Daggers in Darkness

In this first book of S.M. Stirling’s Treasures of Tartary trilogy, set in his Black Chamber alternate history, Luz O’Malley and Ciara Whelan, are agents of President Teddy Roosevelt. They are tasked to figure out where all the Chinese antiquities being smuggled into the USA are coming from. Bodies keep turning up all over Chinatown and Shanghai. Luz and Ciara have to watch out for daggers in the dark.

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In the fourth book of this early Twentieth Century alternate history, Teddy Roosevelt has steered the Progressive Republican Party and the United States through the Mexican insurrection, and what would have been World War I. Mexico has become a part of the United States, but Europe has been destroyed by the Kaiser’s v-gas. Japan, Germany, and what’s left of the British Commonwealth are struggling for supremacy in the new world of the Twentieth Century.

Roosevelt has created a spy agency called the Black Chamber, and two of his best Black Chamber agents are Luz O’Malley and her lover, Ciara Whelan. Luz and Ciara are tasked to figure out where all the Chinese antiquities being smuggled into the USA are coming from. As they dig deeper and deeper, bodies keep turning up all over Chinatown and it is no better in Shanghai. Luz and Ciara have to watch out for daggers in the dark.

Casa de los Amantes
Santa Barbara, California
October 1st, 1922 A.D., 1922(b)

“So, how did you like my alma mater?” Luz O’Malley Aróstegui said to her childhood friend Midori Taguchi. “The Chamber’s kept you two hopping with training since graduation.”

At least, she was fairly sure it was Midori in the next lounger and not her sister Fumiko, who’d been doing lengths and was walking over toweling bobbed black hair. They’d been born less than a year apart—about the biological minimum, in fact, and Luz suspected Fumiko had been a desperate try for a second son—and they resembled each other very closely indeed.

And they absolutely enjoyed keeping people guessing which was which and had since childhood. She’d even caught them doing it with their own father, often successfully, though with him they had the decency to laugh only later.

In a way it’s a good introduction to the secret world, where nothing is as it seems and you can never take anything at face value.

“In my day—”

Luz had talked, charmed, and emotionally blackmailed her way into the Black Chamber right at its birth, just a decade ago now; she’d have been a little too young to vote, even if women had been able to before the 1913 Equal Rights Amendment.

“—they just threw us in and we learned on the job, or between assignments. Or died,” she added.

Midori rolled her eyes. “And you walked to school uphill both ways, in the snow, fighting off wolves and Indians.”

“Don’t forget the redcoats,” Luz said affectionately.

“Amazing how we started at the same school only two years later and no sign of snow, redskins, or the British,” Midori said.

“We were disappointed after all the whoppers you’d told us,” her sister added, halting the toweling for a second.

The loungers were in a row, in the dappled shade of a trellis overgrown with frangipani vine thickly covered in white flowers with golden centers, a strong sweet scent drifting down and only the tiled walk and hedge between their backs and the sun-heat reflected from the cream stucco of the house wall. The pool was a long oval of blue water and white marble ringed in colorful hydraulic tile in a Cubano style that had been a novelty in California when her father built the place a generation ago, though common now. It was big enough to swallow seven energetic little children playing—and shouting and splashing—in the shallow end, and their minders, and several adults.

Beyond a screen of tall Italian cypress her view ran south over green lawns, flowerbanks, paths of white crushed stone, minty-smelling eucalyptus and groves of giant California live-oaks old when the only people here were Chumash, to a gazebo above the retaining wall that separated the gardens and the beach.

You could just hear the light shussshhh of the waves on the sand in the distance, and beyond the blue of sea and sky ran on until it dissolved in pink around hints of the islands in the channel. Dapples of light drew warmth across her skin as leaves and blossoms shifted above her, and there was the sound of birds—right now, yellow-striped warblers and kinglets, and the buzz of Anna’s Hummingbirds like darting emeralds between a blur of dragonfly-wings—and drifts of monarch butterflies, which her mother had loved and encouraged to over-winter here by planting the things they favored.

Luz stole a quick glance at the younger woman’s left knee with an undetectable spy’s flick of the eye; yes, there was the tiny scar that marked Midori’s fall from a tree on the grounds of this very house, back around the turn of the century. Taguchi Gardens & Nursery had worked on many of Patrick O’Malley’s projects around here, and their parents had become friends as well as business associates.

“Though we liked Bryn Mawr fine,” Midori said, and her sister nodded as she emerged from the towel and plied a hairbrush left on her lounger.

“Fun.”

“Though not as much as the Chamber training courses.”

“Or our year as interns in Zacatecas for Senior Field Operative Colmer.”

“But fun.”

Luz could see the scar because they were in bathing costumes—everyone here had changed after lunch, including the two adult men, James Cheine and Josh—Yoshi—Taguchi, Midori’s elder brother who was on leave from a big Corps of Engineers project in the far north. All the women were wearing outfits from Coco Chanel’s latest and most daring line of swimwear, light sleeveless scallop-necked belted tunics of thin colorful cotton over halters and built-in pantalettes.

Luz had used pull to get her favorite modiste sent a special government laissez-passer in late 1916, and Coco had used it to escape from Biarritz to New York through the bloody chaos of the French collapse. She was tangibly grateful, which Luz exploited to get first looks and choice deals for herself and her friends and their relatives.

“Any problems there?” Luz asked, not needing to ask what kind.

Strings… or ropes or cables… had also been pulled to get the notably snooty people who ran Bryn Mawr University to accept the daughters of a modestly prosperous Japanese-immigrant businessman in far-off California, though the Director had agreed that was institutional need, not personal favoritism. Everyone could see that operatives who could pass as Asian were going to be valuable, the courses were relevant, and the location made other resources easily accessible.

There weren’t many forces stronger than President Martha Carey Thomas’ rather bigoted and extremely snobbish conception of who constituted the right sort, but the Black Chamber was one—or in Luz’s own Cuban-Irish-Catholic case back in the day, her father being a personal friend of the President. The Taguchis had probably compounded Miss Thomas’ ire by effortlessly finishing a four-year program in two instead.

Both the young nisei women shrugged, with what-can-you-do expressions.

“Fewer problems than we’d have gotten on this coast,” one said.

