Sunday, July 14, 2013

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

SLOG
Chapter 2: STARS

My pet monitor lizard “Luggage” posed like a statue next to the Cave Saurum sign atop the white marble steps. He didn’t stir and his eyes stared fixedly ahead, but I knew he was aware of me. He preferred the hour before noon when the direct sun bleached the steps. The length of his chain was open to doubt from the sidewalk, so he deterred idle visitors.

The tasteful masonry structure was built in 1916 in a federal revival style, when it was the main post office for Morristown, NJ, as it would remain for more than a century. It is now both my residence and the official Governor’s Mansion in the proprietary colony of what has been renamed Morrisbourg, plus grand Québec. The mansion is a building with substance, and well-suited to the sweltering climate that descended on the region when the sun went into overdrive. Oddly, Americans built grander public buildings in their leaner years than in their later wealthier ones. The last post offices built in the 21st century were flimsy aluminum and glass boxes.

I’m George Custer – no relation to the 19th century cavalry officer of the same name. I’m the proprietary Governor of much of what once was the northern part of New Jersey. My lands stretch all the way west to the Delaware and south to the South Branch of the Raritan.

After a rough start, the colony is flourishing. The tough survivors who had natural immunities to the diseases that ravaged North America are emerging from their hideouts in the hills and forests, and they are settling here where the rule of law has been reestablished. There are more of them than I ever imagined. The population of Morrisbourg already numbers nearly 400. Folks are starting farms and opening businesses.

At first I resented the loss of my solitude. I had grown accustomed to being the sole resident of the town of my birth, but the truth is that it is good to have people around again. Of course, it helps when you’re rich. I never had experienced wealth before. When you are alone, the word doesn’t have much meaning. Of course, modern notions of crowding are different from what they once were. Back before the climate disaster, this little town was home to some 20,000 people. Today there aren’t 20,000 people in all of the former New England and Middle Atlantic States combined.

I reentered the mansion. It still feels strange to me that I’m really the Governor. It wasn’t something I had planned. My wife Joelle sat in a lawn chair in the marble entry hall. She had planned to be Governor. It didn’t work out. She wore a two-piece orange bathing suit. A blue haze hovered over her. She was seldom without such a cloud anymore. A pink bong with a happy face on it stood on the floor next to the chair. On the other side of the chair was an open bottle of banana wine. She exhaled and coughed. It wasn’t hashish today. The sweet odor of opium drifted my way.

“Good morning, Joelle.”

She squinted at me and answered, “Hey.” She looked away and shook her head. I got the feeling that I once again had failed to meet her standards. “I need some more weed and more wine,” she said. “Get them today. And the photocells on the roof need cleaning. Do it now! The fans are barely turning. I shouldn’t have to ask you these things. You can be such an ass. I don’t know why I married you.”

Neither did I. There was no reason she couldn’t have taken care of those chores herself while I was out collecting the rents. Since descending into addiction, Joelle had become demanding, self-centered, unhelpful, and mean. It was a display of weakness that contrasted sharply with her former confident self-reliance. She hated to be alone these days, but her alcohol and drug induced rages and general nastiness alienated all her friends and acquaintances. They alienated me too. This wasn’t the woman I had married.

“Do you have to smoke dope right in the foyer?” I asked.

“What am I supposed to do? Hide away in some boiling hot room upstairs? I’d like to meet anyone who comes to visit. Not that anyone does thanks to that damn lizard of yours. I told you to get rid of him.”

“He’s my pet.” I didn’t add that he wasn’t the main reason no one visited.

I tried to make myself angry enough to break it off with her for good, but once again failed. We had known good times together. I had to admit, also, that Joelle’s good looks were holding up well despite the chemical battering and her general disregard of them. Am I so shallow as to be influenced by that? It seems so.

“I’ll go fix the photocells,” I said.

“Don’t break any this time! At least Ulysses didn’t trip over his own feet!”

Joelle was fond of comparing me unfavorably to Ulysses S. Johnston. He, Joelle, and I once had competed for the possession of Morrisbourg. Though my last-minute entry into the race was impulsive and slapdash, I had won. Luck had paid a large part in that. After filing my claim to Morrisbourg in New York, I had returned to town with armed guards in order to discourage a coup. Those guards still serve on the police force. Ulysses had anticipated my show of force, and left town in Joelle’s dinghy. Stuck in Morrisbourg, Joelle accepted her loss with apparent good grace, and met me with a smile on my return. We were married a week later. She didn’t object to a prenuptial agreement. I don’t mean to seem the cad, but when a woman has pointed a gun at you once, you hesitate to be worth more to her dead than alive. I wrote a Will leaving everything to her, but I kept that detail a secret; the Will is locked securely in a safe.

At first our life together was exciting and rewarding. Together we administered the colony. Morrisbourg grew rapidly by serving the food and resource needs of a renascent New York, recently re-occupied and annexed by Quebec.

English-speakers outnumber the Quebecois, and just call them “French” even though (or because) that annoys them. The French have done alright by me. They enforce my status as proprietary governor, after all. Beyond that, they’ve reintroduced the rule of law, issued a declaration of individual rights that is passably liberal, and they’ve given the locals the opportunity to raise our living standards above the level of Tarzan and Jane. We could have been colonized by worse. The real French are having a much tougher time of it under the heel of the Swiss. Still, they are a bit arrogant, and carpetbaggers from Montreal dominate the business and government in New York. The locals can’t help feeling resentful sometimes.

Morrisbourg provides New York with a variety of products including fresh meat and alligator skins. The key to our colony’s success, however, is three cash crops, and Joelle deserves the credit for promoting all three. One is hemp, a tough versatile plant from which we make paper, cloth, rope, and pharmaceuticals – and, of course, smokable hashish. Poppies are the second. We grow them not for decoration or for poppyseed bagels but for opium. The French are remarkably accepting of this, though they do restrict the trade in opium to the new territories south of the old Canadian border. Perhaps they hope to keep the southern colonies philosophical, or perhaps they just like collecting the tax. The third crop is bananas. We do sell just the fruit, but the real money is in banana wine. Labeled  Old Yeller: the Bananas that Bite, this dreadful brew explicably is a fad throughout Greater Quebec.

The danger of sitting on this three-legged economic stool soon was evinced in my own home when Joelle herself became a customer. The change in her was rapid and depressing. Joelle always had been ambitious, ruthless, and smart. She was as dangerous as a leopard, but I loved her that way. She scared me, but I loved her. Now she just wanted to stay home and addle her mind with booze and drugs. I realized full well that her substance abuse and torpor were related to the misfire of her plan to seize Morrisbourg for herself. Marriage to the Governor was a poor substitute for being Governor. After the initial stimulating years of establishing the colony, her dissatisfaction began to grow. For this reason, I felt partly responsible for her current state.

I tried to think of a solution short of signing the colony over to her. I knew Joelle well enough to know this would be hard on the colonists – and on me. I had vetoed many a harsh measure for which she actively argued. While scraping fungal growth off the photocells, I thought of a diversion. This is not the same as a solution, but it is something.

As usual, I was soaked in perspiration when I left the roof and returned to the foyer. I’ve almost forgotten what it is like to be dry.

“Joelle, why don’t you accompany the next wine shipment to New York?”

“Why don’t you go yourself? And you stink. Take a bath.”

“I can’t. Go to New York, that is. I’m going to be busy orienting new settlers and negotiating business contracts with them.”

“Don’t negotiate. Just tell them the way it will be,” she said.

“Regardless, they’ll keep me busy for a while. It would help if you met our major distributers and the politicos in New York for a few days. Hobnob. Go to parties. Personal contact of that sort does help.”

“Parties?” she said.

“Yes. Meet with the Mayor and the Military Commander. Make the society pages. It’s good for business. It might be fun, too.”

“I’ll need quite a lot of money,” she warned.

