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Every now and then, Lucy Woo could pretend San Francisco was a great city in a great country. Sometimes, when she hurried south toward Market Street, the fog would be just starting to lift. Through the thick, wet, salty mist, the big buildings on Market would look as fine as if they were new and in good repair. They loomed up like dinosaurs, grand and imposing.
And dead. When the sun came out, it pricked pretense. It showed the long-unpainted bricks, the peeling plaster, the broken windows. Some of the buildings still had cracks from the quake of 1989, and that was more than a hundred years ago now. Here and there, vacant lots and piles of rubble showed where buildings had been pulled down or fallen on their own. Lucy stayed as far from the rubble as she could. Squatters built shacks and caves from it. Some of them were harmless. Some weren’t.
Traffic was a swarm of people on foot and on bicycles. You made your own path and you pushed ahead. If you didn’t, you’d never get anywhere. Trucks and rich people’s cars crawled along. They couldn’t go anywhere in a hurry, either. Even ambulances got stuck. People died on the way to the hospital because they couldn’t get there soon enough.
Only one kind of car horn made everybody jam onto the sidewalk and get out of the way. That particular shrill scream was reserved for German cars alone. If Americans didn’t clear a path in a hurry, the Kaiser’s men were liable to start shooting. They didn’t always, or even very often, but you never could tell.
This morning, Lucy had to move aside for the occupiers three times in the space of four blocks. She was furious. She was also frightened. If she was late to her job at the shoe factory, they might let her go. That would be awful. Her family really needed the money she brought in, even if it was only eight dollars a week.
A Mercedes rolled by. Bigwigs in high-crowned caps and fancy uniforms sat inside. Bodyguards in steel helmets with ornamental spikes rode shotgun. That was what people called it, anyhow. But they didn’t carry shotguns. Assault rifles were a lot more deadly.
The big blond man who scowled down at Lucy wasn’t mad at her. “I hate those so-and-sos,” he said. “They think they own the world. Well, they do, near enough, but they don’t have to act like it.”
“Yes,” Lucy said, and let it go at that. Her own features were almost as Chinese as her name. One of her great-grandmothers had been Irish. That made her nose and chin a little sharper than they might have been otherwise.
Even saying yes to the man was taking a chance. He might have belonged to the Feldgendarmerie, the Kaiser’s secret police. And if he didn’t, he was taking a chance talking to her. A sixteen-year-old Chinese girl wasn’t a likely snoop. The Germans looked down their noses at what they called Orientals. Again, though, you never could tell.
Horn still screeching, the Mercedes plowed forward. The blond man looked daggers after it. As people unsquashed and started moving, he said, “I’m late. It’s their fault. It’s not mine. You think my boss will care?”
“Not if he’s like mine,” Lucy said. “I’ve got to hurry, too.” She dived into the crowd. Being short had few advantages. Disappearing easily was one of them.
He didn’t follow her. She made sure of that. And he couldn’t know who she was. San Francisco was full of Chinese faces. She hurried on to the shoe factory. If she stepped on a few toes, well, some other people stepped on hers, too. And if she stuck an elbow in the side of a fat woman who blocked her way, she wasn’t about to let that fat woman make her late. She wouldn’t let anybody make her late.
She punched in just barely on time. Punching in wasn’t good enough. She had to get to her machine on time, too. The foreman was a bald man named Hank Simmons. He was so mean and strict, he might have thought he was a German. But Lucy didn’t—quite—give him an excuse to yell at her. A couple of women who came in right after her weren’t so lucky. They got scorched.
Lucy’s job was to sew instep straps onto women’s shoes. That was what she did, ten hours a day, six days a week. Other women in the big building had other jobs. Some nailed on heels. Some stitched soles to uppers. Some sewed on decorative trim. They all did the same thing through the whole shift, over and over and over again.
Some of them were younger than Lucy. A few couldn’t have been more than eleven or twelve. Some were gray-haired grandmothers. Some were Chinese, some white, some Japanese, some Mexican, some black. San Francisco held a few of just about every kind of people under the sun. And the Kaiser’s officials treated them all just the same way: lousy.
