Chapter Seven

“Well, here’s an imposing cavalcade,” Luz said contentedly, inhaling the scents of loess dust and animals and machine-exhaust. “And the first time I’ve set out on a scientific expedition.”

Ciara made a sound that might have been a snort of laughter or just enthusiasm. She was enjoying this, and would have liked nothing better than to actually be a scientist setting forth to map geological strata and date fossils… Though if you could dig up fossilized electronic equipment, that would be even better.

They drove out through the city gate at six-thirty in the morning with the sun just rising on their right, and the temperature brisk enough to be comfortable in a good overcoat of the shorter, padded type that had come in since the war. It was fairly far north here even on the southern border of what had been Inner Mongolia, as well as twenty-five hundred feet up, and they were headed further north eventually and soon much higher.

The way was cleared for them by the local garrison, and as a compliment the Japanese portion thereof, not the puppet-army’s soldiers. Curious… or resentful… crowds of locals watched from the roadsides, in Chinese robes or padded blue Han peasant outfits or Mongol deels and pants, all groups sometimes eked out with bits and pieces of Western garb, all keeping a respectful distance from the grimly silent Japanese soldiers with their assault rifles and fixed bayonets, faces scowling under the bowl helmets with their khaki neck-flaps.

The scowls were probably for the detested locals, or because the resentful conscripts were stuck here for years and bored to death with garrison duty at what was undoubtedly the ugly, arid, freezing culo-extremo of the world from a Japanese peasant draftee’s point of view.

Cheer up, generic-Private Ichiro-san, Luz thought wryly, glancing in their direction. It could be worse, they could have sent you to Sumatra. Just as boring, and add in fungus infections in places it’s uncouth to scratch in public.

The officer-level Japanese military had been impeccably polite and helpful since the sky-pirate attack.

The crowd’s chattering and calling was audible under the growl of the motors. Luz and her party were all in one of the Guvvies, which with the Mark IV was tight seating but doable; Ciara was driving, being the best in the sense of most careful and methodical of the five of them, though Susan was a close second. The terrain they faced today was going to need that care and would mostly be done in low gear.

Roy and Yvette and two of their scientists were in the first Guvvie; three more followed behind Luz and her party, and then the ten three-axle Landmasters. Flags flew on long metal poles from each vehicle, the US red-white-and-blue with its sixty-one stars and the Jyūrokujō-Kyokujitsu-ki of the Imperial Japanese Army, the sixteen-rayed Rising Sun, blood-red and white.

Formally that was a mutual courtesy between Japan and the US. Informally, it was that plus a warning to bandits. Both flags together were a warning to official or semi-official forces ahead that the expedition was under the protection of two of the three great power-blocs that ruled the postwar world. The drawback to that was that while the Yekhe Khan’s patchwork state was careful of the Great Powers, the care was taken in a sullenly resentful way with an infinity of unspoken reservations. And beneath that, a simmering hate the more rancid for being throttled.

There’s a lot of that going around these days, Luz thought.

She turned backwards and looked south as they passed the open gate. The Great Wall loomed and spanned the cleft in the hills to either side of the city’s northern limit, a dun mass of rammed earth cased in stone and built and rebuilt century after century, thirty or forty feet high and nearly as thick; then it climbed the steep slopes to east and west, guard towers rising at intervals. It was daunting to think of the sustained ruthless will that had reared this, like a geological feature but built by human hands—and not much more than bare hands at that.

“You could probably see the Wall from the moon,” she said.

Ciara frowned in thought for a moment. “Not without a telescope,” she said. “But from beyond the atmosphere, yes… say twelve hundred miles up. I don’t think anything else we’ve built would be visible there.”

She paused and frowned again. “No, I lie—nothing else human-built in the daytime. These days, the electric lights of any big city would be visible if the night-line was beyond the spot. And maybe the Suez canal could be seen…”

My goodness, I landed a bright one! Luz thought to herself, with what she considered pardonable smugness.

“All right, the next stretch is bandit country, according to Roy,” she said aloud, resting the butt of the Sharpshooter on her right thigh. “Don’t forget to keep an eye out. Our driver has to keep an eye on the road.”

“And don’t forget to look up now and then!” Midori said cheerfully.

She pointed a thumb skyward—where right now a dawn patrol of Japanese fighting scouts buzzing across the rising sun was the only visible sign of manned flight.

She and her sister had their Thompsons cradled in their arms; between them Susan had her hook-swords over her back as well as the ugly slab-sided bulk of an R-13 semiauto rifle, with its butt on the floor between her feet; Ciara’s Remington shotgun was in a canvas scabbard on the door beside her. They all had their .40 Amazons with a few spare twelve-round magazines on their belts, and they all wore broad-brimmed country-style fedoras, except Susan, who had an equally practical conical hat of woven bamboo to go with her Chinese-style outfit.

Fumiko gave a theatrically cheerful smile: “Isn’t it wonderful to think that in our glorious age of Progress someday soon there will be machines that travel by burrowing under the earth? And then we’ll have to keep looking down, too, because we’ll be worrying about dirt pirates suddenly erupting from below?”

