Rereading Kage Baker

Rereading Kage Baker’s Company Series: Sky Coyote, Chapters 26-30

Welcome back to the Kage Baker Company Series Reread!

In today’s installment, we’ll cover chapters 26 through 30 of Sky Coyote. You can find all previous installments in the reread on our spiffy index page. Spoiler warning: this reread will discuss plot and character details from the entire series, so be careful if you haven’t finished reading all the books yet.

And with that we’re off to Humashup!

 

Summary

An earthquake damages the Company base. The immortal operatives provide emergency aid, but the mortals, and especially Bugleg, are terrified. The preparations for the Chumash departure are interrupted by the arrival of a Chinigchinix missionary, which leads to a conflict between Joseph and Imarte. Sepawit kills the missionary after he finds out that the Chinigchinix cultists killed his son Sumewo. Mendoza decides she wants to stay in California after this mission ends.

 

Commentary

Chapter 26: Well, it figures that a novel so full of references to past and present California would feature an earthquake, right? It initially surprised me that a Company base would not be perfectly earthquake-proof, especially knowing Dr. Zeus was aware of the possibility of a quake in that specific area. Alternatively, they could have just directed the team to construct the base on the secure hill where they end up putting the emergency shelters. The only possible explanation I have is that the damage to the base was really done by a sand boil, which are (as far as I know) even less common than a significant earthquake. Still, it’s another nail in the coffin of the increasingly distant notion that the mortals running the Company in the future are infallible.

While I was researching sand boils (you know, like you do) I learned that during the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco a sand boil brought debris to the surface that had been buried in the 1906 quake. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kage Baker knew about this, and if she didn’t, I think it would have delighted her. Kage Baker described the 1906 earthquake in the novella “Son, Observe the Time”, and in The Graveyard Game Joseph will dig out Budu, who’d been buried at that time.)

I love the visual of the immortals streaming out of their base, silently and smoothly under the blue lights. It somehow reminds me of a scene from an animated movie I once saw, showing rats leaving a sinking ship at night. If Bugleg had a broader appreciation for literature and film, it’s not impossible he’d have screamed that accusation at Lopez during his tantrum, but ultimately what Lopez said about the operatives’ conditioning is true: they were designed to protect themselves at all costs.

Joseph is still trying to understand Bugleg (or in his words, “dope the thing out”) during their brief but very meaningful conversation in the emergency shelter. He’s begun to realize that, while all the future mortals share Bugleg’s convictions, Bugleg himself is different. When Bugleg reveals he’s the inventor of pineal tribrantine 3, the “elixir of youth” chemical that’s so central to the Company’s design of the immortals, Joseph wonders if Bugleg is an idiot savant—which is probably the closest he could get to the actual truth about Bugleg’s nature without knowing the Homo Umbratilis plot line.

I haven’t read Sky Coyote as often as some of the other novels in this series, which may be why I forgot to what extent it’s a preview of the 24th century we’ll see starting in The Life of the World to Come. Here are Joseph’s musings about Bugleg:

It was sad that he was so terrified of the wild nature he was trying to preserve, and so bigoted against the humanity he was trying to help. So unnerved, too, by the deathless creatures he’d helped create to do his work.

Maybe seeing Lopez slap Bugleg causes Joseph’s thoughts to go straight to Frankenstein from this point, and to the obvious fear the mortal contingent feels towards their immortal creations. The whole “Cyborg Conquest” idea of an immortal uprising is still just implied here, but the seeds are already being planted in this early novel:

Jeez, he’d helped create me. Here I was, sitting in a tent, face to face with my creator. Or one of my creator’s faces.

There’s something moving about Joseph’s naivete (or willful self-delusion?) about the Enforcers here, speculating (or hoping) they’re just having a “nice long rest.” Joseph is clearly not envisioning them trapped in regeneration tanks for centuries, as most of them are by now. It’s also a bit ironic that he speculates about them being saved as a “special-unit ace in the hole just in case the future of perfect peace and harmony didn’t work out” because, while that wasn’t the Company’s intention, it’s what Budu and Joseph will actually organize at the end of the series.

