A Place So Foreign
From "A Place So Foreign and Eight More," a short story collection published in
September, 2003 by Four Walls Eight Windows Press (ISBN 1568582862). See
http://craphound.com/place for more.
Originally Published in Science Fiction Age, January 2000
Blurbs and quotes:
* Cory Doctorow straps on his miner's helmet and takes you deep into the
caverns and underground rivers of Pop Culture, here filtered through SF-coloured
- Neil Gaiman
Author of American Gods and Sandman
* Few writers boggle my sense of reality as much as Cory Doctorow. His vision
is so far out there, you'll need your GPS to find your way back.
- David Marusek
Winner of the Theodore Sturgeon Award, Nebula Award nominee
* Cory Doctorow is one of our best new writers: smart, daring, savvy,
entertaining, ambitious, plugged-in, and as good a guide to the wired world of
the twenty-first century that stretches out before us as you're going to find.
- Gardner Dozois
Editor, Asimov's SF
* He sparkles! He fizzes! He does backflips and breaks the furniture! Science
fiction needs Cory Doctorow!
- Bruce Sterling
Author of The Hacker Crackdown and Distraction
* Cory Doctorow strafes the senses with a geekspeedfreak explosion of gomi kings
with heart, weirdass shapeshifters from Pleasure Island and jumping automotive
jazz joints. If this is Canadian science fiction, give me more.
- Nalo Hopkinson
Author of Midnight Robber and Brown Girl in the Ring
* Cory Doctorow is the future of science fiction. An nth-generation hybrid of
the best of Greg Bear, Rudy Rucker, Bruce Sterling and Groucho Marx, Doctorow
composes stories that are as BPM-stuffed as techno music, as idea-rich as the
latest issue of NEW SCIENTIST, and as funny as humanity's efforts to improve
itself. Utopian, insightful, somehow simultaneously ironic and heartfelt, these
nine tales will upgrade your basal metabolism, overwrite your cortex with new
and efficient subroutines and generally improve your life to the point where
you'll wonder how you ever got along with them. Really, you should need a
prescription to ingest this book. Out of all the glittering crap life and our
society hands us, craphound supreme Doctorow has managed to fashion some
- Paul Di Filippo
Author of The Steampunk Trilogy
* As scary as the future, and twice as funny. In this eclectic and electric
collection Doctorow strikes sparks off today to illuminate tomorrow, which is
what SF is supposed to do. And nobody does it better.
- Terry Bisson
Author of Bears Discover Fire
A note about this story
This story is from my collection, "A Place So Foreign and Eight More," published
by Four Walls Eight Windows Press in September, 2003, ISBN 1568582862. I've
released this story, along with five others, under the terms of a Creative
Commons license that gives you, the reader, a bunch of rights that copyright
normally reserves for me, the creator.
I recently did the same thing with the entire text of my novel, "Down and Out in
the Magic Kingdom" (http://craphound.com/down), and it was an unmitigated
success. Hundreds of thousands of people downloaded the book -- good news -- and
thousands of people bought the book -- also good news. It turns out that, as
near as anyone can tell, distributing free electronic versions of books is a
great way to sell more of the paper editions, while simultaneously getting the
book into the hands of readers who would otherwise not be exposed to my work.
I still don't know how it is artists will earn a living in the age of the
Internet, but I remain convinced that the way to find out is to do basic
science: that is, to do stuff and observe the outcome. That's what I'm doing
here. The thing to remember is that the very *worst* thing you can do to me as
an artist is to not read my work -- to let it languish in obscurity and
disappear from posterity. Most of the fiction I grew up on is out-of-print, and
this is doubly true for the short stories. Losing a couple bucks to people who
would have bought the book save for the availability of the free electronic text
is no big deal, at least when compared to the horror that is being irrelevant
and unread. And luckily for me, it appears that giving away the text for free
gets me more paying customers than it loses me.
You can find the canonical version of this file at
If you'd like to convert this file to some other format and distribute it, you
have my permission, provided that:
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to it at http://craphound.com/place/000013.php
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A Place So Foreign
My Pa disappeared somewhere in the wilds of 1975, when I was just fourteen years
old. He was the Ambassador to 1975, but back home in 1898, in New Jerusalem,
Utah, they all thought he was Ambassador to France. When he disappeared, Mama
and I came back through the triple-bolted door that led from our apt in 1975 to
our horsebarn in 1898. We returned to the dusty streets of New Jerusalem, and I
had to keep on reminding myself that I was supposed to have been in France, and
"polly-voo" for my chums, and tell whoppers about the Eiffel Tower and the fancy
bread and the snails and frogs we'd eaten.
I was born in New Jerusalem, and raised there till I was ten. Then, one summer's
day, my Pa sat me on his knee and told me we'd be going away for a while, that
he had a new job.
"But what about the store?" I said, scandalised. My Pa's wonderful store, the
only General Store in town not run by the Saints, was my second home. I'd spent
my whole life crawling and then walking on the dusty wooden floors, checking
stock and unpacking crates with waybills from exotic places like Salt Lake City
and even San Francisco.
Pa looked uncomfortable. "Mr Johnstone is buying it."
My mouth dropped. James H Johnstone was as dandified a city-slicker as you'd
ever hope to meet. He'd blown into town on the weekly Zephyr Speedball, and skinny
Tommy Benson had hauled his three huge steamer trunks to the cowboy hotel. He'd
tipped Tommy two dollars, in Wells-Fargo notes, and later, in the empty lot
behind the smithy, all the kids in New Jerusalem had gathered 'round Tommy to
goggle at the small fortune in queer, never-seen bills.
"Pa, no!" I said, without thinking. I knew that if my chums ordered their
fathers around like that, they'd get a whipping, but my Pa almost never whipped
He smiled, and stretched his thick moustache across his face. "James, I know you
love the store, but it's already been decided. Once you've been to France,
you'll see that it has wonders that beat anything that store can deliver."
"Nothing's better than the store," I said.
He laughed and rumpled my hair. "Don't be so sure, son. There are more things in
heaven and earth then are dreamed of in your philosophy." It was one of his
sayings, from Shakespeare, who he'd studied back east, before I was born. It
meant that the discussion was closed.
I decided to withhold judgement until I saw France, but still couldn't shake the
feeling that my Pa was going soft in the head. Mr Johnstone wasn't fit to run an
apple-cart. He was short and skinny and soft, not like my Pa, who, as far as I
was concerned, was the biggest, strongest man in the whole world. I loved my Pa.
Well, when we packed our bags and Pa went into the horsebarn to hitch up our
team, I figured we'd be taking a short trip out to the train station. All my
chums were waiting there to see us off, and I'd promised my best pal Oly
Sweynsdatter that I'd give him my coonskin cap to wear until we came back. But
instead, Pa rode us to the edge of town, where the road went to rutted trail and
salt flats, and there was Mr James H Johnstone, in his own fancy-pants trap. Pa
and me moved our luggage into Johnstone's trap and got inside with Mama and
hunkered down so, you couldn't see us from outside. Mama said, "You just hush up
now, James. There's parts of this trip that we couldn't tell you about before we
left, but you're going to have to stay quiet and hold onto your questions until
we get to where we're going."
I nearly said, "To where we're going?" but I didn't, because Mama had never
looked so serious in all my born days. So I spent an hour hunkered down in
there, listening to the clatter of the wheels and trying to guess where we were
going. When I heard the trap stop and a set of wooden doors close, all my
guesses dried up and blew away, because I couldn't think of anywhere we would've
heard those sounds out in the desert.
So imagine my surprise when I stood up and found us right in our very own
horsebarn, having made a circle around town and back to where we'd started from!
Mama held a finger up to her lips and then took Mr Johnstone's soft, girlish
hand as he helped her down from the trap.
My Pa and Mr Johnstone started shifting one of the piles of hay-bales that
stacked to the rafters, until they had revealed a triple-bolted door that looked
new and sturdy, fresh-sawn edges still bright and yellow, and not the weathered
brown of the rest of the barn.
Pa took a key ring out of his vest pocket and unlocked the door, then swung it
open. Each of us shouldered our bags and walked through, in eerie silence, into
a pitch black room.
Pa reached out and pulled the door shut, then there was a sharp click and we
were in 1975.
1975 was a queer sight. Our apartment was a lozenge of silver, spoked into the
hub of a floating null-gee doughnut. Pa did something fancy with his hands and
the walls went transparent, and I swear, I dropped to the floor and hugged the
nubby rubber tiles for all I was worth. My eyes were telling me that we were
hundreds of yards off the ground, and while I'd jumped from the rafters of the
horsebarn into the hay countless times, I suddenly discovered that I was afraid
After that first dizzying glimpse of 1975, I kept my eyes squeezed shut and held
on for all I was worth. After a minute or two of this, my stomach told me that I
wasn't falling, and I couldn't hear any rushing wind, any birdcalls, anything
except Mama and Pa laughing, fit to bust. I opened one eye and snuck a peek. My
folks were laughing so hard they had to hold onto each other to stay up, and
they were leaning against thin air, Pa's back pressed up against nothing at all.
Cautiously, I got to my feet and walked over to the edge. I extended one finger
and it bumped up against an invisible wall, cool and smooth as glass in winter.
"James," said my Pa, smiling so wide that his thick moustache stretched all the
way across his face, "welcome to 1975."
Pa's ambassadorial mission meant that he often spent long weeks away from home,
teleporting in only for Sunday dinner, the stink of aliens and distant worlds
clinging to him even after he washed up. The last Sunday dinner I had with him,
Mama had made mashed potatoes and corn bread and sausage gravy and turkey,
spending the whole day with the wood-fired cooker back in 1898 (actually, it was
1901 by then, but I always thought of it as 1898). She'd moved the cooker into
the horsebarn after a week of wrestling with the gadgets we had in our 1975
kitchen, and when Pa had warned her that the smoke was going to raise questions
in New Jerusalem, she explained that she was going to run some flexible exhaust
hose through the door into 75 and into our apt's air-scrubber. Pa had shook his
head and smiled at her, and every Sunday, she dragged the exhaust pipe through
That night, Pa sat down and said grace, and he was in his shirtsleeves with his
suspenders down, and it almost felt like home -- almost felt like a million
Sunday dinners eaten by gaslight, with a sweaty pitcher of lemonade in the
middle of the table, and seasonal wildflowers, and a stinky cheroot for Pa
afterwards as he tipped his chair back and rested one hand on his belly, as if
he couldn't believe how much Mama had managed to stuff him this time.
"How are your studies coming, James?" he asked me, when the robutler had
finished clearing the plates and clattered away into its nook.
"Very well, sir. We're starting calculus now." Truth be told, I hated calculus,
hated Isaac Newton and asymptotes and the whole smelly business. Even with the
viral learning shots, it was like swimming in molasses for me.
"Calculus! Well, well, well --" this was one of Pa's catch-all phrases, like
"How _about_ that?" or "What do you know?" "Well, well, well. I can't believe
how much they stuff into kids' heads here."
"Yes, sir. There's an awful lot left to learn, yet." We did a subject every two
weeks. So far, I'd done French, Molecular and Cellular Biology, Physics and
Astrophysics, Esperanto, Cantonese and Mandarin, and an alien language whose
name translated as "Standard." I'd been exempted from History, of course, along
with the other kids there from the past -- the Chinese girl from the Ming
Dynasty, the Roman boy, and the Injun kid from South America.
