When Jeremy Solters found a note from his mother in his lunchbox, he started to laugh. He couldn't help it. So many ways she might have got hold of him--e-mail to his handheld, e-mail to his desktop, voicemail to his phone, a tingle on the implant behind his ear. But what did she pick? The most primitive comm mode she could find, and the one most likely to go wrong. That was Mom, all right. Maybe she'd spent too much time out in the alternates. She forgot to use technology when she had it at her fingertips.
He unfolded the note and made sense of her scrawl. Stop at the store on the way home and pick up two kilos of apples, she wrote. Jeremy laughed again and reread the note to make sure he had it right. He supposed he should have been glad she hadn't talked about pounds and ounces. He never could remember which was bigger. And he supposed he should have been glad she'd remembered to write in English. He could have read neoLatin. But if she'd used Koine or Great Serbian or any of the Indic languages, she wouldn't have got her precious apples.
"What's that?" Michael Fujikawa asked, as Jeremy wadded up the piece of paper and tossed it in the direction of the trash can.
"Note from my mom, if you can believe it," Jeremy told his friend. The crumpled note bounced off the front of the trash can. Jeremy sighed. He unfolded from his perch on a concretebench, picked up the paper, and threw it out. He was tall and skinny, but he'd never made the Canoga Park High basketball team. This wasn't the first time he'd proved he couldn't shoot.
Michael only nodded. "Oh, yeah," he said. He was short and kind of round. Most of Jeremy's friends were short and kind of round. He sometimes wondered if that meant anything. Before he could do more than start to wonder now, Michael went on, "My dad will do the same thing. When he comes home from an alternate, it's like he has trouble remembering he's at the end of the twenty-first century, not stuck in a fifteenth-century equivalent or whatever."
"Maybe that's it," Jeremy agreed. "I was thinking the same thing about Mom."
The sun beat down on him. It was only May, but it was supposed to get up past thirty today. The Valley was like that. When real summer came, it could climb over forty for a week at a time.
Jeremy ate his sandwich and his yogurt and an orange from a Palestine that hadn't seen a century and a half of murder and war. That Palestine was a sleepy Turkish province where nothing much ever happened. The oranges and lemons were especially fine there. He didn't know whether that was better or worse than the Palestine in his own world. It sure was different, though.
Michael's lunch had a couple of golden plums of a sort Jeremy hadn't seen before. He pointed to the one his friend was eating. "Where'd that come from?" he asked.
"Safeway," Michael said unhelpfully.
"Thanks a lot," Jeremy told him. "Which world did it come from, I mean? It's not one of ours, is it?"
"I don't think so," Michael said. "But I don't know which alternate it's from. All I know is, Dad brought it home when he did the shopping the other day. Half the time, the store labels don't tell anyhow."
"They're supposed to," Jeremy said. "The EPA gets on 'em if they don't."
"Well, the EPA's pretty dumb if it bothers about these. They're good." Michael ate all the flesh off the plum. He tossed the pit at the trash can. It went in. He was a good shot. He took the second plum out of its plastic bag. Jeremy hoped for a taste, but Michael ate it all. He liked his food, which was no doubt why he stayed round.
The lunch bell rang just after Michael finished the plum. He jumped up. "I have to go to my locker. I left my history paper in there, and Ms. Mouradian doesn't let you print new ones in class."
Jeremy nodded sympathetically. "She's strict, all right. I've got mine." He slung his notebook and his handheld under his arm and headed off for U.S. History. "See you there." His grandfather told stories about lugging around a backpack full of ten or fifteen kilos' worth of books when he went to high school. It wasn't so much that Jeremy didn't believe him. He just thought old people remembered things as being much better or much worse than they really were, depending on what kind of message they wanted to get across.
Boys and girls hurried through the dark, narrow halls. Canoga Park High was almost 150 years old. Some of the buildings were newer, replacing ones knocked down in the earthquake of '27 or the bigger one of '74, but a lot of them went all the way back to the 1950s. As far as Jeremy could see, they hadn't known much about how to make schools back then.
Of course, compared to what people in the alternates had, this was heaven. But that wasn't how most kids looked at it. Jeremy didn't look at it like that most of the time himself. He compared Canoga Park High to new schools, fancy schools. Next to them, it didn't make the grade.
