by Santiago De Choch
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”
Arthur C. Clarke
I’ll never go back to Florida: I’ll die here, in Patagonia.
I was born in Florida. Grew up in the family farm. Joined the insurgency along with my family during the war to secede. Was there, victorious, on Republic Day, Gainesville, 2036. Then met and lost the great and only love of my life before leaving the Republic of Florida as it disappeared and rejoined the other 27 states in the US, defeated, disappointed and heartbroken. Me and Florida, both.
I grew up mostly in Spanish, with English almost entirely absent during the first 4 or 6 years of my life. German takes a 3rd place in fluency. This story is better told in English.
I have things to teach, may teach them to a son yet, but he won’t be the son I wanted, the son of Skylar Page.
My name is Rodrigo Bohn Olivares and I was born in Naples in 2020. Naples was an enclave of the very rich. I suppose it still is. My family, the Bohns, were not from there, but from Immokalee, a nearby farming town carved out of the Everglades. It supplied the Eastern US with fresh produce during Northern Hemisphere winters, prime growing season for South Florida. Cattle, honey production, poultry, tropical fruit all existed, but seasonal produce was always the main business. My mother had complications leading to my birth, and my father Carlos Bohn didn’t want to risk the primitive Immokalee clinic and took her to a top Naples hospital.
In a way, my family was rich, and I was born rich. We were rich in land, tools and structures, expertise. We’d have tons of cash during good harvests, but after covering payroll for hundreds and supplies and materials to take us to the next harvest, not much remained. That’s the life of the farmer. Although of course I exaggerate some. I come from old German farming stock: almost genetically disposed to saving for the future. Like the laborious ant, a good farmer always puts something away for the harsh season, while the grasshoppers fiddle in the sun. We were never cash rich like the Naples plutocracy, but could get the best and pay large amounts with a steady pulse when needed. The best, unfortunately, wasn’t enough to save my poor mother, Antonia Olivares. She died at childbirth, so I started my life with a heavy burden. She died that I may live.
Come think of it, Skylar Page also died that I may live. Two women sacrificed themselves for me.
Although could I really call Skylar “a woman”? And was it for me only she sacrificed?
Her body was that of a woman. I found her extremely beautiful and attractive, though not perfect. Her face had something of the deer and the owl in it, something that made you look twice when you first met her, to decide if she was beautiful or just strange. Her yellow eyes could be intimidating or lovely, depending on her mood. Hair fiery red, lots of freckles, a bit too tall for a woman but not taller than me, a pleasant and well proportioned body.
However, to call her a woman would perhaps not be accurate. Men and women are born from the mix of a father and a mother’s heritage; Skylar only had one parent, her father, Raymond Page. What I mean is that she was created from Mr Page, and Mr Page’s only, genetic stock. Her DNA was all his. Whatever combination of human traits had resulted, over millenia, in Raymond Page’s stock, had become in Skylar’s generation a relic, an artifact of the past, a dead language that would never again evolve or change, the language of the double helix frozen in time, endlessly replicating itself without the input of a partner. A clone.
Skylar was to be the first of a long line. A line rendered barren by design, able only to carry her father’s unique human signature into the future, not just the genetic key, but his personality, memories and accumulated knowledge and malice into the future.
How could malice, or goodness for that matter, be carried into the future? How could memory, Raymond Page’s feelings and recollections, be implanted in a genetic carbon copy after he had died? How could a personality survive the death of the bearer?
With Enhanced Technology, which was in its infancy then, and we fought. But it has prevailed, or at least hasn’t been defeated, and we’ll see what results of it. Nothing good, is my prediction. In any case, she may have been the first, but her demise didn’t mean the end of occult-aided technology, not just in genetics and reproduction, but in every field you may consider: devices and networking, AI and processing power, warfare, finance, surveillance, politics. The Technology Party has triumphed not just in Florida, but in the USA and most of the world. Even this backwater, Argentina, has a Partido Justicialista Tecnológico government; good thing Patagonia is a backwater within a backwater, and that in this part of the world, any law, edict or mandate will be ignored if you grease the right palms or have the right contacts.
That’s why I moved here when the Republic of Florida collapsed, that and the fact that a branch of the family, long lost but not quite, had settled in South Argentina when our ancestors left war-ravaged Germany after WW2, led by my great-great-grandfather, Karl Bohn, born in Bavaria in 1920, arrived in Buenos Aires in 1946. His younger son, Alfonso, born Argentinian, had been restless and moved to Florida in the late 1960’s to start his own farm. He was ambitious and wanted his lebensraum, not crowded by older brothers who took control over most Bohn Argentinian farms after Karl died. My grandfather Peter, his sons, Lukas, Lorenzo and my father Carlos, had all been born in Immokalee. I am a third-generation Floridian, but it is my family’s fate, or has been for the last hundred years, that despite our deep connection to the soil, we have had to move to different lands, and start farming anew.
My distant cousins received me with open arms when I arrived here, as defeated and destitute as my ancestor Karl Bohn had been almost a century before. But I didn’t have to start from scratch. I just went from growing okra to growing apples, in a way. I had to relearn the seasons, the soils, the ways of a different farm, but I’ve always been a good farmer, and was still young when I arrived. I miss the mangoes and lychees, the smoked mullet, the clams, all the flavors of my Florida youth, but have come to appreciate the abundant golden wheat, the wine, and of course, the Argentinian steak grilled over coals. I’ve been lucky. I should have died in Florida, but I’m still alive, 30 years later. I’m grateful for that.
I met Skylar Page in the spring of 2039: the third growing season after Republic Day, a very busy time at the farm. Winter is the main season for most vegetables in South Florida , and we were cranking that April, at the tail end of it. Workers were in the fields before dawn, harvesting. The warehouses were packing, drying, canning and pickling 24 hours a day, older hens and ducks were being butchered, new flocks started, hogs and rabbits were being smoked and made into jerky, eggplant and jalapeño seedlings were already growing by the thousands in shadehouses in preparation for summer planting, beekeepers were harvesting the honey winter crop, and late citrus such as tangelo and grapefruit were also ripe in our grove.
Our family had always believed in putting our eggs in as many baskets as possible. That’s how we survived the Old Country first, our uprootings and tribulations later. My elders had agreed we wouldn’t make the mistakes that had destroyed so many other farms: switching from food crops to ornamentals for the golf courses, investing all in strawberries or sweet peppers when prices looked promising, causing market gluts and sudden catastrophic plunges, and above all, selling the land to developers. Giving in to developers and speculators had been the main mistake of many, selling not just the land but their offspring’s future.
We, the Bohns, had kept our ways. Unlike so many others, we hadn’t forgotten, we were now here, in a land our ancestors could never have imagined, and our farm’s logo was on every cardboard box we shipped out: a smiling green bean under the Florida sun, and BOHN ORGANIC FARMS – IMMOKALEE, FL in Gothic lettering under it.
I was sitting in my truck, an antique Ford Ranger, parked outside the main building of the Ponce de León University in Golden Gate, where I was an Agricultural Sciences student, going over my biology notes for an exam. I remember the sunny day and how happy I was that I could drive my truck again – we had received AGPASS/FUELCAT2 stickers, and I had placed mine covering the almost useless old yellow EDUPASS/FUELCAT6. I felt good that day, strong, confident in my lucky stars. So I had chosen music bright and dashing to go with the day: Mendelssohn’s “Italian” symphony. I had prepared for the test thouroughly and wasn’t worried about it. I wasn’t worried about playing the symphony a bit too loudly either, windows open. Maybe the music was still illegal, I didn’t know if the young Republic of Florida had gotten around to abolishing all the silly laws of the last years of State, but security surely wouldn’t give me trouble about Mendelssohn.
Things were looking up for us, after years of sufferance. Farmers were important now, like never before. We had priority access to fuel and electricity. Even the president of the Republic was a farmer and a personal friend of our family, Jason Donnelly. Farmers were in charge, or we thought we were.
I saw her walking across the parking lot when I lifted my eyes from the biology notes. I’m quite sure I had not seen her before; I’d have remembered her. There was something special about her. The words “regal” and “aloof” come to mind, but that wasn’t all. She seemed miles above her surroundings, lost in her own thoughts. As she walked past a group of freshman students on the lot, one of them said something and made a move towards her. She froze him in his tracks with one cold glance and kept walking.
She was headed towards her own vehicle, a much newer electric model parked at the far end of the lot despite plenty of spots available closer to the building. I realized she’d walk right past me: I should stop staring and focus on my notes. I let some time pass, then raised my eyes again looking towards her car and expecting to see her in it. She wasn’t, so I looked again in the direction she had come from, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw her close and observing me with much interest and a faint, barely noticeable smile on her lips, standing a couple of feet from my side of the Ranger. I tried to do several things at once: put away the notes, which got unclipped and spilled all over my lap and onto the truck floor; turn off the music, hitting the wrong button and getting some loud Mexican music on the radio which took me several tries to kill; and saying “hello” in what I hoped would be a strong, manly voice that to my shame, came out thin and hesitant, luckily drowned in the corrido. When I managed to silence the damn radio, I said “hello” again.
