"Well, at least this isn't as ugly that asshole-of-the-universe part of LA," Tom Christiansen muttered, looking at the shuttered windows and locked doors of the building across the street. "Crowded, but the crowds are friendlier. And it isn't so hot."
Mark Twain had once said that the coldest winter he ever lived through was a summer in San Francisco. This June day was a little on the cool side of warm, with the sun high and bright in a sky that was clear but slightly hazy. It might have been March or November just as easily as June. There was a strong wind from the Pacific, too.
"Yeah, and we fit in so fucking well," Roy Tully replied. "Or at least you do, Kemosabe."
Not here in the Mission district, I don't, Tom thought.
Of course, six-foot-three blonds with shoulders a yard across weren't exactly inconspicuous most other places, unless he wanted to confine his career to the Upper Midwest and/or Scandinavia. They stood out even more in the heart of San Francisco's traditional Latino district. It could have been worse, though. The action could have been in Chinatown.
Tully's shorter and dark, but he's not stylish enough to be a real San Franciscan, I suppose.
They weren't really on a stakeout; they were just checking that nobody was at the other location owned by the people who were supposed to be at the first location... and he felt even more useless than that suggested. This operation was FBI, with the SFPD handling backup and supplying manpower. The Fish and Game men were embarrassingly superfluous. If Special Operations had gotten any sort of a handle on where the local varieties of contraband were coming from, they might be contributing something valuable to the investigation. As it was they were tagalongs, and if this went on they were also going to look like completely incompetent tagalongs.
And I know things about RM&M and the Oakland angle; the problem is, so far they've been completely useless.
"Well, let's be good little tagalongs," he said. "Obviously, nobody's here. Plan B -- we go play with the big boys and girls."
He pulled out his phone and keyed Sarah Perkins' number. "Yo," he said. "Minding the store? This one's definitely not open for business."
"This one is. We're going shopping in twenty minutes," she replied. "You're welcome to come along. This time it's tasteful merchandise, not that garish LA stuff."
"Wouldn't miss it for the world," Tom replied. To his partner, he went on: "They're going in -- discreetly, not with a SWAT team."
Tully nodded. "Well, this is the town of refinement, not LA Brutal. I'm surprised they don't send a scented notification card, so nobody's feelings will be hurt when they bust ‘em."
They turned up 24th and onto a side-street near Balmy Alley, past bakeries with mouthwatering scents, little produce stores spilling over with vegetables and fruits -- some of them he couldn't recognize -- and butcher-shops and thrift stores... Salsa poured out of music stores and slow-moving cars, and the crowds surged around him, past an amazing variety of colorful murals and more taquerias than he could count.
It occurred to him that if he'd really been sightseeing here, it would be quite enjoyable -- for a day or two. If he had to live here, he'd soon run screaming for Golden Gate Park and dash around waving his arms in the air and babbling for a while before he went over a cliff and into the ocean. Where the waves would burst into steam as they touched his brain. It was just too completely, classically urban for him to tolerate for long.
The taquerias prompted a thought: "Let's at least look like tourists and not cops trying to blend in and failing," he said, looking at his watch. It was 10:10 exactly, and time to be moving.
Plus the Mission district has the best burritos in the world, he added to himself. All others are a pale imitation. And one of their burritos makes a pretty good lunch.
They stopped and bought two; rice, beans, strips of grilled beef, salsa, guacamole and sour cream wrapped in a flour tortilla, and that in aluminum foil, which kept it warm and less messy. He chatted with the server in Spanish -- albeit the Tejano accent he'd picked up from a girlfriend during his first year in the Army struck the Guatemalan lady serving the takeout as hilarious -- and then they strolled along taking in the sights as they ate. Two friends eating burritos were a lot less suspicious than two empty-handed Fish and Game agents. He took his first bite with real enjoyment; the rice was flavorful and not mushy, the beans had a hint of a tang to them, and the salsa was appropriately nuclear, soothed by the richness of the meat and the soft coolness of the sour cream. There was nothing like the competition in the burrito capital of the world to keep the vendors honest.
"Who do you figure blew up the warehouse in LA?" Tully said, around a mouthful of his own.
"I think the Viets had it right," Tom replied, after a swallow. "Some sort of internal power struggle going on in the Russian mafia. Maybe a policy disagreement; say some of them want to get into the endangered-animal smuggling, and some think it's too dangerous and want to stick with nose-candy, horse, selling girls and generalized racketeering... or even going respectable, the way the Italians eventually did. That's pretty standard gang stuff; you always get a conservative faction squabbling with a fangs-out-and-hair-on-fire bunch. The wild men are the ones who probably linked up with the dirty group among RM&M's employees."
"Pretty skanky that their ‘conservative' bunch got to the warehouse just when we did," Tully observed. "Of course, once is coincidence."
"Twice is happenstance, and the third time proves it was enemy action all along and you were a dummy for not seeing it the first time," Tom said. "Yup, there's a leak somewhere from police sources. Probably more than one. There's serious money involved."
"The sort that could get Superman to fly shit across the border," Roy said, as they wadded up the foil wrappers of the burritos and threw them into a waste container along with the napkins they used to wipe their mouths. "And here we are."
Indrasul Pan-Pacific Exports occupied a tiny storefront in a 20's-vintage three-story building, flanked on either side by a recycled-clothing store and on the other by a dusty-looking shop window filled with an amazing mixture of junky used furniture and real curios -- everything from glass net-floaters to flamboyantly colored Balinese dancer's masks. If he'd been on his own time, he could have spent a couple of enjoyable hours there, and he made a note to come back.
Hell, I could come here with Adrienne, he thought, and then shoved it aside -- a nice notion, but too distracting right now.
Sarah Perkins was across the street from it, leaning her butt against a car and reading a paper with her face away from the target; she was also wearing glasses to conceal an ear-mike and for feed from various survelliance cameras.
Tom and his partner walked across the street and looked in the shopfront.
"We're go at 11:00 pm exactly," she said casually, shaking the paper flat and turning a page. "Targets went in at nine this morning and haven't come out; one visitor, unidentified Caucasian male, mid-twenties, left about half an hour ago. We've had full surveillance since a little after that. Everything looks exactly the way the anonymous Vietnamese-American good citizen said it would. Any news on your weird condor?"
"Nada," Tom said. "He still sits in solitary glory in San Diego, being prepared for life as Stud of the Captive Flock."
