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Posted by on Jan 26, 2018 in ISLE OF DOGS, Sci Fi Noir | 0 comments

Isle of Dogs Chapter One

Isle of Dogs Chapter One

CHAPTER ONE

SARGON 4 IS BORN

COLD SPRING, NEW YORK, 2500AD

On the day of his clone’s birth, Sargon 3, Ruler of New York, was out riding and didn’t reach home until after the cord had been cut and tied and the placenta expelled. The Ruler Sargon rode Herculaya, a black Arabian stallion with white feet, to a halt. He stepped down, boots crunching into red gravel. “Wait here,” he said, stroking the horse’s neck, and hurried towards a side entrance of the Winter Palace. At the door he turned to look over his land. It was late fall and the maple leaves were glowing as they broke free of the branches and fell. The sky blackened the cold water of the pond, which lay below a grass hill and a split-rail fence. At the top of the hill, across from the gravel path, was a leafless orchard of dwarf trees. A few apples and a butter-yellow quince brightened in the low sun against the slate-colored cloud overhead.

Balfour, a giant brindled American bulldog, ran up. Sargon reached down to scratch behind his ears. The dog followed him beneath a high stone corbel, through the servants’ door and trotted behind him as he strode down the back hall, between the billiards room and the pantry. He passed the liquor closet and the lift down to the wine cellar. There was a backstair to the birthing quarters in the North Tower. Here his shoulders were squeezed in by the walls. In his war days he wouldn’t have fit. But 40 years of politics had left him thin and weak.

The Fifth floor landing led onto the family apartments. The halls were narrow and hung with Sargon paintings, still lifes, portraits of people, dogs, horses and sailboats. In his time he had added three: one of a young Balfour, 4 generations back, painted in childhood in the manner of Vermeer; a still life of an old sled with metal runners, the paint still tacky, in the style of the Hyperrealists; and one from decades before, at his summer cottage on Long Island Sound, of his Uncle holding a 40 pound striped bass in both arms. The Old Rulers didn’t trust photographs. Why should he? It was a big fish.

Sargon heard laughter and voices coming down the hall from the Surrogate Ruth’s room. The door opened and threw down a trapezoid of light. He stood aside and Balfour sat next to him, his nubby tail vibrating back and forth. As he watched the shadows of legs cross the threshold an obscure, cold feeling stirred up from his gut. He stopped and it came upon him all at once as it always did, as if it had happened moments ago. He could feel it, smell it, as if world were burning in the yard below. And with it came the fear.

Sargon was 22, riding a carnivorous horse into the Santa Monica mountains with his oldest friends, Bard and Otis. It was their first battle. Heat rippled the air. Sun blazed across patches of brown, desolate land amid hills charred black by fire, still smouldering, poisoning the air.

They rode into combat behind their commander, Everest of Texas, 38, tall in his horse, a beard the shape and size of a spade glowing blue, forked with coral fire. He was eagle-nosed. His spangled uniform sparkled in the dirty air. A Birth Law fanatic and sadist, he had come to take LA back from Mexico, but found a tribute province, a wealthy, decadent and depraved outpost of Mexico, that made its wealth in blasphemous entertainment, real estate, and rockets. It stretched from Long Beach to Santa Barbara, inland to the Mojave, and all of it was Ruled by illegal bastards, enemies of both sides. The differences between human and Ruler were lax. Intermarriage and natural breeding were common. Everest set about eliminating both.

Sargon’s job was to break and scan. He had been trained since childhood to do it. He even had the necessary indignation, the hatred that breaks you first. He remembered with bland lucidity the pain of training as a child on horse and baton, in all weathers. The forced marches. The jousting and sparring and ice cold swims. It was meant to build character. So was the nonconsensual sodomy at Exeter.

They followed a road pounded to rubble by artillery into the Santa Monica Mountains and descended at a gallop from the Hollywood Hills into town. Smoke, dust and dirt broke against his visor, the beast beneath him surging forward. Then, for the first time in his life, he broke a building with grenades and batons. He rode through as he had been taught, dropped a grenade down the intake tube of the first dome he came to, like an egg shell, with a bike pad, shed, and orange tree. Flames shot out the vent and smoke puffed from the cracks in the dome. He wheeled around, tossed two more grenades and rode into the spewing smoke and fire to strike down anyone who fled with his baton. He could feel the heat through the visor. Sargon waited, the red flames feathered with black soot. One, two people charged out grabbing their burning heads. He struck them against the shoulder, one at a time. But they were already on fire. They were so terrified their expressions didn’t change. He rode on, dizzy, feeling like he would vomit, but that was out of the question. He swallowed it down and moved on to the next house. Again and again.

