American National Railways Coastal Express
November 19, 1916(b)
“Saints, what’s that?” Ciara said.
Or literally: “¡Por los santos! ¿Qué es eso?”
Their prospective cover identities in Europe were Spanish-speaking until they got to Germany, and it was never too early for Ciara to practice the language. Luz stretched, yawned with a hand over her mouth, and put aside a newspaper with yet another article on Canada: the very orphaned Dominion’s very shell-shocked parliament had reacted to the destruction of London by voting to join the United States last week, each province—plus Newfoundland—to be a state, with the unhappy but sincere approbation of Lord Protector Milner over in Britain.
Instead of reading more—there was an interesting article in the Times on how former Princess Mary, the sole survivor of her family due to a lucky visit to Bristol and now Queen-Empress Victoria, was planning an “indefinite” stay in New Delhi—she turned her eyes out the compartment window to follow Ciara’s finger as the Coastal Express halted at one of the level crossings that had survived the rebuilding so far.
“Por todos los santos,” she corrected automatically as she did.
Luz had ridden this line from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles all her life, and the stuffy warmth had made her drowsy despite the new-build smell of paint and varnish in this side-corridor compartment car. Fresh air came through a narrow crack of open window with the oily petroleum stink of the locomotive’s smoke, though that was a lot better than the hot cinders and clinging smeary soot of the old coal burners that were now rare west of the Rockies.
The younger woman hadn’t traveled much at all until recently, though. This time what Ciara was staring at with bright-eyed wonder was another train sitting on a siding next to the main track. There were five heavy-duty fifty-by-ten flatcars behind the big new 4-8-4 ANR Goliath-class superheated fast freight loco, followed by an ordinary freight wagon and then a passenger car and the caboose. Four of the flatcars had identical rectangular somethings under tied-down tarpaulins of Army drab, which meant a military cargo, and the somethingswere themselves chained to the frames of the flatbeds with massive links held tight by eyebolts.
“Those must be armored cars, Lynx battle autos—” Luz began, and stopped as she realized she was wrong.
The silhouettes under the canvas didn’t look quite right. And an ANR flatcar like the ones in this train could hold two Lynxes. And they wouldn’t put covers on them. Successive models had been around for a couple of years now and weren’t any sort of secret; there were thousands of them and they featured in parades often enough.
The fifth flatcar had the same thing with the tarpaulin peeled back, and a group of wrench-wielding men in blue-almost-black military fatigue overalls were swarming around an open compartment in the rear of…
“No, that’s definitely not a Lynx,” Luz said, keenly interested herself now.
Whatever-it-was had the same general sort of slab-sided angular hull of riveted armor plate as the American cavalry’s standard war auto, liberally splashed with mud as you usually saw them when they weren’t inches deep in khaki-colored Mexican dust. The unit insignia was familiar too, the 2nd Cavalry’s palmetto leaf and eight-pointed shield with Toujours Pret blazoned on it.
But it had the eye-baffling quality of something new; it was bigger, with what looked like a six-pounder cannon rather than a pom-pom in the turret besides a machine gun. And instead of having three evenly spaced rubber wheels four feet high on each side like the Lynx armored war autos she’d seen so often, this had six much smaller metal wheels in pairs resting on…
“That’s endless metal treads, like a Holt tractor,” Ciara said. “I saw an article on them in a copy of American Mechanical Engineer I picked up a few years ago while I was helping Colm at the machine shop where he was working. I’d bring him his dinner from home and then work on the lathe while he was eating.”
“A Holt crawler… ¡Ay! Now I see!”
Her mind snapped the pieces together. Luz had seen Holt crawler-tractors in the delta country west of Sacramento, where they were used on the deep soft soils reclaimed from the marshy islands. And on major construction projects the last couple of years too, like the Colorado Valley Authority dams and canals, or the huge road program and the Yaqui Valley irrigation settlements down in the Protectorate.
“Caterpillar treads, they’re called—a belt to reduce the ground pressure,” Ciara said. “The power is transmitted with that sprocket at the rear, and the driver sits at the front—see the little folding windows and slits in the steel?”
“So they’ve taken an armored battle car, made it bigger, and put it on top of a Holt crawler-tractor… though the Holts don’t have those little wheels and the things they’re attached to?”
