A disillusioned major, a highwaywoman, and a war raging across time…
The story of a time traveling thief turned reluctant hero, Kate Heartfield’s science fiction adventure Alice Payne Arrives is one of our favorite books of 2018—and now it’s nominated for a Nebula Award! We’re encoring the first two chapters below, in which you’ll meet notorious highway robber Alice Payne, her trusty automaton, and Major Prudence Zuniga—a time traveler on her seventy-somethingth attempt to save history.
Concerning a Robbery and What Comes After
The highwayman known as the Holy Ghost lurks behind the ruined church wall. Lurking has a different quality to waiting, she reflects, having time for reflection. Waiting is what she did for the first five years after Father returned from the war in America, much changed.
That’s how everyone put it, that first year.—How is Colonel Payne?—Oh, people say he is much changed. Now, people use the same tone to say the opposite.—How is Colonel Payne?—Oh, he’s much the same.—No change? His poor daughter.
Alice grew tired of waiting for change. Colonel Payne’s poor daughter does not fade into the background; she hides in it. She’s quivering in the saddle: rider, hat and gun, all cocked, after a fashion.
Ah! There it is. A carriage comes rattling around the corner, the horses’ gait slowing as the slope rises toward Gibbet Hill.
Alice lurks halfway up. Behind her, on the summit, there are no trees but those of the Tyburn sort, swinging with cages and corpses, as a warning to highwaymen. It seems to have worked. She has this section of Dray Road, fenced in with trees and ruins, all to herself. The road here is a hollow way, a track worn into the ground over the centuries, its banks curving up like the bottom half of a tunnel on either side. A trap for her victims.
What a gaudy contraption the Earl of Ludderworth uses to get around the country in, half-painted in gold as if he were Marie Antoinette, its four lamps lit although the sun is still bloodying the forest. Four horses, plumed. That dark bulk on the seat is the coachman and footman, both liveried like dancing monkeys, no doubt. Inside, it’s big enough for four, but there will only be two. The odious earl will be travelling with his manservant. That makes four men, two of them armed with swords and probably pistols too. Loaded? Maybe, but not cocked.
Her left calf nuzzles her horse’s belly. Havoc’s withers twitch and he steps quietly to the right, making no sound until she taps fast with both legs and they are out in the open. By the time Havoc stops in the middle of the road, where he has stopped so many times before, she has both pistols in her hands.
“Stand and deliver!” she growls.
The first time she did this, she felt exposed, despite the hat low over her forehead, the black mask and green kerchief, the long grey cloak, the breeches and boots and gloves. She and Jane had meant it half as a lark; Jane was not convinced Alice would go through with it until she had. It was revenge, the first time, against a teacher of the pianoforte who preyed on any girl who was not sufficiently warned by her friends. Revenge, and a little much-needed money.
Now it is a regular affair, this robbery on the road. There are plenty of villains making their way through Hampshire, ready to be relieved of a purse, a blow struck in secret for womankind. Despite the fact that all the victims are men of suspect character when it comes to women, no one has made that connection, or suspected that the Holy Ghost is a woman, much less that it is Alice. All her skin is covered, lest the colour of it call to any local’s mind Colonel Payne’s poor daughter.
Today, after a dozen robberies, she does not feel exposed. She doesn’t feel like Alice Payne, sitting on a horse in the middle of the road, in a disguise. She is the Holy Ghost, and she is about her vengeful business.
The coachman moves—reaching toward the seat beside him? A pistol there?
This would make a convenient moment for a partner to ride out of the woods, up to the side of the coach, a second pistol in hand. But the Holy Ghost doesn’t have a partner on the road, not a human one, at least.
So she pulls the trigger in her left-hand gun and the lamp nearest her breaks and goes dark. Bullet meeting glass makes a satisfying smash that never fails to frighten cowards.
The coachman flinches, freezes.
“Hands in the air!”
His hands go high.
This is the dangerous moment. She keeps her distance, watching the windows of the coach. She’s not too worried about Lord Ludderworth himself; he seems unlikely to start a fight with someone who can fight back. He presses his advances on the vulnerable: young girls, girls in service. In any event, he’s a horrible shot. At more than one tedious shooting party, she’s watched him fail to hit pheasants that were practically presented to him on plates. But his manservant Grigson may be another matter.
