Prologue: Anton's Dream
Anton was alone in the tent. He lay on a pile of blankets, writing. Light from a campfire flickered on the canvas walls. Voices murmured in the darkness.
"Are we ready for the big adventure?"
"Time to start the rioting!"
"What the Colonel wants.... Preparations for the takeover...." Their voices blended in the darkness. "Once we destabilize the situation, we can all go home."
Anton looked up from his poem, reciting from memory.
Black coffee and quesadillas
Boys at the plank table laughing.
In the streets is the sound of gunfire
In the distance is fire and smoke.
He yawned and turned on his side, pulling the blankets over him. Soon he was asleep. Outside the fire crackled and flickered. The voices now were more subdued.
• • •
He woke up in the night, bothered by the dust, and scratched his nose with the back of his hand. One of the tent flaps beat in the wind. Blurrily, he opened one eye. The candle by his bed had melted to a milky puddle on its plate.
• • •
He sat against a tree, reading a book. It was late afternoon. Around him were three or four tents pitched in an empty lot in the midst of the city. The houses nearby were shabby or abandoned. At the moment, he was alone in the camp. Smoke rose from the gutters of the surrounding streets, accompanied by distant, muffled explosions.
A boy appeared a few blocks away, riding a bicycle. He pedaled furiously into the camp. "Anton! Anton, it's started!" He skidded to a stop beneath the tree, out of breath. "It's started, they want you to come."
Anton got up and dusted off his pants. He slipped his book into a canvas pack and slung the pack over his shoulder. Looking around, he spotted a second bicycle lying nearby. He righted it and got on. "I'm ready."
The boy led him into a labyrinth of narrow streets. In the commotion it was hard to make out anything. Anton could smell smoke, and the air was thick with soot, but he saw no flames. People pushed past them, running. They heard shouts, and for a while he thought they had pursuers. Finally the boy stopped in a doorway and gestured. "Here." They dismounted and carried their bikes up the steps, emerging again on foot.
"This way," said the boy. They moved along walls, penetrating deeper into the swirling chaos. They could hear sirens converging somewhere nearby. Down a side street, two rival gangs met unexpectedly amid gunshots. Finally they reached a pair of doors with diamond windows and leather padding held on with tacks. Club Omaha, the sign said. A signal was exchanged, and they were let in. Anton found several of his co-conspirators gathered in front of a large-screen TV, watching scenes of violence from the surrounding streets.
On the screen, people were pushing cars into the intersection to create a barricade. A terrorized middle-aged couple was forced from their car at gunpoint and the car was set aflame. Police in riot gear stepped forward firing gas canisters, and the rebel forces held them off with bricks and bottles. Rocks and Molotov cocktails were hurled at store windows. A line of people hauled away appliances and crates of food, passing things from hand to hand until the stores were emptied. "We're being systematic!" a woman explained. A gang of twelve-year-olds armed with pipes and chains encountered a similar band carrying switchblades. Turmoil, yells, confusion—the camera was knocked to the ground.
The people in the bar cheered each new scene of mayhem as if it were their own. They pointed out their friends on the screen. "Hey Beverly! You go, girl!" A kid with a bandana over his face threw a firebomb through a store window and the contents went up in flames. He flashed a thumbs-up at the camera. Anton could feel his stoned grin beneath the cloth. "Yeah, Timmy! Do the right thing," the people in the bar praised him. Droning behind it all was the professional yet shaken voice of the TV announcer.
"Seemingly random violence has spread downtown from the initial flashpoint at 12th and Piedmont," the announcer said. "Police are setting up roadblocks at major intersections in an effort to contain the rioting. The cause of the disturbance is unknown, but police say it does not seem to be racially motivated. Seven people have been injured so far, and one is in critical condition at General Hospital. A three-block area of Monroe Street has been destroyed by fire, with losses of over eight hundred million dollars. 'That part of town doesn't exist any more,' a City Hall spokesman told us. 'We're taking it off the map.'
"Confrontations with isolated groups have prevented police from reaching the heart of the violence. A twenty-square-block area has been sealed off and declared a no man's land, a martial law zone. 'We can't guarantee the safety of anyone in there,' Police Captain Randy Firefill stated. 'From a police point of view, anything within the perimeter is armed and dangerous.' Rioters have set up roadblocks of parked cars, and snipers are firing on police from the roofs of buildings in the riot zone. 'They're strategically placed and well coordinated,' a police source said. 'We don't know who's behind this, but they have a game plan.'
