It began in fire.
We gasped when we saw it. First a spark, then a flame, then a roaring blaze. Faster than the eye could follow it roared and leaped and danced. The zeppelin’s outer coating had been fireproof, as only hammered gold could be fireproof, but beneath that there were layers of nylon and oakum, and once this caught fire there was no hope for it. Ten heartbeats after the tail-fin caught fire, the shell of the airship began slowly and inevitably to crash.
We never stopped shooting. Not even as its doom became obvious. Not even when the screaming started. The canons kept up their firing – boom! boom! boom! – as quickly as we could load ball and touch powder, as smooth and regular as an automaton. War will do that to you. We knew it wasn’t over yet: even though the golden blimp was down, there were still dozens of other zeppelins in the fight. Their shadows brought night to the battlefield, and stole the sparkle from the windows of all the buildings in the city nearby. Not that there had ever been a lot of sparkle in Minneapolis.
So we kept shooting. It was bloody work. Our polished, hovering land-ships formed up into ordered lines of battle, relentlessly harrying a chaotic spread of smoking airships. It was probably the only real stand-up fight the Ronpaul’s forces had ever seen, and they weren’t taking it at all well. You could almost feel bad for them.
And then it was. Over, I mean. As the bulk of the blimp was still falling – airships take a damn long time to die – there was an explosion from the aft end. A terrible, terrible screeching shook the air. I saw him drop: at this distance he was a shiny dot the size of a dust mote. A flaming, golden fleck. He struck the ground, and the earth trembled. It kicked up so much dust we feared it would clog the turbines. It left a smoking crater a dozen yards wide in some poor farmer’s field.
The man Obama reached him first. He leapt the gunwale of the Audacity of Hope and sprinted across the frosted Minnesotan soil. The rest of us followed, with a bit more caution. Politicians rush in where regular folk fear to tread. He reached the Ronpaul’s side and hauled the wounded Lord out of the ruins of his golden throne and then they commenced to fighting. We couldn’t believe that that old git was still alive, but there he was, six feet tall, three feet wide, and covered in golden plates. Not armor, you ken, but solid plates of metal seared to his flesh. A few had fallen off in the crash, and you could see the scar tissue beneath. Nasty.
They fought for what seemed like hours, but was probably minutes. War is like that. They fought unarmed, like crazed Greek wrestlers. Their blows rocked the air, and when their arms locked, I heard the sound of shearing metal. They fought with the shadow of Minneapolis at their backs, that godawful, lake-ridden city. They fought like heroes. They fought like Titans. They fought like true Lords of the Beltway. Even the Ronpaul: I give him that. Shriveled and cruel as he was, fallen and burnt as he was, he gave as good as he got. Where mortal flesh would have failed, his golden skin held strong, and every glittering blow seared my eyes with reflected sunlight.
Most of us could only stand and watch, but others went and tried to pry some gold of the twisted wreck of the Ronpaul’s throne. No one begrudged them: gold is gold, and we understood intuitively that our part in the battle was now over.
It was Obama that finished it. He finally took the Ronpaul’s stubborn neck in both his powerful hands and twisted. I’ll never forget that gawdawful crack, but I think I might try. I think both the Twin Cities head it. Then it was over. Obama just stood there, with blood on his hands and that handsome caramel face looking so appalled and bereaved. He shed a tear for the man, a drop of molten gold, and then we knew it really was over.
Our side drew in the cannons. Their lightning guns stopped frying the earth black. With their leader dead, most of the Ronpaul’s forces surrendered; except for the Sturmfrunten, who all took strychnine and died convulsing. Crazy fucks. The rest of the Ronpaul’s people were just confused and bitter and desperate. There were thousands of them, in dozens of airships: the Ronpaul had built a formidable armada in his time as the unquestioned lord of the Midwest’s airspace. They poured out of their airships, a desperate multitude; most of them still had our gunpowder in their hair. We made them park their ships and form up ranks, and then Obama gave them a speech.
He gave it straddling the wreck of the golden throne. He spoke to them with the blood of their general still on his hands. He spoke to them in the shadow of their defeat, and took the bitter sting away. His voice was clarion, but his words were balm. He talked of promises made, and broken, and re-forged in earnest. He talked of America; of what it was, and is, and will be. He talked of freedom, and determination, and hope. Always of hope.
I’ve seen it happen almost a dozen times. At Joliet and Toledo, they wept openly. After the battle of Des Moines, they picked him up on their shoulders and carried him to the bow of his ship. At Terra Haute, even the children tried to join him, and only Obama’s gentlest admonitions managed to prevent the cause from gaining a hundred half-pint privates. And every time – every damn time – I shed tears.
Nine out of ten joined our cause right there and then. They just threw down their banners, cast off their silly hats, and signed up. The other tenth slunk away like whipped dogs.
We embraced them, our newfound brethren: what else could you do? We’d all been in their shoes, once. You heard the man talk, and you had to make a choice. So we hugged them and cheered, because we knew what it meant. The Battle of Minneapolis was over. We’d won. We, the Free-riders of the Outlaw Prince. Men and women, Iowans and Minnesotans, Nebraskans and Wisconsinites, and volunteers from every state in the union: the last free people in America.
We cheered, not because it was over, but because it had finally begun.