But winter and rough weather"
††††††††††† †††††††† ("As you like it")†††††††
†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter 1
We were driving through a silent white tunnel. Snow was a blinding glare in the twin thrusting halogens, resolving into white dots accelerating at us like flak. The misses zoomed smoothly away and over as they found the boundary layer on the hood; the hits flopped heavily onto the tinted triplex, to be impatiently waved aside by the over-worked droning wipers.
††††††††††† Jim's square face in profile was devilish in the underlighting, eyes hidden in black holes like Torquemada. His hand reached out of the gloom to push yet again at the heating gate.
††††††††††† "10:17pm Friday" the dash clock read; "7:17am Saturday" my wrist watch would read, as jet-lagged I fought hot-eyed against the hypnotic wipers and the warm air blasting back† from the windscreen.
††††††††††† Another car slowly overtook us; thrown up sludge slamming on our 467 Merc and immediately we were at the bottom of a black greasy ocean.
††††††††††† `The prick,' Jim muttered, flashing his main beam. The note of the wipers deepened, laboured and gradually we rose to the surface. The overtaking car's green number-plate froze for a moment in our headlights - "California - The Sunshine State".
††††††††††† Pushing technology to the limit, the Airbus 770 had dropped vertically through the blizzard with screaming jets into LA exactly on schedule. But immediately after touchdown we had run out of technology. Lines of Mexicans with shovels were pushing aside the snow and an unknown Edison had clamped a plank to a forklift truck. There are no snowploughs in Los Angeles.
††††††††††† Hundreds of stranded passengers impatiently speaking into hundreds of cellular had blocked all channels. The display on my phone read: "Welcome CA, hope arrive Gate 4 white Mercedes 467 convertible 8:45pm. Jim." His ETA had slipped three times before I saw him. I had splashed across in the slush outside Gate 4 as he shoved open the car door. I had climbed into the dimly lit warm interior and thrown my luggage onto the rear seat.
†††††††††††† `Weather's all shot to hell,' was his greeting. He had invited me from "frozen Munich to tank up with some good old Californian sunshine." I could see he was pissed off that it was snowing here for the first time since records had been taken, and was expecting sarcasm. I had kindly refrained, slammed the door, turned towards him and we had shaken hands.
††††††††††† Scowling he had driven to the downtown Sheraton where I had booked in and showered. I hadnít unpacked; all I had was leisure clothing - in this weather I would stick with the heavy suit I had left Munich in.
††††††††††† Now he was taking me to one of the famous California "Singles' Bars". †††††††††††
††††††††††† An opalescent glow appeared through the blizzard to the right. The automatic changed down and snow crunching under the deep-tread Michelins we shouldered our way off the Santa Ana Freeway into a big parking lot, only half-full. The wipers still working hard, we drove past aluminium hitching rails up to the tall carved portals of a hacienda and climbed out. Yellow flaring torches mounted at each side hissed as snow flakes landed. A keen-face young man in a shiny green cape slid into the seat of the Merc and disappeared with it into the blizzard. Valet parking. You don't see that much in Germany. We turned and a blast of hot air and music ballooned out as the door opened. We entered hastily and the door closed automatically behind us, hissing in the fallen snow.
††††††††††† Thumping 120db disco music slammed at us, edging the pain threshold and resonating in my chest cavity. In front and below us was a vast dance floor filled with teenagers doing an arm-waving dance under flickering strobes, like an old black and white movie.
††††††††††† I turned round and for the first time had a chance to look at Jim since his visit to me in Munich three months ago.
††††††††††† Ex-US Marine Lieutenant James Prince PhD had peeled off his ski suit and was dressed in blue jeans tucked into cowboy boots, a narrow waisted check shirt emphasising quarter-back shoulders, a thin gold chain with a shark's tooth on it around his neck. Tall and good-looking, blond hair swept back, he looked nothing like the popular image of a computer scientist. Shit. In my dark suit, black shoes, white poplin shirt and striped tie I felt like an undertaker in this vital atmosphere. If I took the coat off and loosened my tie?
††††††††††† `We want through,' shouted Jim in my ear, edge of hand chopping towards the far side of the dance floor. He could have walked round the mass of bouncing dancers but typically he just bulled straight through. Before his tall figure the dancers parted, beautiful teenagers with barely adhering brief dresses smiled up as he grinningly did a few exaggerated steps with them on his way across the dance floor. The dancers closed behind him as he passed but had to double take and resentfully part again for me struggling along in his wake, hot and bad tempered in my thick suit.
††††††††††† Through another door and as it closed behind us the disco music cut off in mid beat. Another world. Bright spots hit our eyes and we were at the top of a broad staircase like the last act in Aida, curving down into a pool of velvet darkness. About fifty people were sitting and standing at a horse-shoe shaped bar and there was a sudden silence as they turned to watch us descend, shading our eyes like suspects at a police line-up. At the bottom thick carpets, dim lights, soft rhythmical music and to the left a small stage on which a couple were doing everything but copulate.