“Dirty dirt pirates, the dirt-eating dirty dogs!” her sister added.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Fumiko,” Ciara said, in a tone so soberly serious even Luz wasn’t quite sure if she was joking at first. “That would need some power source much more powerful than combustion, which would be a problem underground anyway because of the oxygen. Batteries aren’t good enough yet either. Subterranean submarines… so to say… won’t happen for at least a decade or two.”

The fifteen vehicles wound up the long river-bed leading to the plateau, one dry most of the year and doubling as a road, broad enough for strings of camels or riders a-horse or even ox-carts to see them coming and move aside. They were doing fifteen miles an hour, and trailing a plume of dust that tasted bitter as the cold wind from the north eddied it into their faces now and then. This was all loess country, with dust-soft soil, and when they left the river centuries of travel in the same cart-ruts had worn the roads into canyons with walls that loomed to either side like reddish-dun cliffs. Where the dust had been stripped away the flash-floods of previous years had carved into strata of rock, grey and yellow and black and striped.

The hills teemed with human life wherever there was soil, and peasants were already out at the last of the spring planting, or the eternal work of shoring up the terraces that made steepness cultivatable. Whole villages were half dug, half built into the hillsides, nearly invisible until you were on top of them, every wall and roof of the same brown earth. The man-made cave-dwellings were cool in summer and easy to warm in the winter, but Luz shuddered slightly to think of the eternal smoky darkness within. Trickles of that smoke from cooking the morning noodles made a haze above the flat roofs.

The foot of the Pass was only seven miles north from Kalgan, with a smaller walled Chinese city blocking it—or one had blocked it, before someone shelled or dynamited the walls in a dozen places. A smallish low-slung modern fort of bunkers and pillboxes and wire entanglements flying the Yekhe Khan’s flag was all that was left to mark the new border.

Ciara nodded to the banner while Roy’s Guvvie drew up to show their documentation to the Mongol soldiers in their dull-green uniforms and they all halted in line behind him.

The flag was sky-blue, with an odd symbol in the center, red figures on a black circle—a trifold flame above a sun cradled in a moon-arc, a downward-pointing triangle above a ying-yang circle and another triangle below that, the whole flanked by two rectangles on either side.

Ciara explained it: “The blue for Munkh Khukh Tengriin Oron, the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky, and Tengri the Sky-God, whose earthly avatar is Genghis Khan… Temujin… the Ancestor.”

“Which makes one Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg the reincarnation of the avatar of God,” Midori said dryly. “Who’s named Temujin… Smith… like our esteemed employer, Mrs. Smith.”

Temujin did mean Smith.

“Mr. Smith redux, living God from the Baltic bog,” Fumiko said. “Who knew?”

Her sister half-chanted: “All hail the God-King!”

Japan has a God-king,” Ciara pointed out, without taking her eyes from the road.

“They only claim the Emperor is descended from Amaterasu-Omikami. And he does what the politicians and generals tell him to do anyway, while they knock head on the ground and pretend to obey him,” Midori said.

Fumiko nodded. “Though when you consider what Croly and his minions at the Department of Public Information say about our beloved Boss sometimes… well… those posters where he’s peering nobly into the distance with a ray of sunlight shining on him… give it a generation or three and they’ll be burning candles before his image… and then eight hundred years from now someone will claim to be his reincarnation, el jefe returned…”

Luz laughed; supreme autocrats were all the rage, but even nowadays claiming to be a literal God-King was taking things a bit far.

“They’ll be building pyramids next,” Midori said.

Ciara frowned at the interruption and went on: “The three tongues of flame represent victory—past, present and future. The triangles are arrows, pointing downward, to defeat all enemies internal and external. The ying-yang… well, that’s a ying-yang. Or it can symbolize eternal vigilance because it’s two fish, and fish never close their eyes.”

“What, not even when they’re kissing? Unromantic brutes!” Midori exclaimed.

“Positively cold-blooded! Where’s the fire, the transcendent passion?” Fumiko agreed.

“Though sometimes when passion’s involved I flop around a bit like a fish,” Midori noted clinically. “Flop passionately. Transcendently, even! But with loud vocal effects, too, which fish don’t.”

“Thank you for sharing that image with us, sis,” her sister said, following the remark with a retching sound. “I’m sure everyone will be grateful and cherish it for an idle hour.”

Susan snorted again, in a somewhat different way, and rolled her eyes very slightly. From hints and indirect evidence Luz had come to the conclusion that Susan Zhou just wasn’t interested in either men or women that way. Or anyone, for that matter, and considered it all rather ridiculous except as a disagreeable necessity if you wanted children.

Which makes her technically the opposite of me, I suppose, Luz thought. Since I went by sail or by steam in matters of passion, as the French say, before I met Ciara and became monogamous. Poor Susan! Still, it explains a good deal.

Ciara made a tsk sound at the levity. “And the vertical bars to either side are from a Mongol saying: The friendship of two is stronger than stone walls, meaning the friendship of the Russians and Mongols makes their joint kingdom invincible.”