The events of the last decade had added some reality-grounded fear of Japan to longstanding Yellow Peril hysteria and labor-union hatred of competition here in California, as Dai-Nippon grabbed off the wreckage of the French and Dutch empires in Southeast Asia, occupied chunks of China, annexed half of Siberia and then acquired its own V-gas capacity.

“Unless the vile northeastern weather is a problem, in which case it was two years of imprisonment in Nordic Hell. It’s the Congo in summer and the North Pole in winter.”

Luz nodded sympathetically; she was a California native too and had spent her childhood mostly either here or in the tropics. Pennsylvania in winter had been a bit of a shock.

“Less in the way of problems than at a coed university too, I think,” one sister added.

“You certainly do less face-smacking; I’d much rather be socially snubbed than have to break the thumbs on wandering hands.”

“I thought you enjoyed that?” Luz said. “You were certainly enthusiastic back when I showed you how.”

“It’s only fun the first couple of times after you learn the trick,” Fumiko said.

“Fewer problems than Josh had at Stanford, and that’s a fact!”

They had a trick of speaking antiphonally, and sometimes of completing each other’s sentences. Like their equally irritating habit of wearing identical clothing, or silently switching non-identical items at irregular intervals, it was aimed at keeping people off-balance.

She’d caught them standing side-by-side in front of a mirror practicing synchronizing their expressions once, years ago. It showed an acting talent that might well be extremely useful in their new career in espionage, though.

Fumiko added:

“Though I suspect a lot of people at Bryn Mawr were surprised we didn’t show up in kimono.”

“With our faces painted white like geisha.”

“And walking like—”

She made a gesture with two fingers across the other palm mimicking the mincing gait that court ladies and very old-fashioned and very grand courtesans in Japan used.

All three rolled their eyes, and Luz chuckled reminiscently:

“I did feel tempted to dance the fandango along the way between classes sometimes, stamping my heels and clicking my castanets with a rose clenched between my teeth, setting the hair of passers-by on fire with my dark and smoldering Latin gaze. ¡Olé!

Her long-limbed build, five foot six of height, the narrow streaks of blue near the pupils of her otherwise night-dark eyes and the cleft in her small square chin came from her father’s side; he’d been six feet of dashing Black Irish good looks, with a body ideal for a really fast, shifty running back, which was the position he’d played for the Tech-Men team at MIT in the ‘80’s. But for the rest she favored the Criollo-Spanish-with-a-dash-of-Taino-Indian Aróstegui looks of her mother’s family: high cheekbones, full lips, straight nose, straight hair of an iridescent raven-wing black and a complexion that started out a smooth olive naturally and quickly took the sun to turn a warm even honey-brown that was actually a bit darker right now than the Taguchi sisters.

It had been a very convenient set of attributes when passing for a local while working undercover in Mexico, and in Europe she could easily be Spanish or Italian, or Provençal-French or from anywhere in the Balkans, or Levantine… and though imitating a Bavarian convincingly had been harder, she’d managed it for one memorable mission in Berlin during the war without arousing too many questions.

Unless you count the way we left amid a hail of gunfire in a stolen German Navy semirigid with an even more stolen Telemobiloscope, she thought. But that was because they picked up our wireless broadcast about Projekt Heimdall and triangulated our safe-house. Not anyone disbelieving my cover. We didn’t save America that time, but we may well have saved Britain… which is sort of ironic. But we need them.

“We actually did show up in kimono once or twice but it ended up in more of a fashion discussion than anything, which spoiled the joke,” one Taguchi sister said.

“And some of the other students bought kimono outfits themselves because they were so comfortable and then there were kimono parties in Denbigh Hall.”

“One of them actually went the whole hog and became a Sōtō Zen Buddhist.”

“Probably the only one in Pennsylvania!”

“Besides us, of course.”

Certainly the only natural blonde Sōtō Zen Buddhist in Pennsylvania.”

“She’d been raised a Unitarian, so she was probably in a state of spiritual starvation anyway.”

“It’s a religion for people who want to have a religion but without really having a religion.”

“Because that’s so common.”

“Unitarianism is like the sound of no hands clapping.”

The three of them chuckled at that pun on a Zen koan.

“We thought about fibbing that our parents were really Methodists or Baptists, just to see the look on her face…”

“But didn’t have the heart.”

Then: “Hi, Ciara! Have your great swarm of noisy offspring driven you out of the pool in search of adult company?”

“Our four were quite enough to exhaust me out of it, Fumiko. Golly, they’re worse than kittens with a ball of yarn when they get excited!” Luz’s partner said, as she made an exaggerated flop onto the lounger at Luz’s feet and mimed panting collapse, startling the cat curled up there into affronted retreat. “I thought the crawling stage was bad, but now they can run on their own—and they run towards mangling and death by instinct, I’d say.”

“Bah, you youngsters in these degenerate times have no stamina,” Fumiko… or Midori… said.

Ciara had spent the last six years getting her bright red-gold mane into an unfashionable mass long enough to reach her waist again, which she started to wring out as she sat on the foot of Luz’s lounger. Her one experiment with short hair had been for operational reasons during the war, and she’d loathed the way it looked on her. Her eyes were a turquoise blue-green in a round snub-nosed, wide-mouthed freckled face that couldn’t have said Ireland more loudly unless she had a harp tattooed on her forehead and a shamrock on each cheek.

The Taguchi sisters were a few years younger than Luz’s thirty, though the delicate bones of their faces exaggerated that to most American eyes; that made them older than Ciara’s twenty-six by about the same margin.

“Though I must admit you’re looking very trim these days,” Midori added.

They both laughed when Ciara jerked her thumb in Luz’s direction and said:

“If I’m Scathatch o’ Sgitheanach come again now—”

They nodded recognition of the name, a warrior-woman who’d been Cú Chulain’s tutor in arms in the ancient Irish hero-cycles. Ciara’s family had been raised on them, since her father had been a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood who’d left Dublin for Boston one jump ahead of Special Branch detectives and Royal Irish Constabulary constables with humorless killjoy attitudes towards bombings and assassinations. In fact, she and Luz had met in Germany with Luz impersonating a Mexican revolutionary to fool the Germans and Ciara actually being a genuine IRB courier, though she’d switched sides when she learned about the Breath of Loki.

