American National Airways Airship Bunker Hill
Approaching General Sherman Airship Haven
San Francisco, California
October 5th, 1922 A.D., 1922(b)
“Golly!” Ciara said beside Luz, leaning on the railing and looking down at the Bay City through the broad inward-slanting windows of the Bunker Hill’s observation gallery. “They’re tearing the place up for fair, aren’t they? Even more than when the aunties and I were here for the Exposition in ’15. Of course, we came in by train… my, that was a treat! My first trip outside the east! And everything at the Exposition was so beautiful! Well, not the Midway, but that was so much fun.”
“The President was a very good friend of Daniel Burnham’s,” Luz said.
“The city planner who did Union Station and all those other buildings in Washington, and cleaned up the Mall?” Ciara said. “And who designed the first steel-frame buildings in Chicago?”
That was the sort of thing her engineer’s mind noticed.
“That’s him, and they weren’t only commissions he got from the White House; Uncle Teddy was very impressed with the way he handled the Chicago Exposition back in ’93, the White City. He’s the one who came up with that saying: Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”
The cloth-covered aluminum of the gallery’s railing was warm and rock-steady under her hand, with only the slightest vibration from the engines in the corridors along the airship’s flanks fifty feet above their heads. The sun was high overhead—it was quarter-past noon—and the shadow of the airship floated over the city below as they slowed and descended and came around into the wind from the west.
“It was Mr. Burnham?” Ciara said, surprised. “I thought that was the President!”
The chatter of pre-landing conversations in different languages went through the big space around them as people waited for the docking; English being the most common by a large margin, Spanish next, but including Portuguese and French and something Scandinavian and Yiddish and Japanese. And, she thought, Arabic, which she didn’t speak but could recognize, along with several others she didn’t know at all. It gave them perfect privacy if they were soft-voiced without attention-drawing whispers, though there were people at the rail not far away.
“No, that was Burnham… but it sounds like something el jefe would say, doesn’t it?” she said.
Catching the Bunker Hill in Los Angeles had been part of their cover; they’d have taken the Coastal Express train if they were traveling in their own personas. This airship was one of ten on the Vancouver to Buenos Aires run, with half a dozen stops in between; documents would show that her party of five adults and four children had booked through from Mexico City and stopped off in LA before getting on the next flight north a few days later, as travelers often did.
“No wonder they got on well!” Ciara said.
“No wonder indeed. The President thought it was very short-sighted of the San Franciscans to reject Burnham’s plan for rebuilding the city after the earthquake in 1906,” she continued. “Back then the Federal government didn’t have nearly as much say in that sort of thing as it does now.”
Ciara sighed. “I don’t recall ’06 very clearly—I remember hearing about the quake and the fire and feeling sorry for all the poor people who lost their homes, but at eleven distant things don’t strike home. It was like a story, and of course I’d never left Boston—never did, until a trip to New York to buy books for the store later, Da being too sick by then.”
“I was fifteen. We were staying in Mexico City that year, mi Papá was working on a water-supply contract there. But I cried when I saw the pictures in the newspapers—we visited here often, and we had family friends then who lived in town. Old San Francisco… it was a mess, but it had an indescribable charm.”
“I suppose they just wanted to get roofs over their heads again as fast as they could. But they’re doing Mr. Burnham’s Plan now, sure and they are!”
They certainly were, with modifications…
Ones that make it even more grandiose, Luz thought. Which…
“¡Y todos, incluido yo, dijimos que no se podía hacer!” she murmured, voicing the thought aloud; she would have said that it couldn’t be done.
Since the 1912 election what Theodore Roosevelt wanted badly enough, he got, and even America’s brief, eventful participation in the last eighteen months of the Great War had only slowed down San Francisco’s transformation temporarily. And the Party loved big plans and massive projects, anyway. California was strongly Progressive, one of the PRP’s heartlands and hence abundantly showered with its largess.
Even Los Angeles, that promised land of boom-and-bust sub-divider speculative build-now-damn-tomorrow boosterism, had a city plan and a Progressive-style metro-area government with a figurehead mayor and a City Manager with an engineering degree running things now. Albeit they’d swallowed hard at the green-belts and easements the leadership insisted on, lest the place and the suburbs it spawned swallow everything between the mountains and the sea.
Though naturally enough the plan there had been drafted by Burnham’s greatest rival, Charles Robinson, and the Angelenos swore it was a much better plan and that they’d implement it quicker and more efficiently, and LA had a nicer climate anyway… and… and…
And finishing with an animal scream of: So take that, you effete mongrel Bay City snobs!
Unlike some in other states, both cities were actually charging ahead full-tilt to implement their plans, too.
From twelve hundred feet you could see the north-pointing thumb of the Peninsula that held the city, laid out like a giant room-sized map, one that showed everything but still gave you a visceral sense of the sheer size of it all.
And how Burnham’s great tree-lined radial arteries and massive squares and curving parkways now slashed through the old simple grid that had been laid out in the Gold Rush era with no regard for the hills. A third of the city’s vastly-enlarged area—Metro San Francisco now included everything down to what had been San Mateo county at the base of the peninsula—was slated to remain in open public spaces, enough for a population of millions…
Though right now it was in raw mounds of earth and fresh plantings and trenches for irrigation pipes and sewers and water and electricity, where parks and lakes and bandstands and sports-grounds and amphitheaters and museums and parade-grounds and a Tivoli-style amusement park would be. Other developments were just as ambitious, factory zones and new docks and American National Airways’ second major airship yard. The new housing was laid out on the Savannah Squares model, fashionably patriotic as a memorial since Savannah had been the only American city where the U-boat had managed to launch V-gas in 1916.
