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Disunited States of America
Beckie Royer was running guns from Ohio into Virginia, and she was scared to death. She hadn't intended to be a gun runner. She didn't want to be one. At the moment, she didn't have much choice.
Her grandmother and the man she called Uncle Luke even though he was only a relation by marriage sat in the front seat of his beat-up old white Honda. Beckie had the back seat--what there was of it--to herself. Her feet wouldn't go all the way to the floorboards, and with that cramped back seat she needed all the leg room she could get.
There was a gray blanket down there. When she lifted it to see what it hid, she almost passed out. Half a dozen assault rifles, and heaven only knew how many clips of ammunition.
She didn't say anything. She couldn't say anything. She was too scared--scared not just of the guns but scared that if she opened her mouth Uncle Luke would throw her and Gran out of the car and leave them stuck in the middle of nowhere. He hadn't wanted to drive them to Elizabeth, Virginia, in the first place. If his wife (who really was Gran's sister) hadn't insisted, he never would have done it.
Not for the first time, Beckie wished she were back in California. California had money, and it was at peace with most of itsneighbors. Oh, the border squabble with Baja never went away, but it never got too hot, either. Baja knew California would clean its clock if it tried anything real grabby.
Gran had been born in Elizabeth a long time ago, back in the 2020s. Now that she'd turned seventy, she wanted to see her friends and relatives one last time before she died. That was what she said, anyway--Beckie wouldn't have been surprised if she lasted to a hundred.
So Gran took Beckie with her and flew to Columbus. Beckie had been excited then. How many seventeen-year-old girls from Los Angeles got a chance to go to other states, especially states filled with history and blood like Ohio and Virginia?
Everything turned out to be the world's biggest yawn. All Gran wanted to do was visit other old people. The dialects they spoke among themselves were so different from the English Beckie was used to that she hardly understood them. Even the food tasted weird. Nobody'd ever heard of salsa or cilantro. Gran's relatives hardly even used garlic. Boring!
And now the Honda was bouncing through the potholed streets of Belpre, Ohio. The town couldn't have had more than nine people in it. The bridge over the Ohio River looked a million years old. She hoped it wouldn't fall down. Right in the middle of the bridge, in the middle of the river, sat the Virginia border checkpoint.
Uncle Luke stopped the car. Two Virginia border guards in old-fashioned gray uniforms strode up to it. Beckie tried to keep her teeth from chattering. If they found those guns, they would throw her in jail and lose the key. They would figure the rifles were bound for the black guerrillas down in the lowlands. For all Beckie knew, they would be right.
How she wished she were bored now!
"From Ohio, eh?" one of the guards said. "I'm gonna have to see your papers." To Beckie's ear, he spoke with a peculiar nasal twang. Papers sounded like pipers. She could follow him, but she had to work at it.
"Give me your passports." Uncle Luke--Uncle Luke who wasn't an uncle, Uncle Luke who ran guns--held out his hand, first to Gran, then to Beckie.
She didn't want to give hers up, but what choice did she have? She felt even more naked, even more afraid, without it. She hadn't thought she could.
Uncle Luke's passport got only a brief glance. The guard stamped it and handed it back. But when he saw Gran's and Beckie's, he stiffened like a bird dog coming to point. "Hey, Cloyd! Lookie here!" he called. "These folks're from California!"
"From California?" Cloyd exclaimed. "What in blue blazes are they doin' here?"
"Beats me," the other guard said. "If I lived in California, I sure wouldn't come here, and that's a fact." He let out a wistful sigh, then bent down to speak to Gran and Beckie. Beckie kept her feet very still on the blanket. If she wiggled--and she had a habit of wiggling when she was nervous--the guns might make a noise. That would be dreadful, or whatever was worse than dreadful. "What're you California ladies doin' comin' into Virginia?" he asked.
"I was born in Elizabeth," Gran answered, and the hill-country twang in her voice showed she was telling the truth. "I'm comin' back to visit kinfolk and friends one last time 'fore I die, and I want my granddaughter here to know where her roots are."
"How about that?" the guard said. "If'n I moved away, reckon I'd be prouder I was gone than of where I came from. Ain't that right, Cloyd?"
