In the reign of President Deklan Comstock, a reborn United States is struggling back to prosperity. Over a century after the Efflorescence of Oil, after the Fall of the Cities, after the Plague of Infertility, after the False Tribulation, after the days of the Pious Presidents, the sixty stars and thirteen stripes wave from the plains of Athabaska to the national capital in New York City. In Colorado Springs, the Dominion sees to the nation’s spiritual needs. In Labrador, the Army wages war on the Dutch. America, unified, is rising once again.
As an added bonus, after you’re done reading, you can listen to both the first and the second chapters of Julian Comstock using the widget below the excerpt.
A Pine-Bark Eden; or, the Caribou-Horn Train
“And the same fires, which were kindled for Heretics, will serve for the destruction of Philosophers.”
—Hume (a Philosopher)
In October of 2172—the year the Election show came to town—Julian Comstock and I, along with his mentor Sam Godwin, rode to the Tip east of Williams Ford, where I came to possess a book, and Julian tutored me in one of his heresies.
There was a certain resolute promptness to the seasons in Athabaska in those days. Summers were long and hot, December brought snow and sudden freezes, and most years the River Pine ran freely by the first of March. Spring and fall were mere custodial functions, by comparison. Today might be the best we would get of autumn—the air brisk but not cold, the long sunlight unhindered by any cloud. It was a day we ought to have spent under Sam Godwin’s tutelage, reading chapters from the Dominion History of the Union or Otis’s War and How to Conduct It. But Sam wasn’t a heartless overseer, and the gentle weather suggested the possibility of an outing. So we went to the stables where my father worked, and drew horses, and rode out of the Estate with lunches of black bread and salt ham in our back-satchels.
At first we headed south along the Wire Road, away from the hills and the town. Julian and I rode ahead while Sam paced his mount behind us, his Pittsburgh rifle in the saddle holster at his side. There was no perceptible threat or danger, but Sam Godwin believed in preparedness—if he had a gospel, it was BE PREPARED; also, SHOOT FIRST; and probably, DAMN THE CONSEQUENCES. Sam, who was nearly fifty winters old, wore a dense brown beard stippled with white hairs, and was dressed in what remained presentable of his Army of the Californias uniform. Sam was nearly a father to Julian, Julian’s own true father having performed a gallows dance some years before, and lately Sam had been more vigilant than ever, for reasons he hadn’t discussed, at least with me.
Julian was my age (seventeen), and we were approximately the same height, but there the resemblance ended. Julian had been born an Aristo, or Eupatridian, as they say back east, while my family was of the leasing class. His face was smooth and pale; mine was dark and lunar, scarred by the same Pox that took my sister Flaxie to her grave in ‘63. His yellow hair was long and almost femininely clean; mine was black and wiry, cut to stubble by my mother with her sewing scissors, and I washed it once a week—more often in summer, when the creek behind the cottage warmed to a pleasant temperature. His clothes were linen and silk, brass-buttoned, cut to fit; my shirt and pants were course hempen cloth, sewn to a good approximation but clearly not the work of a New York tailor.
And yet we were friends, and had been friends for three years, ever since we met by chance in the hills west of the Duncan and Crowley Estate. We had gone there to hunt, Julian with his rifle and me with a simple muzzle-loader, and we crossed paths in the forest and got to talking. We both loved books, especially the boys’ books written by an author named Charles Curtis Easton.1I had been carrying a copy of Easton’s Against the Brazilians, illicitly borrowed from the Estate library—Julian recognized the title but vowed not to rat on me for possessing it, since he loved the book as much as I did and longed to discuss it with a fellow enthusiast—in short, he did me an unbegged favor; and we became fast friends despite our differences.
In those early days I hadn’t known how fond he was of Philosophy and such petty crimes as that. But I suppose it wouldn’t have mattered to me, if I had.
Today Julian turned east from the Wire Road and took us down a lane bordered by split-rail fences on which dense blackberry gnarls had grown up, between fields of wheat and gourds just lately harvested. Before long we passed the rude shacks of the Estate’s indentured laborers, whose near-naked children gawked at us from the dusty lane-side, and I deduced that we were headed for the Tip, because where else on this road was there to go?—unless we continued on for many hours more, all the way to the ruins of the old oil towns, left over from the days of the False Tribulation.
