Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6

 

CONQUISTADOR

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


CHAPTER FOUR:

Sacramento, California

June, 2009

FirstSide:

 

The park along the American river was one of Sacramento's better spots. It stretched along both sides for twenty-four miles from the junction with the Sacramento River, and it was big enough to form a fairly considerable corridor for wildlife and birds. Tom parked his battered compact, paid the admission fee and looked around for the sleek little two-seater Italian job Adrienne Rolfe had driven to meet him at Maharani's. It wasn't there, and his chest gave an abrupt lurch; then he saw her stretching on the grass beyond the pavement, under the shade of a big willow-tree. She was doing splits, then curling over to each side with her chin pressed to her knee and fingers touching around the sole of that foot. A water-bottle and fanny pack lay against the base of the tree.

Ballet training for sure, he thought, watching her for a moment with sheer pleasure, then walking forward past a Ford Windstar.

Discovery Park was the western end of the riverside trail, at the mouth of the American River where it joined the Sacramento, and just north of downtown. It was flat -- this was a spillover zone during the late winter when the river crested -- but pleasantly landscaped, with open grassy fields, a band of alder and willow along the riverbank proper where it swelled out into a small lake, and some impressive valley oaks. A double-crested cormorant was sunning itself on a stump in the hot brightness beside the lake, with its black double-V wings spread and its snaky neck curved in an S, altogether looking rather like an organic Stealth fighter. Pelicans and gulls rested out on the surface of the water; the sun was still high at five-thirty on a summer's day, and the bands of strollers, kids rollerblading, and happy dogs leaping after Frisbees added to the pleasure of the scene. Still too urban for his taste, but a lot better than concrete and steel, and it smelled of water and fresh greenery.

The background faded as Adrienne looked up at him and smiled. Lot of megawattage there, he thought, smiling back. If they could hook that up to the grid, California's energy problems would be solved.

"Hi," he said. "Didn't spot your car."

"Oh, I walked," she said. "Thought you might give me a lift back to Amber House afterwards, and perhaps we could catch something to eat."

"I'd be delighted," he said sincerely, and began his own stretching.

"Want some help on that?" she asked, when he was seated and bending forward.

"Thanks," he replied.

Adrienne went down on one knee behind him, pushing properly -- a forearm just below the point between his shoulder blades, and a hand just above the small of his back. You were supposed to bend at the waist with your spine nearly straight, and try to lay chest and chin on the ground before you. He gave a grunt when the tightness in back and hamstrings told him to stop, and held it while he controlled his breathing.

"That must have been alarming," Adrienne said.

He could feel her breath on the skin of his neck, and the pressure of her hand and arm on the knotted scar tissue where three 7.62 mm rounds had punched through his body armor. Interesting that she knows what a bullet scar feels like, he thought.

Fortunately they hadn't penetrated very deeply, and God bless Kevlar and ceramic inserts for that. It had been alarming, afterwards; at the time his first thought had been worry for the mission. The Rangers didn't leave anyone behind, and humping his carcass out would be a genuine burden. Luckily they'd won the firefight that followed the ambush pretty quickly, and then had called for a dustoff. For an instant he was out of the hot Californian sunshine; the wind was bitter and cold and intensely dry, flicking grit and thin dirty snow into his eyes as he lay and let the medic cut the harness off. Explosions and the rattle of gunfire echoed off the great gaunt slopes of the bare mountains...

"Up," he said, and shook his head as he eased back and got his feet under him. "Nothing too dramatic," he went on as he rose. "We here heading up a gully, a dry wash. Had to be done, but the enemy were real good at hiding, even from our sensors; the recon drone said the way was clear. I was on point, and I didn't see 'em either."

"You remind me of Granddad," she said. "He doesn't talk much about Okinawa, either. Let's go!"

They set out, running along the edge of the bicycle path to let the odd cyclist or Segway rider go by.

Now, that's weird, he thought. Why on earth ride one of those things here, when you could walk?

The little two-wheel computerized electric scooters were fine for getting around cities, for distances where a car was too much and shank's mare too little; he wished there were more of them, and fewer lawsuits and regulations to keep them out of towns, to cut down on smog and congestion. But what earthly purpose was served by standing on a platform and letting gyros and computers and electric motors do half the fun part here?

"Strange," he said, indicating one of them with his chin.

There was an art to talking while running; you couldn't do too much of it, and you had to synchronize your breathing.

"Yes," she replied. "That's like using a machine to live and hanging yourself in the closet."

