Sunday, July 14, 2013

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

Preface

Slog started life as a short story– basically just Part I (below). It was one of my earliest pieces of short fiction. It ended, by design, with the main characters left hanging. So, it was fairly easy to continue the tale with one sequel and then with another and another; almost by accident I had a novel on my hands. To date, it remains my only full-length novel, though I have managed two novellas and dozens of short stories. Slog both gains and suffers, I think, from being an early work. Youthful naïveté is balanced by youthful exuberance. About a decade ago I made a stab at revising the novel for a limited publication, but found that I could do little to address its flaws without damaging the merits, too. Other than updating a few technological references, I let it stand. (The print version remains available on Amazon and from me directly, in case this online version stirs your interest in owning one – which, yes, is one reason I’m posting it.) Very much the same considerations restrained my reediting for the 2013 version below. So here, for better or worse, with only minor tweaks to the original, is Slog.


SLOG

Part I
Sweat

History is a pack of lies. “Bunk” was Henry Ford’s famous monosyllable. The official version flatters the powerful. The revisionist version flatters those striving for power. Politics. I should know. I made up most of the lies myself for both camps in what is now called Morrisbourg. Just for fun, here I intend to tell the truth – or at least such parts of it that don’t embarrass me too much. My name is George Custer. No, not that one. Another one. One of the advantages to these times is that only a few people know enough really old bunk to make jokes about my name.

Time is creeping up on me. The memories of my youth are much more vivid to me than what happened last week. My grandfather used to say that, which is a particularly unsettling vivid memory. It seems only yesterday that I sat by the edge of the swamp and skipped stones across the black water. Ripples on the surface flashed red from the rising sun. The temperature had cooled to 90 degrees overnight – or rather 32 on the only scale for which anyone under age 30 has a feel anymore. A five meter long alligator lay motionless in the early morning shade on a narrow strip of beach.

The flying insects were enormous by the standards of the old days. A dragonfly with a one-foot wingspan hovered over an algal mat. After the climate change, many insects reverted to ancient forms. This strikes me as odd, since it was always this hot in equatorial regions, and the bugs of last century remained small in those parts. Somehow the movement of the subtropical bands north and south triggered the change, possibly by activating dormant genes. The insects were lucky. All that human genes had to say was that they world had grown too hot.

The humidity, as usual, was near 80%. The temperature typically hit 120 at midday. Even the dragonflies seek shade. An eerie quiet descends. Then a breeze picks up in mid-afternoon, and insect wings resume their roar.

Climatologists once enjoyed arguing about the contributing factors in natural swings in earth’s climate evidenced in the geological record. They also argued over just how much human activity was warming the planet. The sun played a mean trick on them. It proved itself to be a variable star of an atypical type. While the climatologists’ theories may well have had merit as far as they went, when the sun without warning suddenly began burning hotter, it overwhelmed all other influences. The effects were devastating. Unexpectedly, disease initially was the biggest killer. Some diseases were known, such as Marburg and Ebola, but they were no less frightening for having names. Others never had been seen before. It is not known where or how they arose, but some folks harbor the dark suspicion that they were unleashed biological weapons. If so, one hopes they were loosed by accident, but it is not beyond possibility that people of apocalyptic mindset released them intentionally. One must search hard in the universe to find anything more lethal than a human being with a cause. Other deaths followed the social breakdown. Global population dropped 7 billion in a decade. Now there are too few of us to affect the climate if we wanted to. The diseases eventually burned themselves out as the population became too sparse to maintain epidemics. It no longer is a death sentence to meet a stranger. It is just unusual.

A handful of northern governments remained intact throughout the chaos enough to preserve a tiny fraction of their population and some semblance of order within a small portion of their territories. Most survivors, though, were like me: living alone in a wilderness of jungle growth and ruined cities. My jungle was New Jersey. Garden State indeed.

I made my home in Morristown, where the concrete and asphalt put up some modest resistance to the riotous growth that had engulfed the suburban outskirts. For years I had the place all to myself. Two months ago the population had risen by three. I was feeling crowded.

I turned away from the languid bayou waters and walked up the narrow path formerly known as Pine Street. I turned left onto South Street and withdrew my machete to hack my way through newly grown tendrils. Straight ahead was the old Community Theater where I had taken up residence. It was a century-old red brick edifice with white columns and steel doors. Originally a movie theater, it had been converted for live theater performances in the years prior to the disaster. Yet, oddly, stacks of movie reels remained in the old projection room. As I entered the building, Gene Kelly was singing in the rain. The colors on the deteriorating stock were awful.

