April 17, 1946
John Rolfe had rented the house for seventy-five a month, which sounded extortionate but was something close to reasonable, given the way costs had gone crazy in the Bay Area since Pearl Harbor. The landlord was willing because Rolfe promised to do the badly-needed repairs himself, and because he had a soft spot for soldiers — his son had died on Okinawa, where Rolfe had taken three rounds from a Nambu machine-gun and gotten a Silver Star, a medical discharge and months on his back in a military hospital. The house was a solid three-bedroom piece of Victoriana, a little shabby and rundown like the area, shingle and dormers; what they called Carpenter Gothic hereabouts, but at least it had a basement. The previous owners had been Japanese-American, sent off to the relocation camps in 1942; then it had been rented out to workers in the shipyards to the north, part of the great wartime inrush, and they’d made a mess of it.
A whole house to himself was an indulgence anyway, since he was unmarried, but he’d spent too much of the last four years on troopships and in crowded bases and bivouacs, plus painful months in the crowded misery of a hospital. Solitude was restful.
He rubbed his thigh as he limped out to the porch, scooping up a bottle of milk, the mail and the newspaper. The mail included his monthly check from Uncle Sam, which was welcome; every little bit helped to stretch the modest legacy from his father, even though the house and land back in Virginia had gone for a surprising sum. There were also a few more no-thank-yous from prospective employers. The market for ex-Captains wasn’t all that brisk, not when their only other qualification was Virginia Military Institute. Being able to endure Beast Barracks, run an infantry company, and take out a Nip bunker complex… well, none of them were really saleable skills in peacetime, particularly when they went with a slowly-healing gimp leg. War heroes were a dime a dozen in the United States these days. He’d get something eventually…
I’m still having better luck than my grandfather, he thought.
John Rolfe III had lost a leg at Second Manassas, leading a regiment of the Stonewall Brigade against the United States, under Jackson. That had turned out to be a bad decision, at least from the viewpoint of the family fortunes; though not as bad as gramps’ subsequent one to put everything he had into Confederate bonds as a patriotic gesture.
Of course I’d have done exactly the same thing, but there’s no denying it never pays to lose, he thought with a chuckle.
There was also a letter from Andy O’Brien, who’d been top his sergeant in Baker Company until he and Rolfe were invalided out on the same day. Enemy holdouts had infiltrated in the dark just before dawn and nearly overrun them; it had come down to bayonets and clubbed rifles, boots and fists and teeth, with the only the muzzle-flashes to light chaos and terror and the stink of death.
For a moment his face froze under a film of cold sweat and the paper crumpled in his fist as a year vanished in an instant — remembering the ugly crunching feel that shivered up the ruined weapon as the butt of his Garand splintered on a Nip’s face, with a splash of blood that blinded him and ran salt and hot into his own open screaming mouth. Remembering the bayonet poised to kill him until O’Brien smashed it down and hacked the wielder’s head half off with an entrenching tool, roaring in a berserker fury. That cut off suddenly as the bullets struck him like fists pounding on a block of beef and he toppled into the officer, pawing with arms gone flaccid.
He’d carried the big Irishman out on his back — until that slant-eyed bastard with the Nambu cut his left leg out from under him and broke the bone in three places; then he’d had to crawl…
He gave a shuddering exhalation and wiped a hand over his face. It was very bad, when the memories came like that, taking you back so you could feel and taste and touch, so you were there again.
Got to stop doing that. It’s over, God-dammit, and you’re alive.
The daytime memories weren’t as bad as the dreams, but they were a lot more embarrassing; nobody was around at midnight to hear him screaming.
He opened the screen door with two fingers, kept it open with his elbow as he got his foot up on the doorsill, and let it bang behind him as he went into the kitchen, tossed the mail on the table and put the milk in the Frigidare, taking out some cold fried chicken left over from last night and a couple of big juicy tomatoes. One of the advantages of living in California was that you could get fresh vegetables earlier than most places. Rolfe’s housekeeping was painstakingly neat, a legacy of VMI and an inborn fastidiousness, but he didn’t pretend to be able to cook beyond the can-opener-and-campfire level.
You’re only twenty-four, he thought, eating and reading the paper. Your life isn’t over; it just feels that way sometimes.