“The ones paired on the… what’s the Spanish for suspension?”
“And they’re connected to the body by that bell crank and the horizontal volute spring, see? What’s that in Spanish?”
Luz opened her mouth, hesitated, and thought for a moment before she spoke.
“Ah… springs are muelles. Horizontal is horizontales, of course. Volute… that sounds like a Latin loan in English, so it’s probably voluta or something like it. Bell crank… I think that’s palanca acodada. Say… suspensión con muelles de voluta horizontales y una palanca acodada? A Spanish speaker would certainly understand it, but I’ve no idea if a Spanish-speaking engineer would use the phrase just that way. Or if there is a phrase for that in Spanish… yet.”
“That’s the first time you’ve had problems with a translation!”
“I didn’t. It’s not my Spanish that’s the problem, it’s my… my engineer-ish. I couldn’t have come up with that in English either, not to save my life. Fortunately, I have an expert with me!”
Ciara repeated the Spanish phrase to fix it in her memory, then continued: “The springs and cranks would be to help reduce battering at higher speeds. Holt tractors don’t go faster than walking pace, so they don’t need it. But how clever it all is! They’ve put together a lot of known things into something that’s just… new. How very, very clever!”
Luz blinked; clever wasn’t a word Ciara used lightly, and she was frighteningly sharp in the broad areas of her special interest.
“Why? Wouldn’t it be still be slow?” she said. “Holt tractors crawl, but a Lynx can really zip along, top speed all day and faster than a horse over any sort of firm open ground. They’re extremely useful.”
Ciara looked at her as if she’d asked why railroads didn’t use mules instead of bothering with locomotives.
“But… Luz… mud! And crossing trenches and shell holes! And you’d make nothing of barbed wire driving that machine, you could just crush it and rip it up. And shell and shoot up machine gun nests, even in concrete pillboxes.”
Something went click in Luz’s mind; Ciara was describing the conditions that had kept the European war deadlocked until just lately and a method of neutralizing them. The Germans had developed their Stoßtruppen and then the Vernichtungsgas to do that. This might be another way.
“Well, when you’re right, querida, you’re right,” she said thoughtfully.
And Ciara got it from one glimpse of the machines, what she knew about crawler-tractors, what she knew about the Western Front from newspapers and magazines, and what she deduced from that. I think I’ve gone and fallen in love with the smartest person I’ve ever met… and I’ve met people like Uncle Teddy and Nicolai Tesla.
“Ah, the Armored Water Tank Project,” she said, and at Ciara’s questioning expression continued: “I heard we were doing something with that code designation, but it was supposedly about supplying outposts with Holts pulling wagons. There are a lot of secret projects these days. Uncle Teddy does love his gadgets.”
Ciara clapped her hands in admiration, still staring back at the war machine as the Coastal Express picked up speed and started to earn its name again.
“So clever,” she said wistfully. “I wonder if they use a purpose-designed engine? Or… I do so wish I could stop and talk to them about it!”
Luz chuckled. “Yes, but after they showed you everything they’d have to shoot you, mi querida. Then I’d have to kill them, and it would all end in tears.”
Ciara chuckled and stuck out her tongue and settled back in to watch the passing countryside.
They could talk freely since they had the train compartment to themselves by some freak of scheduling that probably wouldn’t happen again for years. They couldn’t speak all that quickly because they were speaking Spanish. Ciara had studied the language in desultory fashion for several years off-and-on—more or less on a whim, and because the government had offered free correspondence courses wholesale during the Intervention to increase the pool of interpreters. She didn’t have a natural gift for languages, but her excellent memory and almost intimidating capacity for focused hard work were expanding her vocabulary quickly. The accent and grammar, on the other hand…
Needs work, Luz thought. Needs quite a lot of work. Speaking it all the time has already helped a bit, though.
And Germans rarely learned Spanish as a second language anyway—French was their first choice, English next, Italian after that, and even Polish or Russian would be more common—so those able to notice that Ciara’s Spanish was still rough would be few.
And there are times when English is a little dull. In bed with a lover, for example, she thought. You feel as if you should be screaming: Oh, my goodness gracious, what a jolly sensation! Please do go on with what perfectly splendid thing you’re doing, dearie… if it’s not too much trouble.