††††††††††† I could see the bar was populated entirely by Hollywood Californians. Confident broad-shouldered gods with sun-bleached hair, torn jeans and leather plaited thongs around their wrists were making smooth passes at slim articulate bold-eyed goddesses. It was hot, my suit was itchy and I felt totally out of place.
††††††††††† Jim was joshing a suave character wearing a dark blue silk tuxedo and with a sparkling jewel mounted in the middle of his goatee beard. He had a cellular phone in each hand and was speaking into them alternately.
††††††††††† `What the hell, Marge. You know I'd be there if I could but we gotta tie up the final draft for Monday ...' he said into his left hand. He listened a moment, held it against his side and spoke into his right hand.
††††††††††† `Yeah, sure I do hon, but I couldn't get too excited about that clown you were sitting with.' He listened a moment, rolling up his eyes at Jim. `He's into you for 40? So let go that beach hut you've never gotten around to furnishing since you met Marvin ...' He put the left hand phone up to his mouth again but I tore my attention away and turned to Jim who had touched my arm.
††††††††††† `... and this is Kim,' he said, `we were at USC together.' Before us were two beautiful girls of about thirty-five, made up in geisha-like detail. Kim was small and blond with green eyes, her hair swinging forwards in two high-lighted wings, which curled up under a little pointed chin. The taller one, whose name I never learnt, was dark and athletic looking with brown slightly slanting eyes, full lips and wearing a striped leotard. I shook hands formally, automatically nodding my head and saying "Digby" in the German style. I mumbled replies to their politely bored questions until Kim leant forwards and ran one slim manicured finger down my cheek.
††††††††††† `Hey, is that for real?' she asked surprised. I looked at her.
††††††††††† `Are you military?' the leotard asked impatiently.
††††††††††† `Well, yes, I was actually, but now I'm in the Reserve,' I replied. I thought the laser scar would be invisible in this light. Their faces changed.
††††††††††† `I was first,' said Kim, the petite blond.
††††††††††† `Ah, cummon, we always cut,' said the sporty-looking brunette.
††††††††††† Kim asked the barman, obviously gay, for a pack of cards. They cut and the brunette drew high. A quick whispered conversation and some keys changed hands.
††††††††††† The brunette slipped her arm into mine and looked into my eyes.
††††††††††† `I just adore the Bridish pronunciation,' she said. `I gotta grandfather from "Clan" something. That's in England, isn't it?'
††††††††††† `Wales, I should imagine,' I said, leaning on the accent.
††††††††††† `I was a soldier too, ectually,' said Jim, but they ignored him.
††††††††††† After that things moved quickly. So quickly that in less than thirty minutes by my wrist-watch I found myself lying naked on a bed watching while my dark-haired partner, also naked, had her leg up on a chair and was leaning forwards rhythmically touching her head to her knee, doing stretching exercises.†
††††††††††† `Not you?' she asked curiously. `Well, I guess you Limey's are always in good shape. We drive around all the time here,' she explained conversationally, stretching out the other leg. She snapped an elastic tube bandage over her left knee like she was about to play squash, and jumped onto the bed with me.
††††††††††† `What's so funny?' she said, `I don't wanna twist it, do I?'
††††††††††† Apart from this interesting regional variation, I am pleased to be able to report that everything went fairly normally and the honour of the British Commonwealth was adequately defended. Normally, that is if you exclude her asking me to repeat various expressions, expressions I was more accustomed to hear from the lips of an enraged sergeant-major on the parade ground.
††††††††††† `Oh, this is like a Bond movie - I just adore that English accent!' she squealed.
††††††††††† The next day I was sitting with Jim on a rocky outcrop in Laguna Beach, Southern California, sleepily recovering from the previous evening. The long rollers of the Pacific boomed in, crashed on the beach and slurped out, the pebbles rattling hollowly in the undertow. I looked around the white empty beach and scooped up a handful of tiny granules. The storm had wound itself up into a tight spiral and unwound over San Francisco, depositing a foot of snow over most of California† - snow that normally fell on the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. The sun was hidden behind the high ragged remains of the blown out anticyclone.
††††††††††† `Climate's all screwed up,' grunted Jim for about the tenth time, sitting beside me. He pulled up his anorak collar against the freezing wind and I let the cold white granules trickle out of my hand.
††††††††††† Snow! Snow in California. Some eccentric was slowly making his way across the beach in the strange swinging gait of the cross-country skier.
