Sunday, March 30, 2008

Obama at the Gates of Detroit, Chapter 2

And thus we came to the gates of Detroit. Five hundred feet tall they were, and wrapped in banded iron, but we passed them easily, for they stood ajar. Beyond them lay the great and ancient city of Detroit, arrayed before us on its seven hills. It lay across the land like an emerald web, with broken fingers of steel and stone thrusting up from between the mighty bows of cedars and conifers, and shining silver avenues of light dividing the forests into regimented sections. Everywhere I looked I saw gaping, eyeless towers, and in the entire city I am certain that not a single pane of glass remained unbroken. Even the buildings that remained intact were clothed in vines and creepers, as if the fauna were attempting to swallow the city whole.

“Once the power of Iron ruled this domain,” Obama said quietly. “From the holy city of Duluth, along the shores of the Gitche Gumee, even unto fabled Toledo, did Iron hold sway. But Detroit was always the heart of it. Here the Rust Barons dwelt, in their forbidding cast-iron fortresses, and they handed down their pronouncements to the people on lacquered black scrolls housed in solid gold wire-baskets every solstice-night. They commissioned great works, to proclaim to the world the glory of Iron: the Topless Tower of Chitown, the great locomotives that devoured the leagues beneath their wheels, and the Colossus of Eerie. In the Great War they fashioned terrifying engines of destruction that strode the world and crushed the enemies of the Constitution at the behest of the Roosevelt the Second. They build the first land-ship, the first air-ship, and the first auto-phaeton. Truly, their power was unmatched within our borders.”

“What happened?”

Instead of answering, Obama bent down and dug up a handful of dust. The fine silt drained through his fingers and scattered on the wind.

“Things change,” Brother Sharpton translated. “Things always change.”

The man Obama mused on his dusty palm. “There were still people dwelling here when Lord Nader arrived. I know not what fate befell them, but they are gone now. Only the Green lives now, and the Green abides alone.”

He clapped his hands together and stood, striding forcefully down the cobblestone street. Each paving stone was inset with a single copper ingot, and occasionally they would vent a fat green spark that crisped the air and made our hair stand up. “Attend to me,” Obama called, “and I will sing to you of Nader the Lame.” We followed him cautiously, choosing our steps so as not to tread on the conducting stones.

“It began with an accident, on the fields of Jahro, during the Great War. It is not known what marvel of the Rust Barons cost Lord Nader his leg – certainly one of their mighty war titans, which were fielded on all sides – but his fury over that loss is graven in every stone of this city. He set himself against the Rust Barons, and even before he had fashioned a new limb for himself he sang vendetta before nine High Justices; he promised to end the reign of Iron forever.”

“And so he did.”

“How?” I asked. “How could one man kill an element?”

“It helps if the man in question is a Beltway Lord,” Greenspan said dryly.

Obama shook his head. “Any person can shake the foundations of the world, if they have the strength of spirit. And Nader’s spirit is strong. As strong as anyone’s. I only wish he had heeded wiser council, in those days when he was willing to heed any council at all. Again and again he sets himself against the mighty, and some enemies do not fall as easily as the Rust Barons did. Lord Nader has made many new enemies, and seen few victories, since last we spoke.”

There followed a pause, a temporary lull, in Obama’s speech, a habit we had grown accustomed too. He was a man of great words and gravid silences. As we waited for him to begin again, our feet carried us along one of the seven main arteries of Detroit, a shining and inexorable path to the huge castle that capped the central hill. The streets were lined haphazardly with huge trees, their boughs neatly trimmed to prevent them from overshading the road, and so the burnished cobblestones gleamed beneath us even as the woods on either side were cloaked in darkest shadow. The air was still and heavy and I heard no animals – not even the shrill call of birds or the buzzing of insects – and the ten warriors and myself soon grew extremely nervous in the foreboding quiet.

I say we heard no animals, and it was true, but nevertheless we felt a presence grow near. Sometimes I would sense movement between the trees, and know that there were dark eyes lodged in fearful visages, all intent upon our band, though I could not explain why I was so certain.

“Lord Nader made all this,” the man Obama finally said. “He sang to the heart of Iron and turned it green. He was always possessed by a love of the earth, and all its generative forces. He sang the Green as well as any many alive; perhaps he was even as good a greensinger as Boone or Roosevelt Lionheart. He—“

His words were cut off as a whirlwind of motion burst out of the forest ahead of us. A silver form alighted upon the cobblestones, poised and erect: later I was put in mind of the way plains caribou, upon being startled out of the high grass, will freeze in place as the sniff the air for hunters, all coiled muscle and power barely held in check. It was as strange a thing I have ever seen: in figure it resembled a centaur, except with silver-rimmed wheels instead of legs and a body made of copper wire and steel bones and whirring clockwork. Clear peridot eyes regarded us stoically for a moment, and then dismissed us. One of its arms snaked out and plucked a bent branch from a tree’s limbs, and only then did I notice that its hands ended in wicked pruning shears. It stowed the branch within some unseen compartment and then, its task complete, it folded in on itself, like a flower opening in reverse, and it was suddenly transformed into a simple auto-phaeton, the likes of which can be seen ferrying men of wealth and substance up and down the streets of New York or Philadelphia or even St. Louis. Soundlessly it departed and sped along the path on gleaming wheels. As it passed over them, each of the cobblestones happily discharged its load of verdant lightning into the wheel rims.