Hmmm, he thought. I approve the sentiment... but why doesn't she ever use certain contractions? The next yeah I hear from her will be the first.

Aloud he went on: "And that's a Lazuli Bunting, I think."

The bird gave a pit... pit... pit as they went by, followed by a series of rising and falling warbles. It was a male, the head and upper-parts a pale powdery blue with an iridescent sheen, very much like lapis lazuli, the wings blue until a white bar crossed them, and the chest orange fading to pale cream on the belly. Tom thought they were nearly as pretty as hummingbirds, and it was a pity they were so rare. It was a little odd that Adrienne gave it only a casual glance; it wasn't that she didn't know her birds. In the next mile she picked out as many as he; one was a black-headed grosbeak, a spectacular little black-and-orange bird with a fast sweet warble.

"So," she said after a few minutes of companionable silence broken only by the plop of a fish in the river and the sound of their feet. "What do you read? I'll give odds you do."

"Ah..." He did; the problem was his tastes were a little plebian. "A lot of wildlife and biology... some history now and then... If you mean fiction, mostly SF and mysteries."

"Me too!" she said. "I was mad for Tolkein as a teenager, of course. Nowadays De Lint, Martin -- and Turtledove and Williams, too; it's not all Big Fat Fantasies."

"Anderson?" he said, and she nodded. "Bujold? Baxter?"

She countered: "Dick Francis?"

"James Lee Burke?"

"Ford Maddox Roberts?"

"And the classics -- Christie..."

They laughed and continued the game -- she called it name-dropping-in-a-good-cause -- until they reached a bridge that spanned the river across a little islet. They stopped there to catch their breath, and to lean on the railing and watch the water flow past green and cool-looking below. Daddy-long-legs skimmed over the surface, and the odd predatory glitter of dragonflies.

"Too bad we can't just dive in," she said, wiping her face with a wristband.

"Inviting, but I wouldn't advise it," he replied, with a wordless gesture eastward.

There was a lot of Central Valley in that direction, and that was the birthplace of industrialized agriculture. God alone knew the full list of things that were sprayed or pumped onto the fields, and then drained into this water; the ones Tom knew about were bad enough. He'd met farmers who kept special gardens for their own use, upwind of the fields where they grew vegetables for sale. Things were better than they had been, and there were more fish below than there would have been in the year of his birth. He still wouldn't eat anything that came out of this river, though.

She shook her head angrily. "That's one thing I hate about this... about the modern world. The feeling that I'm taking in all those chemicals every moment, and there's nothing I can do about it." She gave a shudder that seemed only half-assumed.

"Nothing much we can do about it," he said, a little surprised. Bit vehement, surely? "Although we're both trying, in our way."

"Still... have you ever thought what California might be... have been... like? One city, and a few towns, a scattering of farms and ranches in places that don't need massive engineering to function. All the power from small-scale hydro and geothermal..."

He laughed. "It's an appealing fantasy, but if I let myself dwell on it would drive me completely crazy," he said. "One of those if I were King things."

She smiled. "We all do our bit, though. I think I'm making progress convincing a couple of key legislators that something has to be done about the illegal animal trade. It's coming back, and strongly; one of the unfortunate by-products of prosperity."

"Damned right," he said. "Any progress on the LA thing from your side?"

"Nothing so far," she said. "We're combing through the transit records at our Oakland facility, cargo manifests and so forth, but of course it would have been covered by fake documentation."

"Bet the publicity doesn't help," he said. "There was more coverage of the LA thing than I'd have wanted."

"Yes, and the TV people did their usual distort-and-get-wrong," she said. "Bizarre indeed. There was even something about extinct animals! Did you turn up any dinosaurs or saber-tooths?"

"No, just rare ones -- and a live California condor, believe it or not."

"A genuine California condor is impressive enough. Quite a nice bit of knight-errantry, rescuing a gymnogyps californianus, no less. To hell with beautiful princesses."

He chuckled; the run was starting to make his lungs burn a bit, but it was a good feeling. He paced the words to the rise and fall of his barrel chest:

"Not exactly extinct," he said. "Not that that was any credit to the poachers, they were trying hard enough."

She managed to glow at him while running, and he smiled to himself at his instinctive urge to preen. I'm no more immune than the next man to showing off before a pretty girl, he thought, and went on:

"Yeah, and a damned strange bird it was; too clean."

"Clean?" she said, frowning.