Michael Fujikawa slid--skidded, really--into his seat just ahead of the late bell. Ms. Mouradian sent him a fishy stare. That was all she could do, though. He had beaten the bell. She said, "Now that we're all here"--another fishy look for Michael--"we need to push. Only a couple of weeks left in the semester, and we still have a lot of ground to cover. First things first. Pass your homework papers to the front of the room."
Jeremy pulled his paper from his notebook. He sent it forward. Looking relieved that he'd remembered his, Michael did the same. Ms. Mouradian snatched up the homework with impatience she couldn't hide. Jeremy almost laughed, but managed to hold it in. He'd never had a history class where they didn't cover the last part of the material at a mad gallop.
Ms. Mouradian said, "Yesterday we talked about how energy problems started showing up as early as the 1970s." Jeremy's desktop came to life. It showed him a long line of incredibly old-fashioned-looking cars in front of a gas station just as far out-of-date. The history teacher went on, "Things only got worse as time went on. By the time we reached the 2040s, our oil reserves really did start running dry, the way people had said they would for years. Nobody knew what to do. Many feared that civilization would collapse from lack of energy, lack of transport, lack of food."
The desktop showed skinny people plundering a truck outside a supermarket. Jeremy's grandfather talked about those days, too. Jeremy hadn't taken him too seriously till he found out on his own how bad things had been. The video on the desktop looked a lot better than the stuff from the 1970s. It had started out digital. It wasn't so grainy, and the color and sound were better. Jeremy felt more as if he were really there, not watching something from ancient history.
"What caused the change?" Ms. Mouradian asked. "Why don't we have troubles like those now?"
A dozen hands shot into the air at the same time. Jeremy's was one of them. Behind him, a girl said, "Why doesn't she ask easy ones like that all the time?"
Two or three people couldn't stand knowing and not saying. Before Ms. Mouradian could call on anybody, they shouted out the answer: "The alternates!"
She nodded. "That's right. The alternates. Without the work of Galbraith and Hester, the world would be a very different place." When she suddenly smiled, she didn't look a whole lot older than the kids in her class. "And that's what the alternates are all about, isn't it? Look at your desktops, please."
Jeremy did, even though he'd already seen this video a million times. There were Samaki Galbraith and Liz Hester announcing their discovery to a startled world. He was tall and black and dignified. She was a little redhead who bounced and squeaked, excited at what they'd found. Considering what it was, she'd earned the right, too.
Then the desktop cut away from the chronophysicists. It showed some of the worlds they'd found--worlds where things had gone differently from the way they'd happened here. Jeremy had seen a lot of these videos, too. Here was footage from a world where the Vikings had settled North America. Here was one where successors of Alexander the Great ruled half a dozen empires that stretched from Spain to the borders of China. Here were gaudy pictures from a world where civilization in the Old World had got off to a later start than it had here, so the Native American cultures were the most advanced anywhere.
Here was a triumphal procession through the streets of Rome in a world where the Roman Empire hadn't fallen. Jeremy smiled when that one came up. His folks spent a lot of their time trading there. He and his sister went there, too. Sometimes the locals needed to see a whole family. It added realism.
And here, quickly, one after another, were worlds with breakpoints closer to here-and-now. Here were Spaniards with bayoneted flintlocks swaggering through a town on the border between their empire and Russia in a world where the Armada conquered England. Here was a race riot in a town that didn't look too different from the ones Jeremy knew, but where the Confederate flag flew. And here was one in a world where nobody had discovered atomic energy. The United States and the Soviet Union were fighting World War VI there right this minute.
The desktop went blank. Jeremy knew how many more alternates it might have shown: the one where the Chinese had discovered the Americas; the one where the United States was a contented part of a British Empire that covered three-quarters of the globe; the nasty one where the Germans had won World War I; the even nastier one where they'd won World War II; and on and on.
Ms. Mouradian said, "How did finding the alternates change things for us?" Again, a lot of hands went up. Again, Jeremy's was one of them. Nobody yelled out the answer this time, though. It wasn't so simple.
