A man sets out to tell a story of his ex, which in turns becomes a story of the world. If only he could change that story—find the moment where it all began and alter the past. But what if he can’t find the beginning—or even the end?
Fiction and Excerpts 
Dr. Feyrouz Hanafusa is a curator at Yale in the 23rd century. Space exploration is still ongoing, and signs of life have been discovered on a planet near TRAPPIST-1. Signs, Dr. Hanafusa realizes, that suspiciously resemble drawings in the Voynich manuscript, which no one has been able to decipher for over eight hundred years.
A brand-new story from the legendary Harry Turtledove about Governor Bill Williamson, a sasquatch with a plan.
Governor Bill Williamson’s breath smoked as he opened the 1974 Eldorado’s right front door. It was a chilly February day in Yreka. It was supposed to get to fifty later on, but Bill had his doubts that it would. The clouds blowing in from the west looked as if they meant business.
Barbara Rasmussen slid into the Mighty Mo. The governor’s publicist was in a skirt that showed a lot of leg; she had to be colder than he was. Sure enough, she said, “Brr! As soon as you start this beast, I’m gonna crank the heat all the way up.”
“Whatever you want.” Bill didn’t like to argue unless there was a payoff at the end. He closed the door, watched Barbara lock it after she put on her seat belt, and went around to the driver’s side of the two-and-a-half-ton Detroit behemoth. He got into the left rear seat. The Eldorado had no left front seat. The steering column was extra long, which let a nine-foot-two sasquatch drive from in back.
The governor of the state of Jefferson turned the key. The engine ran raggedly. He was glad it ran at all. Since the energy crisis, cars had shrunk while inflation soared. Even with special arrangements like this, he didn’t fit into more modern vehicles.
Barbara turned on the heater. She said “Brr!” again as soon as she did—till the engine warmed up, it would blow cold air. Bill didn’t care. The long, russet hair that covered all of him except his eyes, his mouth, the palms of his hands, and the soles of his feet left him indifferent to weather worse than this. He wore shorts for modesty and to hold his keys, wallet, and comb; sandals protected his size-thirty-two feet from stepping on anything pointy.
When he put the Caddy in gear, the transmission hesitated before shifting. It wasn’t warm yet, either. The Mighty Mo had a lot of miles on it. One of these days, he really would have to trade it in—chances were, on an equally elderly but less decrepit machine.
“Morning in America,” Barbara remarked as they rolled away from the governor’s mansion. Her voice held a certain edge. Like her boss, she was a Democrat, and viewed the new administration with something less than delight.
“Hey, Reagan’s been President for two weeks now,” Bill said, shrugging behind the wheel as he piloted the Mighty Mo east on State Highway 3. “We haven’t gone to war with the Russians yet, and we aren’t in a depression yet, either. So things could be worse.”
“They could be better, too,” she said darkly.
“Yeah, I guess.” Again, Bill turned down an argument. Barbara was too pretty for anyone male to want to argue with her. But he’d lost all respect for Jimmy Carter when the new ex-President conceded the election with polls in the western part of the country still hours from closing. How many votes had he cost down-ticket candidates with an idiotic stunt like that?
Signs on Highway 3 directed motorists to the Charles Earl Lewis International Airport. The airport that served Yreka actually lay in the little town of Montague, half a dozen miles to the east. That wasn’t why Bill smiled when he passed one of those signs. Only they gave Jefferson’s second governor, who’d led the state through most of the Roaring Twenties, his full name. He’d been “Charlie” to some people, “Bigfoot” to the rest. Bill was proud to try to fill his sasquatch-sized shoes.
He pulled off the highway and onto the access road that led to the airport. By the first parking lot stood a tall flagpole with Old Glory flying above the state flag of Jefferson: a dark green banner with the state seal in the center. The gold pan held two big black X’s to show how Sacramento and Eugene had double-crossed northern California and southern Oregon till they got together as the forty-ninth state in 1919.
A wide yellow ribbon was tied onto the aluminum flagpole with a fancy bow. More yellow ribbons decorated the doors to the terminal. Bill felt a big grin stretching itself across his face. “Hey, they got rid of the old ones!” he said. “These are all nice and new.”
“I should hope so,” Barbara said. “I called the airport to make sure they would, but they were already on it.”
“Good for them. Nice to know they don’t need somebody to hold their hands all the time.”
One of the terminal doors was tall enough to let Bill enter without ducking. The ceiling was tall enough so he didn’t feel claustrophobic inside. Most sasquatches in the country called Jefferson home; unlike too many other places, the state had laws mandating accommodations that suited their size. Bigfoot Lewis would have approved. He’d built the governor’s mansion to his scale, which made Bill and his wife happy every day of the week.
“We’re going to Gate One, Governor,” Barbara said after checking a little notebook.
“Uh-huh.” Bill’s big head bobbed up and down. She’d told him that the day before, too. Maybe she’d forgotten she had; more likely, she figured he’d forgotten. Publicists often treated the people they worked for like dull four-year-olds. Depressingly, a lot of the people they worked for needed to be treated that way. Bill hoped he wasn’t one of those—Barbara would never admit it if he was—but you never could tell.
The waiting area in front of the gate was packed with little people and sasquatches. TV lights blazed into Bill’s face. “Isn’t this a great day, Governor?” a reporter said, holding a mike high enough for him to answer into it.
“It is, but you don’t want to talk to me,” Bill said. “I’m not the show. I’m just here to see it myself and welcome him home, same as everybody else. Poor guy’s been away a long time.”
“You’re too modest, sir,” said the handsome, blow-dried talking head in the expensive suit. Beside Bill, Barbara nodded. She thought him modest to a fault. He didn’t. He was a politician, after all. If he hadn’t banged his own drum, he never would have got elected. But, as he’d said, this wasn’t his show.
One sasquatch-sized seat had a RESERVED FOR GOVERNOR WILLIAMSON sign on it. As far as he could see, it was the only unused chair near the gate. Barbara must have come to the same conclusion. “Guess I’ll just have to sit on your lap, Governor,” she said with an impish grin.
“Heh.” Bill hoped he didn’t sound too nervous. Part of him—the part in his shorts—wouldn’t have minded Barbara in his lap at all. He hoped Louise didn’t know just how attractive he found his publicist.
Sasquatches and little people, of course, had been getting it on in Jefferson for as long as there’d been sasquatches and little people here. Bill thought one of his great-grandmothers had been a little woman. He wasn’t sure, but he thought so.
And there stood Haystack Thornton, chatting easily with Hyman Apfelbaum. The pot grower from Eureka towered over Jefferson’s attorney general. He was almost seven feet tall, and wide in proportion—a great big little man. His bushy red beard and a hairline better than Reagan’s also argued he had some sasquatch in his family woodpile.
Authorities in Jefferson didn’t go out of their way to help the Feds prosecute people for marijuana. Did discreet campaign contributions from Haystack and his friends have anything to do with that? Stranger things had probably happened. Bill also knew the growers had helped pay for the Learjet flight everybody was waiting for.
No sooner had that thought crossed his mind than the private jet came in and landed. It taxied to the gate. The ground crew heeled out a sturdy movable stairway. The door in the Learjet’s flank opened. The PA system began blaring “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” at heart-stopping volume. Bill had never been enamored of Tony Orlando and Dawn. The more he listened, the less he liked them.
And he had to listen to them three times in a row, because there was a delay aboard the charter plane. After what only seemed like forever, Mark Gordon crawled out of the doorway, angling his shoulders so he could squeeze through the narrow opening. Once all of him, finally emerged, he stood up at the top of the aluminum stairway and threw his arms wide. Since his height was about the same as Bill’s, it made quite a gesture.
Everybody inside the terminal burst into cheers and applause, briefly drowning out the annoying music. A TV guy near Bill spoke into his mike for a breathless live shot: “After four hundred forty-four days of captivity in Iran, after a journey that bounced from Algeria to Germany to New York, after a ticker-tape parade through the Canyon of Heroes in New York City, State Department analyst Mark Gordon comes home at last to Jefferson!”
As Gordon made his slow way down the steps, several of the sasquatches sitting near Bill—the analyst’s family—got up and went to the door that would let them out onto the tarmac. A guard in a Smokey Bear hat saluted and stood aside to let them through. TV crews and reporters followed to record their meeting with the newly returned hostage.
The joyful screams and cries and embraces were much the same as they would have been among little people, only on a larger scale and an octave deeper. Bill and Barbara followed the sasquatches and the newsies out onto the blacktop, but hung back till a little of the commotion had died down.
When the analyst’s mother and two sisters started dabbing at their eyes (and his father wiped his with the back of his arm), Bill moved toward Mark Gordon. The analyst was skinny for a sasquatch, and looked desperately tired. As photographers clicked away and a TV cameraman bored in for the kill, Bill held out his hand and said, “On behalf of the whole state of Jefferson, Mr. Gordon, I’m honored to welcome you back to freedom.”
“Thank you very much, sir.” Gordon sounded weary, too.
“Would you and your folks do me a favor and stop by the residence for dinner tonight? We’ll slay the fatted calf for you all, and it will be on my dime.” Bill made sure he said that last bit loud enough to let the reporters hear. No one on the right was going to be able to throw rocks at him for wasting state money on someone for whom the United States had almost gone to war.
“I don’t know what they have planned. Let me talk to them for a minute.”
“Sure.” Bill stepped back.
The Gordons put their heads together. Mark and his father bent to do that. Like most sasquatch women, the ones in their family were a couple of feet shorter than the menfolk. After a minute or two, the freed hostage turned back to Bill. “We’ll be there, Governor. Thank you. What time?”
“Say, half past six, and we’ll eat at seven or a little later?”
“That should work.” Mark Gordon grinned crookedly. “I’m so jetlagged right now, I have no idea what time it is or what time it’s supposed to be.”
“I believe it. Well, if you sack out, your dad or mom can call, and we’ll set something else up.”
“Okay. I hope I see you.” This time, Gordon held out his hand. Bill took it. The photographers snapped more pictures.
Mark Gordon’s father was Tim. His mother was May; his sisters were Bonnie and Samantha, both of them younger than he was. They came to the governor’s mansion in a pair of aging Oldsmobiles almost the size of the Mighty Mo. Tim’s machine had arrangements like Bill’s. Mark rode in the back seat, too, with the front seat shoved all the way forward. May could drive a standard little-people car, and her daughters just about fit in with her. They all looked relieved to escape their cramped quarters, though.
Tim Gordon surveyed the mansion with undisguised envy. “Now this is all right!” he said. “I mean, our house is okay for us, but it’s still on the crowded side. You’ve got room to spread out in, Governor.”
“Our own place is like that,” Louise Williamson said.
Bill nodded agreement with his wife. “It sure is. The residence is Bigfoot Lewis’ baby. From what the old-timers in Yreka told me when I first got elected to the State Senate, Bigfoot never did anything halfway.”
“Sounds like a Jefferson kind of guy,” Tim Gordon said, not without pride. “If we did things by halves here, we’d still be stuck in California and Oregon.”
When they got inside, Mark Gordon kept staring in wonder at ceilings more than three feet above his head. “This is . . . amazing,” he said. Bill suspected he almost modified the word with an imperfectly polite participle. “Governor, Mrs. Williamson—”
“I’m Bill, please,” Bill broke in, at the same time as his wife was saying, “Call me Louise.”
“Thanks.” The freed hostage needed a second to reboard his train of thought. “The embassy in Tehran was made for little people. I didn’t fit real well there, but whenever you leave Jefferson you have to get used to that.”
“Oh, yeah.” Bill nodded. “Congress needs to do something about that, the way we’ve done for the airport and hotels and restaurants.”
“Outside the country, they have to use the buildings that are already there,” Mark said. “I managed . . . pretty much. But after we got captured, some of the places the Iranians kept us were too small for little people. They were way too small for me. I’m just glad I’m not a claustrophobe.”
“Those fucking bastards.” That wasn’t Tim Gordon. It was May.
“Now that you mention it,” Bill said, “yes.”
In black tie and tailcoat, the chief steward looked like a negotiator working to settle the Russo-Japanese War—or possibly, since he was so much smaller than the sasquatches, more like a dignified penguin. “Dinner is ready,” he said. “If you’ll follow me to the dining room . . .”
“Thank you, Ray,” Bill said as he obeyed. He was used to doing what Ray told him to. The chief steward had taken care of several governors before him, and would likely make several more feel at home in the mansion after he was gone. Bill had no idea how old he was; he had one of those faces that didn’t change much between thirty and sixty-five.
More mansion staff popped bottles of champagne as the governor, his wife, and his guests came in. The flutes at the place settings were more like bassoons; one problem with being a sasquatch was that you needed to drink more to feel it. That didn’t stop sasquatches from drinking, but did make it cost more.
Bill raised his glass. “To freedom!” he said. Everybody clinked. Everybody drank. The dry, dry sparkling wine smiled down Bill’s throat.
“Amazing,” Mark said again.
“Glad you like it,” Bill said.
The main coast was salmon poached in white wine and dill. “I think that’s the best fish I’ve ever eaten in my whole life,” Mark said after putting away a couple of pounds of it. “Is it extra good, or is it just me? I mean, a lot of what the Iranians fed us was pretty nasty, and there wasn’t that much of it to begin with. And when we got to the military hospital at Wiesbaden, they gave us Army rations.”
“I’m so sorry,” Louise said.
“Yeah.” Mark gave another of those crooked grins. “You know that old joke—‘The food was lousy, and such small portions!’? That was us.”
“Maybe some of it’s you, Mark, but not all of it,” Bill said. “I’ve got connections for good salmon.”
“Connections like the ones that paid for that Learjet for me?” Mark asked.
“No, no,” Bill said. Well, not exactly, he amended to himself. “I helped settle a quarrel about salmon fishing between the Karuk Indians and the merfolk.”
“And the Indians pay you back?”
“No, the merfolk do. They nab the fish before they even start going up the rivers.” Bill paused a moment, then went on, “Speaking of that Learjet, how did you ever fit in there?”
“First thing I asked him,” Tim Gordon put in.
His son nodded. “It sure was. They had the plane specially fitted with a recliner big enough for somebody my size. But I don’t think the ceiling in a Learjet is even six feet high, so I had to crawl on and off. You saw how I came out of that miserable little door.”
“Oh, yeah. I’ve flown a few times. Even when you can arrange for a seat that sorta fits you, airliners are no fun. That private jet must have been worse,” Bill said.
Louise asked the question that was also in Bill’s mind: “How did the Iranians treat you, Mark. I mean, they can’t be used to sasquatches.”
“No, not hardly,” the ex-hostage agreed. “Wasn’t much fun when a bunch of wild-eyed students pointed M-16s at my chest.”
“You didn’t say anything about that to us before,” May Gordon told him in accusing tones.
“Sorry, Mom. They didn’t fire—you can see that. But still, it was scary,” Mark said. “They were yelling in Farsi, things like ‘It’s a monster!’ and ‘No, it’s a demon!’ and ‘It’s an animal! Kill it!’ I didn’t want to let on that I could follow their language, so I spoke up in English. I said something like ‘I’m an accredited diplomat with the State Department. If you shoot me, it’s an act of war.’ A bunch of them had been to school in the States. They understood me just fine.”
“They treated you better after that?” Bill asked.
“Better. Not good. For the first few days, they kept me separate from the rest of the Americans they’d grabbed. That worried me, because I didn’t know if anyone else at the embassy knew I’d been captured. If nobody did, they could do whatever they wanted with me, and who’d be the wiser? But then I got a visit from an older man, somebody the students listened to. He said, ‘You are a yeti? I didn’t know America had yetis.’”
“That’s interesting. They would know about them, wouldn’t they?” Bill said. When Communist China invaded Tibet in 1959, yetis had fled the Himalayas along with the little people among whom they’d lived since time out of mind. He was still proud of meeting the Yeti Lama a couple of years earlier. “So what did you tell this honcho?”
“I said, no, I was a sasquatch, and we were close to yetis but not what the same, sort of like Japanese and Nigerians. He got that, all right.”
“What did he do about it?” Bill asked.
“He told me that yetis were kafirs—pagans—and that the new government was running them all out of Iran unless they converted to Islam,” Mark replied. “Then he asked if I was a kafir myself.”
“You should have told him yes,” his mother exclaimed. “Then they would have thrown you out, too, and you wouldn’t have gone through everything you went through.”
“It was more complicated than that, Mom,” the diplomat said with what sounded like exaggerated patience. “For one thing, I didn’t want to go while they were still holding the rest of the embassy staff. It would have felt like selling out.”
“Foolishness,” May Gordon sniffed. Her husband opened his mouth, then closed it again. They’d been married a long time. He knew nothing he said would change her mind.
“For another thing,” Mark went on as if his mother hadn’t spoken, “they weren’t just expelling the yetis who’d taken refuge in Iran when the Shah was still there. They were stealing everything the yetis had and mobbing them. I’m pretty sure one or two got killed. We were working on that, trying to see what we could do to protect them, when the embassy got seized.”
“So what did you tell this SOB who thought you were a yeti?” Bill asked.
“I told him the truth. I said I was a Christian, and that under Muslim law Christians and Jews were People of the Book and entitled to good treatment, and I asked him why he wasn’t living up to the Prophet’s teachings.”
“Good for you!” Tim Gordon said.
Bill wasn’t so sure. “How did he like that?”
“He turned red as a tomato. Then he said jailhouse lawyers had a way of winding up sorry they ever opened their big, fat mouths—not quite in so many words, but that’s what it boiled down to.”
“Did he?” the governor said with interest. He’d heard exactly the same thing from cops and attorneys here in Yreka. If it worked the same way in fanatically Muslim Iran, that had to be a piece of human nature. “What happened then?”
“They kept me by myself for another day and a half, then they put me back with the rest of the Americans. I got a hell of a welcome, pardon my French, ’cause till then nobody’d known whether I was alive or dead. They kept us all together in Tehran till the American military tried to rescue us.”
“Oh,” Bill said: one word full of pain. Jimmy Carter’s failure to extract the hostages from Iran had gone a long way towards electing Ronald Reagan. Maybe it was just bad luck; maybe the military still felt the hangover from the long, disastrous Vietnam War. Whatever the reason, the rescue effort fell apart in the Iranian desert.
“Uh-huh.” Mark Gordon nodded unhappily. “They didn’t like that much. They kept screaming that the Great Satan hadn’t saved his spawn. It sounds better in Farsi, I will say—not as stupid as it does in English. But if I never hear ‘Death to America!’ again, I won’t be sorry.”
“I believe that,” Bill said. “So they split you up after the helicopters couldn’t hack the sand?”
“Uh-huh. They didn’t want to give the USA another chance to get hold of everybody at once. They sent me and a few other people to a jail in the northern part of town. The cell was just bigger than I was, and they fed me the same slop Iranian prisoners got.”
“Doesn’t sound like a real enjoyable place for you to be,” Louise observed.
Mark gave her one more of his lopsided smiles. “Now that you mention it, no,” he said. “The good news was, none of the Americans I was with let on that I knew Farsi. The Iranians ran their mouths around me a lot. Half of them seemed to think I was some kind of big animal even though I spoke English.”
“They’re the animals,” Bonnie said. She was the younger sister, in her early twenties—about ten years younger than Mark. She did not care for the people who’d held him hostage. And who can blame her? Bill thought.
“Well, I hope I managed to do them a bad turn or two,” Mark said. “When the Army doctors were debriefing us in Wiesbaden, I wrote down as much as I could remember. Our people know more about where the Iranians have bases and weapons than they did before.”
