In the years just before Bastion Rutherford Koch was born, the scientists had a name for it, and the politicians had another. But that was a long time ago and everyone just calls it The Vine now, of course, growing over everything and choking the life out of it once it takes hold. It took over the Eastern Seaboard completely in matter of weeks, they say; the buildings, the roads, the bridges, and all the food, and the drinkable water. Everyone had to move, even those who had once ruled the world, like Bastion’s parents. They left the masses behind them.
They cut their losses.
Bastion’s family moved to Jericho when he was ten; mother, father, and little brother, Kevan. That’s what they called it; Jericho. It was named after the walled city from the Bible, re-imagined as a technological fortress. It kept them safe from the Vine, and from the murderous scavengers on the outside. It was the key to survival.
Bastion was restless. He read the histories. His parents had been “haves”. Actually, they’d been “have mores“. Bastion and Kevan were supposed to inherit their kingdom. But, they’d been taken to Jericho instead. There wasn’t anything left to control other than their own survival, they told him. There was nothing left to own out there, they said. There never had been; not really. There was no such thing. It was an illusion all along, they said. The only thing that made it real was that everyone agreed that it was real. Like all gods, material wealth and the power that sprang from it thrived on pure belief to keep it alive. No one could believe in it now. But, Bastion knew they were lying. Because he still believed.
It had been twenty five years. It was twenty-five years of boredom; hydroponic food, chemically-treated water, environmentally controlled air. But it all tasted and smelled of hopelessness and defeat to Bastion. It made him sick. So, one night he left. He told Kevan that he was going. Kevan said: Lay low, lay low. That was his advice. We are safe. We are safe where we are.
Being safe. That wasn’t what had got Bastion’s family to where it had been before the Vine came, and the seas became poisonous. They took chances. Those scrabblers, those always looking for a handout, would never build an empire. Everyone was a scrabbler now. But, that wouldn’t be Bastion’s destiny. Kevan didn’t understand. Kevan had been ruined by their lies, just like The Vine had ruined the world. Like the Vine, it was a creeping blasphemy that had taken hold of everything and everyone, even in Jericho were the elite had fled. Both of the brothers’ parents died breathing filtered air, and in living quarters that were little more than jail cells.
Bastion wasn’t going to let that happen to him.
He left that night. He had to sneak out. It was illegal. He was a criminal as soon as he’d found his way past the seals. A voice in the back of his mind drove him onward. He knew his inheritance was still out there somewhere. When he left, he brought no food or water with him. He brought nothing but the clothes on his back. He would be a self-made man in a new world, just as he would have been in any other. Bastion Rutherford Koch came from good stock.
He wandered in the wilderness for a long time; maybe even for forty days, and forty nights. Bastion wasn’t sure how long exactly. Sometimes, things got cloudy and he’d lose track of time.
It was approaching night time. The rains came down like the wrath of God. Bastion tipped his head back to catch the big, oily drops into his mouth. The warm, metallic-flavoured rain slid down his parched throat and the scorching thirst that had lived there was quenched. He was dirty, hungry, thirsty, and alone. But, that voice drove him all the more.
The landscape he moved through was ruined. At the limits of some nowhere town, there was mud as far as the eye could see. Water ran in little brooks that cascaded greasily downward toward him. There were holes in the ground where the soil and root systems had once held the land together, filled with red-brown rainwater with a tinge of rainbow film on each. Black, twisted husks of dead larch trees reached up arthritically into the dull, dimming sky. Strands of dead Vine hung limply from the branches like a serpent’s cast-off skin. Even in that place, The Vine could no longer thrive. He knew it. He knew it wouldn’t last, and that the stories were exaggerated.
Then, in one of the shells of the buildings across the muddy field far away, Bastion saw the orange warmth of a light from one of the building’s window frames. The light was on the second floor of a low, ruined house that stood among a cluster of other houses and low apartment buildings. He stumbled forward, keeping his eyes trained on the window through the rain. As he got closer, he saw that the Vine was still here, wrapped around each building, including the haven toward which he was journeying. It wasn’t important. It didn’t mean anything.