He turned and leaned his own shoulder against the building; from that position he could look across the street without appearing to stare. Sure enough, he could see a man's head and shoulders over the back of an office chair.
"Uh-oh," Roy said. "Awful crick in the neck there for Mr. Stationary."
"Oh, yeah," Tom breathed. That position would be extremely painful if you kept it for more than a few seconds. "Sarah?"
"Shit!" she said crisply, throwing down the paper and turning to stare at the window. "Give me a magnification on the subject... switch to thermal... shit, he's room-temperature. Go!"
All three of them were sprinting across the street with their guns out before Sarah's paper finished hitting the ground. Tom had been a running back in high school -- and attracted the notice of several football talent scouts before he decided to join the Army; he was halfway across the street and dodging a car that came to a screeching, cursing halt just short of his hips as he twisted aside like a matador. Tully and Perkins were six very long strides behind, and they had to scramble around the automobile. That might have saved them injury when the windows of the second-story office blew out in a spectacular flash of light, blue-white and then orange.
Tom caught the first flicker with a subliminal alertness common to those who'd survived being shelled. He dove forward onto the sidewalk, thankful for the body armor under his t-shirt; an elbow abraded painfully, but the sensation was distant. A quick look over his shoulder showed half a dozen people injured, but none of them looked serious; a lot more were screaming and running -- the war had been over for a while, but after those years people in the US took bombs extremely seriously. Flames were shooting out of the shattered windows above his head, hot enough to instantly darken the stucco around them and with only a little smoke. That meant a fairly small explosive charge -- semtex to kill, and incendiaries to cover up the evidence with a fire hot enough to make steel burn.
He shoved himself off the ground and catapulted forward, through the open door and up the flight of stairs that ran up from it -- the ground-floor shop was already empty and the door at its rear still swung. Halfway up the stairs he could feel the heat blasting out through the half-open doors, and he stripped off his shirt as he ran, winding it around his left arm. Tom sheltered his face with that as he kicked the door open, holding a fold of cloth across his mouth with his teeth as he peered squint-eyed into the offices -- an outer receptionists', and the inner sanctum whose window he'd seen from the street. They were already an inferno, fire running in sheets up the walls and flaring out along the ceiling and spreading among a chaos of shattered desks and doors, tumbled filing cabinets and their contents and scattered computer components. The paper was smoking, nearing its ignition heat, and so was every piece of wood not actually on fire. Squinting, he could make out a body lying on the floor with its feet still up on the toppled swivel chair; the once-white shirt showed where four bullets had been pumped into the man's chest, grouped rather neatly around the middle of the breastbone.
Nothing to be done about him, Tom thought, slightly relieved.
The fallen man was probably a poacher and smuggler -- almost certainly was. The warden would still have tried to rescue him if he'd been alive, but he was glad that he wasn't; the heat was savage even here at the door and getting worse by the second, with a dull pulsing roar that gathered force like the lungs of some huge angry beast. He stooped to make sure, and snatched up a small silvery recording disk lying on the floor that fell under his hand. Then he froze, even as flaming bits and pieces began to fall from the ceiling.
It wasn't that he didn't recognize the bird in its cage, thrown into a corner by the blast and very dead, its feathers blackening.
The problem was that he did recognize it.
It was an ugly roly-poly bird, about the size of a large turkey, with a huge bulbous hooked orange beak looking like a swollen excrescence on its bare gray head -- it had feathers only on the part above and behind the little yellow eyes, rather like a late-period Elvis haircut. The body was gray-brown with hints of gold as well, apart from the thick bright-yellow feet and white plumes at the ends of the absurd stumpy little wings that gave a final dying quiver as he watched.
It was an ugly, cartoonish creature. And very familiar, although he'd never seen one alive. Nobody had, not since a Dutchman chased down and killed the last one around 1680 AD, on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. There were plenty of artists' reproductions in books; it was far more famous than many living creatures.
"It's a God-damned dodo, for Christ's sake!" he screamed, and lunged towards it, into a wave of heat like a solid wall.
He didn't hurt much.
That was the first thing he checked on, as the blackness in his head became the blackness behind closed but waking eyes; the first thing, before thinking about where he was. No pain was a good thing; and you usually hurt pretty badly when waking up from a serious concussion. Which he'd done six or seven times in his life, depending on your definition of serious. Not much pain, which meant he could probably count on skipping the blurred vision, nausea, and recurrent headaches that could plague you for months after getting a solid sock to the head that sent your brain surging back and forth like a walnut in a loose shell.
Either he'd slept for a good long while, or he'd gotten off lightly, or both.
The smell told him it was a hospital before he opened his eyes; disinfectant, linoleum, ozone, a faint underlay of something unpleasant, and the odor of utterly inedible food. Memory struggled for a moment, and he thought it was the MASH unit in Tashkent. Then he knew better. That wakening had been far from painless.
His eyes opened. He was in a hospital bed and wearing one of those humiliating gowns that fastened up the back; a privacy screen stood around the enclosure, and there was a scanner hood clipped on the bedstead over his head -- the medics had been monitoring his brain activity, then.
Yup, I did get a conk on the head, he thought. They wouldn't waste one of those on me if I didn't.
A variant of the same electronic process could produce an artificial analogue of natural sleep to hasten healing these days, and he had a bandage taped over the skin of one elbow, where a drip needle had kept him hydrated and nourished.
An amber light was flashing on the machinery now, so he could expect company. A cautious inventory showed him that there weren't any casts, splints or broken bones either, and everything moved the way it should. He was a little sore and stiff when he tried to move, but it was all functional.
The nurse's aide who came at the machine's call was a heavyset black woman, looking tired with a tiredness that had probably set in for good about fifteen years ago when she turned thirty. She brought him water, which took some of the mummy-dust and sourness out of his mouth and throat, and then a doctor -- a thin harried-looking Chinese-American. The name-tag on his white coat read Edgar Chen, and he looked as if he'd given up luxuries like sleep. Probably a public hospital, then. San Francisco General, which was on Potrero Avenue near the Mission district.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Christiansen. You're quite lucky," he said. "The falling joist wasn't burning, and your friends got you out quickly. No more than a few scorches and very minor smoke inhalation; you can thank heaven for all that muscle protecting your bones. We kept you under to make sure there was no brain trauma. Breathe deeply, please."