The postwar world was going to hell in a handbasket, according to the Chronicle. The Russians were cutting up ugly in Eastern Europe; half the people between England and the Ukraine were starving or dying of typhus or both; the Reds were making gains in China; the French were trying to get Indochina back, and not having much luck; ditto the Dutch in Java; the Brits were having problems with the Jews in Palestine.
And McArthur was lording it over the Nips, who were evidently worshiping him like a god or their own Emperor. Which meant that Dugout Doug was finally getting what he thought he deserved.
He’s almost as good a general as he thinks he is, Rolfe thought with a smile. Which means he’s pretty damned good. We may need him again, someday. Vanity’s a small price to pay, and I don’t believe in an end to wars.
And closer to home, John Lewis was talking about taking the coal miners out on strike again. Rolfe ground his teeth slightly in fury. He was a Democrat, of course — it was virtually hereditary; where he was born they hadn’t forgotten whose idea Reconstruction was or who went around waving the Bloody Shirt afterwards, but…
But I’d have had Lewis taken out and shot for striking during the war, he thought, and tossed the folded newspaper aside, standing and stretching cautiously.
The leg made it difficult to sit comfortably when it stiffened up, and it reminded him each time that he was less than he’d been before the wound. He was naturally an active man, a little above average height and built like a greyhound, slim but deep-chested and lithe, with short-cropped hair the color of new bronze and leaf-green eyes in a narrow, straight-nosed face.
It was a fine April day, Bay Area style; that meant a bit chilly, with a cool ocean breeze out of the northwest coming in through the kitchen windows. The noontime haze over the Bay was gone, and there were probably whitecaps out there on it — no ocean view here, of course, or the place would have been too expensive for him. A few planes were overhead from the naval air station further north, adding the drone of their engines to a subdued hum of traffic, a ship’s horn, the distant clang of electric trolley cars. Rolfe finished his sparse meal, washed the dishes and doggedly went through another of the exquisitely painful series of exercises the doctors said would help the damaged muscles and tendons heal. That done, he felt he deserved some fun.
The basement was clean and tidy now, big and dim, smelling of the cement mortar he’d used to patch cracks and mostly empty except for tubs, scrub-board and mangle. Or it had been until the short-wave set arrived; it was war-surplus, of course, and he’d gotten it cheap through friends. He’d also fiddled with the insides a good deal, and he flattered himself he’d made some improvements — certainly he’d improved the reception, even if he’d nearly killed himself rigging the antennae on the roof. Engineering and maths had been his best subjects at VMI, and he’d been thinking about using this G.I. bill to get into one of the California universities — you could do that and convalesce at the same time. A field officer had to be able to sprint, but there were types of civilian engineer who didn’t, and with luck he could still avoid being stuck behind a desk all the time.
One thing engineers didn’t have to be either was poor. Genteel rural poverty was something he knew far too well from his Tidewater childhood to court willingly.
His fingers moved confidently over the exposed tubes and circuits as he thought. With a grunt of satisfaction he made the final connection, flipped the power switch, and sat back to let the tubes warm up —
The sound was earsplitting, louder than thunder, accompanied by a dazzling flash. John Rolfe threw himself out of the chair with long-conditioned reflex, hitting the dirt and blinking the dazzle out of his eyes desperately, because if you couldn’t see then you didn’t get to go on breathing —
It took a couple of extra blinks before he realized that he was really seeing what his eyes were showing him. The far wall of the basement — the long side to the right of his shortwave set — was… gone. Instead of a mortared fieldstone wall half-covered in rawly new pine-plank shelving, there was a sheet of something silvery, something that rippled very slightly, like the surface of a body of water set on its side staying there in defiance of gravity.
No, not like water, he thought. It was too shiny; the overhead lights he’d put in above the workbench had turned pale, as if there was some diffuse internal glow from the surface of the whatever-it-was. It’s not like water. It’s like a sheet of mercury standing on its side.
He could smell his own sweat, and it felt cold and clammy down his flanks, and there was a liquid feeling south of his belly-button, and his testicles were trying to crawl up to meet it, but he was used to functioning well while he ignored the physical sensations of fear. Once you got going, you were too busy to notice it. His eyes flickered back and forth, trying to catch details in something so strange that it slid away from the surface of his mind. Then he noticed the shelves he’d put up for tools, and storage for miscellaneous junk that his Aunt Antonia had shipped out when he got out of the hospital; stuff that had been around since his father died in ’41, and his mother moved in with her.
