THE OCCLUDED ROAD TO LIMITED DEVOTION
By Andrew Paul Grell
“Hail, Julian! What news of the quest, old friend?”
“Marcus has told me he has found the Thing of Things. He will be at Resonator One in Brand New York at Vespers.”
“Brand New York. My thrice-great grandfather told me Brand New York was not a bubo on the fundament of New York, but New York was not much compared to Old York. Meet you at the K-Hop. Do we know why Marcus couldn’t show you on the Rho what he had in mind?”
“I asked him that very question. He said it’s not exactly Halal, but it would be well worth it. Perchance we could recover the cost of the trip, he said.”
The K-Hop in Brand New York was loomed over by a sculpture of a green woman in a flowing green robe, holding a burning stick, wearing broken ankle bracelets.
Horatius asked her the way to Resonator One, and she pointed her burning stick to the north. Marcus was waiting outside the facility for his quest-mates.
“Ahoy, Horatius, Julian! Hail, fellows! Let us enter and become bent and pravum, what we shall discuss requires it.” They approached the bulkhead; it blinked pink, mauve, taupe and dilated to allow the party entrance.
“Ahoy, Horatius the Brave, Julian the Strong, Marcus the Wise! What news from the Allentown Beach? Word is that the Clockers seized a hundred tonnes of coke in a mulch transport being snuck in.”
“Hail, Rigidus, and still! The news is not as of yet current. A professor at our Allentown Polyverse discovered an abandoned transport of coal; the transport was what they called a rail-road train; a string of cargo wagons traveling, iron wheels on iron rails. He decided to see if he could make steel with ancient pig iron and coke from the purloined coal. He would be in the stocks this night but for his defense of academic license. The Kentucky Procurator adjudged, and remain still, this is not current, recall, the worth belongs to the families and estates of those who, 300 years ago, labored to get the coal out of the ground and onto that train, but were never paid.” Horatius looked of mixed mind on the outcome but recited the traditional salute. “Hail the Clockwork Agents and the Procurators, Justice is done.”
“And Marcus, how fares the new beach at Trenton?”
“The surfing is exalted, the sun shines at the best angle, but the sand has not finished becoming, well, you know, sand. One may enjoy the beach without guilt, though. I have been told that for the land formerly between Trenton and the ocean, people long ago would not have missed it. Unlike Bakersfield, where one lights sticks to honor the dead before surfing. And now, good landlord, I will order our resonance for myself and my companions, and have vibrations for yourself as well! A 7th-force for myself, Straight NMR for Julian, Shell K-s Diffuse set to, let’s see, Jazz music for Horatius. And whatever is your desire, but we must needs be in your hide-away for the dark matters we discuss.”
Marcus paid 30 talents for the resonances and the use of the room. When everyone was seated and humming, he addressed his friends.
“Mouse diving. We’re going mouse diving.”
Julian spoke first. “It pleases me. I have run out of new places to dive. Where do we dive, and what is the advantage of seeking drowned rodents, but for getting more of them than one’s fellows, yet that is a challenge acceptable to me.”
Marcus and Horatius looked at he each other; Horatius gave Marcus the sign; it was his idea, he would have to do the explaining.
“We aren’t recovering rodents. The former Florida now stops at Deland. Fortuitous and prognostic name; it is now the southernmost point of the Remaining States. Polydactyl cats with oddly bent tails roam the ruins. If there were rodents of any kind, the cats would have dispatched them. No, we will dive the waters covering the Lost World of Disney, a place people went to give their children synthetic fun and for the parents to stand in long lines assessing potential couplings with others in the same line. Its Sigil was a mouse, the second greatest mouse of all time. But the sunken city must contain an archaeological treasure store. This will be our adventure this year.”
“Marcus. Why do we discuss this in a back room? Who stops the free from diving? What else have we left? Surfing, diving, research, the Rho.”
“An excellent question, comrade. The creator of Disney World was one Walter Disney. When he died, his head was removed from his body and frozen in liquid nitrogen. His was the second head, 90 years past, to be revivified; there were 207 attempts that failed. On 208, they succeeded, and then Walt was next. The head has retained council and seeks to protect its interests, whatever they are. Council seeks to preserve the biggest interest, Walt Disney World. Or what remains of it. Procurators and Judges debate as we speak as to whether former above-water territory is subject to the laws of the sea and the rules of salvage. The matter will conclude soon; this will be our chance.”
Julian objected. “All hail the Clockers and the Procurators. Let justice run its course.”
“Marcus, you know Julian is correct and proper. But I may have something better for our adventure. I have heard that in Mexico there is something we can do that none of us has ever considered doing, a long-ago evil, so safely concealed and obscured that only the best can find it. Fellow Polynauts, will you join me on faith?”
Marcus’s friends shouted out in concert amplified, magnified, and emphasized by resonance, “Hail Horatius, Captain of the gate to our adventure!”
“We can take the Musk Pendular from Philadelphia to El Paso and cross the border there, if they’ll have us. Have your Polyverse IDs with you. We are graduate students studying sand.”