Pa laughed around his cigar and crossed his legs. His shoes were so big, they
looked like canoes. "There surely is, son. There surely is. And how are you
doing with your classmates? Any tussles your teacher will want to talk to me
"No, sir! We're friendly as all get-out, even the girls." The kids in 75 didn't
even notice what they were doing in school. They just sat down at their
workstations and waited to have their brains filled with whatever was going on,
and left at three, and never complained about something being too hard or too
"That's good to hear, son. You've always been a good boy. Tell you what: you
bring home a good report this Christmas, and I'll take you to see Saturn's rings
Mama shot him a look then, but he pretended he didn't see it. He stubbed out his
cigar, hitched up his suspenders, and put on his tailcoat and tophat and
ambassadorial sash and picked up his leather case.
"Good night, son. Good night, Ulla. I'll see you on Wednesday," he said, and
stepped into the teleporter.
That was the last time I ever saw him.
"He died from bad snails?" Oly Sweynsdatter said to me, yet again.
I balled up a fist and stuck it under his nose. "For the last time, yes. Ask me
again, and I'll feed you this."
I'd been back for a month, and in all that time, Oly had skittered around me
like a shy pony, always nearby but afraid to talk to me. Finally, I'd grabbed
him and shook him and told him not to be such a ninny, tell me what was on his
mind. He wanted to know how my Pa had died, over in France. I told him the
reason that Mama and Mr Johnstone and the man from the embassy had worked out
together. Now, I regretted it. I couldn't get him to shut up.
"Sorry, all right, sorry!" he said, taking a step backwards. We were in the
orchard behind the schoolyard, chucking rotten apples at the tree-trunks to
watch them splatter. "Want to hear something?"
"Sure," I said.
"Tommy Benson's sweet on Marta Helprin. It's disgusting. They hold hands -- _in
church_! None of the fellows will talk to him."
I didn't see what the big deal was. Back in 75, we had had a two-week session on
sexual reproduction, like all the other subjects. Most of the kids there were
already in couples, sneaking off to low-gee bounceataria and renting private
cubes with untraceable cash-tokens. I'd even tussled with one girl, Katebe
M'Buto, another exchange student, from United Africa Trading Sphere. I'd picked
her up at her apt, and her father had even shaken my hand -- they grow up fast
in UATS. Of course, I'd never let on to my folks. Pa would've broken an axle.
"That's pretty disgusting, all right," I said, unconvincingly.
"You want to go down to the river? I told Amos and Luke that I'd meet them after
I didn't much feel like it, but I didn't know what else to do. We walked down to
the swimming hole, where some boys were already naked, swimming and horsing
around. I found myself looking away, conscious of their nudity in a way that I'd
never been before -- all the boys in town swam there, all summer long.
I turned my back to the group and stripped down, then ran into the water as
quick as I could.
I paddled around a little, half-heartedly, and then I found myself being pulled
under! My sinuses filled with water and I yelled a stream of bubbles, and closed
my mouth on a swallow of water. Strong hands pulled at my ankles. I kicked out
as hard as I could, and connected with someone's head. The hands loosened and I
shot up like a cork, sputtering and coughing. I ran for the shore, and saw one
of the Allen brothers surfacing, rubbing at his head and laughing. The four
Allen boys lived on a ranch with their parents out by the salt flats, and we
only saw them when they came into town with their folks for supplies. I'd never
liked them, but now, I saw red.
"You pig!" I shouted at him. "You stupid, rotten, pig! What the heck do you
think you were doing?"
The Allens kept on laughing -- I used to know some of their names, but in the
time I'd been in 75, they'd grown as indistinguishable as twins: big, hard boys
with their heads shaved for lice. They pointed at me and laughed. I scooped up a
flat stone from the shore and threw it at the head of the one who'd pulled me
under, as hard as I could.
Lucky for him -- and me! -- I was too angry to aim properly, and the stone hit
him in the shoulder, knocking him backwards. He shouted at me -- it was like a
roar of a wild animal -- and the four brothers charged.
Oly appeared at my side. "Run!" he shouted.
I was too angry. I balled my fists and stood my ground. The first one shot out
of the water towards me, and punched me so hard in the guts, I saw stars. I fell
to the ground, gasping. I looked up at a forest of strong, bare legs, and knew
they'd surrounded me.
"It's the Sheriff!" Oly shouted. The legs disappeared. I struggled to my knees.
Oly collapsed to the ground beside me, laughing. "Did you see the way they ran?
The Sheriff never comes down to the river!"
"Thanks," I said, around gasps, and started to get dressed.
"Any time," he said. "Now, let's do some swimming."
"No, I gotta go home and help Mama," I lied. I didn't feel like going skinny
dipping anymore -- maybe never again.
Oly gave me a queer look. "OK. See you."
I went straight home, pelting down the road as fast as I could, not even looking
where I was going. I let the door slam behind me and took the stairs two at a
time up to the attic ladder, then bolted the trap-door shut behind me and sat in
the dark, with my knees in my chest.
Down below, Mama let out a half-hearted, "James? Is that you?" like she always
did since I came back home. I ignored her, like always, and she stopped worrying
about it, like always.
Pa's last trip had been to the Dalai Lama's court in 1975. The man from the
embassy said that he was going to talk with the monks about a "white-paper that
the two embassies were jointly presenting on the effect of mimetic
ambassadorships on the reincarnated soul." It was all nonsense to me. He'd never
arrived. The teleporter said that it had put him down gentle as you like on the
floor of the Lama's floating castle over the Caspian Sea, but the monks never
And that was that.
It had been a month since our return. I'd ventured out into town and looked up
my chums, and found them so full of gossip that didn't mean anything to me; so
absorbed with games that seemed childish to me; so strange, that I'd retreated
home. I'd prowled around our house like a burglar at first, and when I came back
to the attic, all the numbness that had enveloped me since the man from the
State Department had teleported into our apt melted away and I started bawling.
The attic had always been Pa's domain. He'd come up here with whatever crackpot
invention he'd ordered this month out of a catalog or one of the expensive,
foreign journals he subscribed to, and tinker and swear and hit his thumbnail
and tear his pants on a stray dingus and smoke his cheroots and have a heck of a
The muffled tread of his feet and the distant cursing while I sat in the parlour
downstairs had been the homiest sound I knew. Mama and I would lock eyes every
time a particularly forceful round of hollers shook down, and Mama would get a
little smile and her eyes would crinkle, and I felt like we were sharing a
Now, the attic was my private domain: there was the elixir shelf, full of patent
medicines, hair-tonics, and soothing syrups. There was the bookcase full of wild
theories and fantastic adventure stories. There were the crates full of
dangerous, coal-fired machines -- an automatic clothes-washing-machine, a
cherry-pitter, and other devices whose nature I couldn't even guess at. None of
them had ever worked, but I liked to run my hands over them, feel the smooth
steel of their parts, disassemble and reassemble them. Back in 75, I'd once
tried to take the robutler apart, just to get a look at how it was all put
together, but it was a lost cause -- I couldn't even figure out how to get the
I walked through the cool dark, the only light coming from the grimy attic
window, and fondled each piece. I picked up an oilcan and started oiling the
joints and bearings and axles of each machine in turn. Pa would have wanted to
know that everything was in good working order.
"I think you should be going to school, James," Mama said, at breakfast. I'd
already done my morning chores, bringing in the coal, chopping kindling, taking
care of the milch-cows and making my bed.
I took another forkful of sausage, and a spoonful of mush, chewed, and looked at
"It's time, it's time. You can't spend the rest of your life sulking around
here. Your father would have wanted us to get on with our lives."
Even though I wasn't looking at her when she said this, I knew that her eyes
were bright with tears, the way they always got when she mentioned Pa. His chair
sat, empty, at the head of the table. I had another bite of sausage.
"James Arthur Nicholson! Look at me when I speak to you!"
I looked up, reflexively, as I always did when she used my full name. My eyes
slid over her face, then focused on a point over her left shoulder.
"You're going to school. Today. And I expect to get a good report from Mr
We have two schools in New Jerusalem: the elementary school that was built
twenty years before, when they put in the wooden sidewalks and the town hall;
and the non-denominational Academy that was built just before I left for 1975.
Miss Tannenbaum, a spinster lady with a moustache and a bristling German accent
terrorised the little kids in the elementary school -- I'd been stuck in her
class for five long years. Mr Adelson, who was raised in San Francisco and who
had worked as a roustabout, a telegraph operator and a merchant seaman taught
the Academy, and his wild stories were all Oly could talk about.
He raised one eyebrow quizzically when I came through the door at 8:00 that
morning. He was tall, like my Pa, but Pa had been as big as an ox, and Mr
Adelson was thin and wiry. He wore rumpled pants and a shirt with a wilted
celluloid collar. He had a skinny little beard that made him look like a
gentleman pirate, and used some shiny pomade to grease his hair straight back
from his high forehead. I caught him reading, thumbing the hand-written pages of
a leatherbound volume.
"Why, James Nicholson! What can I do for you, sonny?" New Jerusalem only had but
2,000 citizens, and only a hundred or so in town proper, so of course he knew
who I was, but it surprised me to hear him pronounce my name in his creaky,
"My mother says I have to go to the Academy."
"She does, hey? How do you feel about that?"
I snuck a look at his face to see if he was putting me on, but I couldn't tell
-- he'd raised up his other eyebrow now, and was looking hard at me. There might
have been the beginning of a smile on his face, but it was hard to tell with the
beard. "I guess it don't matter how I feel."
"Oh, I don't know about that. This is a school, not a prison, after all. How old
"That would put you in with the seniors. Do you think you can handle their
course of study? It's half-way through the semester now, and I don't know how
much they taught you when you were over in," he swallowed, "France."
I didn't know what to say to that, so I just stared at my hard, uncomfortable
"How are your maths? Have you studied geometry? Basic algebra?"
"Yes, sir. They taught us all that." And lots more besides. I had the feeling of
icebergs of knowledge floating in my brain, ready to crest the waves and crash
against the walls of my skull.
"Very good. We will be studying maths today in the seniors' class. We'll see how
you do. Is that all right?"
Again, I didn't know if he was really asking, so I just said, "Yes, sir."
"Marvelous. We'll see you at the 8:30 bell, then. And James --" he paused,
waited until I met his gaze. His eyebrows were at rest. "I'm sorry about your
father. I'd met him several times. He was a good man."
"Thank you, sir," I said, unable to look away from his stare.
The first half of the day passed with incredible sloth, as I copied down
problems to my slate and pretended to puzzle over them before writing down the
answer I'd known the minute I saw the question.
At lunch I found a seat at the base of the big willow out front of the school
and unwrapped the waxed paper from the thick ham sandwich Mama had fixed me. I
munched it and conjugated Latin verbs in my head, trying to make the day pass.
Oly and the fellows were roughhousing in the yard, playing follow-the-leader
with Amos Gundersen out front, showing off by walking on his hands and then
springing upright. Amos' mother came from circus people in Russia, and all the
kids in his family wanted to be acrobats when they grew up.
I tried not to watch them.
I was engrossed in a caterpillar that was crawling up my pants-leg when Mr
Adelson cleared his throat behind me. I started, and the caterpillar tumbled to
the ground, and then Mr Adelson was squatting on his long haunches at my side.
"How are you liking your first day, James?" he asked, in his raspy voice.
"It's fine, sir."
"And the work? You're able to keep up with the class?"