– “Hello”, she said, and I noticed her yellow eyes for the first time. “Sorry to startle you.”
– “Not at all, not at all.”
– “The music you were listening to just now, I noticed it.”
I was at a loss for a moment. My grandfather had been a great influence in my life, and among other things, he had fostered a love of classical music in me. The problem was that until recently, you could have gotten in a whole lot of trouble for listening to it in public, because it was banned under the White Privilege Act, along with a lot of other things, books and such. Boy, did they give us trouble at the farm. All it took was a call to the Social Justice Police from some busybody or blackmailer. So even though times had changed, I automatically blurted out “Yes, I’m Hispanic. Do you like it, too?” Another behavior from the old times: always deny being white, and call attention upon the “Hispanic” part instead – never mind that one is always more than one thing. The world had been angry at some categories, so it was wise to claim at least two.
– “No, my favorite Latin music is tango, but corridos is not what you were listening to. You were listening to Mendelssohn, and my question is, was it the Scottish or the Italian? It bothers me I can’t place it”
I’m sure my jaw dropped for a few seconds. Outside of my immediate family, classical music had been an almost extinct art form even before the ban, as far as I knew. I managed to mumble,
– “Uh, the 4th, the Italian.”
– “Von Karajan?”
– “I believe so, let me see”, I said, found the CD case, and added, “yes, Von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic.”
Now she was openly smiling and giving me a strange look. Her teeth were small and looked sharp as a predator’s.
– “A CD, how quaint. That thing must be 50 years old, at least. The recording, much older. I have the same version in my mobile. Have you heard of them? You use them for many things like calling, texting, and oh, they hold music, too. My name is Skylar Page. What’s yours?”
That was my first taste of her: ironic and straightforward, almost blunt.
– “Rodrigo. Rodrigo Bohn Olivares. Nice to meet you”.
– “Nice meeting you too, RRRodrigo”, she said, comically stretching the Spanish hard R in my name. I tried to keep her around a few more seconds:
– “You’re a student here, right? I don’t think I’ve seen you before. What’s your major?”
– “Oh, this and that. Nothing definite. Genetics, mostly, Dr Wu’s class. You’re in Ag Science, right?”
– “Yes. How did you…?”
– “The truck. The stickers on the truck. Your hands. It’s obvious”
I had to smile. Man, she was sharp. Beautiful, and sharp.
– “I’d like to… hm, could we maybe meet some other time? We can talk about music. Maybe we could…”
– “Yes, maybe we could, RRRodrigo”, she said, “I’m sure I’ll see you around. Do you help at Ms Gonzalez’ garden?”
– “I’ve been meaning to check it out. I’ll see you there sometime. Me voy. Hasta luego.”
– “Do you speak Spanish?”
– “Muy mal. Nos vemos.”
She walked away and I stared as she started her car and silently glided by, waving a hand as she did. The stickers on it were white, and the black lettering read ETCORPPASS/FUELCAT1+. Trumped mine. She could get recharged anywhere, anytime, and breeze past most SEC roadblocks. A few seconds later, another late model vehicle followed, two burly men in it. One of them gave me the briefest nod as they drove by, then typed something in the screenpad he was holding. As they drove away, I saw the SECPASS black stickers, and, much smaller, the Screaming Eagle emblem. These guys were no Ponce de León campus sec dummies. They were 101st Airborne, one of the toughest – and most expensive – security franchises. Then I realized I’d be late for the test, rushed into my classroom, stopping for just a second at the door for the facial recog system to register me and the green light to flash, sat down, and took it. I got a C.
My father had insisted I attend Ag Science classes at the nearby, nonprofit Ponce de León University, in many ways more of a trade school than a college. At the demo farm, frankly, I taught more than learned, due to my lifelong farming background. Ms Gonzalez, a stout, strong older Guatemalan, ran the 2-acre demo farm competently, despite not having any education at all. She was illiterate, which is by no means the same as ignorant. I was happy to be useful and help her train a new generation of growers. The Republic needed them desperately. As a child, she had started helping her dirt-poor family tend to the traditional milpa of corn, beans and squash (“the three sisters” of the original cultures throughout the Americas), and had come into the US as a teenager, paying a coyote to guide her and her twin sister with her family’s accumulated savings, and the promise of more as soon as she was in El Norte.
She had survived the passage, her sister hadn’t. She then worked like a mule for decades in the fields of Immokalee, saving every penny to send back home after the smuggler was paid off. I knew this because she had been a worker at our farm in her later years, before we insisted she should now quit the fields. She couldn’t be idle, though, and my father had come up with the inspired idea of insinuating her to the dean of Ponce de León, who set up the demo garden for her as part of the curriculum. Our family was a major donor to the university, which accounts for “suggestions” from the Bohn clan enacted quickly. This one had been particularly good. She was in her element.
I can clearly remember Skylar Page as she walked past the gate that first time at Ms Gonzalez’s garden: wearing faded work clothes, baggy jeans and a long sleeved shirt, all in clear colors, and a big hat, which is exactly what you wear when you work outside in Florida, with its murderous sun and myriads of no-see-ums, mosquitoes and fire ants ready to chew you up. Ms Gonzalez made a beeline towards her, walking as fast as her advanced age would allow, and let loose a stream of angry Spanish. I was working the worm bins with a few others some distance away from the gate, and could only catch a word here and there, “late”, “didn’t sign up”.
Skylar let the old gardener rant awhile, then soothingly spoke to her in hushed, respectful tones. Finally she pointed to rows of chard and collards that needed weeding, and moved to the side to let Skylar walk there. As she passed my group, she shot me an amused glance, but didn’t stop or talk to me.
I was pleased to see her weeding like a pro, at a steady pace, pulling up the weeds with roots and all. I could see she was making a good impression on Ms Gonzalez, who was famously cranky: she’d look in her direction now and then and then go back to harvesting clusters of Everglades tomatoes, a satisfied expression in her wrinkled dark face under the battered sombrero she always wore.
The brief coolness of winter had already faded away: the heat seemed to start earlier and earlier every year. Soon, Skylar was covered in sweat like the rest of us, but she never stopped her work or asked for water. It was Ms Gonzalez herself who brought her a glass from the cool water jug after an hour, and that told me she had accepted the newcomer. She liked to see what kind of worker one was before offering water, so she could dismiss the useless ones when they asked: “Si, go drink agua, and don’t come back, pendejo.”
Hours passed, everybody finished one chore and moved to the next under Ms Gonzalez’s stern direction. At long last, she stopped working, took a long drink of water, straightened her back and looked in the direction of the sun, now sinking in the West, towards the Gulf of Mexico. She clapped her hands a few times, which was the signal for us to go put our tools back in the shed and leave.
As the shadows darkened, some went to the hand-cranked water pump to splash their arms and faces, and Ms Gonzalez disappeared inside her cabin: she lived on the garden grounds, in a small cabin besides the shed. Soon, light appeared on the single window, and I could hear the rattling of dishes as she started preparing her dinner. I stood next to Skylar as she finished refreshing herself at the water pump, my desire for her strong.
Then she somehow ditched her bodyguards and came to spend the night with me.
We entered my land through one of the South gates, as I always did. Dogs started barking some distance away, and soon a pack of them approached the truck at speed. I slowed down and put my arm out of the window so they could smell it. Trotting behind them, two farm workers on night watch duty waved at me as I came to a stop.
– “Buenas noches, Don Rodrigo”, the oldest one said, and took his straw hat off.
– “Buenas noches, Camilo. Todo bien?”
– “Si, señor”
I told them that I had my corner of the land covered and they could go guard the other end of that fence, miles away. They had dogs, machetes, and an old shotgun. Their job was less to deter well armed intruders than to alert the farm of any breaching of the fence, and deal with poachers.
I drove the rough path edged by palmetto and pine before turning into neat rows of mango trees and then field after field, some still bearing winter produce, others newly planted or tilled, and some in fallow, planted with green manures: cowpeas, buckwheat.
Gradually my cabin, where I had lived alone since age 14, became visible, and we heard the barking of my dog, Beckenbauer, a big German shepherd jumping at the fence, happy to see me. “Ruhig sein, Beckenbauer! Stille machen! Legen, Beck!”. Beck was a guard dog and looked it. He had scars from old fights with coons and hogs, and from a time when he had held a madman with a machete in place for several minutes until help could arrive. As I was unlatching my gate, I heard Skylar get out of the truck, and Beck shot straight to her, bypassing me. He sniffed her extended hand for a moment, then licked it, and she smiled.