“We have money. Take what you need. The next boat leaves on Friday, though you can take a later one if you want.”

“No, I’ll go Friday. But you owe me, George.”

Joelle apparently liked the big city, because a few days stretched to a month. New York is huge. It numbers nearly 6,000 people, and immigrants arrive every day from the hinterlands and the north. It is one of the world’s great metropolises.

While she was gone, I got up, ate, worked, slept, and played entirely on my own schedule. It was relaxing and revitalizing. Yet, a part of me missed her. Perhaps that part was insane, but the fact remains. What can explain such a reaction? The answer can’t be found in books on library shelves – at least not on the shelves in Morrisbourg. I know. I’ve looked.

All vacations come to and end, even those that masquerade as work. One day I walked into my executive office and was startled to see a familiar face. Joelle had sent no warning of her return. She glanced up at me. Her eyes had regained their old fire. Something seemed to be missing; it took me a while to realize the missing element was opium smoke.

I got only as far as “Hey, great to see…” when she cut me off with a question.

“Where are the distillery accounts?” she asked.

“Under ‘B’ for banana. Why?”

“Because you’ve let the distillers cheat us of our proper percentage.”

“Well, I’m glad to see you taking an interest again. Welcome back.” I meant that in more ways than one. “Did you enjoy your extended excursion?” I queried.

“Yes. Try to enjoy yours, though I can see how you might not.”

“I have no travel plans,” I objected.

“That’s where you’re wrong, cher. Report tomorrow to Captain Le Clerc on the gunboat La Salle. She’s tied up at the Battery. I told the wine boat to wait for you until 6.”

“It doesn’t need to wait because I’m not going,” I said.

“Yes, you are.”

“How do I put this? No. That’s it: no. I have a colony to run here.”

“No,” she responded. “I have a colony to run. This colony has been placed in Trust to me for the duration of your assignment, which already has begun.”

I was beginning to recall the less enchanting aspects of Joelle’s old self.  “By whose authority? Besides,” I argued, “we have a contract and a prenup…”

“Both of which have been suspended for the duration of the Emergency – by the authority of the Regional Military Commander.”

It was beginning to look as though I was taking a trip. “What’s all this about? What emergency?”

Quebec is asserting its legitimate sovereignty over the whole of North America, exclusive of the territories substantively and usefully occupied by Canada and the Republic of Alaska. In other words, the whole of the old Lower 48, and everything south of there to Panama,” she said.

“Really? Wow. Well, it’s nice to keep up on current events, but I don’t see how that is an emergency. There is no one in any of that area capable of disputing the claim.”

“You are wrong,” she said, “which is getting to be a habit for you. Before making the announcement, the PM decided she would send a modest force to occupy Washington, DC. The place made a good symbol – taking it was a good way to demonstrate our sway.”

The “our” did not escape my notice. “What’s to occupy? Foggy Bottom started out as a swamp. The whole District must be under water,” I said.

“No, Capitol Hill is dry, more or less. Troops landed a few months ago.”

“Months? Why am I hearing about it only now, and only from you? There hasn’t been a word about it on the radio or in the papers – unless those references to survey missions count. I thought the whole point was to make headlines with this symbolic occupation.”

“They would be the wrong headlines,” she answered.

“Are ‘wrong headlines’ the emergency?”

“Yes. The entire expedition is missing. They reported landing in DC, and then went silent. A relief boat was sent. The second team reported back that the place was deserted. They made one more report, and then nothing was heard again from the second boat.”

“Well, maybe some swamp dwellers jumped both expeditions,” I speculated. “You know how dangerous some of them are. But they can’t amount to more than a band of armed bandits. The French probably sent too few troops to protect themselves.”

Joelle smiled. “You have a habit of referring to your countrymen in the third person, as though you are not one of us – and we’re not French. But yes, the PM shares your view. This time we are sending adequate forces on the La Salle, and you are going with them.”

“Why me? In what possible way can I help anything? Whose screwy idea was it to send me?”

“The ‘bandits’ as you call them.”

“Come again?” I asked.

“The bandits asked for you – by name. Remember I said we got an additional report from the second boat? The report said that a sign nailed to a pillar by the main entrance of the Capitol announced ‘a state of war now exists’ – it didn’t say between whom and whom – and further said ‘we demand Governor George Custer of Morrisbourg’ act as negotiator for a peace accord.’”

“I’m dumbfounded. That is so very strange,” I said.

“Isn’t it? I dare say the Prime Minister is suspicious of you. She had half a mind to arrest you as a spy. Her better nature prevailed, and she ordered the Regional Military Commander to employ you as negotiator, and to take whatever other measures he felt necessary.”

“Thanks for vouching for me.”

“I didn’t say I had.”

“Well, I guess I’m going on a trip to DC.”

Joelle shrugged. The gesture wasn’t as cute as it used to be.

“Oh, George? One more thing. I’m pregnant. Now hurry or you’ll miss that boat.”

“You’re…”

“I don’t want to discuss it. Don’t worry: the colony is in good hands while you’re gone. And, if anything should happen to you, under the terms of your Will the colony will stay in good hands. Don’t trust so much in safes, George. Now go!”



Harbor water lapped the hull of the warship tied up at the tip of Manhattan. The French were not underestimating their enemies this time. The La Salle was a beautiful diesel-powered coastal patrol vessel painted in blue, white and gray camouflage. She sported a 120mm main gun and several .50 caliber machine guns. She likely was the equal of any ship in any of the world’s remaining navies. Few governments can afford such toys anymore.

The organized military forces of the world consist overwhelmingly of modest infantry units with automatic rifles. The only hi-tech to which any have access is old tech. Advanced economies are such an intricate web of skills and resources, that the ability to produce advanced products – including high end electronics – effectively collapsed along with global population. Modern economies, accordingly, are a weird mix of 19th, 20th, and 21st century technologies. Blacksmiths and horse-drawn wagons exist side by side with scavenged microchips and gas turbines. No one can manufacture new “smart” missiles, but some of the old ones still work. The satellites are winking out, but for now enough are functioning to allow rapid global communication.

I introduced myself to the French marine at the gangplank. Wordlessly, he grabbed my duffel bag and emptied the contents on top of the sea wall. He stuffed underwear, soap, socks and a razor back in the bag. The rest, including books and spare clothes he left at his feet. He tossed the bag back to me and waved me aboard. I never did learn if he had kept the dumped contents or kicked them into the water.

I found the bunk room below. One sailor there pointed at the top bunk of a triple bank. My nose would be almost against the ceiling. I hoped the trip wouldn’t be too bumpy. I tossed my duffel bag on top and returned to the deck. The crew studiously ignored me. I found a place to sit in the bow in front of the main gun. Within the hour, crew untied the moorings. The engines rumbled and the ship backed away from the dock.

The sleek ship sliced through the calm harbor waters. We cruised past the statue of liberty. The fumes blended with the sea air to form a heady smell.

“Mister Custer!” barked a voice behind me. The voice belonged to the ship captain, a weathered choleric fellow who looked much older than his 32 years. I got up and walked around the gun to face him. I held out a hand. He didn’t take it.

“On this ship what I tell you when I tell you to do it. Not one jot more or less, and without delay. Do you understand?”

“Yes, captain.”

He spun on his heel and walked off, visible restraining himself. I wondered if he, too, thought I had collaborated with the bandits in DC.

I explored the deck, and tried approaching the captain again, hoping for a more cordial response.

“Excuse me, sir. I’m curious about what’s under the tarp on the back deck. It’s as big as a medium-size whale.” I added irrelevantly, “You know, the hemp ropes holding it down probably came from Morrisbourg.”

“I don’t care if you twined them yourself with your own fingers! Custer!” He spat my name. “I’ll tell you what you need to know when you need to know it! If you poke your nose where it doesn’t belong I’ll chop it off! If you try to contact anyone, I’ll throw you overboard! And don’t fraternize with my crew!”