Once they had broken the city, as water-mains gushed like arteries, and the wildfires poured down the canyons like lava, they patrolled the streets of LA. He went door to door, searching for resistance fighters, separatists, black marketeers, gangsters, scanning for bastards with unlicensed or illegal genomes. Off patrol he coughed up dust and washed it down with beer and tequila in bars full of Gringo rough trade.

That was the job. People made it easy. All summer and into the fall, neighbor informed on neighbor in a web that spread through the city block by block, home by home. They were given lists and sent out with transport trucks to arrest the accused. He pushed them into the containers, half-dressed, sick, stupefied by unrelenting fear, hunger, violence, their bony arms small in his mailed grip.

Everest’s troops registered 3,000 legitimate Rulers and 30,000 bastards, mutants and hybrids with no legal claim for their genome. They found coding no one had seen before. The jails of LA were soon packed with actors, agents, singers, athletes, musicians, politicians, accountants, brokers, lawyers, doctors, financiers, real estate moguls and independent barons. Everest ordered them to begin dissolving the bastards in acid, alive.

It was late in October and the air was incendiary. Armored vehicles rolled up and down the tree lined streets of Hollywood and Beverly Hills like armadillos. Dark green tankers, the paint scarred and dirty, the tires balding, with ACID written across the side, stood by portable black dissolution vessels greasy with the sweat of disintegrating bodies. Wisps of vapor wafted off the surface in the morning. The vessels were set up outside of the Beverly Hills Jail, where 1,000 bastards were housed in cells sufficient for 93. Sargon, Bard, and Otis were assigned to this precinct.

Sargon’s job was to enter the jail and bring three bastards out at a time. People were packed against the bars, half-dead, rotting in their own shit and piss. He gagged on the reek of the air. Outside Bard and Otis, in rubber suits, seized and hooded the trembling, weeping prisoners, who, as soon as they smelled the acid, began to shriek.

Normally they would kill them before submerging their bodies in the baths, but the order had gone out from Everest not to do that. Anyone showing mercy was to be dissolved or burnt alive in retribution. Even so, Sargon, after the first three thrashed and turned in the tanks, started wondering what the fuck he was doing there. He didn’t want to do this. He started to scream back.

Panic spread to the cells as the bastards heard the cries of agony. Each went to their death knowing what awaited. He was never able to put that away, imagining what it was like to sit in that cell, thinning out of people, out of time. The burning. The acid baths dissolved their writhing bodies, melting them down into sludge, which was pumped into the waiting filtration truck. Once he started to think about it he couldn’t stop. He used to talk to himself, trying to think it through. It was intractable. The image of that day, the smell of acid, and dissolving human flesh and guts. And the look of mute indifference in all of the eyes around him. Rulers doing Ruler work, protecting their genealogies, their precious lines. And the profits that accrued to them. Everest was incapable of understanding California. Mexico he saw through the lens of East Texas, a barbarism that still made Sargon shudder. Greedy Provincials made evil by their religion.

Sargon, Bard and Otis killed their thousand, three at a time, all day long until it was done. Like a job. And almost all 30,000 were executed in the city in in the same way. When it was over Sargon’s hatred of Everest condensed to a point. It was nothing he could speak of, it violated his oath of honor, the rules he had bound himself to in a previous generation. To thwart that was to thwart himself, he had been taught, even as he had no sense of that law or of his self. Ruler schools did not teach humility, self-reflection, or speculative thinking. That was for humans. Rulers worked with a bolder palette of discipline, honor and violence, with the first two categories in serious doubt. They took what belonged to them and defended it. That was what he was taught to do, defend their Rule by any means. The math was easy to understand. But the reality was excessive.  He was a young man with no explanation for what he had done and why, and had no means of expressing it, except to lug a galling burning anger about, the black spark.

Sargon wanted to talk to Bard whom he thought would understand. But they passed over things in silence then as now. One night many years later they did reveal to each other what they thought, over a glass of vintage Apple eau de vie, sent him by the Ruler Banffy from his Transylvanian estates. They were in Bard’s Tarrytown Castle and there was a good fire in the fireplace. They had spent the day crossbow hunting on horseback, and had just eaten a Turkey Sargon shot. In that orange light and pleasant fatigue, they allowed to unfold between them a conversation by the end of which they both knew they shared an enemy and a cause. But they didn’t speak of it again, until two days ago.