Then, after a thought tickled at her for a moment she snapped her fingers:
“¡Dios mío! That’s what Ted meant! That was the Second Cavalry’s insignia on the… whatever it was.”
“Ted?” Ciara said.
“Theodore Jr., Uncle Teddy’s oldest son. We’ve been friends since the Rough Riders came back from Cuba—I was just eight, then, and he was eleven—and we worked together in Mexico later. I drop in on him and his family now and then, and their niños are little darlings who love Auntie Luz to death.”
“What’s he like?” Ciara asked curiously. “I’ve seen his name in the papers. There was the battle in that Durango place where he got the Medal of Honor, for a start.”
“He’s smart as a whip, though not as brilliant as Uncle Teddy is or as given to playing with ideas. Charming in a way too—but don’t get in his way, if you know what I mean, and his men would follow him anywhere. Ambitious, and young for a full colonel even these days. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was president someday, or Chief of the General Staff, or both.”
“And he knew something about those… those water tank things?”
Luz nodded. “Ted’s been with the Second since the Intervention got going, and they got the first model of the Lynx at the beginning of 1914. He wrote me back in February when he got his colonel’s oak leaves and regimental command, saying they were getting something new and that it would be a big surprise. I thought it was improved armored cars, which in a way… so this is going to be the big surprise. With the Germans being surprised, for a change.
“¡Ciertamente! So until then it has to be deeply secret.”
Oh! I hadn’t thought of that. I suppose I should have.”
“It takes a while to learn to think like a spy,” Luz said, and reached over to pat her knee. “So you didn’t see a revolutionary new armored fighting vehicle, you just saw some… water tanks.”
“Tanks it is!” Ciara said.
And those Army idiots are going to get a very unpleasant rocket up the fundament after I turn in my report on this, Luz thought with momentary grimness at the lapse in security. I’ll give Ted a heads-up first, but I’m sure it’s not his fault; he must have been losing a lot of experienced enlisted men combed out as cadre for new units and getting green recruits in their place. In fact, he’s probably on his way to Europe with the first wave right now. Malditos confianzudos!
“But you’re learning security much faster than I could learn what you know, you brilliant beautiful pinnacle of American womanhood, you!”
Ciara laughed and flushed; she still hadn’t entirely gotten used to not being thought odd and unfeminine for her technical interests, still less to being praised or appreciated for them.
“After the war,” Luz said thoughtfully, “What we should do is get you into Stanford, like Josh… Yoshi… Taguchi. It’s a fine school and close to home, I don’t think you’d have any problems with the entrance exams, and it’s coeducational.”
The engineering school is technically coeducational, Luz thought, punning silently. But Food Director Hoover’s wife got a BA in geology there back around the turn of the century, which is a precedent.
The look on Ciara’s face was like the sun rising, and Luz grinned in delight herself. When you felt that much pleasure from pleasing someone…
“Oh my darling one, do you think I could? It was always a dream for me, to go to university and study engineering, but…”
Luz nodded understanding. For a Boston-Irish shopkeeper’s daughter, a university technical degree was still very nearly as far-fetched as marrying the king of England, for all the tweaking and scolding by Secretary of Education Jane Addams.
Though give her time… she thought, and went on aloud:
“It’s certainly possible. The money’s no problem. And for any other… impediments… well, my papá put in a word for Josh Taguchi when someone complained how many nisei students there were—he said Josh had talent and to spare—and since he’d made donations to their engineering department… and since Papá’s friends are still there…”
Ciara jumped across the compartment and landed on Luz with a hurricane-style hug. Then Ciara sat back and pulled the letter Tesla had sent her with the briefing papers out of a pocket in the light jacket of her shirtwaist outfit and began ripping it up into very small pieces.
Luz waggled an admonishing finger at her. This line of work required relentless attention to detail.
“Tsk!” Luz said aloud as Ciara looked sheepish. “You should have thrown it in the fire with the rest of the papers this morning! Tsk! Naughty! Naughty spy!”
For the same job-related reason Luz was also doing her best to sound like a Chilean, using idiosyncratic vocabulary like calling skirts polleras and dragging the final syllable of each word out.