“Good!” That was Samantha, who might have been halfway between Mark and Bonnie in age. “Now the only trouble is, it’s our numbnuts military that’s got the info.”
“They do the best they can,” Mark said in reproving tones. Sure enough, he wanted to hear no evil of the government he served. After a moment, he went on, “And the Iranians have more to worry about than the United States. They’ve been fighting the Iraqis since last September.”
“Serves ’em right!” Both his sisters said the same thing at the same time.
Mark Gordon only shrugged. “Saddam Hussein isn’t anybody’s nice guy, either. He jumped Iran when he thought the revolution had it all messed up. Oh, my God—the way our guards carried on when Iraq invaded! But the Iranians fought back harder than Saddam ever dreamt they could. Now they’re banging heads with each other, Saddam and Khomeini, each hoping the other guy falls over first.”
“Is that why the Iranians finally let everybody go?” Bill asked. “So they didn’t have to worry about Iraq and us at the same time, I mean?”
“Probably had something to do with it. I don’t know how much.” Mark yawned an enormous yawn. This time, the smile that followed seemed distinctly sheepish. “Sorry about that, Governor—uh, Bill. Sometimes I don’t notice how worn out I am till it hits me all at once.”
“Go home, then, or back to your hotel, or wherever you guys are staying,” Bill said. “Sleep. Get used to being free again. And look, if you ever need an ear to talk to, give me a buzz. I’ll make sure the secretaries put you through no matter what time it is.”
“Thanks very much, sir. I may even take you up on that,” Mark said.
“I hope you do.” Bill meant it. There would be things the freed hostage didn’t want to talk about with his family or his close friends, for fear of alarming them. They might be things he hadn’t wanted to tell even the military debriefers in Germany. If he did feel like letting his hair down, who better to listen than another sasquatch man, one who wouldn’t judge him or freak out?
Tim Gordon clasped Bill’s hand. They both squeezed carefully; neither, no doubt, was used to shaking with someone whose hand his own big, hairy mitt didn’t swallow. “This was nicer than I know how to tell you, Governor,” Mark’s father said. “You savvy umglatch?”
“You bet. I don’t know a lot of the old talk, but I know that one.” The language sasquatches had spoken among themselves was drowning in a sea of English. Bill understood only little bits and pieces of it. Luckily, Tim had hit on one of those. Umglatch meant something done better than properly even though it didn’t have to be done at all. It lingered not least because it had no simple English equivalent.
“Well, it was. We all appreciate it, believe me,” Tim Gordon said. He and his family headed for the front door. Bill and Louise went with them to finish the good-byes.
Bill didn’t like bifocals. He needed them; that was one more unpleasant fact of middle age. But they were a damn nuisance. He couldn’t read through the tops or see anything past arm’s length through the bottoms. He’d loved to read till he got into politics. Sadly, the gobbledygook masquerading as English in legislation had gone a long way toward curing him of that.
He wasn’t entirely disappointed, then, when the phone on his desk rang and gave him an excuse not to keep plowing through the appropriations bill he was studying. His hand swallowed the standard-sized handset as he picked it up. “Yes?” he said.
“Sorry to bother you, Governor, but you told me you’d take a call from Mark Gordon any time,” his administrative assistant said.
“I sure did. Put him through, Phyllis,” said Bill, who was not in the least sorry to be bothered.
“Yes, sir.” Phyllis Ward sounded resigned. She had a filing cabinet for a mind—anything out of place distressed her. She made a terrific aide, even if she wasn’t always thrilled dealing with a looser thinker like Bill.
The phone clicked and popped a couple of times. Then the freed hostage said, “Is that you, Governor?”
“In person—accept no substitutes,” Bill answered. “How does Jefferson feel now that you’ve been back for a week or so?”
“Everybody’s so nice to me. Not just my family, but everybody,” Gordon said. “After all the students shouting and waving guns in my face, it doesn’t seem natural, if you know what I mean.”
“Maybe,” Bill said. “Like the good cop after the bad cop?”
“There you go! You nailed it in one,” Marks said. “I don’t trust friendliness any more. I keep wondering when the bad stuff will start up again. Isn’t that terrible?”
“I’d say it’s natural.” Bill glanced at the clock on his desk. As he did, it went from 11:38 to 11:39. “You want to have lunch with me? If it’ll cheer you up, I can make like I’m interrogating you.”
Gordon’s laugh was shaky, but it was a laugh. “That’s one of those jokes that would be funny if only it was funny. But I’d love to have lunch with you, if only because you’re somebody who makes jokes like that.”
“One of the odder compliments I ever got, but maybe not one of the smaller,” Bill said. “You know where Fat Albert’s is, around the corner from the residence here?”
“No, but if it’s that close, I can find it. I’ll look up the address in the phone book.”
“Okay. See you there around half past twelve?”
“Sounds great. ’Bye.”
Fat Albert’s was half a step up from a Denny’s. You could get fancy burgers or salads with enough meat and cheese in them to clog your arteries in spite of the greenery or (since the owner, who was fat, was a Greek in spite of his name) things like spanakopita and keftedakia and dolmades.
“Hey, Governor!” Albert said when Bill and Mark walked in together. “Who’s your big buddy?” A second later, recognizing Mark, he did a double take. “No, wait—I know who. Lunch onna house for you both.”
“No, I’m buying,” Bill said. “That way, I don’t have to do the what-kind-of-favors-did-you-accept? dance with the accountants.”
“No, I’m buying,” Mark said. “I’ve got fifteen months of back pay burning a hole in my pocket, and hazardous-duty bonuses on top of that. And you’re kind enough to let me bend your ear a little.”
Bill let the diplomat talk him into it. The bookkeepers wouldn’t get their knickers in a twist over lunch with a former Iranian hostage. Or if they did, he figured he could outface them.
They sat down at one of the three sasquatch-sized tables. When the waitress—who, Bill happened to know, was Albert’s niece—took their order, the governor chose dolmades. Mark Gordon asked for three cheeseburgers, a double helping of fries, and an extra-large vanilla shake.
“I’m going to eat American for a while,” he said, and then, thoughtfully, “or maybe Chinese. Chinese would be great . . . but not here.”
“No, not here,” Bill agreed. To him, spiced lamb in grape leaves was interesting and exotic, but he could see why Mark aimed to get reacquainted with the tastes of home. He sipped from his glass of ice water, then asked, “So how’s freedom feeling after all that time when you didn’t have it?”
“Funny. Funny-peculiar, I mean, not funny-haha,” Mark answered. “I have to get used to being outside, for instance. They kept me under a roof almost all the time, so no reconnaissance plane could spot where I was. I’d sort of stand out in a crowd of Iranians.”
“Oh, maybe a little,” Bill said dryly.
“The only times they did let me out in the open were when they had crowds of students cursing me and the people they were holding with me,” Mark said. “I had to play dumb, make like I had no idea what they were saying. Some of the things they said, that wasn’t so easy.”
“Lucky you,” Bill said. Mark Gordon nodded.
A little woman with graying brown hair hesitantly approached the table. “Excuse me,” she said, “but you’re Mr. Gordon, aren’t you?”
“That’s right,” Mark replied.
“I just wanted to tell you how glad I am that you’re home safe.”
“Thank you very much, ma’am,” Mark said. The woman gave a shy nod and went back to where she’d been sitting. Mark spoke to Bill in a low voice: “That’s nice, but I don’t want to have to keep doing it the rest of my life. I don’t want to be ‘ex-hostage Mark Gordon’ the rest of my life, either.”
“You can’t always get what you want.” Bill’s try at channeling Mick Jagger was none too good. If he hadn’t already known that, the look on Mark’s face would have told him. He went on, “One of these days, it may open some doors for you. Still has to be raw now, though.”
“‘Raw’ isn’t a tenth of it.” Mark didn’t amplify that, because the waitress came back with their food. Albert had piled enough dolmades onto Bill’s plate to let him built a fair-sized log cabin. He started eating them instead. Marked worked through the burgers and fries with little happy noises. His shake was the size of a young lake. He proceeded to drain it. “Wow!” he said. “The animal part of me feels better, that’s for sure.”
“Me, too,” Bill said. “You look like you could do with some weight back on. I wish I could say the same, but I can’t.” That hadn’t stopped him from making the stuffed grape leaves disappear.
“The animal part of me . . .” Mark let his voice trail off. When he didn’t pick up right away, Bill made a small, questioning noise. Mark sighed. “I wish I had a drink.”
“They sell beer and wine here,” Bill said. “The state Capitol’s only a few blocks away—they’d better.”
“Heh.” Yet another lopsided smile from the freed hostage. “Wouldn’t go with the shake, I’m afraid.”
“If you want something, I’ll never tell. But you started to say something about the animal part of you, only you didn’t finish.” Most of the time, Bill wouldn’t have pushed. But the freed hostage had sad he wanted to bend his ear. Mark might need reminding of that.
“Right,” he said now, and eyed the glass for the sasquatch-scale vanilla shake as if he really did wish it had been half rum. Then he sighed again. “While I was locked up in that jail in the suburbs, one of the guys who was guarding me said to his friend, ‘My father has a tiger skin on the wall of his living room. He shot it up by the Caspian when he was my age. I wish I had this thing’s hide on my wall like that.’”
“‘This thing,’ huh? Would’ve been fun hearing that and pretending you didn’t get it,” Bill said. “You must’ve earned yourself a best-actor Oscar tht day.”
“Fun? Mm-hmm. I don’t remember the last time I had so much fun. Good thing I’d been there a while by then. I’d got used to playing dumb—but not as dumb as the guards thought I was.”
“If they talked about skinning you, I guess not!” Bill cast about for some way, any way, to change the subject even a little. To his surprise and relief, he found one: “I didn’t know there were tigers near the Caspian Sea.”
“As far as anybody can tell, there aren’t—now,” Mark Gordon said bleakly. “Nobody’s seen one around there for ten years or so. For all I can prove, that asshole guard’s dad shot the last one in that part of the world.”
“Wonderful.” Bill found himself also wishing for something stronger than water. When he was starting out in politics, a lot of the veterans took their first drinks as soon as they rolled out of bed and kept at it till they hit the hay again. Some of the local politicos still did, but not so many; a lot of those veterans had found out the hard way they had but one liver to lose for their country. Bill rarely indulged with the sun in the sky.
“Oh, at least,” Mark said.
“I’m sure you didn’t tell your family about that one,” Bill remarked. He waited for the analyst to nod, then asked, “Did you say anything about it to the debriefers in—where was it?—in Wiesbaden, that’s right?”
“Nah.” Now Mark shook his head. “They were nice enough, but they were all little people—and not little people from Jefferson, either. I could tell they didn’t quite know how to deal with me. You’ll know what I mean.”
“I will, will I?” Bill clicked his tongue between his teeth. Even here in this easygoing state where sasquatches had always lived, some little people saw them as nothing more than big, dangerous critters—not a whole bunch of little people, or he wouldn’t be occupying the governor’s mansion, but some.
“I think you just may,” Mark said. “For all I could tell, some of those guys might not have minded a sasquatch-skin rug for their living room, either. So I kept my mouth shut.”
“If you could do it around the Iranians, you could do it around the Americans, too, huh?” Bill said.
“That’s about it,” Mark agreed.
“Glad to give you the chance to open up a little bit, then,” Bill said.
Mark Gordon sent him a quizzical look. “Not ‘Glad you could share that with me’? If one debriefer and counselor told me ‘Thank you for sharing that,’ a dozen of them did. More than a dozen.”
“Mark, I’m a politician. I hear a lot of bullshit—it comes with the job,” Bill said. “I come out with bullshit every now and then, too. That’s also part of the job, and sometimes people expect it of you. But I try not to do it when I’m not on the job, so to speak.”
“No wonder I like you,” Mark said. “I got called on the carpet a couple of times for writing reports in English and not in the fuzzy talk they like to use at State. I can write that stuff, too, but it makes me want to brush all the crap out of my hair afterwards every time I do.”
“I hear that—you bet I do.” Bill caught the waitress’ eye and raised a forefinger. When she came over, he said, “Can we have the check, please?” He intended to grab it as soon as she brought it back.
But she said, “There is no check.” Bill and Mark both spluttered. Grinning, she went on, “Uncle Al says you can fight him if you don’t like it, but he figures he’s big enough to whip the two of you together.”
Bill looked over toward the counter. Albert, who couldn’t have topped five feet eight, flexed a flabby bicep at him. Laughing, the governor said, “Okay, I know when I’m licked.” Albert stopped flexing. His niece went away. Bill left a tip about twice the size of what he would usually have put down. If the waitress didn’t want it, she could give it to the United Way or something.
Outside the restaurant, Mark said, “Thank you for letting me bang my gums. Nice to talk to somebody who kinda knows where I’m coming from.”
“Any time—and I mean that,” Bill answered, though he wondered how much he understood about being held captive for fifteen months by people who hated his country and thought he was one short step, if that, above a beast. They shook hands. Mark Gordon headed for his father’s car. Bill ambled back toward the governor’s mansion. It was all very civilized—and that, thought Bill, was one more thing the freed hostage would have to get used to all over again.
This time, Bill was answering a missive from a woman in Arcata who was unhappy the state wasn’t doing more for sea otters. The way her letter sounded, she wanted him to put them on the Jefferson welfare roll. Bill had nothing against sea otters, but he thought that went a bit far.
When the phone rang, it was still a relief, even if one different from that caused by escaping bureaucratese for a little while. “Yes?” he said.
“Governor, I have Mr. Asianto Supandy on the line,” Phyllis Ward told him.
“Who?” Bill said—the name reminded him of something out of Star Wars. But then it rang a bell. “Wait. Isn’t that—?”
“The Indonesian honorary consul—that’s right,” his administrative assistant finished for him.
“I wonder what he wants,” Bill said, bemused. “Well, put him through. I’ll find out.” The nearest Indonesian general consulate was down in Los Angeles. When Supandy wasn’t helping Jefferson’s small Indonesian community and the even smaller number of Indonesian travelers who ran into trouble here, he ran the only Indonesian restaurant in Yreka.
“Hold on, please,” Ms. Ward said.
A few seconds later, another voice came on the line: a high, resonant, accented tenor. “Is that you, Governor Williamson?”
“It’s me, Mr. Supandy. What can I do for you today?”
“I hope you and your family are well, sir?” Supandy went through a couple of minutes of small talk before he got down to business. Thinking back, Bill realized he always did that. It might not be the American way, but it was how his culture handled things. At last, he said, “I have heard that you have honored Mr. Mark Gordon with your friendship.”
“I’d say it’s more the other way around,” Bill replied. “But where did you hear that?”
The restaurant owner chuckled. “It may be better if I do not say.”
Bill grunted. That most likely meant Fat Albert had been bragging. Bill knew realtors heard things from other realtors, and politicians from other politicians. It was bound to work the same way with restaurant guys. Where Supandy’d got the news didn’t really matter, though. Bill focused on what did: “What if we are?”
“If you are, Governor, I would like to invite the two of you to my establishment, the Bird of Paradise, for a dinner to celebrate the friendship between Indonesia and the United States of America.”
“You would?” Bill said. “What brings this on, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I do not mind in the least, sir—not in the least,” Asianto Supandy answered. “I have received a communication from Mr. Kertosudiro, the consul general in Los Angeles. Our President, General Suharto, seeks to reassure the American people that not all Muslim nations are enemies to your country. Thus, around the United States, Indonesian officials are seeking to do what they can to promote good relations between themselves and the brave people who endured captivity in Iran.”
“I . . . see,” Bill said slowly, wondering if he did.
Supandy chuckled again. “I am proud to do this for my country. It is mostly Muslim, as I told you. I myself, though, happen to be Catholic. The small island I come from, Pulau Flores, was held by Portugal until two lifetimes ago. Almost all the people there took on the faith of the ruling power. We are Catholic to this day. Like America, Indonesia enjoys religious freedom.”
“Isn’t that interesting?” Bill said, which seemed safe enough. Even a small, lightly populated state like Jefferson was bigger and more complicated than it looked from the outside. Jefferson didn’t have a hell of a lot to do with Indonesia, but he was willing to believe the far-off island country was also bigger and more complicated than it seemed from Yreka. He was also willing to believe he couldn’t turn down the invitation without offending. “Let me have your phone number, Mr. Supandy. I’ll get hold of Mark and find out when he’s free, then I’ll call you back. I appreciate the gesture, and I’m sure he will, too.”
“You are doing me the favor, not the reverse.” Supandy gave Bill his number, then said, “I hope to hear from you soon, sir. Good-bye.” He hung up.
Bill used the eraser end of a pencil to punch the phone button that connected him to the outer office—his fingers were too big for the job. “You have a number where I can get hold of Mark Gordon, don’t you, Phyllis?”
“I sure do, Governor. Hang on for one second, please.” His administrative assistant needed hardly longer than that to find it and read it off for him.
“Thanks.” He hit 9 for an outside line, then punched it in. Mark’s mother answered the phone. Bill chitchatted with her for a little while (the way Supandy did with me, he thought, and smiled), then asked to speak to the State Department analyst.
“What’s happening, Gov—I mean, Bill?” Mark asked after May Gordon called him to the telephone. Bill told him—no beating around the bush now. After a small delay, the diplomat sighed. “General Suharto is a nasty, murderous son of a bitch. You didn’t hear that from me, by the way, but he is.”
“Hear what?” Bill asked innocently.
“Okay. I knew I had reasons for liking you. Suharto is what he is, but he’s aligned Indonesia with the United States.”
“That makes him our nasty, murderous son of a bitch?” Bill suggested.
“Now I didn’t hear you.” Mark chuckled. “As a matter of fact, though, yes. And Indonesia has more Muslims than any other country in the world, even if it’s not real close to the Middle East. What it does carries weight. It’s Sunni, too, like most Muslim countries, not Shiite like Iran. That adds to its influence in places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. So okay, I’d better show the flag and let this guy give us a dinner.”
“Supandy’s a friendly fellow. Interesting, too. I’ve met him a couple-three times.”
“Interesting how?” the ex-hostage asked.
“You’ll see. Shall I call him back and set this up? I’ll let you know what we work out. If you have problems with it, I’ll change it, promise.”
“That sounds great,” Mark said. “’Bye.”
When Bill called Asianto Supandy, they quickly agreed on a day and time. The little man from Pulau Flores asked, “Do you mind if some reporters and photographers are there? I wish it to be seen that Indonesia is making a point of showing its friendship with your country.”
Our nasty, murderous son of a bitch went through Bill’s mind again. Hadn’t Suharto slaughtered a raft of Chinese and Communists when he overthrew Sukarno back in the mid-Sixties? Bill reminded himself that had nothing to do with Supandy personally. The restaurateur was just doing what the Indonesian consul general in L.A. told him to do. “Publicity is fine with me,” Bill said. “I’ll give Mark a heads-up about it, too, of course. I don’t expect it will bother him, but if it does I’ll tell you.”
“That will be excellent, sir,” Supandy said. “And I will see you at seven o’clock next Friday. Good-bye.”
Mark Gordon came to the governor’s mansion before the dinner. Bill took him to the Bird of Paradise in the Mighty Mo. Any car with two male sasquatches in it was bound to feel crowded, but the enormous Eldorado felt less crowded than most would have.
“My knees aren’t too bad up against the back of the front seat,” Mark said. “When I’m a passenger in my dad’s car, I feel like I’ve got some of those Italian Red terrorists kneecapping me.”