Now all he could see was the base; the upper nine-tenths of the shelving had toppled out into the whatever-it-was. He took a stiff step forward, then crouched and touched the rough wood; it felt completely normal, no hotter or colder than it should be, texture the same. Carefully bracing his foot against the flagstones of the cellar floor, he pulled on one section. It stuck for a moment, then slid back into the room with him, leaving the silvery nothingness undisturbed.
It was if he had pulled the shelf out of a mercury pond that neither wet it nor rippled as the wood went through its surface. His fingers found no damage, except where the backs of the shelves had splintered in a few places as if they’d fallen against rocks. And there was dirt, a little, and bits of grass and leaf caught in irregularities, and his hand darted out and closed on an insect. A perfectly ordinary insect, a beetle of some sort. He flicked it away, and it vanished through the silvery barrier.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he whispered, in the soft purring drawl of eastern Virginia. “Ah will be eternally damned.”
Swallowing, he extended his hand. There was a momentary coolness as it slid through the surface, faint and fleeting, perhaps only his mind expecting the shock of water. Then nothing except wind on his fingers, which felt completely normal when he wiggled them, despite the arm looking as if it ended where the silvery surface began. There was no unusual sensation at all as he withdrew it, and wiggled the fingers again in front of his face.
Decision hardened. John Rolfe took a deep breath and leaned forward. For a moment he was dazzled, but that was only because the setting sun shone into his eyes. He gasped at that, and then again as he looked down, seeing his own head and shoulders emerging from a flat expanse of ever-so-slightly rippling silver. Because what he saw was certainly not his basement or anything in Oakland, California; and that meant the front half of him was a long way from the rear, joined only by the odd material of this gate-to-wherever. His swift-hammering heart must be pumping blood across some unimaginable gap.
The stones of his cellar wall were scattered before him down a low grassy slope, with the shelving and tools and boxes lying on top of them and above that a clear blue sky streaked with high cloud. Just beyond, perhaps twenty yards away, was a tree — a huge gnarled wide-spreading coast live oak, unmistakable to anyone who’d spent any time in California, blocking most of whatever lay beyond as the sun glistened on its new springtime leaves. He could see glimpses of vivid green salt marsh, and beyond it the blue glint of open water. Right where San Francisco Bay ought to be — if the city of Oakland weren’t in the way. And between him and the live-oak, a bear.
A grizzly. Old Eph himself, a big silvertip male, standing erect for a better view and weaving its long massive head in curiosity as it stared at him.
John Rolfe tumbled backward with a yell, landing on his backside on the unyielding stone of the basement’s floor. For perhaps three minutes he lay there, the hard gritty surface cold under his palms, and then a long slow grin lit his face.
I don’t know what’s happening, he thought. But whatever it is, I suspect my days of being bored are over.
It took only a moment to go upstairs, change into jeans and flannel shirt and boots, and add a brown jacket and billed cap; they were his hunting clothes, bought for when he’d recovered enough to take up the sport again. He loved stalking deer, and an African safari had been his when-I-strike-it-rich daydream for years. He took down a rucksack and dumped in a few things from the kitchen, matches and canned beans, enough for an overnight camp if he wasn’t picky and the weather wasn’t too cold. The pain in his leg was distant, unimportant, as he clattered down into the basement and over to a tall steel footlocker he’d installed underneath the stairs that led up to the pantry. The lock was a combination model. He twisted the dial and then opened the door, hesitating for a second as he reached in.
His old webbing belt was folded on a top shelf; he swung it around his Levi-clad hips and buckled it with a sudden decisive movement. Checking the .45 was automatic; slide out the magazine, thumb the top round, slide it in with a snap and pull the action back. He buckled the holster flap down over the pistol and took the Garand rifle out of its rack, pushing in an 8-round clip and letting the bolt snick home.
He still had a deep affectionate respect for the Garand design, and had bought one from an accommodating supply sergeant as soon as he got out of the hospital; it hadn’t been difficult in the freewheeling chaos that accompanied demobilization after V-J day. The .30-06 rounds ought to make even a grizzly sit up and take notice; he tossed a dozen clips into a pocket of the rucksack on general principle — you never had too much ammunition.
Now I know what John Rolfe the First felt like, Rolfe thought. Wading onto the Virginia shore all those years ago, rapier in hand.
Cradling the rifle in the crook of his left arm, John Rolfe VI stepped into the wall of silvery light.