"It's not a problem for me. We studied this when I was away."
"Are you bored? Do you need more of a challenge?"
"It's fine, sir." _Unless you want to assign me some large-prime factoring
"Right, then. Don't hesitate to call on me if things are moving too slowly or
too quickly. I mean that."
I snuck another look at him. He seemed sincere.
"Why aren't you playing with your chums?"
"I don't feel like it."
"You just wanted to think?"
"I guess so." Why wouldn't he just leave me alone?
"It's hard to come home, isn't it?"
I stared at my shoes. What did he know about it?
"I've been around the world, you know that? I sailed with a tramp steamer, the
_Slippery Trick_. I saw the naked savages of Polynesia, and the voodoo witches
that the freed slaves of the Caribbean worship, and the coolies pulling
rickshaws in Peking. It was so _hard_ to come home to Frisco, after five years
To my surprise, he sat down next to me, in the dirt and roots at the base of the
tree. "You know, aboard the _Trick_, they called me Runnyguts -- I threw up
every hour for my first month. I was more reliable than the Watch! But they
didn't mean anything by it. When you live with a crew for years, you become a
different person. We'd be out at sea, nothing but water as far as the eye could
see, and we'd be playing cards on-deck. We'd told each other every joke we knew
already, and every story about home, and we knew that deck of cards so well,
which one had salt-water stains on the back and which one turned up at corner
and which one had been torn, and we'd just scream at the sun, so bored! But then
we'd put in to port at some foreign city, and we'd come down the plank in our
best clothes, twenty men who knew each other better than brothers, hard and
brown from months at sea, and it felt like whatever happened in that strange
port-of-call, we'd come out on top."
"And then I came back to the Frisco, and the Captain shook my hand and gave me a
sack of gold and saw me off, and I'd never felt so alone, and I'd never seen a
place so foreign.
"I went back to my old haunts, the saloons where I'd gone for a beer after a
day's work at the docks, and the dance-halls, and the theatres, and I saw my old
chums. That was hard, James."
He stopped then. I found myself saying, "How was it hard, Mr Adelson?"
He looked surprised, like he'd forgotten that he was talking to me. "Well,
James, it's like this: when you're away that long, you get to invent yourself
all over again. Of course, everyone invents themselves as they grow up. Your
chums there --" he gestured at the boys, who were now trying, with varying
success, to turn somersaults, dirtying their school clothes "-- they're
inventing themselves right now, whether they know it or not. The smart one, the
strong one, the brave one, the sad one. It's going on while we watch!
"But when you go away, nobody knows you, and you can be whoever you want. You
can shed your old skin and grow a new one. When we put out to sea, I was just a
youngster, eighteen years old and fresh from my Pa's house. He was a cablecar
engineer, and wanted me to follow in his shoes, get an apprenticeship and join
him there under the hills, oiling the giant pulleys. But no, not me! I wanted to
put out to sea and see the world. I'd never been out of the city, can you
believe that? The first port where I took shore leave was in Haiti, and when I
stepped onto the dock, it was like my life was starting all over again. I got a
tattoo, and I drank hard liquor, and gambled in the saloons, and did all the
things that a man did, as far as I was concerned." He had a faraway look now,
staring at the boys' game without seeing it. "And when I got back on-board, sick
and tired and broke, there was a new kid there, a negro from Port-Au-Prince
who'd signed on to be a cabin boy. His name was Jean-Paul, and he didn't speak a
word of English and I didn't speak a word of French. But I took him under my
wing, James, and acted like I'd been at sea all my life, and showed him the
ropes, and taught him to play cards, and bossed him around, and taught him
English, one word at a time.
"And that became the new me. Every time a new hand signed on, I would be his
teacher, his mentor, his guide.
"And then I came home.
"As far as the folks back home were concerned, I was the kid they'd said
good-bye to five years before. My father thought I was still a kid, even though
I'd fought pirates and weathered storms. My chums wanted me to be the kid I'd
been, and do all the boring, kid things we'd done before I left -- riding the
trolleys, watching the vaudeville shows, fishing off the docks.
"Even though that stuff was still fun, it wasn't _me_, not anymore. I missed the
old me, and felt him slipping away. So, you know what I did?"
"You moved to New Jerusalem?"
"I moved to New Jerusalem. Well, to Salt Lake City, first. I studied with the
Jesuits, to be a teacher, then I saw an ad for a teacher in the paper, and I
packed my bag and caught the next train. And here I am, not the me that came
home from sea, and not the me who I was before I went to sea, but someone in
between, a new me -- teaching, but on dry land, and not chasing dangerous
adventures, but still reading my old log-book and smiling."
We sat for a moment, in companionable silence. Then, abruptly, he checked his
pocket watch and yelped. "Damn! Lunch was over twenty minutes ago!" He leapt to
his feet, as smoothly as a boy, and ran into the schoolhouse to ring the bell.
I folded up the waxed-paper, and thought about this adult who talked to me like
an adult, who didn't worry about swearing, or telling me about his adventures,
and I made my way back to class.
It went better, the rest of that day.
In 75, Pa had almost never been home, but his presence was always around us.
I'd call the robutler out of its closet and have it affix its electrode
fingertips to my temples and juice my endorphins after a hard day at school, and
when I was done, the faint smell of Pa's hair-oil, picked up from the 'trodes
and impossible to be rid of, would cling to me. Or I'd sit down on the oubliette
and find one of Pa's journals from back home, well-thumbed and open to an
article on mental telepathy. We did ESP in school, and it was all about a race
of alien traders who communicated in geometric thought pictures that took
forever to translate. We'd never learned about Magnetism and Astral Projection
and all the other things Pa's journals were full of.
And while I never doubted the things in Pa's journals, I never brought them up
in class, neither. There were lots of different kinds of truth.
"Yes, Mama?" I said, on my way out to chop kindling.
"Did you finish your homework?"
Homework had been some math, and some biology, and some geology. I'd done it
before I left school.
The report cards came out in the middle of December. Mr Adelson sealed them with
wax in thick brown envelopes and handed them out at the end of the day. Sealing
them was a dirty trick -- it mean a boy would have to go home not knowing
whether to expect a whipping or an extra slice of pie, and the fellows were as
nervous as long-tailed cats in a rocking-chair factory when class let out. For
once, there was no horseplay afterwards.
I came home and tossed the envelope on the kitchen table without a moment's
worry. I'd aced every test, I'd done every take-home assignment, I'd led the
class, in a bored, sleepy way, regurgitating the things they'd stuck in my brain
I went up to the attic and started reading one of Pa's adventure stories,
_Tarzan of the Apes_, by the Frenchman, Jules Verne. Pa had all of Verne's
books, each of them crisply autographed on the inside cover. He'd met Verne on
one of his diplomatic missions, and the two had been like two peas in a pod, to
hear him tell of it -- they both subscribed to all the same crazy journals.
I was reading my favorite part, where Tarzan meets the man in the balloon, when
Mama's voice called from downstairs. "James Arthur Nicholson! Get your behind
down here _now_!"
I jumped like I was stung and rattled down the attic stairs so fast I nearly
broke my neck and then down into the parlour, where Mama was holding my report
card and looking fit to bust.
"Yes, Mama?" I said. "What is it?"
She handed me the report card and folded her arms over her chest. "Explain that,
mister. Make it good."
I read the card and my eyes nearly jumped out of my head. The rotten so-and-so
had given me F's all the way down, in every subject. Below, in his seaman's
hand, he'd written, "James' performance this semester has disappointed me
gravely. I would like it very much if I could meet with you and he, Mrs
Nicholson, at your earliest convenience, to discuss his future at the Academy.
Signed, Rbt. Adelson."
Mama grabbed my ear and twisted. I howled and dropped the card. Before I knew
what was happening, she had me over her knee and was paddling my bottom with her
open hand, hard.
"I don't" -- whack -- "know _what_" -- whack -- "you think" -- whack -- "you're
doing, James." -- whack -- "If your _father_" -- whack, _whack_ -- "were here,"
-- whack -- "he'd switch you" -- whack -- "within an inch of your life." And she
gave me a load more whacks.
I was too stunned even to cry or howl. Pa had only beat me twice in all the time
I'd known him. Mama had _never_ beat me. My bottom ached distantly, and I felt
tears come to my eyes.
"Well, what do you have to say for yourself?"
"Mama, it's a mistake --" I began.
"You're durn right!" she said.
"No, really! I did all my homework! I passed all the exams! I showed 'em to you!
You saw 'em!" The unfairness of it made my heart hammer in time to the throbbing
of my backside.
Mama's breath fumed angrily out of her nose. "You go straight to your room and
_stay there_. We're going to see Mr Adelson first thing tomorrow morning."
"What about my chores?" I said.
"Oh, don't worry about that. You'll have _plenty_ of chores to do when I let you
I went to my room and stripped down, and lay on my tummy and cracked my window
so the icy winter air blew over my backside. I cried a vale of tears, and rained
down miserable, mean curses on everyone: Mama, Pa, and especially the lying,
snaky, backstabbing Runnyguts Adelson.
Mama didn't get any less mad through the night, but when she came to my door at
cock-crow, she seemed to be holding it in better. My throat and eyes were sore
as sandpaper from crying, and Mama gave me exactly five minutes to wash up and
dress before dragging me out to the horsebarn. She'd already hitched up our team
and refused my hand when I tried to help her up.
I'd been angry and righteous when I woke, but seeing Mama's towering, barely
controlled fury changed my mood to dire terror. I stared out at the trees and
farms as we rode into town, feeling like a condemned man being taken to the
Mama pulled up out front of the Academy and marched me around back to the
teacher's cottage. She rapped on the door and waited, blowing clouds of steam
out of her nose into the frosty morning air.
Mr Adelson answered the door in shirtsleeves and suspenders, unshaved and
bleary. His hair, normally neatly oiled and slicked, stuck out like frayed
broom-straw. The muscles on his thin arms stood out like snakes. He blinked at
us, standing on his doorstep. "Mrs Nicholson!" he said.
"Mr Adelson," my mother said. "We've come to discuss James' report card."
Mr Adelson smoothed his hair back and stepped aside. "Please, come in. Can I
offer you some coffee?"
"No, thank you," Mama said, primly, standing in his foyer. He held out his hand
for her coat and kerchief and she handed them to him. I took off my coat and
struggled out of my boots. He took them both and put them away in a closet.
"I'm going to have some coffee. Are you sure I can't offer you a cup?"
"No. Thank you, all the same."
"As you wish." He disappeared down the dark hallway, and Mama and I found our
way into his tiny parlour. Books were stacked every which where, dusty and
precarious. Mama and I sat down in a pair of cushioned chairs, and Mr Adelson
came in, holding two mugs of coffee. He set one down next to Mama on the floor,
then smacked himself in the forehead. "You said no, didn't you? Sorry, I'm not
quite awake yet. Well, leave it there -- there's cream in it, maybe the cat will
He settled himself onto another chair and sipped at his coffee. "Let's start
over, shall we? Hello, Mrs Nicholson. Hello, James. I understand you're here to
discuss James' report card."
Mama sat back a little in her chair and let hint of a sardonic smile show on her
face. "Yes, we are. Forgive my coming by unannounced."
"Oh, it's nothing."
Mr Adelson drank more coffee. Mama smoothed her skirts. I kicked my feet against
the rungs of my chair. Finally, it was too much for me. "What's the big idea,
anyway?" I said, glaring daggers at him. "I don't deserve no F!"