"No lead, no pesticides -- and strange. The San Diego Zoo people had its DNA tested. It wasn't related to any of the other condors, which -"

It was a relief to talk to somebody about the aspects that had been teasing at his mind. When he was finished they ran in silence for ten minutes or so; he glanced aside from time to time, watching her frown in concentration.

"I think your friend Martinez' explanation is the most likely one," she said after a long moment. "Excluding time travel, that is! But if there was one condor from an unknown breeding population, it's nearly certain that there are more. And the poachers know where they are, and might well kill some while they're trying to capture them. They're not likely to be experts, or very careful."

Despite the heat of the day and the sweat that was running down his body and plastering the t-shirt to his muscular torso, Tom felt his blood run cold.

"Yeah," he said. "I was afraid of that."

"Best bet would be to have people out looking, and beat the poachers to it," she said thoughtfully. "I can pass the word to HQ and have our contacts in the Sierra Club and some of the birding clubs keep an eye out. If they knew there actually might be unexpected condors, they'd be a lot more likely to find them, right?"

"Good idea!" he enthused. Lord, tell me I haven't become a complete bureaucrat, and started discounting whatever non-officials can do. "Hey, we're back!"

"How time flies when you're having fun!" Adrienne said. "Just a second -- I have to make a phone call."

Tom walked up and down while he waited, cooling gradually -- or cooling as much as you could on a Sacramento afternoon in June; it had the great merit of being better than July or August, but that was about it. He caught a few words of what Adrienne was saying, particularly towards the end of it, when she raised her voice.

"couz... condors! ... need to know... ... plenty, and ASAP. Hand-carry... the Old Man... Nostradamus... I said hand-carry and I meant it, Filmer! Just do it!"

Evidently the Pacific Open Landscapes League ran a tight ship; the tone in her voice took him back to his time in the Rangers, especially the last snap. She was scowling slightly as she walked towards him.

"The good thing about a family business is that it's full of people you've known all your life," she said, a waspish note in her voice. "And the bad thing about a family business is that it's full of people you've known all your life."

Tom chuckled. I'd find that command voice fairly persuasive even if you were a kid sister, he thought silently. Aloud he went on:

"Well, if we're going to get something to eat, I need to get home and shower first. Otherwise I'm afraid I'd put everyone else off their feed, unless it's a restaurant for plow-mules."

"Hmmm," she said and came closer, looking up into his face and sliding an arm around his neck. "You wouldn't happen to have a change in your car, would you?"

This time he managed to avoid flushing. In fact, he grinned; and a kiss seemed quite natural. It did emphasize their mutual stickiness.

"As a matter of fact..." he said, looking down into the leaf-green eyes. "I do."

"Well, there's self-confidence. And this is a town where you can get good take-out pizza, so..."

@@@

The outside of Amber House was pleasant, a big white-painted home built back in the expansive years just before 1914, linked to two others like it. That was on 22nd Street, only eight blocks from the Capitol, but in a neighborhood of quiet streets overshadowed with huge trees. Adrienne went ahead of him, opening the door of the suite. He followed, the pizza box on one hand, his bag in the other, and looked around. It was elegant, in a carefully old-fashioned way; big iron-framed four-poster bed, king-sized and draped in sheer curtains, sofa, dressing table, lots of burgundy and gold -- and with a name of its own.

The Renoir Room, if you please, Tom thought. I suppose one could get used to this.

He could see through into a marble-tiled bathroom with a separate shower stall and two-person Jacuzzi. There was a slight scent of wax polish and a herbal sachet. It wasn't exactly what he'd have picked, even if he could afford to drop two c-notes a day for bed and breakfast and the fresh chocolate-chip cookie on a little plate by the turned-down sheets of the bed.

But it'll certainly do, he thought. "Not bad," he went on aloud, conscious of a slight tightness in his throat. Hell, you're not a teenager on his first heavy date, for God's sake! he told himself sternly.

A bottle of wine was resting in a silver cooler on the table by the sofa, with two glasses. He looked at her and quirked a brow slightly as he set the pizza box down beside it.

"You're not the only one capable of foresight," Adrienne said gaily, tossing her key on an antique armoire and walking towards the bathroom, peeling off her t-shirt as she went. "And now, desmellification. I go first, since you'll be quicker."

He fought down an impulse to suggest that taking a shower together was even more economical of time; that would be a bit premature and presumptuous. Do not spoil things now! he told the part of himself that was still governed exclusively by hormones and instinct. It was a slightly smaller part of his psyche overall than when he was twenty-six, or sixteen, but not all that much smaller; and it had been quite a while.