“Says the Baltic-German reincarnation of the incarnation of Mr. Smith, the Mongol God,” Fumiko said, and quoted a saying herself: “Many are the marvels…

Her sister finished it, proving they’d both been paying attention to their Classics courses at Bryn Mawr:

… but none more marvelous than humankind.

The city near the fort didn’t exist anymore. The interior was a mass of adobe rubble melted by several years of seasonal rain, with a smell of old sour smoke and under that, faintly, old death from what must have been thousands of bodies under the ruins. Thankfully they were at over three thousand feet now, already perceptibly chillier, which helped, as did the fact that they were just coming out of winter.

“Steep now,” Ciara said, looking up at the switchbacks that spiraled upward before them through the loess and shifting to the lowest gear. “Two thousand feet in the next ten miles.”

“Steep-er,” Fumiko said lightly, but her narrow dark eyes never stopped moving over the tumbled landscape.

There were tumbled human skeletons beside the road now too, enough to contain the sisters’ sense of humor for a while.

And thicker drifts as they continued northward, often with scraps of hair or clothing fluttering or eyeless faces of skin taut over bone and auto-mummified, and they were never entirely out of sight of them; tumbled multilayer drifts of stained-white bone and rags went down the steep slopes at the sides as if they’d been driven off to fall and die, or be machine-gunned from the road or perish under showers of grenades in the midst of futile flight. In some places drifts of soil from broken, grass-grown abandoned terraces covered the dead, or left them sticking up like driftwood on a beach. The stink was faint now at the end of a northern winter, but all-pervasive.

There had been a great killing here.

“Five thousand feet,” Ciara said with tight relief as they came through the head of the pass and all the vehicles halted for a moment in the clean northern breeze.

Luz could see her shoulders relax a little, and she put a hand on one for a moment. Looking back to the south they could see mile after mile of rolling hills that stretched away to where the far horizon met the blue haze of the Shansi Mountains. The land was like a static ocean slashed by wind and rain and ice, the hills lying in a chaotic mass with gaping wounds and gullies, painted in rainbow colors where erosion had dug deep, crossing and cutting one another at fantastic angles as far as the eye could see: a stupendous relief map of desolation.

“It’s like the Dakota badlands back there, but bigger,” Luz said.

She turned. Ahead of them lay Inner Mongolia proper, an undulating grassland plain that was a mixture of new green and old straw-color, swelling to rounded hills between shallow valleys here and there. Purple Pasque-flower peeked through the old growth, and vibrant violet Tiger Iris, drifts of yellow poppies, rock jasmine in pink and cream and white, all coming together like a giant rolling woven carpet. Roy and Yvette had told her it would be even more vivid in a month or so.

The air was less dusty, clean and dry and free of the scent of death that you noticed more for a bit when it was gone after hours of exposure. The grass would have been knee-high on her if she’d been walking through it, and it reminded her of parts of Nebraska or Wyoming in the new National Parks for buffalo.

Ciara took a deep breath as they drove on, her face unclenching too as the motorized caravan continued, in the same path as millennia of camels and carts.

“You feel this is the roof of the world,” she exclaimed, gesturing one-handed at the enormous arch of heaven and flower-starred grass. “Like beyond the next hillock you get to look over the eaves, to see the rest of the earth spread out below.”

“Big-Sky Country, Uncle Teddy’s beloved ranchers call it,” Luz said, with an indulgent smile at the thought of the man she revered… and also regarded as permanently stuck at the age of eight in many ways. “El jefe does get nostalgic about his cows. Even if they took most of his inheritance with them when they all froze to death in those blizzards in the 80’s.”

“Though you could say that was the making of him in politics,” Ciara said. “The adventures he had—the gunmen hired by that mad French count, or the one he knocked out in Nolan’s Saloon, the round-ups and the hunting trips… and the books he wrote about it all. That started the legend.”

“He says it’s what gave him the common touch with the common man,” Luz said. “He was a bit of a dandy and dude originally… though even then he didn’t mind punching it up with Irish ward-heelers in political brawls.”

Midori cocked her head and glanced over the side as the caravan bounced along, still averaging under twenty miles an hour. Though twenty miles was a good day’s travel for a camel caravan.

“This is odd-looking grass,” she said. “There’s a lot of it, but the sod’s not very… very complete. Not as dense as it should be with rainfall the way it looks to be around here and deep soil this good.”

Her parents were ex-peasants who ran a landscaping and gardening business at which their children had worked at off and on whenever schooling permitted until they were adults; she and her sister really noticed plants. Susan and Ciara were both children of great cities, but Luz had grown up on a country-place near a small town amid farms and hobby-farms, gone on hunting trips with her father and traveled very widely even in her teens.

“Like… second-growth, somehow,” the Taguchi sister said. “The way it takes a while for an abandoned farm-field to look like real forest—we saw that in the East when we were up on a tour for the fall colors in New England. As if it were something else besides grass not long ago.”

Luz looked too. Now that she thought about it, it did look rather odd—there were scattered shoots of weedy but unmistakable old wheat or barley or millet stalks rising amid the dead grass of last year here and there, and regular undulations in spots that were probably old plow-furrows, and the clumps of wildflowers tended to a suspicious regularity, as if they were following old field-boundaries and then spreading out from there. Weedy heaps of tumbled dirt with suspiciously regular sections were probably the remains of earth huts put to the torch and left for the seasons to demolish.