“—it’s her fault. So I do too have youthful stamina… you wrinkled, ancient and tiny hags.”

Both were also five foot two, a pair of inches under Ciara’s height, which made her average and them towering compared to their mother and just as tall as their father; they were slenderly athletic in a way that was very fashionable, and had their hair cut equally modishly in what was called a Pageboy bob this year—Luz’s own Polaire bob was in an older style dating from just before the Great War, closer to shoulder-length.

“And the exhaustion’s your own fault for having twins,” Fumiko or Midori said.

Two sets of twins,” her sister added with a straight face. “It’s disgustingly outré.”

“Do you know the odds on that?”

“Yes,” Ciara said in a quelling tone. “One in a hundred births, roughly.”

“For one set.”

“The odds for two sets of twins, even with the same father?”

“And both sets looking the same?”

“Astronomical!”

“One in four or five thousand is not astro—” Ciara said, making a valiant attempt to interrupt the flow.

“It’s unscientific—”

“Inefficient—

In chorus: “Un-Progressive.”

“You’re ones to talk, the way you look!” Ciara said with mock indignation. “I think you resent ours because you’re not unique around here anymore.”

The Taguchi sisters pointed at each other with a gesture so synchronized it was like the view in a mirror.

“Unique?” they said in unison.

“Oh, touché,” Luz said. “I’m sorry, mi dulce amor, but… touché.”

“And we didn’t have twins, and we aren’t even twins ourselves! We just… have a strong family resemblance that fools the unobservant.”

“There’s a difference,” one of them said with a lofty sniff.

“Having twins means that you get two children for only about 115% the effort of one,” Luz said dryly. “Which is highly efficient in terms of time spent being pregnant, let me tell you. Which I didn’t much enjoy—Ciara loved it.”

“You’re quite the fond momma, though,” Midori said.

“I like the product; the process is barbaric, in my opinion, at least after the conception part.”

Ciara grimaced slightly; she hadn’t enjoyed the impregnation at all, even with Luz there to hold her hand, but vomiting hadn’t lessened her contentment during pregnancy. Luz went on:

“I’m not altogether sure that Luciana and Patricia are exactly alike. They may just look a lot like each other.”

She added dryly: “Full sisters often do…”

Midori nodded acknowledgement and made a mark in the air with a fingertip: “This set to O’Malley, but the game continues!”

“… and they often have the same blood-types; and their father had a twin sister. Their fingerprints aren’t very similar at all.”

“Neither are ours!” Fumiko, or Midori, said.

“We were shocked at that too!”

“Fortunately even in this Progressive age most people don’t carry fingerprint kits.”

Though nearly everyone had their prints on file in the central Federal Bureau of Security repository these days, which the Chamber could also access. It wasn’t exactly compulsory in itself, but several things that were compulsory nowadays involved being fingerprinted and blood-typed—school, the Boy and Girl Scouts, National Service…

Oddly enough, the best way to avoid really being in the general files is to be a Black Chamber operative. My file is as much fiction as anything Edgar Rice Burroughs or Francis Stevens writes. I’d have been bored to death by my official social-butterfly trust-fund life!

“And if you understood statistics, you’d understand that unlikely things happen all the time,” Ciara said; she really did understand them, and they were real to her down in her bones. “We were surprised, but pleased,” she added.

Gracias, Chavela,” Luz said, turning her head with a smile.

That was to one of the housemaids with a tray of drinks—aperitifs, and lemonade and orange juice, both freshly squeezed from the fruit of little groves that had already been here along with a small vineyard and olive-grove when her father accepted title to this land as payment for his first big local project. Ciara took a tall glass of chilled lemonade; Luz and the Taguchis selected small ripe coconuts filled with a mixture of rum, coconut milk, coconut water, fresh pineapple juice and a dash of lime and lemongrass, sipped through a straw in one of the eyes. Tropical fruit had gotten cheaper and more common in the US now that the country stretched legally from Iceland to the Guatemalan border and for all practical purposes—including tariffs and train-connections—to Columbia’s frontier with Panama.

The rum was from Santiago de Cuba, her mother’s birthplace, and laid down in white oak barrels in 1896, when Luz was a child of four herself. Her mother’s father had tried to have his daughter and her lover killed by henchmen the night they eloped… but that hadn’t kept Luciana O’Malley Aróstegui from buying rum from the family estates, through middlemen. Luz remembered it being brought out for special occasions all her life, back to days she was only allowed a tiny taste from her mother or father’s glass as she sat on their laps; she sipped nostalgia along with overtones of banana dipped in caramel and vanilla, with a hint of a pleasing oaky bitterness after a moment.

Luz cocked an eye at the pool, as she had been doing every little while all that afternoon, when she wasn’t in it herself. It would be time to cart the children off soon, which might take some effort, and start on dinner, which wouldn’t be much effort since it was a barbeque and anyway, she enjoyed cooking as a hobby and had been getting things ready since yesterday. It made her remember her mother…

Their own four—Luciana, Patricia, Colleen and Mary—were currently climbing out and cannonballing back in over and over full-tilt with the demented abandon only healthy, active children between four and five could manage. The rest were mostly grappling with various colorful floating toys of canvas-covered cork, each other, or both.

All were being rescued from drowning as necessary by Midori and Fumiko’s sister-in-law Susana Wentworth Taguchi, who invalidated the myths about redheads by being quiet and retiring; and by Yvonne Cheine and her—genuinely—adopted eighteen-year-old daughter Simone Cheine, down for the weekend from Stanford, where she was a freshman this year studying engineering.

And by Zhao Haiyun, aka Susan Zhao, the nanny Luz and Ciara had hired in 1918. She was a woman of about thirty with unexpected talents and was the reason their children were learning Shanghainese and Mandarin (with a Shanghai accent), along with English from their mothers, and native-fluent Spanish, Japanese, French and German from Luz. Luz had mastered the two new tongues perfectly as well—languages were a talent and hobby of hers.

By now Ciara could speak Mandarin understandably though with a thick accent, since her native bent was much more towards the sciences, but her near-perfect memory had put her ahead of Luz on learning the thousands of characters in the logographic Chinese script. They were reading The Dream of the Red Chamber together in the original to help.

“Ah… by the way, Luz…” Midori said, in her this is really serious voice.

“Yes?”

“It’s about your Japanese.”