The teacher pointed at him. "Jeremy."
"We aren't limited to the resources of one world any more," he answered. "We can get food and raw materials and ideas from a lot of different places, a little from here, a little from there. We don't take enough from any alternate world to hurt it." He'd known all that stuff long before he took this class. With his mom and dad both working for Crosstime Traffic, he had to.
Ms. Mouradian knew where his folks worked. Maybe that was why she'd picked him to answer. She nodded when he was done. "That's good," she said. "And what are some of the problems we've had since we started traveling to the alternates?"
Jeremy raised his hand one more time. He didn't want Ms. Mouradian--or anybody else--to think he didn't know there were problems. She didn't call on him again, though. She picked Michael Fujikawa instead. His folks worked for Crosstime Traffic, too. He said, "Probably contamination is the worst one."
"That's right," the history teacher said. "Please look at your desktops again." Jeremy looked down. He saw the video he thought he would. There were long lines of people waiting to get shots for Hruska's disease. An early explorer had brought it back from a world that was off-limits now. There were also pictures of the blank, idiotic stares on the faces of people who'd come down with the illness. Then the desktop showed some of the plant and animal diseases and parasites that had come back here from other alternates.
A girl named Elena Ramos raised her hand. When Ms. Mouradian called on her, she said, "The other big problem is keeping people in the alternates from knowing we're visiting them."
"Oh, yes." The teacher nodded again. "That is the other important one. Wherever we go where there's civilization, we have to keep the secret. That's why we always pretend to be part of the world where we trade. Some alternates are advanced enough that they might be able to use the technology if they got their hands on it. That could be very, very dangerous." The desktop showed another clip from the world where the Nazis had won the Second World War. It wasn't pretty. Ms. Mouradian went on, "That rule is also why we drill for oil and do our mining on alternates where there are only hunters and gatherers, or else worlds without any people at all. On worlds like those, we don't have to hide."
On the desktop, oil rigs stood like steel skeletons in the middle of a vast, golden desert. Antelope with enormous horns watched, wondering what the fuss was about. An oil worker in grimy coveralls walked up to one and stroked its nose. It stood there and let him. It had never learned to be afraid of men. In that alternate, there were no men to be afraid of.
The antelope disappeared from the desktop. Jeremy sighed, and he wasn't the only one. Ms. Mouradian said, "Now we're going to go over some of the Supreme Court decisions that center on crosstime travel." Jeremy sighed again, on a different note. Again, he wasn't the only one.
* * *
Amanda Solters stood under the awning at Canoga Park High. She stayed out of the sun while she waited for the bus and for her brother to show up. She hoped Jeremy would get there before the bus did. His last class this year was on the far side of campus, so sometimes he cut things close.
While she waited, she checked her handheld to see what she had to do tonight. She made a face at the thought of algebra homework. That was old-fashioned, boring drill and practice. She had to understand what she was doing to get it right. It wasn't like a foreign language, where she could soak it up in a few sessions with the implant. She'd learned Spanish that way, and French, and neoLatin and classical Latin for trips out to the alternate with her parents and Jeremy.
Here he came, as usual half a head taller than most of the kids around him. He'd tried out for the basketball team the autumn before, but he hadn't even got onto the JVs. Being tall wasn't enough. You had to be able to run and shoot, too.
He spotted her and waved. Amanda was tall herself, for a girl--one meter, seventy-three centimeters. Her grandfather, who was old-fashioned as well as old, sometimes said she was five feet ten. That meant next to nothing to her, any more than pounds or quarts or degrees Fahrenheit did.
"We've got to stop at the store and get apples," Amanda said importantly when her brother came up. He started to laugh. She scowled at him. "What's so funny?"
"Did Mom leave a note in your lunchbox, too?" he asked.
"She left me one, all right," Amanda said. "You mean she gave 'em to both of us?"
Her brother nodded. "She sure did."
"Why didn't she just carve the message on a rock and leave it here at the bus stop?" Amanda said. "Sometimes I think she's even more stuck in her ways than Grandpa is."
"I wouldn't be surprised." Jeremy pointed up the street. "Here comes the bus."