In the distance herds grazed, horses and sheep and cattle, under the eyes of mounted herdsmen…

And herdswomen, Luz thought, using her binoculars.

… and there was a scattered clump of off-white yurts on a south-facing slope not far away, the circular frame-tents marking the encampment of the Mongol sub-clan using the pasture. That was traditional, though she suspected the horse-drawn mower harvesting wild hay to store for winter was an innovation.

But the grass was plainly getting away from the herds because there simply weren’t enough animals to eat it down, and it fairly swarmed with native life, ground-squirrels, and birds of a dozen kinds. Herds and clumps of antelope watched alertly not far off before trotting away from the unfamiliar racket of motors. Far and faint but unmistakable, the howl of a wolf rang out.

What was actually over the next hill and on a rise beside the caravan route was a village. And not the tumbled, melted piles covered by new growth of grass and scrubby brush they’d been passing every half-mile or so.

This one was new and alive, and it was fortified. A square a thousand feet on a side, and surrounded not by walls but by a low sloping turf-grown earth berm covered in barbed wire and topped by sandbagged trenches in the square keystone zigzag anyone who’d seen the pictures from the Great War’s fronts would recognize. The corners had low-slung projecting bunkers with overhead cover and slits for machine guns that could rake the surroundings in defilade, and Luz would have bet there were light field-mortars in pits somewhere ready to cover the same areas, all pre-sited so that field telephones could summon a storm of fire at any location.

“You’d need artillery to tackle that, or armored vehicles, unless you wanted to pay an ungodly butcher’s bill,” Luz said thoughtfully. “There are probably bombproofs in the trench-line, maybe in the town as well.”

“Or you’d need air support with bombs and fire-bombs and strafing, or preferably artillery and tanks and air power,” Midori said, cocking her head for a technical estimate. “Maybe that would be dropping an anvil on an ant, but it would be economical of your troops.”

The Black Chamber operatives weren’t soldiers, but recognizing the ins and outs of a military landscape was one of their essential skills.

Within the wire was a checkerboard of dirt streets and rammed earth dwellings, one-story but whitewashed and colorfully painted, with thatch roofs, kitchen-gardens, barns and sheds, several windmill-pumps much like those you saw in the American West, and a half-finished church with onion-domes rather than a steeple as well as what were probably a smithy, a tavern and perhaps some shops around a central square of trampled brown dirt. Smallish fruit-trees struggled to grow in a few sheltered spots, espaliered against southeast-facing walls. The smoke that drifted their way smelled like coal… not that woodsmoke was an alternative in this treeless steppe, where dried dung was the staple.

There were fields around the village, a checkerboard of turned earth new-sown with spring grain and planted fodder; not far away a man was riding a three-furrow plow pulled by four smallish horses, a sight that wouldn’t have been out of place in many parts of rural America even today, though the Department of Public Information’s posters liked to pretend tractors had already replaced them all. Which was happening, but not anything like that fast.

Though the assault rifle across the plowman’s back and held ready when he reined in and jumped down would have raised eyebrows in Nebraska. More workers were scattered across the stretch of cultivated land, and herds grazed as well, horses and cattle and sheep; some of the field-laborers were cutting hay with scythes, though there was also a horse-drawn mower, and others were planting what was probably potatoes.

“Cossacks,” Luz said thoughtfully; there were two flags at the gate in the barbed wire, one yellow with some sort of device on it, as well as the Yekhe Khan’s. “Transbaikal Host. They all moved here, the briefing reports said, and the Japanese were glad to see them go. And a couple of the other Hosts too. The Orenburg, the Amur and Ussuri… most of the Cossacks east of the Volga and some from west of it. And they all picked up other Russians on the way.”

A mounted party of a dozen cantered out from the gate to meet them; from the promptness scouts had probably spotted them some time ago, or they had a two-way radio here, or both. Roy Andrews stood in his Guvvie and waved, pointing. Everyone pulled up in two echelons, the motor-trucks behind the smaller vehicles.

Luz vaulted down and slung her Sharpshooter; Ciara came with her, with her shotgun slung too. The Cossack greeting-party was practically bristling with armament, including a couple of lances that were probably for swank but with plenty of more modern killing-tools too, so going ironed was likely just good manners around here. For that matter, a lot of the field workers—including some of the women scything hay—had rifles with them, across their backs or being moved along as they progressed.

“Watch,” she said to the others in the Guvvie as she and Ciara left, and they split the lookout three ways without being conspicuous about it.

“I’d say around four hundred people, two square miles of spring grain, half that of roots, three or four of what’s probably some grass-legume mixure,” Ciara said, nodding towards the village as they walked towards Roy’s vehicle.

Midori gave her a mildly surprised look. Luz wasn’t surprised at all. Ciara might not know a hawk from a handsaw when it came to farming at the dirt level, but she was a star at map-interpretation and reconnaissance photographs, and statistics were her second home.