Even with the Chamber-provided warning time over a thousand had died—she had a friend whose parents and sisters had perished there. Right now it was the outlines of garden-centered squares, fading into scrub; they were too high to see the ones only marked by surveyor’s pegs.
“And that’s the Tower of Jewels rising again!” Ciara said, pointing to one of what had been the Twin Peaks in the center of town. “That was the first time I heard the President, when he gave that great speech in 1915 about how the buildings at the Exposition were too wonderful to vanish like a dream of beauty and order, and that they’d be rebuilt in imperishable marble and granite to glorify the city and America for ages to come. I cried then myself, but for happiness.”
“Meaning rebuilt in nearly imperishable steel and concrete and then covered in marble and granite cladding,” Luz observed.
“Well, yes, but that’s to make them earthquake-proof. Like your Da did our own house! So many clever features there! I wish… I wish I could have met him, and your mother. Though…”
And I wish he and Mima could have lived to meet their granddaughters, Luz thought; it was bittersweet. Though that would have had… awkward elements… as witness that pause for thought Ciara just had.
The second incarnation of the Tower of Jewels was to be six hundred and fifty feet high, an elongated wedding cake of Beaux-Arts marble-statue-and-column neoclassicism in the style currently known as American Imperial, wrapped around office space and God alone knew what else. Topped with a giant illuminated globe held between the upswept wings of an even more titanic eagle, and the building covered like the shorter and squatter Exposition original in hundreds of thousands of Bohemian-style (but this time patriotically locally-made) cut-crystal jewels each strung on brass wire in front of a little mirror, to make the whole thing shimmer like a rippling coat of multicolored sequins in sunlight… though she remembered that the night views with the searchlights playing on it had been even more impressive, and not quite as…
Too-too-much as it was in the daytime, because darkness and flashing lights hid the overdone allegorical statuary; it wasn’t my favorite part of the Panama-Pacific Exposition, despite the fact that I really like that general style of architecture. Maybeck’s work with the Palace of Fine Arts was exquisite and it’ll make a superb Arts school down in the Marina district. The Tower… not so much.
Atop a nine-hundred-foot hill and at the near-center of the city it would certainly dominate San Francisco and the Bay forever, rearing fifteen hundred feet above the sea and visible like a shaft of iridescent flame for a hundred miles at night.
“It’s not just the Tower, either,” Ciara said enthusiastically. “It’s the reservoir they’re making there too, ready to flow down by gravity in an emergency. So clever! Once it’s full of that fine pure mountain water from the new Hetch Hetchy aqueduct, even the worst earthquake won’t be able to cut off the city’s water supply and let everything burn the way it did last time! And it will look so pretty as well, all surrounded by gardens, and with little boats for parents and children.”
“Very true,” Luz said. “That’s Progress for you.”
“This will be the most beautiful, the finest, city in the whole world, with the sea and the Bay and what we’re building!” Ciara said, with a new-minted Californian’s State chauvinism. “I’m so proud we’re part of all this—that everyone is, now!”
A new, giant version of the Court of the Universe from the Exposition was being rebuilt at the eastern foot of the hill at the junction of five great avenues, three hundred and fifty yards by two hundred and fifty. It was to be centered on fountains and flower-banks and reflecting pools, rimmed by immense curving colonnades of green-streaked red marble, and two-hundred-foot triumphal arches with mosaic murals of extremely edited historical scenes. It was all a little like the Piazza di San Pietro before St. Peter’s in Rome, but surrounded by gold-domed buildings—ones that looked like the Hagia Sophia’s bigger, richer, flashier-dressing sister. Those would hold the new City Hall and opera house and central library and archives and others this time, rather than exhibitions.
It would be linked to the tower by an enormous stepped ceremonial stairway up the terraced gardens of the hillside… and on the inside by high-capacity express elevators at the end of an arched tunnel. The plans called for an eventual link to a subway station beneath… on an as-yet-unbuilt subway system whose engineering problems in an earthquake zone were monumental, as Ciara had eagerly told her, in considerable detail.
Today it was all steel skeletons and timber forms holding poured concrete, cranes and a vast expanse of trampled dirt, machines and swarming ant-tiny workers hard at it in the bright mid-morning sun; the usual fog had burned off in the opening hours of the day.
Ciara’s voice grew dreamy: “And our children will bring their children here… and our grandchildren will bring their grandchildren… Up the Tower of Jewels, until they’re higher than this airship is now! And they’ll take the little ones by the hand to the railing, and they’ll show it all to them, what we’re building now and what comes after that we can’t even imagine, and say:
“Your ancestors built this—with their dreams, and the sweat that makes dreams real. Your ancestors in blood, and your ancestors in spirit too. All this they did for you and your children and children’s children, all their descendants and all the ones we call to join our great people from every land. So be strong, be brave, be wise and loyal—and when all this is yours, be worthy of them and their faith in you.”
Luz sighed and leaned closer, their shoulders touching, enjoying the contact and the slight strawberry scent of the other’s hair as they dreamed together. They were silent for a long moment, and then Luz shook herself and said solemnly:
“And at last we’ll be able to hold up our heads when ambassadors from Barsoom talk about the towers of Helium and John Carter, Warlord of Mars.”
“Oh, you!” Ciara laughed, poking her hard in the ribs, and delivering another with each repetition:
“You, you, you! You and your Burroughs! There aren’t any cities on Mars and won’t be until we go there and build them!”
“And when we do, mi dulce amor, it’ll be because people like Burroughs and Wells made us dream of it,” Luz retorted.
“And people like your Da or me build the ships… the space-ships… to get there.”