I trudged up the stairs for my daily scraping chore on the roof. The solar cells powered an air conditioner and a few other circuits, but they required constant maintenance. Fungi and green plants spread rapidly over the panels. The air conditioner kept the temperature inside the theater under 100. As I emerged onto the roof, I saw Joelle standing by the edge. She was peering through the canopy.

Joelle was the first of the new arrivals in Morristown to show up. One day while I was fishing off the New Jersey Transit bridge over a flooded Morris Street, a motorized dinghy with a collapsible canvass roof puttered into view. I was astonished to see a petite young woman in immaculately clean khaki and pith helmet at the helm. Her pale countenance looked totally out of place. She spotted me at once and steered for the bridge stairway which rose out of the waters over Morris Street. She tied up the boat, clambered up the stairs, and said, “Hi there. Could you direct me to the local hot spots?”

I sat there gaping until she tried another question. “What’s your name” she asked.

“Uh, George. Miss, what are you doing here?”

“I’m Joelle. Joelle Perrault, not that you asked. I’m here because this is where it’s at.”

“Where what is at?” I asked.

“The frontier. The frontier is always where it’s at. Why, am I not welcome?”

The question diverted me from asking “The frontier of what?” A frontier presupposes the existence of something on one side of it. As far as I knew, Morristown was betwixt nothing and nothing. Nonetheless, I said, “Well. Sure. My bridge is your bridge. Grab a fishing pole.”

“Maybe later.”

What we did instead was haul her supplies back to my home. It took four trips. In addition to a cache of arms, which I deemed sensible, she had brought trunks full of more clothes and scented potions than I thought altogether necessary. She wouldn’t elaborate further on what was so appealing about this particular “frontier.” For me, it was home, and always had been, but if I ever chose to travel I expected to go north. When I pressed her about it, she simply shrugged. Those shoulders were cute and she deflected many an inquiry with them in the days that followed.

Joelle revealed little about herself. She said she was Belgian, and her accent gave the claim support. She said her father had sailed for North America when she was a little girl, hoping to find something better. Instead, he had found a shattered and overgrown world little different than what they had left behind.

“Where is he now?” I asked.

“Gone,” she said, and shrugged again.

Joelle was suitably impressed by my expertise at having made the theater habitable. There was solar electric power supplying functional appliances – and, the plumbing worked, though only because I had bypassed the sewer in a way a Health Department, if one existed, would not have approved.

I dealt with the awkwardness of negotiating sleeping arrangements that night by avoiding the subject. Though mine was the only bed and mattress, there were plenty of cushioned surfaces including sofas for her to select, so I simply told her to make herself at home wherever she chose. Against my expectation, she chose to slide into bed with me. I didn’t object. It was clear that she was more experienced than I. I didn’t object to that either. She couldn’t possibly have been less experienced than I, even though I was pushing 30. Did I mention that prior to her arrival I was the town’s only resident?

Thoughts of that first night together came back to me as I stood on the rooftop and watched her delicate form lean over the rail.

“I wouldn’t rely on that rail’s sturdiness,” I said.

“Banana trees,” she said in response.

“What? Where?”

“I mean they would grow well here.”

“Uh, yes. I suppose they would.”

“Iguanas are in the trees,” she added.

“Yes, I’ve seen them. In fact, I’ve roasted a few over the years.”

Fauna and flora were a favorite topic of hers. She once carried on for most of an evening about how many catfish were in the local waters. I hate catfish.

On this morning my thoughts were not on iguanas or catfish but on the latest arrival in Morristown. His appearance in town so soon after Joelle’s should have alerted me more than it did that I was missing something important.

To this day I am deeply suspicious of the name Ulysses S. Johnston even though the man stuck to its use tenaciously. I encountered him while examining the condition of the old post office building, located across from a former park that once was the center of town. The park was called the Green, which wasn’t ironic when originally named. Joelle had expressed interest in the building’s habitability.  To my surprise, I saw a barrel-chested man in apparently robust health striding toward me.

“Hello sir!” he shouted to me in a booming voice. He wore mud-stained cotton that was bright white in the clean patches. He carried .45 automatic in a hip holster.

When I reached out my hand and said I was George Custer, he smiled and exclaimed, “Pleased to meet you, General!”

