Sunday, July 14, 2013

Slog: (or Not Another Post-Apocalyptic Novel) – Part III

SLOG Part III: Sand

It was another warm and sunny March mid-morning in Juneau, Alaska. A gentle breeze nudged the leaves of the palm trees lining the streets. The air was clear to the eye but an acrid smell from a distant conflagration was unmistakable. The mountains restricting the city to a narrow strip of along the seafront blocked any view of the offending wildfire.

There was a festive spirit on Fourth Street. Women in sundresses stood and chatted, men in tee shirts talked to each other about the women in sundresses, and children the adults while playing games of their own making. Taking in the scene was a young woman in dark glasses carrying a Canadian passport and holding a rank of Ensign in the navy. She was not in uniform. With her hair dyed black and cut short, she would have been recognizable only to her closest friends. She didn’t have any close friends. She listened to conversations around her to get a sense of the crowd’s mood.

One unshaven fellow was expressing himself loudly to his buddy who sat on the curb next to him. Each had a beer in hand and a few more under the belt. “Hey, I don’t approve of what he done,” he said. “But shit, what did the French expect? They should have left the man alone.”

“Yeah, I know what you’re saying Bill, but that doesn’t make it right. The French are people too, sort of.”

“So give him to the French, then. It’s not our business to judge him.”

“Maybe we will, but you know they’ll just shoot him.”

“Well, that’s not our business either.”

The two men had voiced a common popular sentiment. Whether or not to extradite Aeneas Custer rather than try him in Alaskan court was, in fact, the issue being decided at this moment inside the architecturally uninspired brick building that served as the Capitol of the Republic of Alaska. The issue would be decided purely on grounds of national pride versus diplomatic expediency. There was no question at all of letting him go, and very little doubt of his guilt. In case, the legislature chose to deny extradition, a 3-judge team already was empanelled and ready to hear the case. Alaskans prided themselves on swift and rough-handed justice that relied heavily on “retribution in kind.” A reckless driver who injured or killed a pedestrian, for instance, was likely to be sentenced to being hit by a car driven by a relative of the pedestrian. A minority of the population objected to the legal system on ethical grounds, but there was no doubt the policy kept the crime rate low.

A hush fell as a Town Crier exited the Capitol carrying a bullhorn. “By a vote of 10 to 6 with 4 abstentions, extradition for the prisoner Aeneas Custer is denied!” he shouted. “Trial of the prisoner will proceed at once!”

This was the news for which the crowd had hoped, and they now awaited a chance to glimpse the most evil man in the world as he was escorted from the Capitol to the Courthouse. Aeneas, wearing no handcuffs and flanked by only four police, emerged from the building. He carried books of some kind. The Ensign heard murmurs of “There he is,” and “he looks so normal.” Bill, the beer drinker on the curb, snorted, “Four cops! I think they’re hoping someone will spare us the trouble of a trial.” The Ensign thought to herself that Bill might be right.

If so, the powers-that-be were disappointed. No one in the crowd made a threatening move. No shot was fired from some hidden vantage point. Aeneas and his escorts walked unmolested past the statue of a bear, a reminder of Alaska’s old Russian connection. Long ago, the statue had replaced an unloved abstract piece named Nimbus. They entered the Courthouse and proceeded to an ordinary courtroom. Most of the seats were taken up by members of the press and VIPs.

The three judges who would hear the case were Alfred Hirasawa, Jeanette Wilson, and Michael Maggio. Hirasawa, who presided, was a stocky man of 54 and widely known as a “character.” Several of his opinions were required reading schools for their literary merit. On this day he wore a Hawaiian shirt. Judge Wilson was 40, and best known for hosting a radio program on legal matters. She was known for insight and a sarcastic wit. Maggio was a soft spoken 84-year-old, highly respected as the primary author of Alaska’s current constitution. Both Wilson and Maggio wore traditional black robes. The prosecuting attorney was the young and ambitious Alexander Proudfoot. Custer’s assigned legal counsel was an undistinguished pudgy man who smelled faintly of scotch, and whose primary expertise was in traffic cases.

Within 15 minutes of Custer’s arrival, the bailiff called the court to order.

TRANSCRIPT ALASKA VS. CUSTER

JUDGE HIRISAWA [to prosecution]: State the charges, and keep it brief.

PROUDFOOT: Your honors, the man before us today is charged with Crimes against Humanity, a felony recognized in the national criminal code. He has committed murder and mayhem on a scale that almost defies comprehension. Further, he did so with full knowledge and intent. He in fact told his victims of his plans to murder them.

The defense surely will argue that these events took place in the context of a war. Yet, it is long established that c’est la guerre is not a license for murder. Moreover, the defendant started the war without provocation. This contributes to the charge. We are not dealing here with some rebel fighting for a noble cause. Far from it. We have here a spoiled scion of the most influential family in the Morrisbourg Territory of Greater Quebec, a region once known as New Jersey. For no other reason than personal greed and megalomania, he brought untold suffering to his country and to the world, a world that already has suffered enough. He deserves no more mercy than he meted out to his hapless victims.

HIRISAWA: My, My. How does the defense plead?

AENEAS CUSTER [cutting off his attorney]: Your honors, I wish to do without counsel.

HIRISAWA: Mr. Custer, this is a capital case.

AENEAS CUSTER: That’s why I wish to do without this…gentleman.

HIRISAWA: Do you wish a change of counsel? I may consider it.

AENEAS CUSTER: No sir. Frankly things look bleak even with the best attorney in the world. I expect to crash, but I’d rather pilot myself.

HIRISAWA: Mr. Custer, this is not a kangaroo court. You will get a fair hearing. Whether or not that is any use to you is another question.

AENEAS CUSTER: Understood. But I still wish to speak for myself.

HIRISAWA: Suit yourself. How do you plead?

AENEAS CUSTER: To Crimes against Humanity? What can I say?

HIRISAWA: Guilty or Not Guilty. Pick one.

AENEAS CUSTER: Not Guilty as charged. Your honors, I have a request, and I’m hoping the Alaskan reputation for substance over formality will prevail.

HIRISAWA: What is the request?

AENEAS CUSTER: I wish to tell a story in my own way. In a sense it is two stories: my father’s and my own. My defense succeeds or fails on the basis of this story alone. Upon hearing what I have to say, this court will exculpate me or it won’t. I have no wish to debate legal points with the learned prosecutor over there, so once I’m done, I’m done. I won’t respond to anything he has to say, and I won’t question any of his witnesses.

PROUDFOOT: Your honors, the defendant cannot structure this trial to suit himself. This is not his private theater.

AENEAS: Have you looked outside, Mr. Proudfoot? This is very much theater. The question is whether I get billed as the villain.

[Pause while judges consult] HIRISAWA: If the defendant is proposing to make a statement and then shut up, we are inclined to let him do so, provided he doesn’t intend to keep us here all day. How long will this story take, Mr. Custer?

AENEAS CUSTER: An hour, I suppose. No more than two.

[Judges consult again] HIRISAWA: That is at the outer limit of our patience, Mr. Custer, so don’t exceed your time. Your request is granted.

AENEAS CUSTER: For the first part of my story, it will be simplest to read into evidence, portions of the journal of my father, the former Governor…

PROUDFOOT: Objection! The defendant’s father is not on trial. Besides, this journal has been published in the Juneau papers.

AENEAS CUSTER: The prosecutor brought up my family in his statement, your honors.

HIRISAWA: So he did. We have granted the defendant’s request to tell his tale in his own way, Mr. Prosecutor. Besides, the media are not the courtroom…except sometimes for my learned colleague. [Hirisawa gestures at Judge Wilson.] Go ahead Mr. Custer.

AENEAS CUSTER: Thank you. I will concede to the prosecutor that that the contents of the journals of my putative father George Custer, covering the period from the foundation of Morrisbourg to the Battle of DC, are well known to the court and to readers of the newspapers. So, I’ll begin well after these events with his entries regarding the Firecracker. These have not been published precisely because of their relevance to the current proceedings. The copy of this portion of his memoirs, which I delivered to the reporter Boris Fontaine, contained my supposed threat to Quebec which the prosecutor mischaracterized in his opening remarks. Before I read, though, I need to put what was dubbed the Firecracker in a personal context.

The event that changed my life and the lives of so many others occurred more than a decade ago when I was 16. It was the night of a beachside bonfire in Asbury Park. This was an annual tradition among English-speaking youths held on the eve of July 4, a date chosen because it annoyed the French speakers. A few French always showed up for the bonfire, though. After all, it was a good party.

That year the party was shaping up as the best ever. Flames were 10 meters high, fueled with timbers from the ruined structures of the old beachfront town. The music was loud and disagreeable enough to keep most adults at bay, except for the usual handful of past-30 hangers-on who were desperately trying to retain an illusion of youth – and, of course, the hebephiles. All of us dipped our mugs freely into kegs of Old Yeller banana wine. We carried on in the manner you might expect of rowdy teenagers. By midnight a large minority of partiers were unconscious or nearly so. The remainder continued to dance, sing, chase each other, mock-fight, and not-so-mock neck. I was no social magnet in those days, so I was an observer rather than a participant in the necking. One young lady did flash me, but then she wouldn’t talk to me. I suspect she mistook me for someone else in the dark. The party ran down over the next few hours and by 4 a.m. only a few of us were awake. I was pretty exhausted, but I wanted to see the sunrise. I had seen sunrises before, true enough, but a very pretty and very high brunette wanted to see the sunrise, too. She was my last chance for a hookup at the party, so I fought the heaviness of my eyelids and waited with her on a dune. I never did catch her name. She recited parts of poems, but didn’t finish any of them.

As the eastern sky brightened in anticipation of the dawn, the brunette stood up so I stood up, too. She walked to the edge of the dry sand, just above where the waves lapped. She sat down cross-legged and faced the sea. I did the same, but I got the impression she didn’t want to be crowded so I sat a few meters away from her. She uplifted her arms as though willing the sun to rise. She took deep breaths of the sea air. She was a beautiful sight. She took another awesome breath and raised her hands once more. So it was that I was not actually looking at the horizon when it erupted in a blinding white light. The sky overhead turned as pale blue as at midday. I looked east and saw a semicircle of light that was not the sun. I also saw a visible pressure wave rush toward us.  The compressed air hit hard enough to knock me on my back and sting me with sand, grit, and droplets of seawater. A thunderous roar engulfed us.

The brunette was sprawled in the sand. She lifted herself up on one elbow. A water wave high enough to be impressive but not enough to be truly dangerous struck the beach and washed past us. Both of us clawed at the sand against the backwash when it receded. We ran for higher ground. She was ahead of me and I lost sight of her when she cleared the dune. Most of the sky returned to darkness but a glowing mushroom cloud roiled on the horizon. Newspapers called it the July 4 Firecracker.

The explosion, estimated as 200 kilotons, was far enough out at sea to cause no casualties on land, though a fishing boat failed to return to port that morning. Nonetheless, terrified residents of New York fled the city. They feared that the Firecracker was somebody’s near miss, and that a second attack would be on target. The Quebec military mobilized. Yet, as days passed, no foreign power or credible terrorist group claimed credit. A few motley would-be insurrectionists pretended to have something to do with it, but when they were arrested and interrogated they proved incapable of delivering a weapon more sophisticated than a spitball.

A rapidly assembled Investigative Committee without a single scientist on it conducted an inquiry. In short order it concluded that the explosion was accidental. The Committee members relied heavily on the testimony of a munitions “expert” who testified that the yield of the device was consistent with thermonuclear warheads carried by some ships and submarines in the early part of the 21st century. The Committee concluded that a warhead on some aged sunken vessel had destabilized in a remarkably unlucky way and detonated. A reassured public went back to business as usual. The Committee’s theory, while reasonable and satisfying, was dead wrong.

The Firecracker set in motion a chain of events that led to the vast death and destruction for which I am being blamed.

The prosecutor is not wrong when he says I come from a wealthy family, but he leaves out the detail that my wealth was lost – or, more properly, stolen. The pampered lifestyle of my childhood came to a swift end at the same time my adolescence ended.