Finally, I love that the Chumash are surprised about Joseph’s mythical explanation of the earthquake because they always thought it was a “natural phenomenon.” Joseph thinks he took the wrong tack again with his faux-mystical explanation, until Nutku and his “world snakes” comment make it clear that Joseph should have just paid closer attention to that section in his anthropology briefing.

Chapter 27: We start the chapter with another good look at Nutku’s cut-throat commercial practices. He has somehow managed to find a way to squeeze money not just from his customers but even from his apprentices, by making their parents pay extra if they want their children to get into the kantap, and by charging them for expensive obsidian tools. Joseph accidentally almost busts this little scheme by asking why they don’t use cheaper and more effective flint.

Nutku floats the idea of selling merchandise and making money in the afterlife, which (ironically enough) is actually what will happen, although not exactly the way he envisions it here. Note that he also immediately begins to think up ways to put pressure on the—as yet entirely hypothetical—competition in the afterlife. This scene also contains the first reference to the Company’s luxurious Day Six resorts. Mendoza will spend her long imprisonment growing vegetables for the one on Catalina Island, just a few hundred miles to the south and 150 millennia in the past.

The rest of this chapter (and most of the next two) deals with the Chinigchinix “Super Commando Missionary”, who’s been lurking around the village since before Joseph and his crew arrived. The missionary had been conducting surveillance on Humashup, planning to use the information he gathered about the Chumash to convert them, voluntarily if possible and by force if necessary. The security perimeter established by the Company’s security techs made this surveillance impossible, which explains the burst of rage Joseph picked up back in chapter 22, during the Chumash feast.

The missionary is a religious zealot who immediately reminds Joseph of the many zealots and true believers he’s encountered during his career, including Mendoza’s mortal lover Nicholas in the previous novel. Just like Nicholas, this missionary will come to a violent end, starting a pattern that will continue throughout the series: people with rigid, absolute, inflexible belief systems don’t tend to do very well in her stories, whereas people who are willing or at least able to compromise and adapt thrive. And yes, that applies to the immortals too, as we’ll see time and again.

Joseph’s initial plan to send the missionary off after wiping his memory (presumably the same way he blitzed Kenemekme’s mind in chapter 24) is interrupted by the new Company directive to turn him over to the anthropology team. This allows Imarte to take center stage for the first time. It’s nice to see her in her element here, enthusiastically interviewing the missionary. (In Mendoza in Hollywood we’ll learn that she is not averse to using more immersive ways of extracting information from her subjects, both as a temple prostitute in Babylon and as “Miss Marthy” in Cahuenga Pass. I’ll save this tangent for a later time, but I’ve always admired the way Kage Baker portrays sex workers in her novels, especially in the Nell Gwynne stories. They’re not the best entry point for new readers, but I think fans of Elizabeth Bear’s excellent Karen Memory would enjoy them.)

Chapter 28: The first scene in this chapter is a flashback to Mendoza’s rescue from the Spanish Inquisition’s dungeons—the same events described in chapter 3 of In the Garden of Iden, but this time seen from Joseph’s perspective. This includes a few meaningful revelations that put a whole new spin on that scene.

First, what wasn’t clear earlier is that this experience was actually Joseph’s “last straw” moment after having been exposed to, and having participated in, so much cruelty and death and dirty tricks on behalf of the Company. He draws an explicit parallel between rescuing the four year old Mendoza, whose pure rage so impressed him, and the moment Budu decided to go rogue during the Crusades. The other rescues we’ve seen so far, and most of the ones we’ll see going forward, are described in a more emotionally neutral tone. They’re opportunities, not life-changing acts of mercy: since this child fits the parameters, saving it would benefit the Company. For Joseph, Mendoza’s rescue was evidently a much more meaningful act.

The other major revelation was already subtly hinted at in In the Garden of Iden, when we saw Joseph’s conversation with his technician but didn’t know what they actually discussed. Now we know why the tech “sounded nervous”: Joseph strong-armed him into changing the numbers of Mendoza’s Crome’s output so she could pass the Company’s specifications. It’s hard to overstate how much this small act of mercy affects the rest of the series.

