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By John Scalzi
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2009 John Scalzi
All rights reserved.
IN THE FORESTS OF THE NIGHT
One of the most clichéd pieces of writing advice out there is "write what you know "— but the reason this advice is cliché is that it happens to be true. And one of the interesting things about the METATROPOLIS project was how each author incorporated what he or she knew into their own stories. In the case of Jay Lake, this included locale. Jay is a proud citizen of "Cascadia" — that metropolitan corridor that stretches from Portland up to Vancouver, British Columbia — and it's here that he sets his story.
Now, writing what you know is all well and good, but this is also speculative fiction, so Jay's Cascadia is different from the Pacific Northwest you know (or think you know). Jay's touch with world-building is impressive enough that it made sense for us to put his story first and let it be the one that gives you a sense of the world we created together.
And so, in the beginning: There was Jay Lake.
It would be nice to say that Tygre arrived in Cascadiopolis on the wings of a storm, riding the boiling front of electric darkness and lashing rain like a tall, handsome man out of some John Ford western. Or that he came through shadow and fire by a secret tunnel through the honeycombed basalt bones of these green-covered mountains, a hero out of templed legend following the journey of the gods. It would be nice, but inaccurate. Tygre arrived the way almost everyone comes to Cascadiopolis: either by accident, by judicial design or by following the damp silences between the trees higher and higher until there was nowhere left to go.
In Tygre's case, all three.
His name was Tygre Tygre. Spelled the way Blake originally did, T, Y, G, R, E. Or, if you prefer to file it by last name as so many sentencing authorities and similar busybodies do: Tygre comma Tygre. Not that he had a file, which made him unusual for someone who wasn't otherwise born and raised completely off the grid. But then Tygre was unusual from before we ever saw him to long after we laid him down in the forest loam beneath a simple stone marked only with a stylized flame.
Death improves everyone's reputation. For some, it also multiplies their power.
BASHAR grunts. A familiar, weary look nestles in his narrowed eyes, visible to the pickets even in the deep, green-black shadows of a cascades evening. The men and women who stand at Cascadiopolis' first line of defense know better than to give him cause for challenge. Not when he is in this mood.
Even the new fish like Kamila understand this with the same brute instinct that keeps young cats alive in the face of a battle-scarred neighborhood tom. Still, she is not so smart as she should be. Spiked into camo netting forty feet up a Douglas fir, she tries to sneak a hand-rolled smoke.
Cigarettes are so twentieth century, the pocket-sized equivalent of an SUV these days, but there's been a fad for them in the cities up and down the I-5 corridor. Every generation ignores the lessons of the one before. It's not tobacco — long haul transport is too difficult and expensive for something that doesn't pay good Euros by the gram — but a mix of locally-grown herbs and good old fashioned ganja. Rolling papers can be sourced regionally from the old Crown Z mill up on the Washington side of the Columbia.
Everyone knows this. The old hands, meaning anyone who has been on the picket line for more than a week, also know that Bashar hates cigarettes with the same passion that he hates concrete, white people and internal combustion.
Kamila does not know this, so she clicks her sparker and takes a drag inside a cupped hand. Bashar has the hearing of a bat, they whisper to one another when the commander is on the far side of a basalt-ribbed ridge line. He stops, pressure-rifle suddenly cocked, and without turning his head says, "Miller."
She accidentally swallows the butt, then chokes hard on the mix of hot tip, raw smoke and an inch of lumpy paper going down her throat. "Sir," she squeaks.
The new recruit almost says, "Drop what?" — a relic of oppositionally defiant teen-hood so recently left behind, but the absolute silence from her fellow pickets warns her. Cautiously she casts her sparker down. It hits the mossy ground with a muffled thud to be swallowed by the shadows at the base of her tree.
"The fag, Miller." Now Bashar sounds bored. That is when he is at his most dangerous. "Drop the fag."
"I don't have it," she whispers, then belches smoke and paper shards amid a searing pain in her larynx.
Still not looking over his shoulder, Bashar snaps off a three-needle burst from his weapon which takes Kamila in the meat of her thigh. She squeaks with the agony of the non-lethal hit as the tangy reek of blood blooms among the trees.
Whatever he was going to do to her next is lost amid a startled challenge from Ward, a hundred yards downslope hunkered down behind a lichen-riddled boulder.
Her voice crackles over the dissociated network of turked comm buds, shouting, "H-halt!" A fraction of a second later the words echo through the cooling air.
Bashar moves like a mountain lion on a wounded sheep; fast, hard and silent as he makes the long descent in a dozen bounds. Ward knows better than to apologize — she is no new fish — but she has the stranger in her sights.
He is Tygre, of course, though none of us have heard of him yet, and he has walked right past the outer line of Bashar's pickets as if they were a row of dead streetlights on some Portland boulevard. The picket commander meets the invader face to face in a pool of moonlight, rare this deep beneath the spreading arms of the montane forest.