Sargon took a breath, and went in to greet his replacement. Balfour remained seated in the hall, gazing after him, the light glinting off of his bulging worried eyes. It was sinful how much he loved that dog. He had cloned him 4 times.

The air was cold but the smell was warm, of sweat and afterbirth in a crowded room. Standing next to the bed on the left was his Consort, the Ruler Renee, pale in the warm light, draped in loose wraps of black silk. In her arms was Phaedra, the Surrogate Ruth’s one-year-old natural child. On the other side of the bed stood Doc Hughes, the family geneticist. He had white hair, a bushy white mustache, white bristling eyebrows and sideburns like ski slopes. Next to him were the midwife and the nurse, in platinum-weave scrubs, webmasks and hoods. Lying on the bed was the Surrogate Ruth, holding the furry purple baby to her breast. Her yellow hair was tangled and dark with sweat. Capillaries burst by labor speckled her chest, cheeks and forehead. She let down and brushed a pendulous nipple across his lips. He didn’t latch on. Then his mouth, at first tiny and delicate, swelled and started to suck the air. She laid her head back on the pillow, exhausted, gazed down at the baby and smiled. The midwife sat next to her and said, “I thought we wouldn’t make it in time.”

Doc Hughes made two fists, shook them, and said to Sargon, “Congratulations, son.” He winked. There was speculation he might be over 350 years old but no one knew exactly. If it were true, that would put him well past Dr. Vesuvius, who was known to have cloned 250 years before. Doc Hughes had been old for all of Sargon’s life anyway. And his Sire once confided that he had been old his whole life too. Doc Hughes smiled. “He checks out. 100% HomoZygotic. You even have the same eccentric swerve in your iridiphore. I’ll just leave you to log these tissue samples, if you’ll excuse me, Sire?” He wiggled forward on his aged cage and held aloft a glass bag of sparking, clicking sample logs. “Congratulations again, my Sire.”

Ruth got up on one elbow and looked around the room like a stray cat. “Where is Phaedra?” she asked. In a certain mood Ruth had a striking face. In another mood it was hardly visible. She came and went as she chose, a shadow in the house, or luminous. Ruth had learned quickly the art of disguise. She came as a young girl from Transylvania and was raised to bear Sargon’s and Renee’s clones. Surrogates lived as family members, and only retired when the Scions were grown. Many continued to live with their families, as aunts or cousins, into extreme old age.

The Ruler Renee clung to Phaedra, unsure of how to hold her comfortably. Phaedra watched Ruth and the Baby Sargon on the bed. She reached out her hand and opened and closed her fingers. “Momma baby,” she said to Sargon.

He exclaimed, “Yes, she does! You have a little friend now, almost like brother.” Not almost, he thought.

Sargon’s hands trembled when he first held Phaedra, the day she was born. He had never felt the heat of a baby before. The pulsing energy. Then he became calm in a way he had never known.

Cares didn’t intrude when he was with Ruth and Phaedra. He came to the bedrooms every night just to hold her as Ruth slept. Sitting in the chair, in the dark dimly and warmly illumined by the ambient night light, he cradled Phaedra’s sleeping body in his hand. She was so small her head didn’t reach the crook of his elbow. She was swaddled, her small face framed by a triangle of blanket. Sometimes her hands worked free, fists resting on her cheek. As he rocked in the chair his mind would eddy into fugues of lying beside Ruth. He came to see her for sex but found her exhausted, focused entirely on the child. He had gone from being a god almost to practically non-existent, except in the strictly formal observance of protocol. It was wounding in the moment but he could not look at her without seeing her need for sleep. And so he came at eleven each night and left at 4.  Would he do the same for his Scion? Sargon couldn’t answer the question. He was still stunned by the whole thing, that it could happen at all. The few who knew shared the joy as well as the fear.

How different this was. Sargon didn’t want to feel diminished by the birth but he did. It was him, budding off. His younger self would mature and he would die. It did not feel like a continuance at all. Just an end.

