Sunday, April 20, 2008

Obama at the Gates of Detroit, Chapter 3

“Run!” someone shouted.

“They’re gaining!”

“Don’t look back,” Greenspan said. “Eyes forward. Watch your feet, lest you trip on a cobblestone.”

It was good advice. The embedded copper ingots made the footing treacherous, and errant green sparks singed the feet of the unwary.

I looked back.

Obama could no longer be seen beneath a writhing mass of silver clockwork and oaken claws. Only the occasional gout of emerald radiance testified to the battle that was taking place. The pile of Gardeners had become so thick, though, that many of the arriving automatons were ignoring it in favor of pursuing us.

The heart of Detroit is a mansion, built on and around and overtopped by the stump of the largest tree I had ever seen. Alive, the tree must have been as tall as any feat of human engineering: taller than the topless towers of Chitown. Even felled, the stump made a mighty tower, and Nader’s home had been fashioned to ring the base of it. I saw a spiral of stairs ringing the trunk, rising into the clouds. We reached the manse bare minutes ahead of our pursuit.

“Quick now, “Sharpton commanded. “Through the doors, while they’re still unguarded.” He grabbed one of the huge gate’s ring-bolts, inserted his stave like a lever, and heaved.

“They have guardians,” Greenspan said dryly. “Look again.”
White flakes fell around us, as if the blazing spring day had turned to winter. I looked up. The mansion was ringed by a massive portico, and the base and capital of every pillar was decorated with graceful, willowy limbed stone figures.

No, not stone. Wood. As I watched, a fine web of cracks appeared on the face of the nearest stature, a beautiful dryad with flowers in her cedar hair. A thin layer of plaster crumbled and sheeted off, revealing an angry scowl. A wooden bosom heaved, and wooden muscles flexed, and with a powerful wrench the statue pulled herself free from her mounting. More plaster fell away, and I saw that her eyes were chips of hateful malachite, and the grain of her skin pulsed with verdant energy.

She had friends. We were surrounded.

Brother Sharpton eyed them. He crossed his arms. “I don’t do walking statuary. Golems fall under wizard-work.” He pointed a hefty finger. “Magic ‘em, Alan.”

Grumbling, Greenspan turned away with a flourish of his raggedy green cloak. He grabbed the trundle containing Schwarzkopf – still slumbering peacefully – and kicked it. The bear-sark merely shifted his vast bulk, rolling over and using one of his matted, filthy furs for a pillow.

“Lazy schmuck,” Greenspan grunted. He tipped the wagon over, and Schwarzkopf rolled a good span before coming to rest at my feet in a snoring heap. Greenspan knelt next to him, and begged me to attend. He eyed me slyly. “Want to hear some magic words?” He put his lips to Schwarzkopf’s ear. “Desert,” he said. “Storm and shield.”

The bear-sark grunted: a deep, throaty rumble that made the ground shake. His hands made fists as, without apparent effort, he gouged ten deep furrows in the stone street.

“Instant thunder.”

Schwarzkopf lurched to his feet. Bleary eyes blinked and squinted in the brilliant sun. One hand went to his back and he straightened with a groan and a crack that was heard in Pennsylvania. He gnashed his teeth and scratched at a winter’s worth of mangy stubble. “Ruh?” He asked. “Mur?”

Greenspan pointed at the encroaching wooden men. “Republican Guard.”

“Yur?” Schwarzkopf glared, and I stumbled back. There was no sleep-blindness in his eyes now, only angry red corpuscles and a terrible, smoldering clarity. His hands dipped beneath his cloak of filthy hides and produced a pair of huge, crude axes with cleaver blades. They were ancient, and rusty, and pitted with old blood.

“Get them,” commanded Greenspan the Green, but it was scarcely necessary. Schwarzkopf tugged the upper cowl of his cloak – a huge, shaggy bear’s head – over his eyes and roared. He charged, and his axes carved a path through the ring of statues. They fell before him like cut timber.

“After him,” Brother Sharpton shouted. “Follow close behind!”

Wood chips flew on either side of us like the dusty wake of a prairie-ship. I saw a score of grasping hands hacked off at the wrist. When we reached the gates of Nader’s manse, the bear-sark parted the doors with a single kick.


“Up!” Greenspan commanded.

We climbed.

And climbed.

The statue-folk tried to follow us, but with our whip-quick quarterstaves we tripped them up and hurled them off the stairs. I saw a dozen tumble and crack on the flagstones far below.

We climbed.

And climbed.