The Bird of Paradise was near the western edge of town, in a neighborhood carved from orchard and forest in the past twenty-five years. The restaurant shared a strip mall with a beauty shop—by the little red-and-white flag in the front window, also Indonesian-owned—and a Rexall and a liquor store. The parking lot was crowded. A TV news van’s crew had set up lights in front of Asianto Supandy’s eatery.
A reporter form the Siskiyou Daily News waved to Bill as he unfolded from the Mighty Mo. Mark got out on the other side. “Oh, for Christ’s sake,” he muttered when he did.
“What’s the matter?” Bill asked.
“Look at the poles holding up the awning in front of the place.”
Bill looked. Sure as hell, both iron supports were decorated, if that was the word, with enormous yellow ribbons. “A little tired of that, you say?”
Mark rolled his eyes. “No, a big tired. I never could stand that stupid song to begin with.”
“Now that you mention it, neither could I.” As Bill spoke, the TV lights brightened. He went on, “Performance starts now. Here comes Supandy—somebody must have tipped him off that we’d got to the lot.”
“Ohh,” Mark said in soft surprise. Most of the time, Asianto Supandy wore the same kind of clothes other restaurant men did: black slacks and a white shirt, sometimes with a tie, more often without. Today, though, he’d decked himself out in Indonesian national costume, with a batik shirt above a striped, skirtlike sarong.
But that wasn’t the only thing that made Mark Gordon exclaim. Supandy was one of the Duendes, the little people of Pulau Flores. Duendes was a Portuguese word that meant something like goblins or leprechauns. Supandy had once told Bill he was three feet seven and five-eighths inches tall; he’d stressed those five-eighths with considerable pride. Over the past fifteen years or so, English-speakers who’d devoured The Lord of the Rings had started calling the Duendes hobbits, and the name seemed to be spreading.
Waving to Bill and Mark, Supandy called, “Governor! Mr. Gordon! In the name of the Republic of Indonesia, I am proud to welcome you to my humble establishment!” in his ringing tenor.
“Thank you very much, sir,” Bill boomed back. “In the name of the state of Jefferson, I thank you for inviting us here this evening.” He wasn’t a Federal official; he couldn’t speak for the USA. What he could do, he did.
Reporters scribbled in their notepads. Photographers’ flashes filled Bill’s eyes with purple-green spots. The red light under the TV camera’s lens was on. They were being immortalized for posterity, or at least for the eleven o’clock news.
One of the shutterbugs said, “Can we get the three of you together for a group picture?”
“Absolutely! I would be delighted!” Asianto Supandy said.
Bill sounded more temperate: “Sure, Hank. We can do that.”
Out of the side of his mouth, Mark murmured, “How much you wanna bet they caption the damn thing ‘The long and short of it’?”
“I won’t touch that one,” Bill answered the same way.
They posed in front of the awning. It was high enough to let sasquatches pass under it without ducking; Supandy went along with Jefferson’s equal-access laws. The name of the restaurant and a bird-of-paradise silhouette appeared on the dark green cloth in gold leaf. They’d show up in the photographs, too. Won’t do the business any harm, Bill thought as he took his place.
Supandy gravely shook hands with Bill and Mark in turn. Bill was cautious whenever he shook with a member of Homo sapiens. With the Duende, he was extra careful. The top of Supandy’s head came past his knee, but not very far past it. The hobbit might have weighed fifty pounds—say, a tenth as much as the governor. He was hairier than a Homo sap, but nowhere near as shaggy as a sasquatch. Whether he had hairy toes like a real fictional hobbit, Bill didn’t know. As usual, he wore tiny black oxfords, highly polished.
The photographers grumbled at trying to get everybody into their pictures at the same time. Finally, Hank—who at six-one or so was about halfway between the long and the short of it—said, “Governor, can you maybe pick him up to get all your faces close together, like?”
“Mr. Supandy, it’s up to you,” Bill said. “I will if you don’t mind and if it doesn’t offend you. If it bothers you any way at all, just say the word and I won’t.”
“Go ahead, sir,” the restaurant owner replied. “You will not drop me. I am an American citizen now. If you drop me, you will lose a vote.”
“You understand how politics work here, that’s for sure.” Bill gently lifted Asianto Supandy. The Duende’s grin showed a mouthful of teeth—and a gold crown on one in front. Supandy shook hands with Mark Gordon again, this time without the sasquatch needing to bend almost double to do it. The photographers got the pictures they wanted. The TV camera recorded the moment, too.
“I’m pleased to thank Indonesia for showing me such generous hospitality,” Mark said.
“Are we good?” Bill asked. When nobody told him no, he lowered Supandy to the concrete once more.
“Now we will enjoy an Indonesian feast,” the restaurateur said. “Gentlemen of the press, I think eating should be a private affair, fit for talk that will not be in tomorrow’s newspapers.”
The reporters grumbled a little, but only a little. They had the story they’d come for. Now they could go write it up so it would be in tomorrow’s newspapers—and the TV crew could edit their tape so people could watch it before they switched to Johnny Carson.
A long vertical bar that Duendes, ordinary Homo saps, and sasquatches could all handle opened the Bird of Paradise’s front door. Supandy used it. Holding it with one hand, he waved Bill and Mark in ahead of him with the other. Bill thought he heard a grunt of relief when the hobbit let go. For someone his size, that door would have been a lot of weight.
Unfamiliar spicy smells tickled Bill’s nose. Unfamiliar music played at about Muzak level. It wasn’t Muzak, though. To Bill’s untrained ear, it sounded like a cross between a catfight and a series of car crashes, luckily heard from some large distance.
“Gamelan music began on the island of Java, west of Pulau Flores,” Supandy said. “It has become the national music of Indonesia, though people there also like music from this part of the world.”
“Iran is the same way,” Mark said. “It has its own music, but a lot of Iranians like the Western stuff, too. The ayatollahs aren’t very happy about that—they’re clamping down on music from America and Europe.”
“Foolishness,” Supandy sniffed. An Asian—probably Indonesian—woman came up. She was short for Homo sap but towered over him. When he spoke to her in a tongue they shared, though, his voice crackled with authority.
She dipped her head to him, as hirelings did with bosses all over the world. To Bill and Mark, she said, “Please follow me.” Sure enough, her English had an accent like Supandy’s.
She took them to a table suitable for sasquatches. Along with their chairs was a tall bar stool with a phone book and a sturdy pillows on the seat. Perched on that foundation, Asianto Supandy could eat at the table with them.
“I have chosen tumpeng for us tonight,” he said. “Like the gamelan orchestra, tumpeng comes from Java, which is our island with the most people. Now it is a national dish. Tumpeng is traditionally served at a selametan, a feast that celebrates the unity of those who take part. I think it is fitting for tonight, when we remembered the friendship between the country I come from and the country where I live now.”
“That sounds wonderful,” Mark said. Bill nodded.
“It is the least I can do. And would you care for beer or wine? I have not a full liquor license, but I can do that. And, being a Christian, I can do it without fear of sin, as Muslims may not.” He spoke sharply in his own language. A waiter brought him a bottle of beer. “Anker lager is brewed in my country,” the restaurant owner told Bill and Mark. “Is it as good as a fine German lager? I think not. But—forgive me—it is much better than the dishwater your American breweries turn out.”
The waiter came back with two buckets full of ice and bottles of Anker. He set one by each sasquatch, then brought glasses and church keys. “Enjoy yourselves, gentlemen,” he said.
Bill and Mark opened their brews. “To American-Indonesian friendship,” Supandy said. They clinked glasses and drank. Chuckling, the Duende went on, “I envy you how much you can hold. This one bottle will last me all night, and I will be tiddly by the time I finish it.”
“We ought to envy you,” Bill replied. “When generous friends don’t give us beer, drinking enough to feel it gets expensive.”
Their host looked comically surprised. “I never thought of that!”
“Why should you? You don’t need to worry about it.” Bill sipped more Anker. “You’re right—this is better than most American stuff. A couple of little breweries down in California make good beer. A guy here in Yreka is talking about starting one like that. I hope he can get it off the ground.”
“No, no.” Mark shook his head. “If he gets his brewery off the ground, he must be making light beer, and there’s nothing worse.” His large and small tablemates sent him identical reproachful stares.
The Iranians should have kept you. The words got to the tip of Bill’s tongue, but no farther. Had he known Mark better, or had the ex-hostage been free longer, he might have said them. As things were, he feared he’d hit a nerve. Sometimes the best thing even for a politician was keeping his yap shut.
“This is not a perfectly proper selametan, and not only because of the beer,” Asianto Supandy said, using words about another subject the way Bill used silence. “In Java, it is a Muslim ceremony, and begins with prayer. But it is a ceremony of celebration, and you, Mr. Gordon, you have returned safe from trouble and danger. So I thought it was fitting here.”
And the bigger wheel in Los Angeles told me to do it, Bill thought. But that was one of the things that went with representing your old country’s interests here in your new one.
Two waiters came up, each carrying an enormous circular tray. One set his in front of Bill, the other in Mark. In the center of each tray sat a tall cone of rice. The setup put Bill in mind of a volcano surrounded by a jungle of delicious-smelling food.
“Each of those is usually tumpeng for a table,” Supandy said. “But you are bigger than ordinary people. I hope this will be enough. If not, please ask for more. It is my honor to serve you.” As he spoke, the woman from Indonesia gave him what looked like a child’s portion of tumpeng, complete with its own minivolcano in the middle.
“I’m sure we’ll be fine,” Bill said. Even for someone of his size, there was a lot in front of him. He gently tapped the banana-leaf wrap that topped the cone. “How do you get the rice to stand up like this?”
“Inside is a woven-bamboo frame. And the rice is cooked with coconut milk, to remember Mr. Gordon’s sweet return,” Supandy answered. “Sometimes the rice will be made with turmeric instead, to give it a golden color. That is done for prosperity. I thought sweetness would be more fitting tonight.”
“I think you’re right,” Bill said.
“Me, too,” Mark said. “Nobody goes to work for the State Department expecting to get rich.”
Bill tasted the rice. It was sweet and moist and spicy and good. He waved at the rest of the tray. “What all else have we got here?”
“You see the fried prawns and the hard-boiled eggs.” Supandy waited for Bill to nod, then went on, “The eggs come still in the shell. When you peel them, in a way of speaking you show how you plan and do for time to come. The shrimp are from the sea. So are the teri kacang—anchovies with peanuts, that is in English. Anchovies school together. Is that the word, school?”
“That’s the word,” Bill and Mark agreed.
“Thank you,” the Duende said. “This means you have harmonious relations with people near you and with your family.”
“It all has a meaning, doesn’t it?” Bill asked.
“Oh, yes, certainly. This is worked out over many, many years. Along with eggs, the ayam goreng—the fried chicken—stands for the creatures of the air.”
“Spicy,” Mark said, setting down the bone from a chicken thigh. He opened a fresh Anker to help put out the fire. After Bill tried the ayam goreng, he needed more beer, too.
“For land animals, we have here tonight semur. This is beef stewed with sugar in soy sauce. Also there is empal gepuk, which is fried beef. It is also sweet, and highly spiced, too. The vegetables from the earth are called urap. They are steamed and flavored with seasoned dried coconut meat chopped fine. The spinach in them stands for a peaceful, safe life.”
“It’s good,” Bill said in some surprise—spinach wasn’t usually one of his favorite vegetables. Coconut improved anything.
“So glad you like it. And the bean sprouts, they mean you will pass on your legacy to those who come after, while the grown beans mean long life.” As Asianto Supandy explained the symbolism of the dishes in the tumpeng feast, he worked away at what was on his own plate. He didn’t have a lot, but he had some of everything.
“This is all so good,” Mark said. After so much deprivation in Iran, he was still making up for lost time—and doing to his tray what General Sherman did to Georgia. After another swallow of beer, he went on, “I like it that so many of the dishes have to do with friends and family.”
“That is what the tumpeng stands for,” Supandy replied. “People are what matters in this world, is it not so? Big, middle-sized, small—that is not important. Good people, people someone cares about, people someone loves, they are what makes life worth living. When we work, we work so we can be with those people and so we can care for them, yes?”
“Yes,” Bill said before Mark could. “You have a good way of looking at things, Mr. Supandy.”
Mark nodded. “You sure do, sir.”
“Pah!” The Duende held out both hands, palms down, as if denying anything. “You are too kind to a small person from a faraway land.”
“You said it yourself—big and little aren’t what counts,” Bill replied. “We’ve felt that way here in Jefferson for a long time. If we didn’t, we’d tear ourselves to pieces. Before we figured that out, we damn near did.”
“And that you’re stretching friendship all the way across the Pacific just makes everything tonight more special.” Mark might have worked out of the public eye in Iran till the students seized the American embassy, but he had the makings of a pretty fair diplomat himself. He added, “It’s the word my dad used with you, Governor. This is all umglatch—better than it needs to be.”
“Umglatch?” Asianto Supandy pronounced it with care. “This is not an English word I hear before.”
“It’s not an English word at all,” Bill said. “It’s from the language sasquatches spoke before we ever knew there was such a thing as English. Maybe there are a few way up in the mountains who still use it all the time, but I wouldn’t even bet on that.”
“Most of the students who learn it in college these days are little people researching sasquatches.” Mark chuckled self-consciously. “I should talk—that’s what I was doing, taking Farsi down at Berkeley. I passed the Foreign Service exam, and they shipped me to Iran . . . and look how well that turned out.”
“My people, we have our own speech, too! This is so fascinating, that we are so much the same, big and little, in a medium-sized world,” Asianto Supandy said. “And our language is also withering. More and more folk on Pulau Flores, my kind and the bigger ones, we use Bahasa Indonesia instead of the older tongues. That must be the same as it is with English here. A few words live on and give spice to the local dialects, but not much more.”
“Here, it’s not just sasquatches and Indian tribes that that happens to,” Bill said. “The attorney general’s mom and dad came here from Eastern Europe. They spoke Yiddish at home, and Hyman grew up knowing it. But his kids use English all the time. They understand a few words of Yiddish, but that’s about it. Their children won’t know any. It’s a shame.”
“They’re Americans first,” Mark said. “Hell, I’m an American first. The Iranians sure thought so—when they didn’t think I was a monster, anyway—and they made me believe it. Why not? Doesn’t matter where you come from. Doesn’t matter how big you are, or how hairy. Room for everybody here. And you know what else? That’s the way it oughta be.”
“Damn right!” Bill opened another Anker. So did Mark. Supandy was still working on the one with which he’d started the tumpeng feast. They all clinked glasses together one more time and drank.
“Tie A Yellow Ribbon” copyright © 2020 by Harry Turtledove
Art copyright © 2020 by Red Nose Studio
A brand-new story from the legendary Harry Turtledove about Governor Bill Williamson, a sasquatch with a plan.
Darkness reigned outside the governor’s mansion in Yreka. November 4, 1980, had been a cold, gray day. Daylight Savings Time had gone for the year, bringing night on all the earlier. It was only six o’clock, but it felt like midnight.
Gloom also prevailed inside the governor’s mansion. Bill Williamson was a Democrat. So were the men with whom he watched the Presidential election results: Al Rafferty, the lieutenant governor of the state of Jefferson, and Hyman Apfelbaum, the attorney general. Their party was getting trounced.
Bill was halfway down his second gallon mug of beer. He’d started drinking when he started watching: at four o’clock Pacific time, when polls back East started closing. He was a sasquatch. At nine feet two and somewhere right around five hundred pounds, he needed a lot of beer to get a buzz. He needed a good deal more than he’d drunk, in fact.
Apfelbaum nursed a scotch. Rafferty’d gone through a lot of bourbon for a little man. Bill gave a mental shrug. He’d seen Al do plenty of drinking, but he’d hardly ever seen him drunk.
Most of the furniture in the recreation room was made to sasquatch scale, including the sofa Bill filled. The lieutenant governor and the attorney general sat on long-legged little-people chairs so they wouldn’t have to look up and up and up at him . . . and so they’d look less like nine-year-olds at the grownups’ table.
“We’re going to cut away to President Jimmy Carter in the White House,” David Brinkley said, “for his concession to Governor Ronald Reagan, who is now President-elect of the United States.”
“For his what?” Al Rafferty sounded as loud and shrill as if he’d suddenly sat on a tack.
“Stupid backwoods shmuck,” Apfelbaum said. “Doesn’t he know the polls out here don’t close for another two hours? Doesn’t he care how many votes for the down-ticket guys he’s kakking away? He can’t do that.”
But he could. There he was on the TV, in a dark jacket and a red-and-blue striped tie. “I promised you . . .” he said, and then had to pause and gulp and start again: “I promised you four years ago that I would never lie to you, so I can’t stand here tonight and say it doesn’t hurt. The people of the United States have made their choice, and of course I accept that decision, but I have to admit not with the same enthusiasm that I accepted the decision four years ago. I might say, I have a deep appreciation of the system, however, that lets people make a free choice abut who will lead them for the next four years.
“About an hour ago, I called Governor Reagan in California, and I told him that I congratulated him for a fine victory. I look forward to working closely with him during the next few weeks. We’ll have a very fine transition period. I told him I wanted the best one in history, and then I sent him this telegram, and I’ll read it to you. ‘It’s now apparent that the American people have chosen you as the new President. I congratulate you, and pledge to you our fullest support and cooperation in bringing about an orderly transition of government in the weeks ahead. My best wishes are with you and your family as you undertake the responsibilities that lie before you.’ And I signed it, Jimmy Carter.”
Lieutenant Governor Rafferty clapped a despairing hand to his forehead. “Ronald Reagan! Good God in the foothills!” He drained his latest bourbon, looking like an Irish Mask of Tragedy. “That’s that. The United States is washed up. All fifty-one states, completely and totally fucked.”
“I dunno. It may turn out better than you think, Al,” Bill said. “He left office down in Sacramento before I got to be governor here, but I met him a few times when I was in the State Senate. Say what you want about him, but he’s nobody’s dope.”
“Wonderful!” Rafferty said. “That’ll just help him set the country back a hundred years. Christ! He wasn’t even a good actor.”
The phone on the end table chose that moment to ring. Bill reached out to answer it with a certain sense of relief. He didn’t feel like getting into a shouting match with his lieutenant governor. The phone was a standard model; the handset seemed a toy in his big, hairy mitt (when he made calls, he punched buttons or spun the dial with a pen).
“Bill Williamson here,” he said. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Hyman shushing Al so he could hear whoever was on the other end of the line.
It was the evening operator. Phyllis Ward, his administrative assistant, had already gone home for the day. “Sorry to bother you, Governor,” the woman said, “but I have a game warden from Grants Pass on the line, and he says he’s got to talk with you right away.”
“Well, put him through, Iona,” Bill said. “Whatever he’s all excited about, it has to be better news than the election returns.”
Iona sniffed. By that, she’d voted for the ex-governor of California herself. Jefferson was fairly evenly split between bleeding hearts and flaming reactionaries. Elections often turned rowdy. They would have been worse if both sides hadn’t had a certain amount of live-and-let-live (or at least of leave-me-the-hell-alone-and-I’ll-do-the-same-for-you). People here did try to get along. It didn’t always work, but they tried.
A click said she was connecting the game warden. “Go ahead, Mr. Bishop,” she said. Another click announced that she’d left the line.
“Hello?” A male voice, deep for a little man’s.
“Go ahead. This is Bill Williamson.”
“Hello, Governor. Good to talk to you. I’m Eric Bishop, game warden up in Grants Pass. Reason I’m calling is, a fisherman just pulled a speartooth out of the Rogue River four or five miles west of town.”