“Gentlemen,” Greenspan said wryly. “I think we’ve just seen the Gardeners of Detroit.”

Obama studied the receding shape critically. “Yes, it must be so. It resembles some of his earlier designs. I had not imagined that he had come so far, I so short a time.”

“How?” someone sputtered. It might have been me.

“Lord Nader studied under many masters, in his youth,” Obama explained. “He mastered the arts of iron-working, as well as greensinging, and was equally adept at both, as well as alchemy, astronomy, statistics and fatebinding, and the studies cryptozoological. Even before his vendetta he earned the enmity of the Rust Barons by forging intricate, if impractical, improvements on their existing designs. The Nader-smith never settled for anything short of perfection; he decried the works of other inventors as crude and unsafe and unsound. He seeks a precision of form that cannot be found in animal, vegetable, or mineral.”

Sharpton grunted. “And I don’t think he likes unannounced guests very much either. Look over there.”

Shapes were speeding towards us along the shining path, from the direction we had come. As I watched, the walls disgorged more speeding figures to fall, their wheels already spinning, onto the road in a clatter of sparks. They soon closed the distance: auto-phaetons were faster than any flesh and bone horse.

“Run!” Obama commanded, and we fled.

As we approached the nearest intersection, two huge shapes stepped out from beneath the trees. They were crude and haphazard, vaguely man-shaped piles of wood and steel. Flecked gray bark and fetid lichen peeked out from beneath pitted iron plating. Steel beams and bones and springs were lashed together with ropy clingers and vine tendrils. Gnarled limbs ended in glittering razor claws. Amber eyes glowed as if backlit by furnace fires.

“Hybrids!” Obama ducked beneath the sweep of one paring-bladed hand. “I never imagined that he would develop Hybrids!” He clapped me on the back and hurled me out of the path of another wooden monster’s attack.

One of the warriors, a skinny kid named Spider, tried to attack the hybrid sentinels with his quarterstave, and was split nearly in two by a grotesque backhanded blow. Another man, Edison Mathers, unloaded the contents of his pepperbox revolver into the eyes of the thing attempting to rip his leg from its socket, with no appreciable result. Obama leaned down with his long arms and sturdy hands and plucked one of the metal ingots from a paving stone and hurled it at that second sentinel. It struck the tree-thing in the face and exploded in emerald light. The monster dropped poor Edison to the ground.
Obama drew up another paving stone, and another, and another. They crackled in his fingers and wrought actinic fire as they struck Nader’s hybrids. “Flee, if you would save your lives. Your weapons are of no use here.”


“Go!” he commanded; less an order given than a natural law. “I will guard your backs. Make to the heart of the city, if you can. I will join you,” and, under his breath where no one but I could here, he added, “…if I am able.”

We fled.

Obama at the Gates of Detroit, Chapter 1

Plame abandoned us on the edge of the Asphalt Sea, forty miles south of Detroit. Even the spirits of the air cannot intrude on the dominion of a beltway lord, and Lord Nader casts his wards wide. I recall little of my journey through the corridors of magic, except that it was cold, and windy, and full of the chattering gossip of the unburied dead.

The Asphalt Sea balked us for a time, as it balked all who would encroach upon the domain of Nader the Lame. The vast, featureless plain of bubbling bitumen smoked in the noonday sun, and stretched as far as the eye could see. Beyond it, Detroit – a gaudy emerald in a silver setting – beckoned us onward.

“We travel by night,” the man Obama ordered. “Anyone caught by sunlight on that ebon expanse will be roasted alive. Naught but bone and ash will remain.”

“It will take more than a night to cross that sea,” I observed. “What will we do when the sun rises and we are only halfway across?”

“I have prepared for that eventuality,” Greenspan said, but would reveal no more.

I’ll not recount that night’s difficult journey, nor how the heat came up through our boots til the soles of my feet smoked, nor how my skin crisped even in the night air. Obama lead us single file across the Asphalt Sea, dragging behind us a sleeping Schwarzkopf in a trundle made from two children’s wagons. When the sun threatened to broach the horizon, Obama called a halt, and the Bear-sark was rolled off his cart to reveal a roll of canvas the size of a stout man. Greenspan unfurled it into a magnificent silk pavilion, made from cloth that shone like silver. When I marveled at its construction, Greenspan explained that it was enchanted with the ancient runes of Goretex. We spread it upon the ground and slept in comfort all that day.