I saw Detroit spread beneath us, shining white and lurid green. My heart lurched. I saw the place where we had left Obama, and the smoking crater that testified to his strength, but, I could no longer see any sign of life. The whole city was as silent as a tomb.

We climbed.

And climbed.

And with the last of our strength, in the dying light of dusk, we heaved ourselves past the final stair. The top of the stump was a broad wooden plateau, a cable-length across. There was a gauzy awning in the very center, and a scattering of furniture, and a great, smoking forge. We approached carefully, for even from the edge of the plateau we could hear a strident voice speaking.

“Spoiler, am I? I’ll show them spoilers. I’ll show them a whole world of spoilers. Why, I have as much right as any Lord, don’t I? The office sits empty. The chair unfilled. Any man could take it, had he the will and the wit. My horse in that race was as good as the next. I am not an unreasonable man, am I?”

I glanced at Greenspan. He only shrugged. The strange voice continued to harangue the empty air.

“Fools! I WILL show them. They mock me, I know, but I’ll not stand it. I’ll not take the blame for Lord Gore’s exile. He brought it on himself. His weakness is at fault, not my strength. Yes. Weakness.” Here the voice changed, becoming low and thoughtful. “There is still a weakness in the vascular cambium, but I have nearly sorted it out. Yes, indeed. The root structure is strong, and the growth of meristematic tissue is quite pleasing. And what wonderful venation. Yes. Soon you will rise, my friend. Your time is almost at hand.”

And with that, the voice began an odd, lilting song, low and atonal, which tugged at my memories. It was the slithering sound of wind rustling an ocean of Kansan maize, the hissing of ten million new roots pushing aside the top soil, the quiet hum of sap flowing up the veins of a California redwood. The Greensong.

We approached carefully. In the gentle glow of a gas lamp, I saw my second Beltway Lord. Nader was a spare man, worn and wan, with caterpillar eyebrows and eyes that glowed with brilliant light: madness or intelligence, I could not say. He walked with a limp, and I saw that one entire leg was fashioned from solid bronze: despite this, it moved and flexed nearly as well as his flesh. He stamped about his little workshop, pausing only occasionally to water a cluster of vines or pour a crucible of molten silver into a clay mold. Everywhere I saw tendrils and vinestems crisscrossing the ground and wandering across the plateau into the encroaching darkness. For, as we grew closer, the last rays of the sun died.

And with them, so did Nader’s song. “I know you’re out there,” he said.

Greenspan and Sharpton shared an appalled glance.

“I’ve known since you crossed the threshold. You might as well come into the light, where I can see you.” When no one moved, he added, “Otherwise I’ll scour this stump clear of every scrap of animal life.”

Shamefaced, we shambled underneath the awning.

“Hmmm… You are not what I expected.” He had an apparatus on his forehead, an array of lenses and rotating arms: he stared at us through first one lens, then another. “Greenspan the Green. Hmph. I heard that you had been dismissed. A pity; you were ever a faithful servant. Friar Sharpton. Yes. Many times have we entered the lists together. And… Ah. General BjornheĆ“nar Shwarzkopf. I see you have awoken… Interesting.” He dismissed the rest of us with a sneer. “To what do I owe this dubious pleasure?”

“We were sent by Obama. We bring an appeal for parley.”

“Parley…” Nader shook his head. “Obama came with you, I hazard? That was his presence I felt in the city? If so, your mission is in vain, for I can sense his presence no longer. My hybrids have seen to then. Nader’s Raiders, I call them. Well, then. I suppose he wished to propose an alliance. No. I’ll not be tricked into joining myself to one of the great parties again. And really there is no need. No need at all, anymore. No, not anymore. For you see –“ He cut himself off with a clap and a grin. “An inspiration occurs to me. Oh, what a capital idea! Yes. Yes! What a fortuitous confluence. A most notable convergence! You have arrived just in time to witness my triumph. Come,” he commanded, and I saw that he had the man Obama’s way of making a word that was not a sound, but a fact. “I will show you my progeny.”

He spoke as he walked. “I had intended to awaken it in a fortnight, on the night of the full moon. No ceremony, no guests. But now it occurs to me that it would be good to have witnesses to my triumph. Eventually everyone will see, of course, and those that ought to will cower before me, but it seems to me that there should be witnesses at the nativity. Someone ought to record it for posterity’s sake. You,” he pointed at me, “are a scribe. Do not bother to deny it: I see things very well. Very well indeed. Well attend, scribe. And behold!”