He paused for a few moments, and then announced himself as “Ulysses S. Johnston,” thereby instantly outranking my namesake in two armies. A dark beard truly gave him a somewhat Grantean aspect. So, I later learned, did a fondness for alcohol.

Ulysses, or whatever his real name might have been, led me to his boat to meet his companion, a man who, then and later, made a point of staying in the background. The boat, tied up at Spring Street, was a 24-foot launch laden with ropes, crates, winches, and two .30 caliber machine guns. At the stern, a flagpole flew the Jolly Roger. “Excuse my playfulness with the colors,” he said. I later had cause to doubt that playfulness had anything to do with it. His companion leaned on one of the machine guns and glared at me as we approached. “Marcel, this is George Custer,” Ulysses said with a snicker. “I told him he could call me Ulysses.”

“Hi, Marcel,” I said.

Marcel nodded and grunted in reply, which proved to be his usual standard of loquacity.

“What kind of engines are on the boat?” I asked.

“Twin sixty horsepower,” Ulysses said. “More power than is useful in these bayous, of course, but they’re good to have in the open. My yacht is moored downriver. It’s too big to make it this far up the Passaic and Whippany – this boat barely could get through. Is that your dinghy by the bridge?”

“Uh, no.” I recounted to him Joelle’s arrival a couple of weeks earlier, and then instantly regretted doing so.

“Well, well,” he said. “The both of you will have to join us for dinner. I insist.”

“Why are you here, of all places?” I asked.

“I’m a salvager,” he said. “And this place is as good a place to salvage as any.”

“What sort of salvage?”

“Anything.” He reached in a pocket and pulled out a handful of pearl necklaces and sapphire earrings. “As you can see, I’ve already been ‘shopping.’ There are parts of the world where loot like this is still valuable. In places like this, it was just left behind in abandoned shops.”

“The earrings clash with your eyes,” I said.

“Now you’ve hurt my feelings,” he said with a grin.

When I returned to the theater and told Joelle about the new visitors, she insisted on frying up catfish and taking the lunch to them. “You don’t have to go, if you don’t want to,” she said.

“Oh, I’m definitely going with you,” I answered. I considered swapping my 9mm for a heavier caliber, but decided someone might make the obvious joke.

When we arrived with the basket, I thought the two men stared at Joelle rudely, but she didn’t seem to notice. I introduced them and Ulysses invited us onto the boat.

Ulysses was expansive with Joelle, while scarcely acknowledging me. He told her of his trips to the ruins of Lisbon and Cherbourg and her hometown of Brussels. He regaled her with hunting tales, vividly portraying his slaughter of birds, alligators, and wild pigs all along the Atlantic coastline. He told of a sea battle with pirates who were dispatched with machine gun fire. She listened with polite attention though she never had hesitated to interrupt me whenever my speeches hinted at self-importance. Then he made an offer to Joelle right in front of me.

“You can have your own stateroom on the yacht, Joelle. The ship is outfitted with every luxury. You can see Canada or Greenland.”

“Isn’t a yacht a ‘boat’ regardless of its size?” I said.

Ulysses ignored me. I was feeling seriously outmatched. It was with some astonishment that I heard her answer, “I’m staying.”

“Why?” he guffawed. “Because of the General here?”

It would have been nice if Joelle had said yes to this, but she just shrugged, and repeated, “I’m staying.”

Ulysses looked thoughtful. He then tossed the remaining scraps of his catfish overboard. A secondary splash indicated it had received immediate attention in the waters. “It has been a pleasure. Thank you for the victuals. I’ll be returning the favor before I leave. I’m sure the General told you about my invitation.”

To my ears, the most welcome part of those statements was the indication he would be leaving soon. Another two weeks transpired before Ulysses’ silent companion delivered RSVP cards to the door. The cards looked as though they had come from I bridal shop. I tried not to attach significance to this. The cards invited us to a farewell party at the Headquarters Plaza.

In many ways the Headquarters Plaza, part office building and part hotel, was an advantageous site, and I understood why Ulysses had chosen it. The upper floors were comfortable furnished and well above the danger and stench of the jungle. The disadvantage was that it was built on a sloped lot, and the lower levels, formerly parking garages, were flooded on the low side facing Spring Street. The waters were home to alligators and poisonous snakes. This was the reason I had decided against the structure for myself. I had no wish to encounter some dangerous creature that had found its way into the stairwell.

As I stood on the roof next to Joelle, I reminded her, “The farewell party starts just after the rains end. I guess he’s going home tomorrow. Are we going?”