"Helicopters at the scene report that the heart of the disturbance is now moving south into the fashionable district of Oakdale. A crowd of several hundred people has turned onto Lattimore and Oak Avenues, and should reach Pokegan within minutes. Officer James O'Malley, struck in the chest by sniper fire, confirmed dead at General Hospital."
The officer's photo disappeared from the screen, replaced by the mass of rioters as seen from above. They moved through the streets brandishing improvised weapons such as pipes, bricks, and torches. Anton noticed that the sound came from the streets as much as from the TV set. The crowd was overtaking the bar, accompanied by the roar of helicopters, angry chanting, voices on megaphones. On the screen, windows were smashed, cars set on fire, gates of houses breached. Outside they could hear the corresponding sounds—explosions, breaking glass, a whirlwind of angry people.
All sound from the TV was drowned out. The doors of the bar rattled and burst open, and for an instant they could see the riot itself. A cheer rose from the gathered conspirators. Anton leaned on the bar, impassive. The doors closed again and the crowd moved on. The sounds in the street faded away. A few seconds passed as the TV continued to drone its reports.
"Wow," someone said. "Now that's a riot."
They laughed giddily. Finally they noticed Anton. "Anton, what's been keepin' ya? Hey guys, Anton's here!"
• • •
Anton was back at the campsite, asleep in his tent. Next to him was the book he'd been reading, face down on the ground. His hand lay against it, as if even in sleep he could not abandon it.
A large vehicle pulled up nearby, disturbing the silence. Its engine cut off abruptly and two doors slammed. There was the sound of running feet. "Anton! Anton, are you awake?" Anton stirred, trying to bury himself more deeply in sleep.
The new arrival began unfastening the flaps of Anton's tent. Light fell on Anton's face, startling him awake. Sitting up, he saw the head of a young man silhouetted against the sky, skull cropped and angular, ears jutting out.
"It's time to go," the intruder said. "It's not safe for you here now."
Anton rubbed his eyes, trying to wake up.
"The cops have sealed off the area. They're searching street to street. We're getting you out of town."
Anton came to his senses and collected his few belongings, stuffing them in his backpack. He put on his shoes and tied them. Standing, he started to roll up his blankets.
"Leave those here. There's no time. We'll take care of you at the other end."
"Where am I going?"
They headed across the empty lot to a delivery truck parked at the curb. The driver waited for them, smoking a cigarette.
"This is Max," said his young guide. "He'll take you to the airport. It's on his route."
Max dropped the cigarette, crushed it under his heel, and climbed behind the wheel. Anton started to climb in the cab beside Max.
The young man held him back. "No way! There's police checkpoints all over the city. They're after you, don't you get it? You can't be seen."
He opened the cargo door and gestured inside. "In here. Max is a delivery man, it's his job. He's got a schedule to keep. Hide yourself good, there's a spot for you between the olives and the walnuts. You'll be going all over the city, and you'll be stopped for sure. But as long as Max stays on his route, everything'll go smooth. When it's time for you to come out, he'll knock twice"—he demonstrated on the side of the truck—"and then once."
"What happens to you? You're not coming?"
The young man grinned. "I'm from here, man. I got a way of disappearing in the crowd."
They embraced quickly. "Thanks," Anton said.
"Good luck, man. You did good!"
Anton climbed in, and the door slid closed behind him. It was dark among the boxes of dry goods, the crates of produce.
Max started the engine. The young man stood there for a moment, watching them drive off, before vanishing into a landscape of cracked asphalt and broken glass.
• • •
Anton stepped off the plane in Portland, dressed in sharp new clothes—a turtleneck, thick flannel shirt, a long wool overcoat worn open. His boots, handmade in Arizona, had silver tips. A scarf was wrapped loosely around his neck. He carried a small travel bag, and his gloves were in his hand.
The concourse was busy with people coming and going, all dressed for extremely cold weather. Over the loudspeaker he heard, "Welcome to Portland International Airport. We hope you enjoy your stay. Skies are overcast, and the temperature is twenty-six degrees. Beware of hazardous driving conditions due to freezing rain."