“It’s terrible that I can’t keep the letter from Mr. T… from N! He said that I showed great perspicuity in deducing what the Germans may have done with Hülsmeyer’s Telemobiloscope! He… he thought I gave him a valuable insight and saved him much research time on how to tell distance by wave reflections! He promised to show me the records of the experiments he plans, and to explain everything. Oh, Luz, I may actually get to visit his laboratory!”
Her face was glowing with hero worship and it wasn’t the first time she’d rehashed the letter. Luz had visited that solitary fortress in upstate New York, and had been ignored once she stated her requirements—she didn’t have the technical education necessary to make Tesla notice her, and he was deeply in love anyway.
With a pigeon, she thought. And blue flames talk to him and he talks back to them… floating, speaking blue flames invisible to anyone else, that is. But he and his accomplices… what they do may be mad science, but it works. Maybe the floating blue flames are real too!
“Querida, remember that there will be a copy in the files. Later… much later, when it’s not deeply secret any more… you can get one for yourself and frame it. And have him sign it for you, and an autographed photograph of him saying, Well Done, Operative Ciara Whelan.”
“I will that!” Soberly: “And… it’s really an honor that he thinks I can assemble the device in Berlin and operate it.”
I suppose it is. If we don’t get the specs on the Telemobiloscope, apparently the German Navy will be able to target ships accurately in fog and darkness, both of which are abundant in the North Sea.
“Even with all the parts and plans…” Ciara mused, evidently running over the job in her head.
Even with all the parts and plans if things go according to plan, Luz thought. I don’t like that. It’s a complex plan, and there are far too many single points of failure. And it’s rushed, you can feel it’s rushed.
Luz took the fragments and carefully wrapped them in a handkerchief. When they got to the station she’d flush them down the ladies’ toilet, which was just as good as burning and often less conspicuous.
Ciara had the papers verbatim at first reading, and they’d stick. Luz could memorize text like that too, but she’d had to work much harder at developing the knack, which seemed to be almost effortless for her partner. Uncle Teddy had the same uncanny ability. He could quote whole chapters of anything he read years later… and he read several books a day most of the time.
“And here we are in Des Moines by the sea, also known as Los Angeles,” Luz added dryly, as the Coastal Express left the truck farms and half-built suburbs behind and slowed into the built-up area. “And to think it’s in the same state as San Francisco.”
Ciara raised her brows: “I thought San Francisco was very pretty when my aunties and I visited last year for the Exposition—though we stayed at the Inside Inn on the grounds because of Auntie Colleen’s foot; the hills would have been too hard for her. You don’t like Los Angeles?”
“San Francisco is a real city, a port with folk from all the world, wonderful restaurants, good art and music and two first-class universities. This place is full of midwestern farmers living among orange groves and palms and patios and wondering why it doesn’t make them happy. Then they take up weird religions and crazy politics.”
She shrugged. “And in San Francisco we could go out dancing if we wanted to.”
Ciara frowned. “Not that I don’t love dancing with you, darling; you dance so beautifully, you’re graceful as a cat, and it would be lovely with a good live orchestra, I could do that for hours and hours. But wouldn’t people think that was… odd? I mean, nobody thinks anything of it if women dance together when there’s no men, or not enough of them they know well enough to dance with, but you mean a thé dansant?”
Luz chuckled. “Odd? Not in the place I had in mind. Most nights we’d be some of the least odd people there, and that’s counting the musicians. Ah, well, we’re leaving immediately anyway.”
“And we’ll go to San Francisco when we get back and have some time to ourselves,” Ciara said with stout-spirited cheerfulness.
A moment, and she went on with a wry smile: “And are you being a little bit of a snob there, my love? Because you sound very like someone from Boston talking about New Yorkers being all money-grubbing and vulgar, with a sniff, so to speak.”
“Ouch,” she said in acknowledgment. “But I’m being a very Californian variety of snob. California is a dualist religion in which San Francisco doesn’t believe in Los—”
“Los Angeles!” a voice cried from the corridor; it was the conductor—the conductress, actually—striding by and looking at her pocket watch and blowing a whistle. “Los Angeles! All out for Los Angeles Grand Central Station, please!”
“—and vice versa,” she finished.