It was old-fashioned, too. The school district couldn't afford anything newer and cleaner. It burned natural gas, which meant it spewed carbon dioxide into the air. Most vehicles, these days, were either electric or ran on fuel cells that gave off only clean water vapor. Global warming hadn't stopped, but it had slowed down.
They got on the bus. As soon as it was full, the driver pulled off the side street where she'd picked up her passengers and turned north onto Topanga Canyon Boulevard. The bus rattled almost enough to drown out the trills of telephones as friends on other buses and in cars started catching up with people here. Kids on the bus made calls, too. Back in the old days, Amanda's grandfather said, everybody could listen to everybody else talking. She had trouble imagining that. It sounded like an amazing nuisance. Throat mikes let people keep conversations private, the way they were supposed to be.
Jeremy's phone trilled as the bus rolled past the green of Lanark Park on one side of the street and the rival green of an old, old nursery on the other. His lips moved. His Adam's apple bounced up and down. All Amanda could hear was a faint mumbling with no real words. Like everybody else, she and Jeremy had learned to use throat mikes before they got out of elementary school.
She had to poke Jeremy when the bus stopped in front of the Safeway. "Apples!" she said. He nodded and got up. He kept right on talking while they got off the bus. Probably Michael, Amanda thought. He and her brother had been best friends since the second grade.
When she and Jeremy went into the store, he asked, "Did Mom's note to you say what kind of apples she wanted?"
"I wish!" Amanda exclaimed. "No--we're on our own."
You could have too many choices. Amanda saw that when she walked into the produce department. This was a big store, even for a Safeway. It tried to stock some of everything. As far as fruits and vegetables were concerned, it couldn't. It couldn't even come close. Still, as Amanda peeled a plastic bag off a roll, she looked at a couple of dozen different kinds of apples, all in neat bins.
She eyed red ones, golden ones, green ones, golden ones with reddish blushes, red ones streaked with gold, green ones streaked with gold. The sign above one bin said RAISED RIGHT HERE, SO YOU KNOW WHAT GOES INTO THEM! Other signs announced the alternates from which those apples had come.
Amanda pointed to a bin full of apples that were almost the same color as the navel oranges across the aisle from them. "What are these?"
"They're weird," Jeremy said. He was suspicious of unfamiliar food.
Amanda wasn't. "Let's try them." She picked out two nice ones and dropped them into the bag. Even though petroleum didn't get burned much any more, it still had a million uses. Making every kind of plastic under the sun was one of the most important.
As if to make up for the orange apples' strangeness, Jeremy chose two golden deliciouses from the RAISED RIGHT HERE bin. He pulled off a bag of his own. In went the apples. Even so, he pointed at the sign and said, "That's really lame. We're so mixed up with the alternates by now, who can tell what started out here and what didn't? And who cares, anyway?"
"Some people don't like anything new. Some people probably didn't like TV and telephones when they were first starting up," Amanda said. She took an apple from a different bin.
Her brother grabbed another one, too. "I know, I know. They ought to look at what things are like in some of the alternates. That would teach them a lesson."
"I doubt it," Amanda said. "People like that don't learn lessons."
"Don't I wish you were wrong." Jeremy put another apple in his sack. "How much have we got?" They set both bags of apples on the tray of a produce scale, and added fruit till they had two kilos. Then they took the bags to the express checkout line.
The checker gave them a dirty look. "Why didn't you buy all the same kind?" he said.
"Because we like different kinds," Amanda answered.
"But they all have different prices per kilo," the checker grumbled. Jeremy probably would have got angry by himself. Amanda only smiled, which worked better. The checker muttered something, but he pulled out his handheld so he could see which kind cost what. He looked at the total on the register. "It comes to 557 dollars."
"Here." Amanda gave him five benjamins, a fifty-dollar piece, and a smaller ten-dollar coin. He ran the benjamins through a reader to make sure they were genuine, then put them and the coins in the register. He gave her back three little aluminum dollars. She stuck them in the hip pocket of her shorts.
Jeremy grabbed the apples. "Come on," he said, looking at his watch. "There'll be a northbound bus in five minutes."
