Uh, George. Miss, what are you doing here?”
“I’m Joelle. Joelle Perrault, not that you asked. I’m here
because this is where it’s at.”
“Where what is at?” I asked.
“The frontier. The frontier is always where it’s at. Why, am
I not welcome?”
The question diverted me from asking “The frontier of what?”
A frontier presupposes the existence of something on one side of it. As far as
I knew, Morristown
was betwixt nothing and nothing. Nonetheless, I said, “Well. Sure. My bridge is
your bridge. Grab a fishing pole.”
What we did instead was haul her supplies back to my home.
It took four trips. In addition to a cache of arms, which I deemed sensible,
she had brought trunks full of more clothes and scented potions than I thought
altogether necessary. She wouldn’t elaborate further on what was so appealing
about this particular “frontier.” For me, it was home, and always had been, but
if I ever chose to travel I expected to go north. When I pressed her about it,
she simply shrugged. Those shoulders were cute and she deflected many an
inquiry with them in the days that followed.
Joelle revealed little about herself. She said she was
Belgian, and her accent gave the claim support. She said her father had sailed
for North America when she was a little girl,
hoping to find something better. Instead, he had found a shattered and
overgrown world little different than what they had left behind.
“Where is he now?” I asked.
“Gone,” she said, and shrugged again.
Joelle was suitably impressed by my expertise at having made
the theater habitable. There was solar electric power supplying functional
appliances – and, the plumbing worked, though only because I had bypassed the
sewer in a way a Health Department, if one existed, would not have approved.
I dealt with the awkwardness of negotiating sleeping
arrangements that night by avoiding the subject. Though mine was the only bed
and mattress, there were plenty of cushioned surfaces including sofas for her
to select, so I simply told her to make herself at home wherever she chose.
Against my expectation, she chose to slide into bed with me. I didn’t object.
It was clear that she was more experienced than I. I didn’t object to that
either. She couldn’t possibly have been less experienced than I, even though I
was pushing 30. Did I mention that prior to her arrival I was the town’s only
Thoughts of that first night together came back to me as I
stood on the rooftop and watched her delicate form lean over the rail.
“I wouldn’t rely on that rail’s sturdiness,” I said.
“Banana trees,” she said in response.
“I mean they would grow well here.”
“Uh, yes. I suppose they would.”
“Iguanas are in the trees,” she added.
“Yes, I’ve seen them. In fact, I’ve roasted a few over the
Fauna and flora were a favorite topic of hers. She once
carried on for most of an evening about how many catfish were in the local
waters. I hate catfish.
On this morning my thoughts were not on iguanas or catfish
but on the latest arrival in Morristown.
His appearance in town so soon after Joelle’s should have alerted me more than
it did that I was missing something important.
To this day I am deeply suspicious of the name Ulysses S.
Johnston even though the man stuck to its use tenaciously. I encountered him
while examining the condition of the old post office building, located across
from a former park that once was the center of town. The park was called the
Green, which wasn’t ironic when originally named. Joelle had expressed interest
in the building’s habitability. To my
surprise, I saw a barrel-chested man in apparently robust health striding
“Hello sir!” he shouted to me in a booming voice. He wore
mud-stained cotton that was bright white in the clean patches. He carried .45
automatic in a hip holster.
When I reached out my hand and said I was George Custer, he
smiled and exclaimed, “Pleased to meet you, General!”
He paused for a few moments, and then announced himself as
“Ulysses S. Johnston,” thereby instantly outranking my namesake in two armies.
A dark beard truly gave him a somewhat Grantean aspect. So, I later learned,
did a fondness for alcohol.
Ulysses, or whatever his real name might have been, led me
to his boat to meet his companion, a man who, then and later, made a point of
staying in the background. The boat, tied up at Spring Street, was a 24-foot
launch laden with ropes, crates, winches, and two .30 caliber machine guns. At
the stern, a flagpole flew the Jolly Roger. “Excuse my playfulness with the
colors,” he said. I later had cause to doubt that playfulness had anything to
do with it. His companion leaned on one of the machine guns and glared at me as
we approached. “Marcel, this is George Custer,” Ulysses said with a snicker. “I
told him he could call me Ulysses.”
“Hi, Marcel,” I said.
Marcel nodded and grunted in reply, which proved to be his
usual standard of loquacity.
“What kind of engines are on the boat?” I asked.
“Twin sixty horsepower,” Ulysses said. “More power than is
useful in these bayous, of course, but they’re good to have in the open. My
yacht is moored downriver. It’s too big to make it this far up the Passaic and Whippany –
this boat barely could get through. Is that your dinghy by the bridge?”
“Uh, no.” I recounted to him Joelle’s arrival a couple of
weeks earlier, and then instantly regretted doing so.
“Well, well,” he said. “The both of you will have to join us
for dinner. I insist.”
“Why are you here, of all places?” I asked.
“I’m a salvager,” he said. “And this place is as good a
place to salvage as any.”
“What sort of salvage?”
“Anything.” He reached in a pocket and pulled out a handful
of pearl necklaces and sapphire earrings. “As you can see, I’ve already been
‘shopping.’ There are parts of the world where loot like this is still
valuable. In places like this, it was just left behind in abandoned shops.”
“The earrings clash with your eyes,” I said.
“Now you’ve hurt my feelings,” he said with a grin.
When I returned to the theater and told Joelle about the new
visitors, she insisted on frying up catfish and taking the lunch to them. “You
don’t have to go, if you don’t want to,” she said.
“Oh, I’m definitely going with you,” I answered. I
considered swapping my 9mm for a heavier caliber, but decided someone might
make the obvious joke.
When we arrived with the basket, I thought the two men
stared at Joelle rudely, but she didn’t seem to notice. I introduced them and
Ulysses invited us onto the boat.
Ulysses was expansive with Joelle, while scarcely
acknowledging me. He told her of his trips to the ruins of Lisbon
and Cherbourg and her hometown of Brussels. He regaled her
with hunting tales, vividly portraying his slaughter of birds, alligators, and
wild pigs all along the Atlantic coastline. He told of a sea battle with
pirates who were dispatched with machine gun fire. She listened with polite
attention though she never had hesitated to interrupt me whenever my speeches
hinted at self-importance. Then he made an offer to Joelle right in front of
“You can have your own stateroom on the yacht, Joelle. The
ship is outfitted with every luxury. You can see Canada
“Isn’t a yacht a ‘boat’ regardless of its size?” I said.
Ulysses ignored me. I was feeling seriously outmatched. It
was with some astonishment that I heard her answer, “I’m staying.”
“Why?” he guffawed. “Because of the General here?”
It would have been nice if Joelle had said yes to this, but
she just shrugged, and repeated, “I’m staying.”
Ulysses looked thoughtful. He then tossed the remaining
scraps of his catfish overboard. A secondary splash indicated it had received
immediate attention in the waters. “It has been a pleasure. Thank you for the
victuals. I’ll be returning the favor before I leave. I’m sure the General told
you about my invitation.”
To my ears, the most welcome part of those statements was
the indication he would be leaving soon. Another two weeks transpired before
Ulysses’ silent companion delivered RSVP cards to the door. The cards looked as
though they had come from I bridal shop. I tried not to attach significance to
this. The cards invited us to a farewell party at the HeadquartersPlaza.
In many ways the HeadquartersPlaza, part office
building and part hotel, was an advantageous site, and I understood why Ulysses
had chosen it. The upper floors were comfortable furnished and well above the
danger and stench of the jungle. The disadvantage was that it was built on a
sloped lot, and the lower levels, formerly parking garages, were flooded on the
low side facing Spring Street. The waters were home to alligators and poisonous
snakes. This was the reason I had decided against the structure for myself. I
had no wish to encounter some dangerous creature that had found its way into
As I stood on the roof next to Joelle, I reminded her, “The
farewell party starts just after the rains end. I guess he’s going home
tomorrow. Are we going?”
“Of course we’re going. When is the next time we’ll get
invited to a party? The card says he’s serving ‘gator. The tails are excellent
if they’re done right.”
“Did I do it right last week?”
In reply, she shrugged. “You’d better attend to the
photoelectric panels,” she added.
I was not ready to be diverted. “I don’t like him – or trust
him,” I said.
“We should go armed.”
“We always go armed. Because of the wildlife,” she
specified. “You’re not planning something stupid, are you?”
“Who, me?” Lunatic, maybe, I thought to myself, but not
My sense of foreboding was deepened by Joelle’s apparent
equanimity. My namesake is best known for a spectacular loss, but I consoled
myself that most of the time he won. He did it by moving faster than anyone
expected and hitting hard. He knew that much larger forces could be defeated if
they were caught off guard. On his last foray he failed to consider the
possibility that his opponent would be very much on guard. He should have
prepared a retreat for that eventuality – an “exit strategy.” He didn’t. His
record both of victory and defeat is instructive.
The sky grew hazy and a distant thunder grumbled.
Ulysses had not threatened me openly. Yet, I was sure my
life was in danger. Saving required taking the initiative – preparing for a
rapid attack and an even more rapid retreat. He was too cunning to fall to a
simple frontal assault. My only hope was something cockeyed and unexpected.
“I’ll be back before the rains,” I told Joelle. “I’ll get to
the panels later.”
She nodded acknowledgment. It was out of character for her
not to ask where I was going, but she didn’t. Her mind was elsewhere. A more reflective
man than I might have worried where. Or maybe not. Female pulchritude makes
most men thickheaded.
I hoped the supplies I needed would be at the old lumber
yard on Ridgedale Avenue.
Armed with a Remington 700, I left the theater. I commandeered Joelle’s dinghy
to cross the intervening bayou. The chain link fences surrounding the site long
since had collapse. The outside lumber piles were rotted away and grown over,
but some of the metal storage sheds were intact. I found the ropes and tools I
needed quickly enough, but feared that no explosives would be on site. Most
yards didn’t stock them until civilization started its collapse – and, for
whatever reason, they sold out quickly. I was in luck. I pried open the steel
doors of a small shed in back of the main warehouse and found what I wanted:
dynamite, blasting caps, fuses, and detonator boxes. Serendipity struck. An
opossum peeked out of the undergrowth to my right. I dispatched it with my
Remington. I intended it just for tomorrow’s lunch.
I carried as much as I could back to the dinghy, and motored
toward the HeadquartersPlaza. Ulysses’ launch
was nowhere in sight. I guessed he was off exploring some other side channel in
his quest for swag. This was a yet another lucky break. I would have a little
time to set things up without fear of interruption. I was reluctant to head to
the to the top floor where, according to the card, the party would be held; it
was possible, after all, that Ulysses’ silent partner remained behind there.
Besides, it wouldn’t do to blow up Ulysses in a room where I was in attendance.
I would need to use the explosives more as diversions than as a direct
assassination attempt. Besides, it was probably unwise to make such an attempt
on the man and miss.
I grounded the dinghy where the building met the water and
trudged around to the front entrance. The heavy pack, on my back, the long coil
of rope on shoulder, the tools in my pockets, and the opossum tied to my belt
sapped my strength in the relentless heat. The dead animal was extra weight,
but leaving it in the dinghy was likely to attract a large predator. The glass
doors of the main entrance resisted most of my full weight before opening. I
forced them shut again behind me. An oppressive aroma of decay in the building
made me gag. Pink and blue teddy bears stared at me from behind the cracked
glass of a gift shop. At the end of the hall was the entrance to the hotel
portion of the structure. To my surprise, lights shone from inside an open
elevator. Had Ulysses fired up the hotel’s emergency generator and gotten an
elevator working? I entered the carriage and pushed the button for one floor
below the top floor. The doors slid shut. The elevator jerked and groaned, but
it rose. When the doors opened, I exited and took the stairway to the roof.