My father George, even after he gave up the proprietary governorship of Morrisbourg remained the wealthiest man in the colony. I don’t remember my mother, Joelle Perrault-Custer, who left when I was an infant. George provided for me, and hired nannies when I was young. One who spoke with a distinctive accent was named Abigail; I was very young and so don’t remember if her last name was Weston. Once George was out of politics, he stayed out of the public eye. When we left the colony on a supposed expedition of exploration, The Morrisbourg Daily Record didn’t make mention of it. When I returned alone and reported that my father had died at the hands of bandits in Chicago, the obituary did make the front page, but there was only superficial public interest in the story. Everyone knew the hinterland was dangerous, and George was yesterday’s news. There was strong interest in the family’s wealth on the part of my father’s trusted personal attorney, however. Since I was still a minor, he managed to get himself named executor of George’s estate by a judge who was his personal friend. Over the next year he bled the estate dry with endless administrative fees. By the time I turned 18, there was nothing left. My complaints to other judges that my inheritance had been stolen fell on deaf ears – whether they also fell on greased palms I never could determine.

George did not die in Chicago. That was a lie I told to prevent further conflict and harm, strange as that sounds today. The real story of his death would have changed nothing about the estate issues, so I said nothing more about it until a reporter named Boris Fontaine from Pierre Roulant magazine knocked at my door. Was it really only a year ago? The 30th anniversary of the foundation of the Morrisbourg colony was coming up, so he wanted to do a nostalgia piece about the founders, George and Joelle Custer. He was thrilled to find me living day to day in a one-room log cabin in a place called Jockey Hollow. According to legend, it once quartered some of George Washington’s troops. I don’t believe the legend.

With a lack of tact astonishing even in a reporter, Boris exulted, “The Custers were the wealthiest family in the Southern Colonies, and now you’re down to this. This is great! The folks will love to read about it.”

“I don’t think it’s great, and I’d rather they didn’t,” I told him. I was about to chase him away with a pitchfork when the thought of getting some cash out of Boris occurred to me. “Will you pay me for an interview?” I asked.

“No. But if you have some memorabilia, maybe we can make a deal.”

I thought of George Custer’s journals. I had made copies in the days before the money ran out. “Would you be interested in George’s journal?”

He was. And Pierre Roulant was more generous than was good for any of us.

This brings us to the relevant portion of George’s unfinished journals, which I’ll now read it into evidence. I’ll add such commentary as may be useful.



JOURNAL OF GEORGE CUSTER:

The government dismisses the Firecracker as a one-off mishap – a chance event with a decaying weapon. My gut tells me this opinion is wrong. I’m hoping the feeling is just indigestion.

I’m hardly an expert. All I know about nuclear devices comes from very general century-old books on the subject in the Public Library, originally aimed, I think, at a teen readership. The trouble is that the Investigative Committee didn’t seem to consult anyone with higher expertise. The books tell me that triggers on thermonuclear weapons consisted of precisely shaped conventional charges surrounding a plutonium or uranium core. As a safety measure the charges were kept misshapen until the weapon was armed for use. That way, if the explosives went off, they would just deform the core instead of imploding it; there would be no fission and therefore no fusion. The conventional charges on unarmed devices went off on several occasions in the old days but never caused a nuclear detonation. Arming a weapon took two people with physical or digital keys.

This indicates to me that if the Firecracker was an accident, the device had been armed. It’s possible I suppose, but why? Then there is Aeneas’ eyewitness description. True, eyewitnesses are unreliable. They commonly misremember or flat out lie. But what he describes sounds more like an airburst – or perhaps a surface burst – rather than a submarine explosion. If so, the accident theory seems even less likely. Any way you look at it, something is wrong.

Assume for the moment that the Firecracker was not an accident. In that case, it either missed its target or it didn’t. But if it didn’t, why set it off close enough to shore to see, but far enough away to do little or no damage. Was it a message? If so, it is as obscure as it was loud.

For some reason the document in the safe nags at me. I haven’t looked at the frustrating thing in a year. There is no reason to draw a connection, but somehow I feel there is one. It would be megalomania, though, to conclude that the explosion was purely for my edification.

INTERRUPTION OF JOURNAL:
AENEAS CUSTER: Evidently it was megalomania to conclude it but not to suspect it.

“The document” to which George refers, your honors, was a note from Ulysses S. Johnston. George found in a sewn-shut back pocket of the uniform given to him by Johnston for the Battle of DC. It was inside a water-resistant plastic bag, which is probably the only reason it was readable after the events of the battle. I’ve never been clear on when he discovered it. If it was before he returned to Morrisbourg, it raises the question of why he didn’t show it to Le Clerc.

At the top of the document was Pentagram. The text in Ulysses’ handwriting read “I’m twice the man you are you two-faced panderer.” Following in very small type was an apparent cipher consisting of 50 strings of numerical symbols such as >171.74+76.23. Each was paired with ten paired sequences of letters and numbers such as QKJY4567/VCKO5489, and so on.

By the way, my eyewitness account is reliable.



JOURNAL OF GEORGE CUSTER:

The meaning of this cryptogram continues to elude me. Quebec’s intelligence service no doubt could read it quickly, but I am reluctant to surrender it. It was meant for me. I have tried rearrangement, substitution, and using the initial statement as a key, all without results. Johnston surely intended me to be able to decode it, even if he wanted it unreadable to a casual observer. He gave me far too much credit.

Why did he give it to me at all? Was he serious about his second-in-command offer to me? Did he want me to carry on his legacy if something happened to him in the Battle of DC?  Did he enjoy our adversarial relationship? Maybe. He was a strange fellow, more complex than he appeared on the surface. I still dream about the artillery strike that killed him and nearly killed me.

Two days have passed since my last entry. I am an idiot.

INTERRUPTION OF JOURNAL:
AENEAS CUSTER: George had rare moments of insight, your honors.

HIRISAWA: Keep the commentary pertinent, Mr. Custer.

AENEAS CUSTER: I’ll do my best.



JOURNAL OF GEORGE CUSTER:

The only balm for my ego is that my subconscious was on the right track. The breakthrough came this morning when Aeneas visited me in my office. Aeneas is 16 and already is bigger than I am. He must shave daily to hold back a dark beard. His robust figure easily could become rotund if he fails to exercise properly. I dare not lecture about that since middle-age spread is beginning to show on me.

Looking at him, I suddenly realized why Ulysses was interested in having me succeed him. He was securing the future of Joelle’s child. Am I really that slow? Or was I hiding the truth from myself? I wonder if Aeneas shares my opinion about his paternity.

INTERRUPTION OF JOURNAL:
AENEAS CUSTER: No, I didn’t. Perhaps I’m slow, too.



JOURNAL OF GEORGE CUSTER:

Aeneas put the day’s post on my desk. I was examining the document for the thousandth time.

“What are you working on, dad?” he asked.

“Here, you might as well look at it. It’s a family secret – so secret that even I don’t know what it means. It could be a treasure map for all I know.”

Eager to be included in a family secret, Aeneas snatch up the paper and pored over it. I had been joking about a treasure map, but perhaps the remark nudged his thinking in this particular direction.

“Is this a pentagram on top?” he asked.

“I think so. Or maybe it’s just a five pointed star. Ulysses was into national symbols.”

“This is from Ulysses?”

“Yes, he gave it to me before the Battle of DC.”

“The way it’s drawn forms a pentagon inside,” said Aeneas. “Wasn’t the Pentagon in DC?”

Arlington, across the river. It’s a thought. Maybe it would be worth exploring the ruins. Ulysses might have found something there while scavenging. But would we recognize the something if we found it?”

“Maybe these symbols are coordinates inside the building.”

“They seem awfully complex for that – too much information for a corridor map, assuming the building is still standing.”

“What’s with the insult?” Aeneas asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve been working under the assumption that it has something to do with the cipher, but maybe it’s nothing more than an insult. The man had an idiosyncratic sense of humor.”

While he peered and frowned at the document, I reached for the mail he had brought. Bills made up the bulk. It is surprising how little real mail a washed-up politician gets. Since my last electoral defeat running for Governor, I’ve largely been forgotten. I picked out and opened the one letter that looked personal. It was stained and wrinkled as though hand-carried through rain. I unfolded the letter. It was dated July 4. In block letters, it read:

HAVE I YOUR ATTENTION YET, PANDERER? NORTH BY NORTHWEST. DO I HAVE TO DRAW A MAP? BRING THE BOY. TELL NO ONE. YOU HAVE 30 DAYS. REMEMBER ULYSSES.

I was stunned. How could Ulysses possibly have survived? But who else would know about the word ‘panderer” in the document? Would I never be free of this man? He was like a case of malaria that kept coming back.

My sluggish synapses finally sparked. 

“The voters were right to reject me. I’m too dimwitted to be governor. Bring me that old Atlas on the second shelf,” I said. The Atlas was only of limited use in the remolded new world, but it was something.

Aeneas brought me the book, and I turned the pages to South Dakota.

“Why South Dakota?” he asked, reading the page upside down.

“Because that’s where Mount Rushmore has twice a two-face, and that’s where Cary Grant went. Ulysses always called politicians panderers.”

“Who is Cary Grant?”

“We’ll pursue your classic film education another day.”

I located the Monument on the map. The town of Custer and the Crazy Horse Monument were nearby. The locations shouted the humor of Ulysses S. Johnston.

INTERRUPTION OF JOURNAL:
AENEAS CUSTER: After, naming me Aeneas, George lost any right to complain about anyone else’s nominal humor.”

HIRISAWA: Don’t make me repeat myself.



JOURNAL OF GEORGE CUSTER:

It had occurred to me many times before that the symbols on the document might be coordinates of some sort, but until now I didn’t know where to start. I took back the document and drew lines with a pencil on the map using the first set of symbols and Mount Rushmore as a starting point. I guessed that the > symbol meant east, + meant north, and the numbers were distance in miles or kilometers. I tried miles; Ulysses was old-fashioned.

Something didn’t look right. The line ended in a nameless place north of Bismarck, ND. It was hard to imagine there was anything of note there. I tried kilometers and still ended up in the middle of nowhere. What would Ulysses find of strategic value there? Phrasing the question that way immediately made the answer obvious. The final version of the Minuteman ICBM to be deployed was the Minuteman VI. Thanks to a series of arms reduction treaties, each missile carried a single warhead instead of the several so-called MIRV warheads carried by earlier versions of the missile. 500 were still scattered around the northern Plains States when the government collapsed – 499 after the Firecracker. Solid-fuelled and with self-contained power sources, they very well could be made operational; one definitely was.

It appears Ulysses discovered a list of missile locations – no, they would be control room locations, each commanding a squadron of 10 missiles. He’d probably scavenged it in the Pentagon. The associated pairs of letters and numbers are the access codes for arming the warheads.

The Firecracker been intended for me after all. It seems an excessive way to get my attention. Perhaps he wanted to frighten me, too. In that case, he has succeeded. He has succeeded so well that I’ve decided I need help. I don’t want to involve the authorities. If I do, the next Firecracker might not burst offshore.

INTERRUPTION OF JOURNAL:
AENEAS CUSTER: I wish to add, your honors, that, in the interest of social responsibility, I did not give real directions and codes when describing the document earlier. My examples merely showed the format.

PROUDFOOT: What else did you falsify?

HIRISAWA: There will be time for that later, Mr. Prosecutor.



JOURNAL OF GEORGE CUSTER:

“Aeneas, pack your bags. We’re going on a trip.”

“Where? For how long?”

“We’ll stop in New York first. Take informal rugged clothes. I don’t know how long.”

“Informal rugged clothes for New York? Are we camping in the park?”

“Just do it. We leave tonight,” I said.

INTERRUPTION OF JOURNAL:
AENEAS CUSTER: George wrote the above in his regular journal, which he kept in the safe at home. I found it there when I returned to Morrisbourg. The rest of the journal that I’ll read to you now was written in a small leather-bound book that he kept tied to his belt. I’ll explain how I came into possession of it in due course.



JOURNAL OF GEORGE CUSTER:

Captain Le Clerc, Retired, rents an apartment on the fourth floor of 30 Central Park South in New York City. The elevators do not work. Ever since climbing the steps of the Washington Monument, I have hated stairs. Aeneas waited on a park bench outside while I ascended to the fourth floor and banged on the door of 4A.

Le Clerc opened the door as far as the chain would allow, which wasn’t very far. Even through the crack I could see that he was unshaven, dirty, and was getting a paunch. His breath smelled of banana wine.

“Do I know you?” he asked.

“Well enough to waver between shooting me and giving me a medal. In the end you didn’t do either.”

“George!”

The door slammed shut. Le Clerc unlatched the chain and flung the door open so that it banged against the doorstop. He grabbed my hand and shook it heartily. He pulled me inside. The apartment was messy. It was not filthy besides, but was on the road to that condition. The view out the window of the park was lovely, even in its current overgrown condition.

“To what do I owe a visit from a big-shot Governor?”

“Ex-Governor. I introduced elections and right away the people thanked me by voting me out of office,” I said.