Tom did, and coughed, as always -- there was something about the feel of a stethoscope on the skin of his chest or back that made him cough, had since he was a kid. His lungs did have a faint soreness, the way they felt after a cold or a bout of the flu.
"Excellent. OK, let's see if the machinery was telling the truth. Look at this light. Then at my finger. Follow the finger --"
The examination was brisk but thorough; he supposed they'd done the EMR and the rest of the sophisticated stuff while he was unconscious.
"Well, you need more rehydration, and there was a mild concussion, but apart from that you're fine. You can be discharged in a few hours. Take it easy for the next week and drink plenty of water, bouillon or fruit juices. Avoid caffeine or alcohol."
"Ah... how long was I out, doctor?"
"It's shortly after ten a.m., Sunday."
Woah! I lost nearly forty-eight hours!
The doctor smiled. "We let you get some rest. Believe me, sleep induction is a wonderful tool. Your friends have been in to see you –"
"Friends?" Tom asked.
"A Mr. Tully, and a young lady --"
"Late-twenties, gorgeous?" Tom asked with a grin, and grinned wider at the doctor's nod. Well, well, he thought. It wasn't kiss-and-run.
He basked in the glow of that for a second, then let the two help him up and through a small ward -- four beds -- to a washroom. He felt a little weak, and stiffer than a board, but that faded as he moved. A hot shower made him feel even better, as if the hurt was washing off with the sluicing water and swirling away down the drain in the middle of the little tile floor; he didn't even much mind the crowded feeling that the hospital shower stall gave him -- he was used to that.
Roy Tully showed up first, and laughed outright at Tom's poorly concealed disappointment. There was a bandage on his right hand, smelling of some sort of burn lotion. Tom made a note of it -- as a sort of mental game, he liked to keep track of the people who'd saved his life, and vice versa. This time put Roy up two to one.
"I ran into your Ms. Rolfe in the lobby yesterday," the little man said. "Oh, sweet Lord Jesus --"
"I can fill in the details," Tom said dryly, then coughed and took another drink of water. "Nope, nothing serious," he went on at his partner's look of concern. "Just need a day or two to get the pipes back in order. What's up?"
"Wait a second," Tully said, ducking out of the privacy curtain.
The other beds in this room were vacant at the moment. He dropped a rubber wedge under the door and heeled it home, then brought out his PDA and jacked in a set of display glasses that looked like old-fashioned Ray-bans. Tom cocked an eyebrow at the precautions but put them on and slid the little mikes on the sides into his ears. The world disappeared; he slitted his eyes against the light that would come when the tiny mirrors and lasers began to shine images onto his retinas.
"This is the disk you had in your hip pocket when we dragged you out. I've looked it over, and now you should. It's... sort of remarkable, Tom. I haven't let anyone else look at it. Palmed it so Fart, Barf & Itch wouldn't notice."
"You haven't shown it to the boss?" Tom asked, puzzled. Cutting out the competition was fair enough, though he liked Perkins, but the usefulness of data tended to degrade rapidly. "If there's important information, we should -- "
"Shut up and watch."
The disk was obviously homemade. A professional job would have given a seamless wraparound 3-D effect, with only the fact that you couldn't alter the viewpoint by turning your head to tell it from the real thing. Here he could see the black-line limits of the visual world at the edges of his vision; the first shots were people at a barbeque or out-door party; well-dressed, wealthy, and at a guess somewhere in the northern Bay area -- Adrienne's stamping grounds, he thought whimsically.
Then he looked again. There were a couple of dozen people visible, and all of them were white; that was not something you'd expect in the Bay Area these days. People moved in and out of the view; an unstaged setting was always less orderly than Hollywood. A flash of bright hair brought him bolt upright -- it was exactly the shade of Adrienne's. Then the woman turned around, and the face wasn't hers; a strong family resemblance, but a good decade older, and not beautiful -- merely good-looking in a horsy way that went with the tweeds, riding boots and breeches she was wearing. Children ran by, chased by a nanny who looked Guatemalan or Mayan.
The icon in the lower left-hand corner showed a date: May 17th, 2009.
The view panned up past a big Georgian-style country mansion, and then to a mountain behind it. He blinked, racking his memory...
Looks like Mt. Saint Helena, north of Callistoga, Tom thought. But it can't really be.
For one thing, he'd be in Callistoga if it were Mt. Saint Helena, and for another this mountain was a lot shaggier, thickly forested with oak and Douglas Fir and even redwoods.
The viewpoint changed. The date was the same, but the camera pickup was on an open hillside, looking out over a smallish city or big town on the flats below, and beyond that a huge bay. Something nagged at him as the view swiveled south and then panned slowly north again.
"Holy shit," he whispered. "That's the Bay -- San Francisco Bay, from the hills above Berkeley!"
Only it wasn't. It had taken him a full minute to recognize it, because so much was different. His San Francisco bay was half the size of this -- the legacy of a century and a half of silting and draining and reclamation. This one was huge, and it still had its broad skirt of marsh and swamp and tidal flat; through the sound pickup he could hear the thunder of million-fold wings arriving and departing across miles, streams of birds rising like skeins of black smoke from reed-swamp and cordgrass salt marsh and open water. The land around the Bay land was mostly open as well, a checkerboard of farmland south where Oakland should be, marsh and slough and oak-studded savannah elsewhere, and directly below him --
"That should be the campus of UC Berkeley," he whispered.
There was nothing there but forest and flower-studded openings, and then a road and a complex of what looked like neoclassical public buildings where the city proper should start. The town beyond was a small fraction of Berkeley's size, and its skyline was utterly without steel and glass.
About twenty, thirty thousand people max, he thought. Same-same as Fargo, North Dakota.
It was mostly low houses, one or two-stories with red-tile roofs, and embowered in trees that made it look more like a forest; there was a port towards the southern edge of the built-up area where the marina should be, a modest factory zone, and then a grid of squares, residential alternating with small parks, rather like the older part of Savannah in Georgia. The bayside freeways just weren't there.
The Golden Gate and Bay bridges weren't there either, and neither were the container ships and tankers that should have thronged the surface. Instead only a scattering of vessels could be seen on the cobalt-blue water streaked with whitecaps, and none of them were very large. Some were sail-powered, or at least had masts -- big schooners and a couple of ship-rigged three-masters. Across the water... the peninsula that should be covered in white tiers by the buildings and towers of San Francisco was mostly sand-hills and scrub, with another biggish town along the water's edge.