Bill laughed out loud. “Sure he did. And rain makes applesauce. Thanks for the call, Eric. I appreciate it, believe me. It’s a hell of a lot funnier than what’s on TV right now, and that’s the truth.”
Speartooths (or, if you happened to be feeling Groucho Marxist, spearteeth) inhabited that Bermuda Triangle whose corners were marked by the dodo, the unicorn, and the jackalope. Maybe they’d swum in these rivers millions of years ago. Maybe they were mythical. Or maybe they were nothing but fast-talking wise guys’ bullshit.
Bill had always leaned toward the unicorn corner of the triangle himself. Indian legends in Jefferson, and in southern Oregon and northern California as well, spoke of big, fierce, toothy fishes in the rivers. So did sasquatch legends, which were (or at least might be) older yet. How big? How fierce? How toothy? Hey, they were legends. Nobody really knew.
Eric Bishop blew out air through his nose: an exasperated noise if ever Bill had heard one. He heard this one very clearly; they had a good connection. “Governor, honest to God, I’m not pulling your leg. Greg Donovan caught the damn thing. I happened by not fifteen minutes after he did. He was about ready to shit himself, pardon my French. So I’ve seen it. I’ve touched it. I’ve got photos—I had an Instamatic in my pickup, and I filled a roll and a half of film. I wanted to call you before the story hit the papers.”
“I’ll be damned. You mean it,” Bill said slowly.
“Bet your ass I do, uh, sir,” the game warden said.
“Jesus,” Bill muttered. Back before the Second World War, that South African scientist found out fishermen had caught a coelacanth. How impossible was that? Only about 70,000,000 years’ worth of impossible. But there it was, and they’d brought in others since.
So why not a speartooth?
“Tell you what,” Bill said. “Give me your office phone. Give me your home phone, too. I may just have to make a trip up there tomorrow.”
Without hesitation, Bishop gave them. Bill wrote them down. If Grants Pass had a game warden named Eric Bishop, and if he had those phone numbers, maybe this wasn’t one of the all-time practical jokes. If it wasn’t, the world had just got even stranger than a Grade B Hollywood movie star moving into the White House.
And they said it couldn’t be done!
Bill called the Jefferson Department of Fish and Game. It was, not surprisingly, closed for the evening. He called the Jefferson State Police. They were open. Once he managed to convince them he was who he said he was, and that he didn’t aim to screw Eric Bishop of Grants Pass to the wall, they coughed up home and office phone numbers for Bishop. The numbers matched the ones the guy on the phone had given.
“You don’t really believe there’s a speartooth up there, do you?” Hyman Apfelbaum said. “I mean, if they really existed, somebody would’ve caught one a long time ago, right?”
He’d been a prosecutor, and a good one, before he got elected attorney general. He followed logic the way a bloodhound followed a lamb chop. What he said almost always made good sense.
But brute facts had a way of knocking the fanciest chain of logic into a cocked hat. “Right now, I don’t know what to believe,” Bill answered. “I think there may be something up there. I don’t know if I’d even trust photos. If I go up there and see a hell of a big fish with pointy teeth, though, I’ll know what’s what.” He stuck a large, russet-fuzzed finger in the air. “Hang on. Be right back.”
“Where are you going?” Apfelbaum asked.
“I need a book,” Bill said on his way out. He returned a couple of minutes later with a Jefferson State Ashland catalogue. Flipping through it, he explained, “They should have an ichthyologist in the biology department. Here we go. . . . Yeah, they do. Guy’s name is Mervin McDougald.”
“Mervin?” By the way Apfelbaum said it, the very sound of the name offended him.
“He won’t be in his office this time of night,” Al Rafferty put in.
“So I’ll call him at home. How many Mervin McDougalds d’you think there are in Ashland?” Bill reached for the telephone again. Directory assistance showed—surprise!—exactly one Mervin McDougald in the college town on the way to Grants Pass. Bill wrote down the number, then dialed it.
Ring . . . Ring . . . “Hello?” A woman’s voice.
“Hi. This is Governor Williamson,” Bill said. “I’d like to speak to Professor McDougald, please.”
“You would?” The woman sounded dubious. In her place, Bill would have, too. But then she called, “Merv! It’s for you. He says he’s the governor.”
A faint male “You’re kidding” came over the line. A moment later, the same man spoke loudly and clearly: “This is Mervin McDougald. Who are you?”
“This is Governor Bill Williamson,” Bill said again. “Reason I’m calling is . . .” He explained the call he’d just got from Eric Bishop.
A long silence followed. Then McDougald said, “Governor—if you are the governor—I don’t know if you’re pulling a fast one on me or if this Bishop character is pulling one on you. Assuming you are who you say you are—you do sound like him—then the latter is the way to bet.”
“Sure.” Bill nodded, though of course the prof couldn’t see him. “But suppose, just suppose, he isn’t. Don’t you want to be in on it? It’d be the biggest discovery in Jefferson since . . . since I don’t know what, wouldn’t it?”
“Certainly in terms of ichthyology,” McDougald agreed. “I don’t know how it would stack up against striking gold or something like that, but it’d top anything fishy I can think of.”
“Me, too,” Bill said. “So how about I pick you up at your house about half past eight tomorrow morning, and we’ll go on up to Grants Pass and see what they’ve got there.”
“Can you pick me up at the biology building on campus? I need to get someone to cover my lectures or else let the department know so they can cancel them. And I want to hit the library and do a little research before I go.”
“I’ll see you there,” Bill said. “But how can you research something that everybody thought was nonsense up till now?”
“There are some possibilities,” Mervin McDougald answered, which told Bill nothing. Then McDougald said, “I’ll see you tomorrow,” and hung up.
“You’re gonna be in Ashland at eight-thirty tomorrow morning?” Al Rafferty said. “You poor sucker.”
“That’s why God made coffee,” Bill said resignedly. He looked at his watch. The speartooth saga had chewed up an hour, anyway. He sat down on the couch again. “Polls here close in forty-five minutes. I’ll see what’s what with our elections, and then I’ll hit the hay.”
“Stupid goddamn Carter,” Hyman Apfelbaum said. “If he costs us that House race by giving up early, somebody ought to kick him in his big, prayerful teeth.”
“Line forms on the left,” Bill said, and gave his attention back to the idiot box.
Jefferson was not a big state. Oh, it was fair-sized in terms of area, but people were thin on the ground. They’d been even thinner on the ground in 1919; California and Oregon hadn’t thought they were losing much when the new state broke away from them. Quite a few of the people who did live there, pot-growing freaks and moonshining Birchers alike, wanted authority to have as little to do with them as possible. Left and right united in keeping the state government small and puny.
All of which meant that, if the governor felt like getting away for a couple of days, he could. Nobody would miss him. Hardly anyone would even notice he was gone. His wife noticed when the alarm went off, though. “Good God!” she said. “What time is it?”
“Six o’clock. Sorry, Louise,” Bill answered around an enormous yawn. He’d stayed up with Al and Hyman till almost midnight. The Democrats were going to lose that House race. Hyman had had some more interesting things to say about Jimmy Carter.
“Good God!” Louise repeated, and put her pillow over her head.
Bill lurched into the bathroom. He took a leak, cleaned his teeth, and ran a brush over his red-brown pelt. When he came out, he put on the same beige shorts he’d worn the day before. They saved his modesty and gave him somewhere to stick keys, wallet, and comb. Sandals on his feet and he was ready to go.
In the kitchen, Ray had a big pot of coffee waiting. “You’re a lifesaver, man!” Bill exclaimed, filling a sasquatch-sized travel mug and securing the plastic lid. “How did you know?”
“What do the news guys say? I never reveal my sources,” the steward answered. “Want a couple-three danishes to eat with the coffee?”
“You bet I do.” Bill wrapped them in paper towels and carried them out to the Mighty Mo, which was parked by the flagpoles flying the Stars and Stripes and the Jefferson state flag, a dark green banner with the state seal in the center of the field. The seal was a gold pan emblazoned with two X’s, symbolizing the double crosses Jefferson had got from Sacramento and Salem before becoming a state in its own right.
A state of confusion, Bill thought. A state where legends come to life. He opened the Mighty Mo’s left rear door. The 1974 Cadillac Eldorado—the last of its kind, a monument to the days of cheap gas, and nearly as big as its battleship prototype—would fit a sasquatch who drove from the back seat. There was no left front seat, only a long steering column that housed the ignition and the shift.
Bill turned the key. The humongous engine under that long, long hood rumbled to life. It sounded a little rough; the Mighty Mo’s odometer showed over 100,000 miles. Bill didn’t know what he’d do when the car crapped out on him. They didn’t make ’em this size any more, and he didn’t fit into anything much smaller. Well, that was a worry for another day—he hoped.
He put the Eldorado in drive and headed for the northbound onramp to the I-5. He drove past the domed state Capitol. Like the governor’s mansion, it had gone up under Charlie “Bigfoot” Lewis, Jefferson’s first sasquatch governor, during the prosperous 1920s. The ugly, square state office building next door dated from the next decade. It looked like what it was: a WPA special.
The onramp wasn’t far past the state office building. Bill sat at the red light, waiting for a green arrow so he could turn left. He didn’t have to wait long. His own big foot—a size thirty-two—came down on the accelerator. He swung onto the Interstate and rolled north.
Haven’t been in Ashland since I saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream this past spring, Bill thought as he pulled off the highway and drove east toward the university campus. His daughter had played Miranda in that Ashland Shakespeare Festival production. He muttered under his breath. The director, an out-of-stater who didn’t grok how Jefferson worked, had wanted to cast her as Caliban. Some gubernatorial arm-twisting took care of that.
He didn’t need to worry about the theatre arts department today. Neither did Nicole, who’d graduated in June. Now she was doing what so many new theatre-arts graduates did: hustling for anything she could find. It was tough for everybody. It was, no doubt, tougher if you were female, more than seven feet tall, and covered with hair.
Parking on campus cost $2.50, which seemed outrageous to Bill. Many spaces were marked COMPACT ONLY, and didn’t come close to fitting the Mighty Mo. He finally found one that did. He didn’t bother locking the car. Only another sasquatch could have driven it. By the nature of things, his kind weren’t really into grand theft auto.
A man outside the entrance to the yellow-brick biology building waved as Bill came up. Bill waved back. “You Professor McDougald?” he called.
“Call me Merv. Everybody does,” the ichthyologist said. He was lean and, for a little man, tall. He had hair down almost to his shoulders and a bushy brown mustache with some gray in it—he was in his mid-forties. His style wasn’t cool any more; he either hadn’t noticed or didn’t care. After shaking hands with the governor, he went on, “I still think we’re chasing fool’s gold, but I’m not as sure as I was when we talked last night.”
“Tell me more while we walk back to my car,” Bill said. He slowed his pace to let McDougald keep up without jogging. He didn’t have to slow much. His companions moved athletically, as if he’d been a decent high-school basketball player who hadn’t slid too far out of shape since.
“If the speartooth isn’t just the figment of your people’s imagination—” McDougald began.
“And the Indians’. Don’t forget the Indians,” Bill broke in.
“Right.” McDougald grinned up at him, which made him smile back. “Like I was saying, if the speartooth is real, I think it’s most likely to be a survival of Oncorhynchus rastrosus, a fossil fish that lived in these parts from the Miocene to the Pleistocene.”
“How long is that in years?” Bill asked.
“From about seven million years ago to less than a million. It seems to have gone extinct some time during the Ice Age,” McDougald said. He grinned again when he saw the governor’s Eldorado. “That’s a hell of a ride you have there, man, but what kind of mileage does it get?”
“Godawful. Worse than godawful. Price I pay for being a sasquatch in a world full of little people,” Bill said mournfully. Food was part of the price, too. The only things he saved on were clothes and razor blades. He returned to the business at hand. “So if it didn’t go extinct . . .”
“Then it may be what we’ve got in Grants Pass. Or it may not. We’ll find out when we get there,” McDougald said. At Bill’s waved invitation, he slid into the Mighty Mo’s right front seat.
`Bill got behind the long-shafted wheel. As he started the car, he said, “Pronounce the name again for me so I don’t sound like a goofus if I have to say it to a reporter or something.”
“Oncorhynchus rastrosus.” Mervin McDougald said it slowly, several times. He went on, “Oncorhynchus is also the genus of modern Pacific trout and salmon. The Atlantic varieties are in Salmo.”
“Salmon,” Bill murmured, piloting the Cadillac back to the I-5. He thought they were delicious, but that wasn’t what gave the murmur a certain edge. The Indians of Jefferson also thought they were delicious. So did the merfolk, out in the Pacific. Keeping the two groups from fighting over who got what was one of the more interesting things he’d had to do lately—if you meant interesting in the sense of the Chinese curse.
From Ashland to Grants Pass was a little more than forty miles. Bill got there in a little less than forty minutes. The double nickel speed limit remained the law of the land. It also remained the most widely ignored law of the land in the history of laws of the land, possibly including Prohibition. You needed to go somewhere, you floored it and you went.
Bill got off the Interstate at US 199. He took the smaller road west and south, across a bridge over the Rogue River, to Rogue River Highway. The Fish and Game Department had plainly been at its current digs for quite a while. The building reminded the governor of the state offices, though it was much smaller. It had that same blocky, homely practicality. Sure as hell, a bronze plaque by the front door declared that the Works Progress Administration ran it up in 1936.
That front door was tall enough for sasquatches. Bill didn’t have to duck in the reception hall. Even that early, the WPA had noticed that Jefferson was a different kind of place. A secretary looked up from her IBM Correcting Selectric and said, “You’re the governor, aren’t you?”
“Guilty,” Bill said. “And I’ve got Professor McDougald, the ichthyologist from Jefferson State Ashland, here with me.”
“You’ll want Eric Bishop.” The woman punched buttons on her phone, spoke into it in a low voice, and hung up. “He’ll be right out.”
Bishop wore a Smokey Bear hat, a forest green shirt with a badge on the left breast, khaki pants, and hiking boots. He shook hands with Bill and with Merv McDougald, and then said, “I’ll take you over to see Greg Donovan and whatever’s left of the speartooth. I left my film at the Fotomat a couple of blocks from here. I had ’em do the twenty-four-hour service, so the pictures’ll be ready this afternoon.”
“That all sounds good.” Bill remembered the days—they hadn’t been that long ago, either—when you had to wait a week for your photos, and you’d forgotten what some of them were about by the time you got them back. He went on, “Meeting you in person makes me start to believe this may be real. I sure didn’t when we were on the phone.”
“Oh, it’s real, all right.” The game warden tilted his hat back so he could scratch his forehead. “If Greg’s neighbors don’t know how real it is today, they sure as hell will by this time tomorrow.”
Bill held his nose. It was flatter than a little man’s, so his gesture was slightly different: he pushed the tops of his nostrils down instead of pinching them together. But it meant the same thing. Pitching his voice as high as he could, which wasn’t very, he said, “What’s that offal smell?” McDougald winced, so he noticed what Bill had perpetrated, poor bastard.
Eric Bishop didn’t. “Come on with me,” he said, and then paused to take another look at the governor of Jefferson. “Um, maybe you’d better follow me over, huh?”
“That sounds like a plan,” Bill said dryly. No, he and unmodified little-people cars didn’t mix.
Bishop’s Fish and Game car was an aging Plymouth the same color as his shirt—about the same color as Jefferson’s flag—with a yellow light on top. It was easy to follow, in other words. And, since Grants Pass had only about 15,000 people, following a car wasn’t exactly the kind of thing that would challenge the FBI.
Greg Donovan lived in a big white clapboard house near the west edge of town, on a lot full of pines and spruces a couple of hundred yards from the Rogue. A Steller’s jay screeched in one of the trees. A golden retriever ran up to Bishop’s car and Bill’s, barking its head off. As soon as Bill got out, stood up, and stretched, the dog ran in the other direction even faster. It might not fear strange little people, but a sasquatch was a different story.
The dog’s racket made Donovan and his wife come out to see what was going on. He was about fifty, with a neat graying beard. He wore a Pendleton, beat-up jeans, and Nikes. His wife looked at least ten years younger than he was. Her hair was redder than Bill’s pelt. Her sweatshirt and jeans did more for her shape than Greg’s clothes did for his.
“Holy moly, Eric!” Greg called. The retriever trotted over to him. He patted it and scratched its ears. “You said you were gonna call the governor, but I didn’t think you meant it.”
“You’ve known me twenty years. How often do I say stuff I don’t mean?” the game warden answered.
“There is that,” Donovan allowed. He nodded toward Bill. “I know who you are. This is my wife, Kelly Ann. Who’s your friend?” After Bill introduced Mervin McDougald, Donovan nodded again. “Good to meet you, Professor. I can see why you’d want to come along.”
“My curiosity got the better of me,” McDougald said. That was as polite a way as Bill could think of to say he still didn’t fully believe the Grants Pass man had caught a speartooth. Since Bill didn’t fully believe it, either, he understood the ichthyologist’s doubts.
Eric Bishop took the bull by the horns: “How much of the fish is left, Greg?”
“There’s a whole bunch of meat in my freezers,” Donovan answered.
“It looks a lot like trout,” Kelly Ann put in. “It’s not red the way salmon is. It tastes a lot like trout, too. I pan-fried some for supper last night. It was good. Fried up some potatoes to do with it.”
“I was going to feed the guts to the dog,” Greg went on. “Then I thought, How many speartooths are there? I went to 7-Eleven and Safeway and bought all the ice they had. So that stuff’s in trash bags in one of the sheds back here.”
“It is?” Merv McDougald’s eyes went wide, wider, widest. “I love you! Will you marry me?”
“Hey, I saw him first,” Kelly Ann said. If Greg was as straight as he seemed, Bill didn’t think she had to worry about the competition.
“I saved the skeleton, too, and the whole head,” Greg said. “I cut the fish into four parts so I’d have manageable chunks to deal with, but I didn’t toss any of it in the trash.”
“I do love you!” Merv said.
“C’mon back. I’ll show you guys,” Donovan said. “Somebody’ll have to keep Rex out of things, but I expect we can cope.”
As they walked around the house and back toward a sheet-metal shed with a corrugated roof, Bill asked, “How’d you manage to go fishing on a Tuesday afternoon, Greg?”
The local sent him a crooked grin. “You mean, how come I wasn’t stuck in an office somewhere, shuffling papers from one pile to another and writing more for other people to shuffle?”
“You said it that way,” Bill responded. “I didn’t.”
“Yeah, yeah. But that’s what you meant,” Donovan said. “Reason I wasn’t is, I don’t like it and I don’t have to do it. I’m a computer programmer and a writer, and I can work right here. I do things for a lot of little companies, write articles for magazines like onComputing and Byte. I can send ’em what they need on floppy disks.”
“On what?” Bill asked.
“Information-storage goodies,” Greg answered patiently.
“Oh.” Trying to show how up-to-date he was, Bill said, “The state government’s using more and more waddayacallits—word processors, that’s it.”
“Those babies are okay now, but they’ll be obsolete like a Model T in a year or two,” Donovan said. “I’ve been doing some freelance work for Apple, and the GUI they’re working on’ll blow the doors off the way people use computers.”
Bill began to realize how out of his depth he was. “The what? The gooey?”
“G-U-I. Graphical User Interface. I can tell you that because you haven’t got any idea what the hell I’m talking about. Otherwise, I’d have to kill you.” By the way Donovan said that, maybe he was kidding and maybe not.
“Can we see the fish, please, and worry about computers some other time?” Merv McDougald, by contrast, sounded plaintive, or perhaps desperate.
