Pimp My Airship24 min read

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“Who Stole the Soul?”

“Citizens of the Universe, do not attempt to adjust your electro-transmitter, there is nothing wrong. We have taken control to bring you this special bulletin.”

“Aw, hell nah.” Hubert “Sleepy” Nixon paused mid-keystroke on the pianoforte. A system of pipes ran from the back of the instrument to the ceiling, steam billowing in mild tufts from the joints. The low, arrhythmic notes slowly faded into a dull echo as he turned to the gleaming carapace of the electro-transmitter with a countenance of mild exasperation.

A phlegmatic gentleman by nature, some mistook Sleepy’s somnambulant demeanor for muddle-mindedness. Given nuanced consideration, this was rather true after a fashion. Sleepy reached for his pipe, tamped the side to even the spread of chiba leaves, lit them and inhaled. Holding the smoke in his lungs for the span of three heartbeats, he exhaled a thick cloud of noxious vapor. Only then was he prepared to amble his considerable girth toward the faded tapestry that concealed the descending spiral stairway. Wide-shouldered and bulbous framed as he was, each step creaked under his weight as he slowly made his way into the subterranean hollow. The basement smelled of a privy pit.

“That’s right, today’s mathematics is knowledge. Let me break it down for you: know the ledge.” A glass-fronted cabinet contained a rotating cylinder that gyrated up and down. A series of antennae lined the top of the device, electricity arcing between them, the charges climbing the spires like tendrils of ivy. Pipes splayed like pleats of a fan, groaned and gurgled as the home kine burned. In the undercity, Fortune—as much as the government allowed—favored a neighborhood possessing a single kine or two, much less a home laying claim to its own. The voice emanated from the darkened corner of the chamber and belonged to the spindly-framed gentleman behind the strange apparatus. Barely seated on the many-times-patched ottoman, was (120 Degrees of) Knowledge Allah.

Knowledge Allah’s strong handsome face was eroded by despair. His distant eyes had stared into the abyss of anger and hate for too long. A gold band pulled back his thick braids giving them the appearance of interlocked fingers. His thick cravat was tucked into his vest. The difficulty of Knowledge Allah was that one had to decipher the code of his thought language before he began to make any sense. Such a task rarely proved simple while under the effects of the chiba.

“You don’t know who you are,” Knowledge Allah’s self-secure voice rang with steel. “Take on your true name. Arm. Leg. Leg. Arm. Head. You are the original man. You are gods. Yet you sit there, blind, deaf, and dumb to your potential.

“Few realize who they are and those that do—and seek to wake the people from their neglected truth—are incarcerated by this grafted government. The Star Child, leader of the F8, is due to be executed in a few days, but none of you could be bothered. The time for revolution is at hand, brothers and sisters. The time is at hand. We only await a sign.

“I exist between time outside time. In the between places. I am the voice of truth in these troubled times.”

The clockwork gears ground to a gentle halt as the spindles of the machine wound down. The electric arcs sputtered and the entire apparatus darkened. Knowledge Allah stooped from behind the glass cabinet, daubing his sweaty brow with a handkerchief, a smirk of zealotry on his face.

“What the fuck man?” Sleepy asked, his insistent steps catching up to him as he found himself winded. He eased himself into the nearest chair. Knowledge Allah poured him some brandy from a nearby decanter before pouring a glass of water for himself.

“Are the mysteries I strive to illuminate too deep for you, my brother?” Knowledge Allah clinked Sleepy’s glass with his own then downed his water. He often regaled Sleepy with the idea of forming a band, being the front man to the capacious Sleepy’s music with the hopes of using their act to spread his message. Like many of their ideas, it collected dust due to inaction.

“The only mystery is my need to get high.” Sleepy ran his pick through his blond-streaked Afro, his beard barely tamed by a comb. His nose was too flat and too broad for his face, as if he’d been punched with an iron. His teeth, likewise, were too small for his mouth. Against skin like burnished onyx, a silver stud protruded from his chin. He puffed out another cloud. “Mystery solved.”

