“Huon II Rex et Imperator.” Marylou Stavros turned the quarter-ounce gold coin over in long brown fingers and read the other side. “Imp. Mint Vic. of N. America.” Whatever the hell thatmeant.
The Greyhound terminal had the usual early-morning bustle; students, enormous Chicano families with string-tied bundles, and a few of the inevitable Bay Area crazies. Marylou felt almost conspicuous in her three-piece slacksuit, but that was Bureau policy.
She grinned, and flipped the coin. Policy would have put this in a plastic baggy, she thought. It’s half the evidence we have, that and the locker number.
It had been her idea to scrape the pink-and-gray goo off Carstairs’ Apple personal and read the number on the flickering screen. Not as good as getting to him before someone put a soft-nosed slug into the back of his skull, but if anything was going to break this microchip smuggling ring, this was it. And that would look very good, indeed, on her record. Which would annoy her supervisor. She strongly suspected that, under his high-tech exterior, he was unhappy with the changes since Hoover’s day, when the only blacks in the Bureau were glorified janitors and women were barely tolerated as stenos.
She sighed happily and settled into the molded plastic seat across from locker number 73625; there was backup available right outside, but she intended to make this bust herself and doctrine be damned. Counterespionage work was even more boring than her old beat on the interstate hot-car file, and she decided that she had earned a little self-indulgence.
It was an hour later when the suspect walked casually up to the locker. Female, Caucasian, five-eight, hundred and twenty pounds, green eyes, blonde ponytail; windbreaker, Adidas, jeans. Not unusual for the San Francisco area, and neither was the graceful springy movement that suggested dance training. Marylou estimated her age at about thirty.
She allowed the suspect to open and clean out the locker; the Bureau had been in before her, and the attaché case held nothing but junk. It was impossible to tell that without laboratory equipment, of course.
Marylou flipped open the leather foldout. “F.B.I.,” she said quietly. “Come with me, please.”
The other woman smiled, and suddenly the agent felt less happy about what had seemed a routine bust. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” the blonde woman said, in a British accent. “Frightfully sorry.”
Marylou was searching for the .32 at the small of her back when the world faded out.
Waking was slow and undramatic. The room was bare concrete, windowless, lit by a single dangling bulb; it held one bed, a washstand, and a chair.
She felt carefully at her head. No dizziness, nausea, or other signs of concussion, and no odd taste in her mouth either, which most drugs would have left. Her clothes were draped over the chair, complete except for the empty holster.
Marylou dressed and sat on the bed, lost in thought. It was difficult to imagine how she had been brought out of a guarded building, with agents staked out at all the exits. Pointless to think about it, she decided: She was here. That might be anywhere from Oakland to the Lubianka in Moscow; that she was alive at all meant that her captors wanted something from her, probably information. It was not a comforting thought; she knew too much about modern interrogation methods, especially the ones the opposition used.
The iron door opened with a clang. Marylou forced herself to rise slowly, face expressionless. Two guards came in, a man and woman, both in baggy gray-green uniforms with archaic-looking high collars. The guns were strange, too: horizontal-drum machine pistols with wooden stocks—large-caliber weapons from the size of the muzzles. The faces behind were blankly impersonal.
“Up,” the man said. “You walk ahead, not slow and not fast. Move.” The voice had a neutral American accent, which was curious.
Marylou moved to the door, which opened onto a bare corridor. Similar metal portals with peepholes were spaced along it, the unmistakable layout of a maximum-security prison.
“Where are we?” she said.
Without a word, one of the guards hit her under the short ribs with the butt of her submachine-gun—not hard enough to injure, but it winded her. Then both waited with bored patience.
Marylou headed up the corridor. “I can take the hint,” she wheezed. The walls were damp, and despite the sough of ventilators, the air smelled musty. She guessed that the prison was underground; the length of the trip when they reached the elevator and started up confirmed it.
The elevator itself was strange, plushly carpeted in red and walled with gilt-frame mirrors; the controls were manual rather than automatic, and she suspected that it rose more slowly than the ones to which she was accustomed. The long journey gave her a moment for regaining self-command, and the sight of her own familiar toffee-colored face was reassuring. Silent, she raised the hawked nose she had inherited from her Greek sponge-diver father and gathered herself.
Girl, she told herself, you are in deep shit.
The upper level was a shock. The elevator gave directly onto an office that must have covered most of the floor. One wall was floor-to-ceiling tinted glass; the others were covered with delicate pastel murals of reeds and waterfowl. There were loungers draped in polar-bear fur, a sleek mahogany bar, a Hitachi stereo set, marble tiles on the floor. The desk was huge, and included a modern-looking data terminal. Behind it lounged the woman she had seen in the Greyhound terminal, studying a file folder and sipping at a cup. To one side, an Oriental girl in lavishly embroidered silk pyjamas knelt beside a wheeled breakfast tray.
“Good morning,” the woman behind the desk said cheerfully in the same dulcet, aristocratic accent. “Now, agent ah, Stavros, I imagine you think you are in the hands of, how would you put it, K.G.B. agents?”