Phaedra was an abomination that could cost them all their lives and bring down his line. Yet he felt only joy and a present happiness, without worry of the future or of consequences when he was with them. He felt safe. Why? Another thing he couldn’t explain. He was known for his ability to explain anything. He thought he knew it all. There was nothing else, but what lay in this purview, his family, his committees, his buildings, his city. For so long it was a matter of making the correct moves, which was hardly any work at all. After war, life is boring. All the excitement happens in your head.

Sargon held out his hands and Rene, managing somehow to look both irritated and relieved, abruptly handed Phaedra over. He parked her on his ribs and she pulled his glasses down his massive leonine nose. He pushed them up. She paused, looked at the glasses, looked at him, and then looked away. Sargon turned his head and as he did so she yanked the glasses down again and giggled. He pushed them up again and giggled back at her.

Sargon came close to get a better look at his baby. Ruth lifted Baby Sargon up for him to see, but Phaedra reached out and hugged his head like a monkey. The Baby Sargon blindly smiled and all the old faces in the room smiled. Then he opened his arms and seemed to hug her back and everyone laughed out-loud. Phaedra’s face froze. She stared into space and her eyes filled with tears. She started to cry, screaming, “Mommy! Nurse,” twisting around in Sargon’s arms like a snake.

Sargon laughed gently. “OK, back to Mama,” he said, putting her down gently beside Ruth. Sargon ran his fingers through his hair. It felt like a shoe brush. It was time to hold his Scion. “I will hold him now,” Sargon said.

Ruth looked down and said, “Forgive me, Sire, I did not offer first.”

“No apologies,” he said, whispering Mausi, “except for mine.” He didn’t like that she had to pretend. Ruth held his boy up to him. He took Baby Sargon in his large thick hands and held him close to his cheek and then against his heart. He inhaled the smell of the baby’s head, still damp and warm from the womb, floral, animal. Diminished? No, emboldened. My son, he thought, my future. The fourth generation of our father. Mr. President, Sire. It crushed him how many hopes he had. He tried to chain them up but they would not stand down, except when his doubts were aroused, and they chased one another, doubts and hopes, like dogs in a yard.

Phaedra curled up and suckled at Ruth’s breast. The nurse left quietly. The midwife got up and dictated forms for the birth certificate. Sargon held the baby while the midwife scanned his hands, eyes and feet. He started to squirm and cry. Ruth said to Phaedra, “OK, enough now. Baby Sargon wishes to nurse. Remember what we promised.” Phaedra let go and fell back on the pillows, half asleep, milk pooling on her lip. Ruth sat up and said, “He’ll nurse now.” Sargon handed him to her. She cradled him against her bare belly and chest. As he cried he reached out towards her with his hands and lips. She lowered her breast over him and let him find her nipple. Sargon watched him latch on and start to suck, his lips buried in the bumps of her aureoles.

“Splendid!” said Sargon, then to Renee, “We should let them rest.”

“Yes. Good Afternoon, Ruth. We’ll see you downstairs tonight?”

“Yes, my Lady.”

Sargon kissed Ruth’s cheek and took her hands into his, where they disappeared. How odd, he thought, how love works. He saw in her blue eyes his own surrogate’s eyes. Anna. One of his oldest memories was of the light flickering under the door at the end of the dark hall. He groped through the black tunnel until he attained the door and peered in. Anna was in her nightcap, propped up on pillows, watching TV. Her eyes were half shut. She held a glass of red wine in her hand. Without turning from the TV she said, in her soft Austrian English, “Come in, barchen.” Little Bear. He ran to her bed and got under the covers, head sinking in the pillow. There was a girl with golden pigtails in a swamp full of Swamp Creatures. Anna took a gulp of wine and said, “It’s called Heidi in Swampland.” They watched the swamp-creature Heidi’s pigtails become like the fan of a lizard.

Sargon held Ruth’s hands a second longer than was necessary. There was the fragrance of her body. He sighed. Always the forbidden. It was his weakness. He felt a tingle in his nerves. He had never been so stricken with love, not for any man, woman, or horse. He looked at Phaedra and then at the baby. Phaedra would never know he was her father. No one would. He would protect her from Everest and his acid tanks. Those days were over in New York, where he Ruled.

#

This was a day most joyful. Self-birth. Continuance. The family capital preserved for another turn of the wheel. He had high hopes, yes, but they were realistic, justified. Necessary. There was no reason for anxiety. He paused in the hall by a stone casement, disturbed and distracted, and stared at the unsettled hills of November, tawny, warped by the lead paned windows. The brown banks and bluffs of the river below were eroded by cold featureless matter. So time cut into his life. He could feel the point forming ahead.