Casa de los Amantes
Santa Barbara, California
October 1st, 1922 A.D., 1922(b)

“Well, I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it, Uncle Teddy,” Luz said. “But you actually, finally managed to tire that crowd of little devils out. Of course, I had them swimming in formation most of the afternoon, except for Ted and Eleanor’s.”

The President gave his alarming Bull Moose grin, very useful for playing bear, which he’d been doing intensively. Luz remembered the excitement of it from her own childhood. And the ghost stories afterwards…

Theodore Roosevelt had always made time out of each day for his children, President or no, and he loved romping with youngsters in general. He’d once been seen lowering his own offspring from an upper-story window of the White House on a rope made from knotted bedsheets, really getting into the spirit of a game of “Frontier Fort” where they were escaping from imaginary rampaging Mohawks brandishing tomahawks.

The adults, her guests plus the Roosevelts and Director Wilkie, were all sitting at the table under the gazebo near the retaining-wall above the beach, which had the barbeque pits nearby, actually iron tubs on brick supports. The children’s table had been not far away and presided over by Simone Cheine and Susan Zhao, though now the youngsters had been carted off, somnolent with cake and ice-cream, while Simone retired to swot furiously at quadratics, this time without the tutoring Ciara usually provided.

The ice cream was laid over a foundation of roasted sweet corn on the cob—children could do amazing things with that, some even involving eating it—various salads fresh from the garden and dressed with olive oil from the trees not far away, ajies rellenos—peppers stuffed with beef, onion, tomatoes precooked down to a paste, bay leaves, garlic, dry white wine, raisins and olives; and a version of Pisto Andaluz vegetable stew taught her by an ancient and disreputable and genuinely Andalusian retainer of her mother’s as a girl… the secret to that was just the right amount of the olive oil.

And charcoal-grilled meats and albacore tuna with a variety of bastings, breads and rolls, garnishes…

That went rather well, Luz thought. It helps that everyone here’s a parent except Fumiko and Midori.

The adults were now drinking coffee, and in a few cases postprandial brandies, or tea, which Josh Taguchi and Edith Roosevelt preferred to the national beverage.

The Taguchi sisters were ostentatious coffee-drinkers.

“What a splendid set of youngsters! After a happy marriage I don’t think there’s any pleasure, any real long-term satisfaction, that approaches raising a family of healthy children,” Roosevelt said sincerely. “Doing a good job at work worth doing comes next, of course, especially if you’re serving the country at the same time.”

Josh nodded; he’d made a quick change into his Army Engineers walking-out uniform before the unexpected guests arrived, looking fit and relaxed in it. He’d also met the President and First Lady several times before, always here, and he and Ted Jr. were nodding acquaintances and fellow veterans of the European theater in the Great War.

“That’s why I’m so glad the Corps of Engineers has assigned me to the Edmonton-Fairbanks Railway project since the Armistice, Mr. President,” he said. “I’m on the forward survey teams, topographic and geological both—a lot of it’s unknown country, so we’re doing ground and air mapping. Connecting the lower fifty-eight with Alaska overland is absolutely necessary, given the world as it is today. Right now Alaska might as well be an island like Hawaii, as far as transport times and costs are concerned.”

“Yes, it is urgent, Major,” Roosevelt said, smiling—that railway had been yet another of his pet projects.

Taguchi swept on, his eyes distant: “It’s a big job… monumental, and it’ll take a decade at least… Maybe the whole rest of my career, particularly if the project decides to put in a motor road as well. A task to consume a man, but it’s gorgeous country. Bleak, hard, and hard to love at first, especially if you’re from California, but beautiful… forest, mountains, great rivers frozen half the year… And in the long winter nights, the sky has to be seen to be believed!”

He gestured out at the skyscape above, which Luz thought was quite dramatic enough, particularly given the way it reflected in glittering hosts on the calm Pacific water to the south.

“It makes this look washed-out! Throw in the Northern Lights, curling and crackling across the sky like curtains of colored fire, and the whisper of the stars—when you can hear the moisture of your breath freeze out each time you exhale.”

“Brrrr!” his sisters said softly in unison, shivering. “Brrrr! Brrrr! Brrrrr!

Josh ignored them ostentatiously; Luz noted that the President didn’t seem to hear them at all, while the First Lady and the First Daughter-In-Law were resolutely hiding smiles, or possibly giggles.

“Whisper of the stars… that’s a striking phrase, Major Taguchi,” Roosevelt said, keenly intent and showing his author’s ear for a descriptive turn. “Your own?”

“No, sir, it’s a translation from the Russian. We’ve gotten a fair number of Russian immigrants on the crews just this last year… refugees, really, on the run from the Germans or the Japanese. They’re at home in that type of country, less likely to make stupid mistakes that get fingers and toes frostbitten, and good workers mostly. If you can keep them away from the booze, which is a problem.”

“My father said the same thing about every work-crew he managed on that sort of project, ones out in thinly peopled areas,” Luz said. “Rootless men without families tend to it.”

“True, all the experienced men say so.” Josh said. “And the hunting’s good, sir, in what spare time we have. Moose, wolf, bear… grizzlies, and polar-bears a little further north… caribou and musk-ox too… Especially once you’re at home on skis and snowshoes, and I’m learning to use a dogsled and team of huskies from our local guides, who are invaluable. Winter is better; easier to move, no bugs… the bugs can be a real problem up there since that half of the continent turns into a bog in spring and fall.”

Bully!” the President said heartily, leaning over to thump him on the shoulder. “That’s the way a man worth the name approaches a real man’s job!”

“Tempting!” the President’s son added; he shared his father’s enthusiasm for the chase and love of hard wilderness travel.

Josh flushed. “Thank you, Mr. President, General. You should come see it for yourself, Mr. President—call it a tour of inspection. Some of it’s got great potential, the Peace River Valley for farming and there’s timber and minerals further north, but I think other parts, large parts, should be wilderness preserves so future generations can see it as it is now. I find having children lengthens your perspective.”

“You should do that, Uncle Teddy,” Luz said; she’d been a little alarmed at how tired he looked. “Skiing through taiga in the Yukon and sleeping through blizzards in an igloo and eating caribou stew and shooting a musk-ox or two would set you up—you don’t relax nearly enough.”