The second night’s journey was marred by only one unusual occurrence, around the fourth bell, as a shrieking whine split the desolate silence of that black plain. A heart’s beat after the cry, a pair of broad black shapes that filled the sky for an instant, and then we were bathed in the winds of their passage. Schwarzkopf snorted, and rolled over in his sleep.

“Birds?” someone asked fearfully. “Wyrm-shrikes? Thunderbirds, perhaps? I’ve heard that Colorado Rocs can grow that big.”

“Nay, tis the Texas Air National Guard,” Obama answered. He halted, and stared into the distance, watching their flight: he had the best eyesight of any of us, for, as all well know, he spent his childhood in the wafting kite-city of Moloka’i where he was an apprenticed leper-seer, and spent many a night in vigilance against incursions by the rotting ones. Deep consternation creased his brow, and even a touch of reproach. It is the closest I ever saw him come to anger. “King George sends them to make war on the north.”

“Against Canada?” I blurted. “That’s crazy.”

“They don’t call him the Mad King for nothing,” Brother Sharpton cackled.

The man Obama sighed. “King George has declared Canada to be an abomination, and bids his scythe-planes to harry it away from our border. The land, you ken, not the people. Every month a flight of planes takes wing from Fort Worth and makes the trek across the whole country until they reach the border. Many fall along the way, to the RonPaul's guns or the thunderbird's talons, or simple storms. When they arrive, the few survivor's dive at the ground and carve furrows in the tundra with their wing mounted blades until they exhaust their fuel.”

“And then?”

“Then they crash, and die,” Obama said with disdain. “Until the next month, and a team of brave young fools arrives to try and flagellate the earth itself. And so it will continue, until the world ends, or the northern half of the continent surrenders and sinks beneath the waves. It is a senseless thing, like so much that happens in these last days.”

“What do the people of the north think of this?”

“The Canadians are not like us,” Obama said shortly, and would speak no further on the matter.

That morning we reached the foothills of Detroit, and heaved a sigh of relief as we rested our toes in good loam and soft grass, instead of tar and rock. The bulk of Detroit stretched above us, a towering pyramid of stone, capped in dense foliage. We circled the mount until Obama showed us the single cobblestone road that spirals upwards into the city. “Step not from this path,” he warned, “neither to the left nor the right, for if you do you will be set upon by the guardians.” But of these he would reveal nothing.

We made one circuit of the road that day, and found ourselves staring down upon the place where we had first set foot on the path, over a cliff one hundred paces tall. This is the manner of the road into Detroit’s dark heart: it winds ever upward. We made camp upon the path, not daring to leave it, though fruit trees and sumptuous berry bushes sat invitingly only a few steps away. Eventually the man Obama became restless and foraged ahead while we slept. Soon we were awoken by his joyous laughter. We rushed up the road to find him staring at a copse of trees, within an arm’s span of the path.
“Potomac Cherry Trees,” he cried. “I had not thought to see their like again, after the Sundering. I had thought them all ensconced behind the source wall. Truly this is a blessing to our cause.” He plucked a berry from the tree and held it out to me. “Taste it.”

I did. “Sour,” I opined, and then my eyes widened, and I bent nearly double in shock.

“It takes people that way, sometimes,” Brother Sharpton said. “They are God’s own fruit, but they do contain too much for one man.”

“Once they were a gift, from the Emperor of the East to the Emperor of the West,” Greenspan explained. “Before the sundering, that was. Before even my time. Fruit of the Samurai, they were called. One single cherry is enough to sustain a grown man for a full day, both food and drink. Two cherries grant him the strength of seven men, though at the end of that day he will collapse and sleep for a week. Three cherries is instantly is fatal.”

“There is more to it than that,” Obama said mischievously, and he stroked the supple bark of the tree with his hand. Soon he began to sing in a high, sonorous chant. It contained something of the songs of the prairie larks, and something of Leonard Cohen. After a time, a miraculous thing happened; where he passed his hands over the wood, it changed shape. Soon, without using a blade, he had a branch of the tree shorn of leaves and smoothed into a simple staff, colored the crimson hue of the tree’s heartwood. “Potomac Cherrywood makes the finest weapons known to man or elf. A simple quarterstaff fashioned from it is stronger than steel, and light and supple as thought.”

He made twelve more, one for each of our number except himself, and Schwarzkopf. Obama never wielded a weapon in anger in the entire time that I knew him. “We are well armed now, I judge. As well as we aver shall be. Come, friends. We must make haste to the top of the city, for there we will find Nader, and take our counsel.”