By Kage Baker
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1999 Kage Baker
All rights reserved.
You'll understand this story better if I tell you a lie.
Well, a myth, anyway. There was this god once, the Greek god of Time. He was a cruel old bastard and he ate all his children as soon as they were born. Zeus, the youngest son, managed to escape; when he grew up, he came back and ended the rule of Time by killing his father. Then he cut him open and set the older children free. King Time is dead; long live King Zeus.
In the twenty-fourth century, a research and development firm proudly appropriated Zeus as its corporate logo when it developed a method of time travel.
The method didn't quite pan out, though. Traveling through time is prohibitively expensive, and there are certain crucial limitations. For example, you can't go into the future, only backward into the past, and forward again to your point of departure in the present. Another problem is that history cannot be changed. Period. It's the law.
However, this law can only be observed to apply to recorded history ...
So the discovery wasn't a total loss. The company altered its logo slightly and became Dr. Zeus. They were able to make a nice profit looting the past by collecting "lost" works of art and arranging long-term investments. They loaded a database with every event in recorded history and found they still had plenty of uncharted past to move around in. They realized that if the past couldn't be changed, it could at least be manipulated to Company advantage.
But who were they going to get to do the actual manipulating? Traveling back in time is rough, if you do it the cost-effective way without extra buffers. Twenty-fourth-century agents bitch about it constantly, and demand extra pay. Fabulously rich corporations never seem to have enough cash, paradoxically enough; though you may really need to send that man back to deposit a certain sum in a certain bank on a certain day in 1806, you're reluctant to do it unless you've got a guarantee it will pay off in six figures. And how many times do you want to lay out money to send people through? Isn't there a way to cut costs on this?
Dr. Zeus got its answer reviewing another failed project: immortality.
Technically it's possible to make an immortal person. It is not commercially practical. It only works on infants or little children, not middle-aged millionaires; and since middle-aged millionaires are the only ones who could afford to pay for the process, it's sort of a loss as a market item. In addition, the chosen babies must meet certain stringent physical requirements, and endure years of surgical alteration and training. Not even the most determined millionaire parents, once they knew what it entailed, would put their little Gloria or Donald Jr. through such an ordeal.
So, you can't sell immortality. On the other hand, if you're looking for Company agents who will work loyally without health insurance and never, ever retire ...
They sent a team back to Lower Paleolithic times. A permanent base was established; equipment was shipped back, too. The original team went about collecting little Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons. These kids were then implanted, augmented, amplified, fortified, hopped up, switched on, tuned in, and thoroughly indoctrinated. They were given the whole harvest of human knowledge and culture from the other end of time; the books, the music, the cinema. They grew up, these superüberkinder, and when the last nasty mortal tissues had been well and truly excised, the base technicians handed them the keys to the lab and said: You take over. We're going home.
So, see what was accomplished with just one round trip? You don't send your agents back and forth through time; you recruit them at the beginning and let them walk forward through time in the ordinary way. Outlay for the project was kept to a minimum, and now Dr. Zeus had immortal operatives working for it, strategically placed at every important event in history. Of course, they were promised a golden future when they finally got to the future. Though that hasn't happened yet ...
And the immortals made more immortals, though not in the usual way, because they had all been very carefully sterilized; suitable infants were selected from the mortal population and processed at remote bases inaccessible to marauding primitives. More bases were built, more secret Company projects were inaugurated, and the fix, as they say, was in.
Dr. Zeus ruled the world. Covertly, of course.
By now you've probably got a mental image of these immortals. You're only mortal yourself, and the idea of a deathless, perfect race makes you uncomfortable — and maybe just a little hostile — so you imagine them intellectual and emotionless. Stuck up, too. You're probably thinking they all look like vampires or superheroes, tall and steely-eyed, the men with bulging biceps and the women gorgeous in a chilly sort of way.
Well, you're wrong. The truth is, they look just like you, and why shouldn't they? They used to be human beings.
The year is 1699 A.D., the place is South America: deepest jungle, green shadows, slanting bars of sunlight, a dark rich overripe smell. Jaguars on the prowl. Orchids in bloom. Little birds and monkeys making continuous little bird and monkey noises in the background.
And here's the Lost City in the middle of the jungle: sudden acres of sunlight and silence in the middle of all that malarial gloom. Red and white stucco pyramids. Steps and courtyards and avenues, straight as a die. Straighter. Really impressive architecture out in the middle of nowhere. Gods and kings carved all over the place.
And here's the intrepid Spanish Jesuit, our hero. You couldn't mistake him for anything else. He's got those little black raisin eyes Spanish priests are supposed to have, but with a sort of twinkly expression the masters of the Inquisition usually lack. He's got the black robe, the boots, the crucifix; he's short — well, let's say "compact of build" — and is of olive complexion. Needs a shave.