For a moment, even this toughest of the renegade city's partisans is lost in the mystery of the man who would be their king.
WE quote from the introduction to a master's thesis written during the last year that the Sorbonne was still a degree-granting institution:
The early decades of the twenty-first century brought the collapse of the American project. A noble experiment in democracy and economics had transitioned through imperialism, then dove straight into the same hollow irrelevancy which had seized the eighteenth century Spanish crown — a zombie empire shambling onward through the sheer weight of its extents, but devoid of initiative or credibility. Where Spain had been dogged by England in those post-Armada years, America after Reagan was hunted by a pack of baying hounds: transnational terrorists, post-NATO powers and resource-funded microstates with long-armed grudges. All this while rotting from the inside as the true failures of internal combustion-centered urbanism were finally exposed like worms in the heart of a prize bitch.
Hope was not dead, but it lived in strange, isolated colonies on the warm corpse of the United States. Astronomers listened to good news from outer space in their enclaves in Arizona, Wyoming and west Texas. Green entrepreneurs only a generation removed from South Asia and Eastern Europe clustered amid the Monterey pines of Big Sur, in the cornfields of Iowa, within sealed, half-buried arcologies along Pamlico Sound. The stochastic city blossoming hidden amid the near-ruins of Detroit, silent and extraofficial as it was, prospered as no city had since the 1947 founding of Levittown unknowingly sentenced urban cores to slow death.
Cascadiopolis was an equally stealthy western answer to Detroit's secretive rebirth. Built on Federal land, its inception funded by a handful of private philanthropists, its initial design ruthlessly controlled by a Colorado environment activist who fancied himself a latter-day Pablo Lugari blessed with a much larger canvas, the city-that-was-not-a-city hidden high in the Cascades grew not despite itself but through the sort of deliberate intent not seen in North America since Pierre L'Enfant laid out the streets of the District of Columbia. Where Washington's diagonal avenues had been arranged to provide maximum opportunity for enfilading cannon fire to repel British invaders, Cascadiopolis defends itself in far more subtle, and effective, ways.
Tygre Tygre aimed to approach that city much as the British had approached James Madison's Washington. Like his historical predecessors, he would set flame to the seat of power. Like them, he would ultimately fail, while the dream that was the heart of the city would endure.
TYGRE is a tall man, like all natural leaders. We are not so far from the fruit trees of Central Africa, and the same height which confers the advantages of long-armed reach and the first glimpses of danger also helps dominate committee meetings and win bar fights. Our genes know this, far deeper even than our socialization, which only reinforces the message.
The newcomer is ambiguously colored in the pooling moonlight of the Cascades night. Bashar cannot decide for a moment exactly which species of hatred he will deploy on this intruder so arrogant as to walk straight through his brutally-trained pickets. The newcomer doesn't seem to be a white man, but neither is he safely, anonymously dark-skinned. Something weird, like Anadaman Islander, or someone from the genetic melting pots of late, unlamented West Coast liberalism.
Distrust is universal, Bashar reminds himself as he slips the muzzle of his weapon up into the soft skin at the bottom of the taller man's chin. "Welcome to the end of the line," he whispers.
Tygre is unperturbed, calm as a man being handed a check by a bank president. When he speaks, his voice has a timbre that could call armies to the march, bring men and woman alike to their knees, or fill an offering plate. "I rather prefer to believe this is a beginning."
Bashar nearly shoots the man right there and then, but something stays his hand. He would be within the rules of engagement — nobody legally enters Cascadiopolis by night, not ever. "You never heard of the Granite Gate?"
That is the outpost much further down in the watershed, where the abandoned railroad spur runs out of trestle, where people with visas or deportation orders or any of a hundred essential materials cited on the ever-circulating lists can appear and apply for entry.
Even here in the heart of fog-bound anarchy, there are processes, rules, requirements to be followed. Freedom must be protected by a wall of suspicion. Only rats slip through under dark of night. They are trapped, beaten, skinned, then hung out to rot on iron poles at the farthest boundaries of the city's territory like shrike-impaled prey.
These measures are largely effective, making the work of Bashar's pickets much easier.
But not tonight.
"It was not convenient for me," says Tygre.
"Convenient," says Bashar as if he has never encountered the word before. Despite himself, he is fascinated. No one has been so utterly unafraid of him since he hit puberty. Thirty years and a near-collapse of civilization later, Bashar's very name is a byword for brutally effective security from Eureka to Prince Rupert.
"No." Tygre smiles. In that moment the true force of him is revealed like diamonds being spilled from a velvet bag. Calling it charm would be like calling a North Pacific typhoon a breeze. A tall, handsome man with a voice like bottled thunder can take on armies. A tall, handsome man with a voice of bottled thunder and that smile can take over nations.
Even Bashar is set back. "We have rules," he says weakly, a last gasp of bluff in the face of defeat. A million years of evolution have conflated with the raw tsunami of one man's power to overcome even his profound distrust. His pressure rifle drops away from Tygre's chin. "What's your name?" Bashar barely swallows the "sir" hanging at the end of that sentence.