When Lucy’s foot hit the button, the sewing machine snarled to life. She guided the strap and the upper through the machine. The vibration made her hands tingle. She shook them a couple of times. She always did, first thing in the morning. After that, she forgot about it.
Other sewing machines buzzed, too. Nail guns clacked. Off in the back, electric leather cutters made what was almost a chewing noise. Lucy wouldn’t have wanted that job for anything. They had their own foreman back there, and he screamed at you if you wasted even a scrap of leather.
“How’s it going?” asked the sandy-haired woman on the machine next to Lucy’s. She was twice Lucy’s age. She’d been making shoes in here since she was fourteen. She’d go right on doing it till she couldn’t any more.
“I’m okay, Mildred. How are you?” Like Mildred and most of the others in the factory, Lucy could work without looking at what she was doing. Her hands did it whether she watched or not. She was sure she could sew straps in her sleep.
Everybody said the same thing. Every so often, though, someone would stop paying even the little bit of attention she needed to do the job. The shriek of pain that followed would make everyone jump. After that, people would be careful … for a little while.
Mildred’s thin face was always sour. She looked even more unhappy now. “My boy is sick with something,” she said. “Haven’t got the money for a doctor. Haven’t got the time, neither.” Grimly, she went on sewing.
Lucy tossed a finished upper into the bin by her station. She started to sew another one at the same time as she asked, “Who’s watching him, then?” It wouldn’t be Mildred’s husband. He was a longshoreman, and worked even more hours than she did.
“My kid sister,” Mildred answered. “She just had her own baby, you know, and she can’t go back to work yet.”
“Sure,” Lucy said. Mildred and her family were better off than some, even if she didn’t realize it. At least she and her husband were working. And her kid sister was able to stay home for a while after she had a baby. Not that staying home with a brand-new one was any vacation—Lucy had helped her own mother with her brother, though she’d been little then. But plenty of women in the USA couldn’t afford to stay home at all. As soon as they could stagger out of bed, back to work they went.
“It’s not fair,” Mildred whined. “It shouldn’t ought to be like this.”
Lucy only shrugged. “Tell it to the Germans,” she said, which meant, You can’t do anything about it, so forget it. Life was the way it was. She couldn’t do anything about it herself. Mildred couldn’t do anything about it. Nobody could do anything about it. You got by as best you could. What other choice did you have?
Whenever her bin filled up, a boy carried it off and brought her an empty. A quality inspector came by in the middle of the morning. He spoke to a couple of women, but left Lucy alone. If he spoke to you too often, you found yourself on the street. He hadn’t bothered Lucy for weeks. She knew what she had to do, and she did it. She didn’t do any more than she had to, not one single thing. It wasn’t as if she were in love with her job. They paid her as little as they could get away with, and she worked as little as she could get away with. That was how things went, too.
She got twenty minutes for lunch. Some women bought food at the factory cafeteria. That made the bosses extra money, and the place never had anything good. Lucy brought rice and vegetables and a little fish from home. She’d be hungry before she went back there for supper, but she couldn’t do anything about that.
“Back to work!” Hank Simmons yelled three or four minutes before the lunch break ended. “I don’t want you dilly-dallying around, now. You hear me?”
What he wanted was to cheat them out of some of the little break they got. Lucy made sure she was working when she was supposed to. She also made sure she didn’t get busy till she was supposed to. She would have had to if Simmons came by. But he didn’t, not today, and so she didn’t, either.
She hardly remembered the rest of the afternoon. That happened sometimes. Your hands would do the work, and your brain just sort of went away. You would look up in amazement and discover hours had gone by and you’d never even noticed. Sometimes that was nothing but a relief.
Sometimes it scared Lucy half to death. It was a little like dying. You weren’t there. Where were you?
She came back to herself half an hour before her shift finally ended. She shook herself as if she were coming out of a cold bath. The world was back. If she could get home fast, she’d be able to spend a little time with her family before she got so tired she’d have to fall into bed. That little while was what she looked forward to—unless she was squabbling with Michael. He had more bounce than she did. He didn’t have to work so much.
“See you tomorrow,” Mildred said when they went to clock out.
“Oh, yes,” Lucy said in a hollow voice. “You sure will.”