Theodore Roosevelt showed naked longing for an instant; though his idea of relaxation was more what most people called extreme effort. Edith spoke up, surprising Luz a little; she knew the President’s wife had few inhibitions about offering her opinions in private, but it was rare with outsiders present, particularly ones from outside the old-school Knickerbocker social circles she was most comfortable in.

“Luz is absolutely right. You should, Theodore, and it’ll help make the public aware of the project. You always look years younger when you come back from a trip like that, readier to face the frustrations of your work. It’s pacing yourself, not self-indulgence.”

He wavered, shaking his head. “There’s so much to do… and being President isn’t nearly as annoying as it was in my first two terms. Not since 1912.”

“Of course not, Theodore, because nobody tells you “no” anymore. You should still do it. See some of your precious wilderness while you still can, and while the country’s at peace. I didn’t tell you to take time off during the war, but I am doing it now, and you know I’m right. You have capable subordinates and you’re good at delegation, the country won’t go to the dogs in a month.”

“I will, by God!” he burst out. “After we get back from Manila. You can be my guide, Major Taguchi! To the project, and to the land there. I’ll write it up afterwards; it’s been too long since I did any writing as a naturalist, not a politician.”

Josh looked a little staggered—and it would do his career no harm at all, of course, provided none of the polar-bears or arctic wolf-packs ate the President. Then Edith cleared her throat, rose and caught the eye of the wives.

“We should leave the President and…”

She smoothly topped herself from saying the men, as she might have a few years ago, or today in different company.

“… the relevant people to discuss other matters,” she said. “Thank you for an absolutely lovely dinner, Luz dear, and you, Miss Whelan. All the fun of a picnic and none of the drawbacks. And it’s good to see children in this house again.”

“You’re very welcome, Aunt Edith. Always a pleasure to repay so many years of hospitality and kindness.”

Josh jerked slightly and rose too; Luz would have bet that one or both of his sisters had kicked him hard under the table. Luz caught their eyes and flicked hers down: stay. When the good-nights had been said, that left her, Ciara, the Taguchi sisters, James and Director Wilkie sitting to either side of the President and his son, after a little chair-shifting to make conversation easier.

Luz glanced aside for an instant. The moon was rising from the sea, and the stars were very bright; the breeze was cool but comfortable. This had always been the place she thought of as home… doubly so since she and Ciara had shared the pledge-rings they still wore on the terrace above and vowed to make a life and family together.

“I already presumed that this wasn’t a purely social occasion,” Luz said dryly. “I know how many people want some of your time, Uncle Teddy.”

“Everybody in America!” the President said with a laugh.

“One hundred thirty-nine million, then, as of the 1920 census,” Ciara said, with a wry smile, then added with a glance at the newly-appointed Governor: “That’s not counting the Philippines, General. That would be another ten million. Not many seconds left for yourself, Colonel!”

He’d suggested she use that title for him years ago—it was what he preferred from adults not quite close enough to call him Theodore, though Luz got a pass on Uncle Teddy because she’d been using that since she was in knee-socks.

Ted Jr. chuckled, but added seriously: “We’ll need to add them, eventually, I think. Which is why getting things there right, and doing it right now, modernizing the country on a Progressive basis, is very important. We’re going to need everyone… everyone we can get… in the world as it is. America will.”

Roosevelt nodded. “Exactly. That’s why I just quashed another damned attempt at immigration restriction: the idiots couldn’t see that Germany is making us a free gift of two million of Europe’s best every year to build up our country… like those Russians Major Taguchi mentioned. The nation needs everyone’s service, and it needs the best every son—

He glanced at Luz from under his brows and over the pince-nez spectacles he wore in defiance of modern fashions, like the bushy graying mustache under the nose that bore them.

“—and every daughter of America can yield, which is why it’s criminally stupid or treasonous or both to hold any citizen of the Republic back from exercising their talents to the full in the nation’s service. Now let’s get to specifics. John?”

The Director of the Black Chamber began:

“Unfortunately I’ll need to review some geopolitical generalities first. You’ll know the Japanese opened their first small V-gas plant in late ’18, almost exactly four years ago. In Korea—”

Which had been a Japanese colony for most of this century.

“—in the north, near the Yalu.”

“We were surprised they did it so quickly,” Roosevelt said.

“It’s a complex job,” Ciara said thoughtfully.

She and Luz had been involved in security work for the American V-gas factory in Zacatecas, down in the Mexican Protectorate, and foiled a German attack on it with smuggled sky-torpedoes towards the end of the Great War. Back when the little self-guided flying bombs were a novelty, another of the Wunderwaffen that had almost won Germany the war. And had won Berlin a dominion stretching from the Atlantic to Siberia.

“Right on the edge of the practicable, even for Germany’s chemical industry. The Japanese must have substantially increased their command of chemical engineering plant while doing it. It’s not like making bulk sulfuric acid.”

“The Japanese are an extraordinary people, Miss Whelan, fully our equals,” the President said thoughtfully. “I’ve always thought so—I met Japanese students at Harvard as a young man, and I counted one of them among my friends; smart as whips, disciplined as monks, demons for work, and proud as lions. They were polite to a fault, but brooked no insolence from any man.”

That was a high complement from the man who’d popularized the slogan: Speak softly, but carry a big stick.

“Look at what they’ve accomplished! When I was born in 1858 they were still fighting in armor with bows and swords, but they whipped the Russians on land and sank their fleet at Tsushima when I was in my second term… I thought they would win that war, but not many others did… and now they’re building first-class battleships and aeroplanes and they rule half of Asia!”

“Their industries still have technical weaknesses, though, sir,” Ciara said. “They’ve been growing very fast, but some things just take time. It took us generations of hard work to catch up to the British, and we started closer and could lure over their best to settle here. The Japanese began with final products and simple things like textiles and have been working their way back up the manufacturing chains. And adapting the technology to their circumstances and habits—very sensible of them.”

“Exactly, Miss Whelan,” Wilkie said respectfully. “And we determined that the Germans gave them substantial help with their V-gas factory. Technical information, crucial parts and the loan of several engineers who’d worked on their own plants in Staaken and then the one in Rostov-on-Don. Pardon me, in Ermanaricshafen.”