Maybe ten thousand or a few more there, Tom's mind stuttered. Aloud:
"Is this some sort of historical reconstruction? It could be -- well, maybe CGI of the Gold Rush period."
"Kemosabe, I don't think they had quite as much air transport then."
There was an airport about where Alameda should be; on an island just off the shore. He recognized a pair of C-130 Hercules transports lumbering into the air, and there was a small control tower and a medley of smaller aircraft, including some amphibians. No jets, but a fair assortment of helicopters, Chinooks and Black Hawks and smaller jobs. And there were cars on the roads, and some of the ships and fishing boats out on the water were definitely motor-powered; diesels, from the lack of smoke. The camera swung down, to where four saddled horses waited, and a fifth with a gutted mule deer slung over its back. Evidently the camera was a miniaturized cyberstabilized model on a shoulder mount; he could see hands come into the field of view as the bearer put a booted foot into the stirrup and swung into the saddle. The other men in the party -- it was all men -- were in denim pants and leather jackets, with automatics at their waists and rifles of a model he didn't recognize in saddle scabbards. The jackets had a blazon on the shoulder, a stylized tommy gun.
Tough-looking bastards, he thought. They rode through a patch of tall grass, high enough to brush the horses' breasts --
"That's native bunchgrass," Tom said softly. "About half of it, anyway. As if it hadn't been replaced by wild oats and the other intrusive stuff yet, not all of it."
"Yeah, and that happened... when? The first generation or two after the Spanish arrived in California?" Tully said. "In the Bay, that should have been finished by the 1820's or a little after."
Tom nodded; the native grasses hadn't been able to compete with the hardy Mediterranean annuals, especially not when cattle and sheep started grazing on them, and the seeds had arrived in hay and bedding when the first European colonists shipped in their foundation stock. In the field he was looking at, that process was still going on.
The horsemen rode down through a forested gully. It was definitely the Berkeley hills, he recognized the lay of the land and the general shape, but more empty of man than Glacier National Park -- only the trail, and that might have been made by game. As if to underline that they broke out into another sunlit meadow, starred with orange California poppy, yellow goldfields, purple lupine and dense mats of cream-white yarrow thick among the tall grass. A herd of Roosevelt elk raised their muzzles to watch, then turned and trotted off without overmuch concern; the bull-elk's antlers showed against the morning sun for a moment, broader than he could have spanned with both arms. He couldn't keep track of the smaller game and birds; everything was in bewildering profusion, and once the horses shied at the passage of what had to be a grizzly, although he caught only a fleeting glimpse of silver-tipped brown fur. The trees overhead included huge redwoods, nearly as big as those in Muir Woods; black oak mixed in on the upper slopes, trees giving way to open grassland on the ridges.
All the redwood in the East Bay was logged off in the 1850's, 1860's, he thought. Those trees aren't second growth, though. That one there must be three hundred feet high! It was growing there when Columbus went looking for Japan and ran the Santa Maria onto Haiti.
The viewpoint changed again, and again Tom had to grope for the location. It went faster this time; he anticipated it, and the camera swung back and forth.
"That's Mt. Diablo over on the right," he said. "The Carquinez straits." That was where the combined waters of the Sacramento and San Joaquin ran out of the delta into San Francisco Bay. Except that the great oil refineries were missing, and the bridge that spanned the strait. Grizzly bears thronged the shore, hundreds of them. They were wading out into the waters, scooping migrating salmon from throngs that whipped the water into froth. Further out a half-dozen big wooden fishing boats were doing the same, swinging in bulging netfulls. Pelicans and cormorants and ospreys stooped and struck, and golden or bald eagles hijacked their catch in a swarm of wings and a chorus of raucous cries. The camera zoomed in, and he could see that many of the salmon were enormous, fifty or sixty pounds each.
Another jump, and this time the landscape wasn't Californian at all; it looked like somewhere on the High Plains, rising into mountains to the westward; the date icon switched to fall. The camera was in an aircraft now, but flying at less than a thousand feet -- a small two-engine job, by the shadow. Below stretched a herd of bison moving south, great shaggy brown-black beasts, half-hidden by the cloud of dust they raised from the dry shortgrass prairie. The mass of animals stretched out of sight in both directions, and you could see an awful long way from eight hundred feet in flat country; not quite a solid carpet, but more buffalo than open space. He'd long ago learned to estimate numbers and distances quickly, skills valuable to a hunter and a soldier both, and essential in wildlife management. Which meant --
"There have to be better than three million buffalo in that one herd!" he blurted.
"Spot on," Tully said, his voice coming from another world. "I ran a count. That's north-central Montana, incidentally. At least, the mountains and those buttes over there say it should be according to the geolocation program."
Three million buffalo were more than five times the total number in the whole of North America in 2009, and most of those were on ranches, behind barbed wire. These were running free over a plain that showed nothing of modern man -- no roads, nor fences, no power lines, not so much as a distant ranch house. But the estimates said there had been somewhere between twenty-five and fifty million, back a few centuries ago...
The shadow of the aircraft swooped downwards, the ground swelling until they were flying nape-of-the-earth, above a section of the herd that had decided to bolt cross-country at a dead run. He could see the reason, a band of men on horseback clinging to the edge of the great mass of buffalo, galloping along beside them. The picture leapt closer as the camera's operator dialed up his magnification, and the Indians jumped to arms' length; the picture jiggled a little, as the close-up an the plane's motion stressed the limits of the camera rig's stabilizer.
There were two dozen of the Indians, wild-looking men in breechclout and leggings with braided hair and bars of paint across their faces and naked chests; here a spray of feathers tucked into the raven hair, there a necklace of wolf-teeth. Their mounts were not Indian ponies, though; they were big long-legged horses, and the hunters rode saddles rather than bareback. They were using short thick bows and long lances with steel or obsidian heads, riding in recklessly close to send shafts slamming into the ton-weight bodies, or thrusting the spears behind a shoulder. Maddened dying buffalo ran with blood frothing from their nostrils, and then collapsed in tumbling chaos as others behind with no room to swerve tripped and tumbled in multi-beast pileups.
