Last Year

Sneak Peek: Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

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Last Year by Robert Charles WilsonTwo events made September 1st a memorable day for Jesse Cullum. First, he lost a pair of Oakley sunglasses. Second, he saved the life of President Ulysses S. Grant.

It’s the near future, and the technology exists to open doorways into the past–but not our past, not exactly. Each “past” is effectively an alternate world, identical to ours but only up to the date on which we access it. And a given “past” can only be reached once. After a passageway is open, it’s the only road to that particular past; once closed, it can’t be reopened.

A passageway has been opened to a version of late 19th-century Ohio. It’s been in operation for most of a decade, but it’s no secret, on either side of time. A small city has grown up around it to entertain visitors from our time, and many locals earn a good living catering to them. But like all such operations, it has a shelf life; as the “natives” become more sophisticated, their version of the “past” grows less attractive as a destination.

Jesse Cullum is a native. And he knows the passageway will be closing soon. He’s fallen in love with a woman from our time, and he means to follow her back–no matter whose secrets he has to expose in order to do it.

Last Year will become available on December 6th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

1

Two events made the first of September a memorable day for Jesse Cullum. First, he lost a pair of Oakley sunglasses. Second, he saved the life of President Ulysses S. Grant.

The part about saving Grant’s life was speculative. Even without Jesse’s intervention, the pistol might have misfired or the bullet missed its mark. Jesse felt uneasy about taking credit for an act of purely theoretical heroism. But the loss of the Oakleys, that was a real tragedy. He had loved those Oakleys. The way they improved his vision on sunny days. The way they made him look.

 

Grant’s visit had been carefully planned. That was how City people liked it: the fewer surprises, the better. Grant and his wife had arrived at Futurity Station in a special Pullman car, where they had endured a reception, complete with bands and a speech by the governor of Illinois, before a plush carriage carried them five miles down the paved road from the train depot to the steel gates of the City of Futurity. Jesse had ridden that absurdly smooth and perfect road many times—he had helped build it—and he knew exactly what Grant would have seen: a first glimpse of the City’s impossibly tall white towers across the rolling Illinois plains, massifs of stone and glass; then the enormous concrete wall with gaudy words and pictures painted on it; the gleaming gates, opening to admit his carriage; finally the crowd, both locals and visitors, jostling in the courtyard for a glimpse of him.

Policing the crowd was Jesse’s job. He had been assigned to the task by his boss, a man named Booking—the same Booking who had issued him the Oakleys six months ago. Today Jesse wore a freshly laundered City security uniform: white shirt, blue necktie, blue blazer with the words CITY OF FUTURITY / STAFF sewn in yellow thread across the pocket, a soft blue cap with the same legend above the bill—and, at least outdoors, the Oakley sunglasses, which Jesse believed lent him an air of sinister authority. When he wore his Oakleys, his reflection in the City’s plate-glass windows looked like a prizefighter with the eyes of a gigantic beetle. Newcomers invariably gave him startled, deferential looks.

Jesse and three other security people had been assigned to the viewing line. The way it was supposed to work: Grant’s carriage would enter through the gates; Grant and his wife would disembark; they would be escorted across the courtyard to the lobby of Tower Two in view of the guests already present. Post-and-rope stanchions had been set up to maintain a distance between the crowd and the president, and Jesse was assigned to patrol that boundary and make sure no one jumped the line.

It should have been easy duty. The weather was sunny but not unpleasantly warm, the current crop of guests seemed well behaved. Jesse was eager to get his own look at Grant, not that he had ever paid much attention to politics. So he watched attentively as the carriage came in and the gate rolled closed behind it. A valet took charge of the horses, and Grant and his wife, Julia, stepped into the sunlight. Mrs. Grant stared without embarrassment at the fantastically broad and tall buildings of the City, but General Grant himself appeared calm and measured—not as fierce in this last year of his presidency as the images of him that had been published in newspapers during the Rebellion, but just as sternly observant. He ignored the marvels of the City and surveyed the crowd. Jesse imagined the president’s gaze caught and lingered on him a moment—because of the Oakleys, perhaps.