“Oh. Yeah. Right.” Greg, who’d slowed down to talk with Bill, got moving again. “Sorry about that. The governor pushed a button, I guess.”
“You think?” Kelly Ann said. He gave her a look. She stuck out her tongue at him. They’d been together for a while, all right. Bill recognized the signs.
Greg Donovan took a key ring from his pocket and unlocked the stout Yale that secured the shed’s sliding door. The door slid without vibration or squeak, which said he took good care of gadgets other than computers and floppy disks. As soon as air wafted out of the shed, Bill’s nostrils twitched. “Fish in there, sure enough.”
“Funny how that works.” Greg flipped a switch on the wall. A bare hundred-watt bulb hanging from the ceiling blazed to life. The fish smell got stronger as Bill ducked inside. He stayed ducked; the ceiling wasn’t high enough for him to straighten up again. But it didn’t smell like old fish. Not all the ice in the plastic bags Greg had bought was melted yet.
Rex the golden retriever thought it smelled fascinating. He charged into the shed in spite of Bill’s intimidating presence, mouth open in a doggy grin. Greg Donovan grabbed him by the collar and hauled him away from the goodies. “Outa here, you dumb mutt,” he said.
Kelly Ann turned to Bill and Merv. “What are you supposed to do with a guy like that?” she said. “He talks to me the same way.” The spark in her eye made Bill believe her about as far as he could shot-put the Mighty Mo.
“Hey, sweetie, I never called you mutt in my life,” Greg said.
“Something close,” Kelly Ann returned.
Laughing, Greg shook his head. He gave his attention back to the governor and the ichthyologist. Merv McDougald was shifting from foot to foot as if about to pee in his pants. “Here—this is the tail end,” Greg said, picking up a dark green Hefty bag. “Like I said, after I gutted the thing I cut it into four pieces so I could get it into my truck without killing myself or rigging a block and tackle.”
Careless of his clothes, Merv undid the paper-wrapped wire tie that held the trash bag closed and reached into pull out the hunk of fish. “Oh, my,” he said softly, examining the big tail the way a teenaged kid examined his girlfriend’s body the very first time he got lucky. “Oh, my.”
“What does it tell you?” Bill asked.
“It’s definitely Oncorhynchus,” McDougald said. “The shape of the tail and the raying tell me that at first glance. The adipose fin, too.” He tapped a small, fatty fin on the back, near the front end of the butchered piece of fish. “It’s much bigger than any species of Oncorhynchus I’m familiar with, though.”
“How did you land it, anyway?” Bill wondered. If the rest of the fish was in proportion to that tail, it was ginormous, all right.
“First thing I asked him when I drove by,” Eric Bishop said.
“I was at the edge of the river, going for trout,” Greg said. If he’d told the story once, he didn’t mind telling it again—he was a fisherman, all right. “And I got this strike, and it damn near pulled me into the water. The fish jumped, and I saw how big it was, and I kinda freaked out. I felt like Ernest goddamn Hemingway with a swordfish or something. I figured it’d break the line and get away and nobody’d ever believe me if I talked about it. I hardly believed it myself, and I was there.”
“You’re lucky it didn’t pull you in,” Bishop said.
“Yeah, that woulda been all she wrote, huh?” Greg said. “But anyway, it jumped again, and it must’ve hated the hook so much, it came right out of the water and onto the bank. I bashed in its head with a baseball bat.”
Merv McDougald made a small, distressed noise. “May I see the head, please?”
“Sure. Here you go.” Grunting a little at the weight, Donovan picked up another bag and gave it to the ichthyologist. He seemed to know exactly which bag held what. A bit slower than Bill should have, he notice a stick-on label, with HEAD neatly printed in Magic Marker. The others bore similar tags. Greg was organized, as a programmer ought to be.
Hands trembling in excitement—and, no doubt, worry with it—McDougald undid the tie, opened the bag, and reached in. He gave forth with a loud sigh of relief as he lifted out the head. “It’s not as bad as I was afraid it would be,” he said. “Damage to the dorsal region, and some to the left side, but the right side is in excellent shape.”
“That’s one way to put it,” Eric Bishop said. “You wouldn’t want to swim in any river where that baby lived.”
“No kidding!” Bill agreed. The speartooth’s golden eye was dull and dead; its green-and-brown speckled scales no longer shone. But there could be no question about how it had earned its names. It bore some of the longest, pointiest teeth Bill had ever seen on anything this side of a crocodile. They included an upward-projecting tusklike fang in the lower jaw and a matching downward-projecting one in the upper jaw.
“It’s not quite identical to the fossils we have of Oncorhynchus rastrosus,” McDougald said. “Clearly a close relative, probably a descendant, but not identical. The relationship would be something like the one between Homo habilis and modern man.”
“Homo sapiens, you mean,” Bill said dryly—he didn’t roost on that branch of the primate family tree.
Anthropologists still argued about where sasquatches and yetis did roost. Some said they were related to Gigantopithecus, the enormous extinct Asian ape. Others claimed they were an odd offshoot of Homo erectus, which would make them closer kind to little people. Bill, like most people big or little, didn’t waste a whole lot of time worrying about it.
“Can we go out and buy more ice?” McDougald said. Or maybe visit a funeral home and get some formaldehyde? We have to preserve the specimens till I can take them down to Ashland and freeze them or prepare them properly. Who knows when—or even if—we’ll ever see another speartooth?”
“Blows my mind that we’ve seen this one,” Bill said. “All this time, I thought the legends were a lot of hot air, but I was wrong. There’ve been just enough of them here and there for people to come across ’em every now and then. Who would’ve thunk it?”
“You know what I’m gonna do when I get back to Ashland?” Merv said. “I play racquetball with Steve Halvorsen, from the anthropology department. Tracing how legends grow is part of what he does. He’s talked about it till I almost think I could do it myself. This might be right up his alley.”
“That sounds great,” Bill said. To the ichthyologist, it was a scientific question. Oh, he’d gain prestige when he announced it, the same way the gal who found the coelacanth had. When you made a big discovery, the glory stuck to you, even if it was the discovery that was big and not your own self. Bill, a politician, viewed the speartooth through a different set of lenses. The first thing that cross his mind was what will this do for Jefferson? The second was What will this do for me when I run for reelection in two years? Some politicos—Al Rafferty sprang to mind—would have found his second question first.
“This will be a book. It has to be. Articles and a book, in fact.” Yes, visions of academic sugar plums were dancing in Merv McDougald’s head. If he wasn’t already tenured, he would be after he started publishing.
“We have the speartooth—” Bill began.
“The specimen,” Merv broke in.
“Okay, the specimen,” Bill said equably. “We’re gonna have the photos. When will those be ready, Eric?”
“Kid at the Fotomat promised me by four o’clock,” Bishop answered. “And I ordered double prints, so I’ll keep a set and you and the professor can split the other one. I’ll have the negatives, too. I’ll make more prints whenever somebody needs ’em.”
“Will you give me some from your batch?” Greg Donovan asked. “I don’t want to be one of those guys who tell fish stories with nothing to back ’em up.
“Hang on, everybody,” Bill said. “I’m gonna call a press conference down at the state Capitol in Yreka Monday morning. I’ll announce it tomorrow, so the news people can get their act together. I’d like all of you to be there to talk about the speartooth and what finding it means. Merv, if you want to invite Professor, uh—”
“Halvorsen, thanks. If you want to invite him, too, that’d be great. We may even see Jefferson on the national news. Last time it happened, I think, was when the Yeti Lama visited summer before last.”
“And this would be because of something that happened inside the state, not because somebody from the other side of the world was paying a call,” Eric Bishop said.
“You betcha!” Bill beamed at the game warden. Somebody got it, maybe even almost in the estian sense. The governor went on, “So—can everybody be at the Capitol Monday morning at, say, nine o’clock?”
“Why so bloody early?” Greg asked, miming a tormented, or at least a decaffeinated, soul.
“Because that’s already noon on the East Coast,” Bill said. “Gotta give the news crews some time to put their stories together and get ’em ready to air.”
Nobody told him no. The programmer who’d caught the speartooth gave a theatrical groan. Kelly Ann Donovan, by contrast, said, “I’ll be there with bells on. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“Can I see some more of the speartooth, please?” Merv asked Greg. “The stomach and intestines, if you can find them in a hurry. They’ll tell me what the speartooth ate.”
“Anything that didn’t eat it first, is the way to bet,” Eric said. “That would be just about everything except people.”
“When they’re full grown, sure,” Merv said. “When they’re still little . . . This one won’t tell me anything about that. I wonder if we’ve been pulling babies out of the Rogue for years and just thinking they were funny trout. If the big teeth don’t grow in till maturity, it’s possible.” Greg handed him a Hefty bag labeled GUTS. He smiled like Christmas as he opened it.
Bill backed out of the shed. His spine creaked gratefully as he straightened up. He’d brought Mervin McDougald here to examine fish guts. That didn’t mean they interested him.
Kelly Ann stepped outside into the fresh air a moment after he did. she took a deep breath. “It did get a little smelly in there when he undid the tie on that one,” she said.
“Yeah, just a big,” Bill said. The odor wafted out in her wake. He and Kelly and moved farther away. Rex the golden retriever tried to go inside again. Whatever McDougald was doing smelled great to him. Greg shooed him away.
Kelly Ann lit a Virginia Slim. She glanced at Bill. “You don’t mind?”
“I’m not rude enough to tell you what to do on your own property,” he said. “I hope to God I’m not, anyway.”
“That means you do mind but you’re too polite to say so,” Kelly Ann said accurately. She didn’t step on the cigarette, but she did move downwind of him.
Inside the shed, Merv kept making little excited noises. Every so often, Eric Bishop echoed him. The game warden seemed to know a good deal about how the insides of fish worked. Well, that was part of his job, even if not all of it. The dominant refrain seemed to be Will you look at that?
After a while, Greg Donovan stepped out of the shed. Shaking his head, he said, “I’m glad I saved the offal, but I’ll be damned if I can get excited about it.”
“I’m with you,” Bill told him. “I’m glad you saved everything, too, and I can’t get excited about it, either.”
Greg turned to his wife. “Let me bum one of those off you, huh?”
As she gave him the pack, she teased, “You want the governor to see you smoking a women’s cigarette?”
“Like I care,” he said, lighting up. “They’ll rot my lungs same as my Marlboros, and this way I don’t have to go in the house and find those.” He held the pack of Virginia Slims out to Bill. “Go for one yourself?”
“No, thanks,” Bill answered. “I already have plenty of bad habits. I drink beer. I drink scotch. I do politics.” Greg chuckled and gave the cigarettes back to Kelly Ann.
Merv and Eric showed no signs of coming forth any time soon. They would have been happy pawing through the speartooth’s entrails for the next week. Bill took a surreptitious look at his watch.
“What time is it getting to be?” Kelly Ann asked.
“Close to eleven,” Bill said. “I crawled out of bed early to pick up Merv in Ashland before we came here. I’m getting hungry. Where’s a good place to go grab some lunch that isn’t too far?”
“If you want, I can fry up some more of the speartooth. Lord knows there’s enough of it to feed an army.” Kelly Ann paused, thinking. Then she said, “Heck, I’ll bring it outside for everybody. I’m sorry, Governor, but our house is little-people-sized.”
“Most of them are,” Bill said easily. “A lot more people your size than mine.” Even in Jefferson, sasquatches were a small minority. Accommodations laws here said hotels and restaurants and other public buildings had to make allowances for them, but you couldn’t hope to pass legislation like that for housing. The governor waved. “It’ll be fine. It’s a nice day—a lot nicer than yesterday—and this is a nice place.
“You’re a nice man, is what you are,” Kelly Ann said. She went inside. Pretty soon, savory smells floated out of the kitchen.”
Not quite out of the blue, Greg Donovan said, “You know something, Governor? I think I’m the luckiest fella alive.”
“Well, I understand that. I feel the same way with my Louise,” Bill replied. “Find the right one, she’s worth her weight in gold and them some. You guys have kids?”
“Boy and a girl, senior and a sophomore at the high school.” Greg dug out his wallet. He wore it in his left front pocket, not on his hip the way most little men did. “Wanna see pictures?”
“I’ll put up with yours if you put up with mine,” Bill said. The deal was made. Bill pulled out his own wallet. Each agreed that the other’s spouse and offspring were superior specimens of their kind. Ritual satisfied, both men stowed their billfolds.
Kelly Ann slid the kitchen window open and hollered “Lunch!” through the screen.
Merv and Eric failed to come out of the shed. “Hey, you guys!” Greg said loudly. “Better get it while it’s hot! C’mon out and clean up. When’ll you get the chance to eat speartooth again?”
That did the trick. The ichthyologist’s arms and shirt were somewhat the worse for wear. They cleaned their hands at the garden hose. Most of their talk flew straight over Bill’s head. He knew no more about the intricacies of scale and ray counts than they did about the gears and wheels and pulleys behind passing legislation.
Kelly Ann passed out plates of fried fish and fried potatoes. When she got to Bill, she said, “I know you’ll want more. Don’t be shy. I’ve got plenty—it wasn’t a little fish.”
“Shy? Me? I’m the governor, remember? If I were shy, they would’ve run me out of town a long time ago.” Bill ate a forkful of fish. He chewed thoughtfully. Yes, it was closer to trout than to salmon—definitely in that range. Whatever it tasted like . . . He nodded approval. “That’s mighty good!”
None of the little men argued with him. Greg fed Rex some scraps. The retriever wolfed them down, then tried to climb his master in hopes of getting more. “Forget it,” Greg told him. “If you had your way, you’d be a basketball with legs.” Rex did an excellent impression of a dog that didn’t speak people—excellent, but not good enough for seconds.
Bill, on the other hand, took not only seconds but thirds. “You don’t get any extra salary or allowance because you’re a sasquatch, do you?” Kelly Ann asked.
“I wish!” Bill said sincerely. “But I don’t. The taxpayers, Lord love ’em, would come after me with pitchforks and tar and feathers if I asked for one.”
“I don’t see why. You’re as big as three of us. You eat like three of us. Seems only fair you should be able to afford to,” she said.
“You are a nice lady,” Bill said. “But it depends on what you mean by ‘fair.’ Most people think it means everybody should be treated exactly the same no matter what.”
“That’s dumb. People aren’t all identical, like the stupid Farkel Family on Laugh-In. We’d be boring if we were,” Kelly Ann said.
He was inclined to agree with her. Even in easygoing Jefferson, the vast majority of the voters weren’t. Anything that smacked of special privilege for anybody was a political kiss of death. You might not like that particular fact of life, but you flouted it at your peril.
Eric and Merv hopped into the game warden’s car for a run to get more ice and possibly some formaldehyde. They came back with the frozen water but without the embalming fluid.
“Wouldn’t work.” Merv sounded said. “I’d have to cut up the specimens and put them in bottles. We don’t have the bottles and we don’t have the time. I’ve got got to keep everything cold till I can get it down to Ashland and into the freezers in the lab there.” He glanced over to Bill. “Governor, I can use your trunk to move things, right?”
“Well, there’s plenty of room,” Bill said, which wasn’t exactly assent. It was true enough; the Mighty Mo’s trunk would hold anything this side of a 747. All the same, Bill added, “Make sure you close all the bags up good and right. Otherwise, I’ll be remembering this trip every time I open the trunk for the next five years.”
Greg laughed. “Isn’t that why God made air freshener?”
“I don’t think God or Procter and Gamble ever made air freshener strong enough to beat old fish,” Bill said. Greg spread his hands, yielding the point.
Eric Bishop pulled a Fotomat receipt out of his wallet. “May I use your phone for a minute?” he asked Kelly Ann. “I want to see when the pictures will be ready. I told ’em to hurry as much as they could, so maybe we won’t have to wait till four.”
“Sure. Go ahead. There’s one on the wall by the fridge,” she said.
Bishop walked inside. When he came out, he was grinning from ear to ear. “They’ve got ’em!” he said. “The kid in the booth put in a special rush on ’em, bless her heart. I’ve got to find something nice to do for her.”
Money works, Bill thought. But that was the game warden’s business, not his. Eric piled into the Fish and Game Department Plymouth and peeled out of there at the best speed its small, unexciting engine would give him. Plainly, he would have liked to burn rubber on his way to the Fotomat. Just as plainly, the car wouldn’t let him.
“If I’m working that Fotomat now, I’d tell him, ‘Sorry, none of the pics came out,’ just to see the look on his face,” Greg said.
“That’s evil!” Kelly Ann sounded more admiring than not. Bill would have said the same thing, but perhaps not in the same tone of voice.
Half an hour later, Eric Bishop came back. By his expression as he got out of the car, he hadn’t got any bad news at the booth with the yellow roof. He held up two envelopes full of prints. “I put these on the state’s nickel, Governor,” he said. “I figured they’re official business.”
“That’s fine.” Bill nodded. “Your boss grumps, tell him to talk to me.”
“Okay. And I gave the Fotomat girl ten bucks out of my own pocket for hurrying the orders. I had to talk her into taking it. Can you believe that?”
“Can we see the pictures? They’re as close as I’ll come to the speartooth in vivo.” Merv McDougald had literally salivated over fried speartooth at lunch. He seemed much droolier now on account of the photographs.
“Here we go.” Eric Bishop pulled prints out of the first envelope. Everybody crowded around him for a look. Bill bent forward to get as close a view as he could.
“Oooh,” Merv whispered. Bill doubted whether the sexiest, nakedest Playmate of the Month could have coaxed that noise from him. He’d seen naked women before. A naked speartooth? Nope.
There it lay, on the muddy bank of the Rogue. It was greenish brown above and silvery below. Greg Donovan stood beside it to give a sense of scale: it was about as long as he was tall. That’s a hell of a lot of fish, Bill thought. The speartooth’s golden eye stared back at the camera with what the governor imagined to be reproach.
Other photos were tighter shots of the speartooth’s head, of its fins, and of its tail. One, taken from a little too close for the Instamatic’s lens, tried to show its toothy mouth.
“Okay, on to the next roll,” Eric said. He put the first batch of photos back into their envelope and took the second batch out of the other one. On the first picture here, Greg was digging into the speartooth’s belly with what looked like . . . “Is that a bayonet?” Bill asked.
“Sure is,” Greg answered. “Came off the M-1 I carried in Korea almost thirty years ago. Still as good a utility knife as I’ve ever found.” Something dark passed across his face. “I’d sure rather use it on a fish than—” He broke off, shook his head, and didn’t finish.
“Hey, babe,” Kelly Ann said quietly. He put his arm around her.
There were the speartooth guts, spilled out onto the riverbank. Bill had to glance away from the photo for a second. The entrails looked too much as if they’d come out of a human belly, not a fish’s. He hadn’t been ready for that; his stomach’s slow lurch caught him by surprise.
Merv McDougald, on the other hand, focused on the picture like a burning glass. He made learned comments on the shape of the liver and the relative lengths of the small and large intestines that did nothing to help Bill’s poise or equilibrium.
The last pictures were of Greg cutting up the salmon so he could lift the pieces—and the guts, for which science would bless him—into the back of his pickup. That made Bill find another question: “How many times have you hosed down your truck bed?”
“Three or four so far,” Donovan answered. “That may do it—or it may not.” Bill nodded. He wouldn’t be able to clean out the Mighty Mo’s trunk the same way if something went wrong on the way south.
Eric kept one set of photos for himself. Bill and Merv divided up the other set, except for a couple that went to Greg. “I’ll have ’em make you a full set from the negatives,” the game warden promised.
“Good. I want ’em,” Greg said. “When I get old and stupid—”
“Stupider,” Kelly Ann put in.