“They set snares that have been prepared for you. Snares meant to lead you from your path of righteousness. You’ve let them cave you.”

“They who?” Sleepy asked, forgetting his oft-repeated lesson of not asking Knowledge Allah questions. The answers were rarely of any use. However, Sleepy couldn’t help but think there was an undercurrent of derision to Knowledge Allah’s tones, as if the other man stared down the thin beak of a nose at him.

“Your so-called grafted government’s behind it,” Knowledge Allah continued. “The next phase is to destroy us. You think it stopped with Tuskegee?” The Tuskegee Institute. One of the few schools allowed in the undercities. The name sent a chill along the spine at the memory of the experiments done in the name of science. “No, they just got slicker. We don’t have poppy fields. We don’t have dirigibles. We do have wills sapped by opiate clouds.”

“Sounds like we don’t have shit,” Sleepy said. “Speaking of, I thought we agreed on no more broadcasts until we got our act together?”

“The truth cannot go unvoiced.”

“Shit.” Sleepy pronounced the word as if it possessed three syllables. “You one of them long-winded niggas who just like to hear themselves talk.”

“Look at how quickly you let their hate speech drip from your own lips, betraying your own. Don’t get caught up in the game of the 85. We need to–”

“Blah, blah, blah, nigga. Blah. I hear you talking. What I don’t hear is a plan. You got all this ‘righteous knowledge’ …what we going to do?”

“I’m going to free the Star Child.” Knowledge Allah stood up for maximum dramatic effect. “You driving?”

Sleepy remained seated, as the implications of the words reverberated in his mind; their import required a few moments to digest. Knowledge Allah beamed, obviously quite pleased with himself, and wrapped his great coat around him and nodded topside. Sleepy fastened a cape around his long, blue eight-button coat, the image of a flabby martinet.

Smoke stacks belched poisonous clouds. The oppressive sky, gray as prison issue uniforms, cloaked their furtive entry onto the streets. The air, redolent with a ferrous rock, was heavy with the stink of coal and sweat. He had bathed for an hour and a half to scrub off any trace of soot from him. Even the poor clung to their dignity. In the shadows of the steam trams of the overcity, a Hansom whisked by, held aloft by rusty trellises. Neither man dreamed of catching a cab in Atlantis, especially at night. A police trawler slowed as it neared them. Other denizens scurried away like rats caught in the light, quick to return to the burrow openings they called home. The pair held their ground, hard eyes unblinking at the passing vehicle. Sleepy spat a black-tinged wad of phlegm. Once out of eye line, Sleepy opened his garage door.

The metal gleamed even in the wan moonlight, polished to a glassy sheen every day. Twin brass tubes formed the body of the car, curving down on both ends stitched together by copper rivets. Headlamps, jutting cans, burned to life. The suspension bounced and lurched in a frenzy of steam belches, jolting them up and down. The bemused pair enjoyed the weight of stares from their neighbors. The 24” rims, whirring fans, continuously shuttered like deployed armor. With a roar, the car took off, spumes of steam left in its wake.

“Fear of a Black Planet”

The slow and winding White River neatly carved the undercity in half as the Victorian architecture of the overcity known as Indianapolis gave way to the more dilapidated homes in the undercity the natives dubbed
Atlantis. Billboards of smiling brown faces endorsing opiate use sat next to adverts of money changers offering promises of quick loans. Both preyed on desperation and ignorance. America shone as the most prosperous colony in service to the Albion Empire. With its plantation farms and free labor force, America was the dirty sweatshop engine that propelled the Empire. Even the upper crust of the American social strata were held in tacit contempt by the Albion proper, unwilling to acknowledge how they kept their hands clean. The force of her colonialist spirit had long ago reduced the issue of slavery to a low simmer and the much talked about threat of an American Civil War never came to pass. With the rise of the automata, however, the economics of the unseemly endeavor proved too deleterious and the slaves were released.