“Or East German,” Marylou replied. Whatever the purpose of this charade, she was not playing along with it.
“Permit self-introduction. My name is Braithwaite, Colonel Valentina Braithwaite, I.D.S.” She paused for a moment. “As to the situation, let your own eyes convince.” The colonel’s voice shifted to a command snap. “Hayes, Wherstein, take her over to the window.”
Dazed, Marylou walked to the glass. It took a full minute for what she was seeing to register. They were overlooking San Francisco, on top of Telegraph Hill and twenty stories up. The geography was unmistakable, but the city was . . . different. The great Bay bridges simply were not there; the street plan was completely alien, planned around the hills instead of against them. The buildings were lower, none taller than the one in which she stood, and mostly in an ornate neoclassical style; the built-up area was far less than in her own city. Out over the harbor floated a . . . blimp? Then it passed over a ship, and the portholes snapped it into perspective; a dirigible, and huge, a thousand feet long at least.
For the first and only time in her life, Marylou came near to fainting. Her stomach heaved, and the air turned black before her eyes. She was vaguely aware of strong hands roughly supporting her into a chair, and a cold wet towel lightly slapping her cheeks. Awareness returned.
The colonel was standing before her. Distractedly, Marylou noted that her uniform was of some fine tweedlike cloth.
“So, we are part of a secret service,” she was saying. “The Imperial Directorate of Security, loyal servants of His Royal and Imperial Majesty, Huon II, King-Emperor of Greater Britain.” She snapped her fingers. “Mei-ling, bring the tray.” Turning to Marylou, she continued. “Now, perhaps you’d like an explanation.”
” . . .ministry of Pitt the Elder, in the 1760s,” she concluded. “Now, in your history he fell from power at the end of the Seven Years’ War, just when things were going well. Frightening to think how much can depend on one man, isn’t it? And his successors bungled everything—the Peace and the Colonial troubles both.
“Here . . . and now . . .” she waved a hand. “Things went so much more smoothly. It’s the Ten Years’ War, to us: Pitt drove Britain on to complete victory instead of a partial one. We took all the French possessions, and the Spanish and Dutch as well: South America, Mexico, the Cape, Ceylon, Indonesia—the lot. The American colonies never became seriously disaffected, after that.
“Since then, we’ve gone from strength to strength, don’t you know. Enough independent revenue made the Crown free of Parliament, so even poor crack-brained Georgie III was able to bring off the coup and make the monarchy absolute again.” She smiled wolfishly. “One of the finer things about being in the secret police is that you can say that sort of thing and not be shot for lèse majesté. Our only real setback was the Great War, with the Russians, two generations ago; both empires fought themselves into exhaustion. Although I shouldn’t complain, it was the manpower shortages that changed the ridiculous attitudes toward women that were so common then.
“Then, about a decade ago, the boffins came up with the Translevel Gate.” She shrugged expressively. “The physics are beyond me. I took Classics at Oxford. Something about the gravitational warp effects of degenerate matter.” She smiled, an oddly charming expression, lopsided and faintly raffish. “One of the few forms of degeneracy that doesn’t interest me. And since then, we’ve been exploring, secretly, trading here and there for things like gold and diamonds, high value in relation to energy transport-costs. Just lately, microelectronics from your world and some ‘nearby’ ones, better than anything we can make. That was where our contact man made his mistake, paying Carstairs in coin of the realm instead of ingots, as if your people were preindustrial savages. I was sent along to, ah, shall we say, see to Carstairs.”
“Why didn’t you ‘see to’ me as well?” Marylou asked bluntly. The situation had sunk in, but she sensed it was only at an intellectual level. Her emotions were unconvinced; they felt numb.
The colonel paused to light a cigarette, and offered the slim platinum case to Marylou. “Tobacco on the right, Sonoma cannabis on the left. No?” She lit her own.
“We thought you might be useful to us. Besides, it would have been just a trifle awkward, blowing your head off right there in front of your confreres, wouldn’t it? Much better to have you escort me out.” At Marylou’s expressions she laughed merrily. “Narcohypnosis, my dear, the same technique we used to interrogate you. You’ve been here nearly forty-eight hours, you know.”
“And what if I decline to be ‘useful’?” Marylou snarled, enraged beyond caution.
The colonel sighed, and turned to the guards. “Hayes, Wherstein, tickle her a little. Mei-ling, more tea.”
Before Marylou could move, stiffened fingers drove into the nerve cluster beside her neck. A hand gripped her by the shoulder and jerked her erect; a palm-edge struck her over the kidney. Paralyzed, her lungs could only make a shivering grunt.
The guards were artists, not sadists: they worked with the impersonal detachment of surgeons demonstrating an anatomical dummy, working to inflict the maximum in pain and emotional degradation without tearing flesh or rupturing organs. And all through the “tickling,” she was conscious of the colonel leafing through a file, sipping at her tea, and glancing up from time to time in cool appraisal.
