Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6

 

CONQUISTADOR

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


CHAPTER ONE:

Los Angeles

June, 2009

FirstSide:

 

I joined the Department of Fish and Game because I couldn't be a soldier anymore and I hate cities, Tom Christiansen thought, the Beretta cold and unforgiving in his hands. It didn't have the heft of an assault rifle, which would have been comforting right about now. God is an ironist.

He and his partner were crouched behind rear door of a car not far from the SWAT team; the FBI agent was up beside the front wheel. It was a typical early summer day in LA; the ozone was enough to fry the hairs out of your nostrils, his eyes hurt from the smog that left a ring of dirty brown around the horizon, and the nearest vegetation was a tired-looking palm a block away if you didn't count weeds growing through cracks in the pavement. It was better than going after holdouts in the Hindu Kush, but that was about all you could say for it.

"Leave the freeze! and hands up! stuff to our esteemed colleagues of the LAPD, aka 'those fucking cowboy assholes', Tom," the FBI agent said quietly, glancing over at him. She was a thin hard-looking black woman named Sarah Perkins. "Game wardens shot dead in LA bust doesn't make a good headline."

Tom nodded, grinning; it was an expression that came easily to his face. He was a broad-shouldered thick-armed long-legged man three inches over six feet, dressed in T-shirt, a Sacramento Kings jacket and jeans, with battered hiking boots on his feet. His short-cropped white-blond hair topped a tanned square-cut face and a straight nose that had been broken and healed very slightly crooked a long time ago. He looked every inch the east-Dakota norski farm boy he'd been born thirty-two years ago, down to the pale gray of his eyes. A very slight trace of Scandinavian singsong underlay his flat Midwestern accent, despite the fact that his great-grandparents had left the shores of the Hardangerfjord a hundred and thirty years before. The wheat country north of Fargo hadn't attracted a whole lot of newcomers since then.

"Ever hear what happened when they sent the LAPD to find the rabbit that attacked President Carter, back 'when?" he said softly.

Just sitting and waiting before action let you get knotted up inside. Gallows humor was the only sort available on a battlefield, but that was when you needed to break the tension.

"I'll bite," Perkins said.

"Well, the LAPD went into the woods, and half an hour later they dragged out a grizzly bear by its hind feet; it didn't have any teeth left and both its eyes were swollen shut. And it was screaming over and over: All right! I'm a rabbit! I'm a rabbit!"

She snorted laughter; quietly, and without taking her eyes off the target. Tom exchanged a silent glance with his partner, and Roy Tully grinned back. It wouldn't be tactful to mention the other part of the joke -- the FBI burned down the whole wood and shot everything that came out on the grounds that 'the rabbit had it coming'.

And there was no real reason to complain, even if working for Fish and Game was more like soldiering than he'd anticipated; he was a cop, sort of -- he was part of the Special Operations Unit; the SOU was the enforcement branch of the DFG. That made him smile a little too; SOU, DFG, FBI, SWAT, LAPD, the alphabet soup of police bureaucracy. Still, guys like him were as necessary as the scientists and administrators; without them there wouldn't be any condors left, or eagles, or cougar, and Lake Tahoe would be ticky-tack all the way 'round, and the whole of California would look like this. If that meant he had to crouch here next to a crummy little warehouse of rusting sheet metal in South-Central LA, hoping he wouldn't get shot and frying his sinuses when he could be hiking in the Sierras breathing air colder and cleaner than crystal, or canoeing in Glacier national park, or even just taking a break to help out on his brother's farm back in North Dakota, then so be it.

The SWAT troopers' heads came up; something was going on, and they were getting the word through their ear mikes. He'd never liked the Imperial-Death-Star-Nazi look of the black uniforms they insisted on, like hanging out an Oooooo, AIN'T WE BAD! sign, but they had good gear.

There was a loud whump from within the warehouse. Flames shot out of windows at the rear -- he could tell by the plumes of smoke -- and the big sheet-metal doors at the front slammed outward as they were struck by an invisible fist of hot dense air; the clerestories on the roof shattered upward in a weirdly beautiful shower of broken glass, glinting in the harsh sunlight. Smoke followed seconds later. It wasn't a big explosion, but it had obviously been linked to incendiaries; flames were licking out as well.

Subtlety might be a problem with the LA cops, but firepower and straightforward kick-ass aggression were things they did well; they all charged forward, M-16's and machine-pistols at their shoulders. The other teams would be going in from around the warehouse, and the snipers were ready on the flat roofs of the neighboring buildings. The troopers went through the doors, leaving them swinging and banging -- and almost immediately there was a second explosion, the sound much lower and sharper.

"Shit!"

Tom wasn't sure if that was him or Tully or Perkins; they all reacted identically too, getting up and running towards the door. He found that comforting. Running towards trouble wasn't always the right thing to do, but people with that reflex were generally the ones you wanted around you when things got rough.

There were two policemen down just inside the door, one limp, the other putting a field bandage on his own leg.

"Fire set off something," he said. "Rodriguez is OK, I think."

"Good pulse, no bleeding, no concussion," Perkins confirmed, peeling back an eyelid and pressing her fingers to the man's throat.