“Of course we’re going. When is the next time we’ll get invited to a party? The card says he’s serving ‘gator. The tails are excellent if they’re done right.”

“Did I do it right last week?”

In reply, she shrugged. “You’d better attend to the photoelectric panels,” she added.

I was not ready to be diverted. “I don’t like him – or trust him,” I said.

“I know.”

“We should go armed.”

“We always go armed. Because of the wildlife,” she specified. “You’re not planning something stupid, are you?”

“Who, me?” Lunatic, maybe, I thought to myself, but not stupid.

My sense of foreboding was deepened by Joelle’s apparent equanimity. My namesake is best known for a spectacular loss, but I consoled myself that most of the time he won. He did it by moving faster than anyone expected and hitting hard. He knew that much larger forces could be defeated if they were caught off guard. On his last foray he failed to consider the possibility that his opponent would be very much on guard. He should have prepared a retreat for that eventuality – an “exit strategy.” He didn’t. His record both of victory and defeat is instructive.

The sky grew hazy and a distant thunder grumbled.

Ulysses had not threatened me openly. Yet, I was sure my life was in danger. Saving required taking the initiative – preparing for a rapid attack and an even more rapid retreat. He was too cunning to fall to a simple frontal assault. My only hope was something cockeyed and unexpected.

“I’ll be back before the rains,” I told Joelle. “I’ll get to the panels later.”

She nodded acknowledgment. It was out of character for her not to ask where I was going, but she didn’t. Her mind was elsewhere. A more reflective man than I might have worried where. Or maybe not. Female pulchritude makes most men thickheaded.

I hoped the supplies I needed would be at the old lumber yard on Ridgedale Avenue. Armed with a Remington 700, I left the theater. I commandeered Joelle’s dinghy to cross the intervening bayou. The chain link fences surrounding the site long since had collapse. The outside lumber piles were rotted away and grown over, but some of the metal storage sheds were intact. I found the ropes and tools I needed quickly enough, but feared that no explosives would be on site. Most yards didn’t stock them until civilization started its collapse – and, for whatever reason, they sold out quickly. I was in luck. I pried open the steel doors of a small shed in back of the main warehouse and found what I wanted: dynamite, blasting caps, fuses, and detonator boxes. Serendipity struck. An opossum peeked out of the undergrowth to my right. I dispatched it with my Remington. I intended it just for tomorrow’s lunch.

I carried as much as I could back to the dinghy, and motored toward the Headquarters Plaza. Ulysses’ launch was nowhere in sight. I guessed he was off exploring some other side channel in his quest for swag. This was a yet another lucky break. I would have a little time to set things up without fear of interruption. I was reluctant to head to the to the top floor where, according to the card, the party would be held; it was possible, after all, that Ulysses’ silent partner remained behind there. Besides, it wouldn’t do to blow up Ulysses in a room where I was in attendance. I would need to use the explosives more as diversions than as a direct assassination attempt. Besides, it was probably unwise to make such an attempt on the man and miss.

I grounded the dinghy where the building met the water and trudged around to the front entrance. The heavy pack, on my back, the long coil of rope on shoulder, the tools in my pockets, and the opossum tied to my belt sapped my strength in the relentless heat. The dead animal was extra weight, but leaving it in the dinghy was likely to attract a large predator. The glass doors of the main entrance resisted most of my full weight before opening. I forced them shut again behind me. An oppressive aroma of decay in the building made me gag. Pink and blue teddy bears stared at me from behind the cracked glass of a gift shop. At the end of the hall was the entrance to the hotel portion of the structure. To my surprise, lights shone from inside an open elevator. Had Ulysses fired up the hotel’s emergency generator and gotten an elevator working? I entered the carriage and pushed the button for one floor below the top floor. The doors slid shut. The elevator jerked and groaned, but it rose. When the doors opened, I exited and took the stairway to the roof.

On the roof were satellite dishes that might be able to transmit to one of the handful of functioning satellites still in geostationary orbit. Ulysses might use them to contact his yacht; I wanted the option to prevent that. The emergency generator was also on the roof inside a makeshift shed that was not part of the building’s original structure. I guessed it had been relocated here years ago when rising waters threatened to flood the basement levels, where one or more generators most likely initially were located. I planted dynamite under the generator connected to a timer. I didn’t set the timer since there was no way to predict a “best” time to kill the power. I hoped I would be able to get to the roof if things went sour. I tied off my rope to provide an alternate, if scary, escape route from the roof to the ground. I stored my Remington just inside the rooftop door along with capped and fused sticks of dynamite. I returned to the elevator and descended to the lobby. A random thought crossed my mind – it involved a long shot, but I seemed to have a little time to experiment.