On the roof were satellite dishes that might be able to
transmit to one of the handful of functioning satellites still in geostationary
orbit. Ulysses might use them to contact his yacht; I wanted the option to
prevent that. The emergency generator was also on the roof inside a makeshift
shed that was not part of the building’s original structure. I guessed it had
been relocated here years ago when rising waters threatened to flood the
basement levels, where one or more generators most likely initially were
located. I planted dynamite under the generator connected to a timer. I didn’t
set the timer since there was no way to predict a “best” time to kill the
power. I hoped I would be able to get to the roof if things went sour. I tied off
my rope to provide an alternate, if scary, escape route from the roof to the
ground. I stored my Remington just inside the rooftop door along with capped
and fused sticks of dynamite. I returned to the elevator and descended to the
lobby. A random thought crossed my mind – it involved a long shot, but I seemed
to have a little time to experiment.
At the lobby level I exited and forced open the door of the
next elevator. I flipped the breaker switch. The power came on. As I’d hoped,
the generator supplied the whole bank of elevators, but Ulysses had activated
only one. I next found a broom in a utility closet, removed the handle, and got
in the second elevator. I climbed through the ceiling hatch of the elevator
carriage, reached down with the handle, and touched the C button. The C level,
I knew, had no more than 10 or 20 centimeters of water. Water began leaking
into the compartment as soon as the carriage stopped at C. I heard something
large sloshing around outside the doors. The doors opened and water washed in.
I dropped the possum along the back wall of the elevator, making a splash. I
hoped that the sloshing I’d heard was an alligator. It wasn’t, but it was just
as good. A monitor lizard, likely an escapee from an abandoned zoo, poked his
head in the doorway. It was a big one, probably a Komodo, measuring close to
four meters from nose to tail tip. Monitors prefer dry land generally, but
something in the garage must have attracted him. Now he had his attention on
the opossum. The creature hesitated and flicked his tongue. Then he lunged at
the bait. I reached down with the broom handle and touched the “close door”
button. It closed on the lizard’s tail and reopened. The creature hissed and
spun around, but this drew his tail into the carriage. The door shut, trapping
him inside. This had the makings of yet another diversion. It was worth the
cost of tomorrow’s lunch.
From atop the carriage I was able to reach the outer door
release to the next garage level up. I exited, found the stairs, and returned
to the lobby. I left the building, feeling I had given myself a few options. Of
course, if Ulysses simply shot me on arrival, none would help. I suspected he
had something else in mind, though I didn’t know what. Curiosity about this was
one factor preventing me from simply sniping him preemptively. Curiosity is
almost as effective as lust at enticing us to make bad decisions.
The sound of outboard motors reverberated in the thick hazy
air. Ulysses was returning. Droplets began fell on my head. The rain had become
a torrent by the time I reached home.
Joelle had started to get ready a full hour before I did.
She finished well afterward. The results were spectacular. She looked
devastating in her summer frock, white boots, perfect grooming, and AR15 rifle.
I immediately suggested blowing off the party, but she smiled and wagged a
I commented that her choice of weapon was odd for someone
who thought guns were only to combat dangerous wildlife. She quoted Emerson,
“Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I think Emerson was wrong about
that, but I chose not to argue. It gave me an excuse to choose an AK47, which
packs a greater punch with a 7.63 round than does the AR15 with a 5.56. I had
found this particular AK when exploring an abandoned house on the other side of
town. As the weapon was fully automatic, the original owner had been in
violation of New Jersey
We left the theater after the rains had finished and reached
the HeadquartersPlaza at 7:30, just as the day shifted
to twilight. The door pushed open easier this time. On the floor, newly painted
red arrows directed us to the hotel lobby. There, the taciturn Marcel waited
for us. He wore khaki and a large holstered sidearm. He had shaved and cleaned
up, but that didn’t help his appearance much. I was relieved to see that the
door to the un-baited elevator stood open. I assumed it was the one the Ulysses
and he would use when they came back to the hotel, simply because I had left it
conveniently at the lobby level for them, but there was no way to have been
entirely sure. Marcel waved us into the carriage. The three of us entered. We
shakily ascended to the tenth floor. I let the two other passengers exit before
me; on the way out I punched the button for the lowest parking level, which I
knew to be completely flooded. I was hoping this would short out the carriage,
leaving only the one with the lizard operational.
Overhead florescent lights in the hallway flickered and
hummed angrily. They created a disturbing pattern of brightness and shadows on
the walls. A Rolling Stones album played in the background. The air smelled of
cigar smoke, incense, and roasted meat. We followed the aroma. At the end of
the hall, Ulysses emerged from a side door wearing a paisley tuxedo. Joelle
“Welcome, Mademoiselle,” he said with a deep bow. He kissed
Joelle’s hand. “You too, Colonel,” he said glancing up at me. I had been
demoted. I was well aware that that “colonel” was my namesake’s final rank.
Joelle curtsied theatrically and brushed past him into the suite. I
acknowledged Ulysses with a hand twitch and followed her, managing not to brush
The party was larger than expected. Two strangers were
inside the room. I guessed they were crewmen from Ulysses’ yacht. They wore
blue denim, sidearms, and solemn arrogance. They had all the charm of
militiamen from some Balkan civil war. They stood in front of a long table
laden with food, drink. On the wall was a homemade banner with “Crazy Horse
Saloon” written in red paint. Ulysses slapped my back as I stared at it.
The suite was large. What we were using as a banquet room
opened up to a separate bedroom with a large king size bed. I walked through it
and peered into the bathroom. It had a marble floor and a whirlpool tub. “The
nightly rate for the suite must be killing you,” I said.
“Not at all,” Ulysses answered. “It’s off-season.” He
exhaled loudly, before continuing, “Gentlemen…and lady…I can’t help noticing
that all of us are armed. Only the U.S. government thought Alcohol,
Tobacco, and Firearms belonged together. This is a social event. I must insist
we put them away. Please. Just for the party’s duration.”
“Away where? Are we supposed to give them to you for
safekeeping?” I asked.
“Why General, I do believe you don’t trust me. I suggest the
closet in back of you. You see it has a lock. You may hold the key.” The
inflection he gave “General” somehow took the re-promotion out of it. Hotel
suites don’t normally have locks on closets, so I presumed he had installed it,
and that he would hold a spare key.
He walked to the closet, held open the door, and nodded to
his minions who without hesitation put their sidearms inside. Ulysses held open
his tux jacket to reveal a pearl handled .45 revolver. He withdrew it and put
it on a closet shelf. The man just had bet his life on civilized behavior from
Joelle and me. Sometimes the man was almost likeable. Still, I was convinced
other weapons were hidden and near at hand.
Joelle shrugged and put her assault rifle in the closet. I
briefly considered delivering a lesson on the evils of gambling, but decided
that multiple murder might negatively affect Joelle’s opinion of me. I added my
AK to the stash in the closet. Ulysses shut the door, locked it with a key, and
handed the key to me. “Now we all can relax more easily,” he said.
I began to worry that this was indeed a social event and not
an ambush. If so, when the time came to leave, the lizard in the elevator might
be a problem.
I hated to admit it, but the party was fun. The last one I
attended was as a child, and the number of attendees at that one was smaller.
The music was loud, the jokes were raw, and the laughter was genuine. A fine
selection of wine and liquors flowed, though I only feigned partaking of them,
instead sticking with tea and canned soda. The soda in the undamaged cans was
still drinkable after all these years but flat. I wanted to keep my wits and
reflexes sharp. Ulysses drank freely, but seemed oddly unaffected by the
alcohol. His men drank more than moderately, but not to insensibility. They
served up roasted alligator in onion sauce from large turkey pans.
Ulysses was his boisterous self. He bragged about his ranch
on the Gold Coast of Greenland. He recounted numerous adventures including
outrunning a Russian gunboat on a chase lasting from Murmansk to Spitzbergen. I chose not to ask
what he had done to annoy the Russians so much. Joelle seemed to enjoy herself.
The yacht sailors took turns dancing with her in the foot stomping style once
popular in biker bars. She sang along in French to Under My Thumb when it blared from the stereo.
Hours passed, the general level of intoxication rose, and
night fell on the world. When the windows turned completely black, Ulysses
turned off the regular lights and switched to black light. The effect was
surreal. Ulysses’ paisley tuxedo lit up in a riot of colors while Joelle’s
white took on an otherworldly glow. From cross the room she herself vanished in
the dark while her dress seems to hover in the air without an occupant, like a
ghostly scene from the movie Topper.
Huge insects fluttering against the outside of the windows also reflected an
There comes a point in every party when there has been one
too many drinks poured, one too many songs sung, and one too many jokes told.
Good parties wrap up when that point is reached. Bad ones continue, often
ending in drunken arguments and brutal hangovers. This one did both. Shortly
after midnight, a drunk but steady Ulysses ejected a CD in the middle of Some Girls. He switched back from black
light to white. The party was over. The crewmen resumed their default setting
of quiet attention, though one had to brace himself against the wall to stop
wavering on his feet.
Joelle and I watched with interest as Ulysses tipped a
table, spilling the raining food onto the floor. From a corner umbrella stand,
he retrieved a large map and unrolled it on the table.
“General, come look at this.”
My rank was holding steady for the moment. I was surprised
he had addressed me instead of Joelle. It was out of character. I walked to the
table, my shoes squishing in alligator marinade. The map was really a
false-color satellite image. The structures preserved the shape of Manhattan, even where the
streets were flooded.
“New York City,”
“Yes, obviously,” he answered while stabbing a finger at Times Square. “What do you think about it?”
“I don’t really think about it. Not often, anyway. It’s too
crowded. I’d guess as many as a few hundred crazies still live there, fighting
over the scraps. Large chunks are flooded. The steel frames are surely rusting.
It’s amazing so many of the buildings and bridges are still standing. It’s a
giant junkyard. Why? What do you think about it?”
“You see the obvious, but not the bigger picture,” he said
“So, show me the bigger picture. And, while you’re at it,
explain why you’re showing me rather than Joelle.”
“That’s why I’m talking to you instead of the charming guest
in white,” he said. “Quebec
is making a land grab. They’re claiming everything from Maine to the old Mexican border. There will
be screams at the UN in Reykjavik
but no one is in any position to interfere. The other remaining national
governments can’t even control their own territories, never mind intervene anywhere
else. A couple hundred Quebecois troops landed in the city earlier today if
they kept their schedule, which I happened to stumble upon.”
“By ‘stumble’ you mean you bribed someone,” I said.
“Bribe? I prefer to think of it as a tip.”
I suddenly got why Ulysses was suspicious of Joelle. “Did
you know anything about this Joelle?”
She shrugged. The gesture was losing its cuteness.
“Can anyone her tell the difference between a Walloons and
Quebec French accent?” I asked the room at large. No one answered. “OK,” I
continued. “This is all very interesting. It’s nice to keep up with current
events. But what difference does it make? There is no USA. New York is still a junkyard regardless of
who claims it. If Quebec
wants that pile of rubble, who cares?”
“Much more of the city is retrievable than you think,” he
said. “Nothing freezes anymore, so new water and sewer lines, where needed can
be run over ground. What you call ‘rubble’ is a vast resource for new
construction. Many of the existing buildings can be made habitable. The city
could hold a population of 10,000 within a decade. I mean productive settlers
and consumers, not the human rats living there now. Then the city can be a
springboard to resettle the South or the interior.”
“Very ambitious,” I said, “but, once again, so what? What
has this to do with me?”