“This is one of the alternates where we need to be especially careful,” Paul Gomes’ father warned him for what had to be the fiftieth time.
“Yes, Dad. I know that. Thank you.” Paul sounded more sarcastic than patient, though he wouldn’t have thought so. He’d graduated from high school the month before. He planned on going to UC Berkeley, but not till he’d spent a couple of quarters in the alternate San Francisco his father had been warning him about.
However much Paul tried not to see it, the two of them were much alike. They were both of medium height, with swarthy skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. They were both stocky, with square faces and eyebrows that would quirk up when they thought something was funny. Lawrence Gomes wore a bushy mustache that made him look like a bandit. Paul wouldn’t have been caught dead with such a horrible thing on his upper lip.
“We can get into real trouble here,” Dad persisted. “We can get Crosstime Traffic into real trouble, too.”
“I know, Dad. Jawohl.” Paul hoped throwing in a little German would persuade his father he took this seriously. “We’ve been over it before, you know.”
He might as well have saved his breath. Dad went on as if he hadn’t spoken: “This is one of those alternates where, if they find we can travel across timelines, they can probably start building their own transposition chambers. And if they do—if anybody does—we’ve got a lot of trouble on our hands.”
Paul started to tell him he knew that, too. He decided not to bother. How much good would it do? None—he could see that. He felt as if he were back in a high-school history class. Dad thought he thought he knew more than he did. He thought Dad thought he knew less than he did.
About fifty years earlier, not long before Dad was born, the home timeline was a mess. It was running out of food and energy at the same time. Then Galbraith and Hester figured out how to travel not through space but across time, to visit other Earths where history had taken different turns from the way it had gone here. There were alternates where the Roman Empire never fell. There were others where the Armada conquered England, or where the South won the Civil War, or where the Communists won the struggle with capitalism. There were alternates where no one from Europe discovered America, and the Native Americans were still going through the early Bronze Age. There were others where the Chinese colonized the New World. And there were some where man never evolved at all.
The home timeline began trading with the inhabited alternates. It began taking what it needed from some of the empty ones. That trade probably saved the world from collapse. Inside a very few years, it made Crosstime Traffic even bigger than Microsoft had been at the end of the twentieth century.
So far as anybody knew, the home timeline was the only one where people had figured out how to travel from one world of if to another. But quite a few alternates with fairly recent breakpoints had the technology to do it, if the idea occurred to them. Crosstime traders had to be doubly careful in places like those. Dad was right about that, even if he did go on and on about it. But they couldn’t stay away from worlds like those. If they did, somebody might find the secret while they weren’t looking. That wouldn’t be good, either.
The alternate where Paul and his father were going was one of those. Its breakpoint was 1914, less than two hundred years in the past. In the home timeline, Germany was stopped short of Paris in the opening days of World War I. Four years of trench warfare followed. In the end, the Germans lost. A generation later, Hitler and the Nazis tried again—and lost again, even worse than before.
Things were different in this alternate. The Russians had moved against eastern Germany more slowly than in the home timeline. The Germans had been able to put a few more divisions into the attack on France. Their Schlieffen plan had worked here, where it failed in the home timeline. They’d wheeled around beyond Paris, not in front of it, and they’d knocked the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force clean out of the war. Then a lot of them had climbed onto trains and headed east. When they met the Russians, they smashed them, too.
After that, everything looked different. The Kaiser ended up sitting on top of the world. France and England were humbled—France more so, because it took a worse beating. When they tried to get their own back at the end of the 1930s, Germany beat them again. It didn’t need to worry about Russia this time around. Russia had fallen to pieces in a long civil war, and a lot of the pieces—Poland, Finland, Courland, the Ukraine—were German puppets.
Once Germany won that second war, it dominated Europe the way no one had since the days of the Roman Empire. It looked west across the Atlantic. The United States looked east—nervously. It hadn’t fought in either European war. It didn’t believe in getting tangled up in the affairs of foreign powers. It paid for its mistake.
In the home timeline, the USA got the atomic bomb first. One of the reasons it did was that a lot of scientists had fled Hitler’s Germany. Quite a few of them, like Einstein, were Jews. Others couldn’t stand what the Nazis were doing.