He wrenched the sheet off of a covered form. To this day I do not know precisely what I saw. Man-shaped, yes, but not a man, and half again as tall. It was covered in green vegetable growth, more like fur than hair. Not a wooden eidolon like the statues below, or even a hybrid like the ones that attacked us in the city, but perhaps in a similar vein. What stands out most in my memories are its eyes, which even dull and half-closed were glowing with a malevolent power I can’t begin to describe. Worse was its age. For it was old, old; it fairly radiated with a palpable sense of history.

“It is a primordial,” Greenspan murmured. “An Old One.”

“It’s a Derew,” Nader corrected irritably. “Nobilis Vir Arborus. One of the fabled – and, indeed, now almost totally extinct – male dryads. I have named him Fingal. And tonight, he will rise with the moon.”

Even as he said it, a wind sprang up in the north, and parted a veil of clouds. Only a sliver of moon showed on the horizon.

“If you will excuse me, I must move quickly.” Humming, Nader set to work with a small bronze scalpel, and a crystal decanter. I could not see what he did, but the tree-man shifted imperceptibly, and even in the near darkness I could see that his foliage was growing greener by the second. “I found him, you see. Deep beneath the bowels of Detroit. He was the Rust Barons’ great shame. They cut down the Great Tree, and used its wood for timbers as they sank mineshafts beneath its roots, and plundered the wealth of the world. But they could not kill the old tree completely – the roots always have a bit of life, if you know how to find it – and so they could not kill its dryad. It took every ounce of my power to revive him: he has slumbered for centuries. But tonight, he wakens… ah. There! Yes, that will do it. Step back, everyone.”

The moon shone upon us, unnaturally bright for its phase. Nader cast the decanter down at the derew’s feet; it shattered, and the smell of corn whiskey filled the air.

“Rise, Fingal. Fey moon above and circle below. Tide and fog, blood and fire. Rise!”

And it did. The tree-shape groaned, and came to its feet. I saw eyes like bare earthen pits take me in, eat me up, and pass me over. They were old, hateful eyes. Fingal rose.

The earth shuddered. Beneath us, in the city, I heard decrepit towers collapse into rubble. Trees shook and shivered as if whipped by a hurricane. I stumbled to my knees.

“Idiot!” Greenspan shouted. “Nader, you fucking moron, don’t you see what he’s doing?” The slim man pulled himself up from the ground. “He’s rousing the stump. The roots are shifting. You didn’t just awaken the dryad, you woke up his tree!”

“Yes,” Nader considered. “I suppose I did. Sympathetic forces and all that. Well, all the better; I had intended to pit Fingal against George’s forces, but with the power of one of the world-tree’s at my fingers… yes! How fortunate. Now, no one will be able to contest my claim to the Oval Throne.”

One of the soldiers had run to the edge of the stump and peered over. “It’s uprooting itself,” he screamed. “It’s tearing the city to pieces.”

Greenspan shouted. “You have to stop it! It’s a world tree; its roots grip the heart of the continent. If it keeps thrashing about like this, it’ll destroy the whole Midwest.”

“Yes, I suppose it will. Well. That was unforeseen,” Nader mused. “Stop it? No, I don’t suppose I will. No. Even if I could, I would not. It is my platform. I shall ride its planks all the way to the Potomac. And once there, its roots will batter down the Wall, and I shall finally gain entrance to the throne, as I was meant to.” His smile was terrible in its mildness. “The Green shall rule America.”


We spun, and there he was: tall, fierce, awash in moonshadow, and beautiful. He sat astride an auto-phaeton, bareback, and its silver limbs pranced and reared, but he controlled it easily with a pat of his hand or a motion from his legs. The scales of his hauberk gleamed dully, each one inscribed with a word that, taken together, Declared Independence. Streaks of golden blood ran unchecked down his ebony face. Obama.

Lord Nader made a motion – a command, I think – but before the words left his lips Obama’s arms blurred and he loosed a cobblestone from either hand. They landed at our feet with a blinding flash. When I could see again, I was on my back. We all were. Above us and between us Obama charged, and the sound he made as he crashed into Fingal, the sheer bloody force of impact, nearly deafened me. With a wave of his hand Fingal tore the mount out from underneath Obama, and the silver Gardener burst into metal shards, but it was too late: Obama had wrapped his arms around the derew.