When he reached the ruined house, the front door was gone. It had been a house where a happy family had once lived, he thought to himself. Bastion entered. Amazingly, the house was mostly dry despite the rains, even if the Vine had crept in to cover the walls, and a part of the floor. He made for the stairway to the second floor, and pulled himself up using the ancient bannister. His booted feet slipped over the fibrous Vines, and he climbed to the landing, then up again to the second floor.
The door at the end of a dirty corridor betrayed an outline of welcoming light around its frame. Bastion smiled and stumbled forward again, longing to feel the warmth on his sodden clothes. Despite the heat of the day, he knew night would turn cold when night came in full. He opened the door wide.
“Hold it!” Said a voice.
It came from a wreck of a man, covered in rainproof clothing, with eyes like twin points of light aimed right at him as he entered the room. Also aimed at him was some kind of weapon. Bastion couldn’t figure out what it was immediately. Later, he’d find out it was a crossbow.
Bastion held up his hands.
“What do you want here?” said the Man to Bastion.
“Just to share your fire. I’m lost. And I’m hungry, and tired. Please.” As Bastion heard himself say it, he felt sick with anger and humiliation. This man had everything while Bastion had nothing. It should have been the other way around.
The Man said: “Open your jacket. I want to see that you ain’t got no weapons”.
Bastion did as the Man asked. When The Man was satisfied, he lowered the crossbow and motioned Bastion to come closer and to sit. As he drew closer, Bastion noted that the Man wasn’t an old man, but young. He was weathered, and bearded from wandering. Bastion looked worse, although he didn’t know it.
The fire wasn’t a fire, but a portable heating unit that doubled as a stove and hot plate. A can of beans was sitting on the hot plate, just beginning to heat up. A solar-powered lantern sat on the floor nearby, lighting up the ruined room, filled with moldy, and Vine-covered furniture. The Man sat on a fold-out chair. An ancient guitar leaned next to him against the wall, wrapped in plastic sheeting to keep it dry. Next to it was an enormous backpack.
Bastion sat on the floor.
“Here. Have one of these while the beans are cookin’.” He handed over a thin, rectangular object .”What is it?” Asked Bastion.
“Well, it’s a Pop Tart. It’s kind of old, but it’s still good. I got some filtered water too. Here.”
Bastion ate and drank like a man possessed. The voice in the back of his head berated him for taking the handout.
The Man spoke. “I’m Slim. I play music. I’m from Crowtown. In the morning, I’m headed to Green City. They got a big community there, big audience. There’s supposed to be some fine folks there. I figure they’d pay out in water and food and a place to stay for a while in exchange for some entertainment. Then, when they heard all my songs, and when maybe I got an act together with some friends, I’m gonna head west to Watertown, and then onto The Farm, then Windville, then Solar Junction, or some places like that. I’ll head back to Green City again after that, and back to Crowtown for a while. Then, I do it all over again. Hey, you wanna hear me play somethin’?”
Bastion stared at him, but didn’t say anything.
“Oh. OK, then. Too tired, maybe. That’s OK. Hey, who are you, and where are you headed?” He asked.
“I’m Bastion Rutherford Koch of the New York Kochs. I’m headed east. I’m going to New York City. I’m going back home.”
“You come from one of them Gated Communities, maybe? Which one?”
“Jericho. I left. I left for good. I don’t belong there. I never should have been brought there in the first place.”
“Well, you should come with me, Bastion. You should come to Green City. This place here ain’t no place to wander alone without any rain gear, or food, or clean water, or protection. We all gotta stick together these days. I’m a fool for travellin’ this long alone maybe, but I’m lookin’ for experience for my songs, you know? Songs ain’t no good without experience. Like I said, I’m going to Green City to make me some new friends, and maybe get a travellin’ act together. There’s probably something for you there, too if you don’t wanna go back to Jericho. You any good with farmin’, or engineerin’, or fixin’ solar panels? They got a big community there, and …”
“I’m not going there. I’m going back to New York City where I belong. That’s where my family came from. I’m going to find my inheritance.”
