Chapter 4: The Heart

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“I don't understand,” says Mickey, his hands still red with nettle stings. They're in the caverns, a mile or so from the hobo camp through a labyrinth of underground tunnels. This is the conference hall, a natural cave with a domed ceiling covered in stalactites. There's room for everybody, but nobody's happy to be there. “The NICE Boys have never bothered us at Abby's Jungle. Why would they raid us now?” This starts a debate, which leads to an argument, which only exacerbates the chaos that comes from a few dozen hobos taking refuge in a dark cave.

Abby pulls the presidents aside, along with Sam. “Listen, boys,” she says, “you're not to blame for the raid, but there's a lot of people here who might not feel that way. If we end up holding a hobo court here tonight, things might not go your way. It might be best if you take off now, before things settle down and people start pointing fingers. You'll have to go by hand, but it's not far. The way through is marked. I'd recommend the water route.”

Sam tips his hat. “Much obliged, Abby,” he says.

“But what if we are to blame?” says Forty-two. “Those NICE agents might have been after the two of us. If we led 'em to your camp, we've got to take responsibility.”

“Well, now, hold one,” says Forty-three. “Let's not be hasty.”

“They blew up her bridge,” says Forty-two.

“Bridges collapse all the time,” says Forty-three. “Heh. You can't explain why.”

Abby shakes her head. “It's no use arguing about it. They've been cracking down on jungles from coast to coast. It's been going on for weeks. Maybe they were looking for you two, but it was only a matter of time before they dropped in on us.”

Sam nods. “But most people don't care about facts when they're angry. They just want a fall guy. I don't mind catching the blame with you, but it would be best not to be here when it happens. I've been accused of worse, and I always manage to sort it out one way or another. Abby will take care of the people here. She always does.”

Abby nods. She hands Sam a stack of newspapers. “It's gonna be Winter soon,” she says. “California blankets are good for more than one thing.” She winks.

“Our thanks to you,” says Sam. “See you when I see you.” He ushers the presidents into a side corridor, and they're away into the tunnels before anyone notices they're gone. As the noise of the crowd fades behind them, they hear a long whistle cut through the din. The cavern falls quiet, and Abby's is the only voice they hear; the calm voice of a leader, looking after her people.

“I've been this way once before,” says Sam as he ushers the presidents along. His lantern disappears down a side passage. They hustle to keep up. “The waterway will take us to a cave by a lake where there's a cabin, in which lives a disgraced dirigible pilot. He owes me a favor from the time I used the breeze from a fan boat to alter the trajectory of his slowly crashing airship, thereby saving his life and the lives of everybody at that chili cook-off, though not saving him from the charge of attempted assassination, for judging that chili cook-off was celebrity chef and Governor of Nevada, Manny O'Fire. Never mind that the controls of his dirigible had been sabotaged, and the real criminals remain at large to this day. All of this is to say, he'll give us a lift if I ask him nicely.”

“But we still don't know where we're going,” says Forty-two. “We're careening from place to place with no sense of purpose, trash in the wind.”

“All we wanted to do was fix the country,” says Forty-three, “but it's fractured into pieces like a sheet of delicious peanut brittle. There's too many factions, too much animosity. I'm a uniter, not a divider, but I can't even keep from dividing a hobo camp against itself. Not that it was my fault.”

The tunnel forks into a crossroads. One path leads left, the other right. Sam stops. “You want to heal the nation?” he says. “Here are your choices.” He points one way. “Follow that until you see moonlight. Climb up the ladder you find there and out through the manhole. You'll be right in front of a police station. Turn yourselves in. Serve your time, pay your dues, see who cares or even notices.” He points the other way. “Or go that way. Follow the underground river to the lake and hop a dirigible for the slimmest possible chance that we can find the beating Heart of America and restore it to its rightful place.” He hands the stack of California blankets to the presidents. In the dim light of Sam's lantern, they can just make out the newsprint.

“This isn't state-owned media,” says Forty-two.

“This is the Failing Times,” says Forty-three.

Sam taps a headline. “A sliver of hope is better than a pile of nope. I forget who said that. Probably me.”

The presidents don't have time to read the article before Sam turns down the corridor to the waterway, taking his lantern with him. It doesn't matter. They only need to see the headline and a glimpse of the blurry photo above the article.

“It's true, then,” say Forty-three.

“It's still out there. The Heart.”

They take off after the bobbing light of Sam's lantern, an afterimage of the headline still flashing in their eyes. “U.S. Constitution Spotted Near Rebel Stronghold.”