Those of an African bloodline, no matter how much or little ran in their veins, were relegated to a state of vague emancipation. Not living in the massive, industrial overcities, but dismissed to ghettos—pacified by legalized, free-flowing drugs—a terra incognita somehow lost between the cartographer’s calipers. Or they were imprisoned.

Viceroy George II, who pandered without shame to the interests of the Empire, currently governed the land. Though high born and privileged, he was no nobleman, but rather a spoiled bloodline of nine generations of insular breeding.

The buildings crumbled into screes of pebbles along rotted sidewalks under an air of imminent decay. Gas lamps produced forlorn shadows from the steeped darkness. Old men huddled in puddles of light, drinking brandy and smoking cigars blunted with opium by wan moonlight. Their garrulous conversation of the most impolitic kind filled the night with the bluster of oafs. A twinge of jealousy at not being able to join in fluttered in Sleepy’s chest.

Knowledge Allah directed him to a two-story brick, Queen Anne home guarded by a wrought-iron fence. The house stood out from the rest of the neighborhood’s squalor as if someone had staked a claim to retake this spot. Drab green with fine terra-cotta ornaments and lacy spindles, its conical-roofed turret had fish scale slate shingles. Stained glass sat atop curtained bay windows.

“Whose place is this? Sleepy asked.

“An inventor’s.”

“He down with The Cause?”

“Do you even know what cause you serve?”

“I was just asking.”

“You assume a lot. The Cause is more than attitude, affect, and wardrobe. You need to be open to the mysteries life offers,” Knowledge Allah said.

“Like what?”

“Like the inventor.”

Knowledge Allah rapped on the large obsidian knocker. The door swung open. A poor simulacrum of a person greeted them with the smooth manner of a well-rehearsed marionette. Its inner workings whirred—pistoning brass and steel gears—over the gentle hum of whatever powered it. Its face—dull, unpainted metal—held no expression and little attempt at humanity. Wondrous and intricate, a flawless design, it projected a knowing discomfort of the other. Sleepy suddenly grew terrified of the mind of its designer. With a mime’s gesticulations, it offered to take their hat and coats and escorted them. Twin lanterns burned in empty spaces as optical receptors, a mechanical stare masking its inner workings. Its disjointed consciousness lacked imagination, the ability to create story, the power to question its being or its place in the greater scheme of things. It moved without the gift of ancestors and the weight of history, at best it held the illusion of electric dreaming against the cold void of blackness.

Sleepy envied its uncomplicated existence.

The double door entry opened into the foyer of the opulent home. An elegant curved staircase separated the living and dining rooms on the right from the library on the left. Walls, alight with whale-oil-filled lamps created an erudite glow within. A lone settee perched alongside a fireplace on the opposite side of the room. A deck of cards sat on a piece of silk atop a table. Sleepy cut the deck at random and saw a card inscribed with the number XVI over the picture of a tower struck by lightning. The building’s top section had dislodged from the rest of it; two men were falling from the crumbling edifice. Filled with sudden disquiet, Sleepy set the deck down.

The automaton paused, like a bellboy awaiting a gratuity.

One nation under a groove,” Knowledge Allah said.

A bank of books parted to reveal a maw of shadows. The automaton withdrew, closing the library door behind it. The civilized façade of the pews of books gave way to the vaulted chamber of the laboratory. Rows of work-benches lined with test tubes, flasks, and beakers gurgling over Bunsen burners. Though a langorous whir of fans vented the air, the room roiled with the cloying smell of steam and coal, hot metal and ozone. A skirling of flutes emanated from a boiler, groaned under the strain of power and settling. A lithe figure bent over a metal frame of eight jutting arms spinning from a central mass, a mechanical arachnid contraption. Sleepy expected rolled up sleeves, moleskin trousers, and a grimy leather apron.

Instead, beneath a cap, goggled and draped in a lab coat, the figure welded a few more joints, testing the articulation as the work progressed, lit to a haunting blue hue behind the jet of the torch.