Ulysses sighed in disappointment at my slowness. “Real
estate, General. All cities teeter on the brink of starvation. They need
constant supplies from the countryside – supplies this area can provide. We can
catch enough fish, lizards, and alligators to feed those thousands. We are
sitting on a treasure chest.”
I began to see Joelle’s earlier interest in bananas and
iguanas in a new light. “Let me get this straight,” I said. “You have a yacht and
an estate in Greenland, but you want to be the
proud proprietor of an alligator farm.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of “proprietor of a
is stealing a page from the original Dutch and British colonization of this area. They're
bringing back proprietary colonies in order to spur settlement. You must
understand how the New York
project will stretch their resources to the limits. The have to rely on private
entrepreneurs to develop the hinterland.” He withdrew a folded paper from his
pocket. “All we need is five adult residents to sign this document, to remain
in occupation, and to recognize the sovereignty of Quebec,
and 1000 square kilometers will become the personal property of whichever
signatory delivers the claim to the Land Officer in New York. He or she can sell or lease land,
fishing rights, resource rights…anything.”
“What do the other four signatories get out of it?” I asked.
“In the absence of a contract among themselves – which is
their responsibility to make – they get the good will of the claimant. In this
case, that means my good will. I will not agree to a contract, as you might
have guessed. But don’t worry, George. I’ll cut you in. Your status as a
verifiable born-and-bred resident is particularly useful, but don’t think you
are indispensable. We’ll digitally record the proceedings to prove the
signatures are not frauds. I’ve already recorded enough images of the town and
the route here to prove our presence in the location.”
“There are six of us,” I said.
“Your math is irrefutable.”
“I take it you don’t want Joelle’s signature.”
“The accent worries me,” he said. “I don’t really know her
status or what her relationship might be to the Quebec government or some member of it. I
don’t know if any of that could affect my ownership claims in some way. So why
take a chance?”
Joelle smiled and distractedly fingered a window against
which a hat-sized moth fluttered.
“Sign, George,” he said. Don’t make me go find someone
“My I ask why you didn’t bring a fifth signatory of your
own? That seems unusually sloppy.”
“You may. I did have a fifth. He met with an unhappy
accident: terminal greed.”
One of the sailors smiled.
“What if I should meet with an unhappy accident after
“That would be tragic. Sign the paper, George. I suggest
that your options are limited.”
I looked at his three goons and at the closet door in front
of which they stood. I nodded. Ulysses handed me a fountain pen as Marcel aimed
a camera at us that he had picked up from somewhere. I assumed hidden guns were
just as accessible to him. I signed the top line of the document. I felt like
John Hancock. The three sailors signed in turn, trading off the camera as they
did. Then Ulysses signed the bottom with a flourish.
“Excellent. Now, Colonel…” Ulysses choked off as he looked
Joelle was aiming a .32 automatic at him. I haven’t a clue
to this day where it had been. “Put the camera down,” she ordered, and then
waved the men back. “Pick up the camera, George. The rules don’t limit the
signatories to five, they merely call for at least that many. Record me
signing.” She put her gun in my free hand and walked to the table. I was
ecstatic. She and I were in this together. She signed and slid the document in the
top of a boot, from which it protruded.
“Give me the gun and camera, cher, and open the closet,” she
said, waving the men away from the door. She slipped the camera strap over an
I took out the key and opened the door, but as I reached for
my AK, she said, “No, no. Stand with the others.” The .32 was pointed at me.
With a constriction in my chest, I backed up and stood next
to Ulysses. He favored me with a sour smile.
Joelle, facing us at all times, sidled to the closet. She
slung the AK over one shoulder and the AR over the other. She draped the
sidearm belts over the arm with the camera. The loose .45 temporarily had her
stumped, but she ended up holding it against her body with her arm. There was
something fascinating about the performance.
“I think it would be best if I don’t hear any footsteps
behind me,” said the heavily burdened Joelle as she backed out of the room. “By
the way, General,” she added, addressing Ulysses, not me, “I’m not a spy for Quebec. I’m just an
entrepreneur, like you. After I deliver the claim, I’d be happy to sell you
that alligator farm.”
Ulysses was poised to lunge as Joelle exited the room, but I
tugged on his sleeve to stay put. He looked doubtful but, perhaps out of
curiosity, stood still as minutes passed. The crew, accustomed to following
orders rather than taking initiative, waited for direction. A shriek and a
clatter came from the hallway. We both hustled to the door. The hall was empty
except for sidearm belts, two loose handguns, the AR15, the camera, and the
document, which, I guessed, Joelle had removed from her boot while she waited
for the elevator – one that contained a 12-foot monitor lizard. She must have
dropped everything but the AK when faced with the lizard. This was wise. Any of
the other weapons would have annoyed it. There was no rifle fire, so she was
still running down a side hall, or the creature had caught her.
I ran for the elevators and grabbed the AR and the document.
To my surprise. Ulysses was not behind me. He must have calculated that I would
get to the AR first, and so ducked back into the room. I dove into the
stairway. Rifle fire raked the door as it swung shut behind me. There indeed
had been other weapons hidden in the suite. I ran up to the next landing and
started up the flight toward the roof. The door banged open, but I was out of
sight in this position. Multiple footsteps banged in the logical direction:
down. I reached the roof door, lit fuses on two sticks of dynamite, and placed
them on the top stair. I grabbed my Remington, which so far I hadn’t needed,
and ran to the generator. I set the timer on the generator charges and then the
one on the satellite dishes for two minutes. I heard muted gunfire beneath me,
including the distinctive rattle of an AK47. I tossed the AR off the roof, shouldered
the Remington, dropped the rope over the edge, and rappelled down the outer
wall. On any other occasion, this would have terrified me, but my supply of
terror already was being fully used. Above me I heard satisfying crumps as the
dynamite sticks detonated. Lights went out on the tenth floor, and the windows
The rope ended five meters short of the ground. I lowered
myself as much as I could and dropped to the ground. I landed with a splat on
the muddy bayou bank next to the motor launch. Something large splashed a few
meters away. I clambered onto the boat and looked for the ignition. It was a
keyed ignition, but the key was left in it. This was a careless invitation to
thieves. I turned the key and the engines roared to life. I engaged reverse,
and the boat slid off the bank. I pushed the gear level forward and motored
east. I traveled as fast as I dared in a nighttime lit only by a sliver of
moon. It was nearly two fast: I was almost decapitated by an overhanging branch
I had failed to see in the dark. It brushed my head and removed some hairs.
Well downriver I passed a yacht, presumably Ulysses’, but
decided not to switch vessels on the off chance someone was on board. The fuel
gauges on the boat looked adequate for the full trip.
I considered what to call my colony. Morristown
didn’t sound quite right for a town in Quebec.
Perhaps Morrisbourg would be better, I thought.
The boat entered the UpperBay
as dawn broke. The green lady still held her torch high. Beyond her were the
weatherworn skyscrapers of Manhattan.
Over Battery Park flew the fleur-de-lis.
My pet monitor lizard “Luggage” posed like a statue next to
the Cave Saurum sign atop the white
marble steps. He didn’t stir and his eyes stared fixedly ahead, but I knew he
was aware of me. He preferred the hour before noon when the direct sun bleached
the steps. The length of his chain was open to doubt from the sidewalk, so he
deterred idle visitors.
The tasteful masonry structure was built in 1916 in a
federal revival style, when it was the main post office for Morristown, NJ,
as it would remain for more than a century. It is now both my residence and the
official Governor’s Mansion in the proprietary colony of what has been renamed
Morrisbourg, plus grand Québec. The mansion is a building with substance, and
well-suited to the sweltering climate that descended on the region when the sun
went into overdrive. Oddly, Americans built grander public buildings in their
leaner years than in their later wealthier ones. The last post offices built in
the 21st century were flimsy aluminum and glass boxes.
I’m George Custer – no relation to the 19th
century cavalry officer of the same name. I’m the proprietary Governor of much
of what once was the northern part of New
Jersey. My lands stretch all the way west to the Delaware and south to the South Branch of the Raritan.
After a rough start, the colony is flourishing. The tough
survivors who had natural immunities to the diseases that ravaged North America are emerging from their hideouts in the
hills and forests, and they are settling here where the rule of law has been
reestablished. There are more of them than I ever imagined. The population of
Morrisbourg already numbers nearly 400. Folks are starting farms and opening
At first I resented the loss of my solitude. I had grown
accustomed to being the sole resident of the town of my birth, but the truth is
that it is good to have people around again. Of course, it helps when you’re
rich. I never had experienced wealth before. When you are alone, the word
doesn’t have much meaning. Of course, modern notions of crowding are different
from what they once were. Back before the climate disaster, this little town
was home to some 20,000 people. Today there aren’t 20,000 people in all of the
former New England and Middle
Atlantic States combined.
I reentered the mansion. It still feels strange to me that
I’m really the Governor. It wasn’t something I had planned. My wife Joelle sat
in a lawn chair in the marble entry hall. She had planned to be Governor. It didn’t work out. She wore a two-piece
orange bathing suit. A blue haze hovered over her. She was seldom without such
a cloud anymore. A pink bong with a happy face on it stood on the floor next to
the chair. On the other side of the chair was an open bottle of banana wine.
She exhaled and coughed. It wasn’t hashish today. The sweet odor of opium
drifted my way.
“Good morning, Joelle.”
She squinted at me and answered, “Hey.” She looked away and
shook her head. I got the feeling that I once again had failed to meet her
standards. “I need some more weed and more wine,” she said. “Get them today.
And the photocells on the roof need cleaning. Do it now! The fans are barely
turning. I shouldn’t have to ask you these things. You can be such an ass. I
don’t know why I married you.”
Neither did I. There was no reason she couldn’t have taken
care of those chores herself while I was out collecting the rents. Since
descending into addiction, Joelle had become demanding, self-centered,
unhelpful, and mean. It was a display of weakness that contrasted sharply with
her former confident self-reliance. She hated to be alone these days, but her
alcohol and drug induced rages and general nastiness alienated all her friends
and acquaintances. They alienated me too. This wasn’t the woman I had married.
“Do you have to smoke dope right in the foyer?” I asked.
“What am I supposed to do? Hide away in some boiling hot
room upstairs? I’d like to meet anyone who comes to visit. Not that anyone does
thanks to that damn lizard of yours. I told you to get rid of him.”
“He’s my pet.” I didn’t add that he wasn’t the main reason
no one visited.
I tried to make myself angry enough to break it off with her
for good, but once again failed. We had known good times together. I had to
admit, also, that Joelle’s good looks were holding up well despite the chemical
battering and her general disregard of them. Am I so shallow as to be
influenced by that? It seems so.
“I’ll go fix the photocells,” I said.
“Don’t break any this time! At least Ulysses didn’t trip
over his own feet!”
Joelle was fond of comparing me unfavorably to Ulysses S.
Johnston. He, Joelle, and I once had competed for the possession of
Morrisbourg. Though my last-minute entry into the race was impulsive and
slapdash, I had won. Luck had paid a large part in that. After filing my claim
to Morrisbourg in New York,
I had returned to town with armed guards in order to discourage a coup. Those
guards still serve on the police force. Ulysses had anticipated my show of
force, and left town in Joelle’s dinghy. Stuck in Morrisbourg, Joelle accepted
her loss with apparent good grace, and met me with a smile on my return. We
were married a week later. She didn’t object to a prenuptial agreement. I don’t
mean to seem the cad, but when a woman has pointed a gun at you once, you
hesitate to be worth more to her dead than alive. I wrote a Will leaving
everything to her, but I kept that detail a secret; the Will is locked securely
in a safe.
At first our life together was exciting and rewarding.
Together we administered the colony. Morrisbourg grew rapidly by serving the
food and resource needs of a renascent New York,
recently re-occupied and annexed by Quebec.