Just then a shrill excited treble voice called behind her:
“Obachan! Looook a’ meeee! I’ma birdeeeee upppp ina skyyyyy.”
She turned to see Colleen dash by, with her red locks fluttering over an enormous toothy grin, arms spread like a bird, pinafore fluttering, her small shoes making a rapid patter on the spruce veneer of the deck between reckless hops and flapping and one of the Taguchi sisters in close pursuit, dodging other passengers. Fortunately little Colleen was looking over her shoulder and laughing, and didn’t see Susan Zhou’s arms until they closed around her.
A few of the other passengers sitting at the small round tables or looking out the gallery windows were annoyed in a tight-lipped silent way, but more were smiling indulgently; about the usual ratio she’d gotten used to when a child got exuberant in public… though quite rightly it flipped if you couldn’t control them fairly quickly, unless you were in a park or something of that sort.
Over the wail of little-girl protest as Susan Zhou scooped her up—birdees, apparently, disliked having their flights cut short—Luz said:
“Let’s round them up, querida, and get them into their overcoats and secured for landing.”
“All hands on deck!” Ciara agreed. “Golly, but kids are labor-intensive!”
“I am never, ever going to have these myself! They’d exhaust a saint!” Midori wheezed. “A Buddhist saint! Why doesn’t our species eat its young?”
“Because we’re not reptiles?” Luz said dryly.
Midori went on heedless: “And how does anyone survive long enough to grow up?”
“Daily miracles and a lot of hard work,” Ciara said cheerfully.
Then: “Luciana! Mary! Patricia! ¡Ven a mami!”
The landing section of the new General Sherman Airship Haven was all done, modern and efficient, but that was because it was the waterfront type used in port cities with reliably calm harbors. There were floating cradles for the dirigibles so they could land and launch nose into the wind; then they were nudged around by special tugs and slid neatly into giant hangars anchored to the shore with connections for fuel-gas, lift-gas and loading arrangements. It had all been built in the Union Point shipyards a bit south of here and floated in with even the paint-job complete, in burnt umber and Parrish blue.
There would eventually be a waterfront building for arrivals and departures with all the bells and whistles, from baggage-sorting behind the scenes to fancy waiting-rooms, restaurants and shops. It would be gigantic though not necessarily by comparison to the hangars, which could accommodate the latest thousand-foot metalclads with space to spare for future designs. And it would put the next-door Ferry Building to shame, but in a vaguely similar Venetian-Renaissance style.
Right now that was yet more muddy pits and dirt and grinding concrete mixers and hammering rivet-guns and a mad rush before lunch hour, with a timber bridge and a complex of temporary sheds threaded with even more temporary paths leading out to Embarcadero Avenue proper through the work-site. All of them were full of more construction workers, from engineers with blueprints on clipboards down to laborers in dungarees, and Haven employees and passengers too, everyone needing to be careful amid buffeting crowds.
“Mothers with small children coming through! Make way for the future!” someone called.
Sparing her the trouble of using that polite, Department of Public Health and Eugenics-approved version of a heartfelt: get out of the fucking way, you selfish pendejos!
People dutifully squeezed aside to let Luz and her party through the press—and other mothers and children, one of whom was about eight months pregnant as well as leading a toddler, and flashed her a smile as Luz motioned her to go first. She vividly remembered that lumbering, waddling feeling, like being a cross between an obese duck and a seasick whale. They plunged into narrow, rickety, shadowy passageways suspended on temporary truss-work and pilings across the foundation-diggings, walled off with boards and chicken-wire and combinations of both.
Election posters still covered a fair bit from the last Presidential contest and for the upcoming midterms, though ordinary advertising rested below and in places above the Party and Department of Public Information contributions. Everyone had known the result in advance of November 1920 and there wasn’t much doubt who California was sending to the Senate and House this year except for a few of the deeply stupid; the demoralized Democrats were a pathetic regional remnant these days, and the Socialists a minor ginger-group in a few big eastern cities, with one solitary Congresswoman named Flora Hamburger representing the Lower East Side of New York, or Nuu Yawk, as she’d put it.
But the Party didn’t take chances it didn’t have to, and had worked hard to get out the vote. 1920 hadn’t been quite the overwhelming landslide 1916 had been, just after the German attempt to destroy America, but it had been…
Close enough for government work, she thought.
There were the usual colorful stylized sheets showing great projects—the Department of Public Information could do that without being too nakedly partisan, because those were the massive public-works programs the Progressive Republican Party had accomplished or was working on, and which the States-Rights, small-government Democrats abominated. Boulder Gorge Dam with the twelve-hundred by-seven-hundred-foot American eagle on its downstream face was always a favorite, along with the aqueducts and transmission lines bringing water and power to farms and cities, and the first run of the all-electric Federal Express train between Boston and Washington at ninety miles an hour last June, with—
JUST THE BEGINNING!
Battleships and airships and soaring aeroplanes and powerful locomotives had their place too, and spic-and-span row houses or low-rise apartment buildings replacing slums, with families playing and breadwinners coming home to be greeted by their children.
And others more generalized: brawny workers and farmers and heroic soldiers, or square-jawed engineers and wise scientists and compassionate nurses and teachers and busy clerks at typewriters, and mothers with tow-haired moppets—a category which Luz realized with a degree of bemusement now included herself. All marching forward under Uncle Teddy’s direction into the radiant Future, amid idealized harvest fields and laden orchards and busy but rather too-clean-for-real factories and irrigation canals threading the desert and laboratories and schools and playgrounds.