– “You’re not afraid of him. Most people are.”
– “Such a good dog. Why Beckenbauer?”
– “Best defender ever. Bayern Munich and the fearsome Mannschaft. Before my time, but I have the videos.”
– “Only speaks German?”
– “Spanish and English, too”, I said, smiling.
I turned the lights of my small cabin on, then we walked through the old citrus tree grove outside, to the outdoor kitchen and shed.
– “It’s pretty. What’s that?”, she asked, pointing to another structure some distance away, surrounded by thick cocoplums.
– “Outhouse and shower. There’s a sink and a mirror in there, if you need to use it”
– “I’d love a shower, RRRodrigo. Ms Gonzalez made me sweat today.”
– “No hot water, I’m out of propane.”
– “I never use hot water.”
– “Ah, OK, let me, um, turn the light on and check for spiders”
– “Never mind that. I’m not afraid. Haven’t you noticed? Of anything. It’s a curse I have.”
– “Why is that a curse?”
– “It’s gotten me into a lot of trouble. Do you have fresh towels in there?”
– “No, they’re inside. Let me go get some”
I came back, saw the light of the shower room was still off. I knocked. “I have some towels here. Let me get the light for you. It’s hard to find.”
– “Come in”, she said. I stepped in. There was enough moonlight to see her, standing naked, looking at me without a word. Her skin was very white, with lots of freckles in some places. She raised an arm, beckoning me to join her. I dropped the towels and embraced her, finding her mouth ready for my kiss. Soon, we were madly aroused. “Protection”, I whispered, “no need”, she answered. I pushed her against the wall and went into her. She made some strange noises as she climaxed, like birds cooing or owls calling. An owl actually answered the call from somewhere in the trees, outside.
After that night, we started seeing each other every time we could, spending nights at my cabin after demo farm days. Spring turned into Summer, and with it, a great heavyness set on the land. The rythms and routines of the farm changed with the season. There’s different things to grow all year round in Florida. Days had to start earlier, to take advantage of the cooler hours. By noon, bells and loudspeakers told the workers in the fields to seek shelter, and they slowly walked to their dwellings, to hammocks in deep shade, under the gaze of the sun, blank and pitiless, as Skylar often observed. Towards late afternoon, peasants would return to work. The sun was less cruel by then, but other tortures awaited: swarms of biting insects, and an oppressive humidity that would often break into violent storms. We lost four workers to lighting bolts. That summer of 2039 would also witness an explosion of dangerous creatures that seemed to lurk under every rotten log and dark corner: water moccasin and coral snakes, widow and recluse spiders claimed the lives of more Immokalee residents, and especially of their young children, than any other summer in memory.
To add to our woes, and despite our own best efforts and those of local authorities and churches, famine had set on the land. Immokalee and Homestead, the main farming hubs for SW and SE FL respectively, both had to mobilize their militias to keep the desperate out. There simply wasn’t enough food and shelter for everyone. Gainesville, the new capital, sent aid caravans, big, slow trucks, loaded with peanuts and potatoes and guarded by few, second-rate troops, as many as could be spared as the northern border had to be secured against raids from Washington. But they seldom made it South of Orlando: wild-eyed, skeletal mobs ambushed them. The walled enclaves of the wealthy in Naples and West Palm were well provisioned, and elite troops guarding them didn’t hesitate to open fire on the hungry crowds when they tried to push in. Giant Chinook cargo helicopters from those places landed at the farm weekly, and loaded bushels of Summer crops, sweet potatoes, eggplants, okra, along with crates of live chickens and rabbits. Machine-gunners sometimes opened fire on the crowds begging at our gates while flying out, just for sport. We hated them. Their firepower was far superior, and we couldn’t risk a confrontation, so we supplied them, made sure our population and workers were fed, and gave what little remained to churches to distribute to the hungry. My father had decided that was the only possible course of action. This decision weighed heavily on him.
The road from Naples to Ponce de León was kept clear by seasoned mercenaries with armored vehicles, and patrolled by killer drones. Most of the companies guarding the Naples road were franchises owned by Skylar father’s FloTech: NYPD, Marines, Rangers. Her bodyguards were elite 101st Airborne Iran vets. On the Immokalee side, the Madariagas, a clan involved in many activities legal and not, guaranteed security. I had talked to Frankie, the head of the clan and a family friend, about Skylar, so she could come and go as she pleased.
My father and uncles didn’t like all this, but let us be. I was on the cusp of becoming like them, an equal, a full grown man and leader. My decisions were to be respected, if not liked. That much had become clear in June, as the full council of family, farm foremen, regional allies, and militia captains convened.
Perhaps because of our youth, Skylar and me found it possible to forget the terrible scenes happening all around us when we were together. My cabin and grove were an oasis where, week after week, we got to know each other more intimately. We’d make love, take cold showers, turn on the small AC unit in the cabin as a special luxury. We’d smoke hand rolled cigars from the farm, or the better, Cuban ones smuggled in by the Madariagas, swinging in hammocks under the shade of trees, pick mangoes and get sticky eating them. Best days of my life.
We would lie in bed exhausted after lovemaking, and sometimes, especially at first, she would talk of the simplest things, of her love for all animals or her favorite recipes. She’d recite long paragraphs of poetry and drama from memory: Blake, Shakespeare, Yeats were her favorites.
But as time passed, and our intimacy progressed, she would absentmindedly mention earth-shattering things. Things that fell outrageously outside my field of experience, things I couldn’t imagine. Hard to understand things, explained by her as she laid in the hammock if no-see-ums were not too bad, cigar in hand. “There’s a new science now, a hyper science, preparing to become the Religion it has always wanted to be”, she’d start. The corporations in control of it had come to a commercially-friendly tag, “ET”, for its vague “enhanced technology” name, and it was now represented by a powerful political party too, the TP, Technology Party. “Gatekeeper scientist brujos are making deals with what’s beyond the gates, sponsored by tycoons like my father.”
Over the course of many nights that summer, it became clear to me that Skylar hated the abuse and murder of human beings inherent to the art of magi since remote times. A fair number of humans had been murdered to create her. Deities had been propitiated, energies released. Deals made, Faustian deals.
I write from a backwater, and the waves of change spread slowly and may not fully reach us here for decades to come, hopefully. I don’t know if a hypothetical future reader will be aware of some of the things I’m talking about here, so let me be clear: I don’t mean voluntary or involuntary tissue & organ donors. Or the many abused and murdered during the extended research that led to a first Vessel, Skylar Page. There was a fair number of both, but those were deaths in the name of science. Deaths manageable in public discourse, if more or less disapprovingly. What I’m saying is that enhanced technology requires human sacrifice, as well as other offerings such as animal and self sacrifice. So there’s a category of people who died so that Skylar would be that died not for science, but for a whole field of knowledge not only separate, but denied, unfathomable by science. Until recently, say until around the time I was born, and Skylar was “born”, in 2020.
Despite my youth back when this story happens, I already was responsible for hundreds of lives, for tasks of enormous significance like achieving a good crop or protecting it from raiders. I was no stranger to life and death decisions. I had been in the Florida War, president Jason Donnelly was a personal friend of my family and we had all been at his inaguration after fighting on his side. In a word: except for the natural awkwardness and stupidity of youth, I was no simpleton. The Bohns were not billionaires like the Naples and Miami cartels, but we fed a lot of people in times when food was scarce, we held territorial power and a degree of military capabilities in the form of our Farm & County Militia, and we were in politics too, in the Farmers Party that ultimately lost the battle for Florida. Despite all this, I had a hard time understanding her. My horror was met with her matter-of-factness, a cold delivery of facts too awful to contemplate.
I think now that she had a premonition. She knew she didn’t have long to live. Didn’t want to live long. That’s why she opened up to me so fast and so thoroughly. Above all, she didn’t want to be her father’s Vessel. The many rich and powerful striving to create their own Vessels to migrate into before death, adding a lifetime, potentially many lifetimes, to the one that was theirs to spend, should take heed of the fact that the first unfortunate born into that situation rejected it with heart and soul. “Glitches”, the technicians will say, “that have been fixed in the new releases”, but I don’t doubt that at least some of the new race are conspiring as I write this, irate and Luciferian in their hatred of the soulless men and bloodthirsty energies bringing them to life, possibly bent not just on taking their revenge on the “mothers” and “fathers” conjuring them into existence, but on the whole lot of us, guilty and innocent alike. And who could blame them?