At the lobby level I exited and forced open the door of the next elevator. I flipped the breaker switch. The power came on. As I’d hoped, the generator supplied the whole bank of elevators, but Ulysses had activated only one. I next found a broom in a utility closet, removed the handle, and got in the second elevator. I climbed through the ceiling hatch of the elevator carriage, reached down with the handle, and touched the C button. The C level, I knew, had no more than 10 or 20 centimeters of water. Water began leaking into the compartment as soon as the carriage stopped at C. I heard something large sloshing around outside the doors. The doors opened and water washed in. I dropped the possum along the back wall of the elevator, making a splash. I hoped that the sloshing I’d heard was an alligator. It wasn’t, but it was just as good. A monitor lizard, likely an escapee from an abandoned zoo, poked his head in the doorway. It was a big one, probably a Komodo, measuring close to four meters from nose to tail tip. Monitors prefer dry land generally, but something in the garage must have attracted him. Now he had his attention on the opossum. The creature hesitated and flicked his tongue. Then he lunged at the bait. I reached down with the broom handle and touched the “close door” button. It closed on the lizard’s tail and reopened. The creature hissed and spun around, but this drew his tail into the carriage. The door shut, trapping him inside. This had the makings of yet another diversion. It was worth the cost of tomorrow’s lunch.

From atop the carriage I was able to reach the outer door release to the next garage level up. I exited, found the stairs, and returned to the lobby. I left the building, feeling I had given myself a few options. Of course, if Ulysses simply shot me on arrival, none would help. I suspected he had something else in mind, though I didn’t know what. Curiosity about this was one factor preventing me from simply sniping him preemptively. Curiosity is almost as effective as lust at enticing us to make bad decisions.

The sound of outboard motors reverberated in the thick hazy air. Ulysses was returning. Droplets began fell on my head. The rain had become a torrent by the time I reached home.

Joelle had started to get ready a full hour before I did. She finished well afterward. The results were spectacular. She looked devastating in her summer frock, white boots, perfect grooming, and AR15 rifle. I immediately suggested blowing off the party, but she smiled and wagged a finger “no.”

I commented that her choice of weapon was odd for someone who thought guns were only to combat dangerous wildlife. She quoted Emerson, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I think Emerson was wrong about that, but I chose not to argue. It gave me an excuse to choose an AK47, which packs a greater punch with a 7.63 round than does the AR15 with a 5.56. I had found this particular AK when exploring an abandoned house on the other side of town. As the weapon was fully automatic, the original owner had been in violation of New Jersey law.

We left the theater after the rains had finished and reached the Headquarters Plaza at 7:30, just as the day shifted to twilight. The door pushed open easier this time. On the floor, newly painted red arrows directed us to the hotel lobby. There, the taciturn Marcel waited for us. He wore khaki and a large holstered sidearm. He had shaved and cleaned up, but that didn’t help his appearance much. I was relieved to see that the door to the un-baited elevator stood open. I assumed it was the one the Ulysses and he would use when they came back to the hotel, simply because I had left it conveniently at the lobby level for them, but there was no way to have been entirely sure. Marcel waved us into the carriage. The three of us entered. We shakily ascended to the tenth floor. I let the two other passengers exit before me; on the way out I punched the button for the lowest parking level, which I knew to be completely flooded. I was hoping this would short out the carriage, leaving only the one with the lizard operational.

Overhead florescent lights in the hallway flickered and hummed angrily. They created a disturbing pattern of brightness and shadows on the walls. A Rolling Stones album played in the background. The air smelled of cigar smoke, incense, and roasted meat. We followed the aroma. At the end of the hall, Ulysses emerged from a side door wearing a paisley tuxedo. Joelle laughed.

“Welcome, Mademoiselle,” he said with a deep bow. He kissed Joelle’s hand. “You too, Colonel,” he said glancing up at me. I had been demoted. I was well aware that that “colonel” was my namesake’s final rank. Joelle curtsied theatrically and brushed past him into the suite. I acknowledged Ulysses with a hand twitch and followed her, managing not to brush the host.

The party was larger than expected. Two strangers were inside the room. I guessed they were crewmen from Ulysses’ yacht. They wore blue denim, sidearms, and solemn arrogance. They had all the charm of militiamen from some Balkan civil war. They stood in front of a long table laden with food, drink. On the wall was a homemade banner with “Crazy Horse Saloon” written in red paint. Ulysses slapped my back as I stared at it.