There was a family portrait gallery in the East Wing of the Winter Palace, started by his Grand Sire, Sargon 1. It was hung with pictures of the entire Sargon-Renee branch of the family, going back to the Oil Age, a lineage his Grand Sire researched exhaustively, establishing the post of the Winter Palace Librarian. He hired an gruff, gowned researcher, a Ruler without portfolio in need of work, Yni of Harrison. They would sit at a mahogany desk under Edison lights poring over documents. And he would then have an astrologer cast horoscopes, which he kept in enormous hand-bound folios that still crammed the shelves of the Winter Palace library, but were not longer consulted.

The post of librarian had faded to a janitorial job almost, a situation he had not really addressed, especially because Robin Micawber, his counselor and closest confidant, fixer, friend, bulldog, chief soother, was a bibliophile. He selected new material, knew where everything was, and he had grown up with the collection, from the age of 10 was it? Sargon didn’t know. Robin came to the house when he was in California.

But now he had two children to educate, and in two years, a third, when Renee 4 was due. Robin was at the Senate day and night. He ran the business and was his Proxy on the City Council when the Senate was in session. He presided over hearings! Sargon would need him more than ever if he were to stop Everest from becoming President.

Robin was a good man. He taught him how to think things through, the way Renee did. Sargon and Renee were simply who they were and had been for centuries. Robin was the child of poor people working the woods and water of the valley. His honesty was his only wealth. Every generation of Ruler needed the eyes of humans with short lives and only their wits to sell. What you needed was a friend.

He would tell Robin to do that, hire a Librarian for the Palace. Someone with dignity, knowledgable, willing to indulge a child’s imagination. Not a failed Sargent spouting the old lies. His children would learn the true history of their times.

As a child he wandered the stacks, narrow catwalks with low iron rails circling upwards, ladders and stairs between tiers, giant mote-filled tunnels of light crossing the walls as the day progressed. The tower seemed a steeple, with a vanishing point deep in space. Birds used to fly in, swooping down and up, lost, banging the stone walls in panic.

Sargon 1’s portrait hung in the Gallery, painted in his twenties. He is in a platinum spacesuit, helmet tucked under his arm. This was the image Sargon grew up with.

As a child he simply took it for granted that he too would wear a spacesuit and fight the Martian Rulers, who had been a part of his childhood play. They learned about them in lessons and later studied the battles at West Point. It was a touchstone of every Ruler childhood and some of the idiots never let go of it. The only analog he could think of was chivalry, which made him laugh out loud every time he thought of it.

At 20 he bore no resemblance to the man in the spacesuit at all. Sargon was in the California desert eating bugs, or in the city kicking in doors. Killing and dying. His life was a pile of greasy ashes smoking in the street, not heroic space battles. He was hollowed out. He lurched from task to task for decades, a disassociated husk. No kind of Ruler at all. Twenty years of it. And he wondered, what was his Grand Sire’s life in space like really? Sargon had never been in space but he knew it was brutal. Prison Labor rebellions. Jovian gas ships exploding. Space salvage and recovery missions. Mars defiled in every way imaginable, inhabited by transgenic mutants. Space was America’s last fuck up.

His only memory of the actual Sargon 1 was of a shriveled sack with a raspy voice emerging from bedclothes, glasses the size of saucers balanced on his nose. He was 162 years old and hadn’t said a coherent thing in ten years. But he could play cards and was sensible if terse in American Sign Language, which people of his generation learned in the first year of school for space war. That was when the 400 fought as one, at the head of the ten thousand. Rulers were the guardians of the earth. The old school phrases came back to him with a clanging clarity. What bullshit! No one knew how many Rulers there were and no one cared but fanatics. But the world is as stupid now as it was then, he reminded himself.

In Sargon 2’s generation they corrected the mutation that made the Old General speak in gibberish into his 163rd year. Then all the cognitive senses degenerated at once, a general rapid breakdown of consciousness, in which the world becomes like granular static, followed by blackout and death. Bloop.

Sargon 2, known to all as the Old President, was in his nineties and vigorous when Sargon was a child, before he went off to school. He never saw his own nose, eyes or mouth in the old man, he was so distorted by age. And that was by design. What clone would want to grow up in the shadow of himself? But the shadow was always there, the echo of the Sire saying you are me and you are mine. He was a moon, a satellite until his Sire died. Only then did he become a star. Senator from New York and President if things ever broke his way on the Executive Committee.