At the end, the guards dropped her into the chair and wiped the blood and sputum off her face. The colonel rose and walked closer, perching one hip on the desk. She spread her hands.
“I am,” she purred, “a reasonable woman. I wouldn’t ask you to betray your country; only to, shall we say, look the other way when activities of ours occur, and furnish us with information. It’s harmless. We have enough elsewhere, without tangling with a civilization which is, to be frank, technologically superior in most respects.”
Marylou raised eyes blank with hate. “Why don’t you use your fucking drugs?” she said hoarsely.
Valentina shrugged. “Oh, well enough for field-hands, but rather obvious if done thoroughly.” She jerked a thumb at the Oriental who was placidly brewing tea. “Who’s going to mistake that walking lump of meat for a human being? All conditioned reflexes. To be sure . . .”
She drew the heavy automatic at her waist and handed it to Marylou. The walnut butt weighed in her hand; she pointed it at the colonel and pulled the trigger, bitterly expecting the click of a hammer on an empty cylinder—and found that her finger would not pull. It was eerie, not a dramatic sensation; simply a finger resting limply on the metal when all her will wanted it to close. She swung the weapon away from her captor and it bucked and roared in her hand.
“Careful!” Valentina snapped. “That vase is Ming!” She took back the weapon. “Now, what do you say?”
“Screw you,” Marylou replied, conscious of the sweat trickling down her spine. It might be wiser to play along, but . . . no.
Valentina raised an eyebrow. “What a delightful suggestion; I’m sure it could be arranged. Well, we’ll just have to try more persuasion. If you prove too, too stubborn you could always join that officer of ours who gave the coins to Carstairs.” The baring of teeth that followed was not a smile. “He’s now engaged in overseeing coolies in the New Guinea copper mines; they can always use new hands.”
She waved a hand. “Take her away. Oh, and tell the alienist we’ll be needing him, and the pharmacopia. And prepare the mechanicals, as well.”
It was about a week later when they drove up into what Marylou had known as the Santa Clara Valley. She was not sure of the date or very much else. The car was quiet but slow, steam-powered, and she stared quietly out at a landscape of vineyards and orchards interspersed with manor houses and workers’ quarters. The mansion they came to was much like the others, except for the guards and heavy power lines.
Inside, she had expected something sleek and NASA-futuristic. Instead, there were banks of ornate brass meters, scaffolds, blue-coated attendants dragging wheeled carts full of cabbage-sized vacuum tubes, power lines snaking over flagstones. All it needs, she thought, is Bela Lugosi. Or Gene Wilder. The thought was a first break of light through the gray clouds that seemed to have settled on her mind.
Of course, there was some modern equipment; she recognized the company names: Sony, I.B.M., Texas Instruments . . .
The technician showed Marylou and the colonel to a chalked circle on the floor. Alertness returning, Marylou felt a strange professional note of admiration for the faultless cover of the other woman’s dress-for-success business outfit, slightly worn attaché case, and copy of the Financial Times.
The colonel handed her the .32, the last part of her original clothing. The technician noted something on a clipboard.
“Right, then, ma’am,” he said. “You know about the effect of displacement in transit? Cheerio, then, Colonel.”
A crackling scent of ozone filled the air. Marylou stood looking at the weapon in her hand.
“I hope you’re not considering shooting me with that,” Valentina said with amusement.
“Oh, no,” Marylou said calmly. “But you forgot one thing.”
“Whatever could it be?”
“That guns can shoot something else besides people,” Marylou answered.
Even as she spoke, the Imperial agent was turning, lashing out with a bladed palm. But Marylou had already raised the pistol and begun firing into the towering banks of equipment. A giant hand seized them, and the world rippled and twisted apart.
Not having been moving during transition, Marylou awoke first. She used the time well; the colonel awoke with her hands cuffed behind her.
“You stupid blackamoor bitch!” she said. “You imbecilic—”
Marylou interrupted her with a hearty kick to the stomach. “You should have conditioned me against hitting you, too,” she said.
“That would have been too limiting, wouldn’t it?” she replied sardonically.
Marylou kicked her again, then restrained herself with an effort. Above them, above the canopy of the prune orchard they had found themselves awakened in, a jet went by high overhead.
“Nearer my line than yours,” Marylou said. The colonel opened her mouth, hesitated, decided to concentrate on moving, which is not easy over uneven ground with hands linked behind the back.
“I’m sure the authorities will be interested in your story,” she continued, prodding the other ahead of her toward the verge of the orchard.
They walked for half an hour before they came to the building. It was a schoolhouse, reassuringly ordinary in whitewashed cinderblock. There were children playing noisily in the yard, and a group surrounding a cluster of teachers at the flagpole. For a moment, Marylou closed her eyes in pure relief.
And then she heard Colonel Valentina laughing, vengeful and triumphant, and opened her eyes to see the tall blonde woman staggering against a tree and shouting with mirth, as the blue and white and crimson flag of the Confederate States fluttered gaily in the bright California sun.