There were quiet snorts and rolled eyes: Ermanaric had been… probably… a quasi-mythical Gothic king in the Ukraine in the fourth century AD, one who figured prominently in the Völsungasaga and the Nibelungenlied. The Germans were notorious for ransacking history and legend for ethnically suitable names to plaster on their vastly enlarged realm. The Ukraine was the East Gothic Marchland these days; and Romania was the Government-General of Gepidia. Named after the Gepids, a wandering Germanic tribe who’d squatted on their hams and picked lice out of their butter-smeared braids there for a while in the Dark Ages before vanishing into the blue. Nobody but specialists had even heard of them until their moniker was dredged out of history’s dungheap.

Wilkie and both Roosevelts nodded to James Cheine; he’d sabotaged the Staaken V-gas plant. Coincidentally at the same time as Luz and Ciara were in Berlin stealing the secrets of the German Telemobiloscope, which had proved to be a life-saving coincidence for all three of them and several others besides including his wife-to-be Yvonne and their adopted daughter Simone.

“I’m not surprised, sir, Mr. President,” James said. “It was to their advantage to help the Japanese, even if Japan was technically on our side in the Great War. Most of Japan’s gains came at the expense of France and Russia. And the Dutch, after they were annexed by Berlin. The minor German possessions in the Far East that Tokyo snapped up in 1914 hurt nothing but the Kaiser’s pride.”

“It’s very much to Berlin’s advantage to have us facing another Great Power in Asia,” the President agreed. “And it is very much to our advantage not to drive Japan into a real alliance with Germany, which is why we didn’t object when we found that Japan was quietly buying parts… and manufacturing equipment… in our sphere and in the British Empire… for its second V-gas plant. It’ll be in Manchuria, by the way, not far from Harbin.”

Manchuria had been a formal Japanese colony for about four years now… and was safely distant from the ocean and its largest city, Harbin, was in the middle of Japanese-controlled territory for many hundreds of miles in all directions. The Germans had put their second V-gas plant in Rostov-on-Don—or Ermanaricshafen—for the same sort of reasons.

“We couldn’t stop them anyway, not short of war, sir,” Ciara said. “Only slow them down and aggravate them.”

“Whereas if we don’t, they remember how much they don’t want to be left alone with Germany,” Luz said clinically.

“Exactly,” the elder Roosevelt said. “A game with three sides is almost infinitely more complex than one with two. The Japanese are—for now—the weakest of the three major blocs in military and industrial terms, but they’re in the strongest diplomatic position because both the others are forced to court them.”

“A Three-Body Problem,” Ciara said, and he chuckled.

Luz was only vaguely aware that that referred to some mathematical-astronomical puzzle because her partner had mentioned it as a challenging one; from their blank looks nobody else in the gazebo even had that.

Uncle Teddy is the best-read man I’ve ever met, she thought. He can talk to nearly anyone about their specialty!

“But the problem is…” Luz prompted.

Wilkie sighed. “That someone else is buying the same parts as the Japanese, with their purchases as cover and the no questions asked way the deals were done helping them.”

“Clever,” Ciara noted.

“It’s why we didn’t spot it for so long. Some third party, not the Japanese government.”

The President sighed as well. “It’s bad that the Japanese have V-gas. For some other, unknown group to get it is worse… much, much worse. Potentially catastrophic. The Japanese are ruthless but rational: they know they’ve been very lucky as well as tough and smart.”

“They have what they want, and they want to live to enjoy it, like the Germans,” the younger Roosevelt said.

“Exactly,” the President said. “But we cannot tolerate a wild card—not a wild card with V-gas.”

“Are you sure it’s a third party, John?” Luz said, feeling a jolt through her stomach that seemed to run like an electric current into her brain.

“Definitely. Not one of the main blocs, or at least not the official, known-at-the-top sections thereof.”

They all nodded; the Central Powers’ sphere was no more a complete monolith than the Oceanian Alliance, less so if anything. There were plenty of Austro-Hungarians who resented their country’s dependence on Berlin, and the same went in spades for the Ottomans, smarting under barely-concealed German contempt for swarthy Orientalische Barbaren.

“The kicker was the methods of payment,” Wilkie said. “The Japanese were putting their purchases through Swiss banks, which have taken over a lot of the things that the City of London used to handle… to the extent that those things are still happening at all. Paying with commodities at several removes… tin ore and petroleum, copper and cotton and rice and coffee and tea and timber, shipped to Italy and Switzerland, mostly, and sometimes sold on to buyers in the Central Powers. With the Swiss bankers using multilateral balancing to smooth the flow of cash.”

“And the Swiss bankers don’t talk to us about their clients,” Luz said.

“Or anyone else,” Wilkie said. “Which is convenient sometimes, and a pain in the… fundament at others, like this.”

A lot of world trade had just stopped when the two great financial centers of London and Paris and their clearing houses and banks had been wiped out on October 6th, 1916. The United States had suffered far less than most of the civilized countries simply because it was more self-sufficient, but what large-scale trade occurred now was much more constrained and largely directed by governments. Private exchanges functioned more within the new global blocs, or around the edges like this.

“This other purchaser, the wild card, Mr. X, is using dollars—which are accepted everywhere now, though under the table in the Central Powers’ sphere. But they’re getting the dollars, and this we just learned, by selling on the art and antiquities market, which has always been shady anyway to put it mildly. Apart from gold and silver in ingot form, which plenty of people will take and not give a tinker’s dam that the ingots are ancient; the rest is jewels, jade, incredibly well-preserved Oriental antiques, mostly of Chinese origin.”

The President amplified: “Song and Jin dynasties, some older than that, nothing later. Medieval Central Asian and near Eastern gear too, and a few Russian artifacts. Worth many millions in total.”

The Taguchi sisters looked at each other; they’d been taking courses in Asian art history, which partly explained why they were here now, Junior Field Operatives though they were. Their faces were another part, of course.

Luz closed her eyes for a moment weighing the possibilities. The problem was that V-gas was power in concentrated form; and who didn’t want power? For this purpose, or that, but it all came down to power.