He approaches cautiously through the jungle, and his cute little eyes widen as he beholds the Lost City. From somewhere within his robe he produces a square of folded sheepskin, and opens it to study a complicated design penned in red and blue inks. He seems to orient himself, and proceeds quickly to a wall embellished with scowling plaster monsters whose terrifying rage seems to keep even the lianas and orchids from encroaching on them. He makes his way along the perimeter, then: ten meters, twenty meters, thirty, and comes at last to the Jaguar Gate.
This is a magnificent towering megalith kind of a thing of red plaster, surmounted by a green stone lintel on which two jaguars are carved in bas-relief, upright and rampant in fighting poses, with eyes and claws inlaid in gold. Nay, but there's more: no actual gate occupies this gateway, no rusting bars of iron, oh no. Instead a solid wave of faint blue light shimmers there, obscuring slightly the view of the fabulous city beyond. If you have really good hearing (and the Spanish Jesuit has), you can just perceive that the blue light is humming slightly, crackling, buzzing.
And what's this in nasty little heaps around the base of the gateway? Lots of fried bugs and a fried bird or two, and — gosh, the Spanish Jesuit doesn't even want to think about what that blackened and twisted thing is over there, the one reaching out with a skeletal claw to the blue light. Probably just a dead monkey, though.
Peering at the detail of the pictographic inscription that runs up one side of the gateway, the Jesuit finds what he has been searching for: a tiny black slot in the face of a parrot-deity who's either beheading a prisoner or fertilizing a banana plant, depending on how good your knowledge of pictographs is. After observing it closely, the Jesuit reaches into a small leather pouch at his belt. He brings out an artifact, a golden key of strange and unkeylike design. How did this Spanish Jesuit come by such a key? Did he read about its fabled existence in some long-forgotten volume moldering in the libraries of the Escorial? Did he track its whereabouts across the New World, following a long-obscured trail through unspeakable dangers? Your guess is as good as mine. Holding his breath, he inserts it into the slot in the parrot-god's beak.
At once there is a high-pitched shrilling noise, and the Spanish Jesuit knows, without being told, that someone has been alerted to his presence there. Maybe several someones. The blue light falters and blinks out for a second. Seizing his opportunity, the Spanish Jesuit leaps through the gateway, moving remarkably quickly for a man in a long cassock. No sooner has he landed on the pavement beyond than the blue light snaps back on, and a mosquito who was attempting to follow the Spanish Jesuit meets a terrible, though not untimely, death in a burst of sparks. The Spanish Jesuit breathes a sigh of relief. He has gained entrance to the Lost City.
Making his way through this awesome pile of arcane geometry, he finds a shaded courtyard where a fountain splashes. Here are tables and seats carved from stone. He sits down. There's a stiff sheet of calligraphied parchment lying on the table. He leans forward to peer at it with interest. A shadow appears across an archway, and he looks up to see the Ancient Mayan.
Again, this is a guy you identify immediately. Feathered headdress, jaguarskin kilt, silky black pageboy bob. Hooked nose and high cheekbones. A sad and sneering countenance, appropriate on a member of a long-vanished empire. Is this the end for the Spanish Jesuit?
No, because the Ancient Mayan bows so his green plumes curl and bounce forward, and he inquires:
"How may I serve the Son of Heaven?"
The Jesuit looks down at the parchment.
"Well, the Margarita Grande looks pretty good. On the rocks, with salt, okay? And make that two. I'm expecting a friend."
"Okay," replies the Ancient Mayan, and glides away silently.
Boy, I love moments like this. I really enjoy watching the illusion coming into sharp contrast with the reality. I imagine the shock of the imaginary viewer, who must think he's walked into a British comedy sketch. You know why I've survived in this job, year after year, lousy assignment after lousy assignment, with no counseling whatsoever? Because I have a keen appreciation of the ludicrous. Also because I have no choice.
So I'm sitting here waiting for the Mayan guy to come back with our cocktails, and I'm understandably a little jumpy, because I'm meeting someone I haven't seen in, oh, a while, and we didn't part on the best of terms. When mortals are nervous, their senses are heightened, they notice all kinds of little details they're ordinarily unaware of. Imagine how it is with us.
Like I notice: the sound of tennis balls, far off, rebounding. Leisure. The sound of toilets flushing, wow, think of all that expensive plumbing. The smell of the jungle isn't any worse than, say, a terrarium in bad need of a cleaning, and it's pretty much blocked out anyway by the dominating aromas of this place: colognes. Antiperspirants. Cultivated flowers. Refrigerated food all nice and fresh. I can even smell fabric: starched napkins and tablecloths and bed linens, and not one spot of mildew on anything, and this is in the tropics, yet.
As I sit marveling at the luxury of New World One, she comes into range. I pick her up about twenty-five meters to the right and two meters down, steadily ascending, must be stairs beyond that arch. She's moving at four point six kilometers an hour. I hear the footsteps on the staircase now, and through the arch I see her rising: head, then shoulders, then the white brocade of her gown.
She paused on the top step and looked at me.