The men left off their hunting as the plane approached, shaking their fists or lances at it, or launching futile arrows into the sky. A hand extended into the camera's view, giving the hunters below the finger, and he heard laughter over the engine-roar. Then the aircraft swept on, over another group of Indians; these were families on the march, probably the home base of the hunting-party with more horses and -- he blinked -- spoke-wheeled carts. Women had stopped in small groups to skin and butcher the slain animals, with children and dogs running around; the adults stood and shaded their eyes as the aircraft circled above. They weren't as openly hostile as the hunters, but he saw fists raised, and a man in a weirdly complex costume of bison-horns and plumes shook a feathered stick at the camera.
Indians who hunt buffalo on horseback -- but know what airplanes are.
Scavengers followed the bison herd, as the plane flew along the broad trampled path of its passage, coyotes and turkey buzzards and condors. Scavengers and predators; grizzly bears, a pack of big pale-coated lobos, the white Plains wolf that had been extinct since the 1920's...
And resting around a partly-eaten bison carcass, a pride of lions; half a dozen females, cubs, and a black-maned male who put his paws on it and roared as the aircraft's shadow swept by.
"Shit!" Tom said, ripped off the viewer goggles. He and Tully stared at each other, and the silence stretched. "Lions? Indians hunting three million buffalo? Lions? How the hell am I going to explain this to Yasujiru?"
"You don't have to," Tully said, the usual edge of humor absent from his voice for once. "I tried imagining it myself, and it's unimaginable. In fact, I'd strongly advise you not to. If you have to show it to him, just hand it over and let him think up an explanation."
Tom stared at him again. "You're not serious?" he said.
"I'm dead serious, partner. That thing is seriously weird. Weirdness is contagious, and Yasujiru hates the least little hint of anything that's outside regular channels. He doesn't like either of us as it is, despite the fact that we've got the best records in Special Operations."
Tom took a deep breath. "Roy... I haven't told you why I tried to get into that office you pulled me out of."
The smaller man's face cocked to one side. "I guessed there was someone alive in there, and you were trying to get them out? SFPD forensics say there was bone mixed with the ashes, but that's about all they could tell; it was a pretty damned hot fire. No salvageable DNA."
"Something was in there." He paused again. "This is going to sound crazy."
"So? Isn't everything in this ratfuck? It started weird in LA and it's been getting worse."
"Roy, there was a bird in a cage in that office. Dead, I think, but only just -- still twitching. It wasn't fifteen feet away from my face, and I got a good long look at it."
"Another condor? Hell, Tom, I know they're rare, but you'd have been well done if we hadn't dragged you out pronto. The stairs collapsed behind us, the second we stepped out into the street."
"Not a condor. A dodo."
Tully began a laugh, then sobered at the flat seriousness of his partner's expression. "A dodo?"
"Yeah. Raphus cucullatus. And yeah, I know it's extinct and has been for centuries. So: either I'm lying, or I'm nuts, or there was a fucking dodo in that office. You're going to have to take your pick, Roy, because I swear I'm not lying and I don't think I'm crazy."
Tully's hands twitched in a way that showed he'd been a two-pack-a-day man until a few years ago. He looked over at the PDA and the viewing goggles, and slowly nodded.
"OK, kemosabe," he said. "There's a third alternative -- you could have be having a false memory, on account of your head getting whacked and roasted like a chestnut, but I'm not buying that. Losing some recent memory, yup, that happens fairly often with a concussion, but detailed hallucinations? Only on TV."
Tom exhaled with relief. "I did have nightmares about having to tell Yasujiru this alone," he said.
"If you tell him, you'll be completely alone -- and I tell you for a third time, don't do it."
Tom jerked his head around. "You're kidding!"
"Nope," Tully said, shaking his head slowly. "Tom, OK, you saw what you saw. Someone can get dodos. And condors that never met a birdshot. And great big loads of sea-otter skins. And yeah, it's probably from that place on the disk, wherever or whenever or what-the-fuck it is. But if I didn't know you pretty damned well, if I hadn't known you for years, I wouldn't believe a word of it. I'd say you were subbing for an anal probe from the saucer people. There's no proof, man. Maybe if you had the dodo in your hands, but you don't. The disk? CGI can do anything these days; hell, you've seen orcs and elves and dragons on screen, haven't you?"
"What about the condor?" Tom said. "There's no way to explain that otherwise."
"Oh?" Tully said. "And yesterday, who was laughing off time-travel as an explanation?" He went on gently: "Tom, I may be a hick from Arkansas instead of the big cities of North Dakota, but I know about Occam's Razor. What's the simplest explanation -- that a Fish and Game warden has gone bugfuck, or that there are, hell, aliens, time-travellers, whatever, among us?"
"Jesus Christ," Tom whispered. "But think about it, Roy. We have to get after these people, whoever they are. We have to."
Roy Tully looked him bleakly in the eye. "And getting fired and possibly sent to the place where the nice man in the white coat has a pill to help you is going to do that exactly how?"
Tom opened his mouth and then closed it. "Roy, think a little more. We have time travelers... dimensional travelers... in touch with..." The words came with difficulty; his mind kept trying to slide away into denial. I saw what I saw, he thought stubbornly.
Tully's eyes opened a little wider. "In touch with the Russian mafia," he went on. "Oh, man, that is not good. It shows distinctly skanky motivation and mucho power. Not a good combination."
"Doubleplus ungood," Tom said grimly. "But there's more to it than that."
"More to it than them maybe going back in time and rearranging things to suit their preferences?" Tully said; he was pale now, and sweating a little. "More than the Russian mafia rearranging history?"
"I don't think we have to worry about that," Tom said. "Once you accept that the clues are real, they don't point to, ah, time travel."
"Why the fuck not?"
"Well --" he pointed to the PDA. "Think about it. That looks like the past, right? Only it isn't; there's planes and cars and a couple of small cities... and the lion. There haven't been lions in North America for, hell, something like twelve thousand years -- the big extinctions after the Paleo-Indians arrived. That was before the end of the last ice age, and the disk definitely isn't showing us glacial-era San Francisco Bay; wrong size, wrong vegetation, wrong sea-level. It looked like the Bay before or right after Europeans arrived. You know the alternate-worlds theory? It was in that comic book you were reading –"
"It was a graphic novel, not a comic book!" Tully said, with a hint of his usual goblin grin. "Yeah, I know the concept. South wins the Civil War, Hitler wins WWII, that sort of thing. Been some pretty good movies that used it".
"So that place on the disk, it looks like an alternate history -- one where Europeans never got here, ah, there -- hell, you know what I mean."