Los Angeles’s very new Grand Central Station was very big for a medium-sized city, and extremely grand; the builders had looked to the future with what Luz hoped was demented optimism. And it was not particularly central, being located in the Echo Park district away from the sporadically flooding Los Angeles River.
Or at least not central yet, she thought. Despite the way they’re actually implementing their new plan, rather than just talking about it like most places.
The train station, the new City Hall, combined State Police and LAPD and FBS headquarters, museums and courthouse and central public library and Federal Building and opera house and sundry others were grouped about a huge new plaza modeled on the Prato della Valle in Padua, complete with ornamental canal around the central garden, but bigger and with more in the way of fountains and statuary and flowers and young trees of modest size but some promise. All the buildings around it were in an instantly recognizable Californian subvariety of the style called American Imperial these days, one that Luz thought of as Half-Finished Panama-Pacific Exposition Monumental, a Mediterranean-Italo-Hispanic-Moorish accented variation on Beaux-Arts neoclassical.
A square, vaguely Alhambra-esque tower covered in geometric Mozarabic tile was the centerpiece of the station. There had been scaffolding all over it in the spring, the last time she’d been through, but the whole edifice shone with bright new-out-of-the-box completion now.
They stood and pulled down their coach bags from the overhead racks as the train came to a halt with a chuff-chuff-chuff and a lurch and screech of steel.
“There’s no train shed!” Ciara said, peering with interest out the corridor window; most stations this size had a giant glassed-in area over the tracks, like a titanic greenhouse.
“It doesn’t get cold enough here to make that worthwhile,” Luz said.
Instead the passenger areas between each set of double tracks were sheltered from the occasional winter rain by arched glazed covers borne on tall slender white-marble columns rising from the colorful tile pavement of the platforms.
“Efficient,” Ciara said approvingly. “Much easier to allow natural ventilation if you can.”
The rumble of sound in the background turned to a roar as the doors of their car swung back, and Luz could see out over a sea of heads as she paused on the little two-step folding stair. Most of the noise was coming from the departures section, as a troop train full of local reservists prepared to pull out amid a waving of hats and flags and handkerchiefs, returned from the windows of the cars with billed alpine-style Army caps and grinning male faces. Outstretched hands—of mothers, fathers, wives, and sweethearts—were clasped and then released as the long train began to move. Small children were held up for last-minute kisses.
The roar resolved into song. Movement stilled in a ripple as the crowds farther away and on the other platforms paused in their pursuits and joined in. She caught:
“Glory, glory hallelujah!”
Luz and Ciara stopped themselves and performed the Bellamy salute that children made to the flag during the Pledge of Allegiance, and which and more and more adult civilians used on general patriotic occasions these days: the right hand brought to the heart and then the arm stiffly outstretched, palm up, like the old Roman salute in reverse. A whole host of arms were raised as they all sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which Uncle Teddy loved and had made the official national anthem. The vast mass of tracks and trains and sidings rang with thousands of voices roaring out the last two verses:
“For I have read a fiery gospel
Writ in burnished rows of steel:
‘As ye deal with my contemners,
So with you my grace shall deal’;
Let the Hero, born of woman
Crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Since God is marching on!
He is coming like the glory
Of the morning on the wave;
He is Wisdom to the mighty,
He is Honor to the brave!
So the world shall be His footstool
And the soul of Time His slave,
Our God is marching on!”
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Our God is marching on!”
The vast space shook as the crowd gave the last chorus everything they had, then dissolved in cheers and the shrieking hoot of the train’s whistle, and they stepped down into the mass on the platform. Getting through it was something more suited to an eel slathered in olive oil, but they managed with a bit of discreet shoving and hitting with their cases, helped a little because the crowd was mostly male.
“Faith”—Ciara said, or literally por mi fé—“but it’s beautiful!”
That was as they emerged from the platforms section into a long rectangle of flower-decked garden patio with a pavement of colorful twining patterns in hydraulic tile, and a central fountain bearing water-spouting bronze lion heads around its top; ten great arched doorways rimmed in Tiffany favrile-glass mosaic murals of (highly romanticized and distinctly cleaned-up) scenes from Californian history led into the main concourse.