She'd been one of those Galicians with white skin and red hair; could have passed for an Irishwoman, or English, even, until you saw her eyes. They were black. They had a hard stare, an expression of ... disdain is too mild a word. Disgust, that's it, whether at me or the world or God, I could never tell.
But it had been a long time, and maybe she'd even forgotten about what's-his-name. I took a deep breath and smiled.
"Well, well. Little Mendoza." And I stood and summoned every ounce of belief in the scene we presented. Father confessor extends welcome to young noblewoman.
"Jesus Christ," she said.
"No, sorry," I replied. "The robe's got you fooled."
"What a little pudding face you have with your beard and mustache shaved off."
"I missed you too," I said gallantly, gesturing to a seat. After a moment's hesitation she approached and sat down, and I sat too, and the Mayan very providentially brought our cocktails.
"You got my transmission, then." It's safe to begin with the obvious.
"I did." She arranged the train of her gown, not looking at me.
"So." I leaned back after the first sip. "Been a long time, hasn't it?"
"One hundred and forty-four years." No, she hadn't forgotten about what's-his-name. "Since Portsmouth. I'm taller than you are, too. I wonder why I never noticed that before."
"You're wearing high heels."
"Could be." She raised her glass and considered it. She was being too much of a lady to bite the lime, but she did lick the salt.
"I like your ensemble. Bonnet à la Fontagnes, isn't it? Boy, they really keep up with fashion here, don't they? That's the exact style they were wearing in Madrid when I left."
"I should hope so." She sneered. "You think courtiers fuss about their clothes? Hang around here a few years."
"If I remember right, you used to like new fashions."
"Less important now. I don't know why. I'm very comfortable here, actually. Sanitation, good food, peace and quiet. Nothing to disturb my work but the social occasions, and I manage to get out of most of those."
"So you don't party much?"
"I hate parties."
I reached out and took her hand. She looked at me in swift surprise. Then she relaxed and said, "You're back with the Church again, obviously."
"Have been. I'm about to change roles."
"Yes. Yes, I died heroically in an attempt to carry the Word of God to a bunch of Indians who weren't having any, thank you very much. Even now faithful Waldomar, my novice, is telling Father Sulpicio why he was unable to recover my arrow-studded body from the jungle. Anyway, I've just hiked in and I haven't even reported for debriefing yet. Can't wait for a shower and a shave."
"I would have thought you'd go for them first."
"Wanted to see you." I shrugged and had another sip. Her eyes narrowed slightly.
"What exactly are you doing here, Joseph?" she inquired. This time she bit the lime. "If you don't mind?"
"Recuperating!" My eyes widened. "I've just come from ten years as part of a Counter-Reformation dirty tricks squad in Madrid, doing stuff that would make a hyena queasy. Then I had a sea voyage here, which was not any kind of a luxury cruise, and two weeks on a stinky jungle trail. I'm a little overdue for a vacation, wouldn't you say?"
"Overdue for a shower, anyway."
"Sad but true." I looked into the bottom of my glass. "What does one do to order a second round here?"
She waved a negligent hand, two fingers extended. The Mayan appeared from nowhere with two new drinks. He went through the whole business with the new napkins and the old glasses and swept away. I stared after him. "What does he do, stand there just out of sight listening to us?"
"Probably." She raised her glass. "So after your vacation you're going back out into the field?"
"Well, yes, as a matter of fact."
"Going to play with politics at Lima?"
"No. They're sending me up north."
"Mexico? What on earth are you going to find to do up there?"
"Farther north than that. California."
"Ahh." She nodded and drank. "Well, you'll enjoy that. Great climate, I'm told. On the other hand —" She looked up suspiciously. "Nobody's there yet. No cities, no court, no political intrigues. So what could you possibly ..."
"There are Indians there," I reminded her. "Indians have politics too, you know."
"Oh, Indians." She gestured as dismissively as only a Spaniard can. "But what a waste of your talents! They're all savages up there, Joseph. Who did you offend, to draw an assignment like that? What will you do?"
"I don't know. I haven't been briefed on it yet. The rumor is, though, that Dr. Zeus is drafting a big expedition. Lots of personnel from all the disciplines. Big base camp and everything. No expense spared."
"And you're probably going to go in there and collect little Indians for study before they're all killed off by smallpox."
"I wouldn't be surprised."
"You slimy little guy." She shook her head sadly. "Well, best of luck."
I got a guest suite, and I showered, I shaved, I was brought a fresh clean set of tropical whites and decked myself out in style. I left the long heavy wig on its wooden head; I like fashion as well as the next guy, but you have to be realistic sometimes. And the rest of the getup felt swell after my Jesuit mufti: silk knee breeches, gauzy shirt, frogged coat with cuffs you could conceal a dictionary in, let alone a scented hankie or an assignation letter. The heels on the shoes gave me some height, too. Oh, to be able to parade around Barcelona in this suit. You know what priests really miss? Not sex. Style. I admired myself in the mirror a few minutes before going off to report in like a good little operative. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Sky Coyote by Kage Baker. Copyright © 1999 Kage Baker. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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