"Didn't get there until recently," Tully corrected.
He looked calmer, and his eyes shone with a hunter's instinct. "That town, those guys with the planes and choppers and ships. We're talking thousands of people. That would take a while, if you were doing it in secret."
"Yah, you betcha," Tom said, feeling his way along the implications
of what he'd seen. "And that's more evidence it's not time travelers or
aliens from another dimension -- or even humans from an alternate
"They wouldn't be talking English, or having garden parties, or using Black Hawks or any of that stuff. Well," he conceded, "they might if they came from a history a lot like ours, branching off fairly recently -- but if they have, ah, hell, call it cross-time-line travel, then they should have a technology a lot more advanced than ours, because there's nothing in our science that more than hints at it. From the evidence, I'd say it's some bunch of people from here, here-and-now, who learned how to get over there a while ago. Learned how to do it once, with only one... machine or passageway or whatever."
Tully snapped his fingers. "Gold," he said. Tom looked at him. "Brother, you are a pure-minded soul. What's the first thing you think of when the words California and history come together?"
"The Gold Rush, by Jesus," Tom said. "The days of old, the days of Gold, the days of '49."
Tully nodded, smiling a smug smile; evidently his natural spirits were returning. "Hell, half the towns in the Mother Lode country get more gold out of the rootin'-tootin' 49er tourist stuff than they ever got out of the ground," he said. "So say you're Mister X -- must have been a long time ago to build up all that stuff we saw on the disk -- and you find out, somehow, that you can nip from here over to a California where "wealth" means "acorns". What do you do? Call in our beloved Feds and have them take it all? You might, because you're such a goddamned Boy Scout. Hell, I might, after wrestling with my conscience and wiping my sweaty palms. But how many would just get themselves a pan and a pick and a mule and head for the goldfields?"
Tom nodded, rubbing a big hand over his face. "And you'd want to recruit some help, too -- you'd need a base over there, and support, logistics. Christ, though, what a racket, if you could keep it secret!"
Tully snapped his fingers again. "Two sets of ‘em," he said. "Not one bunch using this other universe, two -- one working against the other. That's why our busts keep getting bombed and the people we want to arrest turn up dead. What would be your priority, if you were Mister X?"
"Keeping it secret," Tom said. "That is, assuming I was the Mister X sort of perp."
"Yeah, but this operation's big and it's been going on for a while. At a guess, at least twenty, thirty years, maybe more. By now, there's thousands and thousands involved. From the look of it, there are tens of thousands of people living over there -- you could see farming country off to the south of what should be Berkeley, and there were those fishing boats, and a couple of good-sized towns. So what happens when there are thousands involved in something like that?"
"Someone gets greedy," Tom whispered. "Someone wants to knock over the apple cart so he can get a bigger share than the big bosses are giving him."
"Right, partner. So we've got this bunch peddling stuff to the Russians, and we've got some sort of clean-up squad going around shooting and burning the evidence and trying to shut the whole thing down before it blows up. I'd guess the ones dealing with the Russians are doing it on the quiet, that they're smugglers -- maybe with a bigger agenda, but not out in the open over there, not now."
"Yah," Tom said slowly, nodding. "But there's one thing that bothers me. The lion."
"There were lions around here once," Tully said. He had a fair grasp on wildlife biology and ecology, but he wasn't as well-read in the subject as Christiansen.
"Right, but it was felix atrox, the Plains lion -- bigger than African lions, nearly as big as a horse. And those were modern bison -- they evolved from a much bigger breed after the Indians got here and killed off the megafauna, the giant sloths and antelope and suchlike. And the dire wolves and sabertooths and lions that ate ‘em died off when their prey species went. Back before humans arrived, the Americas were more like Africa; lions, sabertooth tigers, cheetahs -- which is the reason pronghorn antelope are so fast, the slow ones ended up as cheetah food -- and there were mammoths and mastodons in place of elephants, dozens of types of big grazing animal, you name it. That's what condors evolved to scavenge. There was a bit of an overlap between paleo-Indians and lions and horses, but they weren't riding the horses or using bows or wheeled carts. They went through two continents with javelins and throwing-sticks."
Tully looked interested. "Hey, then how come we human types wiped out all that stuff here, and not in Africa?"
"Because African animals had two million years to learn how to deal with us -- the usual evolutionary arms race. Places like the Americas, or Australia, got fully modern humans unleashed on animals with no genetic preparation, and back around the end of the ice age the humans were specialist big-game hunters. The big, tasty, easy-to-catch beasts got wiped out in a blitzkrieg of barbeques. Back to the topic, Roy."
"OK," Tully said, shaking his head. "So the, ummm, Mister X Gang, they must have introduced lions."
"Probably a lot of other stuff, too, God-damn them. They don't seem to have much compunction about letting exotic species loose."
Tully nodded. "OK, and probably they did that from somewhere around here -- I mean around their Bay Area. From the look of things, that's where this Mister X got started, and where his operation's still centered."
"We can't be sure of that -- let's not get too in love with our assumptions. But it does look that way --"
He stopped, appalled, grunting as a sudden pain twisted his gut. Tully reached out, alarmed; Tom ground his right fist into his left hand, the skin around his lips going white with the force of his anger.
"Jesus Christ, I've been played for a sucker. Adrienne."
"How do you figure that?" Tully said.
"The bunch she works for, Pacific Open Landscapes League. Son of a bitch. Back in the fifties, they -- they had a different name then -- had an arrangement for importing animals with the San Diego Zoo. Lions, tigers, elephants, rhinos, the whole menagerie. Why? Who the hell knows? Maybe the Mister X likes big-game hunting. And both those groups were, are, tied really tight with Rolfe Mining and Minerals, run by -- guess who? -- Adrienne Rolfe's father and grandfather. A company which got its start in the later 40's, developing gold mines in the Far East and the Congo --"
"Gold mines," Tully said, shaking his head with the reluctant admiration a policeman develops for a really good scam. "You just mix the gold you're bringing in from a goddamned alternate world together with what you're getting out of the real mines here and now, in countries where you can fake invoices easy by greasing a few palms. Who's going to notice? You're paying your taxes on the full amount -- the only thing our cops and IRS and customs inspectors look for is people reporting less than what they're actually bringing in."