She and Tully helped the man with the wounded leg, swinging arms over their shoulders and carrying his weight between them; they were about the same height, five-six or so. Tom stooped and lifted the unconscious officer in a fireman's carry, rising easily under the hundred and ninety pounds of man and gear -- he was even stronger than he looked, and that load was fifty short of his own body-weight. The waiting paramedics ran up to take the injured men, so that was all right; sirens of several types were screaming or yodeling nearby.

Tom scooped up a Colt Commando carbine someone had dropped as they went back in. This was the interior loading bay of the warehouse, with nothing in it but oil stains and orange paint on the concrete. There were two sets of stairs along the walls leading up to the higher interior floor, and two big orange-painted vertical sliding doors buckled and jammed in their frames. Smoke was coming out of those, but up near the top -- that meant most of the fire was going out the roof for now. The dull roar was getting louder with every heartbeat, though, and the heat of the combustion was drying the sweat on his face faster than it could come out of his pores. Perkins nodded at him, and the three dashed through, ducking under the twisted sheet metal. There hadn't been any shooting, and he could hear the members of the SWAT teams calling to each other.

It took a few seconds for what he was seeing inside to sink in. Piles of crates, boxes and bales... And piles of tusks. Elephant tusks, a couple of hundred of them. Walrus tusks. The fire had the piles between him and them, but he pushed into the smoke, close enough to confirm what the heavy burnt-leather reek had told him. The skins were polar bear, and grizzly, and tiger, and sea-otter -- stacks of them, hundreds at least.

"Oh, my God!" he said, acutely aware of the utter inadequacy of the words. "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!"

That wasn't up to the occasion either, but it did a better job of expressing how he felt. Tully's amazing flow of scatology and obscenity was a little better, and more sincere than usual -- the smaller man's Arkansas accent was notably thicker.

The SWAT team came back, coughing and crouching as the smoke grew heavier and came closer to the floor. One of them held a big cage, with an even bigger bird jammed into it, something like an enormous vulture, thrashing and screeching hoarsely. A really enormous vulture...

An adult California condor.

Tom felt his teeth show in an involuntary snarl of rage. There weren't more than a couple of hundred of those in the whole world, and only a captive breeding program had saved them from complete extinction. This one warehouse could have pushed a couple of species halfway to the brink! The rising shuddering roar of the fire, the rumble of sheet metal buckling and twisting, the ptank! as rivets gave way, all seemed to pale before the thunder of his own blood in his ears.

The officer in charge of the SWAT team grabbed him as he tried to push further in; the offices were in a glassed-in enclosure up against the far wall, and it was there that any evidence would be found.

"No use!" he shouted, flipping up his face shield. "They must have had some warning -- the charges there went off first. We took everything we could find, but I think there's thermite planted here that hasn't gone off yet, and sure as shit someone drenched the place in gasoline. Out of here before someone gets killed!"

They did, retreating before the billowing rankness of the smoke made by things not meant to burn. The leader of the SWAT team pulled off his helmet, coughing and rubbing at a gray-and-red mustache.

"Son of a bitch!" he said, as they dodged aside to let the first wave of firemen wrestle a hose forward. "I didn't think there was that much ivory in the world," he said, grinning through smoke-smuts. "These must be some seriously energetic smugglers you're after."

"There are only two hundred forty-seven condors in the world," Tom said grimly. "That one your people got out is one half of one percent of the entire goddamn species. Congratulations on that, by the way."

"Oh," the LA policeman said, then nodded to them and walked away.

"Also Known As," Perkins muttered.

"As the bear said, I'm a rabbit," Tully said, his grin making his face look even more like a garden gnome's than usual. "Guy must have been a Marine." Perkins raised her brows, and Tully went on: "Marine -- Muscles Are Required, Intelligence Not Essential."

Tom took a deep breath, not even minding the air much -- or that Tully had stolen the Ranger joke. Anger seemed to burn the impurities out of his system. "You know what makes me really mad?"

"No, Tom, what makes you really mad?" Perkins said.

The evidence had been set up temporarily in the back of one of the LAPD vans; the condor was further in, in shadow with an improvised cover thrown over the cage, and seemed to be all right except for being agitated. And rather smelly; condors were naturally carrion-eaters, and messy diners at best. The rustling of the great bird's wings inside the confining cave gave a slithering undertone to the murmur of the growing crowd, the noise of the fire and the firefighters' machinery. The LAPD evidence team were at work with their baggies and tweezers, making sure everything was preserved properly, and taking continuous video as they did.

"My father and the potholes, that's what makes me angry."

Perkins' thin eyebrows went up; she noticed that she still had her 9mm in her hand and put it back in the holster at the small of her back and let the thin polyester jacket fall over it again.