The only real differences from the posters she remembered from ’16 was that the aspirational-ideal farmers were nearly all on tractors rather than driving mule or horse-teams, which really was happening but not nearly that quickly, and that for the campaigns of 1920 and ’22, a sprinkling of the soldiers, workers, nurses, mothers and tots had been Negro. In fact one scientist was clearly modeled on George Washington Carver, if you’d crossed him with the Greek god Zeus, put him in a white coat and given him a look of ruptured nobility as he held up a test-tube.
A couple of others looked rather Mexican in an idealized way, accomplished by bronzing them up a bit and throwing in sombrero, serape and sandals.
Four or five million Negroes voted in 1920, and we’ve given American citizenship to about a million Mexicans since the Intervention started in 1913, one way or another, Luz thought. Voting makes you so much more visible… and so much more worth cultivating. It’s working that way for women, too.
Her cover persona this time actually was Mexican, and a landed blueblood who would think symbolizing her country by campesino looks and garb either deeply ignorant or insanely annoying.
“Sin duda los gringos tienen buenas intenciones,” she said aloud, through clenched teeth: Doubtless the gringos mean well, with intent to be overheard.
In her own persona Luz actually found both the propaganda aimed at the newly numerous Mexican-American vote and her cover’s reaction to it hilarious. The posters had obviously been done by artists who got their idea of Mexico and its inhabitants by riffling through a few articles in National Geographic or Life, or possibly dime-store illustrated Westerns and Hollywood horse operas like The Taming of Texas Pete, with Tom Mix subduing bandidos. And Mexicans of her cover’s stripe liked to pretend Mexico was much more Spanish and less indio than it was, and the same for themselves. Luz had to restrain an impulse to mug it up further; she was supposed to be playing a type, not satirizing it for a comedy revue.
But there was one poster that really caught her eye, long enough to make her pause; and it probably did more than all the others to explain why the election hadn’t been in the slightest doubt. People were looking at it… and looking disturbed when they moved on, even though it had been there so long.
It was a huge and gruesomely detailed print—obviously closely copied from a photograph—showing a Paris street littered with slewed or toppled autos and long-dead horses still in the traces of wagons. Some of the automobiles had crashed and burned and others just… stopped. Many of the wagons had lost a wheel or two to rust and freeze and thaw, and lay with their contents spilled and drifts of leaves and detritus piled against everything…
And the liquid-slumped or auto-mummified or just skeleton-tattered bodies of men, women and children lying sprawled where a hundred-odd tons of V-gas had caught them that morning five years and three weeks ago. It would have killed the rats and flies too at those concentrations… but the few surviving scavengers had bred back very fast with plenty to eat and nobody to disturb them. The twisted aluminum skeleton of a broken Zeppelin bomber was draped across a building in the middle distance, both burnt-out shells.
The photo must have been taken about a year after the 6th, Luz thought.
She was much more familiar by now with the stages of unburied human decay than she’d ever wanted to be.
Probably a picture by one of the German salvage teams—they’d gotten the surviving artwork and perishables by then, what didn’t burn in the big fires. By 1917 they’d have had time to go in after the durable stuff, but it was before they salvaged the autos and scrap metals and so forth. And they’re compulsive record-keepers, even when they shouldn’t be, and have absolutely no sense of public relations at all. So it probably wouldn’t occur to them not to have a photographer along.
That accorded with the German soldiers in suits like deep-sea divers and spike-topped globe helmets with glass face-masks and breathing tubes and oxygen bottles on their backs pushing hand-carts full of gold ingots from the ruins of the Bank of France towards a mobile decontamination chamber and a convoy of blocky Stoewer motor trucks on wartime spring-steel wheels. Even V-gas didn’t last forever, but in 1917 they would still have been taking no chances, especially in dark cool protected spots like a bank vault where something heavier than air could pool and wait with an infinite, impersonal malice. And the gold wasn’t going anywhere—they’d used it to back loans and their currency while it was still down there in the poisoned dark, for that matter.
One woman’s body in the foreground was collapsed over the corpse of a child where she had thrown herself in a vain attempt at protection, only a tiny withered hand showing. The air had been full of invisible death that morning, and there had been no shelter.
What was the bit from the Book of Joshua that Henrietta quoted about it? Luz thought; her friend Henrietta Colmer was from Georgia, and raised a Baptist. It goes…
She quoted under her breath: “And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both the man and the woman, the young and the old, and the ox, and the sheep, and the ass, with the edge of the sword, as the Lord God of Israel had commanded.”
Some things don’t change, except to get faster with modern labor-saving devices.
The titles above and below the photograph-derived print were:
THIS COULD HAVE BEEN US!
THE PRESIDENT KEPT US SAFE AND STRONG!
“We did keep that away from our shores and our people,” she murmured to Ciara—in Chinese, so nobody was likely to understand even if they overheard. “If we never do a worthwhile thing again in all our lives, you and I kept Boston and New York and Washington from being like that.”
Ciara nodded, but she was a little white around the mouth, and she was blinking.
“Yes,” she said, in English—it was meaningless without the context of Luz’ words. “But all those people we didn’t save, all those poor people… the children…”
Luz started to take her arm—all they could do in public, though a hug would be all right if there was actual weeping. At that moment Patricia trotted away from Susan Zhao’s side and tugged at Ciara’s hand, looking up earnestly and obviously on the verge of tears herself.
“Don’ be sad, Mommy Kay! Don’ be sad! Don’ cry, Mommy! Please don’ cry! Mommy Looz, kiss it all better so Mommy Kay don’ cry!”
Ciara blinked again, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, and lifted Patricia’s small solid weight up onto her hip—slightly difficult, since their children were in miniature but bulky camel-hair overcoats that made them almost square.