English-speakers outnumber the Quebecois, and just call them
“French” even though (or because) that annoys them. The French have done
alright by me. They enforce my status as proprietary governor, after all.
Beyond that, they’ve reintroduced the rule of law, issued a declaration of
individual rights that is passably liberal, and they’ve given the locals the
opportunity to raise our living standards above the level of Tarzan and Jane.
We could have been colonized by worse. The real French are having a much
tougher time of it under the heel of the Swiss. Still, they are a bit arrogant,
and carpetbaggers from Montreal dominate the
business and government in New York.
The locals can’t help feeling resentful sometimes.
Morrisbourg provides New
York with a variety of products including fresh meat
and alligator skins. The key to our colony’s success, however, is three cash crops,
and Joelle deserves the credit for promoting all three. One is hemp, a tough
versatile plant from which we make paper, cloth, rope, and pharmaceuticals –
and, of course, smokable hashish. Poppies are the second. We grow them not for
decoration or for poppyseed bagels but for opium. The French are remarkably
accepting of this, though they do restrict the trade in opium to the new
territories south of the old Canadian border. Perhaps they hope to keep the
southern colonies philosophical, or perhaps they just like collecting the tax.
The third crop is bananas. We do sell just the fruit, but the real money is in
banana wine. Labeled Old Yeller: the Bananas that Bite, this
dreadful brew explicably is a fad throughout Greater Quebec.
The danger of sitting on this three-legged economic stool
soon was evinced in my own home when Joelle herself became a customer. The
change in her was rapid and depressing. Joelle always had been ambitious,
ruthless, and smart. She was as dangerous as a leopard, but I loved her that
way. She scared me, but I loved her. Now she just wanted to stay home and addle
her mind with booze and drugs. I realized full well that her substance abuse
and torpor were related to the misfire of her plan to seize Morrisbourg for
herself. Marriage to the Governor was a poor substitute for being Governor.
After the initial stimulating years of establishing the colony, her
dissatisfaction began to grow. For this reason, I felt partly responsible for
her current state.
I tried to think of a solution short of signing the colony
over to her. I knew Joelle well enough to know this would be hard on the
colonists – and on me. I had vetoed many a harsh measure for which she actively
argued. While scraping fungal growth off the photocells, I thought of a diversion.
This is not the same as a solution, but it is something.
As usual, I was soaked in perspiration when I left the roof
and returned to the foyer. I’ve almost forgotten what it is like to be dry.
“Joelle, why don’t you accompany the next wine shipment to New York?”
“Why don’t you go yourself? And you stink. Take a bath.”
“I can’t. Go to New
York, that is. I’m going to be busy orienting new
settlers and negotiating business contracts with them.”
“Don’t negotiate. Just tell them the way it will be,” she
“Regardless, they’ll keep me busy for a while. It would help
if you met our major distributers and the politicos in New York for a few days. Hobnob. Go to
parties. Personal contact of that sort does help.”
“Parties?” she said.
“Yes. Meet with the Mayor and the Military Commander. Make
the society pages. It’s good for business. It might be fun, too.”
“I’ll need quite a lot of money,” she warned.
“We have money. Take what you need. The next boat leaves on
Friday, though you can take a later one if you want.”
“No, I’ll go Friday. But you owe me, George.”
Joelle apparently liked the big city, because a few days
stretched to a month. New York
is huge. It numbers nearly 6,000 people, and immigrants arrive every day from
the hinterlands and the north. It is one of the world’s great metropolises.
While she was gone, I got up, ate, worked, slept, and played
entirely on my own schedule. It was relaxing and revitalizing. Yet, a part of
me missed her. Perhaps that part was insane, but the fact remains. What can
explain such a reaction? The answer can’t be found in books on library shelves
– at least not on the shelves in Morrisbourg. I know. I’ve looked.
All vacations come to and end, even those that masquerade as
work. One day I walked into my executive office and was startled to see a
familiar face. Joelle had sent no warning of her return. She glanced up at me.
Her eyes had regained their old fire. Something seemed to be missing; it took
me a while to realize the missing element was opium smoke.
I got only as far as “Hey, great to see…” when she cut me
off with a question.
“Where are the distillery accounts?” she asked.
“Under ‘B’ for banana. Why?”
“Because you’ve let the distillers cheat us of our proper
“Well, I’m glad to see you taking an interest again. Welcome
back.” I meant that in more ways than one. “Did you enjoy your extended
excursion?” I queried.
“Yes. Try to enjoy yours, though I can see how you might
“I have no travel plans,” I objected.
“That’s where you’re wrong, cher. Report tomorrow to Captain
Le Clerc on the gunboat LaSalle.
She’s tied up at the Battery. I told the wine
boat to wait for you until 6.”
“It doesn’t need to wait because I’m not going,” I said.
“Yes, you are.”
“How do I put this? No. That’s it: no. I have a colony to
“No,” she responded. “I have a colony to run. This colony
has been placed in Trust to me for the duration of your assignment, which
already has begun.”
I was beginning to recall the less enchanting aspects of
Joelle’s old self. “By whose authority?
Besides,” I argued, “we have a contract and a prenup…”
“Both of which have been suspended for the duration of the
Emergency – by the authority of the Regional Military Commander.”
It was beginning to look as though I was taking a trip.
“What’s all this about? What emergency?”
“Quebec is asserting its
legitimate sovereignty over the whole of North America, exclusive of the
territories substantively and usefully occupied by Canada
and the Republic
of Alaska. In other
words, the whole of the old Lower 48, and everything south of there to Panama,”
“Really? Wow. Well, it’s nice to keep up on current events,
but I don’t see how that is an emergency. There is no one in any of that area
capable of disputing the claim.”
“You are wrong,” she said, “which is getting to be a habit
for you. Before making the announcement, the PM decided she would send a modest
force to occupy Washington,
DC. The place made a good symbol
– taking it was a good way to demonstrate our sway.”
The “our” did not escape my notice. “What’s to occupy? Foggy
Bottom started out as a swamp. The whole District must be under water,” I said.
“No, Capitol Hill is dry, more or less. Troops landed a few
“Months? Why am I hearing about it only now, and only from
you? There hasn’t been a word about it on the radio or in the papers – unless
those references to survey missions count. I thought the whole point was to
make headlines with this symbolic occupation.”
“They would be the wrong headlines,” she answered.
“Are ‘wrong headlines’ the emergency?”
“Yes. The entire expedition is missing. They reported
landing in DC, and then went silent. A relief boat was sent. The second team
reported back that the place was deserted. They made one more report, and then
nothing was heard again from the second boat.”
“Well, maybe some swamp dwellers jumped both expeditions,” I
speculated. “You know how dangerous some of them are. But they can’t amount to
more than a band of armed bandits. The French probably sent too few troops to
Joelle smiled. “You have a habit of referring to your
countrymen in the third person, as though you are not one of us – and we’re not
French. But yes, the PM shares your view. This time we are sending adequate
forces on the La
Salle, and you are going with them.”
“Why me? In what possible way can I help anything? Whose
screwy idea was it to send me?”
“The ‘bandits’ as you call them.”
“Come again?” I asked.
“The bandits asked for you – by name. Remember I said we got
an additional report from the second boat? The report said that a sign nailed
to a pillar by the main entrance of the Capitol announced ‘a state of war now
exists’ – it didn’t say between whom and whom – and further said ‘we demand
Governor George Custer of Morrisbourg’ act as negotiator for a peace accord.’”
“I’m dumbfounded. That is so very strange,” I said.
“Isn’t it? I dare say the Prime Minister is suspicious of
you. She had half a mind to arrest you as a spy. Her better nature prevailed,
and she ordered the Regional Military Commander to employ you as negotiator,
and to take whatever other measures he felt necessary.”
“Thanks for vouching for me.”
“I didn’t say I had.”
“Well, I guess I’m going on a trip to DC.”
Joelle shrugged. The gesture wasn’t as cute as it used to
“Oh, George? One more thing. I’m pregnant. Now hurry or
you’ll miss that boat.”
“I don’t want to discuss it. Don’t worry: the colony is in
good hands while you’re gone. And, if anything should happen to you, under the
terms of your Will the colony will stay in good hands. Don’t trust so much in
safes, George. Now go!”
Harbor water lapped the hull of the warship tied up at the
tip of Manhattan.
The French were not underestimating their enemies this time. The La Salle was a
beautiful diesel-powered coastal patrol vessel painted in blue, white and gray
camouflage. She sported a 120mm main gun and several .50 caliber machine guns.
She likely was the equal of any ship in any of the world’s remaining navies.
Few governments can afford such toys anymore.
The organized military forces of the world consist
overwhelmingly of modest infantry units with automatic rifles. The only hi-tech
to which any have access is old tech. Advanced economies are such an intricate
web of skills and resources, that the ability to produce advanced products –
including high end electronics – effectively collapsed along with global
population. Modern economies, accordingly, are a weird mix of 19th,
20th, and 21st century technologies. Blacksmiths and
horse-drawn wagons exist side by side with scavenged microchips and gas
turbines. No one can manufacture new “smart” missiles, but some of the old ones
still work. The satellites are winking out, but for now enough are functioning
to allow rapid global communication.
I introduced myself to the French marine at the gangplank.
Wordlessly, he grabbed my duffel bag and emptied the contents on top of the sea
wall. He stuffed underwear, soap, socks and a razor back in the bag. The rest,
including books and spare clothes he left at his feet. He tossed the bag back
to me and waved me aboard. I never did learn if he had kept the dumped contents
or kicked them into the water.
I found the bunk room below. One sailor there pointed at the
top bunk of a triple bank. My nose would be almost against the ceiling. I hoped
the trip wouldn’t be too bumpy. I tossed my duffel bag on top and returned to
the deck. The crew studiously ignored me. I found a place to sit in the bow in
front of the main gun. Within the hour, crew untied the moorings. The engines
rumbled and the ship backed away from the dock.
The sleek ship sliced through the calm harbor waters. We
cruised past the statue of liberty. The fumes blended with the sea air to form
a heady smell.
“Mister Custer!” barked a voice behind me. The voice
belonged to the ship captain, a weathered choleric fellow who looked much older
than his 32 years. I got up and walked around the gun to face him. I held out a
hand. He didn’t take it.
“On this ship what I tell you when I tell you to do it. Not
one jot more or less, and without delay. Do you understand?”
He spun on his heel and walked off, visible restraining
himself. I wondered if he, too, thought I had collaborated with the bandits in
I explored the deck, and tried approaching the captain
again, hoping for a more cordial response.
“Excuse me, sir. I’m curious about what’s under the tarp on
the back deck. It’s as big as a medium-size whale.” I added irrelevantly, “You
know, the hemp ropes holding it down probably came from Morrisbourg.”
“I don’t care if you twined them yourself with your own
fingers! Custer!” He spat my name. “I’ll tell you what you need to know when
you need to know it! If you poke your nose where it doesn’t belong I’ll chop it
off! If you try to contact anyone, I’ll throw you overboard! And don’t
fraternize with my crew!”
“Contact? Whom would I contact?”
“That is the question, isn’t it? Did I make myself clear
about your limits?”
With 20 sailors and 40 marines aboard, the ship was crowded.
If any one of them spoke English, aside from the captain and the medical
officer, he didn’t reveal it. The medical officer was the only woman aboard.
While she did exchange the common courtesies with me, I refrained from striking
up a real conversation with her. For one thing, I was sure the captain would
regard that as fraternizing. For another, the French woman already in my life
was trouble enough. I spent time fishing, as did other members of the crew.
Fishing is excellent what with the end of commercial fleets. Porpoises played
in our wake.