"Expect it is." Cloyd kept staring at Beckie's passport and Gran's--her real name was Myrtle Bentley, but except when she had to sign something she didn't use it. Beckie wondered if he'd ever seen a California passport before. This was about as no-account a border crossing as the state of Virginia had. Why would a Californian want to come across here? Beckie sure didn't, not with those guns under her feet.
"California," the other guard, the one whose name she didn't know, said with a jealous sigh. California was big and rich and strong, all right. If people in another state tried mistreating its citizens, it could throw rockets all the way across North America. It hadn't needed to for a long time, but it could.
Beckie realized Uncle Luke was using those precious California passports as a shield to make sure his car didn't get searched. Normally, the guards would have looked to see if he was carrying moonshine or grass, trying to sneak them into Virginia without paying duty. That kind of smuggling happened all the time. Guns ... Guns were a different business.
And Uncle Luke's gamble was going to pay off. "They have the right visas and everything?" the guard by the car asked Cloyd.
"Sure enough do," Cloyd said. He took the California passports over to the kiosk in the middle of the bridge and ran them through a computer terminal. He stamped them, too, as the other guard had stamped Uncle Luke's commonplace Ohio passport--Virginia was an old-fashioned place. Then he brought them back and returned them. "Here y'go, folks. Enjoy your stay."
"Thank you kindly," Gran said. Uncle Luke didn't say anything--he was as sour as an unripe persimmon. He just drove across the bridge, across the river, and into Virginia.
As Beckie stuck her passport into her purse, she let out an enormous sigh of relief. "What's eating you, kid?" Uncle Luke said.
"Nothing." Beckie didn't know if he would get mad that she'd found the guns. She didn't know, and she didn't want to find out. She kept her mouth shut.
"Beckie's just glad to be coming into Virginia," Gran said. "Isn't that right?"
"Sure," Beckie lied. She hadn't got on real well with her grandmother before this trip. Gran wasn't a sweet old lady--her favorite sport was complaining. Traveling with her for so long ... Well, Beckie didn't like her better now than she had when they set out from Los Angeles.
But she had her precious passport back again, and she was heading for Elizabeth, not wherever Virginia kept the closest maximum-security prison. She wouldn't be a headline--unless Uncle Luke drove off the side of the road. It was narrow and winding, and he seemed to be going much too fast. She almost said something--but the less she said to him, the better, so she kept quiet again.
Parkersburg, the first town on the Virginia side of the border, went by in a blur. Once upon a time, it had been an oil town. Outside of Texas and Russian Alaska, there weren't many of those left in North America any more. Even for California, oil was hard to come by.
Kanawha flew by even faster, because it was smaller. The main highway went south toward Charleston--that was the biggest city in this part of Virginia. If you dropped it on Los Angeles, you wouldn't even notice where it hit. But it was what the locals had to be proud of, and they were.
But that was the main highway. State Route 14 ran southeast towards Elizabeth. Uncle Luke's car seemed to hit every hole in the road, and the road had plenty to hit. Beckie's teeth went together with a sharp click at one of the bad ones--Uncle Luke'sshocks were shot, too, if he had any. The rifles under Beckie's feet shifted with a metallic clatter.
"What's that?" Gran ears weren't the greatest, even with a hearing aid, but she noticed the noise.
"It's nothin'," Uncle Luke said.
"I swear I heard a rattle." Gran didn't know when to leave well enough--or bad enough--alone.
"It's nothin', I told you!" This time, Uncle Luke all but shouted it. Gran wasn't much good at taking a hint, but she did now. Beckie breathed a little easier--only a little, but even that felt good. The guns were bad enough. She didn't want a quarrel in the car, too.
They drove past Bloody Hollow--a nice, cheery name for a place, and one that fit too well with what lay under the gray blanket--and Elizabeth Hill before they got to Elizabeth itself. The little town lay on the south bank of a loop of the Kanawha River. A sign at the edge said, WELCOME TO ELIZABETH, SEAT OF WIRT COUNTY. POPULATION (2092)--1,316.
To Beckie, it looked like the smallest, most godforsaken place in the world. Then Gran said, "My goodness, how town has grown! There weren't even a thousand people here when I was born." So it all depended on your point of view.
Uncle Luke gave his: "Lord, what a miserable dump." Beckie didn't like agreeing with him on anything. He was so sour, he made Gran seem sweet by comparison, which wasn't easy. But she would have had a hard time telling him he was wrong.