Now he did see his Sire in the mirror. The Old President who bent over him as a babe in the crib and taught him to ride when he was four. The Old President lived on his horse. He supervised the feeding, grooming and training. Spent hours in the stables. He kept a herd of carnivorous battle horses but stabled them miles away. Even in war the old man despised them. It was said that Sargon 1 had gnawed his way through the enemy in the Battle of Lower Manhattan. Sargon himself only rode them on parade. Like his Sire, he couldn’t stand to watch them eat and despoil corpses. The Lord Otis relished the sight. His horse would browse in the rubble of a defeated town, licking the guts off of construction block.

Sargon and Renee walked towards the main stair. They went slowly, their heads high and eyes forward, in a military gait. Sargon said, “The replacement has arrived.”

Her face was a cold sheet of daisy white, cobalt eyes fixed beneath the high forehead. “Yours has.”

Renee was angry with him. He wondered why. After all, it was his most joyous day. He asked, “Is something wrong?” knowing it would incite her. But his voice was lost in the expanse of the atrium. Fifty feet below lay the black and white marble floor. He stared down at it. The statues circling the galleries were reflected in the marble and seemed to turn around the axis formed by his eyes and the intersection of two black and two white tiles.

“The way you dote on them, honestly.”

“Phaedra’s a baby, a beautiful baby! Surely you don’t begrudge me that?”

“You should not be concerned about me but other people. The people who work for us for instance.”

“Oh, what will the neighbors think? We are living in Peyton Place.”

“Hgh!” she imploded and yet the guttural emerged. “You behave as if this were all a joke, with your silly erudition, as if anyone cares about that. I have no idea whom your Peyton is but I do know we are not invulnerable. We have not got a fortress around us, just perilous alliances with scoundrels and dependents. Within our own walls, the walls of Manhattan, which are open to the world, we are at risk. Red Suits Rule our streets for months at a time. How hard would it be to make that an occupation? Or under the virtual domes, the staff, the neighbors? People in town. It would be very easy for a spy to be in this house, feeding information to the enemy. Rumors. Even DNA, if they are close enough. If her genome got into the wrong hands, what then?”

“Let them try to arrest us here in our City. We Rule the walls of Manhattan just as surely as Everest Rules over valleys of tumble weed, armadillos and gila monsters. You know their flag? A red scorpion crucified on a black cross with a yellow background. It’s cornpone. They don’t crucify bugs they eat them. Everest, Iocle, they can’t touch us in New York, and they can’t touch us in the east, all the way into Delaware. I think that might be what galls Iocle most, when he’s not mad. We’re up his ass in Delaware. As for Ruth, we raised Ruth. Why would we not protect her? I held her hand that first day in Budapest and walked her from the narrow gauge to the Berlin Express. We took her from her home, her people, to bear our whelps.”

“You’ve held more than that since,” she said, with dry precision. Renee was a lawyer by training with a Jesuitical spirit. Her fearless, literal skepticism ballasted his tendency to romantic excess. Together, Brother and Sister, Consorts, Cloned from a single Egg, designed to be two vessels of a single family genome, which had been accumulated over generations, and paid for many times over in blood and silver. The Consorts were to function as One, to act as each other’s second, compliment, breeding partner, and closest ally, to preserve the family line. There was the line, and then the tangle of the world it was designed to thread. Both undying.

They descended the great stair, spiraling a chandelier of cascading water and light and turned down a crimson carpeted hall with black walls and gold trim, to the second story TV room, which enfolded them in its quiet pocket. They came here to talk quietly. Normally Robin Micawber would be present. One grey wall was a TV. Opposite was the bar, carved of cherrywood, ivied columns framing a mirror and glass shelves of bottles. They stood before it looking at each other.  Her hair was as white as her skin and straight to the shoulders, with a bang across the forehead. “Do you want gin and tonic?” she asked.

“No. Bloody Mary. With egg in it.”

Renee clapped her hands and Albion, the butler, entered from a door at the other end of the bar. The uniform of the house was restrained. He wore a black tunic and linen pants. He was barefoot. It is said you can judge a house by the feet of its servants. Albion’s were clean, high-arched and the toenails were painted carmine. He went behind the bar. There were four bar chairs with black leather seats trimmed with gold tacks. Albion flipped two coasters down and said, “My Lady.”