Again, things were different in this alternate. The Kaiser didn’t persecute Jews. Those talented scientists stayed in Germany. They were happy to work for the German Empire, because it wanted them. And, here, the Germans got the bomb first.
They got it—and they used it. War between Germany and the United States broke out in 1956. The Germans had the bomb, and they had airplanes to deliver it. A dozen American cities went up in smoke the first day (the only reason San Francisco didn’t was that both bombers aimed at it got shot down). The war lasted a couple of months, but most of it was just mopping up for the Kaiser’s men.
In this alternate, imperial Germany had run things ever since, for close to a century and a half now. The United States was a second-rate power now, and had to do what the Kaiser’s officials said. Technology wasn’t as far along here as it was in the home timeline. It wasn’t that far behind, though. If the locals ever got their hands on a transposition chamber, for instance, they might be able to build one of their own.
Dad said, “We need to keep an eye on them. And we need to buy produce from them. No matter what timeline you’re in, the Central Valley turns out some of the best produce in the world.”
“Are we smart, trading them some of our gadgets?” Paul wondered.
“If you don’t give, you can’t get,” his father said.
“I know—but if we give them things they haven’t seen, won’t they want to know where that stuff comes from?” Paul asked. “And aren’t they liable to come up with the right answer once they ask the right question?”
Dad only shrugged. “I don’t set policy—and neither do you,” he added pointedly. “But Crosstime Traffic isn’t there for their health. They’re there to show a profit. So we trade. We trade carefully, but we trade. Where would we be if we couldn’t visit the alternates?”
Paul had no answer for that. He knew where the home timeline would be without the alternates. Up the famous creek without a paddle, that was where. Still, trade carefully reminded him of all deliberate speed, a phrase he’d run across in a history class. It wanted you to do two things at the same time, and they pulled in opposite directions. If that didn’t mean trouble, what would?
“Are you ready to go crosstime?” his father asked.
“Oh, I’m ready, all right. All I have to do is put on my costume. We don’t even need a new language through our implants, not for San Francisco in that alternate. They speak English there, too.”
“Yes, but it’s not quite our English.” Dad was just full of good advice. Paul would have been more grateful if he’d heard it less often. Dad seemed convinced he was eight, not eighteen. “You have to remember. You have to be careful.”
“Right,” Paul said. His father sent him a sour look, but they left it there.
They changed clothes before they got into the transposition chamber. Paul put on a pair of Levi’s not too different from the ones people wore in the home timeline. They were a little baggier, a little darker shade of blue. Chambray work shirts like the one he tucked into the jeans had been popular in the home timeline a hundred years ago. He’d seen pictures. Only the pointed-toed ankle boots and the wide-brimmed derby seemed really strange.
His father wore a similar outfit. He had on a double-breasted corduroy jacket with wide lapels over his shirt. In the home timeline, he would have looked like a cheap thug. The style was popular in the alternate, though. So was the wide leather belt with the big, shiny brass buckle. It said he was somebody solid and prosperous.
The woman who ran the transposition chamber snickered at them when they got in. Paul would rather have worn a toga or a burnoose or a flowing Chinese robe. Those would have been honestly weird. This way, he just looked as if he had no taste in clothes. It was embarrassing.
He and Dad got into their seats and put on their belts. He didn’t know what good the belts did. Transposition chambers didn’t run into things. They didn’t move physically, only across timelines. The seats were like the ones in airliners, even to being too close together. That was probably why they had belts.
For that matter, he didn’t know what good the operator was, either. All she did to start the chamber was push a button. Computers handled everything else. Operators were supposed to navigate the chambers if the computers went out, but what were the chances if that happened? Slim and none, as far as Paul could see.
He couldn’t tell when the chamber started across the alternates toward the Kaiser’s America. It would seem to take about fifteen minutes to get there. When he left the chamber, though, it would be the same time as it had been in the home timeline when he left. Duration was a funny business in transposition chambers. Even chronophysicists didn’t understand all the ins and outs.
“We’re here.” The operator caught him by surprise. He hadn’t felt the arrival, any more than he’d felt the motion across the timelines.