The word rolls through all the pickets on the turked comm circuit, echoes in the ears of those within shouting distance even though the man is whispering, launches into the air like the compressed chirp of an uplink releasing orbital kinetics on some unsuspecting ground site.
Some last vestige of procedure rescues Bashar from terminal embarrassment. "You have a visa, Tygre?"
"Do I need one?" His voice holds the infinite patience of a kindly god.
"Asylum," mutters someone sotto voce in the dark.
Bashar doesn't even seem to notice for a long, hanging moment. Then he echoes the word as if the thought were his own. "Asylum. You can claim it."
"I claim asylum." The gentle humor in Tygre's voice would make a stone smile.
PART of a memorandum from the Security Subcommittee to the Citizen's Executive, originally drafted shortly after Tygre arrived in Cascadiopolis:
A cursory analysis of the action reports from the first penetration will show that virtually every picket on the south slopes claimed to have seen Tygre personally on his entrance to our territory. This is clearly impossible, as the deployment patterns were not significantly disrupted that night, as evidenced by comm time-position tags.
As might be expected, the descriptions provided in those action reports vary widely. At least three pickets, specifically alpha-seven, alpha-ten and gamma-three, claim that Tygre's skin showed stripes in the moonlight. Given that first contact was made by alpha-five, and Bashar's intervention occurred within alpha-five's free fire zone, it is impossible for any gamma picket to have witnessed the encounter, and strongly doubtful that alpha-ten saw more than silhouettes.
Yet the action reports possess the intense conviction of passionate eyewitness testimony. Clearly the pickets all believe they saw Tygre.
Citizen Cole has advanced a theory of mass hallucination brought on by biological, chemical or pharmacological agents. However, she offers no possible dispersal mechanism. Citizen Lain has suggested multiple persons in stealth suits or other low-visibility gear, combined with "the power of suggestion."
It is the opinion of this office that while judgment should be withheld in the details of this matter, there was no significant breach of security other than what was documented by Bashar in his own report. While we are hesitant to simply dismiss the testimony of so many pickets as fantasy, there is no more reliable explanation available. In the meantime, Tygre will continue to be monitored closely, just as he has been since entering the city.
CASCADIOPOLIS welcomes Tygre with dank, mossy arms indistinguishable from any bouldered stand of trees by night. He enters the city silent as mist off the river. Bashar walks before him, point man on a patrol the security chief had never thought to walk.
Prisoners not summarily executed are bound over to the Evaluation Subcommittee. That body is made up of specialists much like Bashar himself, though their focus is on information extraction rather than perimeter security. It is a self-conscious paradox of distributed self-governing communities that such experts emerge in the face of demand. Hydrologists, medics and economic theorists, for example.
Tygre walks behind the back of a man who has not yet understood where the bounds of loyalty lie. The city is among the trees, of the trees, in a way that even the great-souled visitor has not yet understood.
This is the city that is not a city, close kin to the urban pioneers of Detroit but springing from a different resource base. Where the stochastic farms were atop abandoned shopping malls and office blocks, their living spaces distributed and ephemeral within the centuries of civic infrastructure towering above the raddled Michigan earth, Cascadiopolis is built from the basalt bones of the Oregon Cascades.
Seventeen million years ago in response to a crust-busting cometary impact the region drowned in a mantle plume of molten rock that eventually grew to be a mile deep. Basalt fractures as it cools, forming hexagon pillars of seemingly unnatural regularity. The later return of the stratovolcanoes lifted the recognizable peaks of the modern Cascades — Hood, Adams, St. Helens — pulling the mid-section of the Columbia River basalt flow upward with the rising line of mountains. The hidden pillars of the earth cracked as they emerged. The emerging shoulders of the young mountains birthed hidden lava tubes.
In time, all was covered with the rumpled green blanket of lichen, moss, ferns, rhododendrons, and eventually the towering Douglas firs, Western hemlock and lodgepole pines. The old growth forest tops three hundred feet in height, trees of a size unimaginable to city-raised eyes from deep in the east.
Bury your city that is not a city in long lava tubes the size of subway tunnels, build it among the natural pillars framing the cliff faces and ravines, stake it to the flanks of forest giants twenty feet in diameter, spread your trails under vast networks of rhododendrons, draw your water from glacier melt streams and seep springs.
Do all that, build no fires, and you will be invisible to satellite and aerial surveillance. Even thermal imaging gets lost in the deep shadows of those spreading canopies.
Populate your city with biotech engineers, refugee coders, third-generation hippie grass farmers, anyone with skill and will. Place them amid your shadowed outdoor halls with luciferase coldlights engineered from the firefly genome and you have an intelligent, pale constellation beneath the cold roof of night.
Excerpted from Metatropolis by John Scalzi. Copyright © 2009 John Scalzi. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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