Then Jesse had to give his whole attention to the job he had been assigned to do. He began a slow walk along the rope line, keeping a careful vigil. All the people on this side of the courtyard were local guests of the City. That meant they were well-heeled enough to afford the entrance fee, which implied a certain standard of gentlemanly and ladylike behavior to which, alas, they did not necessarily conform. Today, however, the crowd was mindful, and there was very little pushing or crowding of the ropes. Jesse told one couple to keep their children back of the stanchions, please, and he scolded another man for shouting out mocking references to Grant’s role in the Crédit Mobilier scandal. Otherwise it was simply a matter of keeping his eyes open as Grant progressed from the courtyard to the Reception Center.

Had Jesse not been wearing the Oakleys he might have been too sunstruck to catch sight of the man at the rope line who reached into his overcoat with a purposeful motion. Long ago, in circumstances far from the City and vastly less congenial, Jesse had learned to recognize that gesture, and he broke into a run without thinking. Some in the crowd stared at Jesse, but no one had yet noticed the man in the overcoat, whose movements were deliberate and whose attention was entirely focused on Grant. The man’s hand emerged, bearing a pistol. The pistol looked peculiar, but Jesse didn’t think about that. He was racing now, closing the gap between himself and the would-be assassin, thinking: a pistol was a bad choice at this range. Odds were, a hasty shot would miss Grant altogether. But Jesse hadn’t been hired to play the odds. He had been hired to make the most effective use of his size and skills. He came at the gunman like a rolling caisson.

Jesse had been taught that the two overriding principles of City security were protection and discretion. The first and most important of these was protection—of the president, in this case—and it was Jesse’s priority as he made contact with his opponent. He grabbed the assailant’s gun arm at the wrist, isolating the weapon, and let his momentum carry his shoulder into the assailant’s chest. The gunman was taken by surprise, and the air was forced from his lungs in a startled grunt as both men fell to the ground. Jesse let his weight immobilize the assailant’s body as he dealt with the weapon. The assailant’s finger was out of the trigger guard and his hand was at an angle to his arm that suggested Jesse had successfully broken or dislocated the wrist. Nearby guests, still more puzzled than alarmed, stepped back to form a kind of perimeter. Jesse took the pistol from the assailant’s hand and quickly tucked it into the pocket of his now-soiled blue blazer. Then he twisted the assailant’s arm behind him and wrestled him to his feet.

The daylight seemed suddenly brighter, which was how Jesse discovered that his Oakley sunglasses had flown off during the altercation. He spotted them on the ground just as a female guest took a step backward, crushing one lens under her heel and bending the arms out of shape. Jesse’s sense of loss was immediate and aggravating.

But the second rule of City security was discretion, and he kept quiet. The gunman began to utter sharp obscenities. Jesse murmured apologies to the ladies present and hustled the miscreant through the crowd, away from Grant and toward the staff door of the Reception Center The man was four or five inches shorter than Jesse and a few years older. Jesse was in an excellent position to observe his pomaded black hair, thin at the crown, and to register the tang of his body odor, salty and sour.

The staff door flew open as Jesse came within a couple of yards of it. Two City security men rushed out—security men from the future, Tower One men, which meant they outranked Jesse, who had been born in this century. They were staring hard at the assailant and spared almost no attention for Jesse himself.

Like most of the Tower One security people, they were as tall as Jesse and at least as muscular. One was a white man, one was brown-skinned. They braced the gunman and secured his arms behind him with flexible ties. “Thanks, chief,” the white man said to Jesse. “We’ll take it from here.”

“My name’s not chief.”

“Okay, sorry, bro. And, uh, we’ll need the weapon, too.”

Abashed at having forgotten it, Jesse retrieved the pistol from his pocket and handed it over. It was sleek, complex, and finely machined. Definitely not a contemporary handgun. “I broke my Oakleys wrestling with this man.”