And you've never, not even as an impossibly horny teenager, had a woman hit you this way. So you will remain in control. I don't think there's much doubt about where this evening's going to end up, either.

Besides, he was enjoying himself hugely, more than he could remember doing for years. Roy was right; I've been hit hard and bad. Raw physical attraction was there in plenty, but he genuinely enjoyed her company... and her sense of humor, and her attitudes, and her taste in books, and even the weird stuff about her relatives, he thought. I can compromise on the music. She was evidently a classics-and-folk enthusiast, 60's revival stuff, to his old-time country and alternative rock. They had some overlap; she loved the Dixie Chicks too, particularly 'Goodbye Earl', and the Poyns, and Enya, and WaterBird, and Pint & Dale.

The water hissed on; his imagination filled in pictures. For that matter, since she'd left the door open, he didn't have to rely completely on that. He poured glasses of the wine; if he remembered correctly, it was supposed to 'breathe' a while before you drank it. Tom himself had been brought up a beer man, when he drank; years in California had taught him to enjoy wine, but he didn't pretend to be a connoisseur or an expert. In fact, he found the more pretentious type of wine enthusiast a bore --

"Penny for them," Adrienne said.

She was wearing a cloth bathrobe, and drying her hair as she spoke. The robe stuck to her in interesting parts, and when she lowered the towel the loose-curled bronze hair fanned out around her face like an umber cloud, slightly darkened by its dampness.

"Woof," Tom said. "Woof, woof, woof. Thoughts? You need to ask?" Then he grinned. "I was thinking about the wine breathing. But isn't red supposed to be at room temperature?"

"European room temperature: fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit," she said, taking a glass from his hand and sipping. "That rule was made by Frenchmen -- and northern Frenchmen at that, who lived in stone barns where you had to stand in the fireplace to get over sixty degrees. Provencals and Italians always put the bottle in a bucket of water to cool a little. Speaking of water --"

He went into the bathroom and under the rush of hot water. It felt good to get the stickiness off his skin. Looking down as he soaped himself, he thought seriously for a second of turning the water on cold.

But then, it probably wouldn't do any good, anyway, he thought. Let's go, boy!

One of the advantages of a Ranger-style crop haircut was that it dried easily.

When he sat down beside her on the couch, Adrienne fed him a bite of the slice of pizza she was holding in one hand. He scooped up one himself and returned the favor; it was an extremely good thin-crust, done in a brick oven, and he was hungry. That was a pity, since he hardly tasted it at all, or the wine. They smiled into each other's eyes, and then hers took on a hint of sadness for an instant.

"There's only one problem," she said. His eyes flickered towards his carrying bag, and she laughed a little. "No, that's all taken care of. The problem is I really like you. As a person."

"That's a problem?" he said.

"It could be, later," she said somberly.

"To hell with later, then," he replied, and gathered her to him.

@@@

"Rosy-fingered dawn calls," a voice breathed in his ear.

"Hnnnn!" he grunted, and sat upright.

For a long moment he didn't know where he was. Then memory rushed in. A long slow smile lit his face, and he ran a hand up under Adrienne's chin. Evidently she'd been up for a while, since her hair had been washed and dried, and she was already dressed in an expensively conservative jacket-and-skirt outfit with a cream silk shirt. She took his hand, kissed the palm, and slid down towards him.

"Breakfast," she said, a few breathless moments later.

He grinned, and continued. She made a wordless sound, half passion and half exasperation. "Dammit, I have to run! They want me back in Berkeley by nine-thirty."

"Duty calls in its shrill unpleasant voice," he agreed, looking at the clock; six a.m., and dawn was just stealing through the east-facing windows with rosy fingers. "You must move like a cat, Adri. I'm usually not a light sleeper."

"Cat yourself," she said, wiggling her eyebrows. "Tom the tomcat."

"That makes you my queen," he said, standing and sweeping a bow, then striking a pose and flexing when she ran her eyes up and down him again.

"I'd say you were boasting, but it's all true," she said, as he picked a robe up off the floor and donned it. Then: "God, but I wish we could stay together all day."

They looked at each other, the laughter dying.

"Me too," he said, and then forced his voice back to lightness. "Breakfast."

It went far too quickly, even while they made arrangements to meet again on the weekend. When she left, the electricity that had been keeping him running went too, and he realized that he'd had only three hours' sleep that night. He poured another cup of coffee and took it into the bathroom, looking at himself in the tall mirror. There were circles under his eyes, and he probably smelled disgusting. His teeth could stand brushing, too, and she'd still kissed him goodbye...