“Excellent! You’ve restored my faith in democracy. Come, have a drink.”

“Thank you Maurice, but this isn’t a social call. I need your help.”

Le Clerc grimaced at my use of his first name. “I’m a retired man on a scandalously small pension. My superior officers were unhappy with the casualties among the marines in DC, but they didn’t want to court-martial me as long as the politicians were pretending the battle was a big victory and taking credit for it. So, they ‘encouraged’ me to resign citing personal reasons. I’m sure I’m in no position to help you with anything.”

“DC was a victory. I know there were losses, but… Anyway, you are the only one who can help. Ulysses is back.”

“Nonsense. The 120 got him. You said so yourself. The shell took the top 10 meters off the Monument. You were on the stairway below. He didn’t run past you, did he? Even if he did escape, which he didn’t, he’d be an old man by now. He’s a couple decades older than we are, and I’m feeling creaky, I can tell you. What harm can he do now?” As Maurice spoke he poured a glass of banana wine. He didn’t pour one for me.

“You don’t need to be a young athlete to push a button,” I said.

“What are you talking about, George?”

“The Firecracker.”

“You think he had something to do with that?”

“I know it. He sent me a message. And he has more nukes, Maurice.”

“Well this changes everything!” Le Clerc now was taking me seriously. He put down the wine glass. “Why are you talking to me? We need to report to the Defense Ministry.”

“No, that’s the last thing we can do. I’m sure he has agents among us, just as he did the last time – including in the government. If he thinks we’re organizing an attack on him… well that’s something we just can’t risk with his finger on a nuclear trigger. I underestimated him once before, I don’t want to do it again. Not this time,” I said.

“What do you suggest we do, then? Wag a disapproving finger?”

“I want to go meet with him. Just me, you, and my boy Aeneas. I don’t think he’ll feel threatened by us,” I said.

“There’s a reason he won’t feel threatened.”

“As you say, the man is getting on in years. I have reason to believe he wants to hand his keys to Aeneas, literally and figuratively. I propose we let him do it.”

“And why would he want to do that?”

I told him.

“You trust a teenager with such weapons?” Le Clerc asked.

“Far more than I trust Ulysses.”

“I’m still not sure why you are coming to me.”

“We need to go west – well past the Great Lakes,” I explained. “I thought you might have the connections to get us there. I was thinking maybe chartering a boat to Minnesota, and maybe taking a tracked vehicle the rest of the way if we can get our hands on one. I have plenty of money to buy what we need. And we need to get to our destination in the next 30 days.”

“Why 30 days?”

“I didn’t mention the time limit?”

“You did not. Where is the destination?”

“I’d rather be sure you are committed to the project before I disclose precisely where we are going.”

  
“Your boating idea is a bad one,” he said. “Pretty much everything floating on Superior and Michigan belongs to pirates. I wouldn’t sail there on anything less well gunned than La Salle. The land out there is a wilderness, inhabited only by a few crazies. I don’t think even a tracked vehicle can get through.”

“Do we have to walk? Go on horseback?”

“Just how much re you willing to spend?”

“Whatever it takes.”

“Then I have an idea. But I still say we should bring in the military, not confront Ulysses with two old fogies and a kid while hoping for the best,” he said.

“I’m telling you he’ll lob nukes before a military strike can take him out. I won’t do it. I won’t tell you where to find him.”

“Suppose I have you arrested right now and force the information we need out of you?” he said.

“You are overlooking Ulysses’ spies. They may be watching us right now. They’ll see something is up. We can’t risk it.”

Le Clerc picked up the glass of wine he had put down earlier and downed the contents. “You know, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced you’re the butt of some practical joke. The Firecracker was an accident just as the Commission said it was. Ulysses is long dead. No one has any finger on any nuclear trigger. There are no spies. If anyone sent you a note, it was probably the teenage son of a neighbor. Maybe it was Aeneas, and he’s having a good giggle at our expense.”

“Believe what you like,” I said. “If what to say is true, I’m thrilled, but I’m still heading west, with you re without you. Will you help or not?”

“Yes. I’m happy enough to spend your money and go camping in the wild west. It will be quite an adventure. I’ve been vegetating here.”

“Or fermenting.”

“Wise ass!” he barked. “So let’s go. I guarantee we won’t be meeting Ulysses, though.”

“So long as we go,” I said.

“First stop, Montreal.”

“Your hometown?”

“I’m from Drummondville.”

INTERRUPTION OF JOURNAL:
AENEAS CUSTER: There is a gap in the narrative here, so I’ll fill it.

After a brief stay in New York, George, Le Clerc and myself took a steamer up the Hudson. There was a short portage to Lake George. We sailed all the way to the northern tip of Lake Champlain. They told me I wouldn’t get seasick on a lake but my stomach disagreed. I spent much of the trip leaning over the rail surrendering my breakfast. We took another boat down a small river to the St. Lawrence. We switched boats one more time and finally arrived in Montreal. George and Maurice dumped me in a hotel where I slept and recovered from nausea.



JOURNAL OF GEORGE CUSTER:

Montreal is a subtropical paradise with a climate much like that of Miami a century ago. The metropolitan area is home to an astonishing 50,000 people, making it the most populous city on earth. Only Llasa in Tibet can compete with it. On l'Île Sainte-Hélène is an industrial park where Maurice said he planned to spend a large piece of my fortune. Dirigible Fabrique Nordique (DFN) is located on the island in a modified geodesic dome to which a barrel-roofed ware-house type structure had been appended. It once was a biosphere for an environmental center – there isn’t much need for one of those these days. The company builds airships. It built the one that had given Le Clerc and I useful but alarming service in the Battle of DC.

The owners of DFN, Jacque and Charlotte Le Pen, had started the business with high hopes and good prospects. Airships could knit together a large territory with a decayed and overgrown infrastructure, and also offered a way to project military force quickly, as government and business executives immediately realized. Most important of all, their manufacture remained within the limits of Quebec’s (and the world’s) declining industrial capabilities. The Defense Ministry placed a preliminary order for a fleet, and commercial transport companies showed interest, too. The came a few accidents with bad weather, which airships notoriously don’t handle well. Most damaging of all was the Battle of DC where the craft had proved an easy target for ground fire. The Defense Ministry canceled all orders except for a few reconnaissance craft, while only a package delivery service bought any for business purposes. No one was willing to risk the lives of paying passengers in them. The Le Pens hung on, but they and their company were on the verge of bankruptcy.

A deflated blimp was under tied tarps outside the dome; it was considerably bigger than the one Le Clerc and I flew in DC. We entered the dome which seemingly was an unorganized jumble of scaffolds and aircraft parts. A half-built airship was amid the scaffolding. No workers were present.

For reasons known only to himself, Le Clerc chose to wear his old naval uniform. It was too tight. My French is all but nonexistent, so I rely on Le Clerc for the gist of the conversation with the Le Pens. The couple spotted us and approached.

“Can we help you?” Jacques asked.

Charlotte, surely because of the uniform, recognized us immediately. “You two get out of here!” she shouted.

“We wish to purchase an airship,” said Le Clerc.

“Why? So you can blow it up, crash it in a river, and destroy what’s left of our business? You are the reason no one trusts our ships!” she said.

“Ma’am, it was scarcely our fault. We were at war and we were shot at. It happens in those circumstances. I don’t think you can blame us for hydrogen being flammable.”

“I can blame anyone I choose. Now get out.”

“Wait, Charlotte,” said Jacques. “I’m curious. Why do you want an airship and how much money can you spend?”

“We plan an expedition of exploration beyond the Lakes. Do you have something that can get us there and back? We’re prepared to pay a reasonable price.”

“Does this have anything to do with Delacroix?” Jacque asked. “Is someone finally looking for him?”

“Who?”

“It seems not. Louis Delacroix was self-described entrepreneur who said exactly the same thing as you 15 years ago. He never came back,” said Jacques.

“I heard nothing about it,” said Le Clerc.

“He asked us to keep mum about his expedition. He didn’t talk to the papers before he went, as so many other explorers do. I never met his crew, if he had one. No one ever asked us about him or his expedition. I made no promise to keep silent as he asked, but… well, why would we advertise that one of ships didn’t come back from a trip? Do you still want to go?”

“Yes.”

“How soon?”

“Immediately.”

“Do you have 400,000 francs?”

I understood the question about the price. “Yes,” I said.

“Then follow me.”

“Jacques, are you insane? Don’t sell to these people! They’ll do something stupid with our machine and damage our reputation some more!” said Charlotte.

“If we don’t sell to somebody soon, that won’t matter,” Jacques answered her. “We’ll go bankrupt anyway. But my wife has a point,” he said, redirecting his remarks to Le Clerc. “Have you told the media about your expedition?”

“No.”

“Then I’ll sell to you under three conditions. One is that you tell nobody before you leave – if you go missing like Delacroix, I don’t want any more bad publicity. Second is that you tell everybody if you return – it will be a good advertisement.”

“What’s the third?”

“Your check has to clear.”

Charlotte shook her head. She still was unhappy about dealing with us, but was mollified by the conditions – at least the third one.

Jacques led us to the hanger attachment. The airship tethered inside was bigger than the one in DC. She was at least 50 meters.

“This is the P16, the most time-tested model we have. In any case it’s the only model available immediately. It originally was intended for service with the Diplomatic Corps, but just prior to delivery the government canceled the order for budget reasons… and, they said, safety reasons. The government never would sign a penalty clause, so we ended up eating the cost of construction. It’s not as big as the airships used for hauling cargo, of course, but you say that isn’t your purpose. You see the props are cowled and are mounted each side of the gondola. They pivot and swivel, giving a pilot exceptional control while eliminating the need for a ground crew when landing, though having one always helps. There’s a short wave radio. The craft contains electrolysis equipment to regenerate its own hydrogen. The engines are multi-fuel turbines; they give the best range, though not the best performance, on diesel.

“What is the range?” asked Le Clerc.

 “On diesel, you can take her to the Pacific without refueling. The craft was designed with Vancouver in mind as a destination. I feel obligated to warn you that the prototype of this same model was flown by the errant Mssr. Delacroix. How do you plan to pay?”

Le Clerc passed along the question. I knew that my deposits in two banks which had home offices in Montreal together totaled more than 400,000, so I wrote out two checks. “They should clear in a few days,” I said.

As we left the DFN campus, I said to Le Clerc, “We could use acetylene and as much dynamite as we can carry. Plus the usual survival gear.”

“You know,” he said, “I’m not even going to ask why we’re taking dynamite. We’ll need cash for it, though. No checks. So we’d better stop at your bank.”

It took three days for the check to clear into the le Pens’ account. During that time, Le Clerc led me to what must have been every bar in Montreal, including one where he spent a thousand of my francs on strippers. I was afraid to leave him alone lest he have a change of heart and contact the authorities about our mission, but that meant acceding to his whims. He did find time to have supplies, including black market dynamite, delivered to the P16. Aeneas mostly stayed in the hotel room with his nose in books.

On our last night in Montreal, I lost count of Le Clerc’s shots of vodka, but after he had enough of them he led me to a brothel. I have no objection to the business, per se, but I wasn’t really in the mood, and, besides, didn’t want Le Clerc slipping away while I was occupied. I fended off offers in the lobby by explaining I was just there to keep my friend out of trouble. The ladies were understanding about it. A half-hour after Le Clerc went upstairs with a brunette named Mona, Mona came downstairs to ask my help.

“What have you got in mind?” I asked.

“He’s passed out. Get him out of here.”

Mona helped me get him dressed. He must have tipped her well – especially since it was on my dime – but I gave her some more. We roused him sufficiently to get him to his feet, with each of us holding one arm, and Mona helped me get him down the stairs. Once out the front door, though, I was on my own with him. I struggled to hold him up as we staggered toward the hotel. Once in the room, Aeneas helped me guide him to a bed, on which Maurice dropped face-first.

“I compliment you both on your brand of perfume,” said Aeneas. I suppose the aroma had rubbed off. He must have a good nose to have smelled it over the alcohol.

The next morning, an unshaven Maurice looked miserable on the horse-drawn taxi-ride to l'Île Sainte-Hélène. He kept is eyes shut and intermittently dry-heaved. Tethered in the open in front of the dome, the silver-gray P16 waited for us. Aeneas suddenly looked as sick as Maurice. Apparently I was the only one looking forward to flying.