“And here three years, if they’ve been busy. Four if they gave themselves some breaks or had distractions. Quite efficiently laid out. And look at those ruts near the gate—either they have a motor-truck of their own, or one visits here regularly. Even good sanitation, from the smell.”

Which was farmyard-ripe, inevitable given lots of livestock from cows to chickens, but not the slum-rank of full uncovered honey-buckets and backed-up cesspits.

“Probably earth-closets,” she finished. “I doubt von Ungern-Sternberg thinks about that sort of thing, but someone working for him does.”

Four years ago was about the time the Yekhe Khan had wrapped up his takeover of Inner Mongolia; he’d started north of the Gobi in 1916, then moved south around the time of the Armistice.

The mounted Cossacks were led by a man who looked even bigger because of the modest size of the Mongol pony under him. They all wore soft-looking knee-boots, baggy pants and shirt-tunics, tall round wool hats, and they all had assault-rifles… she thought the Japanese version… slung over their backs, plus guardless slightly curved shashka-style sabers hung from their saddles.

The faces were bearded or extravagantly mustachioed if they were past first youth’s fuzz… except for one tall, hawk-faced woman who glanced at Luz and gave her a slight nod. About half had scalplocks, and the rest bowl-cuts; most looked Russian or at least Slavic, but there were a couple who could have been any generic East Asian, and several looked like mixtures… which, given the thoroughly mongrel history of the Cossack Hosts, was probably precisely what they were. Russians in general sometimes had a touch of the Tartar in their looks, and Cossacks more than the rest.

One of Roy’s savants spoke to them in French as he showed their papers and laissez-passer letters, and got a reply in a version of the same tongue that Luz’ ear recognized as fluent but heavily Russianized. Before the Great War any Russian with any social standing at all—most army officers, for instance—would speak French if they had any foreign language. Her own command of it was good enough that she could pass as a native-speaker if she laid on a regional accent, usually Provençal, which also fitted her looks.

Though solo Dios sabe what French will eventually sound like in its new North African homeland, with all the regional varieties pitched into a cement mixer.

“I am Andrei Grigoriyevich Kransnov, ataman of Stanitsa Kornilov,” the Cossack leader said, handing back the documents.

He had high cheekbones and slanted blue eyes, and he’d essentially called himself mayor or headman of this village, though in Cossack terminology that also implied a military function.

“You Americans are learned men of science and you have the Khan’s paper; there is peace between your United States and our Khaganate, and we were allies against the gryaznyye nemetskiye lyubiteli sviney.”

Which Russian interjection in the French flow was a quadrifecta of less than complementary terms for Germans, of which ‘deaf-and-dumb babblers’ was the most polite portion; the rest specified poor personal hygiene and close, passionately affectionate relations with domestic porkers. He went on with a broad gesture towards his village and the surrounding territory:

“You are welcome here. Make camp on our lands as our guests, and be safe from all bandits.”

He gave a wink and a laugh as he and his party swung down from the saddle.

“And you are the ones who fought the sky pirates south of Kalgan when they attacked the railroad-train, eh? And shamed the little yellow monkeys.”

Little yellow monkeys was the standard street-Russian term for Japanese; there was no love lost there, either.

He gathered Roy into a brief but emphatic hug and gave him the buss-on-both-cheeks greeting that went with that; Andrews didn’t look as if he was enjoying that much, but he’d travelled widely and knew better than to violate custom when hospitality was being shown.

“So you are no fainting town maidens lost in the wilderness!”

That bit about the pirates caused a stir among his followers.

¡Ajá! He does have a radio, and he hadn’t spread the news yet.

And a murmur among the others who’d followed on foot—men dressed much as he was, women with kerchiefs around their heads and long dresses and aprons, and a sizeable swarm of children down to tow-haired tots in brief smocks and bare feet and swaddled babes-in-arms that showed the incomers were breeding enthusiastically in their new home.

“We’re peaceable, but we don’t mind fighting back if we’re attacked,” Roy said; Yvette gave Luz a slanticular look.

The Cossack leader didn’t seem in the least disconcerted by Luz or Ciara or Yvette; occasional women who took up the trade of arms were an old tradition in the Russian-speaking world and at Bryn Mawr Luz had read with interest the autobiography of one who’d been a cavalry officer in the wars against Napoleon. In fact, the Russian government had been officially recruiting an all-female and dramatically named Battalion of Death when it collapsed.

A blond-braided girl came forward in an outfit like the other women but heavily embroidered and with an elaborate fan-shaped golden headdress, both looking as if they’d been hastily unpacked from a storage chest where they spent most of their time. She carried an embroidered cloth bearing a round loaf of bread with a container of salt in a hole cut in the center of its crust, and was accompanied by another, younger girl in a simpler dress bearing a tray with a bottle of vodka and a dozen small glasses.

Bread and salt was an old custom for greeting in Eastern Europe, a formal acknowledgment of hospitality given and accepted with mutual obligations, and apparently they’d kept it up here, or revived it along with a good deal else dredged out of folk-tales. And there was never a bad time for vodka to most Russians. The slice of the bread Luz got was actually quite tasty, in an earthy peasantish way, black and chewy but warm-fresh, with a tooth-challenging edge of crust and sprinkled with the salt.