"Told you my Dad farmed, didn't I?" Tom said; she nodded, and he went on:

"Well, up in the Red River valley, the land's flat as a pancake -- a lot of it had to be tile-drained before it could carry a crop, it's naturally swampy all through the spring and fall. Some of it's still in these little isolated marshy lakes, we call 'em potholes. And it's on a big migratory bird flyway. Millions of birds depend on those potholes to get to and from their breeding grounds. Problem is, after you've drained them, those potholes are prime land... and there's not a farmer in the world who can afford to pass up another hundred acres, even if he's farming twenty sections, which Dad wasn't. The bigger you are the bigger your debts get. So we're coming back from duck-hunting one fall; one of those sunny crisp days, with a little haze on the horizon, the wheat's in but some of the sunflowers are still nodding in the wind.

"And I'm on top of the world because it's the first time I've been allowed to take a shotgun out with Dad and my brother Lars and we've each gotten a couple of mallards, and it's been the best goddamned day in my life. And we stop at a crossroads and talk to a neighbor -- who did farm twenty sections -- and he says that if he was Dad, he'd have drained that pothole for his kids' sake, not wasted it on ducks."

Perkins looked at him a little oddly. "What did your father say?"

"Nothing, until the neighbor was on his way. Then he turned to us, Lars and me, and smiled, and said: "And if I did drain it, you boys would never get to see the ducks going over in the fall, or go hunting with your kids. Better than getting a motorbike for Christmas, eh?"

Tom kicked the wheel of the van, remembering the rough hand tousling his hair, and the smells of pipe tobacco and Old Spice he'd always subliminally associated with his father.

"Dad worked himself to death keeping that farm going, but he wasn't going to steal that from his grandsons. And now some son of a bitch had that place stuffed to the rafters with the carcasses of animals maybe nobody will ever see again except on a recording, and for what? For money to shove candy up his nose, to give some hooker a diamond, to buy some three-a-dollar Third World politician."

He very carefully did not slam his fist into the side of the van, letting the fingers unclench one by one. "Sorry," he muttered, embarrassed by the outburst; he normally wasn't a very verbal man.

Perkins patted him on the shoulder as she came up to his side. "Hey, that's more emotion than has ever been shown in Sweden before," she said. "No, it's all right, Christiansen. Every good cop has got to have a little passion in them about something in the work, or they burn out. Your passion is critters and trees; that's OK. I like collaring scumbags; this bunch, terrorists back in the war, whatever. Our passions coincide." A grin. "Don't tell my husband I said that."

"Yah, you betcha," he said, with a relieved snort; he was a little embarrassed being a fairly reticent man normally.

They moved over to the van, where the specialists had completed their work; the yellow tape was up, and uniformed police were keeping the crowds back. Tully took out a piece of the beef jerky he always kept in a pocket and tried to interest the condor in it; the big bird just cowered lower in his cage, which was quite an accomplishment since he essentially filled it.

The evidentiary spoils set out on the van's floor were pathetically meager; the fire must have blown up like a volcano going off in the SWAT team's faces, leaving them only seconds to grab what they could. There were a few sheets of paper that might have been accounts, a few letters, a charred and battered computer unit that might have salvageable data on its hard drive. And one large glossy photograph, curled and discolored along one edge. Tom reached towards it, picking it up by the corners of the plastic bag it was sealed in.

"What the hell is this?" Perkins said, looking around him -- she'd have had to stand on a chair to look over his shoulder.

"I think those are supposed to be Aztec priests," he said dubiously. "Some sort of re-creation, or a movie. But it doesn't look quite right."

The setting reminded him of things he'd seen in National Geographic articles; the top of a huge stepped pyramid, the edges of the stones carved in violently-colored serpents and shapes even more arcane; the alien symbolism made it difficult to pick up the details. The men grouped around the altar were a little easier, despite the huge feathered headdresses, grotesque devil-masks set with turquoise and silver, multicolored cloaks, elaborate loincloths. And blood, a great deal of it, flooding down from the gutters on the altar. Bodies lay around, their chests gaping open; another was stretched out across the altar block with a priest holding each limb and another holding up the severed heart and a broad dagger of polished obsidian with a dragonlike hilt.

"The idol he's offering the heart to, that's Huitzilopochtli," Tom said.

He'd dated a Mexican-American girl interested in ancient Mesoamerican art, back when he was in the Rangers and stationed in Texas. Personally he thought it was all sort of grotesque; this statue was indescribable, a tall multicolored stone nightmare of hearts, stylized spurting blood, knives, teeth, snakes, clutching hands and God-knew-what.

"Hooti Lipopki?" Tully said. "They're worshipping some Polack country-western star gone bad?"

Tom chuckled, and even the rather grim FBI agent was startled into a smile.

"It's in Nahuatl, the old Aztec language -- he was their god of war -- the name translates as 'Smoking Mirror'. Also known as 'Left-Handed Hummingbird' and 'The Shadow Behind the Shoulder'."

Perkins made a moue of distaste. "Maybe these scumbags were dealing in snuff films too?" she asked. "Or this might be a still from a horror movie."

"I don't know -- the sets look awfully realistic and detailed; that costs." You couldn't live in California for years and not know something about "the Industry".

"I think a horror flick that elaborate would have gotten some publicity."

"Realistic except for one thing," Tully said with a guffaw, peering a little more closely and pointing out a detail that only became clear if you put your face close to the picture.

"Yeah," Tom said, with an answering chuckle. It was nice to have some comic relief in a day like this.