I bounded up the ladder. Unlike the last airship in which I flew, the gondola was enclosed, but the windows did slide open.  Aeneas looked like he was ascending the gallows as he climbed the ladder. Le Clerc, still convinced I was chasing wild geese, wearily pulled himself aboard. The le Pens released the ropes, I started the engines, and the P16 rose smoothly into the balmy skies over Montreal. To his credit, Aeneas soon seemed to be enjoying himself. Le Clerc was as comfortable as anyone could be with a hangover of those dimensions.

As we flew west, the skies did not remain balmy. Ominous clouds loomed ahead. Rain soon batted the windshield. Before long we were flying blind, enveloped by rainclouds, and buffeted by drafts. By the time we were over Lake Erie the storm had become brutal. We had little to guide us but dead reckoning and a magnetic compass. Aeneas began to look ill again.


INTERRUPTION OF JOURNAL:
AENEAS CUSTER: This is an understatement of mammoth proportions. By the way, I didn’t stay in my room in Montreal but went sightseeing extensively. George never asked.



JOURNAL OF GEORGE CUSTER:

Despite the weather over the lake, the route was preferable to overland given the unpredictability of the Canadians in Ontario. They’re twitchy about Quebec’s expansion and have fired on airships before. The risk of overflying Ohio and Indiana was unknown. I preferred not to chance it.

At length we reached the shore of the lower peninsula of Michigan, barely visible below. I took us higher into the mist until we lost sight of the ground, on the theory that, if we couldn’t see anyone down there, they couldn’t see us either. Whether or not the precautions were necessary, we survived the crossing, though it took all night. We broke into clear morning skies over Lake Michigan. Our flight smoothed out. Eventually, Aeneas felt well enough to open the larder for a snack. I’d been too occupied to look earlier, and Le Clerc was still too queasy from his nights on the town.

“Um, guys,” he said. “Much as I relish the thought of chewing on dynamite, don’t you think you should have packed some more conventional comestibles?” The food larder was empty.

I looked at Le Clerc. “I thought you had arranged for our supplies.”

“I bought the hardware,” he said. “Couldn’t you have bought the food and drink?”

“I could have, if I’d known you wouldn’t.”

“George, did you once specifically ask me to do that?”

“Guys!” interjected Aeneas. “I think the point is what do we do now?”

“There’s plenty of water below us,” I said. “We just need some containers. We should be able to find canned food in an abandoned store somewhere. If not, we can hunt. I don’t suppose there is a rifle aboard.”

“I’m so glad the two of you used the past few days in Montreal to prepare for a long trip into the wilderness,” said Aeneas.

“We had other priorities,” said Le Clerc. “And yes, there’s a Lee-Enfield wrapped in the canvass bundle in back of the dynamite. I bought it even though it wasn’t on George’s shopping list.”

We lapsed into silence. The engines droned steadily.

At last, a distant skyline came into view. “Heads up. I think that’s Chicago. It’s as good a place as any to go shopping,” I said.

“Won’t the downtown be ransacked?” asked Aeneas.

He had a point. The urban centers were heavily looted as the economy broke down and new deliveries of goods ceased. Rural and suburban stores and warehouses usually were better bets.

INTERRUPTION OF JOURNAL:
AENEAS CUSTER: George needn’t have been surprised that I had a point. I’ve been known to have one occasionally.

WILSON: This is not one of those occasions. Get on with it.



JOURNAL OF GEORGE CUSTER:

“I’d like to look anyway,” said Le Clerc. “You know I think this mission is a waste of time and money. We might as well do something valuable by giving the ruins a once-over. Maybe they’re salvageable the way New York was.”

I didn’t say so, but I was curious, too, so I kept us on course.

The P16 nosed over Lake Shore Drive. Drifting sand had infiltrated the city, heaping up on the Western side of buildings and cars. This side of the lake was a dry as the opposite side was wet. There was no sign of life below. The silence of ghost cities always disturbs me. The John Hancock looked intact except for some broken glass. The old water tower still survived.

“There’s a big multistory shopping mall north of the water tower,” I said. “Let’s see if anything is left on the shelves.

As le pen had promised, the directional thrust of our props gave us very effective control. I brought us to a hover just above the street, and tossed a grapple hook to a lamppost. It caught.

“So who goes down?” asked Aeneas, plainly not volunteering.

“I’ll go,” I said.

“Wait,” said Le Clerc. He unpacked the rifle and loaded it with a stripper clip.

I rolled a rope ladder out the door and slung the rife on a shoulder. “I’ll be right back if everything has been picked clean.”

Once on the ground, I was caught in the face by a sand-laden gust. It was difficult to resist rubbing my eyes, but I feared doing so would scratch them from the sand granules.

A door to the mall was wedged open by a sand pile. Inside, the placed was a wreck. Broken glass was everywhere. I walked up an immobile escalator past the empty shelves of a chocolate shop. The clothing shops still had stock, but most others were out. In a sporting goods shop I saw two plastic water coolers. I grabbed them and hurried back toward the airship, convinced that there were no treasures to be found in this place. Besides, the mall gave me the willies for some reason.

“Where next?” asked Aeneas.

Lake Michigan. We’ll grab some water. It’s not as though people are polluting the lake these days. Then we’ll stop outside of the city somewhere.”

We motored past the corn cob buildings. This time we grappled to the fountain in Grant Park. The fountain, of course, was dry.

“I’ll go again,” I said. “I’ll just fill the containers in the lake and come right back.”

If there is anything more eerie than the streets of a deserted city it a park in a deserted city. One almost hears echoes of children, dogs, lovers, and dope dealers. I instinctively looked for traffic before crossing Lakeshore Drive, sand-covered though it was. I filled the containers and lugged them back.

While I stood on the fountain handing up the coolers, 20 wild men emerged from the parking garage under the park. Except for green paint and the spears they carried, they were naked. They seemed upset. “Machine! Machine!’ they shouted as they charged toward the fountain. I gathered they had an eco-message about which they were quite sincere. However, the time was not auspicious for a political discussion, so I released the grappling hook and climbed the ladder. We took our leave.

INTERRUPTION OF JOURNAL:
AENEAS CUSTER: Your honors, George seriously misrepresents this scene. Far from displaying such nonchalance, when the men appeared he shouted, “Oh shit!” while yanking the grapple hook free. He leapt at and grabbed the ladder of the already rising P16 while shouting, “Get the hell out of here! Now!” Le Clerc took him at his word and throttled the engine. George swung below us as we accelerated away from the park. One of the men below tossed his spear, missing George by centimeters. By the time we dragged George inside, he was drenched in sweat and was shaking.

WILSON: I think you judge harshly, Mr. Custer. That is this court’s prerogative.

AENEAS CUSTER: I apologize for encroaching upon it.

WILSON: Pardoned.

AENEAS CUSTER: A full pardon?

WILSON: No.

PROUDFOOT: Your honors, may I remind the court that the defendant is charged with unspeakable crimes. This tone of levity…

HIRISAWA: …is also this court’s prerogative. And his crimes are speakable, or he could not have been charged. Do not for a moment think that we fail to take the charges seriously, even when we banter.



JOURNAL OF GEORGE CUSTER:

We picked up speed as I clambered aboard, and quickly left the downtown skyscrapers behind. I was surprised to notice a 9mm handgun in Le Clerc’s belt.

“I thought the Lee-Enfield was the only gun,” I said.

“I never said that, did I?” said le Clerc.

While fundamentally pleased there were no casualties, even among the wild men, I can’t help but wonder why Le Clerc didn’t use his weapon when they were attacking. Perhaps he was too occupied at the controls – at least I hoped so.

Amid the sands west of the city we saw a Food Lion in the former suburb of Elmhurst. I was reasonably sure that this time we were in an area that truly was desolate. This time we lucked out. There were cans on the shelves. I waved at Aeneas to come down the ladder and set him to work stocking the airship.

On a hunch, I walked to the remains of a house on a residential street neighboring the supermarket. A heating oil tank stood against the foundation wall. Not much heating fluid was burned in the world once the sun heated up, so there was a chance some remained. I removed my shirt and used it to insulate my hand against the searingly hot metal cap. It twisted off easily. I used my belt as a dipstick, but it did need to go in far. The tank was nearly full, and #2 heating oil makes fine diesel fuel. Once the larder had been stocked, we maneuvered the ship over the tank and dropped a hose. The internal pumps did the rest. I figured that it didn’t hurt to top up our tank.

The Great American Desert stretched out ahead of us as far as we could see. The land below us once had been the world’s breadbasket. Now it barely sustains a few lizards. After hours of glaring sunlight we approached a large trench in the sand. The once mighty Mississippi had been reduces to a wadi, though sharp cuts in the banks testified to the occasional flood. On this day the only sign of dampness was a darker shade of brown in a strip near the centerline of the trench. The western sands turned a beautiful pink as the sun set. When night fell, the stars were as bright as I’ve ever seen them.


INTERRUPTION OF JOURNAL:
AENEAS CUSTER: Your honors, a few pages of George’s journal are missing at this point. I suspect he tore them out himself the moment we spotted live South Dakotans, just as a security measure. It would have been much safer yet to throw the whole journal overboard since it spelled out his opinion about Ulysses and the missiles pretty clearly, but somehow I like George better for not doing it.

What was removed was an account of our stop at a missile control room. Finding it was no easy matter given our primitive navigational aids, and it wouldn’t have been possible at all had George’s interpretation of “the document” been in error. His gambles frequently paid off, though. Le Clerc was visibly disturbed by the find. Only the outer steel door was locked or we could not have gotten inside. We burned our way through it with our acetylene. The inner tougher security hatches were wide open, as though the site had been abandoned carelessly. There was no power to any of the consoles, but there was bound to be some generating capacity on site. We didn’t look for it. As soon as we confirmed the place was exactly what George had thought it was, we set dynamite charges and destroyed the controls.

WILSON: Why didn’t you finish the job at the other control room sites?

AENEAS CUSTER: We didn’t have the resources. The one site had used up most of our explosives. We might not have been able to find the others. Navigation is difficult out there. It’s not like the old days when GPS could guide you through your phone from doorstep to doorstep. And, if the other sites were locked up tighter than the first, we’d never have been able to get in.

Le Clerc, though, had a similar question, and, as we rose back into the sky, he told us how to do it. “Every last one of these sites and the missiles themselves must be destroyed!” he insisted. “They are too dangerous to leave out here. I insist that we call Quebec on the short wave, and get a real expedition out here big enough to deal with them.”

“I know you well enough to know that you don’t ask my permission when you feel something that strongly,” said George, “so I must assume you already tried to use the radio at some point.”

“Give whatever part you removed from the radio to me now,” said Le Clerc.

“No.”

Le Clerc removed his handgun.

“I don’t believe you’ll use that, but just in case…” George tossed a small part over the side. “You’ll never find it in the sand down there.”

“Are you crazy?” said Le Clerc.

“Maybe, but not about this,” he answered. “Listen, Maurice, I’m telling you that at least one squadron of missiles is operational. Have you forgotten the Firecracker already? What do you think Ulysses will do if he sees Quebec’s military bearing down on him? We can’t risk it. Let’s just talk with him. If we don’t come back, I’ve made other arrangements to notify the proper people about him and about the missiles.”

Your honors, I believe this last claim was a lie George made up on the spot. As far as I know or could discover afterward, he made no such “other arrangements” at all. It mollified Le Clerc, though, which I suppose was the idea, so that he agreed to continue according to George’s wishes.

“Have you given thought simply to killing Ulysses when we meet him? If we meet him?” asked Le Clerc.

“Yes. But let’s hear what he has to say before deciding about that,” said George.




THE JOURNAL OF GEORGE CUSTER

Something strange had happened to the Crazy Horse Monument. Erosion couldn’t have worked so quickly. It looks almost as though someone has been feminizing the features.

The faces of Mount Rushmore loomed ahead of us. There was something wrong with them, too. They were painted in colors one expects to see only in comic strips. All the complexions were shocking pink. Washington appeared to wear lipstick. Jefferson’s hair was a fiery red. Lincoln’s beard was streaked with gray. In spite of myself I laughed while wondering idly if the eye colors were right. My laughter was curtailed by what floated below TR’s chin. It was a sister ship to our P16, but painted paisley. We apparently had found the ship bought by Delacroix, who either was an agent of Ulysses or Ulysses himself.

I pointed below. “Civilians,” I said.

“I sincerely hope so,” said Le Clerc. “Are those camels down there with them?”

“Looks like it.”

The people below were garishly and colorfully attired. As soon as they saw us, the pointed, shouted, jumped, and laughed like children. We closed to within 100 meters of the other airship. A white-robed woman leaned out the gondola and waved to us. She pointed east with an air of authority.

