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In the Company of Thieves
By Kage Baker
Tachyon Publications Copyright © 2013 Kathleen Bartholomew
All rights reserved.
THE CARPET BEDS OF SUTRO PARK
This bittersweet and very strange story was written on demand for a small East Coast literary magazine. They wanted something from a science fiction pro for their annual all-fiction edition. What Kage composed was an idea she'd been carrying around for some yours—she was fascinated with the conflict between the emotional needs of someone on the autism spectrum, who nonetheless was an avid watcher of the human condition. In addition, Kage herself was enchanted with remains of the Sutro Estate out on the ocean edge of San Francisco. The real irony of this story, she observed some years later; was that she wrote the heroine dying of cancer—to give finality to her ultimate fate. And then, of course, Kage died of it too. But it never entered her mind when she wrote this story in 2007.
I had been watching her for years. Her mother used to bring her, when she was a child. Thin, irritable woman dragging her offspring by the hand. "Kristy Ann! For God's sake, come on!" The mother would stop to light a cigarette or chat with a neighbor encountered on the paths, and the little girl would sidle away to stare at the old well house, or pet the stone lions.
Later she came alone, a tall adolescent with a sketch pad under her arm. She'd spend hours wandering under the big cypress trees, or leaning on the battlements where the statues used to be, staring out to sea. Her sweater was thin. She'd shiver in the fog.
I remember when the statues used to be there. Spring and Winter and Prometheus and all the rest of them, and Sutro's house that rose behind them on the parapet. I sat here then and I could see his observatory tower lifting above the trees. Turning my head I could see the spire of the Flower Conservatory. All gone now. Doesn't matter. I recorded them. As I record everything. My memory goes back a long way ...
I remember my parents fighting. He wanted to go off to the gold fields. She screamed at him to go, then. He left, swearing. I think she must have died not long after. I remember being a little older and playing among the deserted ships, where they sat abandoned on the waterfront by crews who had gone hunting for gold. Sometimes people fed me. A lady noticed that I was alone and invited me to come live with her.
She took me into her house and there were strange things in it, things that shouldn't have been there in 1851: boxes that spoke and flameless lamps. She told me she was from the future. Her job was saving things from Time. She said she was immortal, and asked me if I'd like to be immortal too. I said I guessed I would.
I was taken to a hospital and they did a lot of surgery on me to make me like them. Had it worked, I'd have been an immortal genius.
The immortal part worked but the Cognitive Enhancement Procedure was a disaster. I woke up and couldn't talk to anyone, was frightened to death of people talking to me, because I could see all possible outcomes to any conversation and couldn't process any of them and it was too much, too much. I had to avoid looking into their eyes. I focused on anything else to calm myself: books, music, pictures.
My new guardians were very disappointed. They put me through years of therapy, without results. They spoke over my head.
What the fuck do we do with him now? He can't function as an operative.
Should we put him in storage?
No; the Company spent too much money on him.
Gentlemen, please; Ezra's intelligent, he can hear you, you know, he understands—
You could always send him out as a camera. Let him wander around recording the city. There'll be a lot of demand for historic images after 2125.
He could do that! My therapist sounded eager. Give him a structured schedule, exact routes to take, a case officer willing to work with his limitations—
So I was put to work. I crossed and recrossed the city with open eyes, watching everything. I was a bee collecting the pollen of my time, bringing it back to be stored away as future honey. The sounds and images went straight from my sensory receptors to a receiver at Company HQ. I had a room in the basement at the Company HQ, to which I came back every night. I had Gleason, my case officer. I had my routes. I had my rules.
I must never allow myself to look like a street vagrant. I must wash myself and wear clean clothing daily. I must never draw attention to myself in any way.
If approached by a mortal, I was to Avoid.
If I could not avoid, Evaluate: Was the mortal a policeman?
If so I was to Present him with my card. In the early days the card said I was a deaf mute, and any questions should be directed to my keeper, Dr. Gleason, residing on Kearney Street. In later years the card said I was a mentally disabled person under the care of the Gleason Sanatorium on Chestnut Street.
The one I carry now says I have an autiform disorder and directs the concerned reader to the Gleason Outpatient Clinic on Geary.
For the first sixty years I used to get sent out with an Augmented Equine Companion. I liked that. Norton was a big bay gelding, Edwin was a dapple gray and Andy was a palomino. They weren't immortal— the Company never made animals immortal—but they had human intelligence, and nobody ever bothered me when I was perched up on an impressive-looking steed. I liked animals; they were aware of details and pattern changes in the same way I was. They took care of remembering my routes. They could transmit cues to me.
We're approaching three females. Tip your hat.
Don't dismount here. We're going up to get footage of Nob Hill.