“Stupider.” Greg accept the correction without a blink, which seemed to disappoint her. “When I get old and stupider, I’ll be able to pull ’em out and remember it wasn’t just another bullshit fish story.”
“Well, now I’m gonna call the Daily Courier. You can pull that story out, too,” Eric said.
“And I’ll be getting hold of the Daily Tidings in Ashland,” Merv added.
“And I—or my publicist—will be talking to every reporter and his brother-in-law,” Bill said. “That’s why we’ll want you at the press conference Monday.”
“We’ll do it,” Greg said. Kelly Ann nodded.
“That’s right,” Eric agreed.
“With these photos, you couldn’t keep me away,” Merv added. Bill smiled. He’d got them all moving his way.
But you had to give to get. That was a basic lesson of politics. Even so, a certain number of lardbrain politicos never got it. Bill had it down solid. He kept right on smiling when Merv and Eric filled the bottom of the Mighty Mo’s trunk with bags of ice. Then Merv and Greg took bags of fish parts and set them on top of the ice. Bill sniffed. No, it wasn’t bad. With luck, it wouldn’t get bad. Still more ice went on top of the Hefty bags. Bill slammed down the trunk lid—thud!
“That’s a hell of a big trunk, Governor,” Greg Donovan said. “And you’re a hell of a good sport about this, too.”
“I’m excited about it,” Bill said. “My ancestors were probably telling stories about speartooths before the Indians ever got here. Nice to know those stories weren’t total bullshit.”
“There you go.” Greg nodded.
“Yup. Here I go.” Bill raised his voice: “C’mon, Merv. I’m taking you back to Ashland and me back to Yreka. The sooner we get to Jefferson State Ashland, the less time your specimens have to spoil.”
“I’m coming.” McDougald came with such alacrity that Bill smiled his inward smile again. He’d been in this game a while. He knew which buttons to push, all right.
He found his way back to the I-5 with only a couple of little fumbles. Grants Pass wasn’t like Ashland or Yreka, where he knew his way around without needing to stop and think. Once you were going the right way on the Interstate, though, you could turn off most of your brain till you got close to where you wanted to swing back onto surface streets.
One trucker had turned off too much of his brain. His rig lay sideways on the soft shoulder of a curve he’d missed. Several tons of grapes spilled onto the shoulder and the field around it. The driver hadn’t hurt himself. He stood by the overturned cab and stared glumly at the mess he’d caused.
“He’s kissing his job good-bye,” Merv said.
“Uh-huh.” Bill nodded. “And if he had a beer or two at a truck stop in Grants Pass, he’s in worse trouble than that.”
The accident cost the Mighty Mo about five minutes on the trip back to Jefferson State. By the way Merv McDougald fidgeted in the right from seat, he either needed a rest stop or he was picturing the Hefty bags full of rotten, stinking speartooth.
But everything seemed fine when the governor parked near the biology building. He sniffed anxiously at the Eldorado’s trunk as Merv hauled bag after bag to the freezers. Bill dropped the ice bags into a dumpster. Then he did some more sniffing. Everything still seemed okay. He hoped that, unlike Fotomat prints, the stink wouldn’t take twenty-four hours to develop.
“Thanks for everything, Governor.” Merv held out his hand one more time.
Bill shook it. “Thanks for coming along. The speartooth isn’t a myth—and we’ve got the pictures to prove it.”
“And the specimens,” the ichthyologist agreed. “I’ll see you Monday morning in Yreka.”
That saved Bill the trouble of nagging him about it one more time. He slid into the Mighty Mo instead and headed back to the Interstate.
Thursday morning, Bill knocked on Barbara Rasmussen’s open door. He didn’t go any farther till his publicist said, “Come on in.” He knew he intimidated little people if he just suddenly loomed above them. It was too much like Godzilla coming over the hill and descending on the village.
“Got something to show you,” he said.
“What’s up?” Barbara was a tall, well-made blonde, certainly publicist-pretty, very possibly starlet-pretty. She was pretty enough to carbonate Bill’s hormones. Like a lot of members of small minorities, he got most of his ideas about beauty from the larger society in which he lived. He hadn’t done anything about them with Barbara; he liked being married to Louise. But that didn’t make them go away.
“Check these out,” he said, and set some of the best speartooth photos in front of her. Not all of his ancestors had been so scrupulous as he was; if family stories had it straight, one of his great-great-grandmothers was a little woman.
“Good God!” she said, staring up at him. Her eyes were big and improbably blue. “They said you went up to Grants Pass yesterday for something that had to do with a speartooth, but I thought it had to be a joke or a hoax. It wasn’t, was it?”
“Sure wasn’t. I ate some for lunch, matter of fact. Can’t very well do that with a hoax.” Bill smacked his lips. “Oncorhynchus rastrosus, in the—pretty tasty—flesh.”
“Oh-kay.” Barbara made two very distinct syllables of it. She peered down at the photos again. “The speartooth looks . . . pretty much like a speartooth’s supposed to look, I guess. Wow! It’s really big.”
“I know. Isn’t that crazy?”
She looked up at him again. He went a little weak in the knees. You are a happily married man, he told himself. If you want to stay a happily married man, keep your mind on business. She helped, tapping the pictures with a fingernail and saying, “What do you want me to do with these?”
“Call a press conference—Monday morning. Let’s get Jefferson national notice for something besides growing weed,” Bill said. Police in Jefferson turned a blind eye toward that part of the state economy. The Feds loved them for it. He went on, “We’ll do it at the Capitol, at, say, nine o’clock. We’ll have the guy who caught it here. He’s a computer programmer. His name’s Greg Donovan. A game warden named Eric Bishop took the photos. And Merv McDougald is an ichthyologist from Jefferson State Ashland. He identified the fish. He damn near creamed his jeans when he did it, too.”
Barbara grinned as she scribbled notes. “Donovan . . . Bishop . . . McDougald. Maybe I won’t tell the networks that last bit.”
“Spoilsport.” Bill grinned, too. “We’ll have a Jefferson State anthropologist along, too—Steve, uh, Halvorsen—to talk about the legend of the speartooth. And you can tell people the governor’s car carried some of the speartooth’s remains from Grants Pass to Ashland.”
“The Mighty Mo?” Barbara had ridden in the Eldorado lots of times. She wrinkled her pert nose. “What’s it smell like?”
“Well, it was okay when I got back here yesterday afternoon. The guts and the head and all were in Hefty bags, and we had a ton of ice.”
“Gotcha. If it gets bad, you can dump in a gallon of lemon juice. If anything’ll kill the stink from old fish, that’s it.”
“Sounds like a plan. Anyway, can you fax those photos to the networks and the press agencies?”
“I’ll try. I don’t know how well they’ll come out. They may just be big black squares on the page. If they are, people will think we’re playing April Fool’s games in November.”
“If you talk to Al Rafferty, he’ll tell you the voters did that day before yesterday,” Bill said.
“I sure didn’t vote for Reagan,” Barbara said.
“Neither did I, but a whole bunch of people did.”
“Didn’t they just?” she said mournfully.
Bill went off to do other things, confident Barbara would take care of everything that needed taking care of with the speartooth. He found out how right he was a few minutes after he came back to his office from lunch. He was reviewing a proposal to create a state park not far from Port Orford when his phone rang. He shoved the proposal aside with relief; the prose was at best uninspired.
“This is Bill Williamson,” he said.
“Hello, Governor,” his administrative assistant said. No, Phyllis wasn’t nearly so decorative as Barbara, but she was damn good at what she did. In Bill’s mind, that counted for more. She went on, “I have Charles Kuralt on the line.”
“You do? Well, for heaven’s sake put him through!” Bill said. The bald, folksy newsman was one of CBS’s heavy hitters—a heavier hitter than Bill had expected to deal with.
“Governor Williamson?” Those deep tones were as familiar as an old friend’s, all right, from the evening news and from his Sunday morning show.
“That’s me.” Bill’s voice was deeper still, but not so mellow.
“I talked with your charming publicist—” Kuralt began.
“I’ll tell her you said so,” Bill broke in. “It’ll make her day.”
“I told her myself,” Kuralt said. “But I wanted to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. You’re the governor of Jefferson. You don’t do puff pieces—I hope not, anyway. Are you telling me on your word of honor that a computer programmer out there really and truly pulled a speartooth out of the Rogue River?”
“On my word of honor,” Bill said solemnly. “I saw the photos. I saw the fish. Hell, Mr. Kuralt, I ate the fish.”
“I couldn’t be much more astonished if you told me you’d had dragon steaks,” the newsman said. “But okay, I believe you. Because I believe you, I’ll fly out there for your press conference Monday. And I’d like to ask you for an interview afterwards, if I may, with an eye toward running it on the news next Sunday morning.”
“That sounds wonderful,” Bill said. Or whatever is one step up from wonderful, he thought giddily.
“Okay. I’ll see you Monday, then. ’Bye.” Kuralt hung up.
Bill picked up a pencil and punched the numbers for Barbara’s extension with the eraser end. When she answered, he blurted, “Charles Kuralt!”
“I know! Isn’t that fabulous?” she said, and then, a beat later, “He’s such a nice man.”
“He sounds like one, anyhow,” Bill said. “We’ll get to meet him Monday and find out for real.”
“I know,” Barbara said. “I can hardly wait.”
A hallway led to the press room in the Capitol. Bill stood there with Barbara, Greg, Eric, Merv, and Steve Halvorsen, who looked professorial in a tweed jacket and cords. They waited for the clock on the far wall to say it was nine. Kelly Ann sat in the press room with Vicki Bishop, Donna McDougald, and Ellen Halvorsen. Bill hadn’t met any of the last three or Steve till a few minutes earlier.
Most of the people in the room, though, were newspapermen and TV reporters. The television lights made Bill want to blink. Somebody plainly from out of state said, “How come this damn room’s so huge? The Jolly Green Giant could do a news conference in here.”
“Jerk,” Greg Donovan said, sotto voce. Bill nodded.
“It’s time,” Barbara said. She walked to the podium and took her place behind the lectern. On the podium were chairs and easels with blowups of two of Eric’s photos: the one of Greg by the speartooth and the closeup of the fish’s head. The head itself sat in a big jug of formalin on a table by the closeup. No trick photography here. They had the goods.
“Welcome to Jefferson,” Barbara told the crowd. “I’m Barbara Rasmussen, the state public information officer. Governor Williamson will give a brief statement, and then we’ll let you talk with Mr. Donovan, Mr. Bishop, and Professors McDougald and Halvorsen. Ladies and gentlemen, here’s Governor Bill Williamson.”
When Bill came out, the guy who’d wondered why the press room was so big went “Ohhh.” Hadn’t he ever seen, or even heard of, a sasquatch before? If he came from somewhere like New York or Massachusetts, you never could tell.
Bill tilted the extra-long microphone stalk up so it reached his mouth. “Thanks very much, Barbara,” he said. “Like you, I want to welcome everyone here to Jefferson. The speartooth is a fabulous fish that’s been the stuff of legend in these parts for as long as anyone can remember. Now, thanks to a fisherman’s lucky catch, we find that the legend turns out to be true after all.” He waved to the head in the jug. “Effective immediately, Jefferson has declared the speartooth to be a rare and endangered species. Any others that may be caught must be released at once. We have also asked the EPA to issue the same order for national parks, national forests, and Indian reservations in Jefferson, and they have agreed to do that. We must protect the speartooth if we possibly can.”
He introduced Greg, Eric, Merv, and Steve, then sat down in the chair made for someone of his bulk while they told their stories in turn. He quickly decided Halvorsen was someone from whom he would have wanted to take a class in his own college days. The anthropology prof talked about other surprise discoveries. He mentioned the coelacanth. He talked about the platypus, which people in Europe had thought to be a jackalope-type creature when the first skins came back from Australia. And he talked about the okapi, a large, not particularly rare or inconspicuous mammal Europeans had somehow missed till the end of the nineteenth century.
“This is what makes science fun,” he said with a little-kid grin. “We find new stuff, and so we have to try to work out what the dickens it all means.”
Then it was question time. The first one was for Greg: “Mr. Donovan, what did you think when you got a good look at the speartooth?”
“I thought, Holy, uh, moly, that’s the biggest, uh, darn fish I ever saw,” Greg answered. He drew some laughs for his edited-for-television thought process. He went on, “The next thing I thought was, Gosh, I hope it doesn’t break my legs or squash me, because it was flopping around on the bank right next to me. You don’t want to get clobbered by a fish that’s as long as you are tall, believe me you don’t.”
Someone asked Merv McDougald, “What did you think when you heard a speartooth had been caught, Professor?”
“That somebody was playing a practical joke on me,” the ichthyologist said. Bill nodded to himself; he’d thought the same thing. Merv continued, “Being wrong never made me so happy before.” He got a laugh, too.
He also got a follow-up question: “What is this speartooth doing in modern Jefferson, anyway?”
“Well, you have to understand that its near relatives lived here for millions of years. Probably the closest relation we have fossils of is Oncorhynchus rastrosus.” Merv thoughtfully spelled the scientific name for the reporters. He added, “The people who know about it often call it the tiger-toothed trout.” That won him some more chuckles.
“Is the speartooth a surviving, um, tiger-toothed trout?” The reporter who asked that had the sense not to try to say Oncorhynchus rastrosus.
“I thought so when I first saw it, but I don’t now,” Merv answered. “Enough details are different to convince me it’s a new, related species. When I publish, I’m going to propose the name Oncorhynchus jeffersonensis.” He spelled jeffersonensis, too.
“In the legends, the speartooth can do things like fly and breathe fire,” a newspaperman said to Steve Halvorsen. “This is a great big fish, but it’s just a fish. Are we sure it’s what caused the legends?”
“Are we sure? No. Is it very, very likely? Oh, yeah,” the anthropologist answered. “Look at the siege of Troy, three thousand years ago. There was one; archaeology makes that clear. Was it full of magic and Greek gods, the way Homer tells the story in the Iliad? Probably it wasn’t. Legends are stories that grow in the telling. That’s what makes them legends.”
Charles Kuralt raised his hand. When he was recognized, he said, “Mr. Bishop, when you saw Mr. Donovan there on the riverbank with that enormous speartooth, did you ask him if he had a fishing license?”
“No, sir.” Eric shook his head. “I didn’t need to, on account of I sold him the license myself.”
“That will do it,” Kuralt agreed. “What were you thinking when you saw that fish and realized what it was?”
“It blew my mind. I don’t know how else to put it,” the game warden said. “It’s blown everybody’s mind who’s had anything to do with it. You don’t think something that’s always been just fancy talk will turn out to be for real. But there it was.” He pointed to the preserved head. “There it is.”
TV cameras swung from the lectern to the big jug. There it was, all right. You could see it with your own eyes. If that didn’t make it real and not legendary, Bill didn’t know what would.
A few more questions came. The conference wound down. Finally, Barbara stepped up to the mike and said, “Thanks very much, folks. We appreciate your coming, believe me.” Newspaper reporters hurried out of the press room to file their stories. Most of the blowdried, hairsprayed TV guys went outside to film their reports against the imposing backdrop of the Capitol. One enterprising fellow stayed behind so he could be shown in front of the state seal.
“I think that went well,” Bill said to Barbara.
“Me, too.” She nodded. “We made as much of a splash as a speartooth can—and that’s one big fish.”
That afternoon, Charles Kuralt interviewed Bill in the covered patio behind the governor’s mansion. The weather stayed decent. It was in the upper sixties. Flowers bloomed in the garden the patio looked out on. Birds hopped and pecked and chirped.
Bill had offered his office as an interview site. Kuralt took one look at it and shook his head. “No, thanks,” he said. “I’d feel like Gulliver in the land of the Brobdingnagians.”
“Sasquatches aren’t as big as all that,” Bill said, but he didn’t argue very hard. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t felt like Gulliver in Lilliput more than a few times himself.
The CBS crew aimed one camera at Bill, one at Kuralt, and one from the side at both of them. They set up lights on metal poles. Several lamps hung from the planks of the patio roof, but the crew sneered at those. A white-crowned sparrow perched on one and watched the setup proceedings as if it knew what was going on.
A makeup girl powdered Kuralt’s bald dome so it wouldn’t shine too much under the fierce lights. “Joys of television,” the reporter said ruefully. “You ready, Governor?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Bill answered.
“You’ll have done this kind of thing before. You know how it goes. Don’t worry about fluffing. We’ll film way more than we need, then edit it down to a couple of minutes of good stuff for Sunday morning. People won’t just want to know about the fish. They’ll want to know about you, and about your state here.”
“I hope so,” Bill said.
Kuralt glanced at his cameramen. One by one, they gave thumbs up. So did the sound guy. “Let’s do it, then,” Kuralt said. The little lights under the TV camera lenses went red. Just as quickly, the newsman went from ordinary fellow to personality. “This is Charles Kuralt,” he declared, as if anyone could be in any doubt. “This afternoon I’m in Yreka, the capital of Jefferson, talking with Governor Bill Williamson. Thanks for inviting me to your state, Governor.”
“Thanks for coming,” Bill answered. “I was thrilled when I found out you would be.”
The newsman cocked his head to one side to study the governor. Almost at the same moment, and almost with the same gesture, the sparrow cocked its head to study the newsman. “And this is a remarkable state you have here,” Kuralt said.
“We do like to think so,” Bill said.
“Remarkable,” Charles Kuralt repeated. He scribbled a note in a little book held together by a spiral wire at the top. Phyllis Ward used the same kind for jotting things down. Kuralt went on, “Sometimes it seems as though the rest of the USA hardly hears about Jefferson, and it should. It really should.”
“We aren’t one of your big, crowded states,” Bill said. “The people we have, most of ’em hope to get left alone most of the time, and they pretty much leave the rest of the world alone, too.”
“But that’s a shame,” Kuralt said. The white-crowned sparrow fluttered its wings, as if about to take off from the lamp. It sat tight, though. The CBS man went on, “Everyone I’ve met has been warm and friendly, ready to give me the shirt off his back.”
“When you’re here, you’re our guest. We try to treat guests right,” Bill said. “We wish we had more of them. With our mountains and forests, there’s a lot to see in the state.” The Jefferson Tourist Board would be proud of him.
“There’s a lot to see other ways, too,” Kuralt said. “Take you, for instance. As far as I know, no other state has had a sasquatch elected to anything above local office. You’re the second sasquatch governor of Jefferson. There have also been state legislators and Senators—”
“I was a state Senator myself before I ran for governor,” Bill put in.
“Yes, of course. And you had a sasquatch Congressman back in the 1950s,” the newsman continued. “So what is it about Jefferson that makes the state so different?”
“Well, for one thing, this is where most of us have always lived, ever since the Ice Age,” Bill said. “And everybody in Jefferson, big and little, has a live-and-let-live attitude. It’s the flip side of wanting to be left alone, you might say. People here do leave other people alone. They don’t hassle them for being different. And, because of our accommodations laws, sasquatches just fit in better here. They literally fit better, here, too.”
Kuralt took more notes. The sparrow flapped again, but didn’t fly off. “It all makes sense when you explain it, but Jefferson still seems . . . exotic to the rest of America,” Kuralt said. “A sasquatch governor! And now a speartooth pulled out of the river! Amazing!”
“If Professor McDougald is right—and he knows his business—speartooths and their relatives have lived here for millions of years. They’ve lived here longer than sasquatches have.”
“But they’re still here! And so are you.” Charles Kuralt waved his hands. “The Romans said, ‘Out of Africa, always something new.’ With us, it’s ‘Out of Jefferson . . .’ What should we expect next? A live dinosaur?”