Once the goggles had been raised, the inventor took a step backward and nodded. Sleepy realized he regarded a woman. A green velvet jacket beneath the lab coat, with no décolletage or hint of femininity; the inventor held the bearing of a strict governess. She admired her handiwork and snugged her gloves. Her face retained an aqua tint in the dim electric glow. Wrinkles filigreed the corners of her eyes, belying the youthfulness of her face. A product of miscegenation, she radiated the afterglow of light-skinned privilege, despite her secretive life ferreted away in her laboratory. Upon noticing them, she stepped to Knowledge Allah and the two clasped hands.

“You’re a lady of odd enthusiasms,” Sleepy proclaimed. He managed to hold his affable leer awaiting an introduction.

“I don’t have time for social niceties.” She ignored his proffered hand.

“Cooking stuff up in the lab,” Knowledge Allah said.

“Just like ‘Yacuub,’ good sir.”

Unabashedly vital, her high cheekbones framed an Aquiline nose against her sallow complexion, tea with too much milk; just light enough to be on the fringe of polite society. With a rigidity of face and a hardness in her hazel eyes, she possessed a noblewoman’s airs. She probably had an A-level education, which meant her parents had money or connections. The mirth of aristocracy barely masked an anarchist streak. Her terrible
impertinence of dressing like a man covered a repressed gaity to her Victorian effect. She polished her spectacles in a handkerchief.

“Bout time we got some ladies representing,” Sleepy said.

“He rises in my estimation. Deaconess Blues.” She shook his hand.

“It’s nice to see not all of us had to struggle.”

“Do not talk to me about struggle while you thoughtlessly squander what money you manage to scrimp together on instruments and automobiles worth more than your hovel.” Her wan smile soured to a grim line. “My mother had been a governess, a high rank for Negroes, though she tried to program me with how it was unbecoming for a lady to fill her head with designs and equations. Though no mother would phrase it as such, she wanted me to be vapid and colorless. I had other ideas.”

Though now he whiled away his days as a coal shoveler rather than as an artist or poet, Sleepy never fancied himself an anarchist by any stretch. Not like her who decided that she, if not the rest of society, was past the male supremacy’s notions of womanhood. Her body and mind were hers to do with as she would.

Sleepy pulled a hair from his chin, closing his eyes at the fresh sting of pain; a nervous habit, anxious to remind himself that he could still feel. He didn’t know who he was; a man out of place, a crowd of one. Jamaican born, but England-educated—through C-levels, the bare minimum for a citizen, appropriate to his station—and America employed; a one man Triangle trade. His father was a man of dreams and ideas. And causes. Sleepy joined the struggle in his youth and paved the way for the F8 through civil disobedience. “Life ought to be lived outside of yourself,” he often preached. But Sleepy’s passion for music provided release from his miserable existence, imbued with anger and vitality of the dwellers of the undercity; not the staid tones enjoyed by the ranks of nobles. Sleepy tapped percussive melodies lost in the rhythms of his thoughts.

“Am I boring you?” Deaconess Blues asked.

“Nah, I’m just waiting to hear the deal.”

“All in good time.”

 “Funkin’ Lesson”

Deaconess Blues led them back to the library where her automaton had spread out the accoutrements of high tea. A silver teapot poured a heady brew, the aroma-filled the room. A tray of crumpets and other delicate pastries lay before them, as the blank-faced automaton attended to etiquette in Deaconess Blues’ fragile dance of civility. Going through the motions of refined breeding, protocol—appearances were paramount—despite being excluded from upper society.

“Are we all that’s left of the F8?” Sleepy asked. He stifled a rheumy cough, slipping a trail of gray sputum into his napkin.

“I do not know, sir. We compartmentalize ourselves so that no one person knows too much about our organization.” Deaconess Blues tilted her head with a glimmer of maternal concern. “You look

“I just don’t know what we’re doing and…” Sleepy paused. “What’s the point?”

“Has it ever struck you that we aren’t as ahead technologically as we should be?”

“Knowledge and the reflection of knowledge equals wisdom,” Knowledge Allah said. “Knowledge and wisdom equals understanding.”