Renee said, “Bloody Mary with a raw egg.”

“Quail or chicken?”

Sargon said, “Three quail.”

“And for me a gin and tonic with lime and lots of ice. Make it a double in a tall glass and garnish it with mint.”

“Very well, My Lady.” He fell to making the drinks.

Renee turned on the TV. The wall lit up with pictures. Albion put the drinks before them and sat still at the end of the bar, glazed in silence and the color radiating off the wall screen. Renee and Sargon sat down and turned around to watch, elbows on the bar, toes propped up on the gold footrest. People fired machine guns at each other and drove fast cars. She changed the channel. Brigands in medieval armour contended bloodily with swords and pikes, on a ridge of red rocks and blue sky.

“The thing is, I have no feeling for children or babies,” Renee said. “None whatsoever. I fear I’m devoid of those instincts. When the family are all here I feel aghast. Children are beasts, running about shouting and such, smearing food all over everything, later, rutting. There are days when the grounds feel like they are crawling with natural cousins and aunts and uncles, and hovering above them are swarms of Young Rulers, and they are all fornicating. I think of copulating bugs when I should be feeling a gush of warmth and grace.”

“That is a rather paranoid view of things. And dire.”

She considered him with unblinking severity. “And I wonder, was this love of children bred out of me, and on purpose? It’s something no one speaks about. I try to remember if My Lady was cold.”

“I don’t remember her being a bundle of cuddly joy. And I don’t see what purpose it serves, if it’s by design. Life without love is nothing at all.”

She nodded slowly, licked her lips and said, “My Lady was funny.”

“In a cruel sort of way. Once, when I got back from riding, she looked at me critically, sort of the way you are now, and said, ‘It’s a shame you’ll never be any better than your Sire.'” He stared at the TV while he spoke although his attention was on Renee. The images flashed by in a wheel of carriage spokes, dust and gunfire so hot it warmed his face. “That might be the only thing I’ve ever wanted, to be better than my Sire. Certainly in the matter of raising one’s children–”

Renee said to his profile, “Scions, please. And you were out riding during the birth.”

He studied her eyes. They were still and quiet, black blue, set in ceramic. “Oh, I see, you mean like the Old President, I prefer riding of a morning to witnessing the birth of my Scion. Sorry to say its stress. Riding calms my stomach. Also Acid reflux. And Incipient asthma…abstract ideations, spells of annoyance and fretfulness.”

“Why are you drinking Bloody Mary then?”

“I like the way it tastes and the egg coats my stomach.”

“You’ve got it all figured out.” She relaxed and cleared her throat. Her face fell as it did when she took off her clothes for bed. “I am not looking forward to entertaining half the Senate, the Admiralty and–”

“–All of New York.”

“I don’t know if there are trains enough. And their horses are eating all our feed,” she said. “Who nominated me for your planning committee anyway? Robin could have done it.”

“Could have but he’s not here, is he? For 250 years we have celebrated the clone’s birth day.”

“You sound like a scold now. It’s not becoming in a future President.”

“That’s not looking so good these days.”

“Then you have spoken to Bard?”

He had spoken to Bard. Bard was his oldest friend, dating back generations, when they were cousins. He had known him all his life and they were classmates at Exeter. For centuries the Bards and Sargons Ruled New York together, often serving as President and Vice President of the country, vying with the Iocles, the Imogens, the Ocktomanns, and some names lost to history, dissolved in acid or burned in battle, extirpated from official records and histories. Images were destroyed. Bard 3 became a hero in California winning back what Everest had lost as a result of his campaign of terror. At the age of 40, Sargon retired abruptly back east, mentally broken by war, to Rule New York and enter the Senate.

Bard stayed. Now, after 60 years in California, Bard was returning to live in New York, as Senator from California, because President Iocle was a mad old man kept alive by machines and potions concocted by geneticists. And the equally mad Everest, for many decades Senator from Texas, and Ruler of the South, had come to dominate President Iocle’s inner circle in DC.

Bard was displacing the senior Senator from California, the Ruler Adelaide, an able but inert figure in the Senate. Bard, the war hero, would be an instant star. He could stop Everest from forming a majority on the Executive Committee and becoming President Iocle’s successor, over Vice President Souvanouphong. But to do so he’d have to get on the Executive Council, and from there onto the Executive Committee. He needed Senator Imogen’s vote. Imogen and Ocktomann were Consorts. Between them they Ruled the midwest. Her Great Lakes Navy was necessary in any alliance, and she always went to the highest bidder, and always cut a deal for her hapless Consort.