They crossed the street and caught the bus. It wasn't a school bus, so they had to pay 125 dollars each for the ride. From the stop where they got off, it was two blocks to their house. A squirrel was nibbling something under the mulberry tree in the front yard. Fafhrd watched it wistfully from a window. The big red tabby was an indoor cat. That kept him safe from cars and dogs and the occasional raccoon and coyote, to say nothing of fleas and other cats with bad tempers. He still knew what he was supposed to hunt, though. Every line of his body said, If I ever get the chance, that squirrel is dinner.
"Poor thing," Amanda said as she walked up the brick path to the front door. She didn't mean it. Fafhrd was an indoor cat because the last one they'd had hadn't looked both ways before he crossed the street.
She opened the door. She and her brother hadn't even got out of the front hall when their mother called from the kitchen, "Did you remember the apples?"
"Yes, Mother," Amanda said, and then, under her breath, "I knew she was going to do that." Jeremy nodded. Raising her voice again, Amanda went on, "Why didn't you call when we were on the bus, to make sure?"
She'd intended that for sarcasm. Her mom took it literally. "Well, I was going to," she said, "but your Aunt Beth called me just then, and I got to talking with her. I forgot what time it was till I saw you out front. I'm glad you remembered all by yourselves." She'd never believe they weren't still four years old.
As they took the apples into the kitchen. Fafhrd rubbed against their ankles and tried to get them to trip over him. Amanda bent down and scratched behind his whiskers. He purred for fifteen seconds or so, then trotted away. Yes, she still adored him. That was all he'd needed to know.
"What kind did you get?" their mother asked when they plopped the apples on the kitchen table. Melissa Solters looked like an older, shorter version of Amanda. Jeremy got his lighter brown hair and eyes that were hazel instead of brown from their father.
"You didn't say you wanted any kind in particular, so we bought a bunch of different ones," he said now.
"Don't be ridiculous," Mom said. "Apples don't--"
"Grow in bunches." Amanda waved a finger at her. "I knew you were going to do that." Mom made silly jokes. Dad, on the other hand, made puns. Amanda had never decided which was worse.
"Haven't seen these funny-colored ones before," Mom said, peering into the bag. "They must be from a newly opened alternate."
"Orange you glad we got them?" Jeremy asked, deadpan. He took after Dad in more ways than looks. Amanda felt like taking after him, preferably with a baseball bat.
"How was school today?" Mom asked. Either she hadn't noticed what Jeremy had said or she was pretending she hadn't. Sometimes it was one, sometimes the other. Amanda could never be sure which.
"Okay," she answered. "I got an A-minus on my lit paper."
"In my day--" Mom shook her head. "They've tightened up since my day. Most people got A's then. An A-minus meant you weren't doing so well."
"What's the point of having grades if everybody gets the same thing?" Amanda asked.
"I don't know. I guess that's why they tightened up. It's not the first time they've had to do it, either," Mom said. "Getting rid of grade inflation, they call it. The other kind of inflation, the kind with money, just goes on and on. When your grandfather was little, a dollar was worth almost as much as a benjamin is now."
Amanda thought about bygone days when people got good grades without working hard. She thought about even more distant days, when dollars were real money instead of afterthoughts in small change. The only answer she could see was that she'd been born in the wrong time.
* * *
The last day of school was always a half-day. When the final bell rang at twenty past twelve, soft whoops--and a couple that weren't so soft--came from every corner of Jeremy's homeroom. "Have a great summer," the teacher said. "See you in September."
Out trooped the students. They were saying, "Have a great summer," too, and, "See you senior year," and, "See you online," and all the other things Jeremy had said and heard ever since the first grade. Somebody from another class started singing,
"No more stylus, no more screen,
No more teachers--they're obscene."
Other boys and girls--mostly boys--joined in right away. People always did. Jeremy couldn't see why. Kids escaping school had probably sung that song since the days of the Pyramids.
Jeremy waved to Michael Fujikawa, who was coming out of a room a few doors down. When they were smaller, they'd got together almost every day during summer vacation. Not now. Now it was, "See you in September." They both said it at the same time, and not just because they didn't live two houses apart any more.
"Good luck in your alternate," Jeremy added.