“Then if you knowledge my wisdom, you will understand what I’m saying.” Deaconess Blues said. He nodded as if they shared the same gibberish wavelength. “Knowledge is built on the back of itself. Those who come along later stand on the shoulders of those before them. That great capitalist machine called slavery robbed mother Africa of generations of scientists, artists, and creative minds. Think of where we’d be without that holocaust.”

“We’d have flying cars,” Sleepy said “and show tunes.”

“We have show tunes.”

“We’d have had them sooner, you feel me? What? A black man can’t enjoy show tunes.”

“He isn’t ready. He still needs verbal milk,” Knowledge Allah said.

“Then this meeting is premature. I am…resources. Not propaganda.”

“Time is of the essence. The Cause demanded this level of meeting.”

“My job is to oppose the state,” Deaconess Blues scowled. “I care about the liberation of my people.”

“Your people? You a high yella, bougie dilettante.” Sleepy shifted, uncomfortable with how defensive he sounded. Deaconess Blues remained unflustered. Strains of classical music reverberated from the large horns encircling the room, surrounding them with sound. With another dollop of chiba, the pungent sting of burnt weed sent his mind adrift among the clouds and made him much more receptive to high flung ideas.

An obviously delicate eater, Deaconess Blues drew a long sip then set her cup back onto its dish. “I’m black like you. I resist. I seek to end the chains and the extermination of all oppression.”

“You don’t talk like a scientist.”

“I am an anarchist, insurrectionist, and a scientist. A scientist searching for knowledge and proof. For truth and meaning.”

“You’re a scientist of God,” Knowledge Allah chimed in with a tone of deference.

Sleepy raised an eyebrow. He wondered if Deaconess Blues was one of the alchemist-spirit riders whispered about, those who combined science and the ancient ways.

“With the revolutions in engineering and science and industry, we have yet to see any in our social systems. We might as well dress up the automata in minstrel outfits and paint them with bright white eyes and red bulbous lips for how we are seen.” Deaconess Blues poured herself another cup of tea. She stirred in milk and sugar as her words settled in their ears, their eyes anxious on her, though she was unhurried. “We’ve been promised universal enlightenment, an end to war, and a rationalist utopian… as long as everyone knows their place.

“We are at the intersection of class and race, class and sexuality, and class and gender. Any class reduction will face critical resistance. We have sold our souls in the service of commerce. We toil in the embrace of the machine and become a concubine of industry. So we rage against the machine and we must take  extraordinary steps to defend ourselves. There must develop solidarity among our people, a swell of anti-colonial resistance.”

“I feel you. I’m angry and I know y’all are angry, too. So what’re we going to do about it?” Sleepy asked, not one for the intellectual stuff. “Civil disobedience?”

“I’ve no interest in begging for scraps from our presumed master’s table.”

“Let me lay it on you like this: blood for blood,” Knowledge Allah said.

“Now we’re talking,” Sleepy said, stirred from his settling ennui.

“And you know that.” Knowledge Allah outstretched his hand that was received with blitheness by Sleepy, as if he’d finally earned a spot at the table.

“You’d be happy with any militant action,” Deaconess Blues sniffed.

“Blowing shit up is a plan,” Sleepy said.

“I understand your anger and how you may think of blowing shit up—given your coarse leanings—as revolutionary. But it is the beginning of a plan, not one unto itself. There must be a greater vision. There must be a catalyst for change.”

“Niggas are in a state of emergency. Got to start wilding out.”

“You are a ruin to language,” she said with the exacting manner of a spinster aunt.

Sleepy chafed against her civilizing influence. The discussion, though somewhat diverting, left him with the sensation of being out of his depth. Maybe it was Deaconess Blues’ subtle condescension. Or perhaps it was the disconnection between the lofty ideas of the Cause and the practical reality of the people. Sleepy’s views boiled down to pragmatism: the theory of struggle was great only insofar as someone actually was helped. It wasn’t farther argument he wanted, but action. “You rebel in your way, I rebel in mine.”