When night fell I could see stars! I rarely saw them at
home, because of the plant cover, hazy skies, and frequent rain. I stared at
the sky for hours before finally going below and squeezing into my bunk.
We re-entered poor visibility the next day as we rounded the
tip of the Delmarva Peninsula. The towers of
the suspension sections of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel faded in the haze.
Le Clerc did not slow the vessel on that account. Soon we entered the broad Potomac, much swollen beyond its former banks. We cut
back to a more cautious speed. Sailors took hand soundings to double check
whatever electronic readings were available on the bridge. Others took stations
at their guns.
The ambient heat was more oppressive than in Morrisbourg.
Back home the mist usually burned off by mid-morning, but down here it was
still as dense as a steam bath. We rounded the bend where the Anacostia meets
the Potomac, and the Capitol dome came fuzzily
into view. Jungle growth on the Arlington
side formed a wall of green. Much of DC was flooded. The upper floors of
decaying buildings rose up out of the swamp. The Capitol and the WashingtonMonument stood on two islets.
We maneuvered between structures and puttered over a flooded
We slipped between the Air and SpaceMuseum and the old
Smithsonian castle. Spanish moss draped the castle tower. The former Mall
formed a wide channel. The hull gently touched bottom less than three meters
from dray land.
Despite the brutal humidity, the marines went over the side
with admirable celerity. They splashed to shore and occupied the rear veranda
of the Capitol in minutes. The sailors moored the ship and stretched a walkway
of rope and boards to land. We waited as the marines entered the building. Le
Clerc stood by the gunners on the 120mm. Exploring such a large structure was
no easy task, but after two hours, a sergeant emerged on the verandah and
signaled that the building was secure. There was no sign of the members of the
To marines had been held back from the assault. Le Clerc
dispatched them by rubber raft to the WashingtonMonument.
He was unhappy about sending such a small team but he didn’t want to reduce the
main force further. I didn’t envy the two marines the climb up the stairs of
the 550-foot (168m) tower. Before evening, however, they waved from the top
windows. It was an ideal observation post and sniper position.
As night fell, the main force of marines took up positions
around the Capitol. Le Clerc ordered me below, and posted a guard on me. I
didn’t know whether to be insulted or flattered.
After a fitful night’s sleep, I was awakened by a marine who
spoke in English, “Follow me.”
I needed a shave and even more urgently needed to attend to
some basic biological functions. “Give me a couple minutes,” I said.
The marine would have none of it. “Follow me!” I followed
As we walked through a patch of swamp grass, I saw something
strange: horseshoe tracks. Where could horses be raised around here? And who
would transport them to this island? Where were they now? It was hard to see
the sense of it.
We entered the Capitol through the Diplomatic Entrance on
the ground floor. Our footsteps rang hollow in the dead air of the old stone
corridor. We climbed a two-tiered staircase and passed through a short hallway.
I looked right and saw Benjamin Franklin looking back. This was Statuary Hall,
originally the House Chamber before the new wing was added in the 1850s. We moved
on to the Rotunda. Even with the smell of decay and the spread of fungus, the
space was impressive. On the ceiling was a bizarre painting of George
Washington rising gloriously into the clouds above Roman-clad figures. Winged
Victory held a sword in one hand and her red-white-blue shield in the other.
Mildew had destroyed most of the paintings in the wall niches, but The Declaration of Independence in Congress
and The Surrender of General Burgoyne at
Saratoga were still recognizable.
The marine prodded me. We proceeded to a semi-circular room
with a half-dome overhead. We were in the old Senate Chamber where the Senate
had met until 1859. This was the site of the historic 19th century
debates on freedom and slavery. I don’t believe in ghosts, but, if they do
exist, surely some hang out here. Le Clerc sat at Daniel Webster’s desk. A
balled-up flag lay on top. It was the Stars and Stripes.
“This was flying on the east side,” he said. The east side
of the Capitol is the main entrance, even though it faces away from downtown.
“OK. The bandits are patriots. What’s your point?” I asked.
“The point is reinforced by your use of the word
I sighed loudly. “The USA is gone. I know that, even if
whoever ran up the flag doesn’t. The continent is better off united, even under
“We are not French and ‘under’ is an insulting preposition.”
“Fine. Use whatever proposition you like. I’m not
Le Clerc looked at me with deep skepticism. “A colonial
Governor is not political?”
“This one isn’t – and, besides, my authority is suspended at
“Good. Let’s call things by their proper names, Custer. Your
friends here are not patriots and are not bandits. They are terrorists. They
asked for you specifically to negotiate with us, and they added a demand that
we’ve kept secret, even from your wife. The terrorists demand that we travel
upriver. You are to be present. You will be our representative, which in my
opinion is a case of the terrorists negotiating with themselves. They made no
mention of hostages, but we must assume they have them, which makes their
demands an ultimatum Or do you already know all this?”
“I don’t know anything.”
“You may have fooled the civilians with that lie – including
that poor wife of yours – but you aren’t fooling me! Custer, you and your
buddies are despicable scum. Taking hostages is a coward’s way to negotiate. If
it were up tome, I’d shoot you right here, bring in some serious artillery, and
bombard the riverbanks with HE the whole length upstream. But the PM wants the
hostages back even if it means dealing with trash. So cut the crap and tell me
what you want.”
“I want to go home. Le Clerc, you are way off base on this
one. Honestly, I don’t know these people. I don’t know what they want. I’m
flabbergasted that they knew my name. If I had to guess, I’d say they heard it
on some news broadcast about banana futures.”
Le Clerc shook his head, plainly disbelieving every word.
“So are we taking La Salle
upriver?” I asked.
“Oh you’d love that: take the ship in a channel through
dense jungle where your friends can blow us out of the water at will with
“Well then, what are your plans besides threatening me,
which, I assure you is as useless as it apparently is satisfying?”
Le Clerc reluctantly accepted that I would not speak for the
bandits, even though he refused to accept that I could not. “We are going
upriver,” he said, “but on my terms, not yours. Let me show you that cargo
about which you were so curious earlier.”
On the way back to the ship we passed marines carrying
crates of explosives to the Crypt beneath the Rotunda. “What’s that all about?”
“We are prewiring the Capitol for destruction. If we are
forced to abandon the site to the terrorists again, we are leaving it a pile of
rubble. We can detonate by radio from La
Salle or from the WashingtonMonument. Your people
have nothing to win here.”
Once again he assumed the bandits were my people. I often
have been underestimated, which has worked to my advantage. This was the first
time I had been overestimated so completely. I didn’t see an upside to it.
In a sense, the captain was right not to trust me. He had
done nothing to increase my affection for the French, and the symbols of the
old Republic stirred something in me. I began to wonder if we would be better
off independent. The more I thought about it, though, the less sensible the
idea seemed. The lower 48 were a giant disaster area where the only things more
deadly than the climate, germs, and wildlife were the surviving humans. The
Alaskans still had a government, true enough, but they were in no shape to
intervene down here. What little law, order, and, I had to admit, justice
prevailed were contributed by Quebec.
As we exited the Capitol, I saw La Salle’s secret weapon taking shape. An
airship was inflating. It already hovered above the deck though only about 70%
full. It was nearly as long as La Salle itself. The gondola slung below was open with
no glass. I was impressed. The declining industrial capability of Quebec and the rest of
the world made building new reliable fixed-wing aircraft a problem, but the
manufacture of floating airbags was well within modern competence. It was a
clever approach to reclaiming the sky.
“The gondola has room for four,” said Le Clerc. “She’s
powered by a 25-horse gasoline engine with a three-blade prop. She’s filled
“Isn’t that awfully dangerous,” I asked.
“Helium is in short supply. We can make hydrogen from water
by electrolysis. Besides, hydrogen gives 20% more lift. As for the danger of
fire, I don’t mind placing you at risk. I would regret the loss of a crewman,
though, which is why I’m going with you myself.”
“With me? You mean we’re going up in that thing?”
“Won’t we be a very big target?”
“Oh, I don’t expect your pals will shoot at you,” he said.
“Besides this is a diplomatic mission, is it not? I’m not even bringing weapons
except for this.” He patted his 9mm. “And that’s not for them.” I understood
that it was for possible use against me. “Listen, Custer,” he added. “If any
harm comes to those loyal Quebecois held by your friends, I’ll make you pay.”
“Fly now, pay later.”
Le Clerc explained the basics of airship operation to me.
They were more complex than I had thought. I learned, for example, that within
the outer skin were inner bags called ballonets that served to compensate for
pressure changes. These required constant attention.
A crewman approached us with two glasses and a bottle. It
was Old Yeller, Morrisbourg’s
horrible banana wine. He poured a glass for each of us. To my surprise, Le
Clerc clinked his glass to mine. I understood this to be some expression of
camaraderie at the start of a new mission, which, given his evaluation of me,
was a major concession on his part to sportsmanship on his part. I clinked back
and downed the glass. I hate banana wine. The crewman was unsuccessfully
suppressing a smirk. I guessed he shared my opinion of Old Yeller.
We slowly rose above the sunken city. The engine started
easily and we nosed the craft upriver. Teddy Roosevelt’s statue, standing
ankle-deep in the Potomac, seemed to wave to
us as we passed overhead. Linear breaks in the trees marked old highways. I
identified a long curving one as the Capital beltway. For hours the scenery
barely changed. There was mile after mile thick steamy foliage split by the
river. There was no sign of bandits or of any human occupation.
“What’s the range of this thing?” I asked.
“We could make it to the Mississippi and back if we had to. Do we
“I keep telling you I don’t know.”
“So you say. Regardless, we are not turning back until we do
a full reconnaissance.”
At last a change took place in the scenery below. The hills
became mountains that our blimp barely cleared. We think of Maryland
as a fairly level place, formerly host to horse farms and the well-to-do
suburbs of DC and Baltimore, but the western counties are as rugged as anything
this side of the Mississippi.
At this altitude the heat was less oppressive – almost pleasant. The foliage
changed with the topography. The rainforest gave way to grasslands on the upper
mountain slopes. It looked like pictures of the Kenya highlands in the atlases in
the Morrisbourg Library.
“We’re running out of river, aren’t we?” I asked
Le Clerc grunted and pointed at a rotted billboard below:
“Welcome to West Virginia,
Wild and Wonderful.” I pointed to the next bend in the river. Tied up on the
bank was a line of wooden rafts. If this was the river fleet of a bandit gang,
the gang was a big one. We could here distant shouting.
“Are we setting down?” I asked.
“No, because this is where you want me to set down. I’m
going to look at what you don’t want me to see. There is smoke beyond that
I wasn’t sure we had the altitude to clear the ridge, but we
did, barely. Below us was a plateau covered by farms complete with fences and
plowed fields. There were more shouts and the pops of rifle fire. Le Clerc full
throttled the engine. I could hear bullets striking the fabric of the blimp. We
passed over a white farmhouse close enough to touch the chimney. The farm
looked like a Norman Rockwell painting. A village center of sorts was on our
left. The smoke in the air had the acrid odor characteristic of industry. I
assumed it consisted of blacksmith shops. Nothing more sophisticated seemed
possible. A US
flag flew on a flagpole next to a baseball field.
We were losing altitude from the bullets. We were lucky not
to have exploded. People below had come outside their homes and barns to look
at us. Most were dressed in blue. We reached the far edge of the plateau. Our
continued to drop but the slope was steeper than our rate of descent. Jungle
growth was in the valley ahead.