“Contact? Whom would I contact?”

“That is the question, isn’t it? Did I make myself clear about your limits?”

Crystal.”

With 20 sailors and 40 marines aboard, the ship was crowded. If any one of them spoke English, aside from the captain and the medical officer, he didn’t reveal it. The medical officer was the only woman aboard. While she did exchange the common courtesies with me, I refrained from striking up a real conversation with her. For one thing, I was sure the captain would regard that as fraternizing. For another, the French woman already in my life was trouble enough. I spent time fishing, as did other members of the crew. Fishing is excellent what with the end of commercial fleets. Porpoises played in our wake.

When night fell I could see stars! I rarely saw them at home, because of the plant cover, hazy skies, and frequent rain. I stared at the sky for hours before finally going below and squeezing into my bunk.

We re-entered poor visibility the next day as we rounded the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula. The towers of the suspension sections of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel faded in the haze. Le Clerc did not slow the vessel on that account. Soon we entered the broad Potomac, much swollen beyond its former banks. We cut back to a more cautious speed. Sailors took hand soundings to double check whatever electronic readings were available on the bridge. Others took stations at their guns.

The ambient heat was more oppressive than in Morrisbourg. Back home the mist usually burned off by mid-morning, but down here it was still as dense as a steam bath. We rounded the bend where the Anacostia meets the Potomac, and the Capitol dome came fuzzily into view. Jungle growth on the Arlington side formed a wall of green. Much of DC was flooded. The upper floors of decaying buildings rose up out of the swamp. The Capitol and the Washington Monument stood on two islets.

We maneuvered between structures and puttered over a flooded Independence Avenue. We slipped between the Air and Space Museum and the old Smithsonian castle. Spanish moss draped the castle tower. The former Mall formed a wide channel. The hull gently touched bottom less than three meters from dray land.

Despite the brutal humidity, the marines went over the side with admirable celerity. They splashed to shore and occupied the rear veranda of the Capitol in minutes. The sailors moored the ship and stretched a walkway of rope and boards to land. We waited as the marines entered the building. Le Clerc stood by the gunners on the 120mm. Exploring such a large structure was no easy task, but after two hours, a sergeant emerged on the verandah and signaled that the building was secure. There was no sign of the members of the previous expeditions.

To marines had been held back from the assault. Le Clerc dispatched them by rubber raft to the Washington Monument. He was unhappy about sending such a small team but he didn’t want to reduce the main force further. I didn’t envy the two marines the climb up the stairs of the 550-foot (168m) tower. Before evening, however, they waved from the top windows. It was an ideal observation post and sniper position.

As night fell, the main force of marines took up positions around the Capitol. Le Clerc ordered me below, and posted a guard on me. I didn’t know whether to be insulted or flattered.

After a fitful night’s sleep, I was awakened by a marine who spoke in English, “Follow me.”

I needed a shave and even more urgently needed to attend to some basic biological functions. “Give me a couple minutes,” I said.

The marine would have none of it. “Follow me!” I followed him.

As we walked through a patch of swamp grass, I saw something strange: horseshoe tracks. Where could horses be raised around here? And who would transport them to this island? Where were they now? It was hard to see the sense of it.

We entered the Capitol through the Diplomatic Entrance on the ground floor. Our footsteps rang hollow in the dead air of the old stone corridor. We climbed a two-tiered staircase and passed through a short hallway. I looked right and saw Benjamin Franklin looking back. This was Statuary Hall, originally the House Chamber before the new wing was added in the 1850s. We moved on to the Rotunda. Even with the smell of decay and the spread of fungus, the space was impressive. On the ceiling was a bizarre painting of George Washington rising gloriously into the clouds above Roman-clad figures. Winged Victory held a sword in one hand and her red-white-blue shield in the other. Mildew had destroyed most of the paintings in the wall niches, but The Declaration of Independence in Congress and The Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga were still recognizable.

The marine prodded me. We proceeded to a semi-circular room with a half-dome overhead. We were in the old Senate Chamber where the Senate had met until 1859. This was the site of the historic 19th century debates on freedom and slavery. I don’t believe in ghosts, but, if they do exist, surely some hang out here. Le Clerc sat at Daniel Webster’s desk. A balled-up flag lay on top. It was the Stars and Stripes.

“This was flying on the east side,” he said. The east side of the Capitol is the main entrance, even though it faces away from downtown.

“OK. The bandits are patriots. What’s your point?” I asked.

“The point is reinforced by your use of the word ‘patriots.’”

I sighed loudly. “The USA is gone. I know that, even if whoever ran up the flag doesn’t. The continent is better off united, even under the French.”

“We are not French and ‘under’ is an insulting preposition.”

“Fine. Use whatever proposition you like. I’m not political.”

Le Clerc looked at me with deep skepticism. “A colonial Governor is not political?”

“This one isn’t – and, besides, my authority is suspended at the moment.”

“Good. Let’s call things by their proper names, Custer. Your friends here are not patriots and are not bandits. They are terrorists. They asked for you specifically to negotiate with us, and they added a demand that we’ve kept secret, even from your wife. The terrorists demand that we travel upriver. You are to be present. You will be our representative, which in my opinion is a case of the terrorists negotiating with themselves. They made no mention of hostages, but we must assume they have them, which makes their demands an ultimatum Or do you already know all this?”

“I don’t know anything.”

“You may have fooled the civilians with that lie – including that poor wife of yours – but you aren’t fooling me! Custer, you and your buddies are despicable scum. Taking hostages is a coward’s way to negotiate. If it were up tome, I’d shoot you right here, bring in some serious artillery, and bombard the riverbanks with HE the whole length upstream. But the PM wants the hostages back even if it means dealing with trash. So cut the crap and tell me what you want.”

“I want to go home. Le Clerc, you are way off base on this one. Honestly, I don’t know these people. I don’t know what they want. I’m flabbergasted that they knew my name. If I had to guess, I’d say they heard it on some news broadcast about banana futures.”

Le Clerc shook his head, plainly disbelieving every word.

“So are we taking La Salle upriver?” I asked.

“Oh you’d love that: take the ship in a channel through dense jungle where your friends can blow us out of the water at will with hidden guns.”

“Well then, what are your plans besides threatening me, which, I assure you is as useless as it apparently is satisfying?”

Le Clerc reluctantly accepted that I would not speak for the bandits, even though he refused to accept that I could not. “We are going upriver,” he said, “but on my terms, not yours. Let me show you that cargo about which you were so curious earlier.”

On the way back to the ship we passed marines carrying crates of explosives to the Crypt beneath the Rotunda. “What’s that all about?” I asked.

“We are prewiring the Capitol for destruction. If we are forced to abandon the site to the terrorists again, we are leaving it a pile of rubble. We can detonate by radio from La Salle or from the Washington Monument. Your people have nothing to win here.”

Once again he assumed the bandits were my people. I often have been underestimated, which has worked to my advantage. This was the first time I had been overestimated so completely. I didn’t see an upside to it.

In a sense, the captain was right not to trust me. He had done nothing to increase my affection for the French, and the symbols of the old Republic stirred something in me. I began to wonder if we would be better off independent. The more I thought about it, though, the less sensible the idea seemed. The lower 48 were a giant disaster area where the only things more deadly than the climate, germs, and wildlife were the surviving humans. The Alaskans still had a government, true enough, but they were in no shape to intervene down here. What little law, order, and, I had to admit, justice prevailed were contributed by Quebec.

As we exited the Capitol, I saw La Salle’s secret weapon taking shape. An airship was inflating. It already hovered above the deck though only about 70% full. It was nearly as long as La Salle itself. The gondola slung below was open with no glass. I was impressed. The declining industrial capability of Quebec and the rest of the world made building new reliable fixed-wing aircraft a problem, but the manufacture of floating airbags was well within modern competence. It was a clever approach to reclaiming the sky.