“Sure, and how could I be sad with my little Patty-Pat to love me?” she said.
Patricia wordlessly threw her arms around Ciara’s neck and jammed her face into the angle with her shoulder. Luz looked at her partner over the small fair head and put her hand on it, stroking and smiling as she felt the child relax:
“That’s another worthwhile thing we’ve done, isn’t it?” she said gently, seeing Ciara’s face unclench as well.
“Worthwhile as all the world, my darling.”
A few people gave her odd looks as they passed during the little exchange, but Luz wasn’t much worried. Households with two women raising children together weren’t common but they were far from rare in the postwar era, in a country with thousands upon thousands of war-widows among the native population and even more in the overwhelming immigrant flood. Young men were a minority in half the world these days, between death in battle, crippling wounds and preemptive massacre of potential fighters and fathers.
Most of the women making their homes together were doing it for practical reasons—shared expenses, shared labor, friendship and loneliness—but it was useful camouflage for those who weren’t. It helped that women were expected to be much more demonstratively affectionate than men.
In fact, whenever I become unbearably annoyed by rampant stupid, it also helps to think how much worse off men in our situation are, poor fellows. A lot of the old excuses for being a confirmed bachelor just don’t fly anymore.
Patricia’s perch on Ciara’s hip brought the others up demanding to be carried; Luz took Mary, Midori took Colleen, and Susan Zhou picked up Luciana, and they waded forward through the crush—these days a child in your arms was as good as an invisible battering-ram, with even the naturally inconsiderate afraid of what the crowd would do if they acted as badly as they wanted to.
And Fumiko, of course, strolls along behind smiling smugly with us running interference.
A few minutes later Luz was glad for the beautifully cut but well-lined coat she was wearing herself as they stepped out of the temporary wooden structure near the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero and caught the full force of the breeze. San Francisco had the same highs and lows in this month as it did in June, and Mark Twain had once famously said that the coldest winter he’d ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.
The wind was chill on the bare skin of her face, off the cool waters of the Bay where little whitecaps stood in endless repeating patterns out towards the Federal Bureau of Security’s fortress-prison for recalcitrants and incorrigible escapers on Alcatraz. The sky was busy in a peculiarly modern way, four or five giant airships and more of the smaller semirigid airboats making their stately progress high overhead; San Francisco was a hub for several routes. And aeroplanes in plenty buzzed, mostly military, but these days increasing numbers of private craft as well.
On the wind-ruffled turquoise surface of the Bay grey warships passed by, and throngs of merchantmen with cargo bound to and from all the world left creamy-white wakes against the dark blue. Including a few last windjammers with their towering sets of white canvas, and timber-schooners down from the northern coast with loads of Douglas fir and redwood, old-fashioned but beautiful. Smaller craft ranged from tugs pulling strings of barges heaped with sacks of grain and vegetables and piled wine-barrels and boxed fruit and baled cotton from the rich valleys that ran into the Bay, to pleasure-boats of different sizes and lateen-sailed feluccas from the Italian neighborhoods of North Beach painted blue and white in the colors of their patroness, La Madonna del Luime, heading in with glittering loads of herring, salmon, and crab.
Ships and Bay, sky, hills and towns were a heart-catching sight in infinite shades of blue and white and green.
In a country prosperous and strong and at peace, she thought. Now go and help keep it that way, Executive Field Operative Luz O’Malley Aróstegui! And enjoy doing it!
She set her daughter down and smiled benignly at the Taguchi sisters. When she spoke she used the slightly de-haut-en-bas tone her cover identity as a rich aristo-born art fancier called for, along with dropping a faint Mexican accent into her upper-class General American English.
Even her own fine ear couldn’t hear a difference between what she was speaking and what she wanted to convey—which was to sound as if she’d learned this as a second language, but from very good teachers and with lots of practice.
“Now, you girls get t’ee children to t’ee Palace and settle everyt’ing in. We’ll be back later.”
Their faces fell slightly. Luz’ smile grew broader as their eyes flicked to Susan Zhou… who was now officially on the Chamber rolls as a civilian auxiliary consultant. Which gave her another salary of the same size as the one Luz paid her, and had a number of other advantages—including naturalization as an American citizen, usually not available to the Chinese-born. The Director had meant what he said when he told her they could call on any resources they needed, including expedited paperwork.
“Her Chinese is perfect. No cat among pigeons… or Dwarf Eastern Devils among the Pigtail Slaves… in Chinatown today!” Luz added cheerfully.
She said it in Mandarin except for Chankoro… and Zhou gave them an enigmatic smile.
“But very nice and polite Eastern Dwarf Devils,” she said softly, also in Chinese… and then repeated it in bad but understandable Nihongo.
She hears more than certain people might think, Luz mused. And it’s a good lesson in not assuming you can’t be overheard.
The Palace—strictly, the New Palace, since the first one on the same site had perished in ’06—was the best hotel in the city. Her own parents had only stayed there on a few special occasions. Luz felt a mild gratification that her cover identity, Doña Cayetana Smith y de Villafuerte, was just the sort of person who’d book a four-bedroom suite with attached dining and sitting rooms on the top floor without even considering anything else, even with the added fee for reserving it shortly before a Presidential visit thrown in.
“Feel free to plunder room service to your hearts’ content, short of irreplaceable French vintages or Volga caviar, the Columbia River variety is just as good and more patriotic,” she added, and they perked up a little. “They pride themselves on being able to get anything at the Palace, and we’re supposed to swank it a bit—high style goes with the art world.”