“What do we do?” Le Clerc asked.

“Go east. Maybe we’ll see what she wants us to see.”

As we veered eastward, smoke signals went up from Washington’s noggin. I suppose it was a warning of our arrival. It seemed unnecessary. We were hard to miss.

A cluttered outpost appeared ahead. Clusters of solar panels reflected brightly on the hillside. Their arrangement seemed less efficient than artistic. The frames were painted, giving them the look of mechanical flowers. Long rows of garden vegetables were semi-shaded by semi-transparent plastic – an old 20th century desert farming technique. The effect is to create a partial greenhouse that controls sunlight and preserves moisture. Here and there were groups of picnic tables shaded by tent canvass held up by poles. Windmills churned below as well, providing, as we later learned, electrical and mechanical power. Only a few people milled about. They were dressed like those at Mount Rushmore.

“Maurice, please put away your gun.”

“It is put away.”

“I mean take it out of your belt and store it somewhere out of sight. Please.”

“My gut tells me this is a mistake, but what’s one more at this point? I’ll let you make the call.” Maurice packed the handgun away with the rifle.

We hovered over a flat area next to a hill. The dimensions suggested an old parking lot was beneath the layer of sand. Out of a tunnel in the hillside emerged scores of people with even worse fashion sense than anything we’d see yet. Their clothes included sarongs, loincloths, bikinis, togas, and gauze wraps. Many of the fabrics were bright with painted flowers, stripes, and dyed patterns. They waved, applauded, laughed, and smiled.

“They don’t look much like nuclear terrorists,” said Aeneas.

“I haven’t met enough of those to judge,” I said, though I was thinking very much the same thing. This didn’t look like Ulysses’ sort of crowd at all.

“What the hell is this place?” said Le Clerc.

“Beautiful Rushmore Cave.”

“Beautiful?”

“I’m just reading the name on the map,” I said.

We dropped ropes over the side. Several of the throng ran up and fielded the ropes as though they did it for a living. They fed the ropes through rings set in concrete posts, apparently installed there to provide an alternate mooring site for the other airship, and kept them taught as we lowered to the ground. They then tied off the ropes. I killed the engine.

The three off us slid out the door and instantly were mobbed by attractive young men and women with leis. Despite the Hawaiian theme, the ethnic mix was primarily Caucasian and American Indian, with a smattering of others, an echo of the pre-disaster regional population. A rhythmic chanting began, “Custer! Custer!”

“I see you’re expected. What is going on here, George?” asked a deeply suspicious Le Clerc.

“I really don’t know.”

“That’s what you said in DC.”

“I was telling the truth, wasn’t I?”

“Were you?”

The exchange was interrupted when the chanters picked us up and carried us. A young man sat playing the sitar by the tunnel adit.

“Is Ulysses here?” I asked one of our bearers.

“Ulysses? No, of course not.. You are joking with me, Custer. Mother is waiting for you. We’ve all been waiting such a long time, but the circle is complete now and all will be well.”

“Why do I doubt that?” said Le Clerc.

The gardens we passed were impressive. Cannabis, tomatoes, grains, potatoes, beets, turnips, and yams were cultivated under the plastic. Dates and figs grew in the open. The gardens were served by a network of PVC pipes providing drip irrigation. The pipes tied together into a main line that disappeared into the tunnel, where it ran along one wall,

We entered the tunnel, once the tourist entrance to Beautiful Rushmore Cave. It was wheelchair accessible. The walls were covered by murals in a variety of styles. Multicolored party lights strung along the ceiling lit them up in a tawdry display. We passed a naked couple unashamedly making love in the position of an illustration on the wall above them. Aeneas gawked at them. I’ll have to talk to him about that.


INTERRUPTION OF JOURNAL:
AENEAS CUSTER: And George leered like a dirty old man. Give me a break.



JOURNAL OF GEORGE CUSTER

The temperature dropped as we walked. The earth is a constant 13.5 degrees Celsius at modest depths, so for the first time in years I began to feel chilly. It was wonderfully refreshing.

We entered an enormous cavity, called simply The Big Room. Though already decorated by nature with stalactites and stalagmites, the room was further enhanced by the locals who had carved many of the stalagmites into statuary. A variety of lamps and colorful fabrics hung from the ceiling. In the otherworldly light, children played while adults worked or socialized in a friendly chaos. One woman was giving a puppet show to a mixed-age audience. I heard her have one of the puppets address the other as George. I don’t think it was meant to be me, since the puppet didn’t resemble me at all.

INTERRUPTION OF JOURNAL:
AENEAS CUSTER: Yes it did.

HIRISAWA: Mr. Custer…




JOURNAL OF GEORGE CUSTER

We passed a man who sat on the floor sewing something that looked like a bra with a sunflower on each cup. Toward the middle of The Big Room, an enthusiastic game of Twister was in progress.

Our bearers put us down but four of them escorted us to a side passage and through a string bead curtain. This “room” was smaller but was far from cramped. Leather living room furniture to the left gave the place a homey appearance. A bedroom set including a waterbed was to the right. Straight ahead was a large chair carved out of the rock and covered with padding. Two female guards with spears flanked the chair. They wore denim shirts and shorts, but the garb didn’t look like military uniforms as did the denim of the West Virginians; only the fact that the clothes matched suggested that they might be. Both guards wore brown cowboy boots. The spears were the first weapons we had seen among these people. On the chair – or, rather throne – sat Joelle, clothed in a white silken robe. At 40-something, she remained stunning. Her pale blonde hair had yet to gray or darken. On her head was a garland of flowers.

“Say hello to your mother, Aeneas,” I said.

“You’re my mom?” he asked.

“Mother, not ‘mom,’ she corrected.

“Mother to us all,” said one of our bearers.

“And who is this?” Joelle gestured Le Clerc.

“This is Maurice Le Clerc. In the Battle of DC, he commanded…”

La Salle. Yes, I know the name,” said Joelle with anger in her voice. “He spoiled everything! What is he doing here? He has no business among us!”

The display of ire plainly caught the locals off guard. Joelle checked herself, and said calmly, “Perhaps it will be for the best. Please leave us,” she said to the bearers. Our livery service left twittering and chattering. “You too,” she said to the guards. They looked surprised and glanced at her for confirmation. Joelle nodded. They left the chamber.

“You named him Aeneas?” asked Joelle. “You have an odd sense of humor sometimes. No matter. Why didn’t you come here earlier? My people were beginning to doubt me about you, even though they wouldn’t say so to my face. I nearly came and got you myself.”

“I came as fast as I could. Your letter was pretty cryptic,” I said. “Was it your letter?”

“Yes, of course it was mine. Someone else could have read it, George, so I couldn’t just say “Come to South Dakota, Sweetie.’ But why didn’t you come 15 years ago? The directions were in the document Ulysses gave you.”

“You read the document?”

“I told you not to put your trust in safes.”

“So you did.” I didn’t add that Ulysses and Joelle surely had discussed South Dakota during their tryst in New York, so she didn’t need to decode the document’s meaning. “I didn’t figure it out until your letter arrived. I guess I’m not as quick as you. So where is Ulysses?”

“Ulysses? Why he’s still dead, I suppose. You and sailor boy here killed him in DC. Don’t you remember?”

“But your note…”

“Said he was an honest man, not a live one. I expected you to think of the mythical Ulysses...”

“…who after a long journey returned to his wife. You’re going to have to communicate with me more simply, Joelle. I’m not a complex thinker.”

“Noted.”

“So, the mythical Ulysses killed a bunch of Penelope’s suitors. Am I supposed to…”

“No, that won’t be necessary.”

“What about Delacroix? Didn’t he finance your trip here and buy you that crazily colored airship?”

“Are you jealous, George? We don’t approve of jealousy around here. Anyway, there is no cause for you to worry. Louis Delacroix suffered a fatal accident on the trip here.”

“An accidental accident?” I asked.

“There are accidents and accidents. This was one of the second kind.”

“Madame,” said Le Clerc.

“Mother,” she said.

“Madame,” Le Clerc repeated, “I hate to interrupt this little reunion, but do you mind telling me why you dropped a 200 kiloton nuke off the coast of New York? It was you, wasn’t it?”

“Yes it was me. I wanted to get George’s attention. It worked.”

“If you’ll pardon my saying so, that’s nuts. There would have been nothing at all wrong with a ‘Come to South Dakota, Sweetie” note. I know George. He would have come. Surely you know him better than I do, so you should know it, too. So what if anyone else read it?”

“Do not call me nuts in front of my people,” she warned. “They are a kindly sort, but they won’t appreciate that at all. The explosion served two other purposes, too, Maurice. It proved the Minuteman missiles still work, for one thing. We couldn’t be sure until we tested one. You might argue we could have tested anywhere, but I opted for a show of force. I’m sure you understand shows of force.”

“But no one knows it’s you.”

“They will, Maurice. When the time comes for us to reveal our possession of the weapons to the world, we’ll have instant ‘credibility’ as they used to say in Cold War days.”

“Exactly what are your plans for the missiles?” Le Clerc asked.

“Let’s come back to that later. First I want to show you the life we’ve built.”

“The locals seem to revere you,” I said.

“Yes, almost literally. I saved them, George.”

“From what?”

“Themselves. They were scattered in settlements from here to Rapid City, and spent most of their time raiding each other and bashing heads – murder, rape, and robbery. It was as though producing for themselves and simply co-operation never occurred to them. One scraggly band without the tools or weapons to raid lived in these caves, mostly on lizards, but their numbers were diminishing day by day. You might notice there are no old people here, and only some who are middle aged. People didn’t make it to 40 before I arrived. They were desperate for someone to show them another way to live – any way to live.”

“Then you magically flew out of the sky and offered one,” I said.

“What’s more, my last name is Custer – thanks to you. You might notice that a lot of places around here are named after someone named Custer. I saw no reason to dissuade anyone that I was related. I brought with me a cache of automatic rifles, courtesy of Delacroix, so I armed the group here, and systematically captured or destroyed the other settlements. We couldn’t afford to be gentle. We killed the men who showed any signs of rebellion, and resettled the survivors in these caves.”

"How did you even know about the caves and the situation here?” I asked.

“As for the social situation, I didn’t know anything about it until I got here. I worked with what I had. But Ulysses – to give credit where credit is due – was the one who saw the possibilities of the geology and told me about them. The Black Hills are a granite outcrop surrounded by a doughnut of limestone. Over the past few million years, the water running off the granite has eroded out slashes of caverns on all sides, like lines on a clock face. They make great natural shelter and the clear skies out here are perfect for solar power.”

“…and there are missiles nearby in the desert that you and he knew how to make operational,” I added.

“So there are.”

“Your story sounds a lot like the one Ulysses told me in West Virginia, but his solution was more militarist and fascist than what I’ve seen so far in this place. I haven’t seen any of those automatic rifles you mentioned. Where are they?”

“Ulysses ultimately had a pedestrian vision, George – a little like you. Militarism has been done. He thought it was an end in itself. It isn’t – or at least it makes a pretty uninspiring end. We did have to resort to it in the beginning, of course, but once we had suppressed or absorbed our enemies, we put violence aside. We put away the rifles, to which only my private guards have access; we keep them just in case we are threatened from the outside. Once the civil wars were over, we started to prosper. There are plenty of manufactured goods, such as the solar panels and windmills, available in the ghost towns out there, and the airship makes retrieving them fairly simple. In order hold it all together, though, I felt we needed a spiritual revolution, too.”

“Hence this hippy commune with you as spiritual head,” I said. “Why do they seem so enthused about my arrival?”

“Because people are never quite satisfied, no matter how much better things are than they used to be. I promised them you would bring a reconnection with the outside – a chance to be more cosmopolitan.”

“The outside is overrated,” I said.

“I agree, but many of the people are still hopeful about what you represent.”

“I see.”

“I don’t,” grumbled Le Clerc.

Aeneas stayed silent but listened intently.

“Come, let’s take the tour,” she said.

Joelle showed us the cave. We met smiles and applause. The commune, I had to admit, was impressive. Functional plumbing and electric power had been installed, using materials ferried in by airship from salvage expeditions. Outside the cave we gave the gardens a closer look, and then rode by camel to nearby caves that formed part of the extended commune. The locals did not rely entirely on salvage. Despite a casual work ethic, they produced a surplus of textiles from their own looms, some ultimately from hemp, and also blended their own colorful dyes. One of the cave sites specialized in metalworks and ceramics, with furnaces for melting scrap and for glazing. Joelle explained that they were able, if need be, to sand cast individual parts for the airship engines or the electric generators; their technology was more robust than it might appear, she insisted.