"Any F," Mr Adelson corrected. "Why don't you think so?"
"Well, because I did all my homework. I gave the right answers in class. I
passed all the tests. It ain't fair!"
"Not fair," my Mama corrected, gently. She was staring distractedly at Mr
"What you say is true enough, James. What grade do you suppose you should've
"Why, an A! An A-plus! Perfect!" I said, glaring again at him, daring him to say
"Is that what an A-plus is for, James? Perfection?"
"Sure," I said, opening my mouth without thinking.
Mama shifted her stare to me. She was looking even more thoughtful.
"Why do you suppose you go to school?"
"'Cause Mama says I have to," I said, sullenly.
"James!" Mama said.
"Oh, I suppose it's to learn things," I said.
Mr Adelson smiled and nodded, the way he did when one of the students got the
right answer in class. "Well?"
"Well, what?" I said.
"What did you learn this semester?"
"Why, everything you taught! Geometry! Algebra! Latin! Geography! Biology!
"I see," he said. "James, what's the formula for determining the constant in the
second derivative of an equation?"
I knew that one: it was one of Newton's dirty calculus proofs. "It's a trick
question. There's no way to get the constant of second derivative."
"Exactly right," he said.
"Yes," I said, and folded my arms across my chest.
"Where did you learn that?"
"In --" I started to say 1975, but caught myself. "In France."
"Yes," I said. The fingers of dawn crept across my comprehension. "Oh."
Mama smiled at me.
"But it's not fair! So what if I already knew everything before I started? I
still did all the work."
"Why are you in school, James?" Mr Nicholson asked me again.
"Well, then I think you'd better start learning something, don't you? You're the
brightest student in the class. You're certainly smarter than I am -- I'm just
an old sailor struggling along with the rest of the class. But you, you've _got
it_. You've been marking time in class all semester, and I daresay you haven't
learned a single thing since you started. That's why you got F's."
"Mr Adelson," Mama said. "Am I to understand that James performed all his
It was Mr Adelson's turn to squirm. "Yes, but madam, you have to understand --"
Mama waved aside his objections. "If James satisfactorily completed all the work
assigned to him, then I think he should have a grade that reflects that, don't
you?" She took a sip of her coffee.
"Yes, well --"
"However, you do have a point. I didn't send my son to your school so that he
could mark time, as you put it. I sent him there to learn. To be _taught_. Have
you taught him anything, Mr Adelson?"
Mr Adelson looked so all-fired sad, I forgave him the report card and spoke up.
Mama swiveled her head to me. "Really?"
"Yes. He taught me what I was at school for. Just now."
"I see," Mama said. "This is very good coffee, Mr Adelson."
"Thank you," he said, and sipped at his.
"James," Mr Adelson said. "You've learned your first lesson. What do you propose
your second should be?"
"I dunno," I said, and went back to kicking the rungs of the chair.
"What is it that you have been doing since you came back to town, son?" he
"Hanging around in the attic, mostly. Reading. Tinkering. Like my Pa."
"My husband's machines and journals are up there," Mama explained.
"And his books," I said.
"Books?" Mr Adelson looked suddenly interested. "What kind of books?"
"Adventure stories. Stevenson. Wells. Some of it's in French. We have all of
"Well, perhaps that can be your next assignment. I would like to see an original
composition of no less than twenty pages, discussing each work of Verne's,
charting his literary progress. Due January fifth, please."
"Twenty pages!" I said. "But it's the holidays!"
"Very well. Whatever length the piece turns out is fine. But be sure you do
justice to each work."
By the time I got through with the assignment, it was thirty-eight pages long. I
never thought I could write that much but it kept on coming, new thoughts about
each book, each scene, the different worlds Verne had built: the fantastic
slopes of Barsoom, the sinister Island of Dr Moreau. . . Each one spawned a new
insight. I felt like the Verne's detective, Sherlock Holmes, assembling all of
the seemingly insignificant details into some kind of coherent picture, finding
the improbable links between the wildly different stories the Frenchman told.
Mama was thrilled to see me working, papers spread out all around me on the
kitchen table -- I could've used Pa's study, but it felt like an invasion,
somehow -- writing until my wrists cramped. She let me get away without doing my
chores, rising early to milk the cow, bringing in the eggs from the henhouse,
even chopping the kindling. Just so long as I was writing, she was happy to let
me go on shirking my responsibilities.
Even on Christmas Eve, I was too distracted to really enjoy the smells of goose
and ham and the stuffing Mama spent days preparing. I was still writing when she
told me to go change and set the table for three.
"We're having Mr Johnston to dinner," she said.
I made a face. Mr Johnston was the only one in town that I could have talked to
about my time in 1975, but I never did. He had a way of bossing a fellow around
while seeming to be nice to him. He still ran Pa's store, using ladders to reach
the high shelves that Pa had just plucked things off of. I had to see him when
Mama sent me on errands there, but I made sure that I left as quickly as I
could. Mama kept saying that I should ask him for a job, but I was pretty good
at changing the subject whenever it came up.
I put away my papers and changed into my Sunday clothes. I'd been hinting to
Mama lately that a boy just wasn't complete without a puppy, so I put an extra
shine on my shoes and said a quick prayer that I wouldn't find socks and
picture-books under the tree.
Mr Johnstone arrived with a double-armload of gifts. Well, he _did_ run my Pa's
store, after all, so he could get things wholesale. I took his parcels from him
and set them under the tree. Then that dandified sissy actually _kissed_ my Mama
on the cheek, lifting a sprig of mistletoe up with one hand. When Pa and Mama
stood together, she'd barely come up to his shoulder, while Mr Johnstone had to
stand on tiptoe to get the mistletoe over their heads. "Merry Christmas, Ulla,"
She took his hands and said, "Merry Christmas, James."
I wanted to be sick.
Mr Johnstone had a whiskey in our parlour before we ate, sitting in my Pa's
chair, smoking a cigar from my Pa's humidor. Mama ordered me to keep him company
while she set out the meal.
"Do they call you Jimmy?" he asked me, staring down his long, pointy nose.
"No, sir. James."
"It's a fine name, isn't it? Served me well, man and boy." He made a face that
was supposed to be funny, like he'd bit into a lemon.
"I like it fine, sir."
"Are you having any problems adjusting, now that you're home? Finding it hard to
relate to the other fellows?"
"You don't find it strange, after seeing 1975?"
"No, sir. It's home."
"Ha!" he said, as though I'd said something profound. "I guess it is, at that.
Say, why don't you come by the store some time? I just got some samples from a
new candy company in Oregon, and I need to get an unbiased opinion before I
order." He gave me a pinched smile, like he thought he was Santa Claus.
"Mama doesn't like me eating sweets," I said, and stared at my reflection in my
Mama rescued me by coming into the parlour then, looking young and pretty in her
best dress. "Dinner is served, gentlemen."
We followed her into the dining room, and Mr Johnstone took my Pa's seat at the
head of the table and carved the goose. Even though the bird was brown and
juicy, I found I didn't have any appetite.
"I have word from Pondicherry," Mr Johnstone said, as he poured gravy over his
second helping of mashed potatoes.
"Yes?" Mama said.
"Who's he?" I asked.
"Your father's successor," Mr Johnstone said. "A British officer from New Delhi.
A fat little man, and awfully full of himself."
I repressed a snort. For my money Mr Johnstone was as full of himself as one man
could be. I couldn't imagine a blacker kettle.
"He says that Nussbaum, from 1952 New York, has rolled back relations with
extraterrestrials by fifty years. He sold a Centurian half a million defective
umbrellas from his brother-in-law's factory. The New Yorkers are all defending
him. _Caveat emptor_."
"I never could keep track of who was friendly and who wasn't," Mama said. "It
was all Greek to me. Politics."
Mr Johnstone opened his mouth to explain, but Mama held up one hand. "No, no, I
don't _want_ to understand. Les used to lecture me about this from dawn to
dusk." She smiled a little sad smile and stared off at the cabbage-roses on our
dining-room walls. Mr Johnstone put one hand over hers.
"He was a good man, Ulla."
Mama stood and smoothed her skirts. "I'll get dessert."
I didn't get a puppy. Mr Johnstone gave me an air-rifle that I was sure Mama
would have fits over, but she just smiled. She gave me a beautiful fountain-pen
and a green blotter and a ream of creamy, thick paper.
The pen made the most beautiful, jet-black marks, and the paper drank it up like
a thirsty man in the desert. I recopied my essay the next day, sitting with Mama
in the parlour while she darned socks. Mr Johnstone had given her a tin of
cosmetics from Paris, that he'd ordered in special. I'd heard Mama say that only
dancehall girls wore makeup, but she blushed when he gave it to her. I gave her
a carving I'd done, of the robutler we'd had in 75. I'd whittled it out of a
block of pine, and sanded it and oiled it until it was as smooth as silk.
Oly Sweynsdatter came by after supper and asked if I wanted to go out and play
with the fellows. To my surprise, I found I did. We had a grand afternoon
pelting each other with snow-balls, a game that turned into a full-scale war, as
all the older boys back from high-school came out and joined in, and then,
later, all the men, even the Sheriff and Mr Adelson. I never laughed so much in
all my life, even when I got one right in the ear.
Mr Adelson led a charge of adults against the fort that most of the Academy boys
were hiding behind, but I saw him planning it and started laying in ammunition
long before they made their go, and we sent them back with their tails between
their legs. I hit him smack in the behind with one ball as he dove for cover.
Oly's mother gave us both good, Svenska hot cocoa afterwards, with fresh whipped
cream, and Oly and I exchanged gifts. He gave me a tin soldier, a Confederate
who was caught in the act of falling over backwards, clutching his chest. I gave
him my best marble. We followed his mother around their house, recounting the
adventures in the snow until she told me it was time for me to go home.
School started again, and I went in early the first day to turn in my paper. Mr
Adelson took it without comment and scanned the first few paragraphs. "Thank
you, James, I think this will do nicely. I'll have it graded for you in the
I met Oly out in the orchard, where he was chopping kindling for the school's
stove, a job we all took turns at. "I hear you might be getting a new Pa for
Christmas," he said. He gave me a smile that meant something, but I couldn't
"What is that supposed to mean?" I asked.
"My Mama says your Mama had old man Johnstone over for Christmas dinner. And the
widow Ott told my Mama that she'd connected one or two calls between your house
and the store every day in the last month. My Mama says that Johnstone is
courting your Mama."
"Mrs Ott isn't supposed to talk about the calls she connects," I said, as my
mind reeled. "It's like a telegraph operator: it's a confidential trust." Mr
Adelson had told me that, once when he was telling me stories about his life
before he went to sea.
"So, is it true?"
"No!" I said, surprising myself with my vehemence. "My Mama just didn't want him
to be alone at Christmas."
Oly swung the axe a few more times. "Well, sure. But what about all the
"That's business. The store is still partly ours. Mama's just looking after our
"If you say so," he said.
I shoved him hard. I drew a line in the snow with my toe. "I _do_ say so. Step
across the line if you say otherwise!"
Oly got to his feet and looked at me. "I don't want to fight with you, James. I
was just tellin' you what my Mama said."
"Well, your Mama ought to mind her own business," I said, baiting him.