His father stood up and stretched. When he did, his hands brushed the ceiling of the transposition chamber. It wasn’t very high. Paul got up, too. If he hadn’t, Dad would have said he was dawdling. He didn’t feel like banging heads over that. He and his father banged heads often enough anyway.
The operator closed the door. The subbasement here had exactly the same position as the one in the home timeline from which the chamber had left. The air smelled a little different: a little smokier, a little more full of exhaust, and a little more full of people who didn’t take baths as often as they might have.
Paul and his father left the chamber. Silently and without any fuss, it disappeared. Was it going back to the home timeline or on to a different alternate San Francisco? Paul knew he would never know.
Bare bulbs lit the chamber. Iron stairs led up to a trap door in the ceiling. A plump man came through. He waved. “Hello, Lawrence,” he called to Paul’s father. A moment later, as an afterthought, he added, “Hello to you, too, Paul.”
“Hello, Elliott,” Dad answered. “How’s business?”
“Tolerable,” the plump man said. “This station makes a profit. The company isn’t going to close it down any time soon.” He laughed. “If we can’t make a profit so close to the Central Valley, we’d better shut up shop.”
“Shh.” Dad put a forefinger in front of his mouth. “Don’t let Crosstime Traffic hear you.” He laughed, too. He got along fine with people his own age. He seemed to get along fine with everybody except Paul, in fact. The two of them were water and sodium. That made Paul wonder if there was something wrong with him.
Elliott said, “Come on upstairs, and you can see for yourself.” Up they went. Their boot heels clanged on the iron risers. Once they got out of the subbasement, Elliott closed the trap door behind them. Then he rolled a file cabinet that didn’t look as if it could roll over the door. That subbasement wasn’t supposed to be easy to find. He suddenly looked worried. “You’ve got your Kennkarte?”
“Oh, yes.” Dad reached into the back pocket of his Levi’s and pulled out his identity papers. Paul did the same. Elliott nodded, obviously relieved. If you didn’t have papers in this alternate, you might as well not exist. Theirs were forgeries, of course, but they were forgeries made with all the skill of the home timeline. They were at least as good as the real thing. They just happened not to be genuine.
The German word for identity papers seemed right at home in the English Elliott used, the English of this alternate. Paul had no trouble following it, but it wasn’t the English he spoke at home. It was slower, the vowels flatter, some of the consonants slightly guttural. It was, in fact, an English that had had German rubbing off on it for a hundred forty years or so.
Elliott led Paul and his father into the front room of the shop, which stood on Powell Street between Union Square and Market. The name of the place was Curious Notions. From inside, it looked to be spelled out backwards in gold letters on the plate-glass window opening on the street. Toys and gadgets, most of them from the home timeline, filled the shelves.
“Nobody’s wondered about any of this stuff?” Paul’s father asked. He didn’t hesitate to steal Paul’s idea. Maybe he didn’t know he was doing it. Maybe.
“Not that I’ve heard,” Elliott answered. “And if I can’t find out here, it’s a good thing I’m leaving town.”
Paul looked out the window. Men wore the same kind of clothes he and Dad—and Elliott—did. Women mostly had on linen blouses, sweaters, and skirts that came down below the knee. The women wore pointed-toed shoes, too. Misery loved company. White and black women wore their hair in fancy curls. Those whose ancestors came from Asia mostly didn’t bother.
Cars and trucks slowly picked their way past pedestrians and people on bicycles. They looked like those from more than a hundred years earlier in the home timeline. All of them burned gasoline or diesel fuel. The Kaiser’s men didn’t seem to worry about global warming. Of course, they’d had to dodge a nuclear winter in this alternate. It wasn’t so crowded here as in the home timeline, either.
A truck driver leaned on his horn. That could have happened in the home timeline, too. Paul wished the noisy idiot would cut it out. It did no good, and only annoyed everybody in earshot. That was probably why the trucker did it.
Snarling motorcycles with sidecars rolled past. The sidecars had machine guns mounted on them. The German soldiers who rode in them didn’t believe in taking chances.
“You know what this is?” Dad said. “This is an alternate that never heard of Adolf Hitler. That’s not bad.”
“It’s still not a very pretty place,” Paul said.
Elliott looked from one of them to the other. “You’re just a big, happy family, aren’t you?” he said. “Will you be all right here after I go back to the home timeline?”