All along the concourse, windows looked out onto the tarmac where planes were parked at the gates, loading and unloading passengers. Lights reflected from the icy runways that crews were working to keep clear.
Seeing a magazine stand, he stopped to read the headlines of the local paper. "RECORD COLD SNAP BATTERS WEST," was printed in large letters, and under it, "Many Airports Closed—Four Feet of Snow in Denver."
A related story was titled, "Council 'Early Warning Team' Feared Dead." Bending down to see better, he read this:
A plane carrying five members of the Omaha City Council from Flagstaff to Colorado Springs lost contact with controllers Friday morning over southern Utah, and is believed to have gone down in the record winter storm. The council members, three men and two women, were traveling from city to city throughout the West on what they called "an urgent mission to warn America of the dangers to democracy" represented by Omaha's Unity Party, led by the mysterious Colonel Reinhold. The Unity Party, which holds three seats on the Omaha City Council, has called for radical reforms of the city's political system, including an end to electoral politics as "a sham, a colossal joke."
Anton bought the paper and seated himself on a row of chairs so he could read the article more closely. There were photos of each of the five council members, captioned with their names.
The private plane carrying the five council members, along with a three-man crew, was last heard from at 9:27 a.m. Friday, and is believed to have gone down shortly thereafter. The plane, caught in a massive storm whose size and intensity took meteorologists by surprise, had drifted over 100 miles off course at the time of the last contact. "They were fighting severe winds with zero visibility. They were short on fuel," said Air Force Captain Samuel Weiss, who is heading an investigation of the tragedy. "They were flying over extremely rough terrain. A search party is impossible until the storm subsides, which could take several days. Unfortunately, unless we learn otherwise, they must be presumed dead."
The five council members had described themselves as "political moderates, average citizens united in an urgent cause." On Thursday night in Flagstaff, Councilwoman Marilyn Shapiro, a 47-year-old teacher, warned her audience, "The Unity Party and its ideas are a threat to democracy, and not just in Omaha, Nebraska. They're a threat to democracy across America, unless we draw the line and say, 'Enough!' These people play by the rules at first, but once they get power, the rules go out the window. We've seen it firsthand. They're interested in power for its own sake. This will hurt our schools, and it will hurt our businesses. It will make life impossible in our cities before a generation has passed."
Anton felt sorry for these well-intentioned teachers and businessmen, but he didn't like the way the press was turning them into martyrs. He put down the paper and continued toward the exit.
He heard random messages on the loudspeaker. "Robert Collins, your daughter is at the United Airlines baggage claim area. Tracy Lubowicz, please come to the information desk on Level One." Passing a bread boutique, he decided to go in.
The shop was immaculate and brightly lit. He spent a moment checking out the items on the racks while the girl behind the counter tended to her chores. Once he'd found what he wanted, she turned her attention to him.
"What can I get you today?" Her voice was bright and cheerful like the store.
He pointed to a tasty-looking loaf. "That one."
She pointed too. "The Raisin Sunshine Loaf?"
He moved his hand over. "No, that one."
She smiled broadly. "The Health Harvest Loaf!"
"Whatever." Why couldn't they just call it bread?
She took the large, round loaf from the rack with a piece of waxed paper. "Would you like it sliced?"
"No!" he said with a violence that surprised him. She began stuffing it into a bag that was obviously too small. He waved her away. "Give it to me like that, I'll eat it now."
"Certainly, sir." She passed the bread over the counter along with the waxed paper, and rang up the purchase. "That will be six dollars and twenty-seven cents."
Fumbling in his pockets, he could feel the crumpled bills in his hand. He looked up sharply. "Six twenty-seven? It's only bread."
"Those are our prices, sir."
"Forget it, then." He turned away in disgust.
"Excuse me! Sir?" she called after him, but he was gone.
He moved along the crowded concourse, driven by silent fury. Suddenly he realized that the loaf of bread was still in his hand. He stopped and looked at it. He thought for a moment, and then grinned. "No, I didn't pay. I took it by accident."