The three scholars spent 50 talents on gum for the three of them, and gum for whoever had none. Four hundred years of being kilometers away from the Earth’s surface, above or below, and the best thing for human ears during pressure changes was an ancient treat, “chewing gum.” They would be as much as four kilometers deep for part of the trip. A fellow passenger saw Julian starting to build up his wad prematurely and decided to try out the old joke.
“Ahoy, stranger, did you bring enough for the entire legion?”
“Hail, good fellow. Yes,” Julian replied and showed him a Klein bag with 60 packs of Doublemint gum. Julian put the K-bag back in his pocket and clasped forearms with the fellow traveler. “Julian, student and adventurer.”
“Claudius, scholar with a new appointment somewhere safer than here. Where are you bound, and what do you study?”
“Where I am ultimately bound for my adventure with my companions, I cannot say, it is a surprise.” Julian was sharp enough to not say asteroseismology but rather to tell Claudius he and his friends studied sand. “All I know is that when we enter Chihuahua, if they let us in, we K-Hop to Jimenez. And you, Claudius, where bound, and what do you profess?”
“Also Jimenez, and I teach the history of transportation systems. How if we had paid attention to transportation, the last 300 years would not have happened.”
Marcus and Horatius returned from the lavatorium to see Julian engaged; introductions were made as was an excuse to keep Julian from giving away information. The party went through the formality of being granted permission, as Remaining States citizens, to enter Texas. And in under an hour and a half, they were in El Paso, rubbing their ears, pushing air through nostrils closed tight as a frog’s ass, getting ready for Mexican immigration.
The three friends joined the line along the wall and made their way ever forward to the inspection station; it’s sigil and device was a banner, “Welcome to the Maximillianist Republic of Mexico” above a burro towing a cornucopia of fresh produce. When Mexico lost Baja and Yucatan, politics came close to having “recounts” decided by their ancient weapons. The PRI, Labor, and the nationalist parties cancelled each other out, so to speak, leaving the tiny Green Party in charge, three Presidents of Mexico dead by violence, and every PEMEX officer from VP on up in prison. By tradition, Mexicans would come to the border and pat the wall built and paid for by President Spade of the old United States, now a free gift restricting the import of chaos into the now unified and harmonized country.
Horatius read the name on the tunic of the customs agent. “Peace upon you, good Daniel, my friends and I have come to study your sand, since ours has degraded terribly.” The three presented their travel chips and research credentials, along with a letter, on actual paper, from the Polyverse Couch of Ecology. They also showed their credit chips to establish that they had enough talents not to be a public charge. Daniel shook their hands.
“Peace upon you as well, Horace, Mark, Julian. Welcome to Maximillionist territory. Be productive, kind, and neat and you will find what you seek here.”
The trio found a K-Hop stopping in Jimenez, where they would start their adventure, and took it. Not surprisingly to Julian, they found Claudius already there and looking, what was the ancient expression, ungulate-ish?
“Hail, Julian and friends! Are we all here for the same thing, as it seems?”
“To see Good Samuel?”
Marcus took command. “Samuel is not economical. Perhaps we can join forces into a hair less than half a decade?”
“One more spear to defend you, the pebbles reckon. But you are not studying sand, and I am truly exploring ancient transportation. My salt will be my knowledge, would you agree?”
“Aye, Aye,” the Trio proclaimed simultaneously. “Together we will see the Islands in the lake in the Caldera.”
The sixth Sha’ah-Zemanit came, as expected, when the sun was highest in the sky and with it came Samuel accompanied by a roar possibly not heard in a century. A metal wagon, vaguely ship-shaped, four bulkheads, four wheels, an empty hollow behind holding a fifth wheel and a box of the sort techs carried when a physical thing was in need of repair. It stank of a grease fire and hummed yet while it was stopped. The trio had seen these world-killers in the school Rhos but could hardly imagine any remained, much less a facility for them to travel.
“Ahoy, Learned Claudius, Ahoy young scholars. It is 50 talents per liter of fuel; you will need 100 liters for the trip. The round wheel in the cab turns the driving wheels. The long pedal makes it go faster, the wide pedal slower. To start, you put this physical key in the lock beside the wheel that steers. Have a care while you go, if you don’t return it or drop it off safely before the Mexico City Islands, it is two million talents to your debt.” Samuel retrieved an ancient bicycle, world savior that they were 300 years ago, and pedaled back up what Horatius called a “road.”
“It is a moderately hard and compact surface of crushed rock and a petroleum product, one of the few legal fossil uses, for plazas, esplanades, and concourses. A road. We are going on a Road Trip. We pilot the ‘El Dorado Pickup’ to Durango Beach and then to the Caldera, there to breathe the cleanest air on this mortal sphere. We stop in hamlets and villages, see the biggest ball of yarn in Mexico, watch people wrestle with alligators, purchase clothing emblazoned with the names of the places we see, drink alcohol as in the old times. Perhaps a woman will ask one of us to bear her standard. Perhaps all three of us. Possibly Learned Claudius as well.”