Midori… or Fumiko… had told her recently that she was legendary among the younger Field Operatives just coming up through the training process, now that there was a regular one and time to put recruits through it. Not only for her accomplishments in the Mexican Intervention and the Great War—currently there were only seven living recipients of the Corona Obsidionalis, of which she and Ciara were two and James was another, for his successful sabotage of the German V-gas plant near Berlin—but also for repeatedly coming up with cover identities that were irreproachably operationally sound but also allowed and/or required her to travel de luxe on Uncle Sam’s nickel.
Redcap porters trotted up to the curb with the group’s modest cabin bags; Ciara scooped up one, a little bigger than an ordinary attaché case, of dark-brown ostrich leather and black-enameled steel corners, closed with a miniature combination lock built into the plate. Susan Zhou took another, plainer and larger and without the combination lock, and the rest waited for the trunk of the first taxi.
One senior and very black porter waved for a pair of shiny-new Ford Model G taxis with an imperious gesture of a gloved finger, Henry having finally conceded that the Model T wasn’t the only thing he needed to make if he was going to compete with GM, if not Packard. Luz smiled with benevolent-aristo grace as Ciara dispensed three dimes and a quarter as tips in her role as secretary-assistant, which was generous but not startling the way it would have been a decade ago. Prices had gone up during the war and hadn’t fallen much since, with the labor shortage and the way the population was swelling and demanding more of everything from apples and milk to wireless-radio sets and Model T flivvers or Packard touring autos.
There were plenty more of the porters going to and fro, dodging and cursing or calling questions or looking through lists or frantically searching for labels as they loaded up or emptied hotel vans from stacked dollies; the temporary buildings didn’t allow for an efficient separation of functions. Luz’ ear picked out a round dozen national or regional origins from their voices, and a few she didn’t recognize.
It was a living record of migration to the Pacific Coast states, where a decade of boom had sucked in any labor to hand at premium wages without a hiccup even during the short sharp recession when the Armistice dumped three million men back into the jobs pool… though the notoriously high housing prices here ate some of that and were the reason tens of thousands commuted by ferry across the Bay every day. Plus it was policy to encourage immigrants to move beyond the East Coast cities, away from crowding… and away from the German bombardment ships and U-boats, both stuffed with sky-torpedoes loaded with V-gas and prowling constantly just outside the new twelve-mile territorial limit.
Though you pay for the scenery and no hard winter in California, she thought. Plus space is more limited in San Francisco, at least until the new areas are finished.
There were the prewar Europeans, many Irish and Italian and Jewish here in the Bay area; unlike LA this had always been an immigrant town, ever since the Gold Rush. Some southern Negroes, and plenty of Mexicans, from the brief interval when the Great War had closed the Atlantic to immigrants and before the fighting ended in the Protectorate and the Party’s reforms made the South less of a place to flee. A steady trickle from the Philippines too.
Accents h-dropping and adenoidal or Scots-guttural or midland-rounded or with a Welsh singsong lilt bespoke massive floods of British after London’s destruction—two million of them were leaving their home isles every year now, half to Empire destinations but just as many to an America that included the former Dominion of Canada.
She couldn’t blame any of them, with something like four thousand Lufttorpedos loaded with V-gas pointed at them and their children from fortified launching ramps just across the Channel, and a little faster and a bit more accurate and steadily more numerous with each new iteration. That was enough to wipe out everything urban from Land’s End to Caithness and from East Anglia to Dublin and Shannon, down to the market-town or even ‘big village’ level. In no more than a single night if the balloon ever went up again, even allowing for every conceivable air defense.
There were Armenians and Serbs too, the desperate and lucky remnants who’d escaped manmade famine, typhus, death-marches, killing disguised as forced labor, and plain old-fashioned massacre in their homelands. Anatolian Greeks driven out of Turkey into a Greece too crowded and poor to feed them except via the very conditional charity of Hoover’s Relief Committee. Italians in plenty again, since few liked being the looming Greater German Empire’s neighbor in a poor country impoverished further by the convulsions in world trade, and many didn’t think Libya or Eritrea were far enough away; plenty of Jews but not as many since the Germans and Austrians plagued them now far less than now-defunct Russia and Romania had before 1914.
Not many Germans anymore, nor Magyars, but floods of Rumanians, and ever more Slavs, pre-war streams like the Poles and Czechs and Slovaks flowing even stronger than before 1914 and now joined by swelling hosts of Ukrainians and Byelorussians and Russians proper, lots of Balts, some Finns… And just lately a spray of exotics like Arab Christians from Syria and Chaldaeans and Yezidis from Mesopotamia, getting out while they could and before the baleful, hungry eyes of the Three Pashas turned fully their way, unsatisfied by an ocean of Armenian and Greek and Shi’a-Persian blood.
Every time something goes wrong they find a new group to blame it on… and then spend the next year or two killing them all unless they run first. Luz thought. Like a drunk who drinks to dull the hangover.
“This ‘s fun!” Luciana said.
Then one of her sisters craned her head and stared upward open-mouthed, pointing with both hands.
She was jumping up and down as a flight of aeroplanes went by fast, and close overhead in a growling howl of radial engines—Puma VI’s from the naval airbase, Luz decided after a quick knowledgeable glance, probably practicing for the parade fly-by.
That brought a chorus of squeals and pointing and attempts to run around while pointing upward and jumping up and down at the same time, regardless of the rickety barricades between them and the foundations of the terminal and the hurrying crowds. Boards creaked, and Colleen noticed, starting a new game of jumping up and down on them to act as an improvised trampoline that the others quickly joined. A stuffed bear with Presidential pince-nez was tossed recklessly, nearly disappearing into the construction site and rescued by a passing businessman with an absent-minded swipe and presented with a smile to a beaming Mary and her cry of:
He laughed aloud and tipped his homburg to her when the girl hugged the bear, kissed it and added:
“Teddee comes to our house! He plays with us! Plays bear!”