"This," he said to his image, "has all been absolutely incredible. And you want to see her again, very badly. Very, very badly."

Which meant that Roy probably had it right; he'd been hit hard and bad. When you'd just gone to bed with a woman and she seemed more interesting, there was definitely a lot more involved than the libido. When you couldn't think of anything else but her --

He grinned whitely at his reflection and gave a double thumbs-up. A shower shocked him back towards normal wakefulness, although it did sting slightly in the scratches on his shoulderblades. That prompted a memory of her fingers there, and her heels stroking down from the small of his back --

"And it's not often that guys my size get a murmured you're so sweet," he told himself. "Pure discrimination, but we don't. Only this time I did."

He was still whistling when he came out of the elevator at headquarters. Roy Tully was there, with a Styrofoam cup of coffee in each hand -- not likely to be anything like as good as the fresh-brewed in the carafe at the Amber House, though.

Tom extended a finger that looked as if it could punch through sheet metal. "Don't ask, Roy. Not a word. Or I turn your head around until you're looking at the part of your anatomy you keep your brains and morals in. Capisce?"

"Capisce, amigo," Tully said, with a lewd grin and a wink that left Tom torn between carrying out his threat and laughing. "The bossman wants to see us."

Their supervisor occupied one of the corner offices. Henry Yasujiru was in his late fifties, blocky and impassive, with gray streaks on the sides of his raven-black hair; a neat man, formal and precise. Tom disliked him, without being entirely sure of why. The office was as spare and unadorned as its occupant, with only three pictures. One of Yasujiru's father in Italy, wearing the badge of the 444th -- a Japanese-American outfit that had collected more medals per man than any other Allied unit; one of Yosemite; and one of his mother as a young woman in front of a big Carpenter Gothic house somewhere in the Bay area.

He began abruptly. "The affair in Los Angeles was less than satisfactory."

Tully nodded. "Yessir, no doubt about that. Except for the condor Tom managed to get out."

Tom nodded gravely himself, carefully not smiling. Roy wasn't brown-nosing, but the carefully calculated razor-edge of sarcasm in his voice would sail past Yasujiru like a beam of invisible energy.

"The condor is irregular," Yasujiru said. "Most irregular. I do not see that we have achieved anything by becoming involved, Warden Christiansen. The source of the material remains elusive."

The supervisor was holding a transcript of the San Diego Zoo's report, as well as the one he'd turned in himself after he got back to Sacramento; Tom could see that the odd digital fantasy-photograph from the warehouse was there as well.

The older man went on: "Our jurisdiction only extends to material from endangered species secured within California."

Tom and Roy exchanged the briefest of glances out of the corner of their eyes. They both knew the bureaucratic impulse to avoid getting involved in anything unusual; here it was clashing with the equally powerful urge to get involved in anything remotely related to the organization's mandate.

The mighty demon Cover Your Ass makes war with the evil spirit known as Build Your Empire, Tom thought.

"The condor is definitely of the Californian type," Tom said. "And the sea-otter pelts probably came from this state."

Yasujiru nodded reluctantly. "But what use is our participation if we cannot offer any information of our own?"

"We'll have to find the poachers, after the middlemen are closed down," Tom said. "And if we aren't engaged with the operations, they may be able to scatter and avoid us -- any delay in getting full information would be fatal."

Another long silence. "Very well, then."

"Thanks, chief!" Tom said enthusiastically.

"I'd like to see this again, if I could, Mr. Yasujiru," Roy added, snaffling the copy of the Aztec Grateful Dead off his senior's desk.

"I hope there will be more... substantial results from the San Francisco operation," Yasujiru said dubiously.

"You can count on us, chief," Tully said before the older man could object, shepherding Tom out like a corgi with a mastiff. "The whole thing will be resolved."

"Phew!" he went on, as they made their exit. "Resolved and tied up with a pretty red-tape bow. Something has put fear in the heart of Fearless Leader."

"I think he's getting weirded out," Tom said, as they checked their Berettas and made sure their SOU identification was to hand. For this trip they were dressed nondescript, jeans and t-shirts and loose shirts over that to hide the holsters. Tully's shirt was lime-green with little dancing orange sea-otters dressed in top-hats and bow-ties and brandishing walking-sticks; Tom's a plaid check worn soft with use.