Above their loincloths, the 'priests' were all wearing T-shirts; black ones, showing a dancing skeleton with a chaplet of red roses and more blossoms falling around it.

"Isn't that an album cover from one of those sixties rocker groups that kept on performing until they were shuffling around the stage in walkers with oxygen tubes up their noses?" Tom said.

Perkins got it first. "Grateful Dead. I didn't know they were touring Mexico that long ago."

They all laughed at that; it was odd, how a picture of carnage that would make you faintly sick if it were real looked ludicrous when you knew it was fake, no matter how good the illusion.

"Well, that seems to be that for now," the FBI agent said. "Let's get our part of this ratfuck cleared up, at least."

She shook hands with the SOU wardens, and Tom Christiansen turned to go; he had to arrange to get the condor into the proper hands at the San Diego zoo's captive-breeding program, and then they had to catch these smugglers and put them away for a long, long time. In a way this ratfuck would help -- they could add arson and reckless negligence, possibly attempted homicide to the count of crimes -- but it meant that the bad guys were still one step ahead of them.

As he turned, he caught sight of something that stood out from the crowd, enough to stop him for an instant. Two men as tall or taller than he was, one of them as big, which was rare; they were also white men, not common on the street in this part of South-Central, and dressed in conservative narrow-stripe business suits. They were just turning away. Between them was a young woman who must be tall herself; he caught a glimpse of bright hair and then the trio were lost in the crowd.

Well, that's California, he thought. Always surprises.

Tully put a hand on his arm as he turned back, with a slight facial twitch that said hang around and shhhhh! Tom waited until the FBI agent had left before he raised a brow.

"Strikes me that there's one place we haven't looked, Kemosabe," Tully said. "The condor's cage."

Tom nodded, sighing a little. "It's a dirty job --" he began.

"No worse than shoveling out the chicken-house back on the farm," Tully said, pulling out two pair of disposable gloves.

"We were wheat farmers," Tom said, drawing the tight plastic over his fingers and keeping a wary eye on the bird. On the one hand, condors weren't very aggressive. On the other, they were very big, and so were their claws and beaks. "We got our chicken at the A&P, like everyone else."

"Not like us Arkies down in dogpatch," Tully said. "Why, mah daddy tanned the leather fer our shoes! After he wrassled him the bar, 'n rendered it down fer candles 'n tanned the hide."

"Your father was a lawyer," Tom pointed out. "In Little Rock."

"Now that's a filthy job," Tully said, peeling back layers of sodden, droppings-laden paper. The acrid stench was heavy. "Hel-lo, what have we here?"

"Well, well, well!" Tom said. "The Oakland Herald. Looks like our bird wasn't LA-LA born. Closer to our neck of the woods, yah, you betcha. And what's this?"

One of the pungent linings at the bottom of the cage wasn't newspaper. It was some sort of corporate letterhead.

"Bosco Holdings," Tom read out; a white splotch of condor feces obliterated most of the rest, but there was a San Francisco address. "Bay area. So far we've been about as useful as an udder on a billygoat. Here's our chance."

@@@

Adrienne Rolfe stood with her hands on her hips and frowned as the fire-engines went past her. The warehouse was a bellowing pillar of fire now; the first firemen on the scene were just trying to keep it from spreading rather than trying to put it out. With any luck it would keep burning until nothing was left but ash. Ashes could tell a surprising amount with modern forensic techniques, but they didn't have the public-relations impact of intact pieces of dead animals -- or, worse, living ones that shouldn't be here. There were limits to what even the Commission could hush up, but the fire had kept a number of headlines unprinted.

The crowd was growing now, mostly black with a scattering of Hispanics, watching the blinking lights of the police cars. The heat was dense, between the afternoon sun baking back from asphalt and walls and the thick crush, and the smell added to the normal throat-catching vileness of FirstSide city air to put her nerves on edge. That wasn't all bad; it kept you alert. She still didn't enjoy being jostled by strangers, or feeling this conspicuous.

Nor was she the only one. The tall pale-eyed lanky man beside her muttered: "Verdonde kaffirs," under his breath. Then "Varken hond!." At one teenager in low-slung pants whose head was like a shaven black cannonball beneath a yellow bandana, and who'd casually elbowed him.

Adrienne shifted, inconspicuously planting the low heel of her sensible leather walking shoe on her assistant's toe and leaning her weight onto it. She wasn't a small woman; five-nine and a hundred and thirty-five pounds, and there was a vicious expertise in the swift painful grinding motion she used.

"Schalk, remember where you are," she said in a pleasant undertone as he yelped and staggered, distracted. "I'm not going to tell you again."

Freely translated, what he'd said meant goddamned niggers and pig-dog respectively. Those were not tactful expressions around here.

Schalk van der Merwe scowled, but muttered a brief: "Sorry, miss."