“We’ll be fine,” Dad answered. “Paul’s a little wet behind the ears, that’s all. It’s nothing to worry about.”
“Thanks a lot, Dad,” Paul said.
“Any time.” His father seemed to think he meant that for real thanks.
Elliott plainly knew better. He also plainly knew better than to try to step into the middle of a quarrel between father and son. The only thing that happened when you did that was, you got shot at from both sides. The departing shopkeeper just said, “Well, you know the drill here. To the authorities, we sell these little gadgets and we deal in produce on the side. I’ve told our people in the Central Valley that the two of you would be taking over for a while.”
“Sounds good,” Dad said. “We’ll manage. Don’t you worry about a thing. We’ve been here before. They know us. They know we’ll treat’ em right.” He nudged Paul. “Don’t they?”
“Huh?” Paul said, taken by surprise, and then, “Uh, sure, Dad.” He couldn’t argue with his father about that. As far as the local merchants went, Lawrence and Paul Gomes were some of the most reliable people in the world.
Dad laughed. “Dealing here is fun, too. When I think I can get an enormous trailer full of garlic from down in Gilroy for twenty-five dollars …” He laughed again, louder.
So did Paul, without any hesitation. Prices here were a joke if you came from the home timeline. A dollar there was a little aluminum coin, worth nothing in particular.
A dollar for your thoughts, people said. Even a benjamin wasn’t worth all that much. Things were different here. You could buy more, much more, with a dollar here than with a benjamin back home. Even cents were real money here: bronze coins, not aluminum. And the phrase this alternate used was a penny for your thoughts.
Somewhere off in the distance, a fire engine roared through the streets, bell clanging. Police cars here used bells, too. They were painted red, not black and white like the ones in the home timeline.
Dollars, not benjamins. Bells, not sirens. Red, not black and white. Those were the small differences, even if they were the ones you noticed first after crossing the timelines. Occupation, not freedom. Poor people, not prosperous ones. Those were the differences that really counted.
As things went in Chinatown, Lucy Woo’s family wasn’t badly off. They didn’t have a television—they weren’t rich. But they did have a radio and a small refrigerator. The money she brought home from the shoe factory helped pay for luxuries like that. Plenty of their neighbors got by with less.
“So long,” her younger brother said. Michael hurried out the door. He was ten, and had a summer job as a grocery delivery boy. He’d go back to school when fall started. He needed to learn as much as he could—he’d take over their father’s business one of these years. Lucy would have liked to stay in school, too. It hadn’t worked out. They needed the money. And sons got breaks like that more often than daughters did.
Lucy hurried to finish her own bread and jam. She drank tea with breakfast. It helped her forget how tired she was when she first got up in the morning. Dad was already gone, opening up the shop. He bought, sold, and repaired anything that ran on electricity, from lamps to large adding machines. He was teaching Michael, too, all the time. Lucy’s brother was already getting pretty good with a soldering iron.
“Got to go,” Lucy said, and grabbed her lunch pail. She was tempted to open it and see what was inside, but she didn’t. Mother tried to surprise her every day, at least with something. It wasn’t always easy, but she usually managed.
Mother blew Lucy a kiss when she went out the door. Lucy yawned in spite of the tea. She really wished she could go back to bed. But no such luck. She had to head for the shoe factory.
Down the stairs. Other people in the apartment building were going to work, too. She nodded to some. With others, she didn’t bother. They were as bleary-eyed as she was. Out the front door, turn left. Down Powell toward Market. She yawned again. If she couldn’t have more sleep, she wished for more tea, or maybe coffee. Coffee, she decided. It was stronger.
The morning was nice and clear. San Francisco wasn’t foggy all the time, just often enough to be annoying. Gulls soared overhead. They mewed like cats. On the cracked sidewalks, pigeons paraded underfoot. They cocked wary orange eyes at passing people. Sometimes they got handouts. Sometimes they wound up in pigeon stew. They couldn’t tell which ahead of time. No wonder they were wary.
Newsboys waved papers and shouted headlines. Divers had found the skeleton of the Hindenburg where it crashed off the coast of France almost a hundred fifty years earlier. That was interesting, but not interesting enough to get Lucy to part with two cents for a newspaper.