The county courthouse was smaller and dumpier than a lot of hamburger joints Beckie had seen. It was made of brown bricks that looked a million years old. They would have told her she was a long way from home all by themselves. Because of earthquakes, hardly anybody built with brick in California. Thecourthouse sat at the corner of Route 14 and a narrow street named--logically enough--Court. Uncle Luke stopped the Honda right by the courthouse. He hit the button that popped the trunk. "You guys get out here," he announced.
"What?" Gran sounded ticked. "I reckoned you'd take me all the way to Ethel's place." She never said reckoned in California. Funny words were coming back to her along with her accent.
"Well, then, you reckoned wrong," Uncle Luke said flatly. "You won't get lost, and you won't get tired. This place isn't big enough for that." No matter how snotty he was, he was right again.
"How will we get back?" Beckie asked.
"Not my worry," he said. "Bound to be a bus or something. Come on--hop out. Time's a-wasting."
Beckie almost jumped out of the car. She didn't want to stay near those assault rifles a second longer than she had to. Gran moved slower, not just because she was old but because she was giving Uncle Luke a piece of her mind. Beckie got their suitcases out of the trunk. "The nerve of that man!" Gran fumed as she finally joined Beckie on the sidewalk. The Honda zoomed away. Wherever Uncle Luke was going, he was in a bigger hurry to get there than he had been to come here.
"Gran," Beckie said quietly, "he had guns in the back of the car."
"Maybe he's going hunting after he dropped us off. Maybe that's why he was in such a rush."
"Not unless whatever he's hunting walks on two legs. They weren't just rifles. They were the kind of guns you see on the news, where the person who's got one just did something horrible with it," Beckie said.
"Don't be silly," Gran said. "Luke wouldn't do anything like that."
How do you know? Beckie wouldn't have put anything past the man who wasn't her real relative. But she didn't argue with Gran. She didn't see the point. She wouldn't change her grandmother's mind--nothing this side of a nuke could do that. And she couldn't prove anything now, no matter what she thought.
Gran was looking around with wonder on her usually sour face. "All these places I haven't seen for so long," she murmured. "There's Zollicoffer's drug store. And look." She pointed to a hill off to the southwest, not far out of town. "That there's Jephany Knob."
"Oh, boy," Beckie said in a hollow voice. She was looking around, too. The courthouse had a brass memorial plaque fastened to the side. WIRT COUNTY'S HEROIC DEAD, it said. There were names from the War of 1812, the War of 1833, the First Ohio-Virginia War, the Three States' War, the First Black Insurrection, the Great War, the Second Black Insurrection, the Atlantic War, the Florida Intervention, and all the other fights Virginia had got into over the past three centuries. Wirt County couldn't have a whole lot of people--all of Virginia put together had fewer people than Los Angeles County. But the men here weren't shy about going to war.
While Gran and Beckie looked around, people from Elizabeth were looking at them. Beckie needed a moment to realize that. She needed another moment to realize they weren't friendly looks--not even a little bit. We're strangers, she thought. Everybody here knew everybody else. How often did Elizabeth see strangers? And what did it do to them when it did?
In Los Angeles, you were lucky if you knew your neighbors. Your friends were more likely to be the people you went to school with or, if you were a grown-up, worked with. It wasn't like that here. POPULATION--1,316. How long had these people been gossipingabout one another and feuding with one another? Since the town was founded, whenever that was. A long time ago--Beckie was positive of that.
A woman a little younger than Gran came up to them. She was wearing a frumpy print dress. Well, it would have been frumpy in California, anyhow. For all Beckie knew, it was the height of style in western Virginia. Hesitantly, the woman said, "You're Myrtle Collins, isn't that right?"
"I sure am," Gran answered. Collins had to be her maiden name. Beckie wasn't sure she'd ever heard it before. Gran went on, "Are you Violet Brown?"
"No, I'm Daisy," the local woman said. "Daisy Springer nowadays. You went to school with Violet, and you came over to the house all the time." She smiled. "I was the kid sister who made trouble."
"Oh, were you ever!" Gran said. She started talking about stuff that had happened a long, long time ago. She didn't introduce Beckie to Daisy Brown--no, Springer--or anything. She might have forgotten Beckie was along at all. She'd fallen back into her own early days, and nothing else mattered.