Followed by a growl and baring of teeth.
They’re getting over-excited, Luz thought, bending an experienced parental ear. Some rest will do them good.
“You girls go with the obachans now,” she said, grasping a small hand in each of hers and leading them forward. “Your mommies have grown-up things to do.”
Signs of rebellion appeared as Ciara seized the other two likewise. Luz struck a cunning counter-blow:
“And when you get to the hotel, there will be an elevator—a room you can ride up and down in! And at the top, chocolates!”
“Chocolates with candied cherries inside!” Ciara chimed in.
Blue-rimmed gray eyes went wide. Even so, kisses and hugs and promises of being there soon were pleasantly necessary to get their daughters into the taxi with the Taguchis, though thankfully force majeure in the form of bottom-swats wasn’t required.
“Make sure they get their lunch soon,” Ciara said seriously through the door, as Fumiko and Midori glared helplessly under mounds of squirming little girl. “Something healthy, say a nice cup of cream of potato or chicken-noodle soup with a little whole-meal bread and butter. And some fruit, they like grapes. And a glass of cold milk each, mind! It builds strong bones and teeth! Not too many of the you-know-whats, or they’ll get tummy-aches!”
“Isn’t the life of an operative in the field glamorous and exciting?” Luz added over her partner’s shoulder, in her best Retired General-style Japanese, with Susan Zhao gloating silently behind her.
“And don’t forget to… take the first letter in Nurse and Adam and Picture,” Luz continued helpfully, concealing nap lest the dread words pierce the happy anticipation of elevator-rides and chocolate. “They like a story when you tuck them in. If all else fails, just each of you hug two and Nurse-Adam-Picture with them. A little dark and quiet and a cuddle and they drop right off. Usually. Eventually.”
After this morning, the little ones will probably collapse in mid-hop once they’ve had something to eat, she thought, waving herself at the four faces and eight waving hands in the rear window as the taxi pulled away.
The promised bonbons and their trunks would be at the hotel and in the suite when they arrived, along with lush flower arrangements, icewater, and chilled champagne and fresh fruit.
Though Midori and Fumiko could probably really use a drink by that point, come to think, so the champagne will be helpful too. It’s reasonably good, even if it’s Californian these days.
The Germans were producing something they claimed was champagne, in the Champagne country, and the French in North Africa had their own version which they furiously asserted was the real thing, and neither were all that good compared to the dwindling pre-war stocks. Californian was about the best of the substitutes, and people who could afford American National Airways expected that sort of service, just as the customers for named all-Pullman express trains like the 20th Century Limited or the Sunset Limited or the Aztec Chief did.
That’s where the expression roll out the red carpet comes from, after all.
Air travel wasn’t quite at the cost-the-earth level it had been a few years ago, when it was a novelty instead of something tens of thousands did every year, but it was still expensive.
And I’m doing it all to serve America, she thought—the cream of that jest was that it was quite true.
She shrugged her shoulders as she turned to the second taxi, settling herself to the work ahead, settling into the clear focused hunter’s mind.
The jacket keeping out the cold Bay breeze was black Chinese silk, a dense fabric with a—woven, not print—blossom motif in white and pink, broad turned-back cuffs of black duchess satin, closed at the neck by a moderately high Chinese collar and a row of Chinese buttons down the front, dragon motifs carved in white jade on jet, and fully lined with black fabric. It was just what her cover identity would wear over her black calf-length day dress and side-buttoned low-heel shoes on a brisk San Francisco day like this, along with slightly daring sheer silk stockings.
The dress was a little more conservative than she’d have picked in her own persona—and a concession to her cover’s identity as the widow of an American who’d married his host’s daughter and turned a fair-sized fortune based on a coffee hacienda on the slopes of the Volcán de Colima into a considerably larger one that had weathered the Mexican civil war and the American Intervention unharmed, with a recent side-business in East Asian art.
That had the two added advantages that Colima was still a very remote part of Mexico, with only one motor-road to the coast and only plugged into American National Railways’ net this very year, and that Luz had spent six months there in 1908 while her father worked on a hydroelectric project while his wife hobnobbed with the local grandees, as did his daughter when she wasn’t wading through the construction sites with him and chatting with foremen and being grinned at by the laborers.
The real Cayetana wouldn’t have concealed steel toecaps in low-heeled shoes, inconspicuous gussets in the skirt, an Andalusian navaja folding knife with a six-inch blade of damascene Toledo steel in a special pocket, a set of picklocks in the cuffs or an Amazon .40 Browning automatic in a holster built inconspicuously into the lining of the coat, or many of the other little surprises, though she might have had the pre-War Belgian FN .380 pistol in her purse.
Her hat was a modified cloche, round and bound with a broad ribbon, but larger overall than most and more square on the top and a slightly flared lower section, called a bucket hat by the unkind. Luz wore her hair done up under it, because bobs of any sort hadn’t spread much among the more conservative sections of the Mexican Protectorate’s elite, though they were as popular among the urban middle classes as they were north of the old and now barely even theoretical border.
Ciara—now and for the duration of the mission Josephine O’Shea, technical school graduate, executive secretary and companion—wore a similar hat, but white and with a design of crisscross lines in blue and green like her two-piece outfit of linen jacket and skirt plus the fancy attaché case of steel-bound ostrich leather. She was perfectly credible, since Mexican gentlewomen mostly still didn’t go far from home without some sort of respectable female company, and an educated American Anglo in the role was a major status symbol, especially if she was suitably Catholic.