"He likes everything above-board and respectable," Roy said, and handed Tom the photograph. "This is turning out to be a seriously unrespectable investigation. Come have a look at this bit of historical reconstruction when you're through with Fart, Barf and Itch."

He looked it over while Tom phoned Sarah Perkins and finalized the meet with the FBI agent. There was a puzzled frown on his face when Tom put down the receiver.

"You know, this smells, Kemosabe. I looked it over yesterday and it's just as fucking odd today."

"I know it is; and who are you calling Asshole, Tonto?"

"I'll stop when you stop calling me idiot," Tully replied -- which was what Tonto actually meant. "But seriously, asshole, this thing is strange. Weirder than you described it in the report."

"Obviously, idiot."

"No, in non-obvious ways," Tully said. "Here, take a look." He pulled out a magnifying glass. "Look at Mr. Cardiodectomy Is Part of My Cultural Identity there."

Tom did; he hadn't looked all that closely before, and Roy had an eye for detail work, as well as a mind that worked slantwise at things where Tom often just bulled ahead.

"Hmmm. Looks pretty ordinary, Mexican guy, middle-aged, except that he had a really bad case of acne once."

"Not acne. You don't get acne on your chest or gut like that. Look closer."

Hmmm, Tom thought.

There was a scattering of pits across the chest and stomach, and on the man's muscular, scarred hands as well as on his face or what you could see of it behind the mask. Which meant...

"Smallpox," he said quietly.

"Yeah. Which has been extinct for what? Thirty years, most places? I saw a couple of old guys with scars like that in Somalia during my spell of humanitarian intervention and Skinny-slaughtering. Wait a minute --"

Tully looked at his watch to check that they had the time, then did a quick search -- all their computers had the latest Britannica installed. The 'images' section of the article showed several photographs of smallpox scarring; the resemblance was unmistakable.

"Yeah," Tully said. "Last known active case, Somalia, 1977. Thirty years and change. So what's it doing in this picture? And take a look at the blood pooling on the floor there."

"Looks like a pretty good imitation. It even has flies."

"Exactly. Not many get that careful, even in these days of universal CGI. And look at the shit all over that altar, and around the bodies. Nobody puts that in, even when they're going all hyper-realistic."

Tom felt a crawling at the back of his head, and down between his shoulder-blades. He'd seen enough dead bodies to know that was one of the things you remembered and which didn't get into movies.

"Hell, you're not saying this sacrifice is real."

"I'm not saying a goddamned thing, except that he --" Tully stabbed a finger at the high priest holding up knife and heart "-had smallpox, and they --" he moved it to the tumbled bodies "-look like the real thing, dead-and-disenhearted-wise."

Tom laid down the magnifying glass. "Poachers I can believe. Poachers with time-travel I don't."

"You're the one who reads that scifi stuff," Tully said. "I'm just pointing out the facts."

Which would account for the ivory and pelts and the excessively clean condor and -- no, stop it, Christiansen! Time travel is scientific nonsense, self-contradictory. And time-travellers would have better things to do with their time than smuggle endangered species products into 21st-century California!

"It's definitely more weird shit, though," Tom said aloud, thoughtfully. "In a case that's full of it."

"Like those investigating. Let's get on our way. Got an appointment with F, B & I and hopefully we're going to make arrests this time. Nothing like sweating a suspect to get some real facts."

@@@

INTERLUDE:

 

October 29th, 1962

Rolfe Manor

The Commonwealth of New Virginia:

 

I wonder why people have taken to calling them the Thirty Families? John Rolfe thought. Only twenty-eight, so far.

The first meeting of the Rolfe Hunt every year had become a central part of the Commonwealth's social calendar, and all its brand-new ruling class attended, unless caught beyond the Gate by press of business. This autumn very few had missed the occasion here, not while the empires back on FirstSide snarled at each other in the Caribbean and the city-smashing weapons waited on a hair trigger.

At least 'The Commonwealth of New Virginia' took, he thought with a wry smile as he took a glass of white wine from a tray and murmured thanks to the girl who carried it. Her father farmed part of this land for the Rolfes, and he made a point of being punctiliously polite to the Settlers affiliated with his family. Apart from being the right thing to do -- his father had gotten the importance of manners into him early, with a belt where necessary -- in this labor-short economy it was also common sense. Not to mention the political benefits.