A man came by sweeping the sidewalk with a push broom. You wouldn't see anything like that in L.A.--everybody there used blowers. The man was black, the first black Beckie had seen in Elizabeth. He had what looked like the crummiest job in town. Things were like that all over the Southeast--except in Mississippi, where blacks were on top and persecuted whites instead of the other way around.
"Gran--" Beckie said after a while. Her grandmother stood right there next to her, but didn't hear a thing. It wasn't just because Gran was going deaf, either. She was off in another place--no, in another time. She and Daisy Springer were reliving the days whenthey were both kids. They were talking about people Beckie'd never heard of. Even if she had heard of them, she wouldn't have cared about them, not one bit.
"And do you recollect the time Hattie Williamson's dog--" Gran started yet another story.
"Gran--" Beckie tried again. She'd never heard her grandmother say recollect, either.
Gran still didn't remember--or recollect--that she was alive. She'd forgotten Beckie existed, or that most of the forty years and more since she moved away from Elizabeth had ever happened. Will I act that way when I get old? Beckie wondered. She hoped not, anyway.
Even if Gran had forgotten about her, Daisy Springer still knew she was there. "This'll be your granddaughter, Myrt?" the local woman asked. That made Beckie blink one more time. Myrt? She couldn't imagine anybody ever calling Gran by a name like that. It was like calling the Rock of Gibraltar Rockie.
But Gran didn't seem to mind. She even kind of smiled. And she finally noticed Beckie was still beside her, and she hadn't fallen back into the 2030s or whenever they were talking about. "Yes, this here's Beckie Royer. She's my daughter Trish's little girl."
"Hello, Beckie." Mrs. Springer smiled, too. She looked nice, even if she did have a face like a horse. "I'm right pleased to meet you."
"Pleased to meet you, too." A handful of words, but they showed how much she was out of place in Elizabeth. In California, she sounded just like everybody else. Here, she showed she was a stranger--a foreigner ( furriner, they'd say here)--every time she opened her mouth. She didn't like that. Even in Ohio, she'd sounded funny. She sounded more than funny on this side of the border.
"What's your father do?" Daisy Springer asked.
"He's a bioengineer," Beckie said.
"How about that?" Mrs. Springer said. Beckie wondered if she even knew what a bioengineer did. But she must have, because she went on, "There's a fish hatchery over by Palestine, a couple of miles south of here."
"Is there? That might be interesting." Beckie had to think how far two miles was--somewhere around three kilometers. California had been metric for more than 150 years. Some states still clung to the old way of measuring, though. North America was almost as much of a crazy quilt as Europe was.
"Where will y'all be staying?" Mrs. Springer asked Gran. Y'all. They really did talk like that! It wasn't just a joke on TV and in the movies.
"With Ted and Ethel Snodgrass," Gran answered. "Ethel's my first cousin, you know."
"Well, I do now that you remind me, but I plumb forgot," Daisy Springer said. She hadn't had to worry about who Gran's relatives were for longer than Beckie's mother was alive. "Down on Prunty Street, then." She didn't make it a question. She knew where the Snodgrasses--what a name!--lived.
Gran nodded. "That's right."
"What's it like in California?" Mrs. Springer sounded wistful. "Is it really as ... as nice as all the shows make it out to be?"
"Not on your life," Gran said before Beckie could answer. "It's hot like you wouldn't believe in the summertime. People are rude. They don't know their place. You can't grow apples or pears, on account of you never get a frost. You can't imagine how terrible the traffic is. My son-in-law pays me no mind, and my daughter's just about as bad. They--"
Beckie stopped listening. She'd heard all of this a milliontimes before, even if it was new and fascinating to Mrs. Springer. Would they ever get out of the hot sun and over to the Snodgrasses' house? Beckie wouldn't have bet on it. When Gran started grumbling, she could go on for days.
"Are you ready?" the operator asked as Justin Monroe and his mother got into the transposition chamber.
"Of course not," Mom answered. The operator blinked. Then she decided it was a joke and laughed. Justin smiled himself. His mother liked giving dumb questions crazy answers. She looked at the operator and said, "Are you ready?"
"If I have to be," the operator said. She didn't seem to have any imagination to speak of. Justin wasn't surprised. You didn't need much in the way of brains to sit in the operator's chair. Crosstime Traffic paid operators to be glorified spare tires. Computers guided transposition chambers from the home timeline to an alternate, or from one alternate to another. If something went wrong (which hardly ever happened), the operator could take over and bring the chamber home with manual controls (if she or he was very, very lucky).