The crowd thickened again inside and slowed them down to a crawl once more. A harried-looking redcap porter who was obviously of Mexican birth put their gear on a wheeled dolly at the baggage station, giving Luz a grateful look at the dime tip and dutifully falling in behind them at her call of:
“Gracias, maestro. ¡Por favor sígame!”
“Gee, but it’s fine!” Ciara said again, looking up at the gilded rosettes on the barrel-arched coffered ceiling far above.
“But so crowded!” she added, nudging someone with her bag who’d been about to step on her toes as he was pushed back by someone in front of him. “The Boston subway has nothing on this.”
The areas around the entrances to the ticket booths, restaurants, and concession stands and the restrooms were packed solid, with an occasional cry of way for the kid! and stir in the mob as mothers with young children were let through to the head of the line, which was a new custom the Eugenics people had spread. Luz mentally decided to dispose of the minutely torn-up letter from Tesla at the airship haven instead, and was glad that she didn’t need the toilet for the usual purpose.
It’s not fair! Even when there are as many ladies’ rooms as there are for the men, which there aren’t anywhere I’ve been, women still have to wait in line to pee half the time.
“These will mostly be the local reservists or men on leave, so the crowding’s the war,” she said, with a smile of State pride at her partner’s enthusiasm for the building.
There’s less history here than out east to get in the way of what we’re doing. We’re making the history.
“We’re lucky the new training camps on the coast have their own sidings, though,” she added.
The dominant note in the mob was young men with the Army’s billed caps on their bristle-cropped heads and the infinitely drab baggy multipocket modern field uniforms, or the slightly different Marine versions. Knots of Navy personnel doing the same things stood out vividly in their blue sailor-suits and beribboned white saucer hats.
Sergeants and officers looking harried and waving clipboards shouted the names of companies and battalions; MPs and shore patrollers with armbands and white belts and truncheons checked the transit papers of those not moving as units. She saw them pounce on one man staggering around singing a bawdy tune about “Big Hips Sally” with a mostly empty bottle in his hand, administer a brief brisk flurry of whacks to the elbows and collarbones, and drag him off, but there was less friction than she’d have anticipated.
Uncle Teddy and his band of brothers built well, she thought, proud again.
This time she was proud of the Party and the way it gotten the country ready to fight. The usual American way to start a conflict was a shambolic ill-equipped volunteer rush of enthusiastic chaos, along with spending the first year or two getting the country’s collective face kicked in if the other side wasn’t a pushover.
Compared to the state we were in fifty years ago in the Civil War or Uncle Teddy’s scuffle with Spain when I was a little girl, it’s a miracle… and miracles are what we need. We’re not fighting Indians or Mexicans or each other or grabbing off the tag ends of a played-out dying empire this time. The Deutsches Kaiserreich has beaten the snot out of every Great Power on Earth except we our glorious selves and our very theoretical ally Japan.
There were farewells here in the waiting hall too, and the YMCA/YWCA had teams—mostly of matrons or teenage girls or Scouts—handing out coffee and soda and juice, sandwiches and donuts to the troops, and packages with little luxuries, spare toothbrushes and socks and free-stamped forms for writing letters home and improving magazines or books and board games. Some of the military transients were waiting by stretching out in corners and snoring with their heads on their duffels or sea bags, utterly heedless of the crowds and clamor. Luz grinned reminiscently at the sight.
“What’s funny, darling?” Ciara asked, leaning close to be heard under the echoing roar that made the conversation fairly private.
“It reminds me of working with the Army down in the Protectorate when I first joined the Chamber,” she said. “Soldiers… and people working with them… pick up the habit of eating wherever there’s food and sleeping whenever they get the chance. You regret it later if you don’t.”
Most of the traffic was departures eastbound; when a burst of several hundred moving as a group detrained from the westbound arrival tracks and moved into the concourse all at once, it blocked Luz’s and Ciara’s passage. And then the newcomers blocked their own, halting and peering around in bewilderment in the middle of the bustling crowd and getting in everyone’s way and clutching battered-looking bags often held together with old belts or bits of string. Luz and Ciara stopped abruptly to avoid plowing into a small column of their toddlers walking hand-in-hand, and the porter nearly trod on their heels.
“Póngalo en la parada de taxis y espérenos por favor, maestro,” Luz said to him, and waved him forward; his uniform and experience would clear a path to the taxi stand a good deal faster than trying to do it as a group.