He went to a nearby trash can, set the bread on top of it and moved away. He watched from a distance as people passed by, oblivious. He felt like a terrorist. What if the loaf of bread contained a bomb? He was a terrorist, he reminded himself. "I'm a fugitive. Can't go around stealing bread!"
He continued walking until he came to a lobby where several passages met. It was a broad, open area with people crossing in every direction. From the loudspeaker he heard, "Security to Concourse B, Gate Seven. Security to Concourse B immediately."
At first he thought the alert was for him, on account of the bread. Then he heard, "Attempted suicide at Gate Seven. Emergency Medical to Concourse B, Gate Seven." A scream came from one of the passages, followed by shouting as if an argument was in progress. Two or three people ran toward the disturbance, starting a general stampede. He found himself caught in the swell of people, all rushing to see what was going on.
"Security to Gate Seven. Emergency Medical to Gate Seven!" As the crowd swept him toward a bank of escalators, he pulled himself onto one of them and was carried swiftly upward, away from the melee. The escalators moved so rapidly that once he was on them, he couldn't get off. They took him past two or three levels that were completely deserted. After reaching the top, he was suddenly moving down again, as if on a roller coaster.
The escalator he was on banked to the right. Several other escalators intersected his, traveling on tangents to his own. Before he could grasp what was happening, he was deposited on a small platform, directly in front of two skinheads.
"Hey, dude, cool shirt!" said the larger of the two.
The other leaned in. "Yeah, man. Can I have it, man?"
Anton looked around him. There was no one else nearby, and the skinheads were blocking his escape. "No, you can't."
"Aw, c'mon, why not? It's a really cool shirt."
"Because I need it."
"Need it! For what?" The big skinhead was angry. "You got another shirt right there under it. It's not like we want to take your only shirt."
"If I needed only one shirt, that's what I'd have on, right? But I'm wearing two."
The skinheads looked confused.
"I put it on for a reason," he concluded.
While the skinheads were making up their minds what to do, two middle-aged women stepped from the escalator. They were motherly types, both of them. They stopped for a moment on the platform, getting their bearings. Seeing Anton, one of them took her friend's arm and whispered to her. The other nodded in excited confirmation.
"Yoo-hoo, Anton!" they called out, waving. They came over to greet him. In any other situation he would been annoyed, but now he smiled and held out his hand.
"Anton, how wonderful meeting you here! We haven't seen you since—"
"My, it's been how long? Two years? Three?"
"Since the SAMS Conference in Baltimore! You gave such a brilliant presentation. We all said, now there's a young man with ideas and a bright future!"
The skinheads backed away, but they remained on the platform, sneering.
"I'm not really involved in politics much these days," he murmured. "Say, do you ladies know the way out of here?"
One of them chuckled. "Street level is down, I imagine. How long are you staying in the city? Have you found yourself a hotel?"
"I haven't made any arrangements," he told them.
They ushered him onto the escalators. The skinheads followed at a distance, not daring to interfere. Together they began the descent to the street.
"Mrs. Baumgarten and I are staying at the Regency," piped up one of the ladies.
"A very nice hotel, from what I've heard," Mrs. Baumgarten put in.
"We're in town for a meeting on the International Peace Initiative. Tell me, Anton, you really have nothing to do with such things any more?"
"Well, Mrs...."
"Priestly," she prompted him.
"Well, Mrs. Priestly, like I said...."
He was distracted by the skinheads, who had gotten lost in the twists and turns of the escalators and were being carried off in the opposite direction. He watched them pass by, jeering. The two women didn't seem to notice.
Mrs. Priestly clucked sadly. "As I've often said to my friends, nothing would be better than to have a bright, articulate, and personable young man like yourself as one of our own."
"Someone with fresh ideas!" Mrs. Baumgarten said.
"Why, yes! Some people may think your ideas are controversial, but isn't that what we need? We can't go on chanting the same old slogans till we're out of breath."
They had reached street level. The escalator ended abruptly at what seemed to be a back entrance, a tiny, glass-enclosed lobby with automatic doors. They stepped out into the cold.
They found themselves on a broad landing with steps descending to a vast stone plaza, surrounded by buildings in the European style. The plaza was empty at this late hour, except for a few lamps haloed in frosty fog. For a moment, Anton believed he'd been transported to another century. He thought he could hear hooves clattering on the stones.