The pleasantries concluded with the gift of several freshly-slaughtered lambs and chickens, a sack of potatoes, a firkin of butter and a huge bucket of fresh milk. The bits of gear presented as gifts in turn were considerably more valuable, including two bottles of French brandy from Luz’ collection that brought a gleam to the ataman’s eye, and everyone parted with expressions of mutual esteem.

When they’d driven a few hours further north and to the top of an appropriate rounded swell of land Roy signaled the halt for the day; this time the Landmasters deployed in a circle, and the working crews leapt down and got stuck in. The first thing they did was haul out the disassembled pieces of the portable mooring mast and begin erecting and bracing them; the motor-trucks helped with the winches built into their front bumpers. The heavy two-way radio in one of them said the airboat would come in by sunset.

“I’d keep an eye on them, mi amigos,” Luz said, inclining her head back towards the Cossack village, invisible now across miles of wind-ruffled grass and on its south-facing slope.

A mounted pair was watching them from a swell of land at a discreet distance, and the lenses of a pair of binoculars caught the westering sun in a blink.

“Oh, hell, yes, Cayetana,” Roy replied. “Until we’re well into the Gobi, at least.”

He looked back towards the village too, obviously remembering how it was an island in a sea of pasture.

“My God,” he muttered.

He was visibly shaken; so was Yvette, and Luz remembered that they’d been together on his previous trip too.

“What’s the matter?” she said.

“I know where I am,” he said, waving a hand at the endless emptiness around them. “We came this way on our first trip.”

“But back then it looked… completely different,” Yvette said.

He nodded. “For a hundred miles north of Kalgan… twice the distance we’ve come… there were fields edge-to-edge and swarms of Chinese peasants. The Chinese Governor of the district opened a new region for settlement every two or three years. The farming frontier went forward ten or twelve miles a year, pushing the Mongols northward closer to the edge of the desert, from well west of here all the way ’round to the Manchurian border and up to the Amur. This—”

He waved again.

“It was… millet, oats, wheat, barley and potatoes as far as the eye could see. Village after village, fertile land and enough rain for good yields most years. You didn’t see any Mongols near here any more, except the ones travelling through. And now… it’s as if time had run in reverse! We talked about it, but seeing it is something else again. It’s so… so complete.”

Ciara frowned. “You said the Mongols would love their Yekhe Khan for it?”

“Because it’s a miracle they dreamed of but knew they’d never get,” he said. “I thought he’d just driven out some of the settlers, pushed the frontier of cultivation back a bit. This clean sweep… all the way back to the Great Wall… and from the bones we saw it looks like only the lucky ones got back over the border still alive enough to starve there.”

“The Devil’s own miracle,” Ciara said.

Luz knew she was seeing those drifts of bodies and bones, glimpsed out of the corners of her eyes as she drove up to the plateau.

Though for the Mongols it was do that or lose everything forever. Life’s like that, and that’s la verdad de dios.

“The Cossacks are moving in, and they’re farmers too, mostly,” she added thoughtfully.

Yvette answered: “But there were millions of the Chinese here—you know how it is in China.”

Luz did; the sheer numbers of people could be overwhelming to someone from a sparsely-peopled land like most of America.

“There were more Chinese here in Inner Mongolia a few years ago than there were Mongols in all the world,” Yvette said. “And now they’re gone. Just… gone. Unless there are some they kept for working in mines and such. The Cossacks, there can’t be more than, what, one tenth the numbers the Chinese had?”

Four hundred thousand, including the ordinary Russians who are suddenly as Cossack as if their greaty-greaty-great granddads had been in the Zaporizhian Siech when they elevated their middle fingers to Sultan Mehmed three hundred years ago, Luz thought but did not say.

That was from the Chamber’s briefing papers. Though the wording of the message to the Sultan had been a memorable addition to official diplomatic correspondence: including To the Grand Pig of the Turks and you are the crick in our dick.

Instead she went on:

“Ah, si, so there’s room for them and the Mongols too. And the Russians are the reason the Yekhe Khan could make that clean sweep in the first place, so the Mongols will put up with them settling here too.”

“Not just out of gratitude, but because it makes it less likely the Chinese will be able to return,” Ciara added shrewdly. “The Mongols will always be afraid of the Chinese because there are just so many of them so close and they know they always want every inch of ground you can grow crops on.”

“Gratitude is worth its weight in gold,” Yvette said dryly, and they all chuckled grimly. “Fear, on the other hand, has real weight. It lasts.”

“It will be interesting, no, to see what comes of it all in a few generations?” Luz said.

Roy took a deep breath. “For anthropologists. We have other priorities! We’re here for science.”


Next morning Luz waved farewell out the open window of the airboat Wrekin‘s gondola as the anchor hitch at the nose released from the portable docking tower, with Ciara beside her. Roy waved back; yurts were coming down, and the crew was already pouncing on the docking tower.