Joelle explained that she discouraged anyone from working more than four hours per day. Because there were few personal possessions and living space was communal there was no need for higher levels of production. “There are more important things than things,” she said. Everywhere we went the people seemed happy. The sun was low in the sky when we reentered Beautiful Rushmore Cave and returned to Joelle’s chamber.

“We’ve done something new here, George,” she said. “Or maybe very old. Anyway, it’s different from the general way of the world. We’ve come to terms with the conflict within.”

“What conflict?”

“Pleasure principle and the death instinct. Eros and Thanatos.”

“Freud?”

“Ultimately, yes, but he, as Reich realized, didn’t tilt enough in the direction of Eros. Repressed people make repressive civilizations.”

“But you say you’ve come to terms with the conflict. That implies a place for Thanatos too – a place for an appetite for destruction,” I said.

“So it does. But first I think you should experience the Eros – especially you, Maurice. You strike me as a very repressed man.”

“You didn’t have to escort him around Montreal’s bars and brothels,” I said.

Joelle laughed. “Strangely enough, that’s not a contradiction, because he feels guilty about it, don’t you Maurice?”

“I never claimed to be a paragon of virtue, Madame,” said Le Clerc.

“There you see?” said Joelle. “He believes his indulgence was a moral lapse. We are not like that, Maurice. The pleasures of the flesh are a virtue here, and the highest paragons of virtue are the love priestesses. You might have noticed them: the pretty ladies in white.”

“By priestesses, you mean prostitutes,” he said.

“No such thing is even possible here, Maurice. We have no money, we have no property, and we don’t buy or sell anything. The only reward the priestesses earn is honor. Sexually frustrated young men are the most dangerous people in any society – they commit the crimes, they engage in violence, they foment unrest. We make sure they’re not frustrated. Some of them don’t do well winning female companionship based on their charms alone, so the priestesses step in. Even so, I don’t arm them. You might have noticed my guards are women.”

“Are you telling me you promote adultery and polygamy so that young men will be too complacent to bother with mischief?” asked Le Clerc.

“We do keep them complacent but, but your phrasing is packed with prejudices. We promote polyamory, Maurice. We don’t promote polygamy, monogamy, or marriage of any kind. Adultery is a meaningless word here. Without property, marriage serves no useful purpose. It merely promotes jealousy and anti-social behavior. We better off without it. Two, three, or more people are together when they want to be and apart when they wish.”

“I have a question,” said Aeneas. “Everything you’ve said so far sounds all rather heterosexual. What about the others?”

Joelle paused before answering. “It’s all very heteroflexible. We don’t draw the same kind of distinctions around here as do people back where you grew up, and we don’t think in terms of ‘others.’ People pair or multiple up any way they like. We don’t fuss about it. I’ll admit, though, there’s a young lady I’d intended for you to meet – but if you’d prefer not to…”

“Oh, I’d be happy to meet her. I was just curious.”

“We also make use of mind expanding aids, some of which grow naturally and some which don’t. We don’t brew much alcohol, though. That can kill you – worse, it dulls the senses instead of enhances them.

“I get it,” said Le Clerc. “You’re a commune of drug-addled psycho-babblers. However, your degradation is not my responsibility.”

“How open-minded of you, Maurice.”

“But you keep glossing over the missiles,” he said.

“And you keep obsessing about them, which shows me where your head is at. During the civil wars, you are precisely the sort of opponent I would have ordered killed.”

“Is that a threat, Madame?” asked Le Clerc.

“A statement of fact. Fortunately for you, you’re a guest, and I’m allowing you some leeway.

“Madame, I wish to point out that you’ve already killed with those weapons. A fishing boat never returned when the Firecracker went off. Surely you must have known that was a possibility – you must have known there was a chance the missile would come down in the wrong place and kill thousands.”

“Very unlikely.”

“But possible. It bespeaks a carelessness with lives that concerns me deeply.”

“Maurice, what you need to learn – but I fear never will – is that you and people like you are the ones who show – who always have shown – the real carelessness with lives. Who built the missiles in the first place? People just like you. But I don’t want to talk about this now. I have a surprise for Aeneas.”

Joelle clapped her hands. One of her guards peered into the chamber. Joelle gestured with her index finger, indicating “now.” The guard vanished. A few moments later she reentered escorting a pretty young woman with red hair and hazel eyes.

“George, you obviously know that Ulysses is the father of Aeneas. I want you to meet my daughter Selena. Aeneas, this is your half-sister.”

Aeneas looked thunderstruck. I’m amazed he never suspected.

“Selena? Is she…?” I asked.

“Your daughter? Of course not, George. Can’t you do math? But I want you two to know each other anyway. Before you ask me who is the father, suffice it to say he is not here.”

I suspected he was not anywhere. I wondered if the ill-starred Delacroix had red hair.


INTERRUPTION OF JOURNAL:
AENEAS CUSTER: Your honors, whether or not I looked ‘thunderstruck,’ George’s expression when looking at Selena was considerably less dignified. It was from this moment that George went native, and, since the motive couldn’t have been parental, it was very likely his attraction to this younger prettier version of Joelle. He may not have acted on it, but…

HIRISAWA: Mr. Custer, we agreed to hear your story, but not your armchair analysis of your father.

AENEAS CUSTER: He’s not my father.

HIRISAWA: As that may be. Get back on track.




JOURNAL OF GEORGE CUSTER

“One of my guards will show you quarters where you can rest and clean up. We have a party tonight and the three of you are guests of honor, so you’ll want to be awake.”

We were led away to a side cavity forming a chamber equipped with beds, bedpans, and a bathtub filled with deliciously cool water. I suppose these were perquisites of being “the Custer.” Like Joelle, I apparently was “more equal than others.” I claimed the tub. Le Clerc used it next. Aeneas didn’t bother.


INTERRUPTION OF JOURNAL:
AENEAS CUSTER: Of course not! After two grimy old men? The room had washcloths and a pitcher of water. I made do with those.




JOURNAL OF GEORGE CUSTER

Aeneas was sullen. Sometimes he looked at me with murder in his eyes. He was angry at me for having concealed his origins, but I did not do that out of malice. I tried to talk to him but he would have none of it.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he growled.

After a time I gave up. Le Clerc observed us without comment. I then dozed for what felt like several hours, but must have been less.

INTERRUPTION OF JOURNAL:
AENEAS CUSTER: It was much less.




JOURNAL OF GEORGE CUSTER

At length, a denim-clad guard awoke us and led us outside. The sky was cloudless and starry, though a band of red still lingered on the Western horizon. A gibbous moon looked huge and gold.

The party already was in full swing. Food, drink, and intoxicants were laid out picnic style on at least 20 long cloths. There were no plates. Instead there were trenchers, slabs of hardened bread that served the same purpose but became edible when soaked in juices. The guard led us to our places on large stuffed pillows next to Joelle. The people picked and ate buffet style, but there already were full trenchers topped with delicacies in front of the four of us. The drinks were unidentifiable and I was not inclined to experiment. Joelle picked out a pitcher and filled a clay goblet for me. It tasted like carrot juice. Perhaps it was.

Sitar music and the sickly sweet smells of hash and opium filled the air. I noticed Joelle didn’t partake of either despite her history with the substances. Light-hearted sexuality pervaded the scene. Couples – and triples and quadruples – did as they pleased openly.

“Reminds me of a Grateful Dead documentary,” I said.

“Animals!” muttered Le Clerc.

“What are you complaining about now, Maurice?” asked Joelle.

“Don’t you people have any decency? There are children present here!” he said.

“Yes, precisely. They can learn the healthy loving ways adults can interact with each other, instead of learning guilt, repression, and hate. They won’t be twisted up inside the way you are. What’s more, you’ll find there is little or no child abuse here. That requires secrecy, and secrecy follows from guilt. On the very rare occasion it happens, the abuser is always found out and we deal with him swiftly. Can you say the same in your world?”

“You must have an epidemic of young teen motherhood.”

“On the contrary. Do you see any such thing around you? The young learn to be careful early, and, since they don’t hide their activities, their friends are likely to warn them before any serious lapse happens. In our family, peer pressure is almost always beneficial, not harmful.”

“What you call beneficial is disgraceful,” said Le Clerc.

I decided to shift the topic of conversation before this one grew any more heated. “What is that area next to the cliff?” I asked. “It looks like you’ve modified it to be a theater. Are we going to have a play?”

“We do have plays there sometimes,” said Joelle, “but tonight we have a sporting event. You asked about how we bring Thanatos into the balance. While we defuse destructive instincts in the ways I’ve explained, not all aggressive tendencies can be removed by a tender touch.” Joelle flicked a finger under my chin. “On holidays and special occasions we have bouts of the Champions.”

“You mean like boxing matches?” I asked.

“More like gladiators. The participants are usually volunteers – there are always volunteers – or they are criminals sentenced to fight. Champions are feasted and pampered right up to the moment of the contest. The love priestesses pay the contestants special attention. Criminals are released from further punishment if they win. The volunteers, if they win, receive the acclaim that champions of any sport typically receive. The event satisfies the remaining appetite for violence in the participants and the spectators alike, all the while weeding out the most dangerous and violent persons from our communal family.”

“I see.”

“So do I!” said an offended Le Clerc. “You said ‘weed out.’ These bouts are to the death, aren’t they?”

“Of course.”

“So we are about to witness a murder.”

“No, Maurice. We are about to witness a sporting event, and, as it happens, justice. One of the participants is a sportsman. He will face a sentenced criminal. We do have a few. Not many compared to your world, but a few. The commune does consist of humans after all. The Champion has a chance for honors, and the criminal has a chance for redemption. This is far kinder and rehabilitative than the way criminals are treated back East.”

“What was the crime?” asked Le Clerc.

“Jealousy.”

“You have condemned a man to death for being jealous?”

“No. We have condemned a man to risk death for acting jealous, not being so. Possessiveness is antisocial in spirit to be sure. No one owns another person. But we don’t punish thoughtcrimes, only actions. The man’s obsession with a young woman was unwelcome, and his behavior was threatening toward her and violent toward her other lovers.”

“He could survive,” said Maurice. “Are you telling me he will be welcomed back in your community if he does?”

“Yes.”

“And if he is still obsessed? Suppose he still acts the same way, as I deem likely?”

“We believe people can evolve, Maurice, and that they can learn from their errors. If I did not believe this, you would not be sitting there. Nonetheless, a repeat criminal will not face the arena a second time for a serious offense, but exile.”

“Exile to where?”

“Out in the desert somewhere.”

“That’s death sentence.”

“Not necessarily, but the odds are better in the arena. We don’t see many second offenders.”

The cloudless sky had turned starry, though a narrow band of red still lingered on the Western horizon. A gibbous moon rose huge and gold. A Champion took the stage and bowed to the crowd. Two female guards led the criminal combatant, hands bound, onto the stage next to him. One cut the man’s bonds. Both men were bare to the waist. The criminal was blond, tan, muscular, and somewhat shorter than average. He affected a smile that came off looking more like a sneer. His darker opponent was considerably taller, but appeared less athletic. His expression was stoic. One guard picked up a crossbow and climbed up onto the rocks. The second guard offered a bowl to each combatant turn. Each man sipped from it.

“What’s in the bowl?” I asked Joelle. “And what’s with the crossbow?”

“Mushroom soup is in the bowl. The mushrooms are the kind that will reduce pain and psychically expand the experience for them. The crossbow is just to keep the bout honest. If one of the Champions flees or refuses to fight, the guard will dispatch him.”

The two men faced each other and began to circle. At first their barehanded strikes were tentative, but they grew in force and confidence as each man got the other’s measure – or perhaps it was just the mushroom soup taking effect and making them reckless. Despite trading blows for a quarter of an hour, neither could get the better of the other. Tired of the standoff, the criminal charged the tall man, striking his waist with a shoulder. Both fell to the ground and wrestled desperately.

I winced at a shrill and unexpected noise: Joelle had blown a police whistle. In response to the signal. A guard tossed two two-meter poles into the arena. At the sound of the poles’ clatter, the men disengaged and dove for them. Now armed with the poles, the two circled each other again. They were, sweaty, dusty, and bruised, but neither man looked seriously injured. In a swift move, the darker man cracked the blond in the temple with his stick, and delivered a second blow to the man’s left ankle.. Blood flowed from the man’s ear and nose as he dropped to his knees. A pole then caught him end-first in the torso, cracking his ribs and knocking him on his back. The tall Champion moved in to finish the criminal, but overconfidence slowed his attack. The blond rolled to avoid the blow. Sensing he was about to lose the fight, the criminal tried a desperate maneuver of the type that usually fails. He staggered to the cliff face, jammed his pole in a rock crevice, and snapped the end, rendering it as pointed as a spear. He spun and faced his onrushing opponent, ducked the man’s swing, and stabbed. The sharpened point of his stick entered the Champion’s heart. The criminal’s opponent fell dead. The victor, seriously injured collapse on the ground.