Beside him Piet Botha rumbled agreement -- with Adrienne. He was as tall as his partner, but older; a dark bullet-headed massive man with hands like spades and the beginnings of a kettle belly over solid muscle. One joint of the middle finger was missing from his left hand, and there were white scars running up both hands into the cuffs of his suit. She had her suspicions about how both of them felt working under her on this assignment, she being a she and a good bit younger than either, but she'd been the only member of the Thirty Families available and remotely qualified. Something like this was too important not to have a member of the Commission's inner circle in charge. She strongly suspected that Piet was a lot calmer than his thinner colleague, which could be helpful in keeping Schalk in line.

And I know I'm not going to let either of them screw this up, she thought, giving the FirstSider operation one final careful glance.

Damn.

The FirstSiders had gotten some stuff out of the offices; reluctantly, she admitted that must have taken guts and presence of mind. Three plainclothes operatives were examining items set out in the back of a van; a black woman, a short white man in high-waisted green pants and suspenders, and a very tall, well-built blond man a few years older than herself. They talked together for a few minutes, laughing at some joke, and then held up a photograph. That would be very bad... except that nobody would believe it. Particularly when digital photography was so easy to modify. Everyone here was used to seeing convincing images of impossible things.

The Commission would have lost its secret long ago, if it weren't for the convenient fact that it was simply too wild. People didn't grasp it until they were shoved through, usually.

"Another half hour, and the fire would have started before anyone got in," Piet grumbled. "We should have set the timers shorter."

The tip had been so hot they'd come directly down from the San Francisco office without even changing clothes. The result was that they were breaking the first rule of FirstSide operations, sticking out like sore thumbs -- standing out even more than they would have in costumes that were tailored for a quasi-slum area of LA, rather than the Commission's outer-shell offices in the San Francisco financial district. So far no harm had been done, but when the news services began arriving -- apart from the helicopter, which had been overhead since a few minutes after the police went in -- and the cameras started panning across the crowd, they'd stand out like a Chumash shaman at a polo match. With a little bad luck, someone might stick a microphone in their faces and try to get a person-in-the-street reaction.

They turned casually and walked back towards where their van was parked. Never get your face on a record if you could avoid it was another rule, and one getting harder and harder to follow, what with surveillance cameras popping up everywhere.

They walked past more self-storage and then into streets of ordinary shops, seedy and many boarded up; they weren't far from Sepulveda Boulevard. Knots of men and boys lingered on doorsteps, or leaned against cars; she was conscious of eyes following her, and a palpable mist of hostility towards the affluent white girl. Schalk and Piet stood out too, although not in any way that would attract local predators. In their expensive Armani suits and thousand-dollar shoes, they looked to be exactly what they were -- a pair of merciless hulking killers stuffed into Armani suits and thousand-dollar shoes. Anyone who might think of attacking them would also probably recognize that they were armed. She smiled slightly; all three of them actually had valid concealed-carry permits for the Belgian Five-seveN specials under their jackets.

Although not for the P90 machine pistols in the attaché cases, and some of the stuff in the vehicle would be right out of it. Semtex, timers, detonators, cans of gasoline and thermite bombs, for example. Even if the invoice reads cleaning supplies back at HQ.

Still, it wasn't far to the van, and if they hadn't been along she might have had to hurt somebody, which would be more conspicuous still.

A couple of youths were lingering around the minivan; it was an inconspicuous Ford Windstar, several years old and externally a bit scuffed-up. That was ironic too. The Families were some of the richest people in the world -- two worlds -- and here, at least, they didn't dare show it. Getting your picture in Town and Country or the gossip pages was enough to have your Gate privileges revoked. You could show a certain degree of affluence, but not real status, whether you were working or on vacation; and that was under threat of dire penalty. It was an important reason why so few members of the Thirty Families lived FirstSide any more.

Me, I just hate this place, she thought, as she clicked the little device on her keychain that unlocked the doors, turned off the alarms, and started the engine. The stink, the ugliness, the crowding, the swarms of strangers, with the stress that puts on you every moment, the fact that you have to lock everything up... did I mention the stink? Just a small-town girl at heart, I suppose.

Schalk went over to one of the young men who was standing too close to the driver's door and looked at him from an inch inside his personal space. After an instant, the would-be gangbanger took three steps backward, stumbling on the curb. Then the Afrikaner smiled and inclined his head:

"Danke, kleine maanetje," he said sardonically, and held the door open for her.

"We have a problem," she said, as they pulled away from the curb.

She drove conservatively, carefully, and rather slowly until they were northbound on the Harbor Freeway, on their way to the Santa Monica junction; they were staying at a hotel called La Montrose, which was quite tolerable. At midmorning on a Thursday, the traffic wasn't too bad -- open enough for her to enjoy the trip a little. Driving fast on broad limited-access roads was one of the real pleasures of FirstSide, like ballet and professional live theatre. Of course, it was best with a sports car and an open stretch of desert, not this clunker in the midst of LA's hideous sprawl.

"Ja," Piet said after a moment; he had checked that they weren't being tailed. "That was too close. 'n Moerse probleem ; we have to wrap this up quickly."