Susan Zhou was in a wide-cut knee-length jacket of forest-green silk that fastened on the left side from under the arm to the neck; it had an embroidered collar and border and wide sleeves, over loose trousers of the same fabric and slipper-like shoes. That was garb any Chinese would instantly place as that of a valued upper servant in a very affluent household, becoming and enviably practical and comfortable. So was the tight round hat that covered her long plaited hair, though that was specifically Shanghainese as well.
Luz gave the address as they slid into the second taxi, with Susan quiet in the front seat next to the driver. He did a double take at the destination, eyes dark as her mother’s or Susan’s going up to the mirror to look at her.
“You surre-a, Ma’am?” he said. “Thass-a no’ good neighborrrhood.”
Her eyes flicked to the license and photograph on the back of the driver’s seat, which had an unflattering depiction of the driver’s swarthy big-nosed stubbled face and his name: Georgios Nikolaou Kanakis, confirming her first guess from the way he rolled his ‘r’ sounds and stressed the last syllable of a word. It also had the certificate of his membership as an owner-driver in the Metro San Francisco And Bay Area Taxi Cooperative, and the schedule of rates.
“I take you nice place, on Grrrran-t?” he said hopefully, and made a gesture with both hands up and fingertips bunched with thumbs. “Nice place, old Chink stuff, vase, jade, silk.”
He kissed the fingertips of his right hand. “Mmmh! Or Chink food, if you like—nice safe place, plenty white people like us go, good for rrrrespectable madam. Chop suey, frrrried rice. No roof-rabbit—no cats! Or I know Greek place closer, my cousin Vassilis cook therrre, ah, his baklava, his kataïfi—”
“I know where I’m going, Mr. Kanakis, but thenk you for the thought.”
Luz was polite but firm; the man was only trying to be helpful to some ignorant out-of-towner, even if it slightly reduced his fare… though he probably also got a commission from his cousin the cook if he brought in paying traffic. Lower Grant Avenue in Chinatown was where tourists mostly went; the address she’d specified was a narrow side-street much further on into those densely packed blocks.
He shrugged and put the taxi into gear: Ford had also been persuaded to drop their arcane and complex shift system for a conventional clutch-pedal and stick-shift in the holy Progressive cause of Efficient Standardization, and they inched forward until the Embarcadero Avenue cleared a little and then roared away, weaving and honking the newfangled electric horn with what Luz recognized as a highly skillful but reckless driver’s panache.
Like the way I drive, but more so, and I don’t lean out the window and yell insults in Pontic Greek when people get in my way.
Thankfully the Plan’s plan for a broad esplanade around the whole harbor-side wouldn’t be started until the new docks were finished, or the traffic would have been even worse because that was going to take at least a year to finish and disrupt everything while it did.
The price of building the Ideal Progressive City of the Future was years of living in the Chaotic Inconvenient Construction Site of the Now.
Kanakis noticed when Ciara pulled a set of handcuffs out of her jacket pocket, used it to fasten the attaché case to her left wrist, and handed the key to Luz, but kept resolutely silent. Luz was watching his face in the rearview mirror, and guessed that he was probably thinking I don’t want to know; someone who’d made it out of Anatolia and then out of Greece and all the way to San Francisco would have to have a well-honed sense of self-preservation which included when not to show you noticed anything and when not to ask questions.
He was slightly nervous when they pulled up beside a four-story brick building twenty minutes later. It was new since the ’06 quake and fire, like the entire district, and like many in rebuilt Chinatown basically a four-story Western brick box painted to resemble marble, with a pagoda roofline plastered on and some Chinese ornamentation in the way of balconies and lanterns on cords strung across the narrow street.
The anxiety was for himself; Chinatown was densely packed because even now it really wasn’t very safe for the inhabitants to venture out into the rest of San Francisco, particularly after dark and especially in working-class parts like North Beach. The reverse was sometimes true as well, away from the tourist-frequented zone. Chinese criminals usually preyed on their own, but were quite willing to make exceptions given the opportunity, or there could be just ordinary people with a grudge against the gwáilóu and a convenient dark corner in which to take it out.
The street was thronged with cars and people and carts, the walls and storefronts thick with Chinese-language signage and posters. Fifteen thousand lives were packed into this modest space between the harbor and Nob Hill, street vendors of everything imaginable on both sides or pushing handcarts or selling things from trays or pairs of baskets slung over their shoulders on poles, waiters from restaurants with covered trays on their heads moving at a trot—home delivery of complete meals was a tradition here—and most of the buildings were a mass of tiny apartments and crowded boardinghouses stacked over shops or workshops or little sweatshop-factories.
The thick medley of smells had fewer nasty ones than she remembered from her last visit, and there was more Western dress. Prosperity rubbed off everywhere, at least a little, if there was enough of it for long enough. Most of the crowd were still male, kept that way by the ferocious regulations adopted in the ‘80’s forbidding Chinese womenfolk entry to the US and aimed at preventing this from turning into a real community, but there were more females and families now—little by little life flowed through or over or around obstacles and put down roots. Pigtails had more or less vanished since the overthrow of the Manchu in 1911, and some stubborn optimists still flew the flag of the Republic of China established by Sun Yat-Sen in that year, along with plenty of Stars and Stripes for the upcoming Presidential visit and departure.
“This is it,” Ciara said; the sign read Golden Crysanthemum in both languages and she’d made the arrangements in her role as companion-secretary.
She paid Kanakis the dollar on the meter, and Luz handed her another quarter to bestow as a tip.
“Let’s go talk to a man,” Luz said cheerfully as the cab pulled away into the crowd.
Copyright © 2020-2021 by S.M. Stirling