“Your money or your life! I’d rather the money, if it’s all the same to you, but I’ll not hesitate if it’s the other.”
And now, the pièce de résistance.
Six feet down the road, right beside the stopped carriage, the automaton slides out of the gorse bushes.
There are a dozen good spots for it, all along the roads of this county. Three of them happen to be near churches, and one near an abbey, which has given rise to the Holy Ghost nickname. A reputation is good for a highwayman. When people know what to expect, they aren’t so afraid as to do foolish things. A well-known robber who puts on a predictable show is an institution, and the good people of England will hand over their tolls with due resignation and respect.
In the twilight, the sight of Alice’s automaton sends shivers down her own skin. The carved wooden head, painted white with blue eyes and red lips, as still as a Madonna’s. The grey cloak, the same colour as her own, the hood brought over the head. The outstretched hand.
The coachman crosses himself.
The coach window clicks open a crack, wide enough to admit a gun—she breathes, keeps her seat still and remains calm—but instead, out sneaks a purse in pudgy, ringed fingers—the hand of Lord Ludderworth himself. The hand that lifted her skirt when she was fourteen, that has squeezed every housemaid’s breast between London and Bristol.
The little purse lands in the wooden hand and the automaton stands motionless for a moment, then flips its hand to let the purse drop into the box. The box clacks on the cart rails, a few yards up the hill along the side of the road to where Alice sits on Havoc.
The automaton lets Alice keep her distance, and it gives the villains a show for their money. A story to tell.
It is noisy, but it is not meant to fool anyone. Everyone knows it is a machine and that only inspires all the more awe. Ghosts and fairies litter history, but machines that can move like humans are the stuff of dreams.
Jane’s work never ceases to amaze her. Her darling Jane, working on her gears and springs in her study, believing that one day, her toys and curiosities will bring Utopia. For now, this one brings Alice a living and brings a little justice to the world, and that is good enough for Alice.
Alice never lets the pistol in her right hand droop, keeps her wide gaze on the coachman, the footman, the open window. At the edge of her vision, she pokes the hook she’s attached to the end of her riding crop into the handle of the box, lifts it by the handle, drops it into her lap. She unties the purse, still watching the coach, lifts a coin to her mouth and bites.
The automaton nods its head, as it always does after three minutes.
There is a long silence.
She shifts in the saddle. Almost done. Almost safe.
Havoc’s head snaps up, but he’s a steady horse, steadier than his mistress. He stands and waits.
“That’ll do,” she says, trying not to let the relief into her voice. “Ride on. The toll’s paid.”
An easy night’s work. The manservant Grigson never made his appearance. She watches the coach rattle up Gibbet Hill for a moment.
Then she ties the purse to her belt. She jumps Havoc up onto the bank and rides him more or less the same way. She’ll have to ride fast if she’s to beat the frightened coachman to Fleance Hall with enough time to change her clothes and fix her hair.
And then, after the world is asleep, she’ll return for the automaton. It has slid back into its hiding spot in the bushes.
She grins as she rides through the paths that she and Havoc know well. The new purse bangs against her hip. That will buy Father a month’s freedom from his creditors, at least.
At the sound of hoof beats, she snaps her head around, as beneath her Havoc’s muscles run taut as rope.
Behind her, and not very far, a man on a grey horse. He’s hatless, and she recognizes his face at once. Grigson.
The manservant was never in the coach. He was riding behind, waiting before the bend in the road, waiting to pursue the thief rumoured to haunt Dray Road.
Damn Lord Ludderworth. So stingy he’d rather risk his right-hand man than lose a bit of gold.
The bank is easily five feet higher than the road here and she can see the carriage rattling along up the hill, bearing the earl to safety while his servant tries to capture the most notorious highwayman this side of London. Well, he won’t get his chance. Havoc is a fast horse and she knows these woods like no one else does. There’s a deer path up ahead that will take her to a winding, deep creek ford where she can double back without being seen, if she times it well.
As she steers Havoc’s nose that way, she glances behind her.
Damn! Two more men, on her right; Grigson approaching behind.