“English refugees,” she murmured to Ciara. “And that poor minder there has probably been stuck with them on a slow train all the way from the East Coast.”
An obvious American civil servant type in charge of the English sank onto her own suitcase, dropped her bespectacled face into her hands, and quietly wept with relief. Apart from her the group all looked pallid and shabby and grubby and most had spectacularly bad teeth, and smelled frowsty or of long-unchanged babies; they were small and skinny and subtly non-American, down to the shapeless flat cloth caps or battered bowlers the men wore, and the clotted adenoidal accents.
“And from the East End slums, at that. The edge of the killing zone.”
The little ones looked appealing… and also dirty and snot-nosed enough that you didn’t want to express your sympathy at close range unless you had to. Ciara smiled at them, and winked and crouched for a moment to make silly faces at a towheaded four-year-old in a ragged too-large straw boater and cut-down pink dress, until the little girl giggled helplessly and put both hands over her eyes, peeking between her fingers and giggling again before the others dragged her off looking backward and smiling. Luz gave the proto-Morlocks a final once-over.
“Not the most impressive specimens of Anglo-Saxondom, but they’ve certainly got reason to move,” she observed.
The horror-gas only killed every six or seventh person in London. But it killed the city, too. A head shot is a small wound, but the corpse won’t walk; with no Parliament or king or Bank of England or ships or trade, what’s the reason for London? They can’t even go in for the bodies, and the stench of a million unburied dead must be apocalyptic. Nobody who was close to that wants to wait for more of the same from the Gotha bombers, either.
So the convoys that bore warriors and supplies to Britain were coming back over the ocean crammed to the gunwales with people, to be shoved right onto the trains from the insanely overcrowded docks without wasting time on formalities and dispersed over the continent just as fast as was physically possible without severely endangering their lives.
As she watched, a group of Party volunteer activists—you could tell them by their American-flag armbands—started chivvying the crowd out of the way of the refugees and setting up sawhorse-and-rope barricades on the tile floor to give them some space.
The Party was good at organization, and that revealed a set of trestle tables with military-issue tin cups and plates and cutlery, urns of coffee and tea, jugs of chilled water or cold milk or fresh-squeezed lemonade with drops of condensation running down them, more heaps of sugar-dusted donuts and things like cold cuts and cheese and sardines and sliced buttered bread and fruit, the latter mostly boxed oranges, something Southern California wasn’t going to be short of anytime soon.
The refugees hesitated for a moment, broke into excited smiles as they realized it was all for them, and headed for the food and drink with concentrated zeal as the activists kept order. Some of the soldiers in transit and bystanders spontaneously pitched in to help, and soon all the children were clutching glasses of milk in one grubby hand and cookies or other treats in the other, while their parents fell on the sandwich makings and drinks. One or two were actually crying at the taste of the tea as they diluted it with milk and shoveled in sugar, as if all three were things they hadn’t had for a while and missed sorely, the taste of a lost home and time.
“Oh, a cuppa,” one of them said between sobs. “A luverly luverly cuppa!”
A big sign went up behind the tables: AMERICA WELCOMES OUR ENGLISH COUSINS! and A GOLDEN FUTURE IN THE GOLDEN STATE! with crossed flagstaffs holding Old Glory and the Union Jack, or the British flag and the dumpy, grumpy-looking grizzly bear on California’s state banner.
Other tables held stacks of forms in front of seated clerks, and smaller signs reading Housing and Employment and Food and Clothing Ration Books and Collect Your Temporary Stipend—all under a bigger You Must Register Here Now! notice.
A further table had a quick photo booth set up next to the sign reading National Health Insurance Agency, with a white-coated elderly doctor and nurses in those odd-looking folded white caps behind it ready to administer the compulsory course of vaccinations. Heaps of clean diapers and trash cans with tight-sealed lids beside a table with a rubber cloth and buckets of disinfectant-laced water showed that someone had been thinking ahead, and there were some Department of Public Health and Eugenics bureaucrats as well.
Probably itching to get calipers on the Cockneys’ Anglo-Saxon heads. Though I’d delouse them first!
Copyright © 2018-2019 by S.M. Stirling