How long they wrestled I cannot say. It was an even contest. They were the same height, both far larger than a normal man, though the derew’s bulk – wood so old and gnarled and dense that it was practically coal – was far greater than Obama’s spare frame. Fingal rent at Obama, tearing at his flesh with oaken claws and crushing him with bone-shattering force. For his part, Obama bore it patiently and silently. His grip was gentle, even loving. He clasped Fingal to his chest like a prodigal son. Fingal beat at him. Fingal charged first one way, then another, all across the wooden plateau. Fingal stamped and gnashed mossy teeth and clawed the air, but he could not break Obama’s hold. The derew’s efforts were echoed below, as the stumps great roots lashed the streets of Detroit and destroyed its beautiful order. I began to think I was back aboard the heaving deck of a land-ship as the tree’s gyrations pitched us about. I saw that Greenspan and Sharpton had taken the initiative to bind and gag as dazed Lord Nader.

And then I saw Fingal, in desperation, fling himself off the edge of the tree. Soon after, the earth ceased to shake and the tree grew still.

It was noon the next morning before we found them: the stairway had collapsed, and the climb was arduous. There fall had carried them nearly to the shores of the Eerie Sea. Obama knelt in a furrowed crater, above the broken, twisted form of Fingal. The giant’s eyes were closed, and it breathed in laborious gasps.

“He will recover, in time. His kind are nearly immortal.” Obama turned to Nader. “Though I would appreciate it if you let him slumber. His time is not yet nigh. The earth is unready.”

“You invade my city, break all my plans, and have the temerity to lecture me?” Nader spat.

“We approached under terms of parley, and were set upon. We only defended ourselves.”

“Then parley, and be gone. It will take me years to undo the damage you have caused.” Nader sneered. “I assume you have demands? You didn’t come here to ask to learn the Greensong, so I suppose you must want me to build something. Weapons? Bombs?”

“Ships. The Ronpaul assails my people from on high. The Texas Empire’s scytheplanes play havoc across the prairielands. The Other Beltway Lords send bounty hunters against me. I need ships to defend my people.”

“Oh, indeed. Land-ships, I presume?” Nader snorted. “I could build you ships. Such wondrous ships as you have never seen. Hmmph. I expect that this is the part of the conversation where you threaten my life if I don’t?”

“We are under a flag of parley. It is treason and goddamning to take a life under parley’s flag. Nay, I did not come to demand, but to ask—“

“The answer is no.”

--and to trade,” Obama finished smoothly. “I have something you desire very much. A schemata.”

Nader was suddenly interested. “What kind of schemata?”

Greenspan produced a roll of parchment, made of paper so soft and supple that it was like cloth.

Obama said, “In the War of Brothers, Lincoln Silvertongue commissioned a great warship to protect against the depredations of Jefferson Landharrow and his thirteen bastard generals. She was carved from a single piece of ferric meteorite, powered by the unstoppable Indifference Engine, and her guns were quenched in the tea-soaked waters of Boston harbor, and enchanted to give no wound that was not mortal. Though she finally foundered at sea, the mighty Monitor could not be defeated while she ploughed the lands between the Missisissipi and the Atlantic. She was a one of a kind ship, and her blue prints are your, if you can give me a dozen from her mold.”

Nader snatched the scroll. “Let me see that! Yes. Astounding. Look at the keel to beam ratio! That bluff bow…” He studied it. “Yes. It may be possible. May be. Of course, the secret of its engine has been lost, but I have my own theories there. I have tendered drawings of a Green engine; after all, cannot the same force that thrusts a tendril of root through five feet of solid limestone be used to drive a flywheel? Force is force, after all.” Nader mused on this point, lost in thought, idly flipping the lenses on his viewing apparatus.

“So you will do it?”

“What? Oh. Perhaps…” Lord Nader considered. “A dozen? I could make you a dozen such ships, if I had the materials. Yes. And, of course, we have access to finer metals than they did in Lincoln’s day. Indeed. Yes.” Nader eyed Obama shrewdly, clutching the roll of parchment to his breast. “You will give me the schemata, and the materials necessary to build thirteen such ships. I will keep one for myself. Yes, that would be fine.”

Obama looked grave. “And will you support my claim to the Oval Throne?”

Nader waved it away. Yes, yes. I know when I am beaten. I’ll not press my own claim. Unless you die, of course. Or are defeated. Or someone else claims the throne.”

“Then we are agreed.” Obama spat on his palm and held it out. Nader clasped it, and I felt the earth shiver. Trees rustled throughout the city. Insects ceased their droning. Birdsong fell silent. As far away as Sacramento and Tallahassee, the other Beltway Lords paused in their warring, and checked their lunars and consulted their oracles and tasted the subtle lines of force that flowed through the earth. They all agreed: the balance had shifted.

The first pebble had fallen. In time, the avalanche might engulf them all.