“The gondola has room for four,” said Le Clerc. “She’s powered by a 25-horse gasoline engine with a three-blade prop. She’s filled with hydrogen.”

“Isn’t that awfully dangerous,” I asked.

“Helium is in short supply. We can make hydrogen from water by electrolysis. Besides, hydrogen gives 20% more lift. As for the danger of fire, I don’t mind placing you at risk. I would regret the loss of a crewman, though, which is why I’m going with you myself.”

“With me? You mean we’re going up in that thing?”

“Yes.”

“Won’t we be a very big target?”

“Oh, I don’t expect your pals will shoot at you,” he said. “Besides this is a diplomatic mission, is it not? I’m not even bringing weapons except for this.” He patted his 9mm. “And that’s not for them.” I understood that it was for possible use against me. “Listen, Custer,” he added. “If any harm comes to those loyal Quebecois held by your friends, I’ll make you pay.”

“Fly now, pay later.”

Le Clerc explained the basics of airship operation to me. They were more complex than I had thought. I learned, for example, that within the outer skin were inner bags called ballonets that served to compensate for pressure changes. These required constant attention.

A crewman approached us with two glasses and a bottle. It was Old Yeller, Morrisbourg’s horrible banana wine. He poured a glass for each of us. To my surprise, Le Clerc clinked his glass to mine. I understood this to be some expression of camaraderie at the start of a new mission, which, given his evaluation of me, was a major concession on his part to sportsmanship on his part. I clinked back and downed the glass. I hate banana wine. The crewman was unsuccessfully suppressing a smirk. I guessed he shared my opinion of Old Yeller.

We slowly rose above the sunken city. The engine started easily and we nosed the craft upriver. Teddy Roosevelt’s statue, standing ankle-deep in the Potomac, seemed to wave to us as we passed overhead. Linear breaks in the trees marked old highways. I identified a long curving one as the Capital beltway. For hours the scenery barely changed. There was mile after mile thick steamy foliage split by the river. There was no sign of bandits or of any human occupation.

“What’s the range of this thing?” I asked.

“We could make it to the Mississippi and back if we had to. Do we have to?”

“I keep telling you I don’t know.”

“So you say. Regardless, we are not turning back until we do a full reconnaissance.”

At last a change took place in the scenery below. The hills became mountains that our blimp barely cleared. We think of Maryland as a fairly level place, formerly host to horse farms and the well-to-do suburbs of DC and Baltimore, but the western counties are as rugged as anything this side of the Mississippi. At this altitude the heat was less oppressive – almost pleasant. The foliage changed with the topography. The rainforest gave way to grasslands on the upper mountain slopes. It looked like pictures of the Kenya highlands in the atlases in the Morrisbourg Library.

“We’re running out of river, aren’t we?” I asked

Le Clerc grunted and pointed at a rotted billboard below: “Welcome to West Virginia, Wild and Wonderful.” I pointed to the next bend in the river. Tied up on the bank was a line of wooden rafts. If this was the river fleet of a bandit gang, the gang was a big one. We could here distant shouting.

“Are we setting down?” I asked.

“No, because this is where you want me to set down. I’m going to look at what you don’t want me to see. There is smoke beyond that ridge.”

I wasn’t sure we had the altitude to clear the ridge, but we did, barely. Below us was a plateau covered by farms complete with fences and plowed fields. There were more shouts and the pops of rifle fire. Le Clerc full throttled the engine. I could hear bullets striking the fabric of the blimp. We passed over a white farmhouse close enough to touch the chimney. The farm looked like a Norman Rockwell painting. A village center of sorts was on our left. The smoke in the air had the acrid odor characteristic of industry. I assumed it consisted of blacksmith shops. Nothing more sophisticated seemed possible. A US flag flew on a flagpole next to a baseball field.

We were losing altitude from the bullets. We were lucky not to have exploded. People below had come outside their homes and barns to look at us. Most were dressed in blue. We reached the far edge of the plateau. Our continued to drop but the slope was steeper than our rate of descent. Jungle growth was in the valley ahead.

“Call La Salle, Custer. I’m a little busy here!”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to call La Salle. That might bring down firepower on these farmers, who probably were guilty of nothing more than defending their homes against what they viewed as an outside threat. Besides, there were the French captives to consider, assuming there were any. Calling in the marines now might endanger them unnecessarily. The request for me as negotiator was beginning to make sense, too. If they learned somehow by radio broadcast that I was a Governor of a colony of Quebec, yet not French, they might have thought I would be more sympathetic to them. They’d be right, too.

I perfunctorily fussed with the radio. “La Salle. Calling La Salle.”

“It will work better if you use the right frequency,” said Le Clerc.

“Which one is that?”

“The one it on before you changed it!”

Our descent was now alarmingly swift. As the valley floor loomed, a collision with the trees looked imminent.  I spotted a small lagoon formed by a blockage in a large stream.

‘Can you make that?” I asked.

“We’ll see.” Le Clerc revved the engine and steered toward the water. “If we survive the crash, you won’t survive a minute past it!” he shouted.

Saying as much out loud probably made Le Clerc feel better, but it foolishly gave me fair warning. I grabbed his hair and banged his skull on the steering column. Stunned, he sunk to his knees. This gave me the opportunity to slip the 9mm out of his holster and throw it overboard into the jungle. Le Clerc recovered enough to push me back and spin around. He got his hands on my throat just as we hit the water. Both of us went sprawling. The gondola submerged under the weight of the deflating fabric. I pulled myself over the side against the inrushing water and swam to shore without looking back. I knew too well the kinds of creatures that inhabit waters like this. Among them, if still alive, was Le Clerc, who no doubt was irritated with me. I hoped he was. For all of his lethal threats, there was a rough honor to the man. I almost liked him.

I grabbed tree roots at the lagoon’s edge and pulled myself out of the water and muck. I plunged into the dense foliage. Any passerby a meter away would have been hard-pressed to see me. I felt safe. As a poisonous snake slithered past my ankle, however, I decided that safe was a relative term. I needed to reach the settlement on the plateau if I planned to survive for long. I had to make the long climb up the steep mountainside. It would be best to get to the top before nightfall. There are sharp teeth in the jungle and I would be easy prey in the dark.

There is no need to recount in detail my painful ascent through vines and brush in the debilitating heat while having blood sucked out of me by more types of insects than I knew existed. Once upon a time, some folks were desperate to save the last scraps of the world’s rainforests. I hope they’re happy. By nightfall I had made substantial progress but was still in the forest. I climbed a tree to sit out the dark. I hoped not to be eaten before morning. Somehow I fell asleep.

I opened my eyelids. Sunlight leaked through the leaves. I was exhausted, dehydrated, and in pain, but there was nothing to do but continue up the slope. I dropped to the ground and slogged forward. In only 100 meters I was through the tree line. I had stopped that close to my goal. In front of me was a three-rail wooden fence and beyond that was grass pasture. Horses in the pasture grazed peaceably.

The breeze shifted a rank smell even worse than my own acquired odor wafted my way. To my left on the ground was the carcass the size of a full-grown pig, though it more closely resembled an oversize rat. I had heard of capybaras, giant rodents native to Brazil, but never had seen one. Something had killed it and I suspected I had interrupted its meal. Perhaps it was now stalking me. The horses in the distance looked suddenly alert, and then ran off. Now I was sure of it. I was too tired to run. Besides that just might trigger a chase. I regretted having thrown away Le Clerc’s gun. A peach tree stood about 15 meters inside the pasture. I climbed the fence and walked deliberately toward it. I felt eyes on my back the whole way.