The wave was in character for Cayetana Smith y de la Villafuerte, because she’d been careful to make the persona’s quirks as close to hers as possible: that was efficient, labor-saving, Progressive. Ciara, she judged, was torn between a deep desire to see their children again and a daydream of finding dinosaur fossils and tracing geological strata and, even more exciting, writing up articles on the process and seeing them published in academic journals to highly selective acclaim.

The Round the Wrekin—some obscure Birmingham slang that apparently meant something like the long way ’round—was already facing into the wind, which happened naturally when the anchor-rope to the tail was released, since the docking ring rotated freely. A gush of water through a hose from the ballast tanks to another tank on the back of one of the Landmasters sent the craft up, and the crew cranked it home.

The helmsman sat at the front of the control cabin’s U-shape of glass windows, hands on a yoke that could be pulled back or pushed forward to pitch the elevators on the tail fins up or down, or turned left and right like a wheel to move the rudders. The engineer’s position was to his right, at a console with the throttles to hand and dials listing temperature and fuel-flow and sundry other things; the ballast-and-buoyancy console was to the other side, and then the navigator behind on the right and the radioman to his left.

“All ahead three-quarters,” Tommy Scelham said; he was acting as skipper for this run.

After some intensive drill over the last few months by the quasi-Imperial-government agency that had sold him the airboats. Besides Scelham’s own links to the Imperial Secret Service, Lord Milner really did want to spread those skills as widely as possible, to modernize the Empire he oversaw; you could smell the new-metal-and-paint scent of extensive renovations to the controls. Tommy had hired ex-Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service personnel too, through friends of friends, using them as cadre to train his own followers.

As the engines roared Ciara cocked an ear.

“Rolls-Royce, but license-produced copies of our Curtis 650 horsepower lighter-than-air service radials,” she said. “New, too, so they’re probably from the factory in Pretoria, or Newcastle—the Newcastle in Australia, that is. Or possibly Bombay or Jamshedpur.”

Ar,” Tommy Scelham said; also Brummie slang, and a way to express agreement. “Just so.”

He looked at Ciara, and his glance was curious. “You could tell that by the sound, Miss?”

Ciara smiled politely; she had reservations about the Scelhams, but they’d been very useful… and had kept scrupulously to the terms of agreements they’d made with Smith & Smith.

“No, Mr. Scelham; the sound and the instruments—”

She nodded to the arc of dials and switches and controls that made a horseshoe around the upper-front of the two-story gondola. The rest of the structure went back ninety feet back from here in a long oval on the bottom of the envelope.

“—and deductions from that and what I’ve read in the technical journals.”

The Wrekin was a big airboat. The man at the navigator’s station had room for a large slanted map-table, with a transparent cover that could be written on and erased with a damp sponge and sliding calibrated rules and other instruments.

The navigator was an expressionless, lean crop-haired jug-eared young man who looked generically Northwest-European in background, and was going by the name of Bob Johnson. Henrietta had supplied him, and he was undoubtedly either ex-Air Corps or USN and now working for the Chamber, or on loan.

She had no idea if he’d been briefed on her real identity or was taking the Smith persona at face value—handling that was Henrietta’s business and Luz had no need to know. From the overall impression of carefully concealed disapproval on his part, she rather thought that he hadn’t been briefed on her, which was how she’d have handled it, since he really didn’t need to know in order to do his job.

On the other hand, he might disapprove of me if he did know. So it’s muy afortunado that I don’t give a damn…

“Neutral buoyancy at six thousand feet,” Tommy said, which would leave them a reasonable twelve hundred over the local ground-level. “Set course for Shanghai.”

“Yes, sir,” the navigator said in a flat Midwestern accent and went to work.

First calculating a route, then making allowances for the best reports they had on wind patterns.

Then: “Helm, come left one-one-four degrees.”

The nose turned, pointing south-southeast.

“One-one-four degrees, aye-aye.”

After a moment: “Steady on one-one-four.”

“Aye, steady.”

“Air speed,” Tommy said.

“Air speed is fifty-two knots, sir,” the engineer said.

“Maintain speed on this heading.”

That would get them back to Shanghai in a little over eleven hours, if the weather stayed good, which it probably would. Which would be about sunset. If they confirmed on the two-way radiotelephone at a suitable time, Henrietta would have the children there to meet them and then head back to her rented rooms in an expensive downtown hotel’s upper story; it wouldn’t do to have the head of Universal Imports too friendly with the useful but louche and barely-respectable Mrs. Smith.

He inclined his head back towards the rear of the control cabin. She joined him there and he spoke quietly:

“Should we fly a search pattern this run, d’ye think?”

Luz sighed with regret. There wasn’t an infinite amount of time to find what they sought, but…

“No, I don’t t’ink so. Not the first few trips, though we’ll use the cameras. The Japanese will be watching, and maybe the Mongols too, until they’re sure we’re what we say we are. We’d have to double back north anyway, it’s in the Gobi and we’re south of that now.”

She inclined her head to the windows, which gave a magnificent view of many miles of rolling steppe, spotted here and there with herds, yurts and a pair of Cossack villages and their cultivated fields, all of them lost in the dun-green immensity.

“Hard to see unless they fly low,” she added: the gondola, as designed, gave you an excellent view below but the gasbag blocked out most of the sky.