The suite was large. What we were using as a banquet room opened up to a separate bedroom with a large king size bed. I walked through it and peered into the bathroom. It had a marble floor and a whirlpool tub. “The nightly rate for the suite must be killing you,” I said.

“Not at all,” Ulysses answered. “It’s off-season.” He exhaled loudly, before continuing, “Gentlemen…and lady…I can’t help noticing that all of us are armed. Only the U.S. government thought Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms belonged together. This is a social event. I must insist we put them away. Please. Just for the party’s duration.”

“Away where? Are we supposed to give them to you for safekeeping?” I asked.

“Why General, I do believe you don’t trust me. I suggest the closet in back of you. You see it has a lock. You may hold the key.” The inflection he gave “General” somehow took the re-promotion out of it. Hotel suites don’t normally have locks on closets, so I presumed he had installed it, and that he would hold a spare key.

He walked to the closet, held open the door, and nodded to his minions who without hesitation put their sidearms inside. Ulysses held open his tux jacket to reveal a pearl handled .45 revolver. He withdrew it and put it on a closet shelf. The man just had bet his life on civilized behavior from Joelle and me. Sometimes the man was almost likeable. Still, I was convinced other weapons were hidden and near at hand.

Joelle shrugged and put her assault rifle in the closet. I briefly considered delivering a lesson on the evils of gambling, but decided that multiple murder might negatively affect Joelle’s opinion of me. I added my AK to the stash in the closet. Ulysses shut the door, locked it with a key, and handed the key to me. “Now we all can relax more easily,” he said.

I began to worry that this was indeed a social event and not an ambush. If so, when the time came to leave, the lizard in the elevator might be a problem.

I hated to admit it, but the party was fun. The last one I attended was as a child, and the number of attendees at that one was smaller. The music was loud, the jokes were raw, and the laughter was genuine. A fine selection of wine and liquors flowed, though I only feigned partaking of them, instead sticking with tea and canned soda. The soda in the undamaged cans was still drinkable after all these years but flat. I wanted to keep my wits and reflexes sharp. Ulysses drank freely, but seemed oddly unaffected by the alcohol. His men drank more than moderately, but not to insensibility. They served up roasted alligator in onion sauce from large turkey pans.

Ulysses was his boisterous self. He bragged about his ranch on the Gold Coast of Greenland. He recounted numerous adventures including outrunning a Russian gunboat on a chase lasting from Murmansk to Spitzbergen. I chose not to ask what he had done to annoy the Russians so much. Joelle seemed to enjoy herself. The yacht sailors took turns dancing with her in the foot stomping style once popular in biker bars. She sang along in French to Under My Thumb when it blared from the stereo.

Hours passed, the general level of intoxication rose, and night fell on the world. When the windows turned completely black, Ulysses turned off the regular lights and switched to black light. The effect was surreal. Ulysses’ paisley tuxedo lit up in a riot of colors while Joelle’s white took on an otherworldly glow. From cross the room she herself vanished in the dark while her dress seems to hover in the air without an occupant, like a ghostly scene from the movie Topper. Huge insects fluttering against the outside of the windows also reflected an eerie light.

There comes a point in every party when there has been one too many drinks poured, one too many songs sung, and one too many jokes told. Good parties wrap up when that point is reached. Bad ones continue, often ending in drunken arguments and brutal hangovers. This one did both. Shortly after midnight, a drunk but steady Ulysses ejected a CD in the middle of Some Girls. He switched back from black light to white. The party was over. The crewmen resumed their default setting of quiet attention, though one had to brace himself against the wall to stop wavering on his feet.

Joelle and I watched with interest as Ulysses tipped a table, spilling the raining food onto the floor. From a corner umbrella stand, he retrieved a large map and unrolled it on the table.

“General, come look at this.”

My rank was holding steady for the moment. I was surprised he had addressed me instead of Joelle. It was out of character. I walked to the table, my shoes squishing in alligator marinade. The map was really a false-color satellite image. The structures preserved the shape of Manhattan, even where the streets were flooded.

New York City,” I said.

“Yes, obviously,” he answered while stabbing a finger at Times Square. “What do you think about it?”