The onlookers shrieked and applauded.

“Why is everyone happy the criminal won?” I asked.

“They are happy about the rousing bout. Who won is not the primary issue. Besides, the winner no longer is a criminal. He is redeemed. And even if Mr. Le Clerc’s pessimism about character reform proves justified in this case, I don’t think this fellow will be very dangerous from now on, crippled as he is, do you?”

“Barbaric! Grotesque!” complained Le Clerc.

“As opposed to what, Maurice? A firing squad or locking him away ten years in a cage? Your ways are barbaric, Maurice, not ours.”

The contest had been a real crowd pleaser, and the party resumed in earnest. In addition to feasting, the partiers passed around mushrooms, pills, and powders, while the aromatic smoke in the air thickened. Soon, people were making love in bewildering combinations of numbers and gender. Aeneas gaped awkwardly. Joelle held back from the amorous activities.

“What about you?” I asked. “Don’t you normally join in all this?”

“Don’t be jealous, George. You saw what happens to jealous men. Besides, strangely enough, I’ve been quite virtuous by Mr. Le Clerc’s standards, but not for reasons I imagine he would endorse. I rely on public perception of me as being ‘above it all’ and somewhat special. It doesn’t help to reveal myself intimately as an ordinary less-than-youthful woman who sometimes needs a bath and has bad breath.” She shrugged in her characteristic way.

“There is something sad about that.”

“Well, then why don’t you do something about it? You are ‘The Custer.’ I can stay above it all and still play with you.”

“In front of everyone? I’m not as young as I used to be, and distractions might be…well…distracting.”

“Some of what you’ve been drinking contains enhancements. But I don’t think you’ll need them.”

Whether they helped or not, I realized I was eager and physically ready. I reached for her.

“Not yet,” she said. “I have something to arrange first. Aeneas and Selena are my…our…logical successors. We need heirs if we are to preserve this culture. Have fun, kids.”

Selena took Aeneas by the hand and led him away.

Le Clerc was outraged. “Custer! You can’t allow this! This is unnatural! It’s illegal!”

“Not here, Maurice, I said. “Try to be open-minded. This was a common arrangement in the ancient Egyptian royal families. In some places it is legal to dally with a cousin while in other places it isn’t. In the old USA some states allowed kids to marry at 13. All those standards are arbitrary. These people have a right to set their own.”

“Surprisingly enlightened, George,” said Joelle.

“Dark as dark can be!” said Le Clerc. “Have you really bought into this snake pit, George?”

“They all seem happier than you, Maurice.” I looked at Joelle and asked, “Now?”

“Now,” she said.

It had been a long time. I didn’t realize until then how much I’d missed her touch. I needn’t have worried about distractions. I was conscious of nothing but the two of us for the next half hour. When we were done and I looked up, I saw we were surrounded by dozens of the locals. They smiled and applauded. For a moment I turned beet-red. They laughed at that, too, and I joined them. I understood at last the hold that Joelle had on these people. I might not be willing to die for her, as I was sure most of the South Dakotans would, but I might well kill for her.

INTERRUPTION OF JOURNAL:
AENEAS CUSTER: I wish to draw the court’s attention to this scary statement.

HIRISAWA: Attention drawn. Continue.



JOURNAL OF GEORGE CUSTER


“Where’s Le Clerc?” I asked.

“One of the white-robed love priestesses is attending to him. She told him he looked like he needed company,” said Joelle, who apparently had remained more aware of her surroundings than I.

“And he went?”

“Oh, don’t worry. He’ll wallow in guilt about it later.”

The party was winding down as revelers passed out one by one. Some folks were still getting higher. A group of four men and two women without a stitch on caught my attention as they danced and passed around a bottle of blue liquid. From the way their eyes rolled, I guessed that whatever they saw didn’t belong to this world.

END OF JOURNAL



AENEAS CUSTER: Your honors. George’s journal ends here. He must have scribbled these last entries during the night. I saw him sitting with a self-satisfied grin as Joelle dozed on the pillow next to him. Selena lay asleep next to me. I believe she partook of the various sedatives available on the picnic cloths. I didn’t. I remained awake partly from sobriety and partly from excitement over the recent activities of Selena and me.

Le Clerc reappeared at this point and sat down next to me. He had found an earthen jug and was drinking from it. From the smell, it was wine.

“Aeneas, let’s take a walk,” he said quietly.

“Alright.” I got up quietly and donned my pants. I doubt a local would have bothered, but old habits die hard. The two of us walked out of earshot of those still awake.

“Aeneas, I’m sure you find Selena fascinating, but the world is full of women.”

“The world isn’t very full of anyone, but I concede roughly half the population is female. What’s your point?”

“Back home you are young man of means with a socially noteworthy name. You live in a mansion. You have the resources to experience life to the full – to travel the world if you wish. Girls will flock to you.”

“They never have,” I said.

“Life after high school is different. Trust me. What is regarded as important changes after the teen years. You will be regarded as a catch.”

“Once again, what’s your point?”

“You are only 16. Don’t be dazzled by a party and a quick fling.”

“It wasn’t so quick.”

“Never mind that,” said Le Clerc. “Look around you. These people live in a cave. For all Joelle’s fancy talk, these people literally are troglodytes. She wants you to live in a cave too. With Selena. Forever.”

“Is that so bad?”

“Yes, when you other option is the whole world. You won’t have that option when Joelle obliterates Quebec.”

“George says she won’t do that. The missiles are just a deterrent.”

“He’s wrong. This is not Woodstock West, however much it may seem to be on the surface. You know how George always insists he is not political even though he always is at the center of political intrigue; there is a sense in which he is right about himself. He has a few notions about ethics that he picked up from somewhere, but mostly he is a pragmatist who doesn’t take any ideology too seriously. He doesn’t understand true idealists. Ulysses wasn’t one; he only pretended to be. But Joelle is. She obviously believes her claptrap in a way Ulysses never did. Idealists are ruthless in pursuit of what they regard as ‘the greater good.’ They have no trouble killing people for their own good. I understand Joelle all too well.”

“Why? Because you are an idealist?” I asked.

“Yes. The difference is that I know what the greater good really is. I served two decades defending it. Joelle’s notion of ‘good’ is perverse beyond measure.”

“That seems a narrow way of looking at it.”

“Aeneas, the point is that she will launch the missiles. I guarantee it. She will convince herself that a pre-emptive strike is ‘self-defense’ or in the higher interest of humanity. She cannot allow an alternative lifestyle to this one to persist, or sooner or later her people will defect to glitz and glitter of Quebec and the other remaining civilizations. Do you want to be responsible for the deaths of thousands of people? You will be responsible if you don’t stop it.”

“You are being melodramatic.”

“You are being cowardly.” Le Clerc sighed and said in a lower voice. “Sorry, that was uncalled for. Let me put it another way. You can be a hero. Are you up to it?”

I rather liked the idea of being a hero, especially if being one wasn’t too dangerous. Besides, what if Le Clerc was right? But why did he want me to play the part?

“Why don’t you be the hero?” I asked. "You’ve been one before.”

“I would if I thought I could do it alone. I can’t. The airship isn’t well guarded, but it is guarded. Someone has to make a distraction and someone has to fly the ship.”

“You’re going to steal the P16?”

“No, Aeneas. You will.”

“No. But, assuming I did, how would this make me a hero?” I asked.

“A messenger who informs Quebec about the danger of operational missiles will be a hero.”

“How will carrying back the news help?” I objected. “The way I see it, if Quebec attacks South Dakota when I deliver the news, Joelle definitely will launch. I don’t know if she keeps people in the missile control room at all times, but, for safety’s sake, assume she does. No attack on the Black Hills can succeed fast enough to prevent a launch.”

“Which is precisely why Quebec won’t attack. Neither will Joelle. Both sides will be deterred because, once everyone knows where she is located, she can’t launch a strike without provoking a counterattack: Mutually Assured Destruction, as the strategy was called in the old days. No one gains from an attack so no one launches one. Everyone stays safe. Think of it as a way of protecting Selena, if you like.”

Maybe my mind was affected by whatever substances I ingested that evening, but Le Clerc’s arguments swayed me – admittedly the prospect of being a big man Back East was as convincing as his moral arguments.

The airship was guarded by two of the blue denim guards, one on each side. Accordingly, they couldn’t see each other – a weakness we could exploit.

“How do we do this,” I asked. “They look pretty tough. There must be a height requirement for the job. Both those women are taller than I am.”

“We’ll use their fornicating ways against them. Circle around so they don’t see us approaching together. I’ll chat up one and you try to seduce the other.”

“What if they say no?” I asked.

“They will say no. I’m an unpleasant old man and both of them are on duty. Even here that must count for something. We just need to divert their attention a little. I’ll handle the rest.”

If anyone lying on the ground at the picnic sight noticed the two of us walk on separate paths toward the P16, no one tried to intervene. It is likely no one looked.

I approached the guard on the port side of the airship. The young woman wore a headband in addition to the usual guard garb, and also had tied her shirt to bare her midriff.

WILSON: Enough of the fashion report, Mr. Custer.

AENEAS CUSTER: Yes, ma’am.

PROUDFOOT: Your honors, while I am aware of the latitude granted the defendant, may I take this opportunity to point out that he can’t possible remember these long past conversations in the precise detail he is relating them.

WILSON: The same thought occurred to me.

AENEAS CUSTER: The words are as I remember them. The content of the conversations is correct in essence.

[Judges confer in inaudible whispers.]

MAGGIO: The defendant may continue in his own way. The court will take into account the “in essence” qualification.

AENEAS CUSTER: Anyway, I approached the guard and said, “Hi, I’m Aeneas.”

“Yes, I know,” she answered. “Welcome home.”

“Thanks. It doesn’t look like you’ve had much fun tonight.”

She smiled. “Not tonight, but my job has its perks. Besides, I’m not on duty 24/7, so I’ll get my chance to kick back. Maybe Selena can spare you for a night at some point,” she said with a wink.

“You know about us?”

“I’ve known about you for years. We all have.”

“Wow. For years I’ve been famous and never knew it.”

“I’m sure the Custer had his reasons for keeping some things secret from you.”

“He is such a very good secret-keeper that he kept them secret from himself,” I said. “What’s your name?”

“Jennifer.”

As we spoke I saw silhouettes inside the gondola that I took to be Le Clerc and the other guard. To this day I don’t know exactly how he got her aboard or how he kept her silent. Maybe he knocked her unconscious and carried her in. Or maybe he successfully seduced her and she boarded willingly as a lark, though I have to assume he then overpowered her somehow. All I know is that the airship started to rise. The mooring ropes had been untied at the gondola end and were sliding through past the cleats. It seemed he plan to have me steal the airship had been modified.

“Did you get to see the contest?” I asked, still hesitating while trying to decide whether to help Le Clerc further or to switch sides again.

“No, no from here. There will be other bouts.” The sound of the mooring ropes dropping to the ground caught her notice. She looked in back of her and saw open space where an airship should have been. Overhead the P16 continued to rise.

“Hey!” she shouted. She looked up and threw her spear. It passed through a gondola window but missed Le Clerc. The engines whirred to life. Two other guards with bows came running from the picnic area. There arrows fell short of the craft as it passed beyond a hillside.

Jennifer stared at me with dismay at the betrayal. Feeling guilty, I turned away and found myself face to face with Joelle. Even in the dark I could see the cold fury in her face.

“What have you done?” she demanded.

I had no answer.

“When we catch him he’ll face a Champion in the arena,” she said.

George arrived at the spot in time to hear her last remark.

“We won’t catch him now,” he said.

“We have another airship and we will catch him. You!” she pointed to a guard. “Have the ship brought here! Jennifer! You get some help and bring me my accessories from my personal cache. You know the one. If you fail me again you’ll go to the arena, too.”

Jennifer ran toward the cave entrance. The first guard Joelle had addressed by this time had climbed a rise and was signaling Mount Rushmore with a hand laser.

“We don’t know where he is going,” said George.

“Of course we do. He is headed toward the nearest missile control room, which of course is the one I powered up. I presume you mapped the locations and left the map on board.”

“Well, yes. But why would he go there?”