“Call La Salle, Custer. I’m a little busy here!”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to call La Salle. That might bring
down firepower on these farmers, who probably were guilty of nothing more than
defending their homes against what they viewed as an outside threat. Besides,
there were the French captives to consider, assuming there were any. Calling in
the marines now might endanger them unnecessarily. The request for me as
negotiator was beginning to make sense, too. If they learned somehow by radio
broadcast that I was a Governor of a colony of Quebec, yet not French, they might have
thought I would be more sympathetic to them. They’d be right, too.
I perfunctorily fussed with the radio. “La Salle. Calling La Salle.”
“It will work better if you use the right frequency,” said
“Which one is that?”
“The one it on before you changed it!”
Our descent was now alarmingly swift. As the valley floor
loomed, a collision with the trees looked imminent. I spotted a small lagoon formed by a blockage
in a large stream.
‘Can you make that?” I asked.
“We’ll see.” Le Clerc revved the engine and steered toward the
water. “If we survive the crash, you won’t survive a minute past it!” he
Saying as much out loud probably made Le Clerc feel better,
but it foolishly gave me fair warning. I grabbed his hair and banged his skull
on the steering column. Stunned, he sunk to his knees. This gave me the
opportunity to slip the 9mm out of his holster and throw it overboard into the
jungle. Le Clerc recovered enough to push me back and spin around. He got his
hands on my throat just as we hit the water. Both of us went sprawling. The
gondola submerged under the weight of the deflating fabric. I pulled myself
over the side against the inrushing water and swam to shore without looking
back. I knew too well the kinds of creatures that inhabit waters like this.
Among them, if still alive, was Le Clerc, who no doubt was irritated with me. I
hoped he was. For all of his lethal threats, there was a rough honor to the
man. I almost liked him.
I grabbed tree roots at the lagoon’s edge and pulled myself
out of the water and muck. I plunged into the dense foliage. Any passerby a
meter away would have been hard-pressed to see me. I felt safe. As a poisonous
snake slithered past my ankle, however, I decided that safe was a relative
term. I needed to reach the settlement on the plateau if I planned to survive
for long. I had to make the long climb up the steep mountainside. It would be
best to get to the top before nightfall. There are sharp teeth in the jungle
and I would be easy prey in the dark.
There is no need to recount in detail my painful ascent
through vines and brush in the debilitating heat while having blood sucked out
of me by more types of insects than I knew existed. Once upon a time, some
folks were desperate to save the last scraps of the world’s rainforests. I hope
they’re happy. By nightfall I had made substantial progress but was still in
the forest. I climbed a tree to sit out the dark. I hoped not to be eaten
before morning. Somehow I fell asleep.
I opened my eyelids. Sunlight leaked through the leaves. I
was exhausted, dehydrated, and in pain, but there was nothing to do but
continue up the slope. I dropped to the ground and slogged forward. In only 100
meters I was through the tree line. I had stopped that close to my goal. In
front of me was a three-rail wooden fence and beyond that was grass pasture.
Horses in the pasture grazed peaceably.
The breeze shifted a rank smell even worse than my own
acquired odor wafted my way. To my left on the ground was the carcass the size
of a full-grown pig, though it more closely resembled an oversize rat. I had
heard of capybaras, giant rodents native to Brazil, but never had seen one.
Something had killed it and I suspected I had interrupted its meal. Perhaps it
was now stalking me. The horses in the distance looked suddenly alert, and then
ran off. Now I was sure of it. I was too tired to run. Besides that just might
trigger a chase. I regretted having thrown away Le Clerc’s gun. A peach tree
stood about 15 meters inside the pasture. I climbed the fence and walked deliberately
toward it. I felt eyes on my back the whole way.
Peach trees do not grow tall, but their profusion of
branches makes them easy to climb. This merit quickly proved minor. As I
settled in the upper branches a jaguar walked out of the forest and leapt the
fence at a bound. The big spotted cat soft-pawed the distance to the tree with
the nonchalance of which only cats are capable. She sat at the bottom and
looked up at me.
I’ve never enjoyed, or even understood, killing animals for
sport. It would be a lie, though, to say I felt anything but relief when a
bullet dropped the jaguar. Ulysses S. Johnston clicked the bolt on his Springfield. The reins lay
on his saddle but the horse held steady.
The resemblance to General Grant was now almost laughably
close. Ulysses wore a blue uniform that recalled those of 19th
century cavalry officers, though the tailoring was slapdash and the color too
light. Five stars were on each shoulder, an unusual rank in any age. The
uniform looked like denim and must have been terribly hot. He was accompanied
by two young cavalrymen, also in denim cut to be uniforms. Between them on a
donkey was a bedraggled and tied Le Clerc. One of the men dismounted and offered
his mare to me. I accepted gratefully.
“Welcome to Aurora,”
said Ulysses. You should have walked up Route 50. It’s an easy climb that way.
I don’t know how you missed it.”
I probably hadn’t missed it by more than a few meters. “I
always prefer the scenic route,” I answered.
The soldier whose horse I had taken was leading Le Clerc’s
donkey from the ground. “Are you OK?” I asked Le Clerc.
He merely glared at me.
“He’ll be fine,” said Ulysses. “He led us on such a merry
chase before we caught him that I know his health is good. Sorry about my boys
shooting at you, but you caught them off guard. We were expecting some little
motorboat on the river. When you appeared in the sky they thought it was an
attack. You always were full of surprises, George. An airship! That must have
“All but the last few minutes.”
“‘Oh, the humanity.’ We’re patching the blimp up, or at
least trying to. We don’t know yet if it’s too badly damaged.”
“Is Route 50 really passable? Or is it just less grown-over
than either side?”
“It is passable by horse and buggy as far east as Winchester and as far west as Parkersburg. Clearing the road is central to
our plan to extend territorial control. One day it will you’ll be able to roll
a wheeled carriage on it from the Atlantic to
would have been a small and forgettable village in the old days, but by modern
standards it was a world class city. Its population exceeded Morrisbourg and
was nearly half that of New York.
The appearance was largely bucolic, but, as we so often forget, agrarian scenes
belong to civilization, not to nature. I was charmed by the look of the place.
I was accustomed to regarding human habitation everywhere as an alien presence
amid fierce jungle growth and encroaching water; here the farms, pastures,
houses, and people seemed to belong in the landscape. Clothing fashion, of all
things was the most jarring element. All of the men and many of the women wore
blue ersatz uniforms. The children mostly wore khaki, with many sporting red,
white, and blue armbands sporting bald eagles.
“I seem to have stumbled on the set of F Troop,” I remarked.
“Are you casting me as Captain Parmenter?” Ulysses asked.
“Not if you’re casting me as Wrangler Jane. What is going on
here?” I asked. “And how have you managed it? I’m guessing there are a few
thousand people up here. That’s a lot, but it’s not enough to support industry
above the craft level. Just making all these uniforms must tax all your
“We don’t need to manufacture everything. There are plenty
of malls and warehouses to be scavenged if you know where to look. Our scouts
found a warehouse full of denim clothes only a few miles away, for example. It
takes little tailoring to turn them into uniforms. But don’t underestimate our
capacity for self-reliance. A people can achieve anything with national focus.”
“Is national focus what you have?” I asked skeptically.
“Yes. At bottom it is all we have. You need to understand
what these people have experienced. After the world changed, this little
community against all odds hung on. But when I arrived, everything was on the
verge of collapse. This little patch of the good life had attracted human
wolves. Gangs of them robbed, raped, and burned. The jungle was safer. Aurora would have been a
ghost town within a year.”
“So you moved in with a tougher gang. That’s called forming
a government, isn’t it?” I said.
“Is that a joke?”
“Are you an anarchist, my boy? I didn’t think you were so
“I’m not. I’m sad about that too. So, are you the man on
“They call me Chief, which I tolerate,” said Ulysses.
“Yes, I imagine you would. Are you still using the name
‘Ulysses S. Johnston.’?”
“Yes again, thanks to you. You are important to us, and so,
therefore, is our history together. History records that name.”
“What is your real name?”
“Whatever I say it is. Right now, it’s ‘Chief.’”
“The title suddenly sounds a little less spontaneous on the
part of the Aurorans. I don’t suppose you allow them a civil government,” I
“Now is not the time for liberal democratic tripe! That is
what destroyed America
in the first place. If there had been a real national government with true
leadership in place when the climate crisis hit instead of a squabbling
electioneering pack of puerile panderers, the country would have held together.
I admire the way you run your colony like a medieval barony, by the way. Do you
offer the residents of Morrisbourg a representative government?” To my silence,
he responded, “I thought not.”
“So this is a military government?”
“Precisely. We are at war, after all. I’m aware that people
have political instincts, George, but instead of trying to suppress them or to
let them run riot, we channel them. Anyone can join the National American
Party, which is the only legal political organization, and which serves the
interest of the state. We can achieve anything with focus.”
“By ‘the state’ you mean these few thousand mountaineers.
And you are focusing the Aurorans by picking a fight with Quebec,” I said.
“The French picked the fight! They invaded!”
“Their invasion didn’t bother you when you thought you could
get them to give you title to Morrisbourg.”
Ulysses laughed. “You have firm grasp of the obvious,
George. Don’t be offended. Few people have it. I’m glad you don’t buy into
ideology, really. We are more alike than you think. I enjoy your honesty with
me, but I must warn you not to talk like this in public. If you do, I might
have to shoot you as a subversive. So keep your candor just between us.”
“What about these two?” I referred to the accompanying
soldiers. “They hear you talking. Will you shoot them?” The man leading the
donkey smiled at the question.
“No, of course not, George. These two are my closest guards,
and I rely on their greed for their loyalty, not on their belief in any –ism.
They can’t be disillusioned because they have no illusions. They simply know
their best bet is to stick with me. It’s your best bet, too, George. I’ll have
a uniform delivered to you.”
“Have I been drafted?”
“Yes. You and the French captain here are guests of honor at
tonight’s rally. I want you both in uniform.”
“You said I was important to you,” I said. “Why? I had a
theory, but I see it was wrong.”
“You are important, but not indispensable. Don’t think for a
minute we can’t do without you. But it was fun scaring the French into thinking
a rebellion was stirring, and that the Governor of Morrisbourg was part of the
conspiracy. If they shot you, you would have been an American martyr. If they
sent you here to negotiate, I knew they would do it by committing their best
forces to a very vulnerable position. And if you turned-coat, as I urge you to
do, you provide a high-profile inspiration to others to do the same. However
the French responded, the results would favor us.”
“Well, that’s quite a Machiavellian plot,” I said.
“I can’t take credit for it. The plan was Joelle’s.”
The news of Joelle’s betrayal caused my stomach to clench.
Why was a part of me proud of her?
“She just wanted Morrisbourg for herself, so she got you to
set me up,” I said. “She doesn’t care about any of this.” I indicated Aurora with a hand sweep.
“I know that, George, but it worked to our benefit anyway.”
“She’ll betray you, too, the moment it is in her interest.”
“But it’s not in her interest. If she stays quiet and the
French win, she’ll be the heroine who saved Morrisbourg from a traitor – that
would be you. If we win, she’ll be the heroine of the revolution. She is
utterly predictable, and therefore safe. I’m much less sure of you.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’m not ambitious.”
“Untrue, George. You’re not diligent – you like the easy
path – but you are ambitious. You’ve proved it. Ultimately, you are more
ambitious than Joelle. Don’t you know that? She wants to be the big fish, but
she doesn’t care if it’s a small pond. You want to be a whale in the ocean,
even if you’re not the biggest whale.”
I was having trouble keeping up with the metaphors. “What is
it you want of me Ulysses?”
“I want you to be my second in command. Colonel is just a
temporary rank until I’m more certain about you. My plan is to promote you to
four-star general in short order.”