Joseph’s paragraph in this chapter about Crome’s radiation and why the Company avoids it at all costs is maybe the best summary of this aspect of the series:

“Some mortals generate Crome’s radiation spontaneously. Actually everybody generates some, under sufficient stress, but mortals who produce above a certain amount tend to do flukey things like levitate small objects and see the future. If it were controllable or predictable, the Company would make use of it; but it isn’t, so we don’t. And when you’re transforming a mortal into an immortal, you really don’t want anything uncontrollable or unpredictable in the equation, because any mistakes you make aren’t going to go away. Ever.”

The second scene of the chapter is a prime example of exactly how talented a Facilitator Joseph really is. Imarte makes a rational, cogent argument for keeping the missionary in Humashup, but unfortunately she uses too many big words, which confuses Bugleg. Joseph not only plays straight into Bugleg’s fears and suspicions about things he doesn’t understand, but he’s also smart enough to do so in the simplified grammar and syntax Bugleg understands. (I try to keep politics out of these posts, but sometimes the parallels are just so obvious, aren’t they?)

Chapter 29: This short chapter wraps up the missionary plot, almost as suddenly as it was introduced just a few chapters ago. The Chinigchinix prisoner makes a last ditch attempt to convert the Chumash, but when poor Sepawit learns that his Speaker (and illegitimate son) Sumewo was tortured to death by the cultists, he kills the missionary. It’s a dramatic scene, but for me it never had as much impact as it could have because I didn’t feel a strong connection with either character. After all, we only know Sumewo from Sepawit’s brief descriptions (he never appeared in the actual novel) and even the missionary was just introduced a few chapters back. I still suspect that Kage Baker may have had much more material about some of the Chumash characters than what made it into the final version of the novel.

Chapter 30: Joseph is more isolated and vulnerable in this chapter than at any point we’ve seen him so far—not that he’d let you know while he’s telling the story himself, of course, but it’s there in the subtext. He’s sitting alone in the base cafeteria because the other Company operatives are shunning him after his dirty trick with Imarte. Being shunned for a few days might seem like nothing in a 20,000 year long life, but this is his very limited peer group, the only people who are like him and and who are certain to be around a century or two later. Plus, we know that Joseph needs an audience to thrive, and he’s being deprived of one here until Mendoza wanders in.

Mendoza has now fallen completely in love with the wild California landscape and wants to stay to explore it. Joseph immediately plans to call in some favors to make this happen for her (which will work out, as we’ll see in next week’s chapters) but then ruins it by reminding Mendoza of the Iden mission and, inevitably, of Nicholas. One of the last meaningful conversations Joseph will have with his daughter turns into one of the most emotionally bleak moments of the entire series. Mendoza has come to accept what happened in England, and what would have had to happen if Nicholas hadn’t been burned at the stake, but she has never forgiven Joseph:

She put her head to one side, considering me. “No lies, no denials? Well, good for you. Listen, don’t feel too badly about this. I can’t forgive you, but I do understand you had no choice. You’re a Company man, and you had to do what the Company wanted. You always have; you always will. I don’t hate you for it.” She reached out and patted my paw absently. “There’s not enough of you inside there to hate, is there?”

That last sentence, spoken with what almost feels like pity, is one of the most emotionally lethal ones in the entire series. What’s left unspoken, but painfully obvious, is that Budu would probably be telling Joseph the exact same thing.

Joseph is being forced to admit that he puts the Company first and his personal relationships second, right when it’s becoming increasingly clear that Dr. Zeus isn’t the benevolent and omnipotent organization it claims to be. He has clung to his loyalty for the Company for countless centuries, to justify all the ethically questionable things he’s done in service of his missions, but the memories described in this novel have clearly put some cracks in that foundation, and new revelations have caused those cracks to widen. On top of it all, he’s now—again—confronted with the fact that his loyalty to the Company is causing him to alienate or even lose the most important people in his life.

 

And on that cheerful note, we’ll end for the week. Next week we’ll finish up Sky Coyote with the final 5 chapters and the “Memo from Dr. Zeus, Incorporated” epilogue, which (as far as I know) was only included in the Avon Eos edition of the novel. See you then!

Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. You can find him on Twitter, and his website is Far Beyond Reality.

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