She nodded. Schalk was useful -- she'd heard he once grabbed a bandit's neck and left wrist, and then pulled the arm right off at the shoulder -- but Piet was actually capable of thought, too. Well, they both earn their corn, each in his own way, she thought, and went on aloud:

"But that's not the real problem. The real problem is that we're working against both someone with Commonwealth connections who's managed to smuggle goods past Gate Security, and against FirstSide law enforcement, this time. And the FirstSiders have a good lead they're working on; otherwise they wouldn't have known about the warehouse."

She paused for a moment. "It's like two birds eating a worm. We have the New Virginia end, they have the FirstSide end, and we're in far too much danger of meeting in the middle. That would be very bad."

Piet frowned. "Yes, miss, that means we have to be quick."

"That means we have to find out what they know," she said. "Beyond what our usual pipelines can tell us. They don't know what we really are, and we don't want to give them ideas, either. Sometimes the questions you ask tell more than answers would."

Schalk looked a little baffled. Piet gave her a glanced of surprised respect; she kept her own reaction to that politely concealed. He should have been smart enough to realize that the Commission wouldn't send a complete figurehead along on a field operation, even one with her bloodline. The Old Man was ready enough to indulge a grandchild's whim, but not where it could have a serious impact on business.

"And I've got the inkling of an idea about how," she said thoughtfully. "I need to do some research first. If things are the way I think... we'll still need permission to use it -- authorization from the Committee, possibly from the Old Man."

Schalk muttered something in his native tongue. She didn't really speak Afrikaans -- she had fluent Spanish, which was much more useful here FirstSide, plus French and Italian and a little German, which were sometimes handy in the Commonwealth of New Virginia. She had picked up a fair smattering of vocabulary in the past eighteen months, since these two were assigned to her as a combination of bodyguards, gofers and muscle.

"Yes, Operative van der Merwe, he is my grandfather," she said sweetly. Schalk flushed. "But that's going to make talking him into what I have in mind harder, not easier."

@@@

 

INTERLUDE:

May 5th , 1946

The Commonwealth of New Virginia:

 

The flicker of the campfire cast unrestful red light on the faces of the five men who sat about it; a battered camp coffee-pot bubbled away on three stones in the midst of the coals and low red flames, sending its good smell drifting along with the clean hot scent of burning oak-wood, the tule elk steaks they'd grilled, and the briny smell of the Bay not far to the west. An occasional pop sent red sparks drifting slowly skyward, upward towards the shimmer of firelight on the leaves of the big coast live-oak whose massive branches writhed above them, and towards the stars that frosted the sky in an arch above. Their simple campsite stood on the fringe of the circle of light, three Army-surplus tents and a few bales and boxes; horses snorted nearby, stamping and pulling at their tethers as something big grunted and pushed its way through a thicket. Faint and far beyond that was the chanting of the Ohlone Indians in their village, where a shaman held ceremony to decide the meaning of the strangers with their wonderful gifts and terrible weapons.

Closer to the fire was a neat stack of small tough canvas sacks, crimped tightly shut. There were ten of them, and each held an even hundred pounds of gold in nuggets and dust. "Now, would any of you have believed a word of it before you saw it with your own eyes?" John Rolfe said.

He looked around as they shook their heads. His cousins Robert and Alan, Aunt Antonia's sons, alike as two peas in a pod, tall lean young men just turned twenty-one, their long faces much like his but with the dirty-blond hair and blue eyes showing the Fitzmorton coloring of their father. They were just out of the Service too. Rob had been running a tank-destroyer company in Italy, and Alan had been a B-17 pilot based out of England; they'd just finished picking flak shrapnel out of his butt. Then there was Andy O'Brien, the big beefy freckle-faced Boston Irishman who'd been top sergeant in Rolfe's unit -- not to mention a notable shot even in a division known as the Deadeyes; and Salvatore Colletta, small and smart and with the best poker face Rolfe had ever come across. He'd been Rolfe's personal radioman, as well as an artist with a Thompson. He had a tommygun lying against the log at his back, and his dark thin features were utterly expressionless as he leaned forward to light his cigarette from a splinter. His cheeks hollowed as he inhaled, showing blue-black stubble; Salvatore was in his early twenties too, but the big black eyes were ancient in the thin Sicilian face.

"But are you sure this isn't our California, a long time ago?" O'Brien asked uneasily. "And we could all go... pop, like a soap bubble, if we changed the things that made us."

Rolfe shook his head. "The first time I came through, I carved numbers on rocks in places I could locate on both sides -- boulders, cliff faces -- carved them deep enough to last for thousands of years. There's no trace of them back on our side of the Gate, where we know it's 1946. I'm still going to get some astronomers to look at pictures of the night sky -- the stars change with time, you know -- but I'm pretty certain this is the same time as back there in California, the spring of 1946. It's just a world where somehow white men never showed up. A different past, a different history, but the moon and sun are exactly the same, and the shape of the land, and the plants and animals -- everything except what men have done."

"That gives us a monopoly, then," Rob Fitzmorton said, and went on with a dreamy smile: "There's an awful lot of gold in them thar hills. Francesca is going to be pretty damned happy."

"We can't just go back and turn the gold into money," Rolfe went on. "Salvo? Fill them in."