“I dream of different but similar worlds. I dream of one where we’re free, not under the heel of Albion. There is something profoundly unwell in their sense of entitlement.” Deaconess Blues shook her head as if the very act of reflection was wasted effort. Her stiff, stately bearing was the picture of restraint. “Eating their blood sausages and tripe, their raspberry tarts”

“The Inventor has a plan,” Knowledge Allah said as if reading his reluctance.


“The plan is the paragon of simplicity. The local penitentiary…”

“The Ave?” Sleepy asked.

“The Allisonville Correctional Facility is a wretched place. Its serpentine bowels, and those of its ilk, incarcerate a third of our people. Little better than slave pens with us little better than beasts.”

“Including Star Child and the rest of the F8.”

“The Star Child is a powerful symbol of the struggle. Imprisoned for speaking of a better way. Of revolution.”

“But the Ave is…”

“Impregnable? No, its design bears the fruit of the very hubris of its designers. Think of it: a lone spire, defying the heavens like the tower of Babel. All the guards, knights of the realm, gathered there more as symbol than actual need. Were it to come crashing down, our brothers and sisters would be free.”

“Oops upside their head,” Knowledge Allah said.

“Wouldn’t they be trapped?”

“Don’t you see? The same underground shafts that entomb them now also protect them. All we would need is a group of folks to shepherd them to safety.”

“And something to bring down the tower itself.”

Deaconess Blues stood up and strode to the coat rack. Donning a hat and gloves—though Sleepy distrusted the cock of her hat—she announced, “Come on. We need to be armed with a bop gun.”

 “Bop Gun (Endangered Species)”

“Citizens of the Universe, do not attempt to adjust your electro-transmitter, there is nothing wrong. We have taken control to bring you this special bulletin.” The attenuated pulse of Knowledge Allah’s voice echoed along the airwaves. “The Albion Empire bloated itself on its own myth—a proud, corpulent pustule of wealth—spreading across the land, a decadent cancer of corporate greed and industrial indulgence all in the name of national pride.

“Washington aristocrats with vested interest in our eternal domination, governing to their interests not ours. The Empire is a corrupt federal leviathan, swollen and lazy, and we are the cheap table legs propping it up. Revolution is inevitable. We are the First Cause. In our tiers of rage, we call for direct action. We resist constituted powers through property damage. We impede the flow of goods and capital, using their system against them and making the cost of perpetuating domination prohibitive. And it is time to co-opt their instrument of military guarantor to break out the F8. There’s a party at the crossroads. Watch the skies. Freedom or Death.

“I exist between time outside time. In the between places. I am the voice of truth in these troubled times.”

Escaped the low ceiling of the undercity. No sunlight, only the arc of electricity from the tram. A city of shadows consuming their bodies as grist to drive the Empire forward. The trio rode in silence following the banks’ scenic greenway to the summer homes of the overcity. They quickly left the shadows of Atlantis to the sprawling suburbs of greater Indianapolis, careful to avoid the constabularies who might pull them over or otherwise detain them for not being where they were supposed to be. Deaconess Blues’ fair skin granted her passage to casual observers. Soon they reached an immense pole barn structure on property ringed with barbed wire. A mad grin danced on her face as she activated the lock controls via a sequence of numbers punched into an electro-chirographer pad. Gears winched and the doors trembled before parting. Inside the makeshift hanger was an airship.

From the first day the sight of a bird in flight fired his fancy, man dreamt to one day take to the clouds; to conquer the air as easily as he conquered the land and the sea. Unlike the massive warships of Lockheed or Sir Halliburton, this one did not bristle with armaments. No mighty bombs would drop on unseen enemies or innocent school buildings, nor would the blood-soaked dreams of nation-states be enforced by it. A ridged watermelon with a hull of black with a red underbelly, gas filled tubes ran along the outside of the ship and burned to life to ring the ship in a brackish green. A gold ankh, like an uplifted key, emblazoned its side.

“Where did you get it?”

“I am not a lady of unlimited resources…”

“You stole it.”