The Tip was located a distance from Williams Ford in order to prevent poaching and disorder. There was a strict pecking order to the Tip. It worked this way: professional scavengers hired by the Estate brought their pickings from ruined places to the Tip, which was a pine-fenced enclosure (a sort of stockade) in an open patch of grassland. There the newly-arrived goods were roughly sorted, and riders were dispatched to the Estate to make the high-born aware of the latest discoveries. Then various Aristos (or their trusted servants) rode out to claim the prime gleanings. The next day the leasing class would be allowed to sort through what was left; and after that, if anything remained, indentured laborers could rummage through it, if they calculated it was worthwhile to make the journey.
Every prosperous town had a Tip, though in the east it was sometimes called a Till, a Dump, or an Eebay.
Today we were lucky. A dozen wagonloads of scrounge had just arrived, and riders hadn’t yet been sent to notify the Estate. The gate of the enclosure was manned by an armed Reservist, who looked at us suspiciously until Sam announced the name of Julian Comstock. Then the guard briskly stepped aside, and we went inside the fence.
A chubby Tipman, eager to show off his bounty, hurried toward us as we dismounted and moored our horses. “Happy coincidence!” he cried. “Gentlemen!” Addressing mostly Sam by this remark, with a cautious smile for Julian and a disdainful sidelong glance at me. “Anything in particular you’re looking for?”
“Books,” said Julian, before Sam or I could answer.
“Books! Well—ordinarily, I set aside books for the Dominion Conservator…”
“This boy is a Comstock,” Sam said. “I don’t suppose you mean to balk him.”
The Tipman promptly reddened. “No, not at all—in fact we came across something in our digging—a sort of library in miniature—I’ll show you, if you like.”
That was intriguing, especially to Julian, who beamed as if he had been invited to a Christmas party; and we followed the stout Tipman to a freshly-arrived canvasback wagon, from which a shirtless laborer was tossing bundles into a stack beside a tent.
The twine-wrapped bales contained books—ancient books, wholly free of the Dominion Seal of Approval. They must have been more than a century old, for although they were faded it was obvious that they had once been colorful and expensively printed, not made of stiff brown paper like the Charles Curtis Easton books of modern times. They had not even rotted much. Their smell, under the cleansing Athabaska sunlight, was inoffensive.
“Sam!” Julian whispered ecstatically. He had already drawn his knife, and he began slicing through the twine.
“Calm down,” said Sam, who wasn’t an enthusiast like Julian.
“Oh, but—Sam! We should have brought a cart!”
“We can’t carry away armloads, Julian, nor would we ever be allowed to. The Dominion scholars will have all this, and most of it will be locked up in their Archive in New York City, if it isn’t burned. Though I expect you can get away with a volume or two if you’re discreet about it.”
The Tipman said, “These are from Lundsford.” Lundsford was the name of a ruined town twenty miles or so to the southeast. The Tipman leaned toward Sam Godwin and said: “We thought Lundsford had been mined out a decade ago. But even a dry well may freshen. One of my workers spotted a low place off the main excavation—a sort of sink-hole: the recent rain had cut it through. Once a basement or warehouse of some kind. Oh, sir, we found good china there, and glasswork, and many more books than this…most hopelessly mildewed, but some had been wrapped in a kind of oilcoth, and were lodged under a fallen ceiling…there had been a fire, but they survived it…”
“Good work, Tipman,” Sam Godwin said with palpable disinterest.
“Thank you, sir! Perhaps you could remember me to the men of the Estate?” And he gave his name (which I have forgotten).
Julian knelt amidst the compacted clay and rubble of the Tip, lifting up each book in turn and examining it with wide eyes. I joined him in his exploration, though I had never much liked the Tip. It had always seemed to me a haunted place. And of course it was haunted—it existed in order to be haunted—that is, to house the revenants of the past, ghosts of the False Tribulation startled out of their century-long slumber. Here was evidence of the best and worst of the people who had inhabited the Years of Vice and Profligacy. Their fine things were very fine, their glassware especially, and it was a straitened Aristo indeed who did not sit down to an antique table-setting rescued from some ruin or other. Sometimes you might find useful knives or other tools at the Tip. Coins were common. The coins were never gold or silver, and were too plentiful to be worth much, individually, but they could be worked into buttons and such adornments. One of the high-born back at the Estate owned a saddle studded with copper pennies all from the year 2032—I had often been enlisted to polish it, and disliked it for that reason.
Here too was the trash and inexplicable detritus of the old times: “plastic,” gone brittle with sunlight or soft with the juices of the earth; bits of metal blooming with rust; electronic devices blackened by time and imbued with the sad inutility of a tensionless spring; engine parts, corroded; copper wire rotten with verdigris; aluminum cans and steel barrels eaten through by the poisonous fluids they had once contained—and so on, almost ad infinitum.