Tommy Scelham grinned tautly. “Thought of that.”

He picked up a headset with big earpieces and what looked like the part of an old two-piece telephone that made the stand, with a cone you spoke into.

His thumb pressed a switch, and he said: “Anything, Bert? Over.”

Luz could hear a tinny, hissing mumble, but apparently Scelham was receiving much louder and clearer.

“Good. Keep an eye on ’em. Out.” He removed the headset. “Jap airboat off to the south, at about three thousand feet.”

He jerked a thumb towards the ceiling. “Climbing tube running up to the top. I’ve got a man with good eyes up there.”

Luz nodded. In the airboat’s original military incarnation, there had probably been a twin machine-gun mount there, to give the craft at least a little chance against attack by fighting-scouts…

By fighters, she thought, reminding herself of the latest terminology. Don’t want to be a fuddy-duddy before I must. Dios mio, that must have been a boring post on long anti-U-boat patrols!

The conversion to civilian use had removed the armament. Scelham & Co. Ltd. had re-armed the chin and tail turrets, unexceptionable for a craft meant to ply the Chinese interior, but not the rest. That would be suspicious, given the weight penalty of the weapons and their operators for a commercial craft.

“Your kiddies have been entertaining mine,” Tommy said, in a more normal tone; they hadn’t had much time for private conversation until now. “With stories about you and… ah, Josephine. And their adventures with their flying cats.”

Josephine was talking to the navigator, who thawed a bit as she showed a familiarity with the recondite mathematics of his trade. Tommy was well aware that Ciara was the birth-mother of Mary and Colleen, and that the two women were lovers. Luz strongly suspected that he strongly suspected that her two girls had the same father as Patricia and Luciana… anyone good at the clues of faces would. He probably thought that Josephine had been in a ménage a trois with Mrs. Cayetana Smith and her deceased husband.

That was perfectly acceptable, since none of the Scelhams were what you’d call censorious types. She’d bet that the only feeling he had about that hypothetical arrangement would be mild envy for the late Mr. Smith. As so often, a little truth enabled a lot of deception.

As for the stories the children might blurt out…

Luz raised her brows and he went on:

“Well, you’re Queen Ozma of Oz and Josephine is Princess General Jinjur most of the time… when you’re not secret agents working for ’em. Under dozens of names, like sometimes you’re C-17.”

She recognized that, from one of the stories in Argosy All-Story. She’d explained it when Luciana asked about an illustration of two men fighting on the wing of an aircraft.

“And you fight sky pirates all the time, and have battles with bandits in San Francisco and then come back and tell them about it during the bedtime snuggle at the hotel… which has magic floating rooms. Elevators, I think? Ones that float up to rooms full of chocolates.”

“There aren’t any elevators in Colima. Or closer to there than Mexico City. They were impressed when we stopped there at t’e Palace Hotel on our way to Shanghai.”

Which was true. There weren’t any elevators in Santa Barbara, either… or closer than San Francisco or Los Angeles; even now they tended to be a big-city phenomenon.

“And you have trees in your garden at home where kids can climb up right into the clouds

True enough during the occasional sea-fog.

“…and there are mountains and floating islands off the coast.”

The Channel Islands off Santa Barbara did look as if they were floating in mid-air, sometimes, and also as if they were fading into a pink haze. Improvised afternoon stories and active five-year-old imaginations had done the rest.

“And the President of the US visits you and plays bear with your daughters. Sometimes he flies in on a magic carpet or anchors his personal air-yacht over your house. Oh, and you’re either his niece, or his daughter, so you’re going to be Queen of America, as well as Oz. And knight people left and right. Including them, when they land their giant flying cats on the White House lawn. My boy wants a flying cat of his own—asked me for one yesterday. Said why should the girls have all the fun?”

Luz smiled and spread her hands. “I did dance wit’ President Roosevelt once, at a ball he attended in Mexico City. But I don’t think I’m much like Alice Roosevelt… gracias a Dios.”

Both of which statements are actually true.

Several of those fantasies were cold fact… but the others made perfect camouflage for the whole. Half the children in America had that one about the President visiting and playing with them, for instance—often mediated through the Teddy Bear, which had been named for him after all, and not so long ago. Nearly as many of their slightly older siblings had lurid dreams of the Black Chamber and FBS and their battles with Hun spies and the menace of Japan and wicked traitors.

And, these days, fights with sky pirates in exotic foreign locals, complete with curved knives between their dastardly teeth; the pulp writers were drawing on traditions dating back to Captain Morgan’s time in the Caribbean, mixed in with the Barbary Corsairs, not to mention details lifted from Robert Louis Stevenson. Treasure buried in places that could only be approached from the air was popular too.

“We did fight sky pirates,” she pointed out. “You and I and my people together, Tommy, and now we on our own. Well, with Roy.”

Tommy snorted. “Bugger me blind if you aren’t right about that. Sods pop up like cockroaches these days.”

Then he grinned. “Bet you wish the little ‘uns was making it all up like the magic carpet!”


Copyright © 2021-2022 by S.M. Stirling