"Same to you," Michael said. His parents traded in an Asian-dominated alternate world, the same as Jeremy's did in Agrippan Rome. In the alternate where the Fujikawas worked, Chinese fleets had kept Europeans out of the Indian Ocean. Trade patterns and all later history were very different there. These days, Japanese warlords dominated China in that alternate, as German warlords had dominated the Roman Empire here. Michael went on, "It'll be good getting back. I'm starting to know people over there, too."
Jeremy nodded. "So am I. But it's not the same. It can't be the same. Too many things we know, but we can't tell them."
"Yeah." Michael walked on for a few steps. Then he said, "Friends are one thing. I wonder what happens if you fall in love in an alternate."
"People have," Jeremy said. "They say people have, anyway. It's usually supposed to be a mess. I don't see how it can be anything else." He didn't even want to think about that. Instead, he changed the subject: "I miss the days when we could fool around together all summer long."
"Me, too. Text messages just aren't the same," Michael said. "I wish there was bandwidth enough for video between alternates."
"There is--if you're a gazillionaire," Jeremy said. That disgusted him. If you were rich enough, you could get whatever you wanted. If you weren't, you had to put up with e-mail as primitive as it had been a hundred years earlier. Even stillphoto attachments were iffy.
"We'll be glad to see each other when school starts, that's all," Michael said.
"Sure." Jeremy nodded again. "You be careful, you hear?" That wasn't idle advice. Michael was going to a violent place. What warlords there wanted, they reached out and took. People who didn't like it could easily end up dead.
"You, too," Michael told him.
"Me? Don't worry about me. I'll be fine." Jeremy laughed. "Hardly anything ever happens in Agrippan Rome. The Empire's more than two thousand years old there, and they've spent all that time making it more complicated. You have to fill out sixteen different forms before you can swat a fly, let alone catch a mouse." He was exaggerating, but only a little.
"Be careful anyway," Michael said. "If you're not careful, you get in trouble." Jeremy's folks always said the same thing. He didn't mind it so much from his friend. Michael pointed. "There's your sister." He waved. "Hi, Amanda." When he and Jeremy were smaller, he'd done his best not to notice her. Now he was polite.
"Hi, Michael," she said, and then started, "'No more stylus, no more screen--'"
"Not you, too!" Jeremy broke in.
"Why not?" Amanda said. "They sing the same kind of song in Polisso, where we're going." She started a chant in neoLatin.
"In my alternate, too," Michael said, and sang in the Japanese-Chinese pidgin merchants used there. That didn't mean anything to Jeremy, who'd never soaked up the language through his implant. Michael had taught him a few phrases, most of them dirty, but he didn't hear any of those. He'd done the same for his friend with neoLatin, which was an excellent language to swear in.
"Here comes our bus, Jeremy," Amanda said. "Last time this year. I like that."
"Evg on the bus with Amanda. "We'll message back and forth all the time."
"Sure," Michael said. "See you. So long, Amanda."
"So long," Amanda said. As she and Jeremy climbed into the bus, she added, in a low voice, "I didn't used to think much of Michael, but he's okay."
"He is the best of men," Jeremy said in neoLatin. His sister poked him in the ribs.
She sat down with a girl she knew. Jeremy sat in the seat right behind her. Somebody in the back of the bus sang out, "'No more stylus, no more...'" Jeremy stuck his fingers in his ears. The guy who'd sat down beside him laughed.
People called good-byes as their friends got off the bus. They waved through the windows. The ones who'd left waved back and then headed home. Some would go out to the alternates for the summer. Some would work here. Some would just take it easy till September. Lucky, Jeremy thought.
Jeremy and Amanda got out at their stop. He hurried up the street toward their house. "What's the rush?" Amanda called.
"Don't you want to finish packing so we can leave?" Jeremy asked. He wished they could have left weeks ago. Amanda didn't need to think very long. She caught up with him in three long strides. They went on together.
* * *
Amanda's stomach didn't have time to do more than lurch on the suborbital hop to Romania. Then weight returned, the sky went from black to blue once more, and down they came, outside of Bucharest. "Now for customs," Jack Solters said. "That'll take longer than getting here did."