As I had promised my elders, I didn’t let this love affair, my first, interfere with my responsibilities. I’d be up hours before dawn and head off to work after a cup of black, scalding coffee, leaving her sleeping in my bed. When I could, I’d be back for a few hours in the middle of the day, then go out again. Coming back in the dark, I’d stop to deliver dinner from the main farmhouse kitchen to the men guarding my road and gate, then drive on and see the lights of the outdoor kitchen lit, Skylar putting the finishing touches on our dinner, with Beckenbauer laying under the ceiling fan, lovingly watching her. When this happened, the times that she came to stay with me, I felt a warmth inside, a feeling of happiness, of the possibility of a life together, a family.
– “What are you cooking?”, I’d say, pouring us some farm mead or starfruit wine.
– “Poor man’s caviar. It’s a recipe I brought from my student days in Europe. It’s ready. Here, try it”, she said, dipped a piece of our coarse bread in it, and put it in my mouth.
– “It’s good! Is this the eggplants I brought earlier?”
– “Yes! You bake them whole, until soft, along with sweet peppers. Then put all that to sweat in a covered dish until it cools. That makes the skins easy to remove. Chop everything real fine with a knife, and add some lemon juice, raw garlic, salt, a pinch of sugar, and plenty of olive oil and red vinegar. Voilá!”
Her green-yellow eyes were full of joy as she explained all this, and the joy was contagious. She looked beautiful, with her red hair tied in a ponytail, and the eggplant dip tasted like home. I had never tried it before, but tasted like home. I include the recipe here because she always said it’s what she wanted to be remembered for.
Another time during Summer rainy season, we were driving the truck along cattle pastures, and she pointed at the mushrooms growing on piles of cow manure, spindly and light-colored. “What are those?”, she asked.
– “Psilocybes, cucumelos.”
– “That’s what I thought! Stop the truck, let’s pick some!”
– “Are you sure? I haven’t had one in years, they can be powerful.”
We picked about a dozen of the best, and drove back. After washing them, we sliced and sprinkled them with a little salt. We ate some, washing them down with big gulps of water. Their powerful effect soon became apparent. As the sunlight faded, we took a walk in the grove surrounding my cabin. We giggled and were silly for a while, but the next stage of the high took over soon, and we became more pensive, observing the world around us. We talked about what we were seeing in our altered state of mind, but words were not enough to describe the luminous sap flowing from the roots, through the trunk and branches of every tree, until reaching the tiniest capillary in the foliage. We tried to talk about the bright tendrils of energy emanating from every plant and creating an amazing network that breathed and pulsated. We tried to describe the entities we perceived all around us, some tiny, some massive, tried to describe our feeling of being observed by them, of now being in their plane of existence, intruders in their world. We didn’t feel threatened by them, but knew we were being watched as we left the grove and walked towards the wild scrub of pine and palmetto in complete darkness, not tripping or stumbling once, our bodies somehow navigating the starlit night without problem. “Yes”, she said, “this is another way for the third eye to open”, and then we both fell silent. Speaking had become difficult, our mouths felt swollen and dry, so we started conversing telepathically without realizing it. The thought of a snake or any other danger didn’t cross our minds once, and so those dangers never appeared.
For once in rainy season, it was a clear night, and the east sky started palpitating with a glow, growing brighter until it birthed a rising full moon. The world became brighter, and I looked at Skylar’s face: it was white and translucent, tiny veins visible under the skin, carrying minute amounts of blood that moved in unison with her heartbeat. Her mouth was crimson, her eyes completely yellow now, and very bright. Moths were circling her head like satellites, but as I focused my attention on them, I realized they were not moths but fairies, tiny winged humanlike figures having an animated conversation with her as they flew around her head, which was becoming brighter every minute.
I felt something tug at my legs, looked down and there was a very short, dark skinned naked old man with a white beard, not taller than my knees’ height, looking up at me and smiling. He made a fist, waved it and, without opening his mouth, still smiling, said to me “Be strong! Sé fuerte! Sei stark!” in my three languages simultaneously. I smiled back at him. The moon was high when I looked at Skylar again, and the moths, or fairies, were gone. She was looking at me, and her jewel-like eyes said “I want to show you a vision”. An image appeared inside my skull, grew larger, and soon occupied my whole field of vision: at first I thought I was seeing a multitude of ants moving around an antpile, but then I realized I was flying above charred terrain. Fires were burning, and columns of smoke rose up all around me as I flew. The moving figures were not ants but thousands of people. They were taking other people towards a pyramid, and dragging them to the top. I flew closer and saw the scene at the summit, which was flat. Naked and covered in blood, wearing masks, men were busy sacrificing prisoners as they reached the platform. Four masked figures held the captives’ limbs and spread them on stone altars, as a fifth one ripped open their chests and elevated the beating hearts towards the sky for a moment, before tossing them onto smoking braziers.
I realized I had been hearing powerful drums only when they fell silent. I looked everywhere to discover the cause of the sudden silence, and saw all faces were raised towards me. I would be discovered! I sensed a massive presence behind me, and turning around, my blood froze when I saw a giant emerging from a hole in the charred ground, cloaked in smoke. Its monstrous head was covered in scales and oozed blood, its eyes were dead and dark, and even though I was flying high, it was already almost level with me as I recoiled in horror. The mouth slowly opened, and as flocks of black birds flew all around it, crowing and cackling, a long tongue unfurled, almost reaching the creature’s chest. Inside the mouth, I could see human skulls by the hundreds, many with rotten flesh and eyeballs still attached to them. A piercing, loud wail filled the air, and a deadly stench, and as the giant started raising an arm towards me, fear filled my heart, and I started falling in a downward corkscrew motion, my flying powers gone. I screamed in terror, and the scene disappeared: I was laying on the ground, my head on Skylar’s lap. The world was dark again, the moon had set. Her face was sweet and her eyes bright as she caressed me like a mother rescuing her child from a nightmare. “You have to help me. I can’t do it alone. I need you to help me stop this”, she said, and I lost consciousness.
Raymond Page intended to occupy his Vessel on her 19th birthday, Oct 31st.
“Don’t ask the questions if you’re afraid of the answers”, she said, but that statement was itself a question: “are you afraid to know?” And of course I was. The revelations about who she was and what was going on in the Naples labs were horrifying. The reality of the new Republic in the summer of 2039 was discouraging too, but I didn’t have the luxury to be paralyzed by fear. I had to hold, or the center wouldn’t. Our lives would be blown away by the hurricanes, metaphorical and real, that kept coming at us, howling. But the terrors of my world were squared, cubed, in hers. Her lovely body, the soft skin that I adored, contained a maelstrom of horrors compared to whom the brutality of South Florida was commonplace and not that scary, really.
Yes, shortly after that visionary night, the hurricanes had started coming at us, one after another, like never before. Category 4 or above, every single one, and unnaturally numerous. Making a dire situation much, much worse with wanton death and destruction, lost crops, flattened structures, drowned animals, dead people. “Don’t ask the questions if you’re afraid of the answers”. We were sheltering that night in my childhood room in the enormous farmhouse, the sturdiest structure for miles around. My brother and uncles, and their families, as well as many workers and foremen, as many as could be taken in, were there too, the rest of them sheltering in basements and warehouses around the land.
My father, grim, brow deeply furrowed, sat in the cavernous dining room, every window covered and reinforced with plywood and sheet metal, listening to the emergency radio. Every so often, he would crank the handle to recharge it, then pour himself a drink and walk to the main door, open it a crack, peer outside and come back. My grandmother and aunts supervised the kitchen staff, and a meal was served as the fiercest bands of the storm started hitting us. Despite the thick brick walls, we could hear the raging, murderous winds outside. A flying object hit the house every few minutes, heavier and heavier objects, uprooted trees, farm equipment, dead animals. Water trickled under every door and from the ceilings as the hurricane brought torrential rains. My father had lost contact with other points at the farm, and only occassionally would pick up the government frequency from Gainesville, amid bursts of static: “… life threatening conditions… storm surge expected to flood coastal areas… all interests North of Chokoloskee and South of Punta Gorda should now shelter in place…”
The meal was served, more candles were lit, and dozens of us bowed our heads as my father said grace. “You send us many trials, Lord. One after another they come, yet we don’t lose faith. We’re hit, and hit again and again, but we stay strong. We don’t give in to despair but stand and fight. Many depend on us, in this house, this farm, this town and this Republic. We don’t pray to be spared. We pray for strength. Amen”, he said, “Amen” everybody answered. I admired him that night, the way he said his simple oration, holding his head high, his full beard jutting ahead as in defiance of the never ending wave of misfortune and trouble.
