They stepped off the boat - Rae had to adjust her stride to match the rolling rhythm of the floor - and passed through the floating gardens and into the cabin.
The interior of the houseboat was as eclectic as the outside. It was a cramped space filled with untidy stacks of dog-eared books and papers. One wall held a corkboard pinned with blueprints and engineering diagrams. The others displayed a wild variety of objects: polished brass compasses and chronometers, a wooden ship's wheel, a collection of oars and paddles, a shiny sextant, a rusty iron piston from an old steam engine, a display case of archaic vacuum tubes, yellowed nautical charts in frames.
Jefferson Lassalle, the hydrological engineer, sat at a computer terminal in an ancient swivel chair. He spun around to face them.
He was a big man, not so much tall as wide, with an incongruously formal scarlet suit jacket, paisley tie, and a vest embroidered with gold thread whose buttons strained at the bulk of his stomach. He had a frizz of hair peppered with gray, and his teeth were a bright white smile in a round, cheerful, mahogany face. But his brown eyes didn't match the impression of careless jollity. They were alert and sharp.
"Welcome to my humble home, Jane," Lassalle said. "You don't get out here often enough. Who's your guest?"
"Jefferson, I'd like you to meet Rae Robinson."
Rae braced for the shock of recognition, but the man's expression remained blank.
"Eh? Hmm? Pleasure, I'm sure, but I don't believe we're acquainted," he said as he shook her hand.
"News doesn't reach you very quickly out here, does it?" Jane said with a dry smile.
"I'm a recent arrival," Rae explained, "from New York City. I was sent by Will Anton, but there were... complications. My plane crashed..."
This got the belated reaction. The big man's eyes widened.
"Eh? That was you?"
"In the flesh."
He let out a bark of laughter.
"Well, then! A bona fide celebrity! We don't get many of those in the Pacific Republic. Tell me, young lady, how does it feel to be famous for the most colossal screwup in this fair city's history?"
Rae cracked a grin.
"It beats being dead."
"Well put. Let me give you some free advice. Fame is a fleeting pleasure; in six months, the next person will have grabbed the spotlight and you'll be lucky if anyone remembers your name. But you're here, and that makes you fortunate. This is the kind of place where you can make something of yourself. Don't let that opportunity pass you by."
Rae could tell this man was determined to be unimpressed by her, but she liked it that way. It was a welcome change of pace from people treating her with wide-eyed awe.
"I understand. Believe me, I didn't ask for this. In fact, I'd be happier without it. I just want to do my work. I think you and I are alike in that way."
"Oh?" Lassalle said skeptically. "You call yourself a hydrological engineer?"
"Not exactly, but I worked on the New York City subways. I dealt with more water than I want to think about. But that's not what I meant."
She gestured around the cabin.
"It's how you decorated this place. Everything on your walls represents a problem solved. Each one is a distillation of human experience and knowledge, given shape in metal, or wood, or paper and ink."
"Go on," he said, but there was a sly glint in his eye.
"We had to travel a long way to get here. Why? Because you're working on the tsunami shield? You didn't need to live near it for that; you're not building it yourself. If you wanted to inspect the piles or test the machinery, the Pacific Republic has drones that would let you do that through telepresence. You're out here by choice, because you like being by yourself. No distractions. No interruptions. No one to bother you. Just you and the problem to be solved, together in solitude. It gives you the space to really think."
The big man gave her a grudgingly impressed nod.
"I like her," he said to Jane. "She's sharp."
"Among her other good qualities."
He leaned back in his chair and put his feet up. They were clad in shiny boots that looked like polished crocodile skin.
"All right, you've got my attention. What can I do for you? I assume this isn't just a social call."
"No, it's not," Jane said. "I know you don't pay much attention to the news - but you may have heard of this referendum..."
"I heard something about it," he admitted. "You folks versus Piotr Kowalski and his lot."
"Then you know what's at stake. We're here to ask for your support."
"Me? Why me? I'm not from here. I'm going back to the Bayou Collective in a year or two, once I knock your flood gates into shape. I have no stake in your politics!"
"That's precisely why we came to you. You're an ambassador of sorts, Jefferson. Most people who know you know that you take little interest in our civic affairs. Because you're a disinterested party, if you were to speak in support of our plan to reclaim the world, it would lend our cause a moral legitimacy. It would show that the other cooperative societies emerging from the wreck of the U.S. are with us."
Lassalle frowned. He stood up and began to pace. It was somewhat alarming, considering how he filled the space of the little cabin. The floorboards creaked and groaned under his feet.
"So," he muttered. "You want to save the U.S., and you want my blessing to do it."
"That's the summary of it," Jane agreed.
He whirled, and his finger stabbed out at Rae.
"And you're with her on this?"
"Are you sure? You don't sound sure to me."
Rae had found the man's bluntness charming at first, but it was wearing on her.
"If I wasn't, I wouldn't have bothered coming all the way out here," she parried, and Lassalle grinned in acknowledgment.
But the grin quickly darkened to a frown. He went back to pacing.
"Answer me this, then. You know the Prisoner's Dilemma?"
He scarcely waited for her nod.