“We wrested it from the control of the military industrial complex who deemed this model a failure and relegated it to a barely guarded warehouse,” Knowledge Allah said.

“Why didn’t you say so?”

“Haven’t you understood yet? We proceed on a need to know basis. You didn’t need to know.”

“One man’s failure is another person’s treasure.” Deaconess Blues climbed a scaffold. “Coming inside?”

The decks of the cabin divided into small rooms, tiny tombs in the greater sarcophagus, connected by tiny ladders Sleepy had little hope of navigating. A network of cables, ropes, and pipes ran throughout like capillaries. Pressure hissed from the valves of the Malcolm-Little engines. Mahogany bedecked the main cabin and retained the reek of stale cigar smoke. A luxurious box, a den of sorts, formed the sanctum sanctorum of noble breeding. A decanter of pear wine sat in the middle of a table spread with finger foods, as another blank-faced automaton whirred out of their way.

Knowledge Allah reclined on a bench, a gentleman of leisure. Deaconess Blues stood before an array of membrane discs and tuning forks, lost behind the steady cadence of whirs and clicks. A wave of nausea swept over Sleepy as he imagined himself squeezing into the small window seat, staring out over the sea of land.

“Wisdom is water. I’m about solar facts. God is the sun. It’s all about the elements,” Knowledge Allah said, a brutal curl to his lips.

“You and your outlandish expressions,” Deaconess Blues remarked with admirable dispatch. “Your peculiar phraseology never tires.” She moved about the cabin, examining the controls with considered elegance.

“The sundial speaks. We prepare to ride as Afronauts.”

“So how does this all play out?” Sleepy asked. “We become the villains they assume us to be?”

“One man’s villain is another person’s Star Child. Do you know how we’re seen? Human chimpanzees. Immature, in need of constant guidance. Emotional, not rational. Unreasonable and easily excited. Without religion, only superstition and fanciful mythologies.” She nodded to Knowledge Allah. “Criminals with no respect for private property. Filthy. Excessively sexual. We are niggers left to fester and shamble in the undercities.”

“Us and the Irish.” Uncomfortable in the awkward pause left by his attempt at humor, Sleepy pulled another hair from his chin and examined the kinky strand against his fingertip.

“Their blue-eyed, blond-haired Jesus used to keep us in our place. We are but noble aborigines. Such is the result of their gradations of mankind. Here I am, too black for their tastes, too white for yours, trapped by their index of nigrescence.” Deaconess Blues manned a station, the controls warming the dirigible to a full-throated bluster, pulsing with steam. Baffles and stanchions, ballasts and air ducts pumped furiously. “Where is our justice?”

“Justice? There is no justice, there is Just Us,” Knowledge Allah said.

“Aluminum and iron oxide are elements of the fabric doping. This zeppelin ought to be filled with helium or another inert gas. However, as our purposes are of a more combustible nature, I’ve filled our little dirigible with hydrogen. I wouldn’t advise any more of your chiba indulgences.” Her stiff upper lip set to grim resolve, she remained unruffled by the chaos springing up about her.

“I ain’t down with no suicide run,” Sleepy said. “This brother don’t go out like that.”

“‘Yet our best trained, best educated, best equipped, best prepared troops refuse to fight!” Knowledge Allah recited with an evangelical fervor and a sneer of contempt. “Matter of fact, it’s safe to say that they would rather switch than fight!’”

“Who’s going to fight for The Cause if our best keep taking themselves out?”

“An arm, a leg perhaps. But not the Head,” Knowledge Allah said.

“I am not one to shrink from such deviltry. Besides, it’s not suicide. We are meant to be among the stars, signals from the heavens, showing others the way home.” Deaconess Blues stepped from her perch to meet Sleepy eye-to-eye. “Nor are we asking you to come.”

“What?” Sleepy’s sated gaze fixed on her.

“We accepted you because we saw your potential. Ancient tribes had truth-tellers and history keepers and story tellers. You are like one of those ancient griots. We give you the space to tell stories. Our story.”

“Vainglorious,” Knowledge Allah echoed.