That did it. He stepped over and popped me one, right in the nose. Oly and I had
been chums since we could walk, and we'd had a few fights in our days but this
time it was different. I was so _angry_ at him, at my Mama, at my Pa, at New
Jerusalem, and we just kept on swinging at each other until Mr Adelson came out
to ring the bell and separated us. My nose was sore and I was limping, and I'd
torn Oly's jacket and bent his fingers back, so he cradled his hand in the crook
of his arm.
"Boys!" Mr Adelson said. "What the hell do you think you're doing? You're
supposed to be friends."
His language shocked me, but I was still plenty angry. "He's no friend of mine!"
"That's fine with me," Oly said and glared at me.
The other kids were milling around, and Mr Adelson gave us both a look that
could melt steel, then rang the bell.
I could hardly concentrate in class that day. My Mama getting married? A new Pa?
It couldn't be true. But in my mind, I kept seeing my Mama and that Johnstone
kissing under the mistletoe, and him sitting in my Pa's chair, drinking his
Oly's desk was next to mine, and he kept shooting me dirty looks. Finally, I
leaned over and whispered, "Cut it out, you idiot."
Oly said, "You're the idiot. I think you got your brains scrambled in France,
"I'll scramble your brains!"
"Gentlemen," said Mr Adelson. "Do you have something you'd like to share with
"No sir," we said together, and exchanged glares.
"James, perhaps you'd like to come up to the front and finish the lesson?"
"Sir?" I said, looking at the blackboard. He'd been going through quadratics, an
elaborate first-principles proof.
"I believe you know this already, don't you? Come up to the front and finish the
Slowly, I got up from my desk, leaving my slate on my desk, and made my way up
to the front. Some of the kids giggled. I picked up a piece of chalk from the
chalk-well, and started to write on the board.
Mr Adelson walked back to my seat and sat down. I stopped and looked over my
shoulder, and he gave me a little scooting gesture that meant go on. I did, and
by the end of the hour, I found that I was enjoying myself. I stopped frequently
for questions, and erased the board over and over again, filling it with steady
columns of numbers and equations. I stopped noticing Mr Adelson in my seat, and
when he stood and thanked me and told us we could eat our lunches, it seemed
like no time at all had passed.
Mr Adelson looked up from my essay. "James, I'd like to have a chat with you.
Stay behind, please."
"Sit," he said, offering me the chair at his desk. He sat on one of the
front-row desks, and stared at me for a long moment.
"What was that mess this morning all about, James?" he asked.
"Oly and I had an argument," I said, sullenly.
"I could see that. What was it about, if you don't mind my asking?"
"He said something about my Mama," I said.
"I see," he said. "Well, having met your mother, I feel confident in saying that
she's more than capable of defending herself. Am I right?"
"Yes, sir," I said.
"Then we won't see a repeat?"
"No, sir," I said. I didn't plan on talking to Oly ever again.
"Then we'll say no more about it. Now, about this morning's lesson: you did very
"It was a dirty trick," I said.
He grinned like a pirate. "I suppose it was. I wouldn't have played it on you if
I didn't have every confidence in your abilities, though." He leaned across and
picked up my essay from his desk. "It was this that convinced me, really. This
is as good as anything I've seen in scholarly journals. I've half a mind to send
it to the _Idler_."
"I'm just a kid!"
"You're an extraordinary boy. I'm tempted to let you teach all the classes, and
take up whittling."
He said it so deadpan, I couldn't tell if he was kidding me. "Oh, you can't do
that! I'm not nearly ready to take over."
He laughed. "You're readier than you think, but I expect the town council would
stop my salary unless I did _some_ of the work around here. Still, I think
that's the most active I've seen you since you came to my class, and I'm running
out of ideas to keep you busy. Maybe I'll keep you teaching maths. I'll give you
my lesson plan to take home before school's out."
Mr Adelson gave me a stack of papers tied up with twine after he dismissed the
class for the day. I went home and did my chores, then unwrapped the parcel in
the parlour. The lesson plans were there, laid out, day by day, and in the
centre of them was a smaller parcel, wrapped in coloured paper. "Merry
Christmas," was written across it, in his hand.
I opened it, and found a slim book. "War of the Worlds," by Verne. For some
reason, it rang a bell. I thought that maybe it had been on our bookcase in 75,
but somehow, it hadn't made it back home with us. I opened it, and read the
inscription he'd written: "From one traveller to another, Merry Christmas."
I forced myself to read the lesson plans for the next month before I allowed
myself to start the Verne, and once I started, I found I couldn't stop. Mama had
to drag me away for dinner.
My trip back to 1975 wasn't planned, but it wasn't an accident, either. We'd
gotten a new load of hay in for our team, and Mama added stacking it in the
horsebarn to my chores. I'd been consciously avoiding the horsebarn since Pa had
disappeared. Every time I looked at it, I felt a little hexed, a little
But Mama had a philosophy: a boy should face up to his fears. She'd been
terrified of spiders when she was a girl, and she told me that she had made a
point of picking up every spider she saw and letting it crawl around on her
face. After a year of that, she said, she never met a spider that frightened
Mama had been sending me to the store more and more, too, and having Mr
Johnstone over for dinner every Friday night. She knew I didn't like him one
little bit, and she said that I would just have to learn to live with what I
didn't like, and if that was the only thing I learned from her, it would be
I preferred the horsebarn.
I worked close to the door the first day, which is no way to do it, of course:
if you blocked the door, it just made it harder to get at the back when the time
came. The way to do it is to first clear out whatever hay is left over, move it
out to the pasture, and then fill in from the back forward.
Mama told me so, that first night, when she came out to inspect my work. "You
sure must love working out here," she said. "If you do it that way, you'll be
out here stacking for twice as long. Well, you have your fun, but I still expect
you to be getting your homework and regular chores done. Come in and clean up
for supper now."
I jammed the pitchfork into a bale, and washed for supper.
The next afternoon, I resolved to do it right. I moved the bales I'd stacked up
by the door to a corner, and then started cleaning out the back. Before long,
I'd uncovered the door into 1975. "James," Mama called, from the house.
I took a long look at the door. The wood on the edges had aged to the
silvery-brown of the rest of the barn-boards, and it looked like it had been
there forever. I could hardly remember a time when it wasn't there.
I went in for supper.
The next morning, I picked up my lunch and my schoolbooks, kissed Mama good-bye,
and walked out. I stood on our porch for a long time, staring at the horsebarn.
I remembered the brave explorers in Verne's books. I looked over my shoulder, at
the closed door of our house, then walked slowly to the horsebarn. I swung the
door open, then walked to the back. The triple-bolts had rusted somewhat and
took real shoving to slide back. One of them was stubborn, so I picked up the
rake and pried it back with the handle, thinking of how ingenious that was.
I gave the door my shoulder and shoved, and it swung back, complaining on its
hinges. On the other side was the still-familiar dark of our 1975 apartment. I
stepped into it, and closed the door behind me.
"Lights," I said, and they came on.
The old place was just like the day we left it. It wasn't even dusty, and as I
heard the familiar trundle of the robutler, I knew why. My Pa's easy chair sat
in the parlour, with a print-out of the day's _Salt Lake City Bugler_ folded on
the side-table. I walked to one wall and laid my palm against it, the familiar
cool glassy stuff it was made of. "Window," I said, and wiped a line across the
wall. Wherever my hand wiped went transparent. It was a sunny day in 1975 --
1980, by then, but it would be 75 in my mind forever. Under the dome, Greater
Salt Lake was warm and tranquil. I saw boys my age scooting around in jet-packs,
Pa liked to open a big, square window when he came home, and sit in his easy
chair and smoke a stinky cigar and read the paper and cluck over it -- "Well,
well, well," he'd say, and "How _about_ that?" Sometimes, he'd have a tumbler of
whiskey. He'd given me some, once, and the stuff had burned like turpentine and
I swore I wouldn't try it again for a long, long time.
I sat in Pa's easy chair and snapped up the newspaper, the way he used to.
"Panorama," I said, and Pa's square window opened before me. "Whiskey," I said,
and "Cigar," because I was never one for half-measures. The robutler trundled
over to me with a tumbler and a White Owl in its hover-field. I plucked them
out. Cautiously, I put the cigar between my lips. The robutler extruded a long,
snaky arm with a flame, and lit it. I took a deep puff, and coughed
convulsively. Unthinking, I took a gulp of whiskey. I felt like my lungs had
I finished both the whiskey and the cigar before I got up, taking cautious puffs
and tiny sips, forcing myself.
My head swam, and nausea nearly drowned me. I staggered into the WC, and hung my
head in the oubliette for an eternity, but nothing was coming up. I moved into
my old bedroom and splayed out on my bed, watching the ceiling spin. "Lights," I
managed to croak, and the room went dark.
When I woke in the morning, the walls were at half-opacity, the normal 0700
schedule, and I dragged myself out of bed.
The robutler had extruded the table and set out my breakfast, ham and eggs and a
big bulb of milk. One look at it sent me over the edge, and I left a trail of
sick all the way to the WC.
When I was done, I was as wrung-out as a washcloth. My head pounded. The
robutler was quietly cleaning up my mess. I started to order it to clear away
breakfast, but discovered that I was miraculously hungry. I ate everything on
the table and seconds, besides, and had the robutler juice my temples and clear
away my headache. I dialed the walls to full transparency, and watched the
traffic go by.
The robutler maneuvered itself into my field of vision and flashed a clock on
its chest-plate: 0800 0800 0800. It was my old school-alarm. It snapped me back
to reality. My Mama was going to whip me raw! She must've been worried sick.
I stood up and ran for the door. It was closed. I punched my code into its
panel, and waited. Nothing happened. I calmed myself and punched it again. Still
nothing. After trying it a hundred times, I convinced myself that it had been
I summoned the robutler and asked it for the code. Its chest-panel lit up: BAD
That's when I started to really worry. I was near to tears when I remembered the
emergency override. I punched it in.
I think I started crying around then. I was stuck in 1975!
I'm not a stupid little kid. I didn't spend much time pewling. Instead, I went
to the phone and dialed the police. The screen stayed blank. Feeling like I was
in a dream, I went to the teleporter and dialed for my old school and stepped
in. I failed to teleport.
Reality sank in.
All outside services to the apartment had been shut off when we moved out. The
only things that still worked were the ones that ran off our reactor, a squat
armoured box on the apartment's underbelly. The door in New Jerusalem worked,
but on the 1975 side, it needed to communicate with the central office to
approve any passage.
I thought about sitting tight and waiting. Mama would be sick with worry, and
would check the barn eventually and see the shot bolts. She'd speak to Mr
Johnstone, who would send a telegram to Paris, and they would relay the message
to 1975, and _voila_, I'd be rescued. I'd get the whipping of my life, and do
extra chores until I was seventy, but it was better than starving to death after
the apartment's pantry ran out. I felt hungry just thinking about it.
Still, there was a better way. The null-gee doughnut that our apartment was
spoked into had a supply of escape-jumpers, single-use jet-packs with a simple
transponder that screamed for help on all the emergency channels. I could ride
one of these down into Greater Salt Lake, wait for the police. The more I
thought about this plan, the better it sounded. Better, anyway, than sitting
around like a fairytale princess, waiting for rescue. In my mind, I was the
rescuing type, not the kind that needed rescuing.
Besides, there wasn't much better than riding around in one of those jet-packs.