American National Airways Airship Bunker Hill
Approaching General Sherman Airship Haven
San Francisco, California
October 5th, 1922 A.D., 1922(b)

“Golly!” Ciara said beside Luz, leaning on the railing and looking down at the Bay City through the broad inward-slanting windows of the Bunker Hill’s observation gallery. “They’re tearing the place up for fair, aren’t they? Even more than when the aunties and I were here for the Exposition in ’15. Of course, we came in by train… my, that was a treat! My first trip outside the east! And everything at the Exposition was so beautiful! Well, not the Midway, but that was so much fun.”

“The President was a very good friend of Daniel Burnham’s,” Luz said.

“The city planner who did Union Station and all those other buildings in Washington, and cleaned up the Mall?” Ciara said. “And who designed the first steel-frame buildings in Chicago?”

That was the sort of thing her engineer’s mind noticed.

“That’s him, and they weren’t only commissions he got from the White House; Uncle Teddy was very impressed with the way he handled the Chicago Exposition back in ’93, the White City. He’s the one who came up with that saying: Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

The cloth-covered aluminum of the gallery’s railing was warm and rock-steady under her hand, with only the slightest vibration from the engines in the corridors along the airship’s flanks fifty feet above their heads. The sun was high overhead—it was quarter-past noon—and the shadow of the airship floated over the city below as they slowed and descended and came around into the wind from the west.

“It was Mr. Burnham?” Ciara said, surprised. “I thought that was the President!”

The chatter of pre-landing conversations in different languages went through the big space around them as people waited for the docking; English being the most common by a large margin, Spanish next, but including Portuguese and French and something Scandinavian and Yiddish and Japanese. And, she thought, Arabic, which she didn’t speak but could recognize, along with several others she didn’t know at all. It gave them perfect privacy if they were soft-voiced without attention-drawing whispers, though there were people at the rail not far away.

“No, that was Burnham… but it sounds like something el jefe would say, doesn’t it?” she said.

Catching the Bunker Hill in Los Angeles had been part of their cover; they’d have taken the Coastal Express train if they were traveling in their own personas. This airship was one of ten on the Vancouver to Buenos Aires run, with half a dozen stops in between; documents would show that her party of five adults and four children had booked through from Mexico City and stopped off in LA before getting on the next flight north a few days later, as travelers often did.

“No wonder they got on well!” Ciara said.

“No wonder indeed. The President thought it was very short-sighted of the San Franciscans to reject Burnham’s plan for rebuilding the city after the earthquake in 1906,” she continued. “Back then the Federal government didn’t have nearly as much say in that sort of thing as it does now.”

Ciara sighed. “I don’t recall ’06 very clearly—I remember hearing about the quake and the fire and feeling sorry for all the poor people who lost their homes, but at eleven distant things don’t strike home. It was like a story, and of course I’d never left Boston—never did, until a trip to New York to buy books for the store later, Da being too sick by then.”

“I was fifteen. We were staying in Mexico City that year, mi Papá was working on a water-supply contract there. But I cried when I saw the pictures in the newspapers—we visited here often, and we had family friends then who lived in town. Old San Francisco… it was a mess, but it had an indescribable charm.”

“I suppose they just wanted to get roofs over their heads again as fast as they could. But they’re doing Mr. Burnham’s Plan now, sure and they are!”

They certainly were, with modifications…

Ones that make it even more grandiose, Luz thought. Which…

“¡Y todos, incluido yo, dijimos que no se podía hacer!” she murmured, voicing the thought aloud; she would have said that it couldn’t be done.

Since the 1912 election what Theodore Roosevelt wanted badly enough, he got, and even America’s brief, eventful participation in the last eighteen months of the Great War had only slowed down San Francisco’s transformation temporarily. And the Party loved big plans and massive projects, anyway. California was strongly Progressive, one of the PRP’s heartlands and hence abundantly showered with its largess.

Even Los Angeles, that promised land of boom-and-bust sub-divider speculative build-now-damn-tomorrow boosterism, had a city plan and a Progressive-style metro-area government with a figurehead mayor and a City Manager with an engineering degree running things now. Albeit they’d swallowed hard at the green-belts and easements the leadership insisted on, lest the place and the suburbs it spawned swallow everything between the mountains and the sea.

Though naturally enough the plan there had been drafted by Burnham’s greatest rival, Charles Robinson, and the Angelenos swore it was a much better plan and that they’d implement it quicker and more efficiently, and LA had a nicer climate anyway… and… and…

And finishing with an animal scream of: So take that, you effete mongrel Bay City snobs!

Unlike some in other states, both cities were actually charging ahead full-tilt to implement their plans, too.

From twelve hundred feet you could see the north-pointing thumb of the Peninsula that held the city, laid out like a giant room-sized map, one that showed everything but still gave you a visceral sense of the sheer size of it all.

And how Burnham’s great tree-lined radial arteries and massive squares and curving parkways now slashed through the old simple grid that had been laid out in the Gold Rush era with no regard for the hills. A third of the city’s vastly-enlarged area—Metro San Francisco now included everything down to what had been San Mateo county at the base of the peninsula—was slated to remain in open public spaces, enough for a population of millions…

Though right now it was in raw mounds of earth and fresh plantings and trenches for irrigation pipes and sewers and water and electricity, where parks and lakes and bandstands and sports-grounds and amphitheaters and museums and parade-grounds and a Tivoli-style amusement park would be. Other developments were just as ambitious, factory zones and new docks and American National Airways’ second major airship yard. The new housing was laid out on the Savannah Squares model, fashionably patriotic as a memorial since Savannah had been the only American city where the U-boat had managed to launch V-gas in 1916.

Even with the Chamber-provided warning time over a thousand had died—she had a friend whose parents and sisters had perished there. Right now it was the outlines of garden-centered squares, fading into scrub; they were too high to see the ones only marked by surveyor’s pegs.

“And that’s the Tower of Jewels rising again!” Ciara said, pointing to one of what had been the Twin Peaks in the center of town. “That was the first time I heard the President, when he gave that great speech in 1915 about how the buildings at the Exposition were too wonderful to vanish like a dream of beauty and order, and that they’d be rebuilt in imperishable marble and granite to glorify the city and America for ages to come. I cried then myself, but for happiness.”

“Meaning rebuilt in nearly imperishable steel and concrete and then covered in marble and granite cladding,” Luz observed.