That wave was finally too much for the white-crown. It flew out toward the garden, right over Kuralt. And, as it flew, it left a souvenir behind. “Sorry about that,” Bill said.
“It got my notebook, not my suit.” Kuralt tore out the soiled page and gingerly crumpled it. “Just another editorial.” He glanced after the sparrow. “Stupid little bird.”
“Always Something New” copyright © 2020 by Harry Turtledove
Art copyright © 2020 by Red Nose Studio
A brand-new story from the legendary Harry Turtledove about Governor Bill Williamson, a sasquatch with a plan.
Piles of paper cluttered Governor Bill Williamson’s desk. Jefferson wasn’t a very populous state, but it had plenty of legislators and an even greater plenty of lobbyists. One lone governor didn’t stand much of a chance against them all.
Almost at random, he plucked one sheet from the closest stack. It was about a proposed change to the laws about dredging for gold in the state’s rivers. Or he thought so, anyhow; the words blurred on the page. He held it out at arm’s length. He was a Sasquatch; arm’s length went a long way. The typing looked clear enough, but the letters were too small for him to read.
Muttering, he reached into the top center desk drawer and pulled out a pair of glasses. When he put on the spectacles, he could read again . . . unless he looked down too vertically. Then his glasses slid away from his eyes. If he wasn’t careful, they’d fall off. His nose was low and broad and flat. It didn’t have the kind of bridge most little people’s snoots did. Securing eyeglasses was one more adventure in a world where he fit none too well.
The phone rang. Answering it meant he could decipher the changes to the dredging law later. The handset was made for a much smaller hand, but he could use it even so. “Yes?” he said.
“Sorry to bother you, Governor,” his administrative assistant said, “but Chief Hobbs is here for his ten o’clock appointment.”
“Is he?” Bill said tonelessly. He glanced at the clock one stack of papers almost but not quite hid. As he watched, a digital 9:57 went to 9:58 with a soft thwup. He sighed. Steve Hobbs was right on time. “Okay, Phyllis. Send him in.”
The door to the office opened. The chief of the Karuk tribe walked in. Bill stood up. He wanted to greet Steve Hobbs . . . and to intimidate him a bit. Hobbs was big for a little man—he stood about six-two, and wasn’t what anyone would call skinny. But the governor overtopped him by three feet, and his hand swallowed the chief’s when they shook.
After the clasp, the Karuk seemed relieved to get his paw back unsquashed. Good, Bill thought. He didn’t care for Indians, and he was sure Hobbs didn’t like Sasquatches, either. Their two kinds had been neighbors and rivals ever since Indians found their way to the New World more than ten thousand years before. Sasquatches had learned a lot from their first encounters with little people. One of the things they’d learned was not to trust their neighbors very far.
Rules these days were different. Neither Sasquatches nor Indians had made many of them. None of the old-time stuff counted any more. None of it was supposed to count, anyhow. The two statements sounded very much alike. What they meant, though . . .
“Have a seat, Chief,” Bill said. “Tell me what’s on your mind.”
The office—the whole governor’s mansion—was made to Sasquatch scale. Charlie “Bigfoot” Lewis, the governor who’d built it back in the twenties, had been a Sasquatch himself. Bill enjoyed not needing to worry about ducking when he went through doorways or banging his head on a low ceiling.
Little people, though, often felt like third graders in the principal’s office here. To ease that feeling, high chairs let them sit across the desk from Bill at something close to eye level. Or they did most of the time. When he found out Steve Hobbs was coming, Bill had thoughtfully removed the little-people seats that usually sat in the office and swapped in some with shorter legs.
So the Karuks’ chief looked up and up at him when he sat down. Hobbs’ sour smile said he understood why he was getting the kind of welcome he was getting. No doubt he would fix up a memorable reception for Bill if the governor ever visited Happy Camp, the tiny town near the Klamath River where the Karuk tribe had its headquarters.
But Hobbs was in Yreka now. If he pitched a hissy fit, he wouldn’t get whatever he’d come here to ask for. Playing by the rules, he might. Annoying him for the fun of it was one thing, denying him that to which he was legally entitled was something else again.
“You know we take a lot of salmon out of the river when they come upstream to spawn,” he said.
“Oh, sure.” Bill’s big head bobbed up and down. Back in the old days, Sasquatches had come down out of the mountains to scoop salmon from the Klamath, too. The Karuks had shot arrows at them and set traps to keep them away when they did. But those were the old days—gone, if not forgotten.
“We depend on those salmon.” Steve Hobbs ran a hand through his shock of silver hair. He looked more like, say, an Italian than an Indian. He probably had white folks in the woodpile.
Well, Bill thought one of his own great-grandmothers had been a little woman. Jefferson was the kind of place where all sorts of people went into the Mixmaster. Nodding again, Bill picked up the paper he’d been looking at when Hobbs got there. “We’re cutting back on dredging again, to make sure the spawning grounds stay good. The miners don’t like it, but the fish need protecting.”
“Good. You aren’t telling me anything I don’t already know,” Hobbs said. “The fish do need protecting—and not just from the greedy-guts get-rich-quick jerks with the dredges, either.”
“Ah?” Bill Williamson got the feeling the chief of the Karuks was coming to the point.
Sure enough, Hobbs said, “Our catches have been way down the past couple of years. It’s not getting better—it’s getting worse. I can tell you why, too.”
“And you’re going to, aren’t you?”
“Damn right I am.” Hobbs nodded vigorously. “Some of the men from the tribe, they fish on boats out of Requa at the mouth of the Klamath and from Crescent City farther north. From everything they say, the merfolk are stealing salmon right, left, and center. If the fish don’t even make it to the river to spawn, we can’t very well net ’em out, can we?”
“Mm, no.” Bill’s head started to ache. As soon as you mentioned the merfolk, you talked about jurisdictional nightmares—nightmares for everybody but the people of the sea, anyhow. “Are you sure you ought to be bringing this to me?” he asked. “Are you sure it isn’t the coast guard’s baby?” One thing a good many years in politics had taught him was how to pass the buck.
“If you let me down, I’ll go to them next,” Steve Hobbs answered. “But I’d sooner keep it at the state level if I can. You turn the Feds loose on something, Christ only knows where it’s liable to end up. And those coast guard guys, they aren’t from here. To them, I’m just a dumb-ass hick, and a dumb-ass redskin hick at that.”
Jefferson was nothing if not a clannish place. The clans didn’t always get along with one another—Sasquatches and Indians were only the most obvious example of that—but they did mostly pull together when outsiders tried to get them to do anything they didn’t fancy. (Of course, if not for Federal rules and regulations, the Karuks wouldn’t have their riverside reservation and their fishing rights along the Klamath; but that was old, settled law by now, and everybody here had gotten used to it.)
“Well, okay. I hear what you’re talking about,” Bill said.
“Yeah. You would. You may not like me a whole bunch, but you know where I’m coming from,” Hobbs told him. “That’s another reason I came to Yreka. We talk the same lingo.”
That lingo was, of course, English. Both Sasquat and Karuk were nearly extinct, understood by more scholars than folk from the groups who’d once used them. Maybe it was progress. Maybe it was tragedy. Whatever it was, Bill couldn’t do a thing about it. He knew only a handful of Sasquat words himself.
Not five minutes after Bill got back to the office from lunch, the telephone on his desk rang. When he picked it up, Phyllis said, “Liam McMichaels is on the line, Governor.”
“He is? Why am I not surprised?” Bill said. “Tell him I’m molting, okay?”
“Excuse me?” his administrative assistant said, in lieu of What the hell are you talking about now?
Bill sighed. “Never mind. Put him through.”
Something electronic clicked. A moment later, a hearty voice said, “How are you today, Governor?” Liam McMichaels sounded like what he was: a lobbyist. He buttered people up for a living. He did a damn good job of it, too.
“I’m fine, Liam. How’s yourself? How’s the family?” Bill also knew how to play the game.
“Couldn’t be better,” McMichaels said enthusiastically. After a discreet pause, he went on, “A little bird told me Steve Hobbs visited you this morning.”
“That’s right.” Bill wondered who the lobbyist’s little bird was. If he found out, he could fire the bastard . . . or maybe not. Maybe a known snoop was better than the unknown replacement McMichaels would assuredly find.
“And it’s why I’m calling,” McMichaels said. Among other clients in Yreka, he represented the merfolk. They rarely came out onto dry land themselves. They seldom even followed the salmon upstream into Jefferson’s clear, cold, swift-running rivers. Fresh water left them prone to nasty skin fungi and other parasites. They stayed in the ocean almost all of the time.
When they needed somebody like Liam McMichaels to do something for them in the dry world, they had plenty of clams to keep him happy. Metaphorical clams and, if he happened to want them, literal clams as well. Unless they were happy, dry-land folk might well find trouble on the sea. They were in the insurance business, even if some people called it protection money. They did this and that for and with the U.S. Navy. Across much the bigger part of the Earth’s surface, they were the ones who knew where the bodies were—or, more often, weren’t—buried.
So yes, they had plenty of clams.
“Hobbs, he’s not happy about how many salmon they’re taking,” Bill said. “The Karuks have to eat, you know.”
“So do the merfolk,” McMichaels replied. “Things aren’t so easy for them these days.”
“How do you mean?” Bill asked in surprise. Didn’t Liam McMichaels’ clients live off the fat of the land? Well, of the water? Since the end of the Second World War, they’d used some of their clams to buy spearguns from the little men who stayed dry most of the time. Didn’t those let them plow through schools of mackerel the way Buffalo Bill and his merry men disposed of the bison herds on the Great Plains? (And, not so incidentally, didn’t they turn into the most popular underwater murder weapons? Bill imagined political billboards on the seafloor: spearguns don’t kill merfolk! merfolk kill merfolk!)
“I’ll tell you how, Governor.” The lobbyist’s voice saved Bill from his own imagination. “The Russians and the Japanese—and now the Koreans, too—have these huge fishing boats. Fishing factories would be a better name for them. They’ve got nets and dredges and longlines and I don’t know what all else. They park just outside the coastal limit—or sometimes just inside, if they think they won’t get caught—and they suck up fish the way your Hoover sucks up dust. When they leave, the merfolk go hungry for miles and miles around.”
“I . . . see,” Bill said. He wasn’t sure McMichaels was giving him the unvarnished truth. Spreading varnish over places that looked rough without it was part of a lobbyist’s job. But he was sure things were less one-sided than Steve Hobbs had made them out to be. Hobbs had his own axe to grind, of course, and his tribe’s. Bill sighed. One of the things you soon found out when you plunked your backside into this seat was that nothing was ever as simple as it looked. He sighed again. “You can get hold of the folks you represent, right? You don’t have to wait for them to call you?”
“Yes, I can do that.” McMichaels confirmed what Bill had expected.
“Okay. Good, even,” the governor said. “Let’s see . . . Today’s Wednesday. Tell them I’ll come out in a boat from Requa on Saturday morning. We can talk about it then, if that suits them. If it doesn’t, call me back and let me know. We’ll work out something else.”
“Thank you very much, Governor. You’re a gentleman.”
“Well, I try.” The only definition of a gentleman Bill liked was that he was somebody who kept his weight on his elbows. When you weighed around five hundred pounds, that wasn’t just gentlemanly. It was mandatory. Liam McMichaels would have laughed had he told the raunchy joke, but he didn’t. This latest mess felt anything but funny.
You couldn’t go straight from Yreka to Requa. Bill drove the Mighty Mo up the I-5 to Grants Pass, down the US 199 to Crescent City on the Pacific, and then south along the coast on the US 101 to get to where he needed to go. He piloted the humongous 1974 Eldorado past any number of genuine political billboards. Some touted Ronald Reagan, others Jimmy Carter. Polls showed the race in Jefferson was close. Nationally, Bill figured the ex-governor of the state next door would trounce the hangdog Georgian with the Chiclet teeth.
Once he got to Requa, he wondered why he’d bothered. Crescent City was a real port. So was Port Orford, farther north. So were Eureka and Arcata, father south. Requa should have been, sitting right where the Klamath River poured into the sea. It should have been, but it wasn’t.
It had a post office and a general store with a screen door so old, the mesh was made from rusting galvanized iron, not aluminum. The airstrip was too short for anything bigger than a Piper Cub. Most of the houses were shacks. The piers . . . They weren’t built out of Lincoln Logs, the way he’d guessed when he got his first look at them. Lincoln Logs would have been sturdier and more uniform.
Three or four fishing boats were tied up at the pier. They looked as outdated and as badly in need of paint as everything else in Requa. When Bill opened the Mighty Mo’s left rear door and got out (the car had no left front seat, which let someone his size drive it), a little man in jeans, a windbreaker, and a Giants cap waved to him.
“Welcome to Requa, Governor!” he called, ambling down the pier toward the Cadillac.
“Thanks.” With a distinct effort of will, Bill didn’t add I think.
The little man held out his hand. “I’m Dave Super,” he said as Bill shook it. Smiling crookedly, he went on, “Yeah, that’s my real name. Translated from something in Karuk, y’know? Steve called me, said you wanted me to take you out to talk to the merfolk.”
“That’s right.” Bill eyed him. “You don’t seem thrilled about it.”
“Only on account of I’m not,” Super answered. “If I had my druthers, I’d buy a coupla crates o’ dynamite, take the Sweetheart on Parade out over the closest merfolk village, and fix them thieving bastards for good.”
“You wouldn’t get ’em all, and you’d never dare go out on the water again,” Bill said. “And messing with the merfolk is a Federal crime.”
“I know. I don’t like any o’ that worth a damn, but I know,” Dave Super said. “You don’t see me doin’ it, even if I want to. But I hope like hell you can make ’em cut it out. Not everybody here’s got a fuse as long as mine.”
Back in the day, the merfolk had had the edge on the local Indians who went out on the sea to fish. They could sneak up on a canoe unseen underwater. Fishermen seldom lasted long after that. The balance of power had shifted when big sailing ships came into these waters, and when little men had started using rifles and explosives. Some merfolk still resented not being able to call all the shots on the ocean.
When you got down to it, how could you blame them? Bill’s own ancient ancestors must have felt the same way when the newly arrived Indians started aiming arrows at them. They hadn’t known about archery till then; all they’d had were sharp stones and spears. But they’d learned . . . and the Indians soon discovered they didn’t want to stop an arrow from a bow pulled by a five-hundred-pound Sasquatch.
Learning how to copy firearms and dynamite wasn’t so easy. The Indians and the Sasquatches hadn’t managed that. With the extra handicap of needing to stay in the water, neither had the merfolk.
Like Indians and Sasquatches, they’d stolen or bought what they couldn’t copy. And they’d learned the political game, as had the Indians and Sasquatches. Governor Bill Williamson was living, blathering proof his folk had.
Dave Super pointed down the pier toward his boat. “You ready to take a ride and do some palavering?”
“Sure, if those planks will hold my weight,” Bill said.
“Don’t worry about it,” the Karuk said. “They’re stronger’n they look.”
They couldn’t very well be weaker, Bill thought. The rickety pier creaked and shook when he set foot on it. None of the planks snapped, though. He didn’t go into the Pacific sooner than he’d wanted to. He also made it across the fishing boat’s gangplank.
“Why do you call her the Sweetheart on Parade?” he asked.
Super cocked his head to one side. “You don’t listen to John Stewart, do you?”
“Nope,” Bill admitted. “Rod Stewart, yeah. Al Stewart, yeah. But not John.”
“You’re missing something,” Super said.
Bill shrugged—politely, he hoped. From what little he knew, John Stewart was a country singer, and he had no use for what he thought of as shitkicker music. Even Sasquatches carried vagrant opinions with no visible means of support.
Dave Super’s crew consisted of one man who looked enough like him to be his kid brother—and who turned out to be named Pete Super. Pete fired up the boat’s diesel. Stinking black smoke belched from the exhaust. Dave undid the lines that secured the boat to the pier. With the grace and dignity of a turtle waddling across a mudflat, the Sweetheart on Parade chugged out to sea.
A glance at the watch on his left wrist told Bill it was just past ten. He was supposed to meet the merfolk three miles from shore at eleven. Unless the boat crapped out altogether, he would get there in good time. Dave and Pete seemed to take for granted the idea that she would keep going. Bill decided he would do the same.
It was somewhere in the mid-sixties. The air smelled of salt. It was moist, even misty. When Bill looked at the sun, he didn’t have to look away at once. Gulls fluttered above the Sweetheart on Parade, screeching and jostling for position.
Pointing up at them from behind the wheel in the little cabin, Dave laughed and said, “They scrounge from us.”
“They steal fish, too, every chance they get,” Pete added.
“Damn right they do,” Dave said. “If they knew about money and booze, they’d make pretty fair people.” Bill laughed at that. When he did, Dave asked, “What? You think I’m kidding?”
“Not even slightly,” Bill answered. “I was laughing because I thought you meant it.” That seemed to satisfy the fisherman.
Waves rolling out of the northwest sent the Sweetheart on Parade up and down, up and down. The motion was pretty steady and not too severe. Bill didn’t especially care for it, but it wasn’t bad enough to make him worry about whether breakfast would stay down. He caught Dave and Pete eyeing each other a couple of times, no doubt wondering if he was turning green under his russet pelt. He was glad not to be more entertaining.
Behind them, the shore receded. The mist made everything not just small but also indistinct, as if it might not really be there at all. Bill knew it could have been worse; fog might have altogether swallowed the land. Back before boats carried compasses, let alone radios, how had anybody ever had the nerve to go out on the trackless water?
Dave killed the engine. “Stand away from the anchor chain, Governor, if you please,” Pete said.
Bill did. Pete pulled a lever. The anchor splashed into the cold, green-gray Pacific. “We’re about where we’re supposed to be,” Dave said. “They’ll know we’re here, too. They’ve got damn good ears, the merfolk do.”
Pete lit a stogie. The smoke smelled nastier than the diesel exhaust. Bill moved upwind from him. Two dolphins sprang into the air before arrowing back into the sea. He eyed them with delight. Pete was more experienced and less delighted. “The merfolk use ’em for watchdogs,” he said. “Sheepdogs, too.”
“Do they?” Bill said.
“Oh, yeah.” Pete nodded. “Dolphins drive fish an’ chase off sharks even on their own. When the merfolk tell ’em what to do—”
“It ain’t just dolphins, either. Killer whales, too,” Dave Super broke in. “They’re like . . . I dunno, the merfolk’s Dobermans, maybe. If they told one to smash up this boat, we’d be swimming pretty damn quick, but not for long. Somethin’ my size-—even somethin’ your size, Governor—that’s just a snack for a killer whale. Like a seal, say.”
“They want to talk. They don’t want to fight.” Bill spoke to reassure the Super brothers . . . and himself.
As if on cue, there was a soft splash not far from the Sweetheart on Parade. Pete Super pointed into the Pacific. “We’ve got company,” he said with no great liking in his voice. “If they do want to talk, they’ve got the chance.”
Bill stared at the merman. He’d seen photos of merfolk before, of course—who hadn’t?—but photos always told you less than you wished they would. It was like the difference between a photo of a steak dinner and the dinner itself on the table in front of you.
He could see only the top third of the merman’s body. The rest stayed under the sea. The merman’s skin was wet and shiny and the exact color of a Greek olive. His head was large and round, with ears as tiny—as rudimentary, really—as a sea lion’s. His eyes, set farther apart than a little man’s or a Sasquatch’s, were black all the way across. His nostrils were no more than a couple of slits; his split upper lip bore a bushy mustache of stiff yellowish hairs that gave him something of the look of an aquatic Otto von Bismarck.