“Second… four stars? Are you kidding? No…I can see you’re
My astonishment evaporated when another question crossed my
mind. “When exactly did you talk to Joelle?”
“I wondered when you would ask. I met her in New York two months ago.
There are no security fences around the city, you know. I sailed into harbor on
a fishing boat with a few of my boys dressed in civvies – we were doing a bit
of recon. I read in the society pages of the paper that Joelle would be at an
event at the Waldorf, so I arranged to bump into her. She was surprisingly
happy to see me.”
I had another question about the nature of the bump, but
decided I didn’t want to know the answer. Instead I asked, “What about the
French from the first two expeditions to DC? Are they alright?”
“Some of them. You’ll see them tonight at the rally.”
The “some” suggested there had been casualties. That was
unfortunate, but unsurprising.
“Is the rally for this National American Party of yours?”
“It is,” he answered. “It’s now your party too.”
“You might want to consider changing the name.”
“Do you really want to be known as Nappies?”
He glared at me with his intense brown eyes.
We approached a two-story home with a front porch that wrapped
around one side. Four uniformed young people sat on the porch; they had eagle
armbands on their left arms. They snapped to attention and saluted when they
saw us. Ulysses knew one of the four by name.
“Yes, Ch…Chief…sir,” she stammered.
“Show Colonel Custer a room upstairs. You are his attendant
until further notice.”
“What about Le Clerc?” I asked.
“He is a prisoner of war. He’ll be quartered elsewhere.
Until later, Colonel,” said Ulysses.
I dismounted, and responded, “Until later.” Ulysses sat
motionless as though he expected more. I caught the hint and saluted. He tapped
his horse with his heels. The guards and Le Clerc followed.
I climbed the stairs of the farmhouse porch. The young woman
“Please don’t do that, miss. Not around the house, anyway.
Let’s keep it informal.”
“Yes, Colonel.” She opened the door for me. “Your room will
be the one up the stairs, first door on the right.”
The interior of the house smelled of firewood. It was a
pleasant odor. Weston followed me up the stairs. Directly ahead was the open
door of a bathroom. I peeked inside. It contained an old fashioned claw tub
with a shower attachment.
“Is the shower functional?” I asked.
The thought was delicious. “If you bring me a razor I’ll
love you forever.”
“Please bring me a razor.”
The shower was refreshing beyond description. The “cold”
water in fact was lukewarm, but it was still more wonderful than any shower I’d
had in years. Weston walked in while I stood beneath the showerhead. She placed
a razor and a toothbrush on the sink and turned to face me.
“Will there be anything else, sir?”
“No, miss,” I said with embarrassment,
“Corporal, sir.” She turned slightly to show the stripes on
her right arm.
“Very well. No, Corporal. I’ll be taking a nap, so go back
to doing whatever you were doing.”
“Yes sir.” She picked up my clothes from the floor and left
the bathroom with them.
I toweled off and peeked out the door. The hallway was
empty. I scooted to the assigned bedroom. The bed was an old four poster with a
thick featherbed mattress. I tentatively lay down atop it and was asleep in
seconds. I remember nothing about the next several hours. When I awoke there
were folded clothes on the bed next to me that bore a passing resemblance to a
19th century colonel’s uniform. There also were undergarments. Boots
were on the floor by the bed.
I got up and donned the uniform, which wasn’t a bad fit. I
don’t know who had guessed my size.
The boots were a bit snug, but not uncomfortable. I looked
at myself in a mirror mounted on the back of the door to the hall. I felt quite
soldierly. It’s amazing how much a uniform can affect your whole worldview. I
opened the door. Weston was standing outside.
“Excuse me, miss…I mean Corporal. Could you come in here for
a few minutes?”
“Is something wrong, sir?”
“No, just talk with me a moment.” I stepped back and sat on
the bed. Weston entered and faced me. She was pretty in tomboy way with
short-cropped brown hair and bright blue eyes. She couldn’t have been more than
“I just arrived this morning.” I said.
“Yes, I know sir.”
“What I mean is that I haven’t yet caught up with the
situation here. I need to ask you some very basic questions. They may seem
dunderheaded to you, but perhaps you expect that from an officer.”
She didn’t smile, but said, “I’m here to help, sir.”
“Assume that I know nothing, which isn’t far off from the
truth. What’s with the armband, for instance? I see not everyone wears it. Just
how militarized is this place? How did it get this way? I‘m completely lost,
even though Ulysses says he plans to bump me up to second-in-command.”
“The Chief told you that?” She was so impressed that she
missed the “sir.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t repeat that, Corporal.”
“Yes sir. The armband signifies the Eagle Guard. We aren’t
regular army but we fight alongside it. We’re the armed wing of the party, so
we’re more committed. We act as the Chief’s personal guards and as a police
“Sounds like Blackshirts.”
“Never mind. How did all this start?”
“You have to realize what this area was like before the
Chief rescued us. Gangs of thugs from the outside somehow found out about our
settlement. They attacked and robbed us. Vigilante groups fought back, but then
they acted as bad as the thugs. My parents weren’t killed by outsiders but by
vigilante neighbors when a boy I’d snubbed accused them of collaborating with
an outside gang. I don’t want to tell you what they did to me.”
“The boy deserved to be shot.”
“I’m pleased to her you say so, sir. Anyway, when Ulysses
and his men came into town, they packed the firepower to suppress all that. It
wasn’t just the use of force – there had been plenty of that before. It was
what he had to say. He inspired us to get our house in order so we can face our
real enemies instead of fighting with each other. If there were scores to be
settled, he settled them. That boy I told you about? The Chief handed me a gun
and told me the boy’s fate was in my hands, whether I chose clemency or death the
matter would end there.”
“What did you do?”
“I shot him. I’d die for the Chief, sir.”
I held back from saying she very well might.
“The rally is in a few hours,” she added. “I’m to escort
The rally was held in an open field just after twilight. The
stars were bright and a warm breeze blew gently. A rustic wooden stage was lit
dramatically by four well-placed bonfires. A loudspeaker system was wired to
car batteries. Perhaps 3000 people were gathered in the field, most of them in
uniform. I’d never seen so many people in one place.
Ulysses walked on stage to a drum roll. Applause and shouts
came from the crowd. He waved to me to step forward. I walked on stage and
stood on his right where he had indicated. Two guards escorted Le Clerc, hands
still tied, onstage and held him up on Ulysses’ left. There were boos from the
crowd. Ulysses held up his hand for quiet.
“We have with us today,” he began, “Captain Le Clerc of the
French naval vessel La
Salle. His plans to destroy us have been defeated.” A roar of
approval washed over the stage. “Also with us is George Custer, the legitimate
Governor of New Jersey, now in exile. By his order, New
Jersey is hereby returned to the Union.”
There were more shouts. “The days of the French invaders in the United States
are numbered. I have appointed Colonel Custer Commissioner of the RecoveredTerritories.” This was news to me. “Care
to say a few words, Colonel?”
I leaned into the microphone and uttered something
ambiguous. “I’m deeply impressed by what you have accomplished here. I hope not
just to match but to exceed your expectations of me.”
Restrained applause came from the men and women in blue.
Ulysses smiled at me and nodded toward the back. I took the hint and withdrew
from the stage. The guards led Le Clerc backstage as well.
“Here in Aurora
we know what it is like to have our freedom wrested from us by hoodlums,”
declared Ulysses in a commanding voice. “We know what it cost to win it back.
Now we face a threat from the largest outlaw gang of all: Quebec. We have paid too high a price and
struggled too much to allow our way of life to be destroyed by these new
invaders. We will roll back the French all the way to the St. Lawrence River
and restore America
to the American people!”
There were more cheers, but they seemed to me to be less
than universal. This is not just a patriotic crusade, though it is that, too.
It is a war for culture. It is a war for the future of mankind. The French are
effete. They are dangerous to us. French art is merely decadence. Books such as
this deserve on the bonfire!” He held up a copy of 120 Days of Sodom
by the Marquis de Sade and tossed it into the flames. “We will prevail against
this corruption, and one day will link up with our Alaskan brothers in the
This echo of my former thoughts put a knot in my stomach.
“This is no time for internal division. Our fingers must
unite to form a fist. The French have taken our lands, corrupted our culture
and oppressed our people. In the occupied territory they have destroyed American
lives with a vicious trade in opium that they ban north of the Maine border. It is part
of a thinly disguised plan of genocide for our people. We fight or we die.
There is no other course.
“We live in the proud state of West Virginia which never failed to fly the
star-spangled banner even in the dark days of the Civil War. We will not fail
now. The greatest threat to our success is not the French army. I have every
confidence in our brave men and women on the field of combat. The danger is
subversion from within. Only Americans can defeat America. The Eagle Guard is our
first line of defense against internal weakness. Give them your full
cooperation and support. The Guardsmen are our best and brightest, facing
enemies abroad and protecting our rights at home as political soldiers of the
National American Party. The time is past when we can show mercy to our enemies
or to traitors. Two of our enemies are with us tonight. Bring the spies
Two grim prisoners were led on stage by boyish-faced Eagle
Guardsmen. They were the first survivors of the earlier Quebecois expeditions I
“The rules of war are clear,” said Ulysses. “Enemy
combatants out of uniform are spies, and are not entitled to the privileges of
Prisoners of War. Their lot is summary execution.”
One of the Guardsmen withdrew a revolver and unceremoniously
shot each prisoner in the head. I was stunned. Le Clerc tried to rise to his
feet but was shoved back down with a rifle butt. He glared at me with deep
hatred. As the bodies were pulled from the stage, Ulysses waved forward a
beautiful red-haired young woman wearing the armband.
“Please join in the singing of the national anthem,”
In a sweet voice, the redhead began to sing, “Oh say can you
see…” The crowd joined in slowly, but by “the rockets red glare” was
Ulysses withdrew from the stage, conceding the microphone to
other speakers, each of whom hated the enemy more than the one before. As one
began a denunciation of French cooking, Ulysses sat down next to me on a wooden
“What was the purpose of those murders?” I spluttered. “They
were just a couple of field biologists from Montreal. You say you’re worried about
loyalty, but that atrocity surely shook the loyalty of most of the crowd. Can’t
you see how shocked they were? Fear is the only reason they didn’t revolt right
then and there.”
“Custer, I’m disappointed in you. Can’t you see that by
failing to object to the ‘atrocity’ they became participants in it? They’ll
justify it to themselves as being ‘for the greater good’ just to protect their
own self-images. I locked in their loyalty, not undermined it. And don’t
underestimate the power of fear. Besides, the French really were in civilian
clothes, and therefore were spies, you know.”
“Legalistic nonsense,” I said. “I arrived in civilian
“Then you may profit by their example. But enough of this.
How did you like my speech?”
“Irrational. Quebec is not France, as Le Clerc reminds me repeatedly, and
the citizens of Quebec
are not French. They did not invade North America.
Their ancestors were probably here before ours. You said they are effete and
dangerous. They cannot be both. The Marquis de Sade is a giant irrelevancy who
has nothing to do with Quebec,
regardless of what you think of his philosophy. The legacy of the USA has nothing
to do with anything you said. On the contrary, the valuable part of it is the
whole notion of limited government – the idea the legitimate function of
government is to protect individual rights. Quebec incorporates more of that heritage
than you and your fascists do.”
“Custer, Custer, you are letting your emotions run away with
you. That’s for the sheep out there, not for us. I wasn’t asking you if the
speech made logical sense and I didn’t ask you to recite the Declaration of Independence. I was
asking you whether you thought it was effective propaganda. When you are
talking to the masses you are talking to a dumb brute. Anything more nuanced
than ‘Our Side Good, Their Side Bad’ confuses them. Sense be damned.”
“You don’t believe a word of what you were saying, do you?”