The one way they won’t expect her to veer is left.
She pulls Havoc to the left and spurs him to a gallop. The carriage is rattling up the hill, and here on the higher ground the banks flatten out, so that the road is no longer a hollow way. Havoc does not even break his stride as his hoofs hit the dirt of the road, just behind the carriage. She’ll cross behind it and—
A horse whinnies in fear, up in the team, and the carriage careens off the road, rocks as the wheels hit the grassy banks.
Alice keeps Havoc at full speed. Her leg grazes an old milestone stuck in the grassy bank. She turns parallel to the road again, heading up the hill, to put the carriage between herself and the three pursuers. Typical of Lord Ludderworth, to wait until he was out of danger before loosing his ambush!
There are few trees here to hide her. She glances back: the three horsemen were surprised by her sudden turn back to the road and she’s put a little distance between them. Once she crests the hill, and is out of their sight for a moment, she’ll double back to the right and find the creek bed.
She glances once more at the road and squints, frowning. The carriage is out of sight; it must have been travelling faster than she realized and crested the hill already, despite going off track for a moment. That must be a fine coachman to get the horses in hand so quickly after they took fright at Havoc’s approach. Perhaps they bolted.
The air seems to shimmer the road like a soap bubble, just there by the old milestone. It’s mere fancy—everything looks strange at twilight—and she can’t afford a second look.
Over the hill, hidden from view for a moment, Havoc veers back over the road toward the creek. She races along the most winding paths to Fleance Hall, where Alice Payne is expected.
In Which the Wrong Mistress Is Persuaded
Prudence opens the hackney door before it stops and jumps onto the snow. Her motherfucking Victorian boot heels stick with every step, but after she gets out of the drift and up onto the frozen ground, she can run, holding her skirts.
The Mayerling hunting lodge sprawls red-roofed against the bare Austrian hills. It’s just past dawn, with a murmur of cowbells and lowing not too distant. Here, though, everything is quiet.
She had better be wrong. Oh, she had better be wrong. Mary Vetsera is only seventeen, and Crown Prince Rudolf has only been screwing her for a few months. Besides, Mary’s a baroness, hardly the one he’d choose for a suicide pact. He’s always used Mitzi for playing to his Byronic self-image: his Viennese demimonde “dancer,” so nicely shocking to the Austrian court.
It has taken Prudence seventy-one attempts at 1889 to convince Mitzi to refuse to die with Rudolf, to report his suggestion of suicide to the police.
Seventy failures and now, at last, success. Two nights ago, Rudolf came to Mitzi and she refused to die with him. They cried. Prudence was there, the maid in the next room, listening, ready to comfort Mitzi the moment her lover left. Rudolf even promised to get off the morphine. If he doesn’t kill himself, he’ll live with his syphilis for decades. Everything will be fine.
Mitzi has told the police twice that Rudolf is suicidal. They never do a damn thing about it. But at last, Prudence thought she had saved them from their suicide pact. Mitzi was upset, but resolute. Strong. Any moment now, she should hear from General Almo, saying: You’ve done it. Mission complete. Come home.
Home being the year 2145, for lack of anything better.
And then yesterday afternoon, the letter arrived, from Rudolf, saying goodbye. It might seem a lover’s farewell, nothing more—but Prudence has misgivings. No word from Almo, no word from the future that the past has been changed. She asked her most useful gossip where Rudolf had gone that day, and she heard: Mayerling. With Mary Vetsera.
She runs to the gatehouse and peers inside. One guard, but not at his post: he’s in the courtyard with another man, hitching two horses to a calèche. It’s six thirty in the morning, early for Rudolf to have asked for a carriage, but then this is a hunting lodge.
She can tell the other man by his whiskers: Loschek. Rudolf’s valet. The man who always sleeps in the room next to Rudolf and whatever woman Rudolf has in his bed on any given night.
Rudolf has sent the man in the bedroom next to his own outside, away from him. To hitch the horses? Or to get him away?
She darts inside the gate and around the corner to the window Mitzi snuck out of a few months before, to get away from Rudolf in one of his moods. As Mitzi’s maid, Prudence knows well enough which room Rudolf uses as his bedroom when he has a lover here.