Peach trees do not grow tall, but their profusion of branches makes them easy to climb. This merit quickly proved minor. As I settled in the upper branches a jaguar walked out of the forest and leapt the fence at a bound. The big spotted cat soft-pawed the distance to the tree with the nonchalance of which only cats are capable. She sat at the bottom and looked up at me.

I’ve never enjoyed, or even understood, killing animals for sport. It would be a lie, though, to say I felt anything but relief when a bullet dropped the jaguar. Ulysses S. Johnston clicked the bolt on his Springfield. The reins lay on his saddle but the horse held steady.

The resemblance to General Grant was now almost laughably close. Ulysses wore a blue uniform that recalled those of 19th century cavalry officers, though the tailoring was slapdash and the color too light. Five stars were on each shoulder, an unusual rank in any age. The uniform looked like denim and must have been terribly hot. He was accompanied by two young cavalrymen, also in denim cut to be uniforms. Between them on a donkey was a bedraggled and tied Le Clerc. One of the men dismounted and offered his mare to me. I accepted gratefully.

“Welcome to Aurora,” said Ulysses. You should have walked up Route 50. It’s an easy climb that way. I don’t know how you missed it.”

I probably hadn’t missed it by more than a few meters. “I always prefer the scenic route,” I answered.

The soldier whose horse I had taken was leading Le Clerc’s donkey from the ground. “Are you OK?” I asked Le Clerc.

He merely glared at me.

“He’ll be fine,” said Ulysses. “He led us on such a merry chase before we caught him that I know his health is good. Sorry about my boys shooting at you, but you caught them off guard. We were expecting some little motorboat on the river. When you appeared in the sky they thought it was an attack. You always were full of surprises, George. An airship! That must have been fun.”

“All but the last few minutes.”

“‘Oh, the humanity.’ We’re patching the blimp up, or at least trying to. We don’t know yet if it’s too badly damaged.”

“Is Route 50 really passable? Or is it just less grown-over than either side?”

“It is passable by horse and buggy as far east as Winchester and as far west as Parkersburg. Clearing the road is central to our plan to extend territorial control. One day it will you’ll be able to roll a wheeled carriage on it from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

Aurora would have been a small and forgettable village in the old days, but by modern standards it was a world class city. Its population exceeded Morrisbourg and was nearly half that of New York. The appearance was largely bucolic, but, as we so often forget, agrarian scenes belong to civilization, not to nature. I was charmed by the look of the place. I was accustomed to regarding human habitation everywhere as an alien presence amid fierce jungle growth and encroaching water; here the farms, pastures, houses, and people seemed to belong in the landscape. Clothing fashion, of all things was the most jarring element. All of the men and many of the women wore blue ersatz uniforms. The children mostly wore khaki, with many sporting red, white, and blue armbands sporting bald eagles.

“I seem to have stumbled on the set of F Troop,” I remarked.

“Are you casting me as Captain Parmenter?” Ulysses asked.

“Not if you’re casting me as Wrangler Jane. What is going on here?” I asked. “And how have you managed it? I’m guessing there are a few thousand people up here. That’s a lot, but it’s not enough to support industry above the craft level. Just making all these uniforms must tax all your resources.”

“We don’t need to manufacture everything. There are plenty of malls and warehouses to be scavenged if you know where to look. Our scouts found a warehouse full of denim clothes only a few miles away, for example. It takes little tailoring to turn them into uniforms. But don’t underestimate our capacity for self-reliance. A people can achieve anything with national focus.”

“Is national focus what you have?” I asked skeptically.

“Yes. At bottom it is all we have. You need to understand what these people have experienced. After the world changed, this little community against all odds hung on. But when I arrived, everything was on the verge of collapse. This little patch of the good life had attracted human wolves. Gangs of them robbed, raped, and burned. The jungle was safer. Aurora would have been a ghost town within a year.”

“So you moved in with a tougher gang. That’s called forming a government, isn’t it?” I said.

“Is that a joke?”

“Sadly, no.”

“Are you an anarchist, my boy? I didn’t think you were so utopian.”

“I’m not. I’m sad about that too. So, are you the man on top?”

“They call me Chief, which I tolerate,” said Ulysses.

“Yes, I imagine you would. Are you still using the name ‘Ulysses S. Johnston.’?”

“Yes again, thanks to you. You are important to us, and so, therefore, is our history together. History records that name.”

“What is your real name?”

“Whatever I say it is. Right now, it’s ‘Chief.’”

“The title suddenly sounds a little less spontaneous on the part of the Aurorans. I don’t suppose you allow them a civil government,” I said.

“Now is not the time for liberal democratic tripe! That is what destroyed America in the first place. If there had been a real national government with true leadership in place when the climate crisis hit instead of a squabbling electioneering pack of puerile panderers, the country would have held together. I admire the way you run your colony like a medieval barony, by the way. Do you offer the residents of Morrisbourg a representative government?” To my silence, he responded, “I thought not.”

“So this is a military government?”

“Precisely. We are at war, after all. I’m aware that people have political instincts, George, but instead of trying to suppress them or to let them run riot, we channel them. Anyone can join the National American Party, which is the only legal political organization, and which serves the interest of the state. We can achieve anything with focus.”

“By ‘the state’ you mean these few thousand mountaineers. And you are focusing the Aurorans by picking a fight with Quebec,” I said.

“The French picked the fight! They invaded!”

“Their invasion didn’t bother you when you thought you could get them to give you title to Morrisbourg.”

Ulysses laughed. “You have firm grasp of the obvious, George. Don’t be offended. Few people have it. I’m glad you don’t buy into ideology, really. We are more alike than you think. I enjoy your honesty with me, but I must warn you not to talk like this in public. If you do, I might have to shoot you as a subversive. So keep your candor just between us.”

“What about these two?” I referred to the accompanying soldiers. “They hear you talking. Will you shoot them?” The man leading the donkey smiled at the question.

“No, of course not, George. These two are my closest guards, and I rely on their greed for their loyalty, not on their belief in any –ism. They can’t be disillusioned because they have no illusions. They simply know their best bet is to stick with me. It’s your best bet, too, George. I’ll have a uniform delivered to you.”

“Have I been drafted?”

“Yes. You and the French captain here are guests of honor at tonight’s rally. I want you both in uniform.”

“You said I was important to you,” I said. “Why? I had a theory, but I see it was wrong.”

“You are important, but not indispensable. Don’t think for a minute we can’t do without you. But it was fun scaring the French into thinking a rebellion was stirring, and that the Governor of Morrisbourg was part of the conspiracy. If they shot you, you would have been an American martyr. If they sent you here to negotiate, I knew they would do it by committing their best forces to a very vulnerable position. And if you turned-coat, as I urge you to do, you provide a high-profile inspiration to others to do the same. However the French responded, the results would favor us.”


“Well, that’s quite a Machiavellian plot,” I said.

“I can’t take credit for it. The plan was Joelle’s.”

The news of Joelle’s betrayal caused my stomach to clench. Why was a part of me proud of her?

“She just wanted Morrisbourg for herself, so she got you to set me up,” I said. “She doesn’t care about any of this.” I indicated Aurora with a hand sweep.

“I know that, George, but it worked to our benefit anyway.”

“She’ll betray you, too, the moment it is in her interest.”

“But it’s not in her interest. If she stays quiet and the French win, she’ll be the heroine who saved Morrisbourg from a traitor – that would be you. If we win, she’ll be the heroine of the revolution. She is utterly predictable, and therefore safe. I’m much less sure of you.”

“Don’t worry about me. I’m not ambitious.”

“Untrue, George. You’re not diligent – you like the easy path – but you are ambitious. You’ve proved it. Ultimately, you are more ambitious than Joelle. Don’t you know that? She wants to be the big fish, but she doesn’t care if it’s a small pond. You want to be a whale in the ocean, even if you’re not the biggest whale.”

I was having trouble keeping up with the metaphors. “What is it you want of me Ulysses?”