As the two women bundled themselves against the cold, he put on his gloves. Mrs. Baumgarten took his hand in hers. "It was so nice to see you again after all this time! I wish you the best of luck in Portland. Do look us up at our hotel—"
"The Regency," Mrs. Priestly reminded him.
"The Regency, like she said. We'll be there through the fifth."
"Thanks, I'll keep it in mind." He tipped an imaginary hat. "Take care of yourselves, ladies. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
They nudged each other and giggled. "Isn't he wonderful? Such good manners for a young man." As they moved off, one of them had a thought. "Do you need a ride somewhere? Would you like to join us in our taxi?"
He waved them away. "No thanks, I think I'll walk a bit." Still chattering to each other, they vanished around the corner of the building.
He turned his head and spat. He adjusted the collar of his coat and shoved his hands in his pockets. Hunched against the cold, he descended the steps into the empty plaza. There was no sound but his footsteps.
• • •
In the close, frozen mist he could see only a few feet, yet there seemed to be a glow ahead that increased as he moved forward. After a time he arrived at another set of steps, more impressive than the first. He was standing before a grandiose structure with columns and porticoes of stone. The facade was completely lit up, even at this hour. Engraved over the entrance were the words, "HOUSE OF MYSTICISM."
He knew he shouldn't go in. He didn't want to go in. He started to turn away, but then climbed the stairs in a rush. His sudden movement carried him through the doors, which were open as if waiting for him. He stopped and looked around, unsure what to do.
He was facing a full-length portrait of a charismatic young man in a long, white robe. Around the man was an aura of light. Flanking the painting was a row of high-backed chairs. The lobby itself was spare and somber. There were glass-faced cabinets with pitchers and trays, and a magnificent old table waxed to a high shine. On the table was a guest book and a bowl of punch. The bowl was made of cut glass, and beside it was a stack of paper cups.
A woman's voice interrupted his reverie. "Are you here to take the tour?" She came out of the shadows, dressed in a colonial-era outfit with bonnet and apron. She took his hand, but he just stared at her. Seeing that he had nothing to say, she ushered him to the table. "Would you like to sign our guest book?"
"Sure." He signed rapidly and almost illegibly, "Steve Banning."
"Are you visiting our city?"
"I'm from Iowa."
"How wonderful! You're in luck, we have a tour scheduled in fifteen minutes. Our guru, Harry Mellow, is conducting it personally. You must be excited to meet him!"
He laughed. "To be honest, I've never heard of him."
"Then you're in for a treat! All the young people in Portland are crazy about him, and I'm sure you'll see why." She busied herself at the punch bowl, taking a cup from the stack and pouring it full. "Would you like some punch?"
He stared uneasily into the colored liquid, wondering if it was drugged. "Am I the only one here for the tour? Maybe I should come back tomorrow."
At that moment a group of boisterous youths arrived, beating their hands together against the cold. With their wholesome laughter and rosy cheeks, they seemed to have stepped out of a toothpaste ad. Apparently they knew the place and its hostess.
"Hey!" one of them called out. "We're here for the tour."
"We heard it was being conducted by Harry Mellow in person!"
The hostess turned to Anton with a broad smile. "You see?" To the youths she said, "Come in, you're just in time! Have some punch." She poured a cup for each of them. They lined up to sign the guest book, flipping eagerly through the pages.
"President Jordan!"
"No way!"
"Just teasing. But why not?"
"Hey, here's Mayor Coletti."
"That's not surprising. We know about him." They laughed at some private joke. "I bet he's in there quite a few times."
They were guzzling their punch. Anton stood to one side, staring morosely into his cup. Finally, he drained the punch in one swallow. There were little red grains at the bottom. He crumpled the cup angrily and tossed it in a nearby wastebasket. "If it's drugged, I can handle it. I'm experienced enough! But I should know better than to get mixed up in this kind of thing."
There was a sudden hush as Harry Mellow made his appearance. He stepped from a curtained alcove at one end of the lobby, dressed in a long, white robe like in his portrait. He was tall, with blond hair and blue eyes. Around his neck was a gold medallion. He was about thirty, with an air of boyish enthusiasm. He seemed to float above the floor on a cushion of air.