Justin sat down and fastened his seat belt. The seats in the chamber were like the ones in airplanes, all the way down to not giving enough legroom. Justin was tall and lanky--just over one meter, ninety centimeters--so he found that especially annoying.
Six feet three, he reminded himself. I'm six feet three. In the alternate where he and his mother were going, Virginia still used the old-fashioned measurements. He'd learned inches and feet and yards and miles and ounces and pounds and pints and quarts and gallons and bushels and the rest of those foolish values. He'd learned them, and he could use them, but they struckhim as an enormous waste of time. Why twelve inches to a foot, or 5,280 feet to a mile? How were you supposed to keep track of stuff like that? Counting by tens was so much easier.
"Oh, one more thing," the operator said. "I need your slavery declarations."
"Right." Mom took hers out of her purse and handed it to the woman. Justin had his in a back pocket of his jeans--dungarees, people called them in the alternate where they were headed. The denim was dyed a light brown, not the blue that had been most popular in the home timeline for more than two hundred years.
"Thank you." The operator put them in a manila folder. Crosstime Traffic was supposed to get the most it could from the alternates while exploiting the people in them as little as possible. The year before, though, a scandal had rocked the home timeline's biggest corporation. People, some of them in high places, bought and sold and owned natives of low-tech alternates--not to make money or anything, but just for the thrill of power.
Government regulations came down in a flood. All over the world, governments had been waiting for an excuse to crack down on Crosstime Traffic. Now they had one. The slavery declarations were part of that. Justin and his mother both pledged not to have anything to do with enslaving anybody. That had always been against the rules, of course, but now they had to sign a paper that said they knew it was against the rules. How much good that signed sheet of paper would do ... . Well, some bureaucrat somewhere thought it was a good idea.
Even though the alternate the Monroes were going to wasn't low-tech, the slavery declarations did matter there more than they would have in some other alternates. Discrimination survived over much of that changed North America, even if slavery was formally against the law everywhere.
"Why didn't they ratify the Constitution in that alternate?" Justin asked.
"They couldn't agree on how to set up the legislature," Mom answered. "The big states wanted it based on population. The little ones wanted each state to have one vote no matter how many people it had. They were too stubborn to split the difference, the way they did here."
"That's right. I remember now. And so they kept the Articles of Confederation instead." Justin made a face. U.S. history went on and on about all the ways the Articles didn't work. This alternate was a history text brought to life.
"They kept them--and then after a while they forgot about them," Mom said. "They still call countries in North America states, and a lot of them have the same names as states in the United States in the home timeline, but they're countries, and there's no United States in that alternate."
"Here we go," the operator said. A few lights glowed and changed color in the instrument panel in front of her. It didn't feel as if the transposition chamber was going anywhere. In one sense, it wasn't. It started out in an underground room in Charleston, West Virginia. It would end up in an underground room in Charleston, too.
But in the alternate where it was going, Charleston was part of Virginia, not of West Virginia. In the home timeline, Virginia seceded from the United States in 1861, as the Civil War was starting. Then West Virginia seceded from Virginia and got admitted to the Union as a separate state. There was no Civil War in that alternate. By the 1860s, the United States had already quietly fallen apart. There were lots of small and medium-sized wars between states, but never one great big one.
"We're going to have to be careful here," Mom warned. "This is a high-tech alternate. Except for traveling crosstime, they know almost as much as we do. We have to make sure we don't draw the wrong kind of attention to ourselves."
"Yeah, yeah." Justin had heard that a million times. "Wouldn't we be smarter to stay away from alternates like that? If they do catch us, they can really use what they squeeze out of us."
"For one thing, we do good business with them," his mother said. He snorted and rolled his eyes. Crosstime Traffic worshiped the bottom line. He didn't, or not so much. Mom went on, "Another reason we're there is to make sure they don't find the crosstime secret."
"What do we do? Screw up their computer data?" Justin asked sarcastically.
To his surprise, the operator spoke up: "That's happened in some other alternates. Not in this one, I don't think."
"Oh," he said, some of the wind gone from his sails.