The first foxhunt came in late October, after the majority of the grape harvest was in, but before you got much really chilly-wet weather. Rain wouldn't stop the Hunt later in the year, but better weather made the social aspects easier. The tables had been set out on the lawns of Rolfe Hall, where it stood looking southward down the Napa Valley; the hills showed to either side, and Mt. Helena loomed green with oak and Douglas fir and redwood behind the big Georgian manor house. It was just getting on for three o'clock and the sky was blue after yesterday's rain, with a mild pleasant warmth; the hills to either side were turning green, which was a relief after the brown-gold of the Californian summer. Southward past the edge of the ha-ha -- a hidden brick-lined dropoff that served to keep livestock off the lawns without a fence to break the view -- the leaves in the vineyards were putting on their autumn clothes in fields edged with Lombardy poplar and Italian cypress.

They glowed in every color from pale gold to deep wine-red, turning the fields to a dimpled Persian carpet. The Eastern and Rocky Mountain maples he'd planted here back in '47 -- several years before the house was started -- were tall enough now to add the symphony of color, scarlet and orange and yellow. Beyond that stretched the yellow of harvested grainfields, and pasture studded with great spreading oaks.

Everyone was here, even ones like Sol Pearlmutter and Andy O'Brien who rode like sacks of potatoes and hated the whole business. The whole pink-coated crowd was circulating as the late post-hunt luncheon got under way, socializing and deal-making and what Sol called schmoozing; Pearlmutter and his Affiliation carefully avoiding von Traupitz and his, and vice-versa. Servants were bustling up with trays of appetizers and drinks, and the long table glowed with centerpieces of roses and petunias and rhododendrons. The cheeks of the guests were flushed with country air and exercise, and there was a faint but unmistakable smell of horses among the cut grass and flowers, though all the mounts had been led away to the stables tucked out of sight to the west.

His eldest son Charles came towards him, leading a certain guest. John Rolfe hid his smile of pride behind a grave nod. The sixteen-year-old was nearly his father's height, already five foot nine. He would be taller when he had his full growth, and a bit broader; his hair was darker, a brown touched with russet, and his eyes hazel. Right now his face was a little stiff with the responsibility -- Charles was a good lad, intelligent and hardworking, if anything a little too conscious of his duties as a Rolfe and the eldest son.

A bit shy, I think, his father thought. And more serious than I was at his age. Less of a wild streak.

"Thank you for showing Lord Chumley around, Charles," he said aloud.

"My pleasure, sir," Charles said.

"And now you're free to seek company younger and prettier," Rolfe replied with a smile, letting it grow a little at the boy's blush.

"My apologies for not showing you around personally," he said to the older man when young Charles was lost amid the crowd. "The news about the Cuban crisis has been rather disturbing and I've been keeping close tabs through our contacts on FirstSide. None of the missiles there could reach California... but there might be a Soviet submarine off the coast. Or even inside the Bay."

"Too right," the other man said. "Still, we're safe enough here."

"Yes. But it's been difficult, keeping our FirstSide operations going while evactuating everyone from the Families here to the Commonwealth. I trust you've not been unduly inconvenienced."

"It's been interesting. Damnation, it's been fascinating, Mr. Rolfe."

"John, I think?"

Lord Chumley was a little shorter and plumper than his host. His hair -- and a mustache worn in the bushy style the RAF had favored during the Battle of Britain -- had turned white, where gray had only begun to streak the temples of the Virginian. His eyes were blue and very direct, and more intelligent than his bluff manner might suggest; his upper-class British speech had a hint of something harder and more nasal beneath it. By hereditary right he was Baron Chumley, and could claim a seat in the House of Lords, but his father had come to the equatorial uplands west of Mt. Kenya in 1905, and he had been born and reared there. He'd also spent much of the 1950's leading a counter-gang against the Mau Mau in the forests of the Aberdares mountains.

"And Cecil, by all means. But returning to business, John," Chumley said. "I'm certainly going to accept your offer. My oath, I'd be a bloody fool not to!"

Rolfe nodded. Chumley had been offered a seat on the Central Committee; it would be the twenty-nine families then; thirty in truth when Auguste Devereaux arrived, if he managed to dodge both de Gaulle's 'bearded ones' and his ex-friends from the OAS. With a Committee appointment came a share of the Gate Control Commission's revenues, and a portion of its political power in the Commonwealth.

The Kenyan went on: "It'll make me a very wealthy man, and I've fallen in love with the climate and the game here; it's like Kenya in my father's time, only better. Completely different from FirstSide California, of course: I wouldn't live there for all the oil in Arabia. Odd, to think that one man living or dying could make so much difference."