Some shops were opening up as she walked by. Shopkeepers called out to passersby in English and Chinese and Spanish—and, if the passersby looked rich, in German. People in San Francisco sold anything that moved. If you stepped away from your shadow for a minute, they’d pry it off the sidewalk and try to sell it back to you. Lucy heard men and women hawking pork, clothes, jewelry, watches, vegetables, secondhand books, medicines, radios, slide rules, bicycle tires, and everything else under the sun.
She’d grown up here. She knew the “fine gold jewelry” would turn your arm green if you wore it very long. The “Swiss watches” were cheap copies sold at not-so-cheap prices—either that or they were stolen. The black-and-orange Seals shirts and beige ones for Missions backers would come apart at the seams sooner than they should have. The bicycle tires were liable to be retreads. Sometimes the medicines were what they claimed. More often, they were sugar pills. If you bought from somebody you didn’t know, you took your chances. If you came expecting wonderful things at rock-bottom prices—well, that was what people here wanted you to do. Truth was, you got what you paid for, here as anywhere else.
A few places showed OPEN signs but didn’t have people out front telling the world about how wonderful they were. Those quiet places were the ones where you could get good stuff … if you knew what you were looking for, and knew what you were looking at. Fine gold jewelry was for sale—for those who could afford it. Some “antiques” hadn’t been made day before yesterday in a room behind the shop where they were for sale. Not all radios had their original innards replaced by junk that would wear out in weeks. Because of what her father did, Lucy knew some of the tricks of that trade.
And there was Curious Notions. Lucy’s father was curious about that place. She couldn’t blame him. They had phonographs smaller than anyone else’s that sounded better than machines costing five times as much. They had radios you could put in your pocket and listen to with earphones. They had battery-powered games that were like nothing anyone else sold.
They could have been millionaires, selling what they sold. By all the signs, they weren’t interested in being millionaires. What they sold here in San Francisco was almost an afterthought. People said they did most of their business with the grape growers and produce farmers in the Central Valley. Lucy knew how much—or rather, how little—what people said was often worth.
As she often did, she stopped in front of the window. The stuff in Curious Notions looked different. It didn’t pretend to be wood even when it wasn’t. It wasn’t ornamented to pieces. Everything was justthere, there to do a job and not make a fuss about it. It wasn’t stylish. It didn’t have to be stylish. It worked, and worked well.
Lucy had got used to the chubby man who bustled around inside the place. She didn’t see him there this morning. Instead, two other men, plainly father and son, stood talking behind the counter. She didn’t recognize them, but they acted as if they had every right to be there. The father, whose big mustache made him look tough, banged the countertop with his fist to make a point. The son might have been Lucy’s age, or maybe a year or two older. He nodded in a way that said he’d heard it before and wasn’t much impressed.
Though Lucy could see that, the man with the mustache couldn’t. He went on talking. The younger one started tidying things up inside the shop. Every so often, he would nod again. He was polite, but he wasn’t interested.
He looked out the window and saw Lucy. He smiled at her. She found herself smiling back. Did he know she’d been standing here watching him for a minute or so? She couldn’t tell. She couldn’t stay here watching him all day, though. She couldn’t be late for work.
Down to Market she went, and then south and west along it toward the factory. She wished she weren’t going there. She wished she could do something she enjoyed instead. She didn’t want to spend most of her waking hours tending a sewing machine. Only a crazy person would.
But only a crazy person would want to go hungry, either. You couldn’t always do what you wanted to do. Sometimes it was what you had to do. Maybe, one of these days, she wouldn’t have to go to the factory every day. She could hope. She could dream. Meanwhile … she could work.
Some German businessmen came through the place in the middle of the shift. One of them wore a top hat, something she’d seen only in movies before. They all looked fat and pink and rich. They paid more attention to the machines in the factory than to the people working in it. Lucy understood that. They could always replace the workers. The machines would be much more expensive to change.
Even Hank Simmons had to fawn all over the Germans. Seeing the petty tyrant of a foreman humble made Lucy smile again, this time in a nasty way. She kept her head down so nobody else would notice her doing it.
Copyright © 2004 by Harry Turtledove