"And another reason we're here is to do what we can to make race relations go better," Mom said. "Things aren't perfect in the home timeline even now. You know that as well as I do. They're a lot better than they used to be, but they sure aren't perfect. Even so, they look like heaven compared to Virginia and the other Southern states in that alternate."
"The other Southern states except Mississippi," Justin said.
Mom shook her head. "No, Mississippi, too. Blacks have no more business lording it over whites than whites do lording it over blacks. Nobody has any business lording it over anybody. It happens, but that doesn't make it right. Right?"
"I guess." Justin hadn't really worried about it one way or the other. His first thought was that the whites in Mississippi had itcoming. But the black revolution there was 120 years old now. None of the whites in the miserable state now had ever persecuted anybody black. Why should they be on the receiving end for something they hadn't done themselves?
Before he could find an answer--if there was a good answer to find--the operator said, "We're there."
It felt as if about fifteen minutes had gone by. This alternate's breakpoint wasn't very far from the present, so getting there didn't seem to take very long. But when Justin looked at his watch, it was twenty past four--the same time as it was when he and Mom got into the transposition chamber. He'd seen that before. He still thought it was weird.
Chronophysicists talked about the difference between time and duration. Without the fancy math to back it up, the talk was just talk. Justin accepted it. He believed it because he saw it worked. But he didn't pretend to understand it. He wondered if the chronophysicists did, or if they just parroted what the computers told them.
The door to the transposition chamber slid open. Justin and his mother might not have moved in any physical sense, but they weren't where they had been, either. This concrete box of an underground room had a few bare bulbs glaring down from the ceiling, and that was it.
Mom laughed as she looked around. "Be it ever so humble ..." she started.
But this wasn't home, even if they'd be living here for a while. This was a different and dangerous place. People here didn't like foreigners, and no one could be more foreign than the Monroes. The locals were racists. They were sexists. And they had a technology not very far behind the home timeline's. If they ever learned the crosstime secret, they could build transpositionchambers. Instead of trading, they could go conquering across the alternates. They could--if people from the home timeline didn't stop them.
Even worse, they didn't have to get the crosstime secret from the home timeline. Even if everybody in Crosstime Traffic did everything right, these people might figure out how to travel between alternates all by themselves. Galbraith and Hester had, back in the home timeline. Otherwise, there would be no crosstime travel ... and the home timeline, with too many people and not enough resources, would be in a lot of trouble.
Justin didn't want to think about that. Behind him, silently and without any fuss, the transposition chamber disappeared. He followed his mother toward the stairs that led up to the business Crosstime Traffic used for cover here.
"Mom," he said, "what do we do if they figure out crosstime travel for themselves?"
"Well, it hasn't happened yet," his mother answered. "Not here, not in any of the other high-tech alternates. We've had it for more than fifty years now. Maybe there's something about the home timelines that the alternates can't match for a long time, if they ever do."
"Like what?" Justin asked.
"I don't know." Mom laughed. "Maybe I'm talking through my hat, too. Maybe they're working on it right now in a lab in Richmond or New Orleans or Los Angeles or Fremont." Fremont was an important town here, not far from where Kansas City lay in the home timeline. "Maybe they'll find it tomorrow, and we'll all start going nuts."
"That would be great, wouldn't it?" Justin waited for Mom to climb the stairs so he could take them two at a time. Then he swarmed up after her.
"Hello, hello." That was Randolph Brooks, who ran the Charleston Coin and Stamp Company. Collecting North American stamps and coins was a lot more complicated here than it was in the home timeline. Every state issued its own. Some states had merged with neighbors over the years--there was only one Carolina these days, for instance. Some had broken apart--thanks to the Florida Intervention, that state was divided into three parts, one of which belonged to Cuba.
"How are you?" Mom asked. As far as the locals knew, she was Mr. Brooks' sister, which made Justin his nephew.
"Never a dull moment." Mr. Brooks was in his early middle years, plump, balding, with thick glasses that sat too far down on his nose. He looked like a man who bought and sold coins and stamps, in other words. "You wouldn't believe some of the counterfeits people try to palm off on you."
"I don't think there's ever been an alternate without thieves," Mom said.
"But these are dumb thieves." Randolph Brooks sounded annoyed at the stupidity of mankind. "They scan something, they print it on an inkjet, and they bring it in and expect me to believe it's two hundred years old. Ha!"
"How often do you get fooled?" Justin asked.