Amanda thought her father was exaggerating. He turned out not to be. They stood in line for an hour and a half before a man in a muddy brown uniform examined their passports with microscopic care. He took their thumbprints and retinal prints and compared them to the data in the passports. "Purpose of your visit?" he asked. He spoke with a thick accent. Romania wasn't a wealthy country. Not many people here had implants. The customs man had learned English the hard way, the old-fashioned way. It showed.
"We are in transit," Dad answered. "We are doing business in an alternate."
"Papers," the customs man said.
"Right here." Amanda's father handed him a thick sheaf of them. Some were in English, others in Romanian. The official called over another man in a fancier uniform. They put their heads together and talked in their own language. Amanda thought she recognized a word here and there. Romanian and the neoLatin she knew both sprang from classical Latin, though they'd gone in different directions.
Dad spoke up in fluent Romanian. He'd learned it through his implant. The man in the fancier uniform answered him. They went back and forth for a minute or two. The Romanian gestured. He and Dad stepped off to one side. They talked some more. Then they smiled and shook hands. After that, everything went smoothly. The junior customs man stamped the Solters' passports. No one searched their bags. They went on to the rental-car counter.
As they drove the little, natural gas--powered Fiat north and west up Highway E-68, Jeremy said, "What did you do, Dad? Slip him a couple of hundred benjamins?"
"Of course not," their father answered. "That would be illegal."
At the same time, Mom pointed to the dome light. Jeremy looked blank. Amanda got it right away. She grabbed her stylus and scribbled on the screen of her handheld. She showed it to Jeremy: THE CAR'S BUGGED, DUMMY.
He stared at the dome light. Amanda couldn't figure out why he would do that. For somebody who was smart--and Jeremy was, no doubt about it--he could act pretty foolish sometimes. A microphone right out there in the open where anybody could see it wouldn't make much of a bug.
"Oh," Jeremy said--much later than he should have. "Sure."
From Bucharest to Moigrad, the little town by the site of what was Polisso in the alternate and had been Porolissum in ancient days, was a little less than four hundred kilometers. The Fiat wheezed and chugged going over the Transylvanian Alps. They drove through Cluj, the only good-sized town between Bucharest and Moigrad, an hour before they finally got where they were going.
In this world, Porolissum was a ruin, a place where archaeologists dug. A hundred years earlier, they'd rebuilt one gate to look the way it had back in Roman days. Amanda supposed they'd been trying to lure tourists. They hadn't had much luck. If Moigrad wasn't the middle of nowhere, you could see it from there.
The reconstructed gate didn't look much like the one in Polisso. That had bothered Amanda when she saw first one and then the other. It didn't any more. In the alternate, Polisso had been a going concern for two millennia. People there must have repaired or rebuilt the gate half a dozen times.
With a sigh of relief, Dad parked in front of the Crosstime Traffic office in Moigrad. Two men in the white, grays, and black of urban camouflage came out of the building. They both carried assault rifles. "Are they guards or bandits?" Jeremy asked.
"Guards," Dad said. In a low voice, he went on, "Romania's poor, and it's proud. Not everybody here likes multinationals."
Amanda eyed the rifles. That sounds like an understatement, she thought. Her father rolled down his window. He spoke to the guards in Romanian. They smiled, but the smiles didn't reach their eyes. One of them said something. Dad handed him his passport. The guard studied it, nodded, and gave it back. He spoke again.
"Show him your passports, too," Jack Solters said. Mom and Amanda and Jeremy got out the documents. They handed them to Dad, who gave them to the guard. He looked them over, then returned them. He nodded again. He and his partner stepped back and waved toward the office.
"Looks like we're okay," Mom said. She opened the car door. As she got out and stretched, the second guard said something.
Dad translated: "Our luggage will have to go through the sniffer. He knows we are who we say we are, but they aren't making any exceptions."
"I don't mind," Amanda said. "Have they had trouble here?"
After some back-and-forth with the guards in Romanian, Dad shook his head. "He says they haven't, and they don't want any, either. They've got some hotheads, some big talkers, and they aren't taking any chances."
"Don't people realize what a mess we'd be in without the alternates?" Amanda said.
"In a word," Dad answered, "no."
Copyright 2003 by Harry Turtledove