Sargon said, “Yes, we spoke. I don’t know what he’s going to do. I don’t know if he knows. He’s certainly worried, more alarmed than we are because we live with it. We’ve adapted. He’s asked the Ruler Adelaide to retire from the Senate. I believe he gave her a 20,000-acre land grant in the Sierras, and will appoint her Ruler of Northern California. That way Bard can come east and take her seat in the Senate. He wants to appoint Tobor fucking Ocktomann acting Ruler of Southern California. I can’t stand the thought of that idiot Ruling a single city in California, much less LA. Look what he did with the Martian Portfolio. But that was Imogen’s price.”

“Did you tell Bard that?”

“Nope. Not in so many words. I need his vote, if we’re going to survive that son of a bitch in DC. I won’t get it without massaging Bard’s balls. And Adelaide was a pain in the ass. Easily fooled, often bored. I felt I couldn’t count on her in a close vote. Iocle would always offer her a bridge, or raise the tariff on citrus. Something I could easily match! But no, she’s vulnerable in the last minute. If she played her hand right, at least I could respect her. Like Imogen. Getting screwed by Imogen is like getting screwed by a prankqueen. Bard at least can’t be bought. He has a certain, ah–”

“Inflexible Honor.”

“Yes, we have as many shades of honor as they have words for snow in Fairbanks.”

“Bard’s brilliant, he’s honest, and he has self-control,” she observed, pushing her empty glass across the bar.

“Don’t get me wrong. He is a man of honor, inflexibly so. Bard’s also an ego maniac. He overrates his own abilities and always wins, always gets away with it. Everyone loves Bard. He has genuine abilities and charm. He’s rich. Bard doesn’t need anything, except to be admired. So he’ll be formidable. But the pride and self-admiration, the moral superiority, are a weakness. He’ll accomplish nothing. Without my help.”

Renee sat thinking. “President Iocle won’t want to see Tobor Ocktomann Ruler of any part of California, much less Bard coming to the Senate.”

“Would we be having this conversation if it mattered anymore what President Iocle wants? It’s frightening to hear reports of him holed up in the White House like that, with long fingernails,” he said, grinning like a skull, clawing the air with a hiss.

“Is he really that far gone?” Renee’s voice rose an octave, as if to laugh.

The only thing Sargon knew with certainty was the long enmity between their lines, and President Iocle’s undisguised hatred of him. “The old man is no longer in control, at least, the few times I’ve seen him he was bonkers. Saying the same thing over and over. Calling people by the wrong name. He’s confined to that wheelchair, a barbaric, Oil Age contraption. Nothing a normal person would use. And now Everest makes his move. He’s been waiting for decades, ever since slinking home from California. Now he’s got his Rulers around the President, Everest’s little pricks, Utkasting,” he sneered, “Utburd and Aeppar. Political nihilists. They care for nothing, not even the Martian Quarantine. They are that psychopath’s direct line into Iocle’s brain.”

Sargon inhaled and continued:

“That son of a bitch has dedicated his final maneuvers to thwarting me. He doesn’t care what Everest does to us so long as I never become President. He rambles on about injuries committed by Sargon 1 against Iocle 2! The stuff of fairy tales and children’s cartoons can exercise him to the point that those great hanging globs of flesh on his face actually twitch. It’s as if the rage were animating the dead slough he lugs about.”

“So Bard shares our thoughts about Iocle?” Renee asked, ballasting.

“Yes. There’s blood in the water. We aren’t the only ones moving in.”

“Imogen’s unreliable.”

Sargon nodded. “But California’s a big chunk of change. It would be a lot to lose once you had it. Only a compulsive gambler would do that. But we’ll find out in a few hours, won’t we?”

“Well, we’ll have an idea of how it stands. And it won’t raise the suspicions a meeting would have. Even if there is a spy in the house.”

“Precisely. We can convene in the parlour during cocktails. I’ll have Albion summon each of them after the meet and greet.”

“This is coming together better than I had hoped,” Renee laughed aridly through a wisp of a red smile so slight it didn’t dent her cheeks.

Sargon drained his Bloody Mary, bit the lemon wedge and patted his lips with a napkin. “Lemons have burned the teflon off my teeth.”

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