From the moment he came into the room, the youths turned serious. They made their way over to him to receive his blessings. He took the hand of each in turn, staring into their eyes as he greeted them. Only Anton remained by the table, sullen and defiant. Finally the guru came over to him, offering his hand. Anton took it, answering his gaze with an angry look.
Harry Mellow smiled. "Hello, Anton. We've been expecting you for some time. In fact, we were expecting you sooner. You may not take 'Anton' very seriously, but you're perfect in the role."
Anton felt a sudden panic. How did the guru know his name? If he knew that, what else did he know?
The guru released his hand and called to the assembled guests. "Will you join me in the Conference Room? We'll be starting our tour shortly. But first, let's get to know each other a little better." He made a gesture of invitation and stepped back through the curtain.
They followed him into a small, windowless room with fluorescent lights and walls of cement block. There was a chalkboard on wheels in one corner. Folding metal chairs were arranged in a circle. They each took a seat.
"I've found that it's best to have everyone tell a little bit about themselves," the guru began. "Who we are and why we're here, so we all feel comfortable together. That way, if you have any questions later, when we see the Secrets of the Temple, you'll feel free to speak up because you're among friends. So I'll start. I'm Harry Mellow, and I'm the guru." He made a modest gesture. "I've been that for ten years already, so I guess there's a reason why." He turned to the youth on his left. "It's your turn. Are you from Portland?"
"Yep. My name is Mark Moran, and I was born and raised here." Mark blushed, then rallied. "And I think you're the best! I've heard so much about the House of Mysticism and all it's done for our city, from my teachers and parents. I always wanted to come here to see for myself, and I'm glad I did!"
"And you, young lady, what's your name?"
The girl was suddenly bashful. "I'm Lisa, Lisa Hernandez, I...."
"Go on. We're with you."
"Well, my sister was in your Program for over two years, and before that she was feeling bad, you know, about herself, but now—she's like, you know, a whole new woman. And I think the music kids listen to nowadays, and the drugs, are such a problem—so maybe that's the cause of why everything's so bad out there, on the street. And I thought maybe I could find, you know, something better."
"I certainly hope so. And you?" He indicated the third youth.
"My name's Pete Benavidez, and I'm here with Lisa."
"How old are you, Pete?
"And what do you hope to find at the House of Mysticism?"
"Well, man, I just wanna see what's up, you know? 'Cuz like Lisa says, whatever it is, it's gotta be a whole lot better than what's goin' down on the street, know what I mean?"
Harry Mellow shook his head. "I sure do."
In the same casual tone he turned to Anton. "Folks, Anton's not from Portland, he's from the Midwest. So why don't you tell us about life there? Are you enjoying your work? With all that's been happening lately, it must be pretty exciting. It must be fascinating to work for the Colonel."
Anton tensed, and a vein fluttered in his neck. He had a sudden vision of Colonel Reinhold's high-tech inner sanctum. The Colonel was seated at a curved console in a high-backed leather chair, surrounded by his most trusted aides, Anton among them.
"The Colonel..." Anton began.
"That's right, Colonel Reinhold."
The aides were scattered in a loose semicircle around the oak-paneled office, facing the Colonel. He pointed first to one, then the next, giving orders. Anton couldn't hear the words. He heard only his conversation with Harry Mellow. He wanted to explain what he was seeing, but he encountered a strange resistance.
"We were talking...."
An aide stepped into the office with a sheaf of papers. Reinhold rose partway from his chair and extended his hand. The aide came forward and handed the papers to the Colonel, who sat down and scanned them.
Anton couldn't seem to get his breath. He struggled to go on. "We were talking in a...." His voice died out.
"Yes?" Harry Mellow prompted.
The phone rang on Reinhold's desk. Anton could see the flashing light, but he heard no sound. The Colonel picked up the receiver, listened, and talked urgently into it. He gestured to a seated aide, who jumped from her chair and went out.
The vision ended, and Anton was back in the House of Mysticism. "Excuse me!" he cried, leaping from his chair with a crash.
To get to the door, he had to cross the circle of youths. He flailed at whatever was in his path, kicking or pushing it from him, until he cleared the circle. With a last desperate lunge he reached for the door. His fingertips closed on the handle as he lost consciousness.