Nobody said much during dinner, and when it was over, the family, along with some guests who had taken refuge with us, retired to the music room, where tea and liquors were served. Skylar, who had not said much until then, raised her kirsch schnapps and said “to a great family and a grand tradition, to the noblest of all calls: making things grow and feeding us all. Thank you for your hospitality tonight. Prost! Salud!” Then, she approached my father and asked him something quietly. He looked at her for an instant, surprised, and nodded. She sat at the old piano that had been in the family since Germany, and played music for us. Chopin mostly, Grieg, and Beethoven, as the hurricane raged outside
Later, in my childhood room, I woke up feeling observed. Her eyes were fixed on me with intensity. She seemed to be waiting for me to say something, waiting in deep silence, not willing to push me but expecting, hoping I’d say the right thing. The storm was finally subsiding outside. I mustered the courage to talk to her.
– “Skylar, the other night, with the mushrooms… the scene you showed me. What was it? How did you do that.”
– “Don’t ask the questions if you’re afraid of the answers.”
– “I’m not. Tell me.”
Humans had forever interacted with cthonic entities. Some families had historically been mediums and sorcerers, passing their knowledge of magic and the ritual abuse it sometimes demanded down to their younger generations, for centuries and in a few cases, millenia. Dark knowledge was hard to obtain, but the results were real. The bloodline known as Page in its current iteration was one of the savviest and most ruthless. Their initial payment of knowledge had been from the force known as Moloch, in return for tributes of children’s suffering at its temples on the Mediterranean coast, 3,000 years ago. Then the bloodline had increased it over many generations, in Egypt, Asia Minor and Rome, slowly migrating to Celtic Europe, becoming Chiefs and Druids, going underground when the Cross prevailed, and embarking for America with the first waves of settlers. They had been in their element as soon as arrived, because, as Burroughs famously said and Skylar quoted, “America is not a young land: it is old, and dirty, and evil. Before the settlers, before the Indians, the evil was there… waiting”.
Power demands more power. And the Gods can give some in exchange for life forces spent to feed them, but are reluctant to give so much that their worshippers will become their equals, and start gobbling up their due. When fiefdoms and empires built around Gods collapse, and the stream of sacrifices and adoration dwindles, so dwindle the Gods. They slowly shrink back to their original shape and true importance as sovereigns of a particular spring, grove, or mountain. They only rule over a few snakes or jaguars, and are reduced to survive on the mice they hunt. After ruling over populous cities and vast territories with their far more richly tithing human populations, this is a painful withdrawal for them. Legacy streams of life force still flowing to them through myths, dreams, and the residual terror and awe of a disappearing culture also fade away as the culture is forgotten, making their torture worse.
The power that comes from tribute is their drug and fuel, and they will go to great extremes to stay connected to the feeding tube, increasing, Skylar’s ancestors noticed, their knowledge allowances to whoever will guarantee a steady supply of power and tribute.
Raymond Page’s namesake grandfather was the one who had made the breakthrough: “The Gods are junkies. If we play our cards right, and get them truly addicted, they’ll make concessions. They’ll give us more and more of what makes them gods every time we shut the spigot. They’ll suffer in agony and grant us what we want. And what we want is to become them, to replace them, but we need to hide that purpose until we are strong and can defeat them.”
So for three generations now, the Pages had been providing the Gods with richer nourishment. They had worked tirelessly to develop new vehicles of delivery for the Gods’ high. Torture and ritual sacrifice had increased, both in quantity and quality, but other streams had been created: software inserted in popular apps from almost the beginning of the digital age magically fed them spoonfuls of the souls of millions glued to their screens. Messages and incantations in popular film, music and television likewise resulted in slow degradation of their consumers, with every ounce of life force lost migrating to the Gods’ fund. Vast energies could be gathered by sowing the seeds of fear and hatred among different populations, and when those populations engaged in conflict
She explained that the bloodthirsty Gods didn’t give a fig about Gaia (the only Goddess she accepted) except as the field to grow their human crop upon, to be kept profitable and productive as a farm, producing by intensive use of poisons, without regard for the soil’s long term health, or for the goodness of the fruits it bears. Not just that: Skylar’s philosophy was in great part the study of how massive sacrifices required massive resources, and of how tired and angry Gaia was. It’s not only that the millions to die for the abominations had to live, eat and shit before their sacrifice. It’s that the millions needed to have screens if they were to channel their energy through them, and entertainments, and consumer goods, to keep them happy and stupefied.
Gaia, Skylar said, had told her that the only way to restore balance would be to fallow most of the Earth, especially the areas around “the biggest mouths”: openings to the realms to deities especially old, huge, gluttonous, and malevolent. The Yucatán, Haití, the deserts of Arizona, Sonora and Chihuahua, Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) had hosted the hungriest Gods for the longest time, and ET had brought them back hungrier than ever. The only way for them to be pushed back into their “mouths” again would be to starve them of tribute for centuries, let Nature slowly take over and restore peace. Some humans could remain, as long as they accepted their limits and didn’t try to build empires or re-awaken the Gods, but most would have to go.
She agonized over the question of who would have to carry on Gaia’s will. Humans alone couldn’t. In supporting the natural human impulse to propagate and be many, cunning observers, like her father, aware of the value that head of cattle holds for the cattleman, swam with the demographic flow, pleasing populations with the promise of a New Order without hunger or strife, if only they could be allowed to take over – if dissenting voices and those not bending to the robot and the Golem, to Moloch and Tláloc, were eliminated.
I sometimes could see a cloud darken Skylar’s face even in joyous moments, and I knew she was coming to the conclusion that she would have to do her part. She was already engaged in mild efforts at depopulation. She had used her access privileges and stealthily sabotaged operations here and there. Chip brain implant facilities, device battery assembly lines, chemical factories had been attacked with arson, hacking, even magic, by her and her ecoterrorist associates. The uber-rich men of the Naples compounds checking into elite clinics to have a penis enlargement would get an unscheduled vasectomy into the bargain. Their wives going for breast augmentation surgery would receive tainted silicone, slowly releasing agents that would kill the carrier within a year. Skylar was instrumental in aiding Dr Wu, FloTech’s Chief Science Officer (and a professor of genetics as a way to scout for young bright minds), in pursuing his parallel, illicit lines of research. On the human side, at least. How Dr Wu managed to fool the entities that had to be present when certain spells were cast in the labs as new and more potent forms of bioengineering emerged, she didn’t know. “He must be a very powerful magician”, she said.
It was Dr Wu who procured the weapons and reconnoitred for these guerrilla missions, sterilizing a few, eliminating others, putting a hiccup in the machine by disabling an assembly line for some time; but he, and Skylar herself, knew that this wasn’t enough by a long shot. More radical action was needed if they were to have a chance at winning. And what would winning look like? “The biggest mouths” rendered mute and unable to feed by depriving them of “the small mouths” of human populations around them.
As Fall begun, I collaborated in one of those efforts. A shipment of beans and okra had to be inoculated with a certain bacteria. The crop was destined to some lower middle class areas of Naples. Their inhabitants thought that they lived in a modern, well-run world. They thought they had jobs, entering numbers into screens, marketing VR games, or selling alligator purses to the shoppers at gated malls surrounded by famished masses and the environmental disaster that most of South Florida was. Skylar and Dr Wu explained the real purpose of those roughly 2,000 people: they were kept alive solely as part of a pool, one of many, of sacrificial victims. Screen time was kept cheap and plentiful in those quarters, social interactions in the real world discouraged in many ways, so when a “for sale” sign appeared in the yard – all identical in their green lawns – the neighbors were happy with FloTech’s explanation: the owners had been offered job upgrades out of town, and accepted. “Of course”, the neighbors, who also worked for some FloTech outfit, would say, “who wouldn’t?”
This was awful, but how was it my job to do anything about it? “Don’t think you are safe”, Dr Wu said, and Skylar sadly nodded from her perch behind him. “You and your family are given a pass now because you’re useful. At some point, you won’t be anymore. This is what will come to you, this or worse. Watch,” he said as he sat by one of the computer terminals and placed his hand on the screen for access. We were at one of FloTech’s many research facilities, afterhours, and everything glowed white except for the massive, black processing units lining a wall, performing billions of operations every second. He typed, and a video came up; Skylar pushed me gently from behind to make me approach Dr Wu and watch what he was showing me. I wish I hadn’t. A room very much like this one, with identical CPU’s along a wall, although the equipment seemed different. I can’t really describe what the purpose of that facility was, but what I did see was a group of maybe 10 teenaged naked boys and girls on racks, being flayed alive by what looked like furry midgets or apes wearing headresses of antlers. “They thought they were safe, too. Nobody is. Do you know what they died for? Officially, a bus accident. In real fact, they died for the secret of a better night vision system, a minor improvement in one of FloTech’s bioluminical based, thermal seeking, mixed-reality able vision aids. Records show that 85 abuctees from the Airport Rd Villages in total were… used in this way to achieve version 3.2 of these goggles. Understand, Mr Bohn: these people are bred like chickens. We will be doing them a favor by ending their lives ahead of time and without torture, neh?”