He had better be sleeping. Oh, she had better be wrong.
Goddamn those Misguideds. The damage they cause! The more they encourage Rudolf’s liberal tendencies, with their agent-tutors and agent-friends, the angrier Rudolf becomes with his tyrannical father. The worse Rudolf’s melancholy, the more entrenched Rudolf’s conviction that there is no point to his own life beyond sex and drink. The man who could save the world from the First World War, squandered to syphilis and depression.
The Misguideds are now trying to fix the suicide problem, just as Prudence is, but they’re working with Rudolf. The Farmers can’t get close to him, so Prudence was assigned to Mitzi. Ten years ago. For ten years she’s been reliving 1889, getting it wrong, getting it wrong.
She puts her boot on the drainpipe and thrusts her knife between the window and the sill. No matter where she goes in human history, she always carries a knife.
The window budges, at last, and she pulls it open and heaves herself through.
This time, there’s no chair in the hallway on the other side, so she falls to her stomach, knocking the wind out of herself. She waits, prepares herself to pose as yet another new mistress if anyone but Rudolf comes, but there’s no one. Silence.
A shadow moves, far down at the other end of the hall. A guard.
She’d like to unbutton the awful boots but there’s no time so she tiptoes as softly as she can, opens one door and then another.
She knows, as soon she opens the right room, that she was not wrong. She’s seen Rudolf’s dead face many times. The image of her failure.
She steps inside and closes and locks the door behind her. She can’t be discovered here. There might still be time; he might be alive.
He’s slumped on the floor, blood trickling from his mouth.
Gore on the wall behind him.
There’s an empty glass; there’s a gun; there’s Mary, on the bed, not sleeping.
Prudence kneels by his side, this asshole of a prince whom she’s never met but whose life she has been trying to save for ten years. Another failure. Under her fingertips, no pulse.
She stands quickly and turns, dizzy for a moment. On a chair: a red felt hat, with black feathers.
General Almo stands in his fatigues, a time portal behind him. Why the hell did he shimmer here himself? He’s never done that, not in any of her past failures.
Any moment now, the valet will return. Almo turns and locks the door, as if he’s had the same thought. The key was in the keyhole. There is a hairbrush on the dresser, and by the bed a pair of dove-coloured women’s shoes…
“It’s earlier this time,” she says, and her voice is full as if she wants to weep, although she has no more reason to weep than she’s had the last seventy times. But this time, she thought she had it. She saved Mitzi’s life. She thought she’d saved Rudolf’s too.
“And he’s chosen a different partner, I see.”
She nods. “Mary Vetsera. She’s just a girl. But now we know that’s a possibility. It won’t happen again, sir.”
“There won’t be an again. I’m reassigning you.”
She has to lean against something but there’s nothing to lean on, nothing that isn’t covered with Rudolf’s blood. She steps closer to the general, rooting herself in the movement.
“Sir, I can do this.”
“No. You can’t.”
He’s a big man, and seems even bigger here, in this room. There is too much history here for these four walls to contain.
“If it’s… I know there are limits to what a woman of colour can do in this setting, but I can work with Vetsera just as I worked with Mitzi. I’ve got a prep package to be an American artist, like Edmonia Lewis. Vetsera could be convinced to take art lessons.”
“It’s not that. We’re shutting down this mission. Putting our resources elsewhere, in 2016. Let’s try 2016 again.”
“But 2016 is completely fucked,” she says, trying to keep her voice even. “You know that. Sir. We have to go back earlier.”
He shakes his head. “Obsession happens to all of us but we have to see it for what it is. It’s my fault. I wanted this too. I let you stay here far too long. But no single moment of history is everything. It’s a long war, Major Zuniga. If we fight one battle forever, it will never end.”
She nods, because she doesn’t trust herself to speak. He’s right. The war of attrition for human history will never end, not if the Farmers keep fighting the Misguideds battle to battle, moment to moment.
General Almo is right. It is pointless to keep trying to push history one way while the Misguideds are trying to push it in another. But he doesn’t have the courage to do what needs to be done. The only way to end this war, to end all wars, is to stop anyone from changing history ever again.
Excerpted from Alice Payne Arrives, copyright © 2018 by Kate Heartfield.