“I’m not an idiot, George.”
“Then your speech was effective propaganda.”
“See? At heart you are a blackguard like me, and can see the
truth of things. But you have to stop these moralistic outbursts to which
you’re so prone. They are childish. Morals are whatever the ruling elite says
they are. If you plan to be part of the new elite, you have to abandon those
foolish ‘ethics’ that were invented to keep in power an elite now long dead.
So, George, are you going to join us ‘fascists’ and help me write our own
rules, or would you prefer to join the company of those Frenchmen?”
“Okay, I’m in,” I said. “I can’t affect much if I’m dead,
can I? Maybe I can moderate this whole
enterprise from the inside.”
Ulysses laughed. “No weasel of a Congressman could have
rationalized better. Things are going to move very fast, George. In two days we
retake the Capitol. Than we sail La Salle
into New YorkHarbor pretty as you please and take the
city. Defenses there are almost nonexistent. I worked up an occupation plan
when I was in New York.
I don’t expect much trouble from the locals.”
I paraphrased Benjamin Franklin. “A third will support you,
a third will oppose, and a third won’t give a damn.”
“There, you can be Machiavellian when you try,” he said.”
“There is a flaw in your plan, ‘Chief,’” interjected Le
Clerc. It occurred to me then that Ulysses’ willingness to discuss his plans in
front of him did not bode well for the man.
“And what is that, my dear Captain?”
“My sailors and marines. Not one of your barges will get
within a kilometer of La
Salle. Do you know what a 120mm can do?”
“Yes, I do, but I don’t think we need worry about it. Are
you an oenophile, Captain?”
“What on earth does that have to do with anything?”
“I’ve explained to George about our scavenging expeditions.
On one of them in Clarksburg
we found case after case of chardonnay. Your marines surely have found the
cases by now. They are in the Capitol basement.”
“What have you done to the wine?!”
“Yes, that would offend a Frenchman. Did you know that one
of the nasty new bugs of the modern world can live in wine with alcohol content
less than 15%? Mortality is 80% and the survivors won’t be in much condition to
fight. How many of your crew are teetotalers, do you think?”
“If there’s only one, that’s enough! You’ll never take my
“Oh of course we will. But, if by some chance we do not,
we’ll send her to the bottom. That would be a shame, but we can do without her
if we must. We have alternate transport. You see there are underwater charges
set all around the Capitol. We can blow a hole in La Salle’s hull whenever we
wish. Thanks, for the airship, too, Le Clerc. You’ll be happy to know we
repaired the hull and refilled her with hydrogen. What is the lift capacity? We
haven’t yet run tests.”
“Two passengers barely,” said Le Clerc.
“Three easily,” I corrected.
“When you are up against the wall, I’ll be on the firing
squad,” Le Clerc snarled at me.
Ulysses laughed. “So what shall we do with the Frenchman?”
“Take him with us. He’s a negotiating chip with any French
“There is a small bit of sense to that thought, though I
suspect you just lack the stomach to shoot him. You don’t mind if I keep him
tied, do you? Also, I’d prefer you not to have a firearm for now.”
“I rather expected both conditions,” I said.
Back at the farmhouse, I tried to rest some more, but tossed
fitfully instead, I have no love for the French, but hated helping to replace
them with Ulysses’ fascist regime. There was a tap at the door.
“Yes? Come in.”
My attendant peeked in. “Sorry to bother you, sir, but I
could hear you were awake. May I have a word?”
“Yes, Corporal. What’s on your mind?”
“You are Governor of New Jersey.”
she corrected, “and the Chief plans to give you the whole Northeast to
“That’s what he says,” I said.
“You’ll be needing an assistant you can trust – one who also
has the confidence of the Chief.”
Weston, I realized was making a career move. “You’re at the
top of my list, Corporal Weston.”
“Thank you, sir. I know you won’t regret your choice. Is
there anything I can do for you before morning?” she asked.
It took me a moment to be sure the offer meant what I
thought it did. “No, Corporal… What’s your first name?”
“No, Abigail. Perhaps we can resume this discussion when
we’re up North, though.”
“I think I can sleep now. Wake me up in time for the war,
“Yes, sir.” She left, seeming quite pleased with herself.
My affection for my homicidal wife had deterred me from
accepting the young lady’s offer, yet I regretted turning her down, too. These
thoughts drove politics out of my head long enough for me to fall asleep.
I was awakened before daybreak. I road on horseback down Route
50, which really did pass by the lagoon where the repaired and inflated airship
awaited. Ulysses and Le Clerc already were aboard. The barges, I was told, had
set out much earlier in order to arrive in DC at dawn. I felt it was reckless
of Johnston to
put himself inside such a big target, but the man had much of the boy in him.
He wanted to fly in an airship.
We dropped our mooring ropes and lifted into the sky at the
sun brightened the horizon. We began the leisurely trip downriver. As we passed
over Chain Bridge we could see the tops of the Capitol and WashingtonMonument.
The sun rose red. As we passed over Georgetown,
I thought to warn Ulysses of the snipers in the WashingtonMonument,
but was startled into silence by what was missing. The La Salle was gone.
Le Clerc, sitting on the floor, smiled. “Did I neglect to
mention that the crew has standing orders to withdraw if the ship seems
seriously in danger?” he said. “If they started falling sick, that would have
been reason enough.”
“Well, that is a setback,” said Ulysses. “It’s not fatal,
however. The ship would have been useful to us, but I have agents in New York. They will sink
her when she gets back, so the ship won’t pose a risk to us when we attack.
Before you tell me they won’t succeed, the mines already are in place below her
usual berth and several alternates.”
“Why are you telling me this?” asked Le Clerc.
“Because you no longer have any value as a negotiating chip.”
Barges full of troops were below us on the Potomac.
The lead ones grounded on Capitol Hill. Troops jumped off and rushed to occupy
I’m not political, but there are times when you have to make
a choice. This was the last opportunity to put a stop to Ulysses and his
Blueshirts. Damn it all, I had to back the stinking arrogant, miserable,
nose-in-the-air French, may they all choke on their nasalized vowels!
On the theory that one should stick with a winning strategy,
I grabbed Ulysses by the hair and rammed his head on the steering wheel. Johnston must have had a
harder head than Le Clerc. He pushed back on me and spun around, handgun
already drawn. He surely would have shot me had not Le Clerc kicked him with
both feet. Ulysses stumbled against the side rail. I grabbed his feet and
pulled up. He tumbled over the side. The gun discharged as he fell. The bullet
struck the fabric of the blimp. This time we were no so lucky with the
hydrogen. A ball of fire erupted above us. I since have learned that hydrogen
burns up and away, which explains the many survivors of the famous Hindenburg crash, but at the time I
expected rapid incineration. As we fell from the sky with the flames above us,
I managed to untie Le Clerc’s hands just before we hit the water.
“Déjà vu,” I said.
“About time you started speaking your country’s language.”
We both went over the side and dove beneath the water before
the flaming fabric enveloped us. Don’t try swimming booted and in uniform. It
is harder than you might think. I swam to the hillock with the WashingtonMonument. Eventually my hands touched
mud and I dragged myself ashore. The rank smell of riverbank mud was
Two powerful hands wrapped around my neck and a knee planted
heavily in the small of my back. The world began to go black before the hands
and weight lifted. Le Clerc had pulled Ulysses off of me. The two wrestled on
the ground. I hoped Le Clerc could end for himself, because there was no time
to waste. Bluecoats already were paddling this way. I ran toward the Monument
There are 897 steps in the WashingtonMonument.
I had cleared fewer than 100 when a voice boomed out below me. “One of us dies
today, Custer!” I suspected Ulysses was right.
My footsteps and his echoed loudly inside the masonry
obelisk. I could see nothing in the dark interior, but it sounded as though he
was gaining. My lungs were raw and painful, and no amount of panting was enough
to catch my breath. My feet resisted every aching step. Before long I was
crawling. My breath rasped worse with each breath. 897 does not sound like an
overwhelming number, but I felt I had spent a lifetime on those stairs. At long
last my hands pushed open a door and light washed over me, but my vision was
clouded from lack of oxygen. I heard a loud wheezing behind me.
As I’d hoped, a transmitter was still in place below the
observation port facing the Capitol. I made one final lunged toward it. My
vision was still blurred, so I fumbled desperately for a switch or button.
Almost by accident, my hand depressed a plunger.
Even with my blurred vision, I could see the Capitol dome
rise noticeably. Then its 9,000,000 pounds of iron crashed down into rubble. A
deafening roar from the explosion hit the Monument. Other explosions ripped
through the House and Senate wings. The marines must have set charges there as
The wheezing behind me turned to coughing. I turned and my
vision cleared. A mud-covered Ulysses lay on the floor on his back a meter from
me. His face was as red as any I had ever seen. Saliva drooled from his mouth
and he clasped his left arm with his right.
“The whole continent could have been yours one day, you
total fool!” he coughed.
“Does this mean I’m no longer Commissioner for the RecoveredTerritories?”
“I’m going to get you Custer!”
“It doesn’t seem likely.”
“Then my troops will.”
“Well, you may have point there. But not before I put an end
“I so overestimated you. You’re just a sheep after all. And
you’re ending nothing, least of all me. You don’t have the guts to kill me, you
I considered this. “You’re right. And you know what? I’m
proud of it.”
I walked to the exit and descended the stairs, leaving
Ulysses sprawled on the observation deck. My lungs hurt badly and my legs felt
rubbery. Two hundred steps or so later and explosion shook the tower. Masonry
blocks missed me by centimeters and light streamed in from above. A 120mm round
had torn off the top of the structure. The La Salle was back.
I quickened my descent. The sound of cannon and machine gun
fire bespoke of serious damage being done to the West
Virginians. I felt sick.
The next day I stood next to a badly battered but alive Le
Clerc on La Salle’s foredeck as we
motored out of the Chesapeake Bay. It turned
out that we owed our survival to the age-old dispute between marines and
sailors. The marines hadn’t shared the wine.
Le Clerc said, “I’m still trying to decide whether to shoot
you or give you a medal.”
“Neither. I’m no hero and I’m not political.”
“Right. The nest in Aurora
should be rooted out.”
“No, they’ve suffered losses enough. Besides, fascist states
are personality cults and the personality is gone. They’re not barbarians, just
mountain farmers who went on a binge. They’ll go back to fighting among
“I suppose you oppose our reoccupation of DC too,” he said.
“There isn’t much left to occupy. But a trading post
somewhere on the river wouldn’t be a bad idea, and might help promote peace –
especially if it’s someplace with a different symbolism than DC.”
“Le Clerc, that was almost a joke. By the way, what’s your
“Oh, sorry. I’ll just stick with ‘Le Clerc.’”
Thanks to Le Clerc’s support, the Morrisbourg colony was
returned to me upon our return to New
York. I’m transferring fee simple titles to my
tenants at reasonable prices however, and am preparing an end to Morrisbourg’s
status as a proprietary colony. We’ll be holding elections for a representative
council and governor. I’ve grown wary of one-man rule even when I’m the one
Joelle accepted defeat of her schemes with equanimity. When
I returned home, my monitor lizard was nowhere to be found and Joelle had a new
reptile-skin vest. I didn’t ask. I could have put her in prison had I revealed
the extent of her collaboration with Ulysses, but I saw little advantage to
that, so I didn’t.
Several months after my return, Joelle simply disappeared.
She left behind the cherry blossom I had retrieved for her from a case in an
unflooded floor of the Smithsonian. She also left our newborn son. Fond as I am
of the boy, I wonder about his fierce brown eyes. Mine are hazel. I can’t help
but picture his face with a full black beard.