I still doubted, as Dr Wu pierced me with a somber gaze, but Skylar whispered in my ear: “Remember what the mushroom showed you; if the Beast is starved, the pyramid will crumble and fall, and the murderers on the top will fall with it.”
So I agreed to become a murderer myself, arranging to have the crop left in a warehouse under my control overnight, and dusting the tubs of produce with the contents of a tube. Airport Rd Villages was wiped out. FloTech and local government announced a new virus that killed people suddenly in their sleep had been discovered in the water, and gave all others in neighboring communities placebo vaccinations against it, and that was that. They knew it had been ecoterrorism, magic-terrorism. What they didn’t know is that it had been hatched from the inside. Now I shared some of Skylar’s burden, perhaps the best definition of love.
Famine outside the gated compounds was getting more acute every week as bird and frog populations declined, fish and most mammals having been eaten a long time ago. Bohn Farms was preparing massive plantings for the upcoming season, the biggest ever. All resources were being pushed to the limit, and I moved around my days in a daze, sending crews to till this field, plant the other. Civil war was breaking out again in Florida, and this second time, the Technology Party was aligning itself with Washington and they had the advantage. The raids on Immokalee were getting more intense every week, and we needed a good harvest in the Winter.
I loved Skylar, but hated her too. I now knew so much more than I had wanted to: opressive knowledge, the stuff of nightmares. It seemed to me now I had lived my whole life in a nightmare, but never understanding it for what it was, spared the details. The doors of perception had now been opened , and I resented this, resented it deeply. I was now a terrorist and murderer, hiding things from my family, privy to despairing knowledge. A happy future for us had been a possibility before; now, that prospect was dead.
The pervasive feeling was that nobody would come out alive and unhurt in Florida, us least of all. Time was running short for her. To flee was impossible. Magical forces too powerful to hide from could be summoned and would find her anywhere. The only option was to fight. But how?
At this point, in early October, I had a long meeting with my father, and opened my heart to him. Everything I’m telling here, the story of my time with Skylar and the things I had learned from her, even my shameful tainting of a crop bearing the family seal, all was revealed. I had no right to keep it to myself. This was terrible knowledge that Clan and Farm had to have. I didn’t know whether Skylar would take it as a betrayal, but I had to put my own on alert. By the time I left his house with the first sun, his hair, which had been gray, was white.
The following night, as I was laying in bed with Skylar, I was awaken by the sound of horses approaching. I jumped and armed myself, bidding Skylar to stay in the room; she followed me, holding Beckenbauer by the collar. As we stepped outside, we saw it was no danger; my own guards and watchmen were respectfully opening the gate for my father, my brother and uncles, and their escort bearing Kalashnikovs in the saddles and knives and revolvers on their belts, a dozen men stern and gloomy. My father dismounted and walked towards us, as one of my laborers held his horse and led it to water. He looked at Skylar for a very long time, and nobody moved or said anything during that. Then he turned his eyes in my direction and spoke:
– “The times are hard, son. You need to tell them what you told me last night. Or better yet, the señorita should”.
Without looking at her, I knew Skylar had been surprised. It only took her a second to understand. She had been standing back, but approached me now, and looking at my father in the eye, said:
– “Adelante, Don Carlos”, extending an arm to invite them to the outside kitchen, which had a big wooden table that could sit us all. “Señores, adelante, por favor. Van a querer café y licores?”
– “Café solamente, gracias”, he answered and sent his guards, and mine, to establish a perimeter and wait outside. Cigars were passed around, and Skylar appeared with a pot of fragrant coffee. We all sipped it. I noticed none of my kin was visibly armed, a sign of respect for my house. We all waited for my father to speak first:
– “Rodrigo, señorita Skylar, forgive us for coming to you like this. The times force us to it, and the bad news. Gainesville has fallen.”
– “Where’s Donnelly? Is he retreating with the troops?”
– “He’s dead, son. And most of his troops, too. Washington’s dropped a tactical nuke on Gainesville”
– “Some of the troops remain” explained my uncle Lukas, who looked like one of the motorcycle gangsters of yore with his long gray braided beard and leather vest. “Ocala is being mobilized, Lake O and Orlando, Tampa. Florida is not yet defeated. Your father has been designated President, Rodrigo”
– “I don’t know what to say… you surely don’t want congratulations.”
– “No, he doesn’t”, said Lorenzo. “He shouldn’t have accepted. It’s hopeless. We can’t fight them. We should be able to come to terms in exchange for safe passage. The Madariagas could arrange getting us to Cuba.”
– “How can you speak like that?”, I interrupted. “We have to fight! You have no idea of what the Technology Party really is. There’s no coming to terms, uncle! It’s us or them! They will show no mercy!”
– “Exactly!”, he yelled in a voice full of fear. He was thin, nervous and bald. “Us or them! And do you think it will be us? They just dropped an atomic bomb on us, fool!”
Slowly, my father rose: “Silencio! Miss Page, you understand the risk, our dilemma in sitting you at the table and making you privy to our considerations. You surely see we will have to come to an understanding, you and us, tonight. If we can’t, we’ll have to take you hostage.”
– “That, Don Carlos, wouldn’t be a bad idea”, Skylar said. “I see Rodrigo has opened your eyes to parts of reality that nobody wants to visit, and I apologize for shattering a part of all of you by knowledge of the true state of affairs. It’s all true. Unbelievable and true. Father knows of my love for Rodrigo”, she continued. “I was careful to let him know, to feign an intent for secrecy while dropping some hints around the right ears. This may be the sole reason your farm hasn’t been attacked yet. He could take it anytime he wanted it, but it will cost him troops, which are needed elsewhere as new war visits Florida.”
– “You’re damn right it would cost him troops”, uncle Lukas darkly said, stroking his beard.
– “He’s thinking ‘why fight for the farm, when I can take it through marriage?’. So he, my friends, is thinking of marrying Rodrigo. He intends to take what’s his this Halloween. He will live in what I was, and I will be no more”, she said, and hung her head. I rushed to embrace her. “Not if I can stop it!”
– “War is coming to Bohn Farms, one way or another. He will either conquer it by force, or conquer it by treachery when the families are joined in marriage.”
Skylar rose from her seat, eyes glowing and terrible: “So I say let’s bring war to him now, when he’s weak and not expecting it! Surrender is death, there’s no place for the weak in the world that’s coming! Raymond Page has something he very much wants, or rather, he doesn’t have it if I’m your hostage. Time is ticking. Halloween’s close. So we can force his hand to our advantage, if we’re bold”.
Slowly Don Carlos rose, and looking at Lorenzo said: “I think Miss Skylar speaks wisely. I say she’s one of us now. We will survive, or perish, together. Fighting. Now is the time to agree, or disagree, with my judgement, and face the consequences”. He kept staring at Lorenzo as the rest of us shouted “I second that!” Lorenzo mumbled “if that’s what y’all want”, and didn’t speak for the rest of the night.
A plan was hatched. By morning, all six of us at my kitchen table knew what would happen, and what parts we’d play in it. Skylar would stall for time, allowing my father and Gonzalo to prepare the defenses of the farm. Lorenzo would be dispatched to Immokalee and work with the Madariagas, a Mexican-Floridian family of smugglers that had been our allies for ages. The Madariagas would rally their own troops and the Seminole tribe, and also help us secure additional fuel, weapons and ammo. They would also, my father said looking sternly at Lorenzo, start working on plans to evacuate the women and children of our family, as well as theirs. “The women and children, if it goes badly. Not us. We fight”. Lukas would liaison with veteran militia forces in the area and muster them to Immokalee and the farm. He would also be in charge of arming every worker and peasant capable of fighting, and put all others, young and old, to work the fields, hoping for a harvest in the unlikely case we’d survive to see December.
In the meantime, Skylar would rally all the support she could from her ecoterrorist contacts, and mine Dr Wu for information about weak spots in Raymond Page’s Naples compound. And I would work on a plan to take our fury to the enemy, beheading FloTech and closing the gate to their underworld allies, in what amounted to a suicide mission.
As the others mounted and left at a gallop to start preparing for the trial of their lives, Skylar and I laid in the hamaca matrimonial, the double size hammock, watching the sun rise, sharing the silence.
Thousands were now preparing for war. Messages from Raymond to his Vessel, urging her to leave Immokalee and join him in Naples, got more urgent. Skylar ignored them, spending her time in meditation, steeling herself, gathering her forces.
News from Central Florida improved. Republican troops had for the most part stayed loyal, and spread out all over the territory in guerrilla warfare, so as not to be wiped out by another small nuke. My father Carlos sent word that he’d secure the South for the Republic if Washington could be held back.