I cycled the emergency lock into the doughnut, unracked a pack and a jumpsuit
that looked like it would fit me, and suited up. The packed whined as it powered
up and ran through its diagnostics. I checked the idiot-lights to make sure they
were all green, feeling like a real man of action, then I stepped into the
exterior lock and jumped, arms and legs streamlined, toes pointed.
The jet-pack coughed to life and kicked me gently, then started lowering me to
the ground. The emergency beacon's idiot-light came on, and I heaved a sigh of
relief and got comfortable.
The flight was peaceful and dreamlike, a slow descent over the gleaming metal
city. I was so engrossed with the view that I didn't see the packjackers until
they were already on me. They hit me high and low, two kids about my age with
tricked-out custom jet-packs with their traffic beacons broken off. One snagged
my knees and hugged them to his chest, while the other took me at the armpits. A
voice shouted in my ear: "I'm cutting your pack loose. This is a very, very
sharp knife, and when I'm done, I'll be the only thing holding you up. _Don't
I didn't even have the chance to squirm. By the time the speech was finished, I
was separated from my pack, and I spun over upside-down, and watched it continue
its descent, straps dangling in the wind. My hair hung down, and blood filled my
head, reawakening my headache. Reflexively, I twisted to get a look at my
kidnappers, but stopped immediately as I felt their grips loosen. I squeezed my
eyes shut and prayed.
The three of us dove fast and hard, and I tasted that second helping of
breakfast again before we leveled off. I risked a peek, then squeezed my eyes
shut again. We were speeding through the lower levels of Greater Salt Lake, the
unmanned freight corridors, impossibly claustrophobic, and at our speed,
We cornered tightly so many times that I lost count, and then we slowed to a
stop. They dumped me to the ground, steel traction-plate. The wind was knocked
out of me, and I was barely conscious of the hands that untabbed my jumpsuit,
then began methodically turning out the pockets of my clothes.
"What the hell are you wearing, kid?" one of them asked. It was the same one
who'd warned me about squirming. Hearing his voice a second time, I realised
that he was younger than I was, maybe ten or eleven. Even then, it didn't occur
to me to fight back -- he had a knife sharp enough to cut through the safety
strapping on my pack.
"Clothes. I'm from 1898 -- my Pa's an ambassador. I don't have any money." I
struggled into a sitting position, and was knocked onto my back again.
"Stay down and you won't get hurt," the same voice said. It was young enough
that I couldn't tell if it was a boy or a girl. Small hands pressed into my
eyes. "No peeking, now."
Another set of hands systematically rifled my coat and pants, then cut them
loose and gave the same treatment to my underpants and shirt. I blushed as they
were cut loose, too.
"You really don't have any money!" the voice said.
"I said so, didn't I?"
The voice said a dirty word that would've gotten it beaten black-and-blue back
home, and then the hands were gone. I looked up just in time to see two small
figures jetting away upwards.
I was naked, sitting on a catwalk above a freight corridor, three-quarters of a
century and God-knew-how-many miles from home. I didn't cry. I was too worried
to cry. I kicked my ruined clothes down into the freight corridor and pulled on
Some hero I was!
It was hard work, climbing staircase after staircase, up to the shopping levels.
By the time I reached a level where I could see the sky, I was dripping with
sweat and my headache had returned.
Foot traffic was light, but what there was pretty frightening. I'd gone walking
in 75 before of course, but Greater Salt Lake was a big place, and there were
parts of it that an Ambassador's son would never get to see.
This was one of them. The shopfronts were all iris-open airlocks, and had been
painted around to look like surprised mouths, or eyes, or, in one fascinating
case, a woman's private parts. Mostly, they were betting shops, or bars, or
low-rent bounceaterias. Even in 1975, the Saints had some influence in Salt
Lake, and the bars and brothels were pretty shameful places, where no
respectable person would be caught.
The other pedestrians on the street were mostly off-worlders, either spacers in
uniform or extees. In some cases, it was hard to tell which was which.
I kind of slunk along, sticking to the walls, hands in my pockets. I kept my
eyes down, except when I was looking around for a public phone. After several
blocks, I realised that no one was paying any attention to me, and I took my
hands out of my pockets. The sun filtered down over me, warm through the big
dome, and I realised that even though I'd gotten myself stuck in 75, been
'jacked, and left in the worst neighbourhood in the whole State, I'd landed on
my feet. The thought made me smile. Another kid, say Oly, wouldn't have coped
nearly as well.
I still hadn't spied a public phone. I figured that the taprooms would have a
phone, otherwise, how could a drunk call his wife and tell her he was going to
be late coming home? I picked a bar, whose airlock was painted to look like a
brick tunnel, and walked in.
The airlock irised shut behind me and I blinked in the gloom. My nose was
assaulted with sickly sweet incense, and stale liquor, and cigar smoke.
The place was tiny, and crowded with dented metal tables and chairs that were
bolted to the floorplates. A woman stood behind the bar, looking hard and brassy
and cheap, watching a soap opera on her vid. A spacer sat in one corner, staring
at his bulb of beer.
The bartender looked up. "Get lost, kid," she said. "No minors allowed."
"Sorry, ma'am," I said. "I just wanted to use your telephone. I was packjacked,
and I need to call the police."
The bartender turned back to her soap opera. "Go peddle it somewhere else,
sonny. The phone's for customers only."
"Please," I said. "My father's an ambassador, from 1898? I don't have any money,
and I'm stuck here. I won't be a minute."
The spacer looked up from his drink. "Get lost, the lady said," he slurred at
"I'll buy something," I said.
"You just said you don't have any money," the bartender said.
"I'll pay for it when the police get here. The Embassy will cover it."
"No credit," she said.
"You're not going to let me use your phone?" I said.
"That's right," she said, still staring at her vid.
"I'm a stranger, an ambassador's son, who's been robbed. A kid. Stuck here,
broke and alone, and you won't let me use your phone to call the police?"
"That's about the size of things," she said.
"Well, I guess my Pa was right. The whole world went to hell after 1914. No
manners, no human decency."
"You're breaking my heart," she said.
"Fine. Be that way. Send me back out on the street, deny me a favour that won't
cost you one red cent, just because I'm a stranger."
"Shut _up_, kid, for chrissakes," the spacer said. "I'll stand him to a Coke, if
that's what it takes. Just let him use the phone and get out of here. He's
giving me a headache."
"Thank you, sir," I said, politely.
The bartender switched her vid over to phone mode, poured me a Coke, and handed
me the vid.
The policeman who showed up a few minutes later stuck me in the back of his
cruiser, listened to my story, scanned my retinas, confirmed my identity, and
retracted the armour between the back and front seats.
"I'll take you to the station house," he said. "We'll contact your Embassy, let
them handle it from there."
"What about the kids who 'jacked me?" I asked.
The cop turned the jetcar's conn over to wire-fly mode and turned around. "You
got any description?"
"Well, they had really nice packs on, with the traffic beacons snapped off. One
was red, and I think the other was green. And they were young. Ten or eleven."
The cop punched at his screen. "Kid," he said, "I got over three million minors
eight to eleven, flying packs less than a year old. The most popular colour is
red. Second choice, green. Where would you like me to start? Alphabetically?"
"Sorry, sir, I didn't realise."
"Sure," he said. "Whatever."
"I guess I'm not thinking very clearly. It's been a long day."
The cop looked over to me and smiled. "I guess it has, at that. Don't worry,
kid, we'll get you home all right."
They gave me a fresh jumpsuit, sat me on a bench, called the embassy, and forgot
about me. A long, boring time later, a fat man with walrus moustaches and ruddy
skin showed up.
"On your feet, lad," he said. "I'm Pondicherry, your father's successor. You've
made quite a mess of things, haven't you?" He had a clipped, British accent,
with a hint of something else. I remembered Mr Johnstone saying he'd been in
India. He wore a standard unisex jumpsuit, with his ambassadorial sash overtop
of it. He looked ridiculous.
"Sorry to have disturbed you, sir," I said.
"I'm sure you are," he said. "Come along, we'll see about fixing this mess."
He used the station's teleporter to bring me to his apartment. It was as
ridiculous as his uniform, and in the same way. He'd taken the basic elegant
simplicity of a standard 1975 unit and draped all kinds of silly trophies and
models overtop of it: lions' heads and sabers and model ships and framed medals
and savage masks and dolls.
"You may look, but not touch, do you understand me?" he said, as we stepped out
of the teleporter.
"Yes, sir," I said. If anyone else had said it, I would have been offended, but
coming from this puffed-up pigeon, it didn't sting much.
He went to a vid and punched impatiently at the screen while I prowled the
apartment. The bookcase was full of old friends, books by the Frenchman, of
course, and more, with strange names like Wells and Burroughs and Shelley. I
looked over a long, stone-headed spear, and the curve of an elephant's tusk, and
a collection of campaign ribbons and medals under glass. I returned to the
bookcase: something had been bothering me. There, there it was: "War of the
Worlds," the book that Mr Adelson had given me for Christmas. But there was
something wrong with the spine of this one: instead of _Jules Verne_, the author
name was _H.G. Wells_. I snuck a look over my shoulder; Pondicherry was still
stabbing at the screen. I snuck the book off the shelf and turned to the title
page: "War of the Worlds, by Herbert George Wells." I turned to the first
The Eve of the War
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this
world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's
and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various
concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man
with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and
multiply in a drop of water.
It was just as I remembered it, every word, just as it was in the Verne. I
couldn't begin to explain it.
A robutler swung out of its niche with a sheaf of papers. I startled at the
noise, then reflexively stuck the book in my jumpsuit. The roboutler delivered
them to Pondicherry, who stuffed them in a briefcase.
"The embassy will be able to return you home by courier route in three hours.
Unfortunately, I don't have the luxury of waiting around here until then. I have
an important meeting to attend -- you'll have to come along."
"Yes, sir," I said, trying to sound eager and helpful.
"Don't say anything, don't touch anything. This is very sensitive."
"No, sir, I won't. Thank you, sir."
The meeting was in a private room in a fancy restaurant, one that I'd been to
before for an embassy Christmas party. Mama had drunk two glasses of sherry, and
had flushed right to the neck of her dress. We'd had roast beef, and a goose
wrapped inside a huge squash, the size of a barrel, like they grew on the Moon.
Pondicherry whisked through the lobby, and the main dining room, and then up a
narrow set of stairs, without checking to see if I was following. I dawdled a
little, remembering Pa laughing and raising his glass in toast after toast.
I caught up with Pondicherry just as he was ordering, speaking brusquely into
the table. Another man sat opposite him. Pondicherry looked up at me and said,
"Have you dined, boy?"
He ordered me a plate of calf livers in cream sauce, which is about the worst
thing you can feed a boy, if you ask me, which he didn't. "Sit down," he said.
"Mr Nussbaum, Master James Nicholson. I am temporarily in _loco parentis_, until
he can be sent home."
Nussbaum smiled and extended his hand. He was wearing a grey suit, with a
strange cut, and a black tie. His fingers dripped with heavy gold rings, and his
hair, while short, still managed to look fancy and a little sissy-fied. "Good to
meetcha, son. You Lester's boy?"
"Yes, sir, he was my Pa."
"Good man. A damned shame. What are you doing here? Playing hooky?"
"I guess I just got lost. I'm going home, soon as they can get me there."
"Is that so? Well, I'll be sad to see you go. You look like a smart kid. You
like chocolate cake, I bet."
"Sometimes," I said.
"When my mama makes it, with a glass of milk, after school," I said.