Here as well were the in-between things, the curiosities, as intriguing and as useless as seashells. (”Put down that rusty trumpet, Adam, you’ll cut your lip and poison your blood!”—my mother, when we had visited the Tip many years before I met Julian. There had been no music in the trumpet anyway—its bell was bent and corroded through.)
More than that, though, there hovered above the Tip (any Tip) the uneasy knowledge that all these things, fine or corrupt, had outlived their makers—had proved more imperishable, in the long run, than flesh or spirit; for the souls of the Secular Ancients are almost certainly not first in line for Resurrection.
And yet, these books…they tempted eye and mind alike. Some were decorated with beautiful women in various degrees of undress. I had already sacrificed my claim to spotless virtue with certain young women at the Estate, whom I had recklessly kissed; at the age of seventeen I considered myself a jade, or something like one; but these images were so frank and impudent they made me blush and look away.
Julian ignored them, as he had always been invulnerable to the charms of women. He preferred the more densely-written material. He had already set aside a spotted and discolored Textbook of Biology. He found another volume almost as large, and handed it to me, saying, “Here, Adam, try this—you might find it enlightening.”
I inspected it skeptically. The book was called A History of Mankind in Space.
“The moon again,” I said.
“Read it for yourself.”
“Tissue of lies, I’m sure.”
“Photographs prove nothing. Those people could do anything with photographs.”
“Well, read it anyway,” said Julian.
In truth the idea excited me. We had had this argument many times, especially on autumn nights when the moon hung low and ponderous on the horizon. People have walked there, Julian would say, pointing at that celestial body. The first time he made the claim I laughed at him; the second time I said, “Yes, certainly: I once climbed there myself, on a greased rainbow—” But he had been serious.
Oh, I had heard these stories. Who hadn’t? Men on the moon. What surprised me was that someone as well-educated as Julian would believe them.
“Just take the book,” he insisted.
“What: to keep?”
“Certainly to keep.”
“Believe I will,” I muttered, and I stuck the object in my back-satchel and felt both proud and guilty. What would my father say, if he knew I was reading literature without a Dominion stamp? What would my mother make of it? (Of course I wouldn’t tell them.)
At this point I backed off and found a grassy patch a little away from the rubble, where I could sit and eat lunch while Julian went on sorting through the old texts. Sam Godwin came and joined me, brushing a spot on a charred timber so he could sit without soiling his uniform, such as it was.
“He loves those musty old books,” I said, making conversation.
Sam was often taciturn—the very picture of an old veteran—but today he nodded and spoke familiarly. “He’s learned to love them, and I helped to teach him. His father wanted him to know more of the world than the Dominion histories of it. But I wonder if that was wise, in the long run. He loves his books too dearly, I think, or gives them too much credence. It might be they’ll kill him one of these days.”
“How, Sam? By the apostasy of them?”
“He debates with the Dominion clergy. Just last week I found him arguing with Ben Kreel2about God, and history, and such abstractions. Which is precisely what he must not do, if he means to survive the next few years.”
“Why? What threatens him?”
“The jealousy of the powerful,” said Sam.
But he would say no more on the subject, only stroked his graying beard, and glanced occasionally and uneasily to the east.
* * *
Eventually Julian had to drag himself from his nest of books with only a pair of prizes: the Introduction to Biology and another volume called Geology of North America. Time to go, Sam insisted; better to be back at the Estate by supper, so we wouldn’t be missed; soon enough the official pickers would arrive to cull what we had left.
But I have said that Julian tutored me in one of his apostasies. This is how it happened. As we headed home we stopped at the height of a hill overlooking the town of Williams Ford and the River Pine as it cut through the low places on its way from the mountains of the West. From here we had a fine view of the steeple of the Dominion Hall, and the revolving water-wheels of the grist mill and the lumber mill, all blue in the long light and hazy with coal-smoke, and far to the south a railway bridge spanning the gorge of the Pine like a suspended thread. Go inside, the weather seemed to proclaim; it’s fair but it won’t be fair for long; bolt the window, stoke the fire, boil the apples; winter’s due. We rested our horses on that windy hilltop as the afternoon softened toward evening, and Julian found a blackberry bramble where the berries were still plump and dark, and we plucked some of these and ate them.
That was the world I had been born into. It was an autumn like every autumn I could remember, drowsy in its familiarity. But I couldn’t help thinking of the Tip and its ghosts. Maybe those people, the people who had lived through the Efflorescence of Oil and the False Tribulation, had felt about their homes and neighborhoods just as I felt about Williams Ford. They were ghosts to me, but they must have seemed real enough to themselves—must have been real; had not realized they were ghosts; and did that I mean I was also a ghost, a revenant to haunt some future generation?