“I don’t really think about it. Not often, anyway. It’s too crowded. I’d guess as many as a few hundred crazies still live there, fighting over the scraps. Large chunks are flooded. The steel frames are surely rusting. It’s amazing so many of the buildings and bridges are still standing. It’s a giant junkyard. Why? What do you think about it?”

“You see the obvious, but not the bigger picture,” he said gruffly.

“So, show me the bigger picture. And, while you’re at it, explain why you’re showing me rather than Joelle.”

Parlez-vous Francais?”

“No.”

“That’s why I’m talking to you instead of the charming guest in white,” he said. “Quebec is making a land grab. They’re claiming everything from Maine to the old Mexican border. There will be screams at the UN in Reykjavik but no one is in any position to interfere. The other remaining national governments can’t even control their own territories, never mind intervene anywhere else. A couple hundred Quebecois troops landed in the city earlier today if they kept their schedule, which I happened to stumble upon.”

“By ‘stumble’ you mean you bribed someone,” I said.

“Bribe? I prefer to think of it as a tip.”

I suddenly got why Ulysses was suspicious of Joelle. “Did you know anything about this Joelle?”

She shrugged. The gesture was losing its cuteness.

“Can anyone her tell the difference between a Walloons and Quebec French accent?” I asked the room at large. No one answered. “OK,” I continued. “This is all very interesting. It’s nice to keep up with current events. But what difference does it make? There is no USA. New York is still a junkyard regardless of who claims it. If Quebec wants that pile of rubble, who cares?”

“Much more of the city is retrievable than you think,” he said. “Nothing freezes anymore, so new water and sewer lines, where needed can be run over ground. What you call ‘rubble’ is a vast resource for new construction. Many of the existing buildings can be made habitable. The city could hold a population of 10,000 within a decade. I mean productive settlers and consumers, not the human rats living there now. Then the city can be a springboard to resettle the South or the interior.”

“Very ambitious,” I said, “but, once again, so what? What has this to do with me?”

Ulysses sighed in disappointment at my slowness. “Real estate, General. All cities teeter on the brink of starvation. They need constant supplies from the countryside – supplies this area can provide. We can catch enough fish, lizards, and alligators to feed those thousands. We are sitting on a treasure chest.”

I began to see Joelle’s earlier interest in bananas and iguanas in a new light. “Let me get this straight,” I said. “You have a yacht and an estate in Greenland, but you want to be the proud proprietor of an alligator farm.”

“I was thinking more along the lines of “proprietor of a colony.’”

“Come again?”

Quebec is stealing a page from the original Dutch and British colonization of this area. They're bringing back proprietary colonies in order to spur settlement. You must understand how the New York project will stretch their resources to the limits. The have to rely on private entrepreneurs to develop the hinterland.” He withdrew a folded paper from his pocket. “All we need is five adult residents to sign this document, to remain in occupation, and to recognize the sovereignty of Quebec, and 1000 square kilometers will become the personal property of whichever signatory delivers the claim to the Land Officer in New York. He or she can sell or lease land, fishing rights, resource rights…anything.”

“What do the other four signatories get out of it?” I asked.

“In the absence of a contract among themselves – which is their responsibility to make – they get the good will of the claimant. In this case, that means my good will. I will not agree to a contract, as you might have guessed. But don’t worry, George. I’ll cut you in. Your status as a verifiable born-and-bred resident is particularly useful, but don’t think you are indispensable. We’ll digitally record the proceedings to prove the signatures are not frauds. I’ve already recorded enough images of the town and the route here to prove our presence in the location.”

“There are six of us,” I said.

“Your math is irrefutable.”

“I take it you don’t want Joelle’s signature.”

“The accent worries me,” he said. “I don’t really know her status or what her relationship might be to the Quebec government or some member of it. I don’t know if any of that could affect my ownership claims in some way. So why take a chance?”

Joelle smiled and distractedly fingered a window against which a hat-sized moth fluttered.

“Sign, George,” he said. Don’t make me go find someone else.”

“My I ask why you didn’t bring a fifth signatory of your own? That seems unusually sloppy.”

“You may. I did have a fifth. He met with an unhappy accident: terminal greed.”

One of the sailors smiled.

“What if I should meet with an unhappy accident after signing?”

“That would be tragic. Sign the paper, George. I suggest that your options are limited.”

I looked at his three goons and at the closet door in front of which they stood. I nodded. Ulysses handed me a fountain pen as Marcel aimed a camera at us that he had picked up from somewhere. I assumed hidden guns were just as accessible to him. I signed the top line of the document. I felt like John Hancock. The three sailors signed in turn, trading off the camera as they did. Then Ulysses signed the bottom with a flourish.