The trip down was a Devil’s bargain. The road was so camouflaged that they mostly could not see, port or starboard, if there was anything to see. There were exceptions, particularly the Burro Show in the tiny farming village of Izacotl. Genetically altered asses from centuries past resulted in donkeys which could write in the sand, move meter-high chess pieces and do sums and quotients. It was a hundred talents to play chess with an ass. Marcus played Shulamit and won in 42 moves. Miriam handed the victor a tunic with Shulamit as the sigil and “I Beat Miriam’s Ass” as the device. Then she gave Shulamit a bag of chaffhaye and sweet grass. The little burro drew a valentine heart in the dirt.
“I won! I got a tunic!” Julian and Horatius shared a glance. Horatius nodded and would prick the winner’s bubo.
“You beat a donkey at chess, Marcus.”
“How unchivalrous of you, Horatius. This is an ass bred to play, engrams and genes and neuro pathways.” Shulamit paused in her repast, drew a pleasing rectangle in the dirt and began listing the Fibonacci sequence next to it before returning to her meal.
“She is an ass of many skills, my friends,” the ass wrangler declared.
Claudius and the Polynauts gave the woman a salute and a cheer. “May peace be upon you, Miriam the Fair and Good.”
“And peace onto you as well, hale travelers. May your road be a safe one.”
It was Claudius’s turn to pilot the El Dorado. He was quite the tour guide, pontificating on the toll parkway system in Old Mexico that wound up causing a negative feedback loop, trapping labor from getting to where they labored and vastly increasing the damage to the sky.
There were more little communities as they headed to the Caldera. At a town with a reproduction of Quetzalcoatl atop the apex of a pyramid, Julius bought a glass globe with a miniature reproduction of the ancient temple and its god inside. When shaken, synthetic snow would fall in the round diorama. They tried a dilution of ethyl alcohol distilled from cactuses; a hardy survivor of the last few centuries. Above the room with the long table where the alcohol was dispensed, the foursome was led to a “Bordello.” Claudius had to explain what a bordello was, and how it worked, to the Polynauts. The women, mostly pale and blonde, looked like refugees from the failed Big Sky Commonwealth. Sadly, the wealth had not flowed down to the common.
“Pick one each, ruffians, they are strangers here working for the talents needed for their children.” Julian paid for all of the company but only if the eight of them would sit in the salon and converse. Julia, Octavia, Livia, and Katarina entertained the travelers, still of what a bordello was. The party was uniformly glad that by Nones they would see the sky bridges of the Mexico City Islands, Totoltepec, Topilejo, Oztotepec, Atocpan.
Continuing south the next day, in a few hours the sub-half-decade reached the foot of a towering hill. Claudius, expert in transportation, took the wheel for the terrifying twisty drive up; they were rewarded upon reaching Degolado, whereupon the road stopped at a walking and cycling path with a K-Hop station. The guardian was a large cockroach wearing a wide-brimmed woven hat, holding what the party decided must be a rifle. Horatius asked the way to the sky bridges, the beginnings of which they could just now see. The cockroach told them to wait; a guide would come soon.
A man came from the heavy brush that stopped, along with the road, at the concourse.
“Peace be upon you, Claudius. And upon you, Horace, Mark and Julian. I am Abraham, I will be your guide.” The guide retrieved a stiff board with sheets of actual paper on it. He gestured to Claudius to give him the El Dorado’s key, whereupon he made a mark with what must have been a pen on the top sheet of paper.”
“Peace be upon you, Abraham.”
“Samuel has done well to choose you. Walk with me in peace, brothers. Here is the west anchorage of the first Sky Bridge. You are safe; the surface of the bridges cannot be seen, but neither can you fall. A mystic of Galicia teaches that the whole world is a narrow bridge, and the important thing is to not be afraid.”
From then until compline, Abraham led the party to see the Maximillian Polyverse, the Great Library, and the crown jewel, a 120-meter reflecting telescope made by possible by the new Bose-process Didymium glass. Horatius was in love. Their host stood the party to a late supper of turkey mole’ and fresh vertical farm vegetables, washed down with more cactus ethanol, their glasses rimed in salt, bearing a lemon slice.
“Samuel’s friend in the Remaining States picked you out; that’s his job. You passed Claudius’s test and Samuel’s too. The three of you have been drafted into Mexican citizenship. You don’t have to accept, there’s a Musk Pendular that will bring you to Omaha in two hours. If you decline, you can’t come back. If you accept, you can travel anywhere in the world and always be welcome here. We need fresh eyes for asteroseismology; we think it may be critical to what happens next. The scope you saw is under the cleanest air on Earth.”
Horatius stood first. “In the parlance of your people, soon our people, your people will be my people and your way will be my way.”
Marcus spoke next. “Along the trip, I was thought of switching fields. Do you think I could spend some time studying Miriam’s burros?”
“You are about to be an Academic of the Maximillion Republic. You are free to study anything, including asses.”
Julian finally made his decision. “I’ll bet you could use some fresh eyes and lungs for salvage and archaeological diving...”