††††††††††† I glanced across at Jim who was looking out to sea broodingly. There had been a long period of calm in the struggle between Westblock and Asiablock and Jim, who spends most of his working hours before computer screens deep underneath the Sahara desert at the Westblock "Institute for Chronological Displacement", or "Chrondisp", had needed a break. He had taken the time off to show me California, where he had gone to College.
††††††††††† But he had brought a problem with him.
††††††††††† `They're up to something, but we can't see what!' he said, slapping his hand down on the rock. A seagull that had been gracefully hovering overhead in the stiff sea breeze jerked backwards, stalled, recovered and departed with an irritated clatter of wings. `We've checked the dates and places backwards and forwards trying to correlate them with world events, lives of famous families, astronomical records - anything. But zilch.'
††††††††††† He was justifiably bitter. A Time Inserter is a man-made lightning-flash generator, and like a natural lightning flash, produces a radio pulse that could be picked up from space. Chrondisp had found that by analysing this signal, this "signature", they could calculate where and when the rival Asiablock Time Inserter was sending their Observers. But now they had this information, it wasn't doing them any good.
††††††††††† `Okay,' Jim continued, his fine blond hair blowing out horizontally, `we can see them sending guys back, beavering away on all this historical crap - what Stalin said to Lenin, what Confucius thought about Zen, how much Henry the Eighth paid his gardeners...'
††††††††††† `Duluth once said "The Chinese believe that history is the main store of human wisdom", I quoted. `Asiablock is driven by their Faith: "Tao". You'd expect them to be researching it.'†
††††††††††† He grunted.
††††††††††† `He also said "the materialistic West always under-estimates the power of a faith,"' I added.
††††††††††† Jim flapped his hand dismissively.
††††††††††† `The slant-eyes are up to something,' he repeated grimly.
††††††††††† And he was probably right. Through their Inserters both Westblock and Asiablock had access to the whole "Databank of History" as the western media called it, but while we were allocating time to historians, geneticists, etc. and in general choosing targets for the greater good, Asiablock was predictably using the Chronological Displacement technique as a weapon - highlighting and virtuously publishing the more juicy feudal and capitalistic excesses of the past.
††††††††††† †"Tao", (The Way), the Asiablock state religion, had started like most new religions as a gentle "help your weaker neighbour" creed. But technology, and perhaps the Asian paternalistic tradition, had enabled enormous power to become rapidly concentrated into a few (male) hands and corruption had set in.
††††††††††† Corruption and terror. The Committee for Ethical Re-education, the dreaded CERE, was the Asian equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition. Its agents were everywhere in the countries of the Federation and any hint of heresy meant a visit to one of its clinics, run by perverts. It was rumoured that those who had been to one would often commit suicide after they were released, unable to forget what they had seen.
††††††††††† "The Way" was now for export and those terrible old beliefs that appeared so often in human history had resurfaced ...."The world has to be converted for its own good" ... "The end justifies the means"...
††††††††††† †Six years ago I had fought in a small but bitter war, the "Pakistan Affair", to defend the sloppy Westblock way of doing things. History has shown many times over† that Democracy is a terribly inefficient system of government, but for human beings there is no other.†
††††††††††† Today however, I was on holiday and such thoughts were not for me.
††††††††††† `And what proportion of Insertions can't you identify?' I asked idly. Jim looked across at me, squinting in the white glare.
††††††††††† `We've been watching them for three years and to start with we could usually find a reason for each Insertion. But in the last three months they've doubled up their Insertion rate and we can't account for any of these goddamn Missions.' He looked round surreptitiously but we were quite alone. `All this is top secret by the way, Dig,' he said seriously, `I shouldn't really have told you.'
††††††††††† I made a gesture of acceptance. I was surely one of the last to betray Chrondisp's secrets.
††††††††††† `So what are Chrondisp going to do?' I asked. `If you know where and when they've gone, can't you follow them in with your own Observers?'
††††††††††† `Yeah, we thought of that, but it ain't so easy. A lot of our Insertions, and our budget too, are in the public domain now. Like space shots, we get full media coverage before and after. So if we don't do it on tiptoe Asiablock are going to put two and two together and realise we can look over their shoulders. Bugger it.' He made a snowball and threw it far out to sea.
††††††††††† We stood up and squeaked back through the snow, past a beach hut closed and shuttered, a small drift of snow piled against the sign advertising "Ice-cream 22 flavors" and made for the car park. We sat in his car with the heater roaring.
††††††††††† The next day the weather brusquely flipped back to normal. I tried to contact the brunette again but Jim said she had gone back East. So he drove me around showing me the sights or we just lay around on the now almost normally warm beaches, played tennis, chatted and ate sea-food.
†††† A few days later we parted, he back to his computers, me back to a small "Weapons" shop I own in Munich in partnership with a Bavarian, Dieter. But by the way Jim absently said goodbye to me at the airport I had a feeling I would soon be seeing him.