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.”
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.”