“To attack us, George,” she said. “How can you not know that?”

“Le Clerc said he just wanted mutual deterrence,” I objected. “He said he doesn’t want a war.”

“Look, you young idiot,” she said to me. “Don’t talk about things you don’t understand. Mutual deterrence is based on a second strike capability – an ability to absorb an attack and still hit back. If one side can obliterate the other totally, there is no deterrence. On the contrary, the incentive in that case is to strike first. Le Clerc thinks he can wipe us out with one blow, and that’s what he intends to do.”

“I don’t see how,” said George. “You need two people to arm the warheads, and he has no idea how to operate the controls.”

“He has two people! He’ll tell Sue Ann, the guard he took hostage, anything to get her to co-operate. He’ll tell her he plans to send the missiles harmlessly into the ocean and that he’ll kill her if she doesn’t help. Or maybe he’s corrupted her with promises of wealth Back East. Maybe she’s a traitor. I know he thinks he can get her to help. I have to assume he can, too. As for the controls, any idiot can operate them. This was the most sophisticated system ever installed before the disaster, but for that reason it is very user-friendly. You just type in longitude and latitude. You don’t even have to do that. You can point at any location on map and click. Enter the codes and fire. The computer walks you through it. ”

“All the same, I don’t think he is a killer,” insisted George.

“Of course he is. The both of you are. What about the Battle of DC?”

“That was a war,” George said.

“Precisely. He thinks this is war, and he’s willing to inflict collateral damage on civilians – something you always hesitate to do. You really don’t understand us, George.”

A whining of turbines grew louder. The paisley airship from Mount Rushmore lowered itself to the former parking lot.

“Both of you get in,” Joelle order George and me. Jennifer arrived laden with the “accessories” Joelle wanted. They were two M4 assault rifles and two shoulder launched rocket launchers.

Joelle replaced the love priestess at the airship controls and ordered her off the ship.

“What fuel is your airship using?” she asked George.

“Diesel.”

“Good. We’ll catch him. We’ve kerosene in ours. We’ll have better speed.” She took the ship up and pushed the throttles full forward. We flew north north east.

Despite the age of the craft and its exposure to the elements for years, the paisley ship performed flawlessly. I was impressed. The Le Pens built good aircraft.

At the start, I assumed our odds of catching Le Clerc were remote. I doubted our edge in speed was enough. If Joelle misjudged him and he was heading to Quebec, we were going the wrong way and had no chance at all. She hadn’t misjudged and my assumption was wrong. My chest constricted when something occulted the stars in the sky ahead. Joelle was right. He had made a beeline for the nearest missile control room. It was time to try to repair the damage I had done.

“Over there!” I pointed. “Le Clerc is over there.”

“Not a moment too soon. The control room is straight ahead. Aeneas,” said Joelle, “I want you to know that if you were anyone else I’d send you to the arena for what you did. I don’t believe in third chances, so don’t ever ever cross me again.”

“Yes ma’am.”

We closed slowly on the P16. Le Clerc must have seen us too.

“Take the controls,” Joelle ordered George, “and keep closing.”

She picked up the rocket launcher and leaned out the window. I don’t know if what she used had any heat-seeking capability or if it was just point-and-shoot. Either way, the rocket hit the target. Le Clerc’s P16 erupted in a fireball. A soft rumble from the explosion reached us. Le Clerc’s airship descended to the ground at a leisurely pace.

Within minutes we skimmed over the wreckage. The hydrogen already had been consumed, and what was left of the P16 smoldered below. I don’t know whether they jumped or whether they were thrown from the craft when the gondola hit the ground, but both Le Clerc and the guard had escape being burned alive. Both lay face-up in the sand a few meters from the wreck. Neither was moving. George lowered our airship to the ground. Joelle, the lightest of the three of us, leapt out, armed with an M4. The ship lurched upward but George resettled it by adjusting the gas pressure and the directional motors.

“Take the controls, and stay on board,” said George. “Keep her on the ground.”

I took over and George, also armed with an M4, followed Joelle. I countered the loss of weight by throttling the props. Turbines are not deafening engines, and I was able to hear most of what the two said on the ground.

Joelle walked first to the young woman and knelt down by her. “Sue Ann. Sue Ann!” She felt for a pulse. I could see from Joelle’s response that she didn’t find one. She stood up and went over to Le Clerc. Le Clerc was bleeding from shrapnel wounds and possibly had injuries from the fall, but his eyes opened when Joelle kicked him in the side.

“I don’t think you’ll be much trouble for an opponent in the arena in your current condition, do you?” said Joelle to Le Clerc. “I’ll ask Jennifer if she wants you. Oh, you didn’t meet Jennifer, did you? Don’t worry, you will.”

George spoke more encouragingly, “I’ll try to talk her out of that sentence, old boy. You know, this is your third crash in a blimp? With a record like that you’ll never get insurance.”

Le Clerc managed a pained smile.

“Come on, George,” said Joelle. “He’s not going anywhere. We have business in the control room.”

She strode toward the entrance, which only 100 meters away. To my surprise, she had left the place unsecured and unmanned. But then, without the map locations and codes, there wasn’t much risk anyone would find it in this desert, or be able to do any harm if he did.

As George began to follow, Le Clerc gasped out, “No! Stop her, George. She is going to fire on Quebec.”

“No, she isn’t,” said George. “I’ll bet she just wants to make another demonstration shot. There won’t be damage. Besides, she needs my help to fire a missile, and I won’t help her hit a civilian target.” Joelle stopped in her tracks to listen to this exchange.

“No, George, she doesn’t need your help. She just needs a second person. If you or Aeneas won’t help her, she’ll go back to Rushmore and get someone who will. You don’t understand us! She is going to slaughter our countrymen.”

George shook his head and took a step toward the control room.

None of us had considered that Le Clerc might be carrying an “accessory” of his own. Le Clerc rolled painfully on his side, pulled out his 9mm from behind his back, and aimed it at Joelle. A burst of fire came from George’s M4. Le Clerc ceased moving permanently.

“I’m sorry, Maurice,” said George, “but her people are my countrymen and she is my wife.”

“Come on, George,” said Joelle softly.

“Just a minute.” George walked up to the airship. “Aeneas, this is a good ship,” he said. “I hereby dub it Nearer.” (It was years before I learned the reason for choice.) More quietly, he said, “Listen, this is an order and a plea. Wait until we are both inside, lift off, and go full throttle in a straight line as far away from here as you can get. If nothing unusual happens in half an hour, come back. Don’t be early.” George looked at me a long moment, unclipped his leather journal from his belt, and tossed it into the craft. George turned away and walked to Joelle.

“What was that about?” she asked.

“Just some reminders of his family duties,” said George. I suppose they were.

As they entered the control room bunker I faced a dilemma. I suspected that following George’s instructions would expend my second chance in Joelle’s eyes, and she had made it clear there would be no third. I didn’t fancy an appearance in the arena. George, on the other hand, rarely was wrong tactically, and he never had tried to do me harm even though he had reason to resent me. I made a fateful decision. I dropped ballast and rose into the sky. I chose the direction in which I would have a tailwind and thrust the throttles full forward. No airship is a jackrabbit, but my ground speed climbed to nearly 100kph.

I was perhaps 40 klicks away when, for the second time in my life, I experienced an artificial dawn. The sky turned bright blue. The shock wave overtook me in less than two minutes. Even at this distance it keeled the airship on its side and nearly flung me out of the gondola. The windshield shattered. The radio, which hadn’t even been turned on, sparked and burned out. I could smell oil.

I have to assume that George was responsible for a point-and-click targeting their own control room. I don’t know whether Joelle really was going to attack Quebec as Le Clerc predicted or just set off another demonstration as George expected. Whatever the case, George evidently decided it was necessary to remove the threat permanently. He thereby answered a question in his journal. He was willing both to die and kill for Joelle – just not in the way she would have wanted.

Nearer limped back to Beautiful Rushmore Cave. I desperately wanted to leave the Black Hills and return to my pampered life in Morrisbourg, but the airship was in no condition for the trip. A crowd waited for me. The fireworks in the north had been impossible to miss. As I set the craft down, several locals secured it with mooring ropes to the same rings to which the other P16 had been tied. Jennifer, new spear in hand, stood in the front rank and treated me to a murderous stare.

It seemed unwise to reveal that Joelle and George were dead. Instead, I pretended to be acting under their authority. The Dakotans were quite credulous. After all, I was a Custer and Jennifer, unsurprisingly, hadn’t explained to anyone how I had distracted her, since this would have cast her in a very bad light. I’m not normally a convincing liar, but I was inspired by the serious risk to my life. Le Clerc had been allowed to escape, I told them, as a test of his character, and as a proxy test for the general run of people Back East. He had failed Joelle’s test, I said, and bee-lined for the missiles instead of for home. He planned to destroy our commune. Joelle had anticipated such a possibility before Le Clerc even arrived, I told them, and had rigged the guidance program of the control computer so that anyone attempting to fire a missile without entering the password “Luggage” would drop the missile on the control room bunker itself and no where else. George and Joelle had given Le Clerc a chance, and he used the chance to destroy himself. This was the explosion the Dakotans had seen and heard.

“What about Sue Ann?” asked Jennifer.

“Regrettably she died with Le Clerc,” I said. “She is a heroine. She was informed of the plan to test Le Clerc, and helped carry it out. She chose to let him destroy himself, knowing she was sacrificing her own life. Joelle did not ask her to make that sacrifice, but it was a brave choice. She chose to protect the commune by letting the test reach its ultimate conclusion.”

The experience, I continued, proved that contact with the outside world was no yet wise. It must come eventually, however, but Joelle and George needed to sow the seeds of enlightenment in the so-called civilized world to prepare the way. So, they were headed east to begin the task. They had confidence, I told them, that the Rushmore Commune is advanced enough to continue without them.

“Joelle instructs Selena” I said, “to assume the role of Mother. The commune is to treat her with the respect and obedience due Joelle herself.”

Unlike nearly all of the Dakotans, Selena, I could see, was buying none of this. Nonetheless my lie had put her in charge, so she chose not to question it.’

“Joelle’s last instruction is that the airship be repaired so I can follow them and assist them in their work Back East. I shall return when the time is right.”

I had recreated the scenario for Selena that Joelle had constructed for herself. She was the Mother and I was new Custer whose return the commune would await.

The airship Nearer was ready in three days. I got the impression Selena was eager to see me go. She made no further offers of intimacy.

I flew a southerly route far from the Great Lakes. I maintained high altitude and speed on a path to Morrisbourg. This time the weather was with me. The desert below gave way to rain forest. If anyone down there took shots at me, I was too high for them. Upon arrival in Morrisbourg I reported that George and Maurice had died in an unfortunate encounter with natives in the ruins of Chicago. The report sparked surprisingly little interest. My paisley airship garnered much more comment, but no one in Morrisbourg knew that it was not the ship we had bought and flown west; as for the colors, George was known to be an eccentric who once had owned a monitor lizard as a pet. The Le Pens no doubt thought I had reneged on the sales agreement by not advertising the virtues of the craft, but, after all, it was the wrong craft. The one they sold George didn’t return, which nullified the agreement.

As I explained earlier in my testimony, I did not benefit from my return. My estate lawyers stole my inheritance. They even seized Nearer, ostensibly in lieu of unpaid fees, which they then used as an aerial pleasure yacht, mooring it at a warehouse on the outskirts of town.

This brings us to the reporter Boris Fontaine and my supposed threat to life and civilization, a threat that the prosecutor claims is evidence of my premeditation.

I spent the money from Boris and Pierre Roulant for the delivery of George Custer’s journals in order to fully equip myself for an expedition to the west. I loaded the supplies on Nearer, which I fully acknowledge stealing, though in my opinion I was just reclaiming what was rightfully mine. I knew it would take Boris a little time to read through the journals. The threat was an admittedly ill-considered addendum that, in a fit of pique, I scrawled onto the end and signed. It reads in full:

“By the time you read this I will be in South Dakota. If the Dakotans are not already manning a missile squadron at all times, I will see to it that they do. Any attack on the Rushmore commune or the Dakotan missiles will be considered grounds to launch them. I alone will determine whether the philosophy of George, Joelle, or Le Clerc with regard to the warheads is the correct one.”

HIRISAWA: Does that end your testimony, Mr. Custer?

AENEAS CUSTER: No, sir, but I’m close. The consequences of this note and of my arrival in South Dakota are crucial to my story and defense.

HIRISAWA: Then I suggest we break for lunch and resume in an hour.


No comments:

Post a Comment