“I detest long good-byes,” Deaconess Blues said.

Sleepy glanced from one to the other, tasked and dismissed. His lips parted to protest, but no sound escaped. He backed out toward the rear of the deck, ignoring his sense of relief while wanting to feign the injured party. As if he was deemed unworthy to partake in his own struggle.

“You smell that?” Deaconess Blues called out, her skin like luminescent butter. A static charge hung in the air. “The air smells like freedom.”

“Freedom or death,” Knowledge Allah said.

“We fly into glory.”

 “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”

“Citizens of the Universe, do not attempt to adjust your electro-transmitter, there is nothing wrong. We have taken control to bring you this special bulletin.”

Sleepy raced along the back roads desperate to beat the landing of the mother ship. A great shadow filled the sky, the pride of the empire. Clouds blackened into banks of ominous dark swirls by the endless entropy of Night. The wind howled. The gleaming overcities and jutting spires must look so different from up above, Sleepy imagined. Air raid lights filled the sky, spotlights on the stage of the night sky. The dirigible, their
Bop Gun, moved with implacable grace, an airborne whale, strident and regal.

“My message is simple. Tonight the Star Child… all of us will be free. By any means necessary. Freedom or death.

“I exist between time outside time. In the between places. I am the voice of truth in these troubled times.”

By the time Sleepy pulled up, a throng of people had gathered, held in check by too few constabularies. The Ave’s tower, impregnable and arrogant, saluted them. Slowly, the ovoid silhouette of the Bop Gun came into full view. The crowd burst into a roar of applause and cheers. As if in response, the behemoth canted forward in a sharp downward arc. Sleepy stared, filled with profound apprehension. The crowd became a pantomime of motion and fury and panic. Knowledge Allah stood before the grand bay window. Backlit, his grand gestures were perfectly visible to the spectators as the ship careened earthward.

He raised a clenched fist. “Vainglorious,” Sleepy whispered.

Everything happened at once, a series of images broken into shards of memory one tried to forget. The roar of the crowd, an exhalation of panic. An explosion. A billowy fire cloud, a phoenix springing toward the heavens. The smell of India rubber burning. Shrapnel of stone. A body, encircled in flames, stumbled two steps then collapsed. Fiery scraps blew about in the night breeze. The injured structure suddenly unable to bear its own weight, the tower collapsed. The terrible crash, thunder flattening the ear-drums. Smoke and flame, thick and choking, burning the lungs with each inhalation.


Watching the skeleton of the Bop Gun continue to burn—its tattered shell buckled upon itself—Sleepy waited, carried along by the undertow of the crowd. The constabularies, with their thick night sticks and steel-riveted riot shields, cordoned off the scene. Fear glazed their faces. He spied no one immediately fleeing and prayed that the prisoners had been moved. He feared that they remained trapped beneath the ground, escaping slaves caught in a cave in. Soon, among the wreckage and destruction, black bodies
scrambled from the underground, a stream of ants fleeing their hill. Some of the constabularies fired at the escaping prisoners. Something stirred inside Sleepy. The caustic smoke stung his eyes, his vision little more than watery blurs. Soot-tinged spittle dropped to the ground.

The voices rose into a chorus. Knowledge Allah. Deaconess Blues. His father. Lost in the din was his voice. Sleepy felt the anger. The urge to join the fight. To retaliate. Blinking through a haze of pain, he ground his heel into the desiccated earth and punched the nearest guard, a tacit signal to the crowd to surge forward. The horde spilled in every direction, blind fury, pent up aggression in search of a target. A mob of chaos, arms swinging blindly, clubs battering senselessly. Sirens sounded. Bodies clambered through barbed wire. In the ensuing mêlée, Sleepy was arrested. To the chants of “let him go,” the constabularies clapped him in irons, his expression more frustrated than fearful. At the precinct house, the questions came fast and furious. “Who were involved in the organizing?” “How did he get involved?” “How many were there?” “Who were the leaders?”

Sleepy fought his revolutions his own way. And raised a single fist.

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