Rolfe nodded. "Although when that one man is Alexander the Great..." He shrugged and smiled.

Here Alexander the Great hadn't died in Babylon in 323 BC. Instead he'd lived to a ripe old three-score-and-ten, and handed an undivided inheritance to his son by Roxanne. At its peak a century later, the Macedonian Empire he founded stretched from Spain to Bengal, before sheer size and entropy and Greek fractiousness broke it asunder in civil war and barbarian invasion. From what the Commonwealth's explorers could tell, most of that area still worshipped Zeus-Alexander, and spoke languages descended from ancient Greek -- in much the same way as Italian and Rumanian and the other Romance tongues came from the Latin spread by Imperial Rome. There hadn't been time or resources to do much more exploration yet, but they had found none of the city-states or kingdoms or tribes in the Old World to be much beyond a Hellenistic level of technology.

"Evidently science and machinery are unlikely accidents," Rolfe went on. "Fortunately for us!"

"Fortunately indeed!" Chumley said, returning to their business. "Which gives us this wonderful opportunity. But how many of my compatriots I can bring with me, that's another matter. Living here would be... well, very different. Not many natives, for one thing; not much labor available."

"That's true of Western Australia on FirstSide as well," Rolfe said. "And a number of them are relocating there. The Commonwealth will be a lot better than going back to England and the crowds and the drizzle."

"But more are heading for Rhodesia and South Africa on, ah, FirstSide," Chumley said.

Rolfe gave a wry smile. "And in anything from five to forty years, we'll be recruiting there," he said. "Hate to say it, but that's the way I read events; it's not going to stop at the Zambezi. That's one reason I've restricted the import of native labor here; we could get any number of workers from the kings and warlords down in Mexico, but we're keeping our bracero program strictly limited. Inconvenient in the short run, I grant you -- but I don't want my grandchildren to be facing a mass of half-assimilated Aztecs who've been reading Locke and Tom Paine, not to mention Marx. Even without foreign countries to stick their oars in, it would be too likely to end badly. Unless we went right back to ox-plows and handicrafts, and while I'm full of reverence for the good qualities of the past, that's more filial piety than I'm willing to invest."

"A point, old boy, a most cogent point. I will certainly be able to get several hundred new settlers, possibly a thousand. And as you say, Rhodesia may provide more fairly soon, and I have contacts there -- relatives and friends. They won't all be farmers and planters, of course. Small businessmen, skilled workmen, civil servants. A few white hunters, too -- they'd kill for a chance to move here."

"All useful," Rolfe said. "Good pioneer stock, like my own English ancestors. And --"

A man in the black uniform of Gate Security came up. He held a sealed message, and his face was pale beyond the degree natural to one with his ash-blond Baltic complexion.

"Thank you, Otto," Rolfe said, and tore it open, his face an unreadable mask as Lieutenant von Traupitz stood at stiff attention.

That changed to a sigh of relief. Conscious of the glances on him -- Salvatore Colletta had noticed something, and so had Louisa Rolfe -- he spoke loudly enough that those nearby could hear:

"The Russians have backed down. They've accepted Kennedy's terms without qualification. It looks as if there won't be war on FirstSide after all."

Chumley nodded and ran a hand over his thick white hair as a murmur spread through the crowd, and the laughter of relief from unacknowledged tension.

"That was too close for bloody comfort," he said. "I've been glad the family was here already."

"Yes," Rolfe said. "Although who can tell how the next crisis will go? War now would have destroyed Europe and Russia and hurt America badly. Twenty years from now, with more bombs and missiles to carry them, it could end civilization FirstSide. Or even the human race."

"That's something that will get you a few more men willing to move," Chumley said shrewdly. "This is the ultimate in fallout shelters, old chap. Although... how well would we do here if the Gate were lost for good?"

"There are contingency plans," Rolfe said, carefully noting the we. "Once the formalities are done, you'll have access to the secret files."

They'd brought over a vast hoard of technical books and drawings and microfilms, for starters; stockpiles of machine tools and gauges and metals, of crucial parts and materials; and it was all constantly updated. The Commonwealth's own workshops and skilled men could keep civilization going here, after a fashion, at need. Still, thirty-four thousand people were not enough to keep up the full panoply of 20th-century industrial technology. They would have to gear down and give up much of the more complex equipment until population built up. Of course, there would be advantages to that, as well. He hadn't founded this nation to have it follow exactly in FirstSide's footsteps.

"Still, I'd prefer it came much later, if ever," he said. "Much, much later."

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