Julian saw my expression and asked what was troubling me. I told him my thoughts.
“Now you’re thinking like a Philosopher,” he said, grinning.
“No wonder they’re such a miserable brigade, then.”
“Unfair, Adam—you’ve never seen a Philosopher in your life.” Julian believed in Philosophers, and claimed to have met one or two.
“Well, I imagine they’re miserable, if they go around thinking of themselves as ghosts and such.”
“It’s the condition of all things,” Julian said. “This blackberry, for example.” He plucked one and held it in the pale palm of his hand. “Has it always looked like this?”
“Obviously not,” I said, impatiently.
“Once it was a tiny green bud of a thing, and before that it was part of the substance of the bramble, which before that was a seed inside a blackberry—”
“And round and round for all eternity.”
“But no, Adam, that’s the point. The bramble, and that tree over there, and the gourds in the field, and the crow circling over them—they’re all descended from ancestors that didn’t quite resemble them. A blackberry or a crow is a form, and forms change over time, the way clouds change shape as they travel across the sky.”
“Forms of what?”
“Of DNA,” Julian said earnestly. (The Biology he had picked out of the Tip was not the first Biology he had read.)
“Julian,” Sam said, “I once promised this boy’s parents you wouldn’t corrupt him.”
“I’ve heard of DNA,” I said. “It’s the life force of the secular ancients. And it’s a myth.”
“Like men walking on the moon?”
“And who’s your authority on this? Ben Kreel? The Dominion History of the Union?”
“Everything changes except DNA? That’s a peculiar argument even from you, Julian.”
“It would be, if I were making it. But DNA isn’t changeless. It struggles to remember itself, but it never remembers itself perfectly. Remembering a fish, it imagines a lizard. Remembering a horse, it imagines a hippopotamus. Remembering an ape, it imagines a man.”
“Julian!” Sam was insistent now. “That’s enough.”
“You sound like a Darwinist,” I said.
“Yes,” Julian admitted, smiling in spite of his unorthodoxy, the autumn sun turning his face the color of penny copper. “I suppose I do.”
* * *
That night I lay in bed until I was reasonably certain both my parents were asleep. Then I rose, lit a lamp, and took the new (or rather very old) History of Mankind in Space from where I had hidden it behind a pinewood chest.
I leafed through the brittle pages of it. I didn’t read the book. I would read it, but tonight I was too weary to pay close attention, and in any case I wanted to savor the words (lies and fictions though they might be), not rush through them like a glutton. Tonight I meant only to sample it—to look at the pictures, in other words.
There were dozens of photographs, and each one captured my attention with fresh marvels and implausibilities. One of them showed, or purported to show, men standing on the surface of the moon, just as Julian had described.
The men in the picture were Americans. They wore flags stitched to the shoulders of their moon clothing, an archaic version of our own flag, with something less than the customary sixty stars. Their clothing was white and ridiculously bulky, like the winter clothes of the Inuit, and they wore helmets with golden visors that hid their faces. I supposed it must be very cold on the moon, if explorers required such cumbersome protection. They must have arrived in winter. However, there was no ice or snow in the neighborhood. The moon seemed to be little more than a desert—dry as a stick and dusty as a Tipman’s wardrobe.
I cannot say how long I stared at this picture, puzzling over it. It might have been an hour or more. Nor can I accurately describe how it made me feel—larger than myself, but lonely, too, as if I had grown as tall as the clouds and lost sight of every familiar thing. By the time I closed the book I saw that the moon had risen outside my window—the real moon, I mean; a harvest moon, fat and orange, half-hidden behind wind-tattered clouds.
I found myself wondering whether it was truly possible that men had visited that celestial orb. Whether, as the pictures implied, they had ridden there on rockets, rockets a thousand times larger than our familiar Independence Day fireworks. But if men had visited the moon, why hadn’t they stayed there? Was it so inhospitable a place that no one wanted to remain?
Or perhaps they had stayed, and were living there still. If the moon was such a cold place, I reasoned, people living on its surface would be forced to build fires to keep warm. There seemed to be no wood on the moon, judging by the photographs, so they must have resorted to coal or peat. I went to the window and examined the moon minutely for any sign of campfires, pit mining, or other lunar industry. But I could see none. It was only the moon, mottled and changeless. I blushed at my own gullibility, replaced the book in its hiding place, chased all these recreant thoughts from my mind with a hasty prayer, and eventually fell asleep.
And now, you can continue by listening to Chapter Two of Julian Comstock right here.