"Yeah, you got that right, Cap'n," Colletta said: it sounded more like youse got dat roit, in a hard nasal big-city accent straight from the corner of Hester and Baxter in Manhattan. "For starters, that figghi'e'bottana Roosevelt, he made it against the law to own gold, back before the war."

O'Brien blinked in surprise. "What can we do with it, then?"

His voice was South Boston; not unlike the Italian's, but with a hint of a brogue in it now and then, and the odd stretched New England-style vowel.

Colletta chuckled and shrugged. "Nah, maybe -- just maybe -- I might know some guys who've got, like, a flexible attitude towards that sort of stupid rule, for a reasonable little cut. Guys who got relatives in Los Angeles. Maybe the Cap'n was thinking of that when he invites me on this little hunting trip."

His eye caught his ex-commander's, and they gave an imperceptible nod of perfect mutual understanding.

"Risky, though," Rob Fitzmorton said. "Not that I've got any objection to getting rich, and y'all can take that to the bank. Jail I could do without."

Rolfe reached out with a bandana around his hand and poured more of the strong black coffee into his mug. There was something chill in his eyes, and his smile showed an edge of teeth.

"You're thinking small," he said. "All of you."

A snatch of poetry came to him: breathless upon a peak in Darien. And hadn't Francis Drake touched land near here, as he took the Golden Hind around the world? The thought went down like a jolt of fine bourbon, and the heat in his gut was better than that. They'd filled his dreams as a boy, the conquistadors and sea-dogs, the buccaneers like Morgan, the frontiersmen and adventurers like Andy Jackson and Crockett and Boone who'd carved states out of wilderness... and no stingy monarch in Madrid or London to take the plunder and the glory, not this time. No Washington to answer to, either.

He indicated the canvas sacks. "That's a little over half a million there, for a month's work and travel-time. That isn't rich. That's seed money; what we need to fit out the next expedition and hire the help. Then there's no limit to what we could do. Centuries from now, there could be statues of us here, and generations learning our names in school -- a new world waiting for us, the way it did for our ancestors."

"We'll be like the Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth Rock, then?" O'Brien said, and chuckled at the scowls of the three Virginians. "In a manner of speaking, Captain."

Salvatore's voice kindled. "Yeah! We're the only people here on... on... whatinhell, the Other Side...

"I'm going to call it New Virginia," Rolfe cut in. "The Commonwealth of New Virginia."

"Right, Cap'n, we're the only ones in New Virginia who aren't bare-assed Injuns walking around with bones through their noses and gourds on their ciollas. To hell with just getting rich. This place is our oyster. And we get filthy stinking rich."

Rolfe nodded. So did his cousins, which didn't surprise him; he'd known both the Fitzmorton boys since they were in short pants, and the families had been related since about the time the first John Rolfe discovered Virginia was a good place to grow tobacco. Both were newly married with children on the way, and the family rumor mill said Rob's war-bride was an impoverished Italian aristocrat with expensive tastes, at that.

Their father was a not-very-successful country lawyer; Rolfe's had been career Army, until TB retired him to a miserly pension and a hopeless battle to support a son and two daughters on that and the remnant of the ancestral acres. Which were just about enough for a big kitchen garden, a cow and a tumbledown house two centuries old and three quarters boarded-up, with a few cannonballs from McClellan's gunboats still embedded in the brickwork. They were all men whose families had spent the last three-quarters of a century going downhill in a world less and less suited to their sort. The great days of the First Families of Virginia had been nostalgic memory before the War For Southron Independence, and since Appomattox they'd mostly been too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash, as the saying went, living on a thin gruel of memory spiced with glory.

This other-side California had a number of advantages over the James River swamps in Chief Pohwatan's time, besides the climate. It really did have gold, and he could look up the exact location on a map before digging. The climate was better and the Indians less formidable, too. His hand caressed the Garand resting across his knees.

"Yeah, Cap'n, this place is our oyster if we can keep doggo about it," Salvatore went on. "Uncle Sam gets his sticky hands on that Gate, they'll stamp it Ultra Top Burn Before Reading Secret, and we'll get a pat on the fanny if we're lucky. Only ones who'll make anything off it are the ones who can already afford a Congressman or three of their own."

O'Brien looked around at the darkling wilderness, full of mysterious night-sounds and the distant chanting of the Indians; he wasn't a hunter or country-bred, like the three Virginians, and unlike Colletta he hadn't adapted well.

"My family got off the boat in South Boston and stayed right there," he said. "That was in the first famine. I can't see myself being the bold pioneer, Captain. I'm a city boy. I like pavement under my feet and a good bar on the corner, and working with machinery, not cows."

"The pioneers didn't have a big city right at their backs. Just a hop, skip and a jump away, whenever they needed something, with gold by the ton to pay for it," Rolfe said, jerking his chin back over his shoulder.

They'd rigged up a shelter of poles and tarpaulins to hide the silvery surface of the Gate on this side; it was hideously conspicuous at night, a beacon across the countryside. The Indians were terrified of it, and of the men and strange beasts who'd come out of it. Rolfe snorted at the memory of what it had been like smuggling horses into his basement without attracting attention, not to mention building the ramp without anyone suspecting. And getting his cousin-once-removed Louisa -- she was Aunt Antonia's husband's brother's daughter -- to house-sit for him, with no questions asked. Her bribe had come with a ring, which was fair. She was a good kid, no Ava Gardner but pretty enough. Smart too, and she'd hung around him since they were both toddlers. His mother had been dropping hints about grandchildren since the day he got out of the hospital, and anyway, he'd never planned on being the last Rolfe.