“Well, yes, but that’s to make them earthquake-proof. Like your Da did our own house! So many clever features there! I wish… I wish I could have met him, and your mother. Though…”

And I wish he and Mima could have lived to see their granddaughters, Luz thought; it was bittersweet. Though that would have had… awkward elements… as witness that pause for thought Ciara just had.

The second incarnation of the Tower of Jewels was to be six hundred and fifty feet high, an elongated wedding cake of Beaux-Arts marble-statue-and-column neoclassicism in the style currently known as American Imperial, wrapped around office space and God alone knew what else. Topped with a giant illuminated globe held between the upswept wings of an even more titanic eagle, and the building covered like the shorter and squatter Exposition original in hundreds of thousands of Bohemian-style (but this time patriotically locally-made) cut-crystal jewels each strung on brass wire in front of a little mirror, to make the whole thing shimmer like a rippling coat of multicolored sequins in sunlight… though she remembered that the night views with the searchlights playing on it had been even more impressive, and not quite as…

Too-too-much as it was in the daytime, because darkness and flashing lights hid the overdone allegorical statuary; it wasn’t my favorite part of the Panama-Pacific Exposition, despite the fact that I really like that general style of architecture. Maybeck’s work with the Palace of Fine Arts was exquisite and it’ll make a superb Arts school down in the Marina district. The Tower… not so much.

Atop a nine-hundred-foot hill and at the near-center of the city it would certainly dominate San Francisco and the Bay forever, rearing fifteen hundred feet above the sea and visible like a shaft of iridescent flame for a hundred miles at night.

“It’s not just the Tower, either,” Ciara said enthusiastically. “It’s the reservoir they’re making there too, ready to flow down by gravity in an emergency. So clever! Once it’s full of that fine pure mountain water from the new Hetch Hetchy aqueduct, even the worst earthquake won’t be able to cut off the city’s water supply and let everything burn the way it did last time! And it will look so pretty as well, all surrounded by gardens, and with little boats for parents and children.”

“Very true,” Luz said. “That’s Progress for you.”

“This will be the most beautiful, the finest, city in the whole world, with the sea and the Bay and what we’re building!” Ciara said, with a new-minted Californian’s State chauvinism. “I’m so proud we’re part of all this—that everyone is, now!”

A new, giant version of the Court of the Universe from the Exposition was being rebuilt at the eastern foot of the hill at the junction of five great avenues, three hundred and fifty yards by two hundred and fifty. It was to be centered on fountains and flower-banks and reflecting pools, rimmed by immense curving colonnades of green-streaked red marble, and two-hundred-foot triumphal arches with mosaic murals of extremely edited historical scenes. It was all a little like the Piazza di San Pietro before St. Peter’s in Rome, but surrounded by gold-domed buildings—ones that looked like the Hagia Sophia’s bigger, richer, flashier-dressing sister. Those would hold the new City Hall and opera house and central library and archives and others this time, rather than exhibitions.

It would be linked to the tower by an enormous stepped ceremonial stairway up the terraced gardens of the hillside… and on the inside by high-capacity express elevators at the end of an arched tunnel. The plans called for an eventual link to a subway station beneath… on an as-yet-unbuilt subway system whose engineering problems in an earthquake zone were monumental, as Ciara had eagerly told her, in considerable detail.

Today it was all steel skeletons and timber forms holding poured concrete, cranes and a vast expanse of trampled dirt, machines and swarming ant-tiny workers hard at it in the bright mid-morning sun; the usual fog had burned off in the opening hours of the day.

Ciara’s voice grew dreamy: “And our children will bring their children here… and our grandchildren will bring their grandchildren… Up the Tower of Jewels, until they’re higher than this airship is now! And they’ll take the little ones by the hand to the railing, and they’ll show it all to them, what we’re building now and what comes after that we can’t even imagine, and say:

“Your ancestors built thiswith their dreams, and the sweat that makes dreams real. Your ancestors in blood, and your ancestors in spirit too. All this they did for you and your children and children’s children, all their descendants and all the ones we call to join our great people from every land. So be strong, be brave, be wise and loyaland when all this is yours, be worthy of them and their faith in you.

Luz sighed and leaned closer, their shoulders touching, enjoying the contact and the slight strawberry scent of the other’s hair as they dreamed together. They were silent for a long moment, and then Luz shook herself and said solemnly:

“And at last we’ll be able to hold up our heads when ambassadors from Barsoom talk about the towers of Helium and John Carter, Warlord of Mars.”

“Oh, you!” Ciara laughed, poking her hard in the ribs, and delivering another with each repetition:

“You, you, you! You and your Burroughs! There aren’t any cities on Mars and won’t be until we go there and build them!”

“And when we do, mi dulce amor, it’ll be because people like Burroughs and Wells made us dream of it,” Luz retorted.

“And people like your Da or me build the ships… the space-ships… to get there.”

Just then a shrill excited treble voice called behind her:

“Obachan! Looook a’ meeee! I’ma birdeeeee upppp ina skyyyyy.”

She turned to see Colleen dash by, with her red locks fluttering over an enormous toothy grin, arms spread like a bird, pinafore fluttering, her small shoes making a rapid patter on the spruce veneer of the deck between reckless hops and flapping and one of the Taguchi sisters in close pursuit, dodging other passengers. Fortunately little Colleen was looking over her shoulder and laughing, and didn’t see Susan Zhou’s arms until they closed around her.

A few of the other passengers sitting at the small round tables or looking out the gallery windows were annoyed in a tight-lipped silent way, but more were smiling indulgently; about the usual ratio she’d gotten used to when a child got exuberant in public… though quite rightly it flipped if you couldn’t control them fairly quickly, unless you were in a park or something of that sort.

Over the wail of little-girl protest as Susan Zhou scooped her up—birdees, apparently, disliked having their flights cut short—Luz said:

“Let’s round them up, querida, and get them into their overcoats and secured for landing.”

“All hands on deck!” Ciara agreed. “Golly, but kids are labor-intensive!”

“I am never, ever going to have these myself! They’d exhaust a saint!” Midori wheezed. “A Buddhist saint! Why doesn’t our species eat its young?”

“Because we’re not reptiles?” Luz said dryly.

Midori went on heedless: “And how does anyone survive long enough to grow up?”

“Daily miracles and a lot of hard work,” Ciara said cheerfully.

Then: “Luciana! Mary! Patricia! ¡Ven a mami!”

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