“I want you to be my second in command. Colonel is just a temporary rank until I’m more certain about you. My plan is to promote you to four-star general in short order.”

“Second… four stars? Are you kidding? No…I can see you’re not.”

My astonishment evaporated when another question crossed my mind. “When exactly did you talk to Joelle?”

“I wondered when you would ask. I met her in New York two months ago. There are no security fences around the city, you know. I sailed into harbor on a fishing boat with a few of my boys dressed in civvies – we were doing a bit of recon. I read in the society pages of the paper that Joelle would be at an event at the Waldorf, so I arranged to bump into her. She was surprisingly happy to see me.”

I had another question about the nature of the bump, but decided I didn’t want to know the answer. Instead I asked, “What about the French from the first two expeditions to DC? Are they alright?”

“Some of them. You’ll see them tonight at the rally.”

The “some” suggested there had been casualties. That was unfortunate, but unsurprising.

“Is the rally for this National American Party of yours?”

“It is,” he answered. “It’s now your party too.”

“You might want to consider changing the name.”

“Why?”

“Do you really want to be known as Nappies?”

He glared at me with his intense brown eyes.

We approached a two-story home with a front porch that wrapped around one side. Four uniformed young people sat on the porch; they had eagle armbands on their left arms. They snapped to attention and saluted when they saw us. Ulysses knew one of the four by name.

“Weston!”

“Yes, Ch…Chief…sir,” she stammered.

“Show Colonel Custer a room upstairs. You are his attendant until further notice.”

“What about Le Clerc?” I asked.

“He is a prisoner of war. He’ll be quartered elsewhere. Until later, Colonel,” said Ulysses.

I dismounted, and responded, “Until later.” Ulysses sat motionless as though he expected more. I caught the hint and saluted. He tapped his horse with his heels. The guards and Le Clerc followed.

I climbed the stairs of the farmhouse porch. The young woman saluted.

“Please don’t do that, miss. Not around the house, anyway. Let’s keep it informal.”

“Yes, Colonel.” She opened the door for me. “Your room will be the one up the stairs, first door on the right.”

The interior of the house smelled of firewood. It was a pleasant odor. Weston followed me up the stairs. Directly ahead was the open door of a bathroom. I peeked inside. It contained an old fashioned claw tub with a shower attachment.

“Is the shower functional?” I asked.

“Yes sir.”

The thought was delicious. “If you bring me a razor I’ll love you forever.”

“Sir?”

“Please bring me a razor.”

“Yes sir.”

The shower was refreshing beyond description. The “cold” water in fact was lukewarm, but it was still more wonderful than any shower I’d had in years. Weston walked in while I stood beneath the showerhead. She placed a razor and a toothbrush on the sink and turned to face me.

“Will there be anything else, sir?”

“No, miss,” I said with embarrassment,

“Corporal, sir.” She turned slightly to show the stripes on her right arm.

“Very well. No, Corporal. I’ll be taking a nap, so go back to doing whatever you were doing.”

“Yes sir.” She picked up my clothes from the floor and left the bathroom with them.

I toweled off and peeked out the door. The hallway was empty. I scooted to the assigned bedroom. The bed was an old four poster with a thick featherbed mattress. I tentatively lay down atop it and was asleep in seconds. I remember nothing about the next several hours. When I awoke there were folded clothes on the bed next to me that bore a passing resemblance to a 19th century colonel’s uniform. There also were undergarments. Boots were on the floor by the bed.

I got up and donned the uniform, which wasn’t a bad fit. I don’t know who had guessed my size.
The boots were a bit snug, but not uncomfortable. I looked at myself in a mirror mounted on the back of the door to the hall. I felt quite soldierly. It’s amazing how much a uniform can affect your whole worldview. I opened the door. Weston was standing outside.

“Excuse me, miss…I mean Corporal. Could you come in here for a few minutes?”

“Is something wrong, sir?”

“No, just talk with me a moment.” I stepped back and sat on the bed. Weston entered and faced me. She was pretty in tomboy way with short-cropped brown hair and bright blue eyes. She couldn’t have been more than 19.

“I just arrived this morning.” I said.

“Yes, I know sir.”

“What I mean is that I haven’t yet caught up with the situation here. I need to ask you some very basic questions. They may seem dunderheaded to you, but perhaps you expect that from an officer.”

She didn’t smile, but said, “I’m here to help, sir.”

“Assume that I know nothing, which isn’t far off from the truth. What’s with the armband, for instance? I see not everyone wears it. Just how militarized is this place? How did it get this way? I‘m completely lost, even though Ulysses says he plans to bump me up to second-in-command.”

“The Chief told you that?” She was so impressed that she missed the “sir.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t repeat that, Corporal.”

“Yes sir. The armband signifies the Eagle Guard. We aren’t regular army but we fight alongside it. We’re the armed wing of the party, so we’re more committed. We act as the Chief’s personal guards and as a police force too.”

“Sounds like Blackshirts.”

“Sir?”

“Never mind. How did all this start?”

“You have to realize what this area was like before the Chief rescued us. Gangs of thugs from the outside somehow found out about our settlement. They attacked and robbed us. Vigilante groups fought back, but then they acted as bad as the thugs. My parents weren’t killed by outsiders but by vigilante neighbors when a boy I’d snubbed accused them of collaborating with an outside gang. I don’t want to tell you what they did to me.”

“The boy deserved to be shot.”

“I’m pleased to her you say so, sir. Anyway, when Ulysses and his men came into town, they packed the firepower to suppress all that. It wasn’t just the use of force – there had been plenty of that before. It was what he had to say. He inspired us to get our house in order so we can face our real enemies instead of fighting with each other. If there were scores to be settled, he settled them. That boy I told you about? The Chief handed me a gun and told me the boy’s fate was in my hands, whether I chose clemency or death the matter would end there.”

“What did you do?”

“I shot him. I’d die for the Chief, sir.”

I held back from saying she very well might.

“The rally is in a few hours,” she added. “I’m to escort you.”

The rally was held in an open field just after twilight. The stars were bright and a warm breeze blew gently. A rustic wooden stage was lit dramatically by four well-placed bonfires. A loudspeaker system was wired to car batteries. Perhaps 3000 people were gathered in the field, most of them in uniform. I’d never seen so many people in one place.

Ulysses walked on stage to a drum roll. Applause and shouts came from the crowd. He waved to me to step forward. I walked on stage and stood on his right where he had indicated. Two guards escorted Le Clerc, hands still tied, onstage and held him up on Ulysses’ left. There were boos from the crowd. Ulysses held up his hand for quiet.

“We have with us today,” he began, “Captain Le Clerc of the French naval vessel La Salle. His plans to destroy us have been defeated.” A roar of approval washed over the stage. “Also with us is George Custer, the legitimate Governor of New Jersey, now in exile. By his order, New Jersey is hereby returned to the Union.” There were more shouts. “The days of the French invaders in the United States are numbered. I have appointed Colonel Custer Commissioner of the Recovered Territories.” This was news to me. “Care to say a few words, Colonel?”

I leaned into the microphone and uttered something ambiguous. “I’m deeply impressed by what you have accomplished here. I hope not just to match but to exceed your expectations of me.”

Restrained applause came from the men and women in blue. Ulysses smiled at me and nodded toward the back. I took the hint and withdrew from the stage. The guards led Le Clerc backstage as well.

“Here in Aurora we know what it is like to have our freedom wrested from us by hoodlums,” declared Ulysses in a commanding voice. “We know what it cost to win it back. Now we face a threat from the largest outlaw gang of all: Quebec. We have paid too high a price and struggled too much to allow our way of life to be destroyed by these new invaders. We will roll back the French all the way to the St. Lawrence River and restore America to the American people!”