Then, on the 20th, one of FloTech’s Chinooks, behemoths 80 years old that ran weekly food deliveries from the farm to Naples, appeared on the horizon. This time, it had an escort of two fully armed Apache helicopters and a flotilla of killer drones. I heard it coming in the distance. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Then rushed out of my cabin, telling Skylar as I left, “do what I say. Stay hidden here. Don’t let the drones see you.” I jumped inside my Ranger, which had now been fitted with a .50 machine gun in the back, as she retreated back into the house with Beckenbauer and locked the door. I saw my men running to me and one of Frankie Madariaga’s sons, Jesús, approach on his motorcycle. I frantically yelled “Camilo, in the truck! Jesse, Jesse, follow us!”
We could see the Chinook in the distance, cautiously approaching the helipad by the main warehouse. I saw that my father had put out a decoy, bringing out pallets of food, as if all was normal. After landing, the cargo doors were opened, airmen nervously looking around from inside. I rushed it without thinking, followed by Jesse, as Camilo pointed the .50 to the helicopter. I burst into the cockpit and put my pistol to the head of the pilot: “Do what I say and you live! Turn off the engines!”
The communications system was state of the art, much newer than the airship. I shot an inquiring look to the pilot. “It won’t work without my fingerprint.” I raised my gun to him and he put his finger to the thumbpad. The screen came to life, with an operator on it. He started talking, but I cut him short: “Shut up! Tell Page this: we have his daughter. Call your escorts, now! She dies if they attack! Understood? Fuck off!”
It worked. The flotilla gained height and disappeared, as my father joined me: “What now?”
– “Now, we stall some more. Negotiate. Ask for assurances that our farm will be left alone, offer free elections, whatever. They’ll say yes to everything, but we keep demanding guarantees. We drive Page mad. He needs Skylar in eleven days. We can keep him negotiating for maybe a week. He’ll run out of patience and lash out at us. If they overrun us in a day, the jig is up, they’ll just take Skylar and kill us all. We have to make them pay, maul them, buy time. Then, we start retreating, let him think he’s winning. You plead with him to spare the farm, and promise to send Skylar back to him in the Chinook. He won’t shoot it down if she’s inside. I’ll be inside too, and that’s as far as my planning goes. I’ll be on the ground in Naples, and intend to murder the bastard, so help me God. Skylar will deal with the other stuff, the demons, because nobody else can. You and uncles rally everything we have as we go for the jugular, and mount a counteroffensive to rout and exterminate them.”
– “Spoken like a true lion, son. Give me a hug”.
I went back to Skylar, and we kissed. She was fasting, and seemed to be getting smaller every day. We spent the night saying very little, caressing each other until sleep claimed us. I woke up strangely refreshed considering I had only slept a few hours, with great clarity of mind and feeling strong. Skylar brought me breakfast, and then took one of her devices out of her bag and set it on the table. When I felt ready, she turned it on, and Raymond Page was on the screen. I don’t want to talk about him too much, it disgusts me. This was the first time I was seeing his face. He looked like a vampire. Infinitely old and wicked, prying, always prying for a weakness to exploit. He shed crocodile tears for the fate of his “dear baby”, whom he asked to see. I pivoted the device slightly for the briefest time, enough for him to see she was there, not enough to try any sort of mind control gimmick.
Me and my father kept Page calling to negotiate for a week, until the 27th. He finally realized he’d been played, and launched an attack. Our scouts spotted his troops with enough time to spread out in fields and groves, along creeks, in secret hiding places. Our womenfolk, the very young and very old were secreted away. All the peasant families also took cover, and we all left our dwellings behind, for we knew they would be the first to be attacked.
Skylar simply retreated into the citrus grove, sat down and fell into a deep trance. I left her there as I rushed to meet the invaders.
Drones and helicopters pounded the main farmhouse and other buildings unchallenged. We let them approach to within a certain range, then struck them out of the sky. Drones were caught like fish in nets we had prepared, or blown out of the sky with birdshot. The Apaches didn’t have time to gain altitude before being hit by camouflaged nests of machine guns and RPG’s.
Distant shots towards the South told us that the Madariagas were already fighting the ground forces in the woods around Immokalee. Soon, gunfire erupted in the North, too: those were our own troops. I went to them in the Ford. As I approached the front line, Florida War veterans came out of their hiding places to salute me with raised fists. My father’s command post was set up under an old oak covered in Spanish moss. He was dispatching couriers. “All good at the farm?”
– “Good. Those birds are down. How’s here?”
– “They have some top troops, but not too many, West and North. They brought lots of compound sec, mall cops fat and soft: filler. I have Gonzalo with our best veterans holding their strongest column, Screaming Eagles.. Our campesinos are picking the mall cops one by one with rifles and machetes.”
– “The Madariagas?”
– “Frankie says they’ve got it. They’re holding and not letting anybody get close to Immokalee and the back of the farm.”
– “That’s good, Pa. Give them hell for a day or two, then start falling back”.
A short Indian man in huaraches, tire rubber sandals, approached us running. My father took him aside and came back to me grim faced: “You won’t like this. Frankie says they sent a party to Ponce de León and burned it to the ground. Some had taken refuge there and were massacred. Ms Gonzalez too, son. I’m sorry”.
– “Que hijos de puta. Que hijos de una gran puta… I’ll take Camilo and some troops and hit them on their way out.”
– “Don’t. We need you to cut the snake’s head.”
– “I’ll be fine, Pa. Just hit them hard and pull back. It’s the plan anyway.”
I jumped back into the truck before he could say anything, and drove off with another couple of truck-mounted .50’s following. We took back roads and shortcuts, firing bursts and scattering enemy troops when we spotted them, but not stopping until arriving in the glare of Ponce’s buildings burning. We slowly drove around until reaching the demo garden. I got off the truck and approached the bullet riddled corpse of Ms Gonzalez lying in a pool of blood by a bed of newly sprouted carrots. She had the machete she used to cut and strip bamboo stakes still clutched in her hand, and her open eyes pierced the darkening sky above her. Crying, I knelt and closed them. “You are now in the milpa with your hermanita. I’ll see you there. Rest.” Then I heard laughs, and the sound of clinking bottles. I signaled my men to dismount and approach the sound quietly. We saw a group of maybe 30 troops in compound security uniforms laughing and drinking around a bonfire. They were all that had been needed to raid the university grounds, full of civilians. Camilo signaled to silently spread around in the palmetto and wait for my lead. I aimed and shot a fat man with ribbons in his uniform with my pistol, then kept shooting as my men fired too, and soon they were all down. The last few had raised their arms in surrender, and been shot anyway, for that’s war. Some had fallen into the bonfire and it started smelling of roast meat as we walked around the bodies taking their weapons and ammo, and shooting the wounded in the head.
Skylar was still in the lotus position in the orange grove, her eyes closed, barely breathing. I came back to check on her often. She wouldn’t wake up or speak to me. Only Beckenbauer guarded her, laying at her feet day and night as the Bohns and the Madariagas played cat and mouse with the invaders, killing and dying, slowly retreating. The morning of the 30th I heard Skylar’s device vibrate. I picked it up, took a deep breath, and accepted Page’s call. His face was contorted in fury, and before a word was exchanged, he picked the severed head of my uncle Lorenzo, grabbing it by an ear, shoving it to an inch of his camera eye. “See this worm? See him, beaner? He thought he could make a deal with me. He thought he’d get something from me. He wanted out, and ha!, out he is! He also wanted out for your women, you filthy beaner, and for the women and brats of all the other fucking beaners and Mexicans, and I’ll let them out, too. One by one, starting now!” As he said that, a young, Indian faced girl was dragged into the field of vision by a uniformed thug. One of Frankie Madariaga’s granddaughters. Unceremoniously, Raymond Page stood up, pulled a knife and slit her throat. As the goon let her fall, he approached the camera again and thundered: “I’ll do the same to all of them, every ten minutes, until my daughter is back with me! Understand! Then I’ll go there and do the same to every living thing in and around Immokalee! With them!” He swiveled the camera to focus on another screen. It showed black-clad, exoskeleton wearing, powerfully armed Washington troops and battle robots entering Naples. “Understand! We’ve won already! Give her up, or be exterminated, every last one of you!”.
Skylar spoke to the screen. She had been standing behind me for a while. “Yes, Father. I will go back in the big helicopter now. Your command will be obeyed.” I turned off the screen and faced her. She smiled faintly and said “it’s now, love. Before he gets the new troops, before he kills too many of those poor folk. Let’s go.”