He laughed, a strangled har-har-har. "You guys kill me. Your mama, huh? Well,
they make some fine chocolate cake here, though it may not be as good as the
stuff from home." He thumbed the table. "Sweetie, send up the biggest piece of
chocolate cake you got down there, and a glass a milk, willya?"
The table acknowledged his request with a soft green light.
"Thank you, sir," I said.
"That's quite enough, I think," Pondicherry said. "I didn't come here to watch
you rot young James's teeth. Can we get to business?"
Pondicherry started talking, in rapid, clipped sentences, punctuated by vicious
bites of his food. I tried to follow what it was about -- trading buffalo steaks
for rare metals, I got that much, but not much more. The calves' livers were
worse than I imagined, and I hid as much of them as I could under the potatoes,
then pushed the plate away and dug into the cake.
I sneaked a look up and saw that Nussbaum was grinning slyly at me. He hadn't
said much, just ate calmly and waited for Pondicherry to run out of steam. He
caught my eye and slipped a wink at me. I looked over at Pondicherry, who was
noisily cudding a piece of steak, oblivious, and winked back at Nussbaum.
Pondicherry daubbed at his mouth with his napkin. "Excuse me," he said, "I'll be
right back." He stood and walked towards the WC.
Nussbaum suddenly jingled. Distractledly, he patted his pockets until he located
a tiny phone. He flipped it open and grunted "Nussbaum," into it.
"Jules!" he said a moment later. "How're things?"
He scowled as he listened to the answer. "Now, you and I know that there's a
difference between _smart_ and _greedy_. I think it's a bad idea."
He listened some more and drummed his fingers on the table.
"Because it's not _credible_, dammit! Even the title is anachronistic: no one in
1902 is going to understand what _Neuromancer_ means. Think about it, wouldya?
Why don't you do some of Twain's stuff? Those books've got _legs_."
My jaw dropped. Nussbaum was talking to the Frenchman -- and he was helping him
to _cheat_! To steal from Mark Twain! I was suddenly conscious of "War of the
Worlds," down the front of my jumpsuit. I thought back to Mr Adelson's
assignment, and it all made sudden sense. Verne was a _plagiarist_.
Nussbaum hung up just as Pondicherry re-seated himself. He took a sip of his
drink, then held up a hand. Pondicherry eyed him coldly.
"Look," Nussbaum said. "We've gone over this a few times, OK? I know where you
stand. You know where I stand. We're not standing in the same place. Much as I
enjoy your company, I don't really wanna spend the whole day listening to you
repeating yourself. All right?"
"Really, I don't think --" Pondicherry started, but Nussbaum held up his hand
"That's all right, I'm a rude son-of-a-bitch, and I know it. Let's just take it
as read that you and me spent the whole afternoon letting the other fella know
how sincere our positions are. Then we can move onto cocktails, and compromise,
and maybe have some of the day left over." Pondicherry started to talk again,
but Nussbaum plowed over him. "I'll go to six troy ounces per steer. You won't
get a better offer. 98% pure ores. Better than anything you'd ever refine back
home. It's as far as I go."
"Sir, is that an ultimatum?" Pondicherry asked, his eyes narrowing.
"Call it whatever you please, buster. It's my final, iron-clad offer. You don't
like it, I can talk to the Chinaman. He seemed pretty eager to get some good
metal home to the Emperor."
"You wouldn't -- he's too far back, it would violate the protocols."
"That's what you say. It may be what the trade court decides. I'll take my
"Six and a half ounces," Pondicherry said, in a spoiled-brat voice.
"You don't hear so good, do you? Six ounces is the offer on the table; take it
or leave it." Nussbaum pushed some papers across the table.
Pondicherry stared at them for a long moment. "I will sign them, sir, but it is
with the expectation of continued trade opportunities. This is a good-will
gesture, do you understand?"
Nussbaum snorted and reached for his papers. "This is about steaks and metals.
This isn't about the future, it's about today, now. That's what's on the table.
You can sign it, or you can walk away."
Pondicherry blew air out his nose like a crazy horse, and signed. "If you'll
excuse me, I need to use the WC again." He rose and left the room, purple from
the collar up.
"What a maroon," Nussbaum said to the closed door. "This's gotta be a real blast
for you, huh?" he said.
I grinned. "It's not so bad. I liked watchin' you hogtie him."
He laughed. "I never would've tried that on your father, kid. He was too sharp.
But fatso there, he's terrified the Chinaman will give the Middle Kingdom an
edge when it faces down his Royal Navy. All it takes is the slightest hint, and
he folds like a cheap suit."
That made me chuckle -- a cheap suit!
I gave him my best innocent look. "Who else knows about the Frenchman?" I asked
Nussbaum grinned like he'd been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "I
realised about halfway through that conversation that being Lester's boy, you've
probably read just about every word old Jules 'wrote.'"
"I have," I said. I took out "War of the Worlds." "How does Mr Wells feel about
this?" I asked.
"I imagine he's pretty mystified," Nussbaum said. "Would you believe, you're the
first one who's caught on?"
I believed it. I knew enough to know that the agencies that policed the
protocols had their hands full keeping track of art and gold smugglers. I'd
never even thought of smuggling _words_. If the trade courts found out. . .
Well, hardly a week went by that someone didn't propose shutting down the
ambassadorships; they'd talk about how the future kept on leaking pastwards, and
if we thought 1975 looked bad, imagine life in 1492 once the future reached it!
The ambassadors had made a lot of friends in high places, though: they used
their influence to keep things on an even keel.
Nussbaum raised an eyebrow and studied me. "I think your father may've figured
it out, but he kept it to himself. He and Jules got along like a house on fire."
I kept the innocent look on my face. "Well, then," I said. "If Pa didn't say
anything, you'd think that I wouldn't either, right?"
Nussbaum sighed and gave me a sheepish look. "I'd _like_ to think so," he said.
I turned the book over in my hands, keeping my gaze locked with his. I was about
to tell him that I'd keep it to myself, but at the last minute, some instinct
told me to keep my mouth shut.
Nussbaum shrugged as though to say, _I give up_. "Hey, you're headed home today,
right?" he said, carefully.
"I've got a message that you could maybe relay for me, you think?"
"I guess so. . ." I said, doubtfully.
"I'll make it worth your while. It's got to go to a friend of mine in Frisco.
There's no hurry -- just make sure he gets it in the next ten years or so. Once
you deliver it, he'll take care of you -- you'll be set for life."
"Gosh," I said, deadpan.
"Are you game?"
"I guess so. Sure." My heart skipped. Set for life!
"The man you want to speak to is Reddekop, he's the organist at the Castro
theatre. Tell him: 'Nussbaum says get out by October 29th, 1929.' He'll know
what it means. You got that?"
"Reddekop, Castro Theatre. October 29th, 1929."
"Exac-atac-ally." He slid "War of the Worlds" into his briefcase. "You're doin'
me a hell of a favour, son."
He shook my hand. Pondicherry came back in then, and glared at me. "The embassy
contacted me. They can set you at home six months after you left -- there's a
courier gateway this afternoon."
"Six months!" I said. "My Mama will go crazy! Can't you get me home any sooner?"
Pondicherry smirked. "Don't complain to me, boy. You dug this hole yourself. The
next scheduled courier going anywhere near your departure-point is in five
years. We'll send notice to your mother then, to expect you home mid-July."
"Tough break, kiddo," Nussbaum said, and he shook my hand and slipped me another
The courier gateway let me out in an alleyway in Salt Lake City. The embassy had
given me ten Wells Fargo dollars, and fitted me out with a pair of jeans and a
workshirt that were both far too big for me, so that they slopped around me as I
made my way to the train station and bought my ticket to New Jerusalem.
It was Wednesday, the normal schedule for the Zephyr Speedball, so I didn't have
too long to wait at the station. I bought copies of the Salt Lake City _Shout_,
and the San Francisco _Chronicle_ from a passing newsie. The _Chronicle_ was a
week old, but it was filled with all sorts of fascinating big-city gossip. I
read it cover-to-cover on the long ride to New Jerusalem.
Mama met me at the train station. I'd been expecting a switching, right then and
there, but instead she hugged me fiercely with tears in her eyes. I remembered
that it had been over six months for her since I'd gone.
"James, you will be the death of me, I swear," she said, after she'd squeezed
every last bit of stuffing out of me.
"I'm sorry, Mama," I said.
"We had to tell everyone you'd gone away to school in France," a familiar male
voice said. I looked up and saw Mr Johnstone standing a few yards away, with our
team and trap. He was glaring at me. "I've had the barn gateway sealed
permanently on both sides."
"I'm sorry, sir," I said. But inside, I wasn't. Even though I'd only been away
for a few days, I'd had the adventure of a lifetime: smoked and drank and been
'jacked and escaped and received a secret message. My Mama seemed shorter to me,
and frailer, and James H Johnstone was a puffed-up nothing of a poltroon.
"We'll put it behind us, son," he said. "But from now on, there will be order in
our household, do we understand each-other?"
_Our_ house? I looked up sharply at my Mama. She smiled at me, nervously. "We
married, James. A month ago. Congratulate me!"
I thought about it. My Mama needed someone around to take care of her, and
vice-versa. After all, it wasn't right for her to be all alone. With a start, I
realised that in my mind, I'd left my Mama's house. I felt the Wells-Fargo notes
in my pocket.
"Congratulations, Mama. Congratulations, Mr Johnstone."
Mama hugged me again and the Mr Johnstone drove us home in the trap.
All through the rest of the day, Mama kept looking worriedly at me, whenever she
thought I wasn't watching. I pretended not to notice, and did my chores, then
took my _Chronicle_ out to the apple orchard behind the Academy. I sat beneath a
big, shady tree and re-read the paper, all the curious bits and pieces of a city
frozen in time.
I was hardly surprised to see Mr Adelson, nor did he seem surprised to see me.
"Back from France, James?"
"Looks like it did you some good, though I must say, we missed you around the
Academy. It just wasn't the same. Have you been keeping up your writing?"
"Sorry, sir, I haven't. There hasn't been time. I'm thinking about writing an
adventure story, though -- about pirates and space-travellers and airships," I
"That sound exciting." He sat down beside me, and we sat there in silence for a
time, watching the flies buzz around. The air was sweet with apple blossoms, and
the only sound was the wind in the trees.
"I'm going to miss this place," I said, unthinking.
"Me, too," Mr Adelson said.
Our eyes locked, and a slow smile spread over his face. "Well, I know where
_I'm_ going, but where are you off to, son?"
"You're going away?" I said.
"Yes, sir. Is that a copy of the _Chronicle_? Give it here, I'll show you
He flipped through the pages, and pointed to an advertisement. "The _Slippery
Trick_ is in port, and they're signing on crew for a run through the south seas,
in September. I intend to go as Quartermaster."
"You're leaving?" I said, shocked to my boots.
To my surprise, he pulled out a pouch of tobacco and some rolling papers and
rolled himself a cigarette. I'd never seen a schoolteacher smoking before. He
took a thoughtful puff and blew the smoke out into the sky. "To tell you the
truth, James, I just don't think I'm cut out for this line of work. Not enough
excitement in a town like this. I've never been happier than I was when I was at
sea, and that's as good a reason to go back as any. I'll miss you, though, son.
You were a delight to teach."
"But what will I do?" I said.
"Why, I expect your mother will send you back East to go to school. I graduated
you from the Academy _in absentia_ during the last week of classes. Your report
card and diploma are waiting on my desk."