"And with the gold you buy guns and trucks and planes --"
"And anything else you want," Tully finished for him. "Dredges. Lions so you can go on safari... hey, that means they probably can't get around all that much over there, or they'd just go to Africa for their big cats."
"And that's why the sailing ships," Tom said. Tully looked at him, and Tom continued: "Those were too big for yachts, some of them. They must have fuel sources near the Bay area, but not some of the places they're sending ships to."
"Slick," Tully nodded. "San Francisco, you can sail anywhere in the Pacific Basin from there... anywhere in the world, I suppose, eventually."
"And Adrienne must be a... hell, maybe they think of it as cops," Tom said bitterly. "Or spooks. Company security, just like she told me. Trying to plug this leak, this group who're scamming the bosses... her family. She needed to get information out of me, so they could get to the smugglers before we did. And I fell for it hook, line and sinker!"
Roy Tully sent him a look of sympathy that stung like acid. "Wait a minute," he said. "Look, could you give me the details? Everything she said and did, and the order she did it in?"
The big man did, forcing his voice to steadiness; he knew the value of a second viewpoint, one more objective -- free of infatuation, or the rage of betrayal. When he was finished Tully was sitting back in his chair, looking up at the ceiling with his hands linked behind his head.
"Look, kemosabe, for what it's worth, I don't think she was just playing you for a sucker," he said gently.
"How do you figure that?" Tom replied roughly.
"Because she got all the information she needed before you did the wild thing with her. And let's be honest, kemosabe; she could have gotten everything she needed to know with a little cock-teasing, right? No need to go all the way."
Tom flushed. "Right," he admitted. "I sang like a canary."
"And all that stuff she told you... hell, she even said it herself, right?"
"Everything I've told you is true," Tom said, quoting. "But it isn't complete." He snarled. "I'll say it wasn't fucking complete! She didn't motion knocking people off, for starters."
"Hey, hey, kemosabe, control the emotions, right? Easy for me to say, but we need your head working now, not other parts of your anatomy. You're not the first man to find a woman had some ulterior motives, my friend, or the first one to fall for a honey trap."
"OK," Tom said, filing it for future reference.
"Now fit that stuff she told you about her family and her relations in with what we know now."
"Right," Tom said, nodding decisively. "That was a rundown on the setup they have over there. It must have seemed like a real side-splitter of a joke for her to tell me all about it."
He frowned. "You know, from what she let slip, they've got a whole country over there, pretty well. All run by her family and their friends and relations. I thought it sounded a bit screwy, the whole landed-gentry thing. I know a lot of wine-country types like to play those games, but this was very old-fashioned."
"Not a surprise," Tully said. "Hey, didn't you tell me that this John Rolfe was one of those old-money, big-brick-mansion types in Virginia?"
"His grandfather, not him. The family lost their money in the Civil War."
"All the more reason he'd go for that sort of thing if he had the chance. Anyway, we need to get some research done," Tully said. "Going to be tough, doing this and our regular jobs. I hope I've talked you out of going to the boss with this."
"You're right; we can't take this to Yasujiru or anyone else without a lot more proof. I doubt Special Agent Perkins would believe me, even."
"That's not the only thing. Yasujiru might be one of the leaks."
Tom grunted. "Hope not. I always thought he was an honest pain in the ass. OK...how much vacation time do you have coming?"
"Two weeks," Roy said. He smiled, and then let it grow into a broad white grin. "Yeah, now you're talking. Christ, can you imagine what it'll be like if we can prove this? Hell, imagine if we can find whatever the hell it is that lets Mister X... this Rolfe bastard... pull his magic trick? We could write our own tickets."
A fresh thought swept some of the intent anger out of Tom. "Jesus Christ, Roy, think about being able to go there! Go to that place on the disk."
He reached out and rapped his knuckles on the PDA. They looked at each other again, a simultaneous wild longing in their eyes. Nobody went into Fish and Game without loving the wilderness; it wasn't an easy job, you never got rich, and much of the work was frustrating beyond belief. That millions-strong herd of bison, that vision of Carquinez Strait nearly solid with salmon --
"I'd give a lot to see that, ah, that world with my own eyes," Tom said.
"Yeah! Especially before Exxon and Archer Daniels Midland get their mits on it," Tully enthused. "If we pull this off, I figure we can get some sort of deal on that."
A slight chill ran up Tom's back; he shook it off, and concentrated on what needed to be done. "Come on. We need to tell Yasujiru we're on vacation."
"How are we going to do that?" Tully said.
"Well, I'm recovering from a brush with death," Tom said, a fierce hunter's grin lighting his normally calm square features. "And as for you... the honorable Yasujiru never wanted in on this investigation anyway, for one reason or another. Tell him we haven't spotted any more probably-Californian animal stuff, which is true. That'll put you at loose ends as well. He'll reassign you after you get back from your vacation time. We'll say we're going on a hiking trip together -- we've done it before, amigo."
Tully slapped him on the shoulder. "And afterwards, nobody can say we didn't turn in all the evidence. That is classic cover-your-ass, my friend. You're developing a bureaucrat's reflexes after all!"
"Now you're getting nasty," Tom laughed. "But I have been a civil servant for a while." He stood. A slight dizziness passed almost immediately. "Let's go grab a steak and start making some notes."
September 15th, 2001
The Commonwealth of New Virginia:
"How was the safari?" John Rolfe asked his favorite granddaughter.
"Fun," she said with a laugh, wrinkling her nose as he lit his pipe. "It was fun."
Looks a bit like her grandmother, he thought, with a twinge of well-worn grief; Louisa had been dead thirty years now, and he still missed her despite a happy second marriage. And she looks even more like me. The torrent of bronze-colored hair was the exact shade his had been, and the leaf-green eyes, and the cast of the long regular face. She was five-nine now that she'd gotten her full growth, though: taller for a woman than he'd been for a man, and fuller-figured. Athletic with it, though.
One of the housemaids set a pitcher of lemonade between them, with a tinkle of ice; they were seated in loungers on either side of a table beneath a pergola covered in climbing roses, part of a patio in the gardens behind the manor. Those were more informal than the ones the great house presented to the outside world, and this stretch looked over a swimming pool edged in marble, with a bronze triton statue spouting water in its center and a view of the forested slopes of Mt. Helena to the north. A round dozen youngsters -- his great-grandchildren and their friends and children of the House staff -- were shouting and splashing and swimming, apparently doing their pre-pubescent best to drown each other. John Rolfe smiled at the sight, then winced slightly as he reached for the handle of the blown-glass vessel. The elderly mastiff lying beside his lounger on the sun-warmed pavement raised its gray-flecked muzzle in concern.