"Then you know the losing move is to be a sucker - to be altruistic and cooperative when the other player plans to stab you in the back and take you for everything you've got. With that in mind, why should we stick our necks out for the U.S.? If you look at the historical record, how has it treated people like you and me?
"The founders of America envisioned a republic of white male property owners, with everyone else consigned to permanent second-class status - or worse. They committed genocide against the native people of this continent. They held our ancestors in bondage because of the color of their skin, building their prosperity on generations of stolen labor. They barred women from voting and forbade them from owning property or having any legal existence separate from their husbands. They made it a crime to teach a slave to read.
"America clung so fiercely to slavery that it took a civil war ripping the country apart to end it. Even after that, they replaced it with brutal systems of segregation, enforced by white hoods and burning crosses and lynch mobs. They held us down with poll taxes and restrictive covenants. They redlined us into polluted slums so they could starve our communities and our schools of investment. They sent in the police like an occupying army to brutalize us. And when we needed help the most - you here in the Pacific Northwest, and us in New Orleans - America abandoned us to fend for ourselves.
"Now their society is falling apart, and they want us to come back and save them. Why should we? Don't you think they're reaping what they sowed?"
Rae glanced at Jane. She was standing silently, her head slightly bowed.
This is why she asked me to come. She knew this would come up, and she knew it wasn't for her to answer.
If Rae was being honest with herself, this was something she had always grappled with. She had been born and raised in the U.S., and she considered it her home and loved it in spite of everything. But she knew that there would always be those, like Curt Bryan, who saw her as undeserving and would stop at nothing to make sure she failed, thus making their prejudice a self-fulfilling prophecy. She felt this double consciousness keenly - the tension between wanting to belong, wanting to fit in, wanting to excel; and wanting to smash the injustices she saw all around her, to burn down the existing order and start over. (It was more than coincidence that she had dated Owen; there had always been a part of her that sympathized with him.)
Because she felt that sympathy, because she had personal experience of the injustices of which Lassalle spoke, she couldn't reject his words out of hand. She had to find a different way to answer him, like a martial artist redirecting the force of a blow rather than stopping it outright.
"I can't deny anything you say," she replied. "And I won't argue that America has done good things too, as if that cancels out the bad things or makes them not matter.
"There's just one argument I can make in defense of the U.S., and it's this: Unlike so many other countries, its founders recognized their own fallibility. Rather than seeking to fossilize their mistakes forever, they created a system of government where people had the right to speak out and call attention to injustice, and where future generations who knew better could improve on their predecessors. That's the most important principle we inherited from them, and it's one we still live by in the Pacific Republic.
"We call ourselves progressive because we believe in the arc of moral progress. We know that the mistakes of the past don't have to define us forever, that humanity can learn from its errors and do better. The ledger of the past can't be erased, but we can always turn the page and write a new chapter.
"After all, what does our perfect world look like? Is it where we're on top and those who once oppressed us are on the bottom? A world like the outside world is now, except with the hierarchy of power and privilege flipped upside down? I don't think so. The liberal vision is and always has been a utopia of equality, where those chains of privilege are broken. The children of the oppressors and the children of the oppressed, dining together at a common table.
"The U.S. isn't just populated by people who've profited from those cruel and racist systems you described. It's also inhabited by the people who have to live under them. By all means, let's bring the guilty to account, but let's not write off the innocent along with them."
Lassalle gave her a grudging nod.
"Fairly spoken," he said.
"Besides, I'm not just suggesting that we should act out of altruism or an abstract desire to right the wrongs of the past. By helping the U.S., we can help ourselves as well."
"How so?" he said, with a skeptical frown.
"Because this - this conflict we're facing now - is practice. Humanity is divided, and Piotr Kowalski says that divide is unbridgeable. He says of those who stand on the other side that we can't help them, we can't coexist with them, and we can't convince them to see things our way. The only thing that's left to do is give up on them. Leave them behind on Earth and go to Mars.
"But what if we get to Mars and more disagreements crop up there? What if we create that colony and the settlers are divided again - divided over how to allocate their resources, how to choose their goals, where to focus their efforts. Then what do we do?
"We can't pull up stakes and move on whenever we have a conflict. There won't always be a new horizon to retreat over. That's libertarian thinking, not our thinking. We ought to believe in getting along with our neighbors, in resolving our differences with them, in helping them just as we'd want them to help us. If we can't solve this problem here and now, what makes us so sure we'll be able to solve it the next time we encounter it? Or the time after that?
"Saving the world is our praxis. It's the way we put our principles into tangible action, the evidence that they really mean something and aren't just decorations we put up to feel good about ourselves. It's the proof that the umbrella of our ideals is big enough to unite all of humanity, not just a naive little dream limited to"—she gave them a self-deprecating smile—"misfits and hopeless romantics like us."
Lassalle seemed speechless. He looked at Jane, as if expecting her to deliver a verdict.
"Didn't you say she was sharp?" Jane said, with a twinkle in her eye.
"So I did," the man said, nodding slowly. "So I did."
He thrust out a hand. Rae felt an almost electric shock when she took it in hers, as if a flow of current had been unleashed.
"Let's build your umbrella," Lassalle said with a smile like the dawn.