There were more cheers, but they seemed to me to be less than universal. This is not just a patriotic crusade, though it is that, too. It is a war for culture. It is a war for the future of mankind. The French are effete. They are dangerous to us. French art is merely decadence. Books such as this deserve on the bonfire!” He held up a copy of 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade and tossed it into the flames. “We will prevail against this corruption, and one day will link up with our Alaskan brothers in the west.”

This echo of my former thoughts put a knot in my stomach.

“This is no time for internal division. Our fingers must unite to form a fist. The French have taken our lands, corrupted our culture and oppressed our people. In the occupied territory they have destroyed American lives with a vicious trade in opium that they ban north of the Maine border. It is part of a thinly disguised plan of genocide for our people. We fight or we die. There is no other course.

“We live in the proud state of West Virginia which never failed to fly the star-spangled banner even in the dark days of the Civil War. We will not fail now. The greatest threat to our success is not the French army. I have every confidence in our brave men and women on the field of combat. The danger is subversion from within. Only Americans can defeat America. The Eagle Guard is our first line of defense against internal weakness. Give them your full cooperation and support. The Guardsmen are our best and brightest, facing enemies abroad and protecting our rights at home as political soldiers of the National American Party. The time is past when we can show mercy to our enemies or to traitors. Two of our enemies are with us tonight. Bring the spies forward!”

Two grim prisoners were led on stage by boyish-faced Eagle Guardsmen. They were the first survivors of the earlier Quebecois expeditions I had seen.

“The rules of war are clear,” said Ulysses. “Enemy combatants out of uniform are spies, and are not entitled to the privileges of Prisoners of War. Their lot is summary execution.”

One of the Guardsmen withdrew a revolver and unceremoniously shot each prisoner in the head. I was stunned. Le Clerc tried to rise to his feet but was shoved back down with a rifle butt. He glared at me with deep hatred. As the bodies were pulled from the stage, Ulysses waved forward a beautiful red-haired young woman wearing the armband.

“Please join in the singing of the national anthem,” directed Ulysses.

In a sweet voice, the redhead began to sing, “Oh say can you see…” The crowd joined in slowly, but by “the rockets red glare” was participating forcefully.

Ulysses withdrew from the stage, conceding the microphone to other speakers, each of whom hated the enemy more than the one before. As one began a denunciation of French cooking, Ulysses sat down next to me on a wooden bench.

“What was the purpose of those murders?” I spluttered. “They were just a couple of field biologists from Montreal. You say you’re worried about loyalty, but that atrocity surely shook the loyalty of most of the crowd. Can’t you see how shocked they were? Fear is the only reason they didn’t revolt right then and there.”

“Custer, I’m disappointed in you. Can’t you see that by failing to object to the ‘atrocity’ they became participants in it? They’ll justify it to themselves as being ‘for the greater good’ just to protect their own self-images. I locked in their loyalty, not undermined it. And don’t underestimate the power of fear. Besides, the French really were in civilian clothes, and therefore were spies, you know.”

“Legalistic nonsense,” I said. “I arrived in civilian clothes, too.”

“Then you may profit by their example. But enough of this. How did you like my speech?”

“Irrational. Quebec is not France, as Le Clerc reminds me repeatedly, and the citizens of Quebec are not French. They did not invade North America. Their ancestors were probably here before ours. You said they are effete and dangerous. They cannot be both. The Marquis de Sade is a giant irrelevancy who has nothing to do with Quebec, regardless of what you think of his philosophy. The legacy of the USA has nothing to do with anything you said. On the contrary, the valuable part of it is the whole notion of limited government – the idea the legitimate function of government is to protect individual rights. Quebec incorporates more of that heritage than you and your fascists do.”

“Custer, Custer, you are letting your emotions run away with you. That’s for the sheep out there, not for us. I wasn’t asking you if the speech made logical sense and I didn’t ask you to recite the Declaration of Independence. I was asking you whether you thought it was effective propaganda. When you are talking to the masses you are talking to a dumb brute. Anything more nuanced than ‘Our Side Good, Their Side Bad’ confuses them. Sense be damned.”

“You don’t believe a word of what you were saying, do you?”

“I’m not an idiot, George.”

“Then your speech was effective propaganda.”

“See? At heart you are a blackguard like me, and can see the truth of things. But you have to stop these moralistic outbursts to which you’re so prone. They are childish. Morals are whatever the ruling elite says they are. If you plan to be part of the new elite, you have to abandon those foolish ‘ethics’ that were invented to keep in power an elite now long dead. So, George, are you going to join us ‘fascists’ and help me write our own rules, or would you prefer to join the company of those Frenchmen?”

“Okay, I’m in,” I said. “I can’t affect much if I’m dead, can I?  Maybe I can moderate this whole enterprise from the inside.”

Ulysses laughed. “No weasel of a Congressman could have rationalized better. Things are going to move very fast, George. In two days we retake the Capitol. Than we sail La Salle into New York Harbor pretty as you please and take the city. Defenses there are almost nonexistent. I worked up an occupation plan when I was in New York. I don’t expect much trouble from the locals.”

I paraphrased Benjamin Franklin. “A third will support you, a third will oppose, and a third won’t give a damn.”

“There, you can be Machiavellian when you try,” he said.”

“There is a flaw in your plan, ‘Chief,’” interjected Le Clerc. It occurred to me then that Ulysses’ willingness to discuss his plans in front of him did not bode well for the man.

“And what is that, my dear Captain?”

“My sailors and marines. Not one of your barges will get within a kilometer of La Salle. Do you know what a 120mm can do?”

“Yes, I do, but I don’t think we need worry about it. Are you an oenophile, Captain?”

“What on earth does that have to do with anything?”

“I’ve explained to George about our scavenging expeditions. On one of them in Clarksburg we found case after case of chardonnay. Your marines surely have found the cases by now. They are in the Capitol basement.”

“What have you done to the wine?!”

“Yes, that would offend a Frenchman. Did you know that one of the nasty new bugs of the modern world can live in wine with alcohol content less than 15%? Mortality is 80% and the survivors won’t be in much condition to fight. How many of your crew are teetotalers, do you think?”

“If there’s only one, that’s enough! You’ll never take my ship!”

“Oh of course we will. But, if by some chance we do not, we’ll send her to the bottom. That would be a shame, but we can do without her if we must. We have alternate transport. You see there are underwater charges set all around the Capitol. We can blow a hole in La Salle’s hull whenever we wish. Thanks, for the airship, too, Le Clerc. You’ll be happy to know we repaired the hull and refilled her with hydrogen. What is the lift capacity? We haven’t yet run tests.”

“Two passengers barely,” said Le Clerc.

“Three easily,” I corrected.

“When you are up against the wall, I’ll be on the firing squad,” Le Clerc snarled at me.

Ulysses laughed. “So what shall we do with the Frenchman?” he asked.

“Take him with us. He’s a negotiating chip with any French survivors.”

“There is a small bit of sense to that thought, though I suspect you just lack the stomach to shoot him. You don’t mind if I keep him tied, do you? Also, I’d prefer you not to have a firearm for now.”

“I rather expected both conditions,” I said.

Back at the farmhouse, I tried to rest some more, but tossed fitfully instead, I have no love for the French, but hated helping to replace them with Ulysses’ fascist regime. There was a tap at the door.

“Yes? Come in.”

My attendant peeked in. “Sorry to bother you, sir, but I could hear you were awake. May I have a word?”

“Yes, Corporal. What’s on your mind?”

“You are Governor of New Jersey.”

“Morrisbourg.”

New Jersey,” she corrected, “and the Chief plans to give you the whole Northeast to administer.”

“That’s what he says,” I said.

“You’ll be needing an assistant you can trust – one who also has the confidence of the Chief.”

Weston, I realized was making a career move. “You’re at the top of my list, Corporal Weston.”

“Thank you, sir. I know you won’t regret your choice. Is there anything I can do for you before morning?” she asked.