When Bill’s gaze swung to his hands, he was reminded how far apart merfolk were from those that peopled the land. Sasquatches and yetis and the various races of little men were all primates, all apes too smart for their own good, all close cousins. The merfolk’s closest relatives were dugongs and manatees and the sea cows the Russians had hunted to extinction in the eighteenth century. Just about any digit on the merman’s hands could oppose any of the others. They might almost have been bird feet, only without claws and with half-webbed fingers.
He held a slate, a grease pencil, and a sponge in those odd hands. The first two could have come from a Kmart. The sponge was . . . a sponge. A real sponge. Not a block of cellulose taken off a supermarket shelf, but a once-living thing plucked from the ocean floor.
“Hello,” Bill said, and the merman’s ears twitched as they turned his way. “What do I call you? You speak English, right?”
UNDERSTAND ENGLISH, the merman wrote—he was a lefty. NOT SPEAK. MOUTH TOO DIFFERENT. As he rubbed the words off with the sponge, he opened wide. He wasn’t kidding. He had bony plates instead of teeth, and a tongue that could only be described as weird.
“What do I call you?” Bill asked again.
CALL ME ISHMAEL, the merman answered. Bill didn’t guffaw. How and why he didn’t, he couldn’t have said, but he was proud of holding back. Ishmael rubbed again, then wrote, NOISE IN MY TALK MEAN NOTHING TO YOU.
“Okay. Fair enough. I’m Bill Williamson. I’m Governor of Jefferson. I can speak for the people on land here.” I hope I can, anyhow, Bill thought.
I HEAD SQUID CLAN. Ishmael rubbed and continued, OTHER CLANS CLOSE BY LISTEN TO ME.
How big was the Squid Clan? How many other clans lived or roamed close by? What did Ishmael think close by meant? Just because the other clans listened to him, would they follow his lead? Those were all interesting questions, weren’t they? Bill had answers for none of them. He’d paid less attention to the merfolk than he should have. They were like the lilies of the field—they toiled not, neither did they spin. In a modern politician’s terms, they paid taxes not, neither did they vote.
“If we can agree about salmon, your clan and these others will stick to the agreement?” Bill asked.
Ishmael’s head went up and down in a slow nod. By the way he did it, Bill guessed it was a learned gesture for him, not one he used naturally. WE STICK, he wrote. UNLESS WE STARVE, WE STICK.
“You could drive a semi through a hole like that,” Dave Super remarked.
“Maybe you could,” Bill said. “But anybody will do almost anything if he gets hungry enough.”
LAND PEOPLE STARVE WITHOUT SALMON? Ishmael asked.
“Well . . . no,” Bill said, and won identical dirty looks from the two Super brothers. He went on, “They won’t have such an easy time, though.”
SAME LIKE US, THEN, Ishmael wrote. Bill supposed it was. Ishmael erased his words and scribbled again: WE GIVE A LITTLE. THEY GIVE A LITTLE.
Bill grinned, even if he wasn’t sure the expression meant anything to Ishmael. “You know how politics works, all right.”
Before Ishmael could answer, another merman broke the surface next to him. No, this was a mermaid. She was just as bald as Ishmael, just as olive-colored, just as mustachioed. But those cannonball breasts left no doubt of her gender. For centuries, European artists had painted mermaids as scaly below and blond, fair, and blue-eyed up top. If that wasn’t Wishful Thinking with a capital W and T, Bill had no idea what would be.
She also carried a slate, a grease pencil, and a sponge. Bill took that to mean she understood English, too. But she wanted to talk to Ishmael. She tapped him on the shoulder. When she got his attention, they both ducked their heads under the water. People’s languages dissolved into meaningless noises when they did that. Maybe the merfolk’s talk did the same thing in the air.
After longer than Bill would have been comfortable without breathing, Ishmael and the mermaid came up again. SHE SAY BIG SHIPS GO AWAY FOR NOW, the Squid Clan’s chief wrote.
“That’s good to hear,” Bill said. Without the factory ships close offshore, the merfolk would have less need for salmon near the mouth of the Klamath. They would for a while, anyhow. One thing at a time was all you could do—when you could do even that much. The governor nodded, he hoped politely, toward the mermaid. “Thanks for bringing the news. What do people like me call you?”
I GO BY ETHEL. Her printing was neater than Ishmael’s, her grasp of idiom better. Both of them, though, were light-years ahead of anything Bill could have done with their style of communication.
“Ethel . . . Mermaid,” he said slowly.
YES, THAT’S RIGHT, she wrote.
“O-kay,” he whispered. Sometimes you could twist the long arm of coincidence till it came off in your hand.
WHAT? she asked—she hadn’t heard him. Then she added, SING OUT, LOUISE!
Bill’s older daughter had just graduated from Jefferson State Ashland as a drama major. Sing out, Louise! wasn’t coincidence. It could only be malice aforethought. “Do you like dry-land people’s drama?” he asked her.
YES, THAT’S RIGHT, Ethel Mermaid repeated. She rubbed. HELPS TO UNDERSTAND YOU AS MUCH AS I CAN.
“I guess it would,” Bill agreed. Dry-land scholars studied the merfolk’s way of life like that. Why shouldn’t their opposite numbers in the water return the favor?
WE NEED SOME SALMON, the mermaid wrote. WE STAY BY RIVER MOUTHS BECAUSE OF THEM. She rubbed, then added, WITHOUT THEM, WE WOULD HAVE A GYPSY LIFE.
He looked at her. Her expression was unreadable, at least to the likes of him. All the same, he asked, “Do your people think you have an odd sense of humor, Ethel?”
I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU MEAN, the mermaid wrote. And either she had no idea what he meant or she’d just answered his question for him. He didn’t know which, but he had a pretty fair notion of how he’d bet.
Ishmael had watched and listened to the byplay without seeming to care about it at all. Now he wrote, IT IS AGREEMENT?
“It is as far as I’m concerned,” Bill said. Dave and Pete Super looked glum and ticked off, but they kept their mouths shut. Bill went on, “I’ll make sure it suits the Karuks’ chief, too. If it does, we’ll go on from there. If it doesn’t, I’ll come back here in a week to tell you. Then we’ll see what else we can work out.”
TELL HIM ONE MORE THING, Ishmael wrote. MAN WHO RUNS BOAT, TELL OTHERS WITH BOATS, TOO.
“Go ahead,” Bill said. He called back to the cabin: “Dave, you paying attention?”
“I’m watching, yeah,” Dave Super answered.
Ishmael wrote, DON’T MESS WITH US, YOU WITH BOATS. SEALS OUR FRIENDS. WE TRAIN SEALS. THEY HELP US.
Dave and Pete both snickered. “You mean, like for SeaWorld?” Dave said.
- FOR NAVY, Ishmael answered.
Both Karuks stopped laughing very abruptly. Bill Williamson didn’t blame them a bit. Navy SEALs were no laughing matter. If they shared toys with their aquatic instructors, boats full of hotheaded troublemakers might find themselves in trouble, not making it.
And SEAL stood for SEa, Air and Land. Like Liam McMichaels, SEALs could go places and do things the merfolk couldn’t on their own. Troublemakers who bothered the Squid Clan might end up in hot water on dry land.
YOU UNDERSTAND, YOU KARUKS? Ishmael asked.
“Oh, yeah. We gotcha, all right.” Dave sounded anything but happy. He did sound thoughtful, though. And Pete looked thoughtful. As far as Bill was concerned, that all went on the plus side of the ledger.
To the governor, Ishmael wrote, TELL KARUK CHIEF SAME THING.
“I will. You bet I will,” Bill promised.
THIS IS BEST WE DO, Ishmael wrote. ANYTHING ELSE, HE LIKE WORSE.
“That’s how it looks to me, too,” Bill said. “But I still have to talk to him.”
IS GOOD. HOPE I NO SEE YOU IN WEEK, Ishmael wrote, and disappeared into the Pacific. Ethel Mermaid followed a moment later. Dave Super started up the Sweetheart on Parade’s diesel. Among other things, it powered a winch that hauled up the chain and the anchor at the end of it. When the anchor came out of the water, Dave started back to Requa.
“Ask you something, Governor?” Pete said.
“Sure. Go ahead.”
“What the hell were you going on about with that ugly old mermaid?”
“John Stewart,” Bill answered, deadpan. Pete stared at him. He swallowed a sigh. “Never mind. Any joke you’ve got to explain, it isn’t funny any more.” He hadn’t much expected to find himself with more in common with a mermaid than with a little man. But there you were. And here he was—on his way back to shore, thank God.
The phone on Bill’s desk jangled. His hand jerked. He was working on a speech. He scratched out the word he’d just messed up, then lifted the handset. “Yes?” he said.
“Chief Hobbs is here for his eleven o’clock appointment, Governor,” his administrative assistant said.
He glanced at the clock. It was 10:56. Sure enough, the Karuks’ chief was as compulsively punctual as usual, like most people who dealt with other people for a living. “Well, send him in, Phyllis,” Bill said.
As he had before, Bill stood up to greet Steve Hobbs. He hadn’t gained as much for the Karuks as Hobbs had wanted him to. Better to remind the Indian ahead of time that getting huffy about it wasn’t exactly brilliant.
By the chief’s sour expression, he didn’t need that kind of reminding. “I got a phone call yesterday,” he said without preamble.
“Did you?” Bill kept his voice as neutral as he could.
“Uh-huh.” Hobbs nodded. “Fellow on the line sure knew a lot about where things were at in Happy Camp.” Meditatively, the chief went on, “Sounded like he knew how to blow up just about everything in Happy Camp, too.”
“Did he threaten to do that?” Bill asked. Threats crossed the line, even for a SEAL. One of Ishmael’s friends or students or whatever he was might be getting too enthusiastic for his own britches.
But Steve Hobbs said, “Nah. He was just . . . theoretical, if you know what I mean. If you planted a charge here, this’d happen, or you’d hide in the crawl space under the gun shop if you wanted to ambush a car—stuff like that. Never said he would, just let me know he could, or one of his buddies could.”
“You didn’t trace the call, did you?”
“Nah,” Hobbs said again, which was what Bill had expected. “We aren’t set up to do anything like that. Who would’ve figured we’d ever need to?”
“All right, then,” Bill said. “Why don’t we all just see how the agreement goes for a year or two, in that case? As long as you keep your excitable boys in line, I bet Ishmael can do the same with his, regardless of whether they swim or walk on two legs. If he doesn’t, the Feds will come down on him.”
And if you don’t, the Feds will come down on you. Bill didn’t feel the need to say that. No, he didn’t like Indians any better than they liked his folk. Like Steve Hobbs or not, though, he knew the Karuks’ chief was no dope. Hobbs could read between the lines.
He could also read between the lines of the agreement. “Damn merfolk’re gonna cheat,” he said morosely.
“Probably,” Bill agreed, which made Hobbs sit up straight in his short-legged chair. The governor continued, “As long as they don’t cheat too much, though, you’ll come out all right and so will they. They’ve got to eat, same as you do. And isn’t a bargain, even one that’s not perfect, better than going broke fighting each other through the courts for years and years?”
“Cheaper, anyway,” Hobbs said. “I’m not so sure about better.”
“Cheaper all kinds of ways,” Bill said, thinking of Karuks with crates of dynamite and SEALs with plastique and rocket-propelled grenades.
“I guess.” Yes, Steve Hobbs followed him again.
“Cheaper and better,” Bill said. “When you try to cut the other guy’s heart out and eat it, most of the time you find he’s got his knife in your chest, too, just about hilt-deep. Politics isn’t pretty, but it’s better than that.”
“I guess,” Hobbs repeated. He didn’t want to admit any more than he had to, but he couldn’t very well call Bill a liar, either. After all, they were both in the same racket.
“Something Fishy” copyright © 2020 by Harry Turtledove
Art copyright © 2020 by Red Nose Studio
Being Governor of Jefferson has its particular perks, and its particular challenges. Particularly if you’re a member of this Pacific Northwest state’s most famous ethnic minority…with all the extra height and hair that implies.
Since the Big Bubble popped in 1929, life in the United States hasn’t been the same. Hotshot wizards will tell you nothing’s really changed, but then again, hotshot wizards aren’t looking for honest work in Enid, Oklahoma. No paying jobs at the mill, because zombies will work for nothing. The diner on Main Street is seeing hard times as well, because a lot fewer folks can afford to fly carpets in from miles away.
Jack Spivey’s just another down-and-out trying to stay alive, doing a little of this and a little of that. Sometimes that means making a few bucks playing ball with the Enid Eagles, against teams from as many as two counties away. And sometimes it means roughing up rival thugs for Big Stu, the guy who calls the shots in Enid. But one day Jack knocks on the door of the person he’s supposed to “deal with”—and realizes that he’s not going to do any such thing to the young lady who answers. This means he needs to get out of the reach of Big Stu, who didn’t get to where he is by letting defiance go unpunished.
Then the House of Daniel comes to town—a brash band of barnstormers who’ll take on any team, and whose antics never fail to entertain. Against the odds Jack secures a berth with them. Now they’re off to tour an America that’s as shot through with magic as it is dead broke. Jack will never be the same—nor will baseball.
Harry Turtledove’s The House of Daniel, an alternate history novel of magic and minor league baseball, is available April 19th from Tor Books!
From the Hugo-winning, bestselling author of The Guns of the South, a tale of love, parasitism, and loss.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by senior editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
Some people will tell you that world-class fame is better than living to a contented old age. Other people disagree. One of those other people might possibly be the protagonist of this tale by Harry Turtledove, master of the counterfactual.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by senior editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
You’re the greatest writer of the age, gone to ground and subsiding into drink. You always said you wanted to catch some of those Nazi bastards in the waters around your beloved Cuba. What happens when you actually get your wish?
This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by senior editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee strolled through the streets of San Antonio. It was a bright February morning, the air mild and moist: almost a promise of spring. But, as Lee knew from his service on the Texas frontier, such promises were more easily made than kept. Another norther might yet howl down to cover the ground with snow and wrap ice around hopeful young leaf buds.
You never could tell with Texas weather. And you never could tell with Texas politics. More promises there had been made than kept, too. For all his efforts, Governor Sam Houston hadn’t been able to keep his state in the Union. A secession convention had voted Texas out of the Union. Once a referendum ratified that vote, it would join the Confederate States, whatever the Confederate States were or would become.
Jakub Shlayfer opened the door and walked outside to go to work. Before he could shut it again, his wife called after him: “Alevai it should be a good day! We really need the gelt!”
“Alevai, Bertha. Omayn,” Jakub agreed. The door was already shut by then, but what difference did that make? It wasn’t as if he didn’t know they were poor. His lean frame, the rough edge on the brim of his broad, black hat, his threadbare long, black coat, and the many patches on his boot soles all told the same story.
But then, how many Jews in Wawolnice weren’t poor? The only one Jakub could think of was Shmuel Grynszpan, the undertaker. His business was as solid and certain as the laws of God. Everybody else’s? Groszy and zlotych always came in too slowly and went out too fast.
Series: Dystopia Week
This story is also available for download from major ebook retailers.
The President of the United States looked out of an Oval Office window at Grand Junction, Colorado. The Oval Office was square, but the President’s workplace kept its traditional name. Harris Moffatt III sighed and bent to his paperwork again. Even in Grand Junction, that never disappeared.
Washington, D.C., remained the de jure capital of the United States. Harris Moffatt III had never been there. Neither had his father, President Harris Moffatt II. His grandfather, President Harris Moffatt I, got out of Washington one jump ahead of the Krolp. That the USA was still any kind of going concern came from his ever-so-narrow escape.
Harris Moffatt III was also Prime Minister of Canada, or of that small and mountainous chunk of Canada the Krolp didn’t control. The two countries had amalgamated early on, the better to resist the invading aliens. That, of course, was before they realized how far out of their weight they were fighting.
When the enormous ships were first detected, between Mars’ orbit and Earth’s, every nation radioed messages of welcome and greeting. The Krolp ignored them all. The enormous ships landed. There were still videos—Harris Moffatt III had them on his computer—of human delegations greeting the aliens with bouquets and bands playing joyful music. At last! Contact with another intelligent race! Proof we weren’t alone in the universe!
“Better if we were,” the President muttered. When the Krolp came out, they came out shooting. Some of those fifty-year-old videos broke off quite abruptly. And “shooting” was the understatement of the millennium. Their weapons made ours seem like kids’ slingshots against machine guns.
Seeing how the Krolp wanted things to go, half a dozen militaries launched H-bomb-tipped missiles at the great ships. They couldn’t live through that, could they? As a matter of fact, they could. Most of the missiles got shot down. Most of the ones that did land on target didn’t go off. And the handful that did harmed the Krolpish ships not a bit and the rampaging, plundering aliens running around loose very little.
They weren’t invulnerable. Humans could kill them. Unless somebody got amazingly lucky, the usual cost was about two armored divisions and all their matériel for one Krolp. Back in the old days, the United States was the richest country in the world. All the pre-Krolp books said so. Not even it could spend men and equipment on that scale.
Back before the Krolp came, a fellow named Clarke had written, Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. Harris Moffatt III didn’t know about that. What the Krolp did wasn’t magic. The best scientists in the USA—the best ones left alive, anyhow—had been studying captured or stolen Krolpish gadgets for half a century now. Their conclusion was that the aliens manipulated gravity and the strong and weak forces as thoroughly as humans exploited electromagnetism.
Humans could use Krolpish devices and weapons. They could even use them against the invaders, for as long as they kept working. What humans couldn’t do was make more such devices themselves. The machines weren’t there. Neither was the theory. And neither was the engineering to turn theory into practice.
And so Harris Moffatt III ruled an attenuated state between the Rockies and the Wasatch Range. He understood too well that he ruled here not least because the Krolp hadn’t yet taken the trouble to overrun this rump USA (and Canada).
From everything he’d heard, the United States still was the richest country in the world. The richest human-ruled country, anyhow. And if that wasn’t a telling measure of mankind’s futility in the face of the aliens, Harris Moffatt III was damned if he could figure out what would be.
• • •
This story is also available for download from major ebook retailers.
A chilly January night in Roswell. Joe Bauman has discovered that’s normal for eastern New Mexico. It gets hot here in the summer, but winters can be a son of a bitch. That Roswell’s high up—3,600 feet—only makes the cold colder. Makes the sky clearer, too. A million stars shine down on Joe.
One of those stars is his: the big red one marking the Texaco station at 1200 West Second Street. He nods to himself in slow satisfaction. He’s had a good run, a hell of a good run, here in Roswell. The way it looks right now, he’ll settle down here and run the gas station full time when his playing days are done.
Won’t be long, either. He’ll turn thirty-two in April, about when the season starts. Ballplayers, even ones like him who never come within miles of the big time, know how sharply mortal their careers are. If he doesn’t, the ache in his knees when he turns on a fastball will remind him.
He glances down at his watch, which he wears on his right wrist—he’s a lefty all the way. It’s getting close to nine o’clock. He looks up Second Street. Then he looks down the street. No traffic either way. People here make jokes about rolling up the sidewalks after the sun goes down. With maybe 20,000 people, Roswell seems plenty big and bustling to Joe. It’s a damn sight bigger than Welch, Oklahoma, the pissant village where he was born, that’s for sure.
He could close up and go home. Chances that he’ll have any more business are pretty slim. But the sign in the rectangular iron frame says OPEN ’TIL MIDNIGHT. He’ll stick around. You never can tell.
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