Mr. Brooks started to answer, then stopped. He tried again: "Well, I don't exactly know. How can I, when getting fooled means I didn't suspect when I should have?"
"Well, did you ever sell something to somebody who brought it back and said it was a fake?" Justin asked.
"No, I never did." Mr. Brooks looked over toward Justin's mother. "He likes to get to the bottom of things, doesn't he?"
"Oh, you might say so." Mom's voice was dry. Justin had an itch to know that he scratched whenever he could.
Right now, he was looking out the window. The buildings across the street looked like ... buildings. They were made of brick, so they looked like old-fashioned buildings, but plenty of brick buildings still went up every year in the home timeline, too. One was a copy shop, one a shoe-repair place, one a donut house--only they always spelled it doughnut in this alternate.
The cars, though--the cars were something else. Quite a few of them still burned gasoline, which was obsolete in the home timeline. Their lines were strange. They looked faster than cars from the home timeline. They weren't, but they looked that way. Some of the makes were familiar: Honda, Mercedes, Renault. But Pegasus and Hupmobile and Lancelot and Vance rang no bell for Justin. You saw Vances everywhere. They were the Chevies of this alternate.
And the people seemed different, too. Hardly anybody here had piercings or tattoos. Women didn't wear pants. Their dresses looked like explosions in a florist's shop. Almost all of them were cut below the knee. More men wore suits than in the home timeline, and the four-button jackets with tiny lapels gave them the look of the 1890s. It was only a look, and Justin knew as much. Their technology was a lot closer to the home timeline's than that. The men who weren't in suits mostly had on brown jeans like Justin's.
An amazing number of people smoked. Men and women puffed on cigarettes, cigars, pipes. "Don't they know how bad for them that is?" Justin asked.
"They know. They mostly don't care," Mr. Brooks said. "They say they'd rather enjoy life more, even if that means they don't get quite so much of it." He shrugged. "Not how I see it, but that's what they say."
An African American walked by. He looked like a janitor.Not many of his race got to be much more than janitors and farm laborers in this Virginia. They weren't called African Americans here, either. Polite whites called them Negroes. Whites who didn't bother being polite used a different name, one that sounded something like the nicer label.
Randolph Brooks saw Justin noticing the black man. "If you aren't racist here, they'll think you're peculiar. Sometimes you have to use those words."
"Won't be easy," Justin said. In the home timeline, people used what had been obscenities in the twentieth century without even thinking about them. What once was bad language turned normal. But if you used a racist or sexist or homophobic word there, most people wouldn't want anything to do with you. It wasn't exactly illegal, but it was like picking your nose in public or wearing fur.
A beat-up white Honda pulled into a parking space in front of the donut house. The middle-aged man who got out looked pretty beat-up himself. He had a narrow, suspicious face and about a day's worth of stubble on his chin. He wore those brown jeans and a T-shirt. Except for the color of his pants, that would have been ordinary enough in the home timeline. Here it said he was a tough guy, or wanted people to think he was.
Whatever he took out of the space between the front and back seats was wrapped in a blanket. It made a heavy, bulky load. His arm muscles bulged as he lugged it into the donut shop.
"Wonder what he's got," Justin said.
"About a month's supply of donut holes," Mr. Brooks said gravely. Justin started to nod, then sent him a sharp look. More to him than met the eye.
A few minutes later, the man came out and started back to his car. A pair of policemen in Smokey the Bear hats walked downthe street toward him. When he saw them, he almost jumped out of his skin. If Justin were one of those cops, he would have arrested the man in the T-shirt on general principles.
They could do that here, too, more easily than in the home timeline. Some states in this alternate had bills of rights that limited what their governments could do. Virginia did, but it had lots of exceptions. If the police thought they were putting down a Negro revolt, they could do almost anything they pleased.
These policemen walked past the man in the T-shirt and jeans. They walked past the donut house. They went on down the street, laughing and talking. The man might have been on a sitcom, he acted so relieved. He jumped into the old Honda and drove away as fast as he could.
"Wonder what that was all about," Mom said--she'd noticed, too, then.
"Nothing to do with us," Mr. Brooks said. "All we have to do is sit tight, and everything will be fine." That sounded boring to Justin. He hadn't yet found out that you didn't always want excitement in your life. He hadn't--but he would.
Copyright © 2006 by Harry Turtledove