It took me a moment to be sure the offer meant what I thought it did. “No, Corporal… What’s your first name?”

“Abigail.”

“No, Abigail. Perhaps we can resume this discussion when we’re up North, though.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I think I can sleep now. Wake me up in time for the war, would you?”

“Yes, sir.” She left, seeming quite pleased with herself.

My affection for my homicidal wife had deterred me from accepting the young lady’s offer, yet I regretted turning her down, too. These thoughts drove politics out of my head long enough for me to fall asleep.

I was awakened before daybreak. I road on horseback down Route 50, which really did pass by the lagoon where the repaired and inflated airship awaited. Ulysses and Le Clerc already were aboard. The barges, I was told, had set out much earlier in order to arrive in DC at dawn. I felt it was reckless of Johnston to put himself inside such a big target, but the man had much of the boy in him. He wanted to fly in an airship.

We dropped our mooring ropes and lifted into the sky at the sun brightened the horizon. We began the leisurely trip downriver. As we passed over Chain Bridge we could see the tops of the Capitol and Washington Monument. The sun rose red. As we passed over Georgetown, I thought to warn Ulysses of the snipers in the Washington Monument, but was startled into silence by what was missing. The La Salle was gone.

Le Clerc, sitting on the floor, smiled. “Did I neglect to mention that the crew has standing orders to withdraw if the ship seems seriously in danger?” he said. “If they started falling sick, that would have been reason enough.”

“Well, that is a setback,” said Ulysses. “It’s not fatal, however. The ship would have been useful to us, but I have agents in New York. They will sink her when she gets back, so the ship won’t pose a risk to us when we attack. Before you tell me they won’t succeed, the mines already are in place below her usual berth and several alternates.”

“Why are you telling me this?” asked Le Clerc.

“Because you no longer have any value as a negotiating chip.”

Barges full of troops were below us on the Potomac. The lead ones grounded on Capitol Hill. Troops jumped off and rushed to occupy the building.

I’m not political, but there are times when you have to make a choice. This was the last opportunity to put a stop to Ulysses and his Blueshirts. Damn it all, I had to back the stinking arrogant, miserable, nose-in-the-air French, may they all choke on their nasalized vowels!

On the theory that one should stick with a winning strategy, I grabbed Ulysses by the hair and rammed his head on the steering wheel. Johnston must have had a harder head than Le Clerc. He pushed back on me and spun around, handgun already drawn. He surely would have shot me had not Le Clerc kicked him with both feet. Ulysses stumbled against the side rail. I grabbed his feet and pulled up. He tumbled over the side. The gun discharged as he fell. The bullet struck the fabric of the blimp. This time we were no so lucky with the hydrogen. A ball of fire erupted above us. I since have learned that hydrogen burns up and away, which explains the many survivors of the famous Hindenburg crash, but at the time I expected rapid incineration. As we fell from the sky with the flames above us, I managed to untie Le Clerc’s hands just before we hit the water.

Déjà vu,” I said.

“About time you started speaking your country’s language.”

We both went over the side and dove beneath the water before the flaming fabric enveloped us. Don’t try swimming booted and in uniform. It is harder than you might think. I swam to the hillock with the Washington Monument. Eventually my hands touched mud and I dragged myself ashore. The rank smell of riverbank mud was overpowering.

Two powerful hands wrapped around my neck and a knee planted heavily in the small of my back. The world began to go black before the hands and weight lifted. Le Clerc had pulled Ulysses off of me. The two wrestled on the ground. I hoped Le Clerc could end for himself, because there was no time to waste. Bluecoats already were paddling this way. I ran toward the Monument entrance.

There are 897 steps in the Washington Monument. I had cleared fewer than 100 when a voice boomed out below me. “One of us dies today, Custer!” I suspected Ulysses was right.

My footsteps and his echoed loudly inside the masonry obelisk. I could see nothing in the dark interior, but it sounded as though he was gaining. My lungs were raw and painful, and no amount of panting was enough to catch my breath. My feet resisted every aching step. Before long I was crawling. My breath rasped worse with each breath. 897 does not sound like an overwhelming number, but I felt I had spent a lifetime on those stairs. At long last my hands pushed open a door and light washed over me, but my vision was clouded from lack of oxygen. I heard a loud wheezing behind me.

As I’d hoped, a transmitter was still in place below the observation port facing the Capitol. I made one final lunged toward it. My vision was still blurred, so I fumbled desperately for a switch or button. Almost by accident, my hand depressed a plunger.

Even with my blurred vision, I could see the Capitol dome rise noticeably. Then its 9,000,000 pounds of iron crashed down into rubble. A deafening roar from the explosion hit the Monument. Other explosions ripped through the House and Senate wings. The marines must have set charges there as well.

The wheezing behind me turned to coughing. I turned and my vision cleared. A mud-covered Ulysses lay on the floor on his back a meter from me. His face was as red as any I had ever seen. Saliva drooled from his mouth and he clasped his left arm with his right.

“The whole continent could have been yours one day, you total fool!” he coughed.

“Does this mean I’m no longer Commissioner for the Recovered Territories?”

“I’m going to get you Custer!”

“It doesn’t seem likely.”

“Then my troops will.”

“Well, you may have point there. But not before I put an end to you.”

“I so overestimated you. You’re just a sheep after all. And you’re ending nothing, least of all me. You don’t have the guts to kill me, you spineless wimp!”

I considered this. “You’re right. And you know what? I’m proud of it.”

I walked to the exit and descended the stairs, leaving Ulysses sprawled on the observation deck. My lungs hurt badly and my legs felt rubbery. Two hundred steps or so later and explosion shook the tower. Masonry blocks missed me by centimeters and light streamed in from above. A 120mm round had torn off the top of the structure. The La Salle was back.

I quickened my descent. The sound of cannon and machine gun fire bespoke of serious damage being done to the West Virginians. I felt sick.

The next day I stood next to a badly battered but alive Le Clerc on La Salle’s foredeck as we motored out of the Chesapeake Bay. It turned out that we owed our survival to the age-old dispute between marines and sailors. The marines hadn’t shared the wine.

Le Clerc said, “I’m still trying to decide whether to shoot you or give you a medal.”

“Neither. I’m no hero and I’m not political.”

“Right. The nest in Aurora should be rooted out.”

“No, they’ve suffered losses enough. Besides, fascist states are personality cults and the personality is gone. They’re not barbarians, just mountain farmers who went on a binge. They’ll go back to fighting among themselves now.”

“I suppose you oppose our reoccupation of DC too,” he said.

“There isn’t much left to occupy. But a trading post somewhere on the river wouldn’t be a bad idea, and might help promote peace – especially if it’s someplace with a different symbolism than DC.”

“Harper’s Ferry?”

“Le Clerc, that was almost a joke. By the way, what’s your first name?”

“Maurice.”

“Oh, sorry. I’ll just stick with ‘Le Clerc.’”

Thanks to Le Clerc’s support, the Morrisbourg colony was returned to me upon our return to New York. I’m transferring fee simple titles to my tenants at reasonable prices however, and am preparing an end to Morrisbourg’s status as a proprietary colony. We’ll be holding elections for a representative council and governor. I’ve grown wary of one-man rule even when I’m the one man.

Joelle accepted defeat of her schemes with equanimity. When I returned home, my monitor lizard was nowhere to be found and Joelle had a new reptile-skin vest. I didn’t ask. I could have put her in prison had I revealed the extent of her collaboration with Ulysses, but I saw little advantage to that, so I didn’t.

Several months after my return, Joelle simply disappeared. She left behind the cherry blossom I had retrieved for her from a case in an unflooded floor of the Smithsonian. She also left our newborn son. Fond as I am of the boy, I wonder about his fierce brown eyes. Mine are hazel. I can’t help but picture his face with a full black beard.


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