Hold on. I'm going to kick this dog.
Ezra, the fog's coming in. We won't be able to see Fort Point from here today. I'll take you back to HQ.
I was riding Edwin the first time I saw Sutro Park. That was in 1885, when it had just been opened to the public. He took me up over the hills through the sand dunes, far out of the city, toward Cliff House. The park had been built on the bluff high above.
I recorded it all, brand new: the many statues and flower urns gleaming white, the green lawns carefully tended, the neat paths and gracious Palm Avenue straight and well-kept. There was a beautiful decorative gate then, arching above the main entrance where the stone lions sit. The Conservatory, with its inlaid tile floor, housed exotic plants. The fountains jetted. The little millionaire Sutro ambled through, looking like the Monopoly man in his high silk hat, nodding to visitors and pointing out especially nice sights with his walking stick.
He was proudest of the carpet beds, the elaborate living tapestries of flowers along Palm Avenue. It took a boarding-house full of gardeners to manicure them, keeping the patterns perfect. Parterres like brocade, swag and wreath designs, a lyre, floral Grecian urns. Clipped boxwood edging, blue-green aloes and silver sempervivum; red and pink petunias, marigolds, pansies, alyssum in violet and white, blue lobelia. The colors sang out so bright they almost hurt my eyes.
They were an unnatural miracle, as lovely as the far more unnatural and miraculous phenomenon responsible for them: that a rich man should open his private garden to the public.
The mortals didn't appreciate it. They never do.
The years passed. The little millionaire built other gifts for San Francisco, his immense public baths and towering Cliff House. The little millionaire died and faded from memory, though not mine.
The Great Earthquake barely affected Sutro Park, isolated as it was beyond the sand dunes; a few statues toppled from their plinths, but the flowers still sang at the sky for a while. Sutro's Cliff House went up in smoke. After automobiles came, horses vanished from the streets. I had to walk everywhere now by myself.
So I watched Kristy Ann and I don't think she ever saw me once, over the years, though I was always on that same bench. But I watched the little girl discovering the remnant of the Conservatory's tiled floor, watched her get down on her hands and knees and dig furtively, hoping to uncover more of the lost city before her mother could call her away.
I watched the older Kristy Ann bringing her boyfriends there, the tall one with red hair and then the black one with dreadlocks. There were furtive kisses in amongst the trees and, at least once, furtive sex. There were long afternoons while they grew bored watching her paint the cypress trees. At last she came alone, and there were no more boys after that.
She walked there every afternoon, after work I suppose. She must have lived nearby. Weekends she came with her paints and did endless impressions of the view from the empty battlements, or the statue of Diana that had survived, back among the trees. Once or twice I wandered past her to look at her canvases. I wouldn't have said she had talent, but she had passion.
I didn't like the twentieth century, but it finally went away. Everything went into my eyes: the Pan Pacific Exhibition, Dashiell Hammett lurching out of John's Grill, the building of the Golden Gate Bridge. Soldiers and sailors. Sutro's Baths destroyed. Mortals in bright rags, their bare feet dirty, carrying guitars. Workmen digging a pit to lay the foundations of the Transamerica Building and finding the old buried waterfront, the abandoned ships of my mortal childhood still down there in the mud. The Embarcadero Freeway rising, and falling; the Marina District burning, and coming back with fresh white paint.
My costume changed to fit the times. Now and again I caught a glimpse of myself, impartial observer, in a shop window reflection. I was hard to recognize, though I saw the same blank and eternally smooth face every time under the sideburns, or the mustache, or the glasses.
The new world was loud and hard. It didn't matter. I had all the literature and music of past ages to give me human contact, if secondhand through Dickens or Austen. And I had kept copies of the times I'd liked, out of what I sent into the Company storage banks. I could close my eyes at night and replay the old city as I'd known it, in holo.
Everything time had taken away was still there, in my city. Sutro was still there, in his silk hat. I could walk the paths of his park beside him, as I'd never done in his time, and imagine a conversation, though of course I'd never spoken to him or anyone. I didn't want to tell him about his house being torn down, or his park being "reduced" as the San Francisco Park Department put it, for easier maintenance, the Conservatory gone, the statues almost all gone, the carpet beds mown over.
Kristy Ann in her twenties became grim and intense, a thin girl who dressed carelessly. Sometimes she brought books of photographs to the park with her and stalked along the paths, holding up the old images to compare them with the bare modern reality. One day she came with a crowd of young mortals from her college class, and talked knowledgeably about the park. The term urban archaeology was used a number of times.
Now, when she painted the park, she worked with the old photographs beside her, imposing the light and colors of the present day on representations of the past. I knew what she was doing. I'd done it myself, hadn't I?