"With the Gate, we can bring in anything -- anyone -- we want," he said. "We'll have to buy the house in Oakland; buy up the block and the neighborhood, come to that, get it rezoned. Start a company; trading to the Philippines, say, or Siam, and investing in some old mines there, to cover the gold -- you can buy fake customs stamps cheap in Manila or anything else for that matter. And... as I said, we need organization. That means someone has to provide the leadership. I think I'm the best man for the job. Anyone disagree?"

His cousins shook their heads. So did O'Brien, grinning broadly and exaggerating the brogue a little:

"You got me through Leyte and Okinawa alive, Captain," he said. "I'll keep backing you the now. You're still the Old Man." He shook his head in wonderment: "Mother O'Brien's little boy a lord! Mary and Patrick, you know, I like the sound of it!" Softly: "She'll be off her knees and washing no more floors on Beacon Hill the way she did to feed the six of us before the War, and that's the truth."

Colletta turned up his hands with a smile of melting sincerity that made Rolfe suspicious...

But Salvo's trustworthy enough. You just have to watch him, and remember he's always figuring an angle.

That could be valuable; Colletta had been the best scrounger and fixer in Company B, plus he could charm a snake out of its skin when he decided to, plus he had a way with languages. And... most men had to get worked up to kill; O'Brien for instance, who was a wild man once his blood was running hot, but squeamish otherwise. The little wop was a stone killer; dispassionately skillful, like a farmer's wife picking a chicken and wringing its neck. That could be very useful.

"OK, Cap'n, you're the padrone, no argument," the small dark man said, with a massively expressive shrug. "There's enough here for everyone to be a boss -- but we need a boss of bosses, yeah. Capo di tutti capo," he went on, smiling at something that passed the other men by. "Yeah, or we'll lose it all to the thieves and politicians and police and the rest of them minchioni. We need a boss, and we need to keep our mouths shut."

"Right," Rolfe said easily. "The first thing is to turn that gold into money and put it somewhere safe; Tangier, maybe, or Switzerland. Then we can start buying up the land... we should incorporate, too..."

Unexpectedly, O'Brien spoke up: "We need to get Sol Pearlmutter in on this, Captain."

Rolfe raised his eyebrows. "I didn't think you liked him, Andy," he said.

That was an understatement. They'd circled and sniffed and growled all the way through training and deployment, and nearly killed each other just before Leyte, when O'Brien made top sergeant -- Rolfe had had to sweat blood and crack heads to keep it covered up, not wanting to lose two of his best men to the stockade just before they went into action. And while they'd settled down to work together well enough together after that, it had still been...

What's that journalese term? Rolfe thought.

When two countries hated each other's guts and didn't quite dare to fight, the newspapers said the atmosphere at diplomatic meetings was... correct. The two men had been correct towards each other, in an icy fashion, after he'd threatened to bounce them out to other outfits, where they'd be strangers.

Pearlmutter was offensively smart, unbelievably well read, and the only Jew in the outfit; he could also argue up down and black white, and loved doing it. Nobody could figure why he wasn't a technician or company clerk or at least in the Air Corps, but he'd been worth his weight in gold.

"I don't like Sol," the young man from South Boston said. "A mouthy Jew he is, and too clever by half. But the little Hebe is clever, and he's got balls enough for a big man too, I saw that with my own two eyes -- remember Shuri?"

Rolfe and Colletta both nodded automatically. Disarming that fiendishly ingenious set of interlinked booby traps while the Japanese mortar-shells dropped all around them had required a cold sort of courage. There were men alive today who'd have bled to death if Pearlmutter hadn't cleared the way for the stretcher party, with nothing but a bayonet, a pair of pliers, a screwdriver, and an ability to outguess the Nip sapper who laid the trap. O'Brien went on:

"He's studying to be a lawyer, not run a shop like his old man -- got into Harvard, I hear, where they like the Chosen People less than they do a mick, and not much better than they like a nigger. We could use a smart Jew with steady nerves, if we're playing for stakes like these. I don't think he'll dislike the pot of gold any more than meself, either."

Colletta gave a cold thin smile. "And if we ever need to shut that flapping mouth of his, well..." He patted the Chicago typewriter by his side.

"Good idea, Andy," Rolfe said. "First thing tomorrow, Rob, Alan and I will take the gold back to the First Side --" he jerked a thumb over his shoulder "-- and start work. Andy, Salvo, you'll look after the camp here for a while, until we can get someone in to spell you. Salvo, you write up those names; of the men I need to contact and anything I need to know about them, and keep working on the chief's daughter. Pick up some more of their lingo."

The New Yorker laughed and kissed the tips of his bunched fingers. "Hey, Cap'n, dat ain't woikin'!"

O'Brien nodded and sneezed.

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