“Excellent. Now, Colonel…” Ulysses choked off as he looked up.

Joelle was aiming a .32 automatic at him. I haven’t a clue to this day where it had been. “Put the camera down,” she ordered, and then waved the men back. “Pick up the camera, George. The rules don’t limit the signatories to five, they merely call for at least that many. Record me signing.” She put her gun in my free hand and walked to the table. I was ecstatic. She and I were in this together. She signed and slid the document in the top of a boot, from which it protruded.

“Give me the gun and camera, cher, and open the closet,” she said, waving the men away from the door. She slipped the camera strap over an arm.

“Right.”

I took out the key and opened the door, but as I reached for my AK, she said, “No, no. Stand with the others.” The .32 was pointed at me.

With a constriction in my chest, I backed up and stood next to Ulysses. He favored me with a sour smile.

Joelle, facing us at all times, sidled to the closet. She slung the AK over one shoulder and the AR over the other. She draped the sidearm belts over the arm with the camera. The loose .45 temporarily had her stumped, but she ended up holding it against her body with her arm. There was something fascinating about the performance.

“I think it would be best if I don’t hear any footsteps behind me,” said the heavily burdened Joelle as she backed out of the room. “By the way, General,” she added, addressing Ulysses, not me, “I’m not a spy for Quebec. I’m just an entrepreneur, like you. After I deliver the claim, I’d be happy to sell you that alligator farm.”

Ulysses was poised to lunge as Joelle exited the room, but I tugged on his sleeve to stay put. He looked doubtful but, perhaps out of curiosity, stood still as minutes passed. The crew, accustomed to following orders rather than taking initiative, waited for direction. A shriek and a clatter came from the hallway. We both hustled to the door. The hall was empty except for sidearm belts, two loose handguns, the AR15, the camera, and the document, which, I guessed, Joelle had removed from her boot while she waited for the elevator – one that contained a 12-foot monitor lizard. She must have dropped everything but the AK when faced with the lizard. This was wise. Any of the other weapons would have annoyed it. There was no rifle fire, so she was still running down a side hall, or the creature had caught her.

I ran for the elevators and grabbed the AR and the document. To my surprise. Ulysses was not behind me. He must have calculated that I would get to the AR first, and so ducked back into the room. I dove into the stairway. Rifle fire raked the door as it swung shut behind me. There indeed had been other weapons hidden in the suite. I ran up to the next landing and started up the flight toward the roof. The door banged open, but I was out of sight in this position. Multiple footsteps banged in the logical direction: down. I reached the roof door, lit fuses on two sticks of dynamite, and placed them on the top stair. I grabbed my Remington, which so far I hadn’t needed, and ran to the generator. I set the timer on the generator charges and then the one on the satellite dishes for two minutes. I heard muted gunfire beneath me, including the distinctive rattle of an AK47. I tossed the AR off the roof, shouldered the Remington, dropped the rope over the edge, and rappelled down the outer wall. On any other occasion, this would have terrified me, but my supply of terror already was being fully used. Above me I heard satisfying crumps as the dynamite sticks detonated. Lights went out on the tenth floor, and the windows went dark.

The rope ended five meters short of the ground. I lowered myself as much as I could and dropped to the ground. I landed with a splat on the muddy bayou bank next to the motor launch. Something large splashed a few meters away. I clambered onto the boat and looked for the ignition. It was a keyed ignition, but the key was left in it. This was a careless invitation to thieves. I turned the key and the engines roared to life. I engaged reverse, and the boat slid off the bank. I pushed the gear level forward and motored east. I traveled as fast as I dared in a nighttime lit only by a sliver of moon. It was nearly two fast: I was almost decapitated by an overhanging branch I had failed to see in the dark. It brushed my head and removed some hairs.

Well downriver I passed a yacht, presumably Ulysses’, but decided not to switch vessels on the off chance someone was on board. The fuel gauges on the boat looked adequate for the full trip.

I considered what to call my colony. Morristown didn’t sound quite right for a town in Quebec. Perhaps Morrisbourg would be better, I thought.

The boat entered the Upper Bay as dawn broke. The green lady still held her torch high. Beyond her were the weatherworn skyscrapers of Manhattan. Over Battery Park flew the fleur-de-lis.


2 comments:

  1. So good so far, Richard. Trying to read more. I like the subject matter.

    ReplyDelete