"Are you all right, granddad?" Adrienne Rolfe said.
"I'm nearly eighty years old; of course I'm not all right," her elder said, mock-grumbling. "All right, you do it."
She tilted the frosted pitcher, pouring for him first, and offered him the plate of pastries.
Girl has good manners, when she's not being deliberately provocative, he thought. And even at her worst, she usually didn't do that to me.
That was one of the advantages of being a grandparent as opposed to fatherhood. Although... Come to think of it, my kids didn't sass me much either. Possibly I was too hard on them?
The tart-sweet taste of the fresh-squeezed lemons went well with the strong scent of the roses that hung in tight red clusters above, and he sipped again as he looked at the statue of Diana and her hunting-dogs that stood on a plinth between him and the water. It was ancient; a little time-blurred, but the bronze was whole -- a bright graceful thing of elongated limbs and prancing greyhounds and a lovely face whose smile was utterly enigmatic. New Virginian ships had brought it back from an Athens where the Parthenon was still whole and whose temples still saw sacrifices to the Olympian gods -- albeit they included the deified Alexander, identified with Zeus. He'd never been able to get away long enough to visit himself, but he'd seen photographs and films and digital video.
And if I keep rationing myself, the scrolls will last my lifetime. Classical literature survived here intact, not the few shards and fragments that FirstSide history had. Cities had burned here in this world's history as states rose and fell, but never to the point of a real Dark Age.
For one thing, the Hellenes just got too big for every copy of anything important to vanish. For another, they did invent printing and paper, at least, if not gunpowder or positional arithmetic. It had been worth the effort of relearning a command of ancient Greek worn to rusty fragments, worth it a thousand times over.
"Thank you," he said to the young woman. "Now some details on the trip, if you please, miss."
"Well, the trip from Virginia City to Fort Chumley was pretty routine," she said.
That was the easternmost outpost of New Virginia, roughly on the site of Denver. It was still a tiny struggling thing, useful mostly as a trading post with the Indians and for hunting trips of the type his granddaughter had just taken. Eventually, much more: it would be the jumping off point for Breckenridge and Victor, Cripple Creek and Leadville. In time a city and the center of a new zone of settlement along the Front Range and eastward along the rivers; but that was for his grandchildren's children.
He bent his attention back to the girl's account, enjoying her bubbling good spirits.
"Spectacular scenery along the way, of course, we stopped at the Great Salt Lake, and I bagged a near-record bighorn head in the mountains. We went south along the foothills from there, and I got a really nice lion in the San Luis valley -- ten feet if it was an inch. They're thick as fleas there by now -- that book was right, there was an open ecological niche for something big enough to tackle an adult bison. Then we spent some time around the Pueblo country. They weren't what you'd call very friendly, but it was fascinating, and they wanted our trade goods very badly. We saw some of the dances, and I collected some interesting handicraft work. No problem getting more horses there, either. Jim Simmons did an excellent job of ramroding the outfit, too, even if you did think he was young for it."
"Ah," he nodded in satisfaction. "I knew his grandfather and father, and the lad shapes well."
"Cute, too," Adrienne said.
"I wouldn't notice," her grandfather said dryly, then went on seriously: "Good to see the Scouts keeping up their standards. They're a big reason the wild tribes usually know better than to attack New Virginians passing through, even that far east. Then?"
"Then we moved on down the Rio Grande. The farming villages there collapsed after the plagues, just a scatter of wild hunters left, and they're are really wild -- we didn't see much of them, though, just a couple of tries at our horse-lines. What we did see was nearly a dozen rhino."
They're spreading fast, he thought. Well, my hobby is going to affect this world for along time to come.
"Wish I could go on a safari of my own, but there's nothing more ridiculous than an old man playing youngster."
"You'll last forever," she said, and sounded as if she meant it.
Rolfe harrumphed. Flattering, my dear, but not likely. The old wound in his leg ached more every year, along with everything else. His hair was still thick, but snow-white now; he had the same belt-measurement that he'd had the first time through the Gate, and thank God his mind was clear as ever, but he could feel the teeth gnawing in every joint-pain and shortness of breath and the way he tired so quickly, and in the way his early memories seemed more solid and real than yesterday. Another decade at most, if he was very lucky.
"Or maybe not forever," she went on, her leaf-green eyes innocent. "Which is why I'm going to nag you about getting into Gate Security again, so Dad can't tell me it's unsuitable and make it stick. I'm eighteen now, nearly nineteen; I owe the Commonwealth two years, and that's where I think I could do the most good, not doing data-entry for the Commission."
"And Gate Security would mean you could spend more time FirstSide, and take university courses there --"
"Stanford. UCNV just doesn't have all the facilities that the best FirstSide schools do yet."
"-- and avoid your mother's nagging you to get married right away. After that embarrassing little incident particularly."
"She can relax. I want children eventually," she said defensively. "I just don't want to settle down and start making babies right away. I want to see things and do something important."
"Reproduction is generally considered of some significance," he said dryly, and then raised a hand. "I see your point, my dear. It's scarcely women's work, though."
"This isn't FirstSide, thank God," he said and waited out her expostulations. An evil grin split his seamed ancient-eagle countenance. "But on the other hand, what's the point of setting up a system of hereditary privilege if you can't get special favors for your grandchildren? All right."
She leapt up and hugged him enthusiastically.
"Spare my antique bones!" he said. "I'll tell Colonel Throckham tomorrow. But --" he extended a finger. "-- you get a chance at field operative work. If you can handle the training, and the discipline; I know you're smart enough, I think you're strong enough, and you're not squeamish, but I have my doubts about your ability to take orders. I'm not going to put a finger on the scales where it'll get you killed, or endanger other Gate Security personnel. Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mora, but not ‘pro well-born idiot mora'. Not while I'm in charge. Understand?"
"Of course, granddad," she glowed at him. "And I'll make you proud of me. I swear I will."
"I don't doubt you will, my dear," he said. "We Rolfes get things done."
He glanced back at the great house, obviously lost in his memories. Adrienne smiled indulgently; it was only natural in a man of his years, to live as much in the past as the present day.
And what he has to remember! she thought.
Copyright © 2002-2003 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>