"Graduated?" I said, shocked. I had another year to go at the Academy.
"Don't look so surprised! There was no earthly reason for you to stay at the
Academy. I'd say you were ready for college, myself. Maybe Harvard!" He tousled
I allowed myself a smile -- I didn't think I was any smarter than the other
kids, but I sure knew a whole lot more about the world -- the worlds! And maybe,
in my heart of hearts, I knew that I was a _little_ smarter. "I'll miss you,
sir," I said.
"Call me Robert. School's out. Where are you off to, James?"
I gestured with my copy of the _Chronicle_.
"My home town! Whatever for?"
I looked at my shoes.
"Oh, a secret. I see. Well, I won't pry. Does your mother know about this?"
I felt like kicking myself. If I said no, he'd have to tell her. If I said yes,
I'd only have myself to blame if he spilled the news to her. I looked at him,
and he blew a streamer of smoke into the sky. "No, sir," I said. "No, Robert."
He looked at me. He winked. "Better keep it to ourselves, then," he said.
The ticket-girl at the Castro Theatre wasn't any older than I was, but she wore
her hair shorter than some of the boys I'd known back home, and more makeup than
even the painted ladies at the saloon. She looked at me like I was some kind of
small-town fool. It was a look I was getting used to seeing.
"Reddekop only plays for the _evening_ shows, kid. No organ for the _matinee_."
"Who you calling a kid?" I said. I'd kept a civil tongue ever since debarking
the train, treating adult and kid with equal respect, but I was getting sick of
being treated like a yokel. I'd been farther than any of these dusty slickers
would ever go, and I was grown enough that I'd told my Mama and Mr Johnstone
that I was going off on my own, instead of just leaving a note like I'd
"You. Kid. You want to talk to Reddekop, you come back after six. In the
meantime, you can either buy a ticket to the matinee or get lost."
On reflection, telling my Mama was probably a mistake. It meant that I was
locked in my room for two consecutive Wednesdays so that I couldn't catch the
train. On the third Wednesday, I climbed out onto the roof and then went down
the rope-ladder I'd hidden behind a chimney. The Wells Fargo notes I'd started
with were almost gone, mostly spent on the expensive food on the train -- I
hadn't dared try to sneak any food away from home, my Mama was no fool.
I thought about buying a ticket to the matinee. I still had almost five dollars,
but a quick look at the menus in the restaurants had taught me that if I thought
the food on the train was expensive, I had another think coming. I shouldered my
rucksack and wandered away, taking care to avoid the filth from dogs and people
that littered the sidewalks. I told myself that I wasn't homesick -- just tired.
"October 29, 1929, huh?" Reddekop was a small German with a greying spade beard
and a heavily oiled part in his long hair. His fingers were long and nimble, but
nearly everything else about him was short and crude. He made me nervous.
"Yes, sir. Mr Nussbaum thought you'd know what it meant."
Reddekop struck a match off the side of the organist's pit, lighted a pipe, then
tossed the match carelessly into the theatre seats. I winced and he chuckled.
"Not to worry, kid. The place won't burn down for a few years yet. I have it on
the very best authority.
"Now, Nussbaum says October 29, 1929. What else does he say?"
"He said that you'd take care of me."
He gripped the pipe in his yellow teeth and hissed a laugh around the stem. "He
did, did he? Well, I suppose I should. Of course, I won't know for sure for more
than 25 years -- I don't suppose you want to wait that long?"
"No, sir!" I said. I didn't like this little man -- he reminded me of some kind
of musical rat.
"I thought not. Do you know what a trust is, James?"
We'd covered that in common law -- I could rattle off about thirty different
kinds without blinking. "I have a general idea," I said.
"Good, good. What I'm thinking is, the best thing is for me to set up a trust
through a lawyer I know on Market Street. He'll make sure that you're always
flush, but never so filthy that someone will take a notice in you. How does that
I thought it over. "How do I know that the trust fund won't disappear in a few
"You're nobody's fool, huh? Well, how about this -- you find your own advocate:
a lawyer, a bondsman, someone you trust, and he can look over all the books and
papers, make sure it's all square-john. How does that strike you?"
Reddekop knew I was a stranger in town, and maybe he was counting on my not
being able to find anyone qualified to audit the trust, but I had an ace up my
sleeve. I wasn't anybody's fool.
"That sounds fair," I said.
Back at my Mama's I'd had long hard days, doing chores: chopping wood, stacking
hay, weeding the garden, carrying water. I'd go to bed bone-tired, limp as a rag
and as exhausted as I thought I could be.
Boy, was I wrong! By the time I found Mr Adelson's rooming house, I could barely
stand, my mouth was dry as a salt-flat, and it was hard to keep my eyes open.
They've got hills in San Francisco that must've been some kind of joke God
played. His landlady, a worn-out grey woman whose sour expression seemed
directed at everything and anything, let me in and pointed me up three rickety
flights of stairs to Mr Adelson's room.
I dragged my luggage up with me, bumping it on the stairs, and rapped on the
door. Mr Adelson answered in the same shirtsleeves and suspenders I'd seen him
in that Christmas, an age ago, when my Mama dragged me to his cottage. "James!"
"Mr Adelson," I said. "Sorry to drop in like this."
He took my bag from me and ushered me into his room, pulling up a chair. "What
on earth are you doing here?" he said. "Do your parents know where you are? Are
you all right? Have you eaten? Are you hungry?"
"I'm pretty hungry -- I haven't eaten since supper last night on the train," I
tried to make it sound jaunty, but I'm afraid it came out pretty
"I'll fix us sandwiches," he said, and started fishing around his sea-chest. I
watched his shoulders move for a moment, and then my eyes closed.
"Well, good morning," Mr Adelson said, as I sat bolt upright, disoriented in a
strange bed with a strange blanket. "Coffee?"
He was leaning over a little Sterno stove, heating up a small tin pot. Morning
sun streamed in through the grimy window.
"I wrapped your sandwich up from last night. It's there, on the dresser."
I stood up and saw that except for my shoes, I was still dressed. The sandwich
was salt beef and cheese, and the sourdough was stale, and it was the best thing
I'd ever eaten. Mr Adelson handed me a tin cup full of strong coffee, and though
I don't much like coffee, I found myself drinking it as fast as I could.
"Thank you, Mr Adelson," I said.
"Robert," he said, and sat down on the room's only chair. I perched on the bed's
end. "Well, you seem to have had quite a day! Let's hear about it."
I told him as much as I could, fudging around some of the details -- my Mama
surely did know where I was, even if she wasn't very happy about it; and of
course, I couldn't tell him that I'd met Nussbaum in 1975, so I just moved the
locale to France, and caged around what message he'd asked me to deliver to
Reddekop. It still made for a pretty exciting telling.
"So you want me to go to this lawyer's office with you? To look over the papers?
James, I'm just a sailor, I'm not qualified."
I'd prepared for this argument, on the long slog to the rooming house. "But _I_
know something about this; they won't believe it, though, and will slip all
kinds of dirty tricks in if they think that the only fellow who'll be looking at
it is just a kid."
"Explain to me again why you don't want to wire Mr Johnstone to come and look it
over? It sounds like an awful lot of money for him not to be involved."
"He's not my Pa, Robert. I don't even _like_ him, and chances are, he'll hide
away all that money until I'm eighteen or _twenty-one_, and try to send me off
"And what's wrong with that? You have other plans?"
"Sure," I said, too loudly -- I hadn't really worked that part out. I just knew
that the next time I set foot in New Jerusalem, I'd be my own man, a man of the
world, and not dependent on anyone. I'd take Mama and Mr Johnstone out for a big
supper, and stay in the fanciest room at the Stableman's hotel, and hire Tommy
Benson to carry my bags to my room. "Besides, I'm not asking you to do this for
_free_. I'll pay you a -- an administrative fee. Five percent, _for life_!"
He looked serious. "James, if I do this -- mind I said _if_ -- I won't take a
red cent. There are things here that you're not telling me. Now, that's your
business, but I want to make sure that if anyone ever scrutinises the affair,
that it's clear that I didn't receive any benefit from it."
I smiled. I knew I had him -- if he'd thought it that far through, he wasn't
going to say no. Besides, I hadn't even played my trump card yet: that if he
didn't help me, I'd be out on the streets on my own, and I could tell that he
didn't like that idea.
Mr Adelson wore his teacher clothes for the affair and I wore the good breeches
and shirt I'd packed. We stopped at a barber's before, Mr Adelson treated me to
a haircut from the number-two man while he took a shave and a trim. We boarded
the cablecar to Market like a couple of proper gentlemen, and if I thought
flying in a jetpack was exciting, it was nothing compared to the terror of
hanging on the running-board of a cablecar as it laboured up and then --
quickly! -- down a monster hill.
The lawyer was a foreigner, a Frenchie or a Belgian, and his offices were grubby
and filled with stinking cigar smoke and the din of the trolleys. He asked no
embarrassing questions of me. He just sized up Mr Adelson, then put away the
papers on his desk and presented a set from his briefcase, laying out the terms
of the trust, and retreated from the office. I read over Mr Adelson's shoulder,
the terms scribbled in a hasty hand, but every word of it legal and binding,
near as I could tell.
The amounts in question were staggering. Two hundred dollars, every month!
Indexed for inflation, for seventy years or the duration of my natural life,
whichever was lesser. The records of the trust to be deposited with the Wells
Fargo, subject to scrutiny on demand. Mr Adelson looked long and hard at me.
"James, I can't begin to imagine what sort of information you've traded for
this, but son, you're rich as Croesus!"
"Yes, sir," I said.
"Do these papers look legal to you?"
"They seem legal to me, too."
A bubble of excitement filled my chest and I had to restrain myself from
bouncing on my heels. "I'm going to sign it," I said. "Will you witness it?"
"I've got a better idea. Let's get that lawyer and take this down to the Wells
Fargo and have the President of the Bank witness it himself."
And that's just what we did.
Mr Adelson had spent the previous night on the floor, while I slept in his bed.
My first month's payment was tucked carefully in my pocket, and over his
protests, I pried loose a few bills and took my own room in the rooming house,
and then the two of us ate out at a restaurant whose prices had seemed
impossibly out-of-reach the day before. We had oysters and steaks and I had a
slab of apple pie for desert with fresh ice cream and peach syrup, and when I
was done, I felt like new man. Mr Adelson had a bottle of beer with dinner, and
a whiskey afterwards, and I insisted on paying.
"Well, then," he said, sipping his whiskey. "You're a very well-set-up young
man. What will you do now?"
All throughout my scheming since my second return from 75, the prospect of what
to do with all the money had niggled away at the back of my mind. All I knew for
sure was that I didn't want to grow up in New Jerusalem. I wanted adventure,
exotic places and people, danger and excitement. Over dinner, though, a plan had
been forming in my head.
"Does the _Slippery Trick_ need a cabin-boy?"
He shook his head and smiled at me. "I was afraid it was something like that.
Son, you could pay for a stateroom on a proper liner with all the money you
have. Why would you want to be in charge of chamber-pots on a leaky old tub?"
"Why do you want to sail off on a leaky old tub instead of teaching in Utah, or
working on the trolleys here?"
It took me most of the night to convince him, but there was no doubt in my mind
that I would, and when the ship sailed, that I'd be on it, with a big,
leather-bound log, writing stories.