“But, there ain’t no New York City, friend.” he said. “Not no more. Didn’t they tell you that when you was in Jericho?”
“It’s there. It’s always been there.” said Bastion.
“Sure it’s there, kind of.” replied Slim nervously “But,The Vine has it. It ain’t there like it was there before …”
“It’s the capitol of the world! It’s always gonna be there!” Bastion felt the rage rise inside of him and he stood up. The berating voice in his head grew louder too, but he couldn’t make out what it was saying just then.
Slim’s hand drifted back to the crossbow. “Look. I’m sorry, friend. Calm down. You gotta listen to me. The Vine there is not like it is here. It’s alive there. Really, really alive. It changed, they say. It’s a lot … bigger further east. It ain’t safe for folks there no more …”
Bastion lunged before Slim could pull the crossbow up. He knocked it out of Slim’s hand with a savage swipe. Bastion’s mind clouded for a minute, and when it cleared, Slim was dead, his throat crushed.
“It was him or me. He was going to shoot me with the crossbow, and I killed him instead. It was survival of the fittest. I was right to kill him. It’s right that I take his things, too. If he had deserved to keep it, it would be me lying dead instead of him. But, I’m not dead. I’m alive.”
Bastion pushed Slim’s body out of the open window, landing with a dull thump in the mud outside. Then, Bastion stretched out and fell asleep on Slim’s bedroll. In the morning he left the house with all of his new things in his new backpack. Slim’s guitar leaned silently against the moldy, Vine covered wall still in its plastic sheeting like a corpse wrapped in a shroud.
Bastion’s mind had grown even more cloudy after he killed Slim. Time meant nothing. Rain and searing sun meant nothing. Bastion walked and listened. He listened to his guiding voice. He stopped only infrequently to eat, and to sleep. But, when he did sleep, he dreamed of tall silver towers in a city by the blue sea that was pregnant with life and opportunity. In his dreams, the world was clear of bad, oily rain, and clinging hungry tendrils of poisonous green. There were no domed cities that smelled of sanitation chemicals and fear. There were no shanty towns and peasants toiling over their meagre subsistence gardens, populated by unkempt men, sad-eyed women, dirty children, and scrawny dogs.
In his dream, there was life, real life. It was more real than the world he woke up in. And all the people came to him in praise of his dream. He was made their red king who would sustain them all, so long as he kept dreaming. The dream would grow. It would be all-encompassing. Everyone would believe again.
Bastion found his way across a Vine covered George Washington Bridge, a great steel structure, ancient, faded, and terrible, stretching across a seething mass of dark green tendrils where the Hudson had been. New York rose above him on the other side, choked by The Vine. The buildings reached up into the bruised sky like the limbs of drowning men, held by the strangling grip of a million reaching tendrils, covering every inch of brick, of steel, glass, and wood.
Bastion’s beard was black, streaked with gray, his eyes barely open. His skin was a patchwork of peeling, sun-burned continents. Underneath his ragged and stolen clothes, his skin and bones shifted pathetically, driving his spent muscles to produce the next tentative step that pushed him forward. He swallowed, and his throat replied in a fiery retort of agony. He’d run out of water days ago. His backpack was gone. He’d lost it somewhere along the way, although he didn’t remember where. The meagre puddles he’d found after that gave off a foul odour, and it had not rained. There was no water anywhere.
Then, Bastion felt a great relief. His thirst was gone, and his sun-blinded eyes were clear again. He stood up straight and adjusted his regal cloak around his shoulders. Across the bridge was the silver city; it was New York, and yet it was New York made better. Every tall building extended itself as if in salute. There were women, children, and men in each window waving to him, and smiling. They sang his name like the angels singing Hosannas. Then, he felt himself take to flight, lifted above the world of that mythical city made real. It was as if it was being offered to him, complete but only for a ruler. All he had to do was accept. So, he did.
A smile crossed his cracked and bleeding lips as he leaned against a mass of tendrils on the bridge. His legs collapsed from under him, and Bastion fell to the ground among the fibrous, reaching tendrils.
He had come home at last. He had come into his kingdom.