The Chinook’s engines were roaring when we arrived, Skylar, myself and Beckenbauer in the back of the truck. My choicest troops were in its belly, and the pilot sweated under the helmet as I sat next to him, prodded his ribs with my Glock, and said “fly us to FloTech compound. Try anything, any code message, anything, and I’ll shoot you and toss you out of the cockpit like trash. Go.”
The great beast took to the air. I looked into its cargo area and saw the hard, stoic faces of my clan’s warriors, and very small among them, Skylar, slowly starting to glow. A soft glow faintly surrounded her as her hour of doom approached. The men cast respectful glances in her direction and clutched their weapons. “Initiating descent, sir”, the pilot said after a while, and Skylar’s voice rose over the roar of the engines, “Not yet! Fly above the South Lab first!” I nodded to the pilot to do as she had said, and looked into her eyes. She spoke to me without moving her lips. Her voice was sweet inside my head as she told me “that’s where the gate is, love. The mouth. Where I need to push the demon into. Kill that man, don’t let him take me. And if you can’t kill him, kill me, kill me before tomorrow, for I don’t want to be his Vessel.”, she said, and as everybody gasped she slid one of the cargo doors open and stepped outside. Into the air. Beckenbauer almost jumped outside to follow her too, but I grabbed him at the last second.
The helicopter continued its half circle course towards the main helipad, which was atop the biggest building in town, right on the beach off of Vanderbilt Rd, FloTech’s corporate headquarters and Mr Page’s own residence as well. We all looked out of the windows of the Chinook, and when the angle was right to see the spot where she had jumped off again, a marvelous vision was revealed: Skylar was floating in the air hundreds of feet above the South Lab, getting smaller and smaller as we flew away, becoming a point of bright, blinding light. Suddenly her voice exploded in the sky, shattering the glass of windows in the Lab. It was her voice, and at the same time it wasn’t, it was like an angry angel’s, like a hurricane, sibilant and powerful, uttering… what? What curses, what invocations, what spells? For that’s what it was, I knew without understanding a word of it, a weapon, not a voice. As her litany continued, I could see walls collapsing. I had the impression of another luminous figure, on the ground, small in the distance but almost as bright as Skylar, a man with a staff walking towards the crumbling Lab building, casting angry invocations as well, in a much lower key. “Ah, Dr Wu”, I thought, “you have to close what you helped open. Don’t let Skylar do it alone” Then, I couldn’t look anymore, because we were in the last meters of air above the rooftop helipad, ready to touch ground. A heavily armed platoon had their weapons pointed towards us, and in their midst… could that be… was that my target? “Turn on facial recog, now!”, I screamed to the pilot. “I’m trying to land this thing, goddammit!” “Hover right here, turn facial on and point it to that man in a suit right there or you die!” He jerked the controls to stop the descent, and as the wind from the rotor blades forced the men on the roof to scatter and grab onto rails, he held the stick with one hand as he operated a screen with the other. The image was blurry, then the camera adjusted, moved out of focus again and finally, for a second, I saw him. I knew it before the voice system said “Raymond Page. FloTechCorp CEO. Technology Party candidate. Philantropist and…”
I tried to open the window on the co-pilot side but couldn’t. So I shot it, then kicked the shattered plexiglass to make an opening big enough to let half of my body out, pistol in hand. My ears were exploding with the fearsome invocations that pierced the air, and with a wailing, otherworldy cry that seemed to emerge from the disintegrating South Lab, as I emptied the magazine. I hit the bastard at least once, but he ducked and started crawling away – in a second, he had understood what was going on near the Lab, had understood his Vessel wasn’t on the Chinook, and in pain and fury was ordering his troops to open fire on us. Time slowed for me as I managed to get back inside the cockpit, tracers heading towards us as his troops on the roof discharged a wall of fire that started hitting the machine like hail. “Pilot, land us now!”, I screamed, but the large airship kept veering sideways – soon the helipad would not be below us anymore, but 160 stories of air, and we couldn’t levitate like Skylar. “Pilot!”, I screamed again, then saw he was dead. Grab the stick and try to control the Chinook, or jump out now, while we still could? “Out, out, out, out!” I yelled, and the men started jumping out through the cargo doors, into chaos and bullets. “Beckenbauer! Folge mir!” I screamed as I jumped, with only a few inches of roof left under us, and the noble beast followed with a great leap. He hit the ground running and took another giant leap that landed him right upon Raymond Page, who was trying to reach the stairs door, trailing blood. Beckenbauer’s jaws closed on the fiend’s neck, and I ran towards them, sensing rather than seeing the infernal scene all around me as farm militia battled the guard. The Chinook’s rotors hit the side of the building on the way down, until it veered off some and ended crashing on the Waterside Mall below and bursting into a ball of fire. The fever pitch of the spells and the piercing howling and wailing that answered them some distance away continued. I couldn’t stop for a second to make sense of it all. All I could see was my loyal Becks holding my enemy for me, helping me kill it. I had two bullets come through me at that point, and had broken a foot upon landing, but didn’t feel any pain. Enraged, I saw that Page had a knife in his hand, the same one he had used to murder Madariaga’s grandchild, and was furiously stabbing my dog with it, who nevertheless would not let go. His teeth were buried deep in Page’s neck even in death. A last spark of life animated Raymond Page’s hand, which kept weakly stabbing my dead dog. Slowly, almost gently, I took the bloody knife from his hand. With a great effort, I pushed poor dead Beckenbauer to the side. “Alles is gut, mein freund. Danke, freund, vielen dank. Wiedersehn, Beck”. Then I looked at the wretch laying there in a pool of his own, and my dog’s, blood. His makeup was a mess, as tears streamed down his cheeks. His wig had moved to one side, and the stench was unmistakable: he had soiled himself. Then he, the last scion of a long line of wizards, the man who would drink the blood and life energy of countless victims, who fancied himself the first superman, pleaded for his life. Begged for his life in the most disgraceful, humiliating way, promising power and riches if only… if only… I didn’t let him finish, and slit his throat from side to side, slicing deep with a serrating motion as if butchering a hog back at the farm, almost cutting his head off.
The rooftop battle was over. FloTech’s fighters were all dead, and most of the farm militia too. Old Camilo, badly wounded, came to me, and we helped each other crawl to the edge to witness the battle around the Lab. A giant, darkened crater marked the spot where Dr Wu had stood, aiding Skylar with his own spells. The Lab was in ruins, revealing the entrance of a dark, huge cave underneath. An enormous wraith, a shape that in turn looked like a giant bat, a snake, or a machine, shrieked and wailed as a tiny figure, Skylar, now on the ground, both hands raised, walked and seemed to push it towards that cave entrance with every tempest of sound she coaxed her tiny body to utter. Step by step she drove it back, and the monster writhed and recoiled, viciously lashing out with a tail, a claw, a string of curses deep and powerful that hit my beloved and almost fell her. But she gathered what strength she still had and kept pushing, relentlessly pushing, the God into the hole.
– “Camilo, the stairs! Let’s help her! Vamos!”
Before we could move, her voice filled my skull. Her sweet voice that I adored, I heard for the last time. “You live, my love. You plant more seeds, and teach others to live free of hubris in this world, not seeking to be Gaia’s masters but her servants, and to leave the old demons alone, rejecting the power they offer. Let them eat mice and birds, not souls. Tell the humans to stay few, for Gaia cannot feed many. I will not be a Vessel, thanks to you. Thank you for our time together, and for your courage. Adiós, Rodrigo.”
Then she charged the Naples God with the last of her strength and fury, pushing him to the pit in the ground, into which they fell together. I tried to scream but nothing came out of my throat. “Don Rodrigo! Mire, Don Rodrigo”, Camilo said, pointing East, to Immokalee, and I saw a mighty explosion rising, a mushroom cloud. “All is lost,” I thought, and fell into darkness.
I came to myself feeling sick. My wounds ached terribly, and the world rocked back and forth. Slowly, I realized I was in a cabin, on a boat. Camilo was looking at me, his arm in a sling, with another man I didn’t know. “Skylar! Father, uncles, brother… where?”, I managed to say. “Don’t think of that, Don Rodrigo”, he answered, “This man here is Don Gorostiza, the captain. A larger boat is waiting in La Habana. We, and the others we were able to save, will then travel to Buenos Aires, to the other Bohns. Frankie Madariaga made sure of that. Now rest.”
They say a cult of Skylar has been growing in Florida after I left, fought by the powers that be but spreading like wildfire nevertheless. The humblest laborers and slaves, freed of the unknown God buried by Skylar, albeit still living harsh, desperate lives under purely human masters, whisper her name and secretly get her symbol tattooed at night, in barns and groves: a smiling woman’s face with three eyes, hair growing into tree branches, under a moon, an owl and a bee. I am alive to witness the first stages of the woman I loved becoming a Goddess.