Kristy Ann in her thirties grew thinner, seldom smiled. She took to patrolling the park for trash, muttering savagely to herself as she picked up empty pop cans or discarded snack wrappers.
She came once to the park with two other women and a news crew from KQED. They were filmed in front of the statue of Diana, talking about a Park Preservation Society they'd founded. There was talk of budget cuts. A petition. One of the cameramen made a joke about the statue and I could see the rage flaring in Kristy Ann's eyes. She began to rant about the importance of restoring Sutro Park, replacing the statues, replanting the parterres.
Her two companions exchanged glances and tactfully cut her off, changing the focus of the interview to the increasing deterioration of Golden Gate Park and the need for native, drought- resistant plantings.
A year later a big smiling man with a microphone did a segment of his California history series there in the park, and Kristy Ann was on hand to be interviewed as "a local historian." She took his arm and pulled him to the bare slopes where the carpet beds had bloomed. She showed him her photocopies of the old photographs, which were growing tattered nowadays. She talked and talked and talked about how the beds must be restored. The big man was too polite to interrupt her, but I could see the cameraman and assistant director rolling their eyes. Finally the assistant director led her away by the arm and gave her a handful of twenty dollar bills.
A couple of months after that she stopped coming to the park. Kristy Ann was gone, for most of a year. I wondered if she'd gone mad or gone to jail or one of those other places mortals go.
The Company had less and less for me to film, as the years rolled on. Evidently archivists weren't as interested in twenty-first century San Francisco. I was sent out for newsworthy events, but more and more of my time was my own. Gleason structured it for me, or I couldn't have managed.
I had a list: Shower, Breakfast, Walk, Park Time, Lunch at Park, Park Time, Walk, Dinner, Shower, Bed. I needed patterns. Gleason said I was like a train, where other people were like automobiles: they went anywhere, I had iron wheels and had to stay on my iron track. But a train carries more than an automobile. I carried the freight of Time. I carried the fiery colors of Sutro's design, the patterns of his flower beds.
I had a route worked out, from HQ to Sutro Park, and I carried my lunch in a paper bag, the same meal every day: wheat bread and butter sandwich, apple, bottle of water. I didn't want anything else. I was safe on my track. I was happy.
I sat in the park and watched the fog drifting through the cypress trees. I knew, after so many years, how to be invisible: never bothered anyone, never did anything to make a mortal notice I was there. There weren't many mortals, anyway. People only cut through Sutro Park on their way from 48th Avenue to Point Lobos Road. They didn't promenade there anymore.
When Kristy Ann wandered back into the park, she was rail-thin and all her hair was gone. She wore shapeless, stained sweat clothes and a stocking cap pulled down over her bare skull. She found a bench, quite near mine, that got the sunlight most of the day except when the fog rolled in, and she stayed there. All day, every day. Most days she had a cup of coffee with her, and always a laptop.
I found I could tune into her broadband connection, as she worked. She spent most of her day posting on various forums for San Francisco historical societies. I followed the forum discussions with interest.
At first she'd be welcomed into the groups, and complimented on her erudition. Gradually her humorlessness, her obsession came to the fore. Flame wars erupted when forum members wanted to discuss something other than the restoration of Sutro Park. She was always asked to leave, in the end, when she didn't storm out of her own accord. Once or twice she reregistered under a different name, but almost immediately was recognized. The forum exchanges degenerated into mutual name-calling.
After that Kristy Ann spent her days blogging, on a site decorated with gifs of her old photographs and scans of her lovingly colored recreations of the park. Her entries were mostly bitter reflections on her failed efforts to restore the carpet beds. They became less and less coherent. A couple of months later, she disappeared again. I assumed her cancer had metastasized.
Ezra? Gleason was uncomfortable about something. Ezra, we need to talk. The Company has been going over its profit and loss statements. They're spending more on your upkeep than they're making from your recordings. It's been suggested that we retrain you. Or relocate you. This may be difficult, Ezra ...
I don't think anyone but me would have recognized Kristy Ann, when she came creeping back. She moved like an old woman. She seemed to have shrunken away. There was no sign of the laptop; I don't think she was strong enough to carry it, now. She had a purse with her meds in it. She had a water bottle.
She found her bench in the sunlight and sat there, looking around her with bewildered eyes, all their anger gone.
Her electromagnetic field, the drifting halo of electricity that all mortals generate around their bodies, had begun to fluctuate around Kristy Ann. It happens, when mortals begin to die.
Excerpted from In the Company of Thieves by Kage Baker. Copyright © 2013 Kathleen Bartholomew. Excerpted by permission of Tachyon Publications.
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