“Sorry to hear that. Maybe you can pick up another pair from the supply room.”

They frog-marched the subdued assailant away.

Jesse sighed and went back to the rope line. But Grant was in Guest Reception now, and the crowd was already beginning to disperse. There was no panic. A few people had seen Jesse tackle the gunman, but no one seemed to have noticed the pistol. From any distance, the encounter would have looked like an unexplained scuffle between a security guard and an unruly guest. Protection and discretion, Jesse thought. They ought to give him a damn medal.

He headed to staff quarters for his afternoon break.

 

Two colossal, nearly identical buildings comprised the City of Futurity. Both buildings could be described as hotels, if you stretched that word to the limits of its definition. Both buildings were designed to house, feed, and entertain large numbers of paying guests. But the two buildings were carefully segregated. The guests who resided in Tower Two had all been born in the world outside the gate: Jesse’s world. The guests who occupied the other building had been born elsewhere, in a place that claimed to be the future. The second kind of guests didn’t enter by the gate, as President Grant had. They came up from underground, through the Mirror.

Jesse worked in Tower Two and slept in a windowless room in one of Tower Two’s sub-basements. He took his meals at the commissary on the same floor. Staff quarters were clean and acceptably private, but never entirely quiet. The sound of the machines that circulated the tower’s air and generated its electrical power seeped up from an even lower level of the tower, a faint ceaseless murmur, like the breath of a sleeping giant.

Jesse took his break at the staff commissary. Employees were issued food chits with which they could buy meals from a choice of vendors in the commissary concourse: booths with gaudy signs proclaiming them as McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Starbucks. Locals had been hired to staff these kiosks, and most of them knew Jesse by name. He used a chit to buy coffee in a paper cup and a glutinous muffin on a paper plate from a woman wearing a hairnet: her name was Dorothy, and her husband had been killed at Second Manassas fourteen years ago. “Looks like you scuffed up your jacket,” Dorothy said.

“You think I ought to change it? I’m off duty in a couple of hours and I figured on taking it to housekeeping after that.”

She reached across the counter and brushed his sleeve. “You’ll pass, if there’s not a formal inspection.”

“I busted my Oakleys today. The sunglasses.”

“Oh, that’s a shame. You want a second muffin, Jesse? Big fellow like you needs to eat.”

“I’m saving my chits.”

“On the house, then. Since you lost your eyeglasses and all.”

He carried his two muffins and steaming coffee to a vacant table. There were twenty minutes left in his official break, but he had taken no more than a single bite when his pager went off. He unhooked the device from his belt and read the message on the tiny display:

jesse cullum to sec office asap

Summoned by his boss. He finished the first of his two muffins in a few hasty bites, wrapped the second in a napkin and put it in his jacket pocket. He had no choice but to abandon the coffee.

He used his pass card to summon an elevator. The City’s elevators were astonishing to new visitors, but Jesse had long since grown accustomed to them. His pass card was a more enduring marvel. It was a kind of key: it opened certain doors, but not others. It let him into all the places where he might be expected to go in the course of his duties, and into none of the places where his presence was forbidden. He could not imagine how this thin sliver of what was called plastic, or the slots into which he inserted it, knew or remembered which doors to allow him through. Everyone on staff carried a similar card, and each card was endowed with powers particular to its owner.

The elevator arrived with its customary pinging and sighing. Jesse stepped inside and pushed the button marked “21.” The twenty-first floor of Tower Two was the administrative level. Jesse had been there before, but only on rare occasions. His boss, Mr. Paul Booking, usually came down to the staff room to issue the day’s assignments. If someone was summoned to twenty-one, it was usually for a promotion, a dismissal, or a special assignment.

The elevator stopped and the door slid open on a wide, immaculate corridor. Jesse’s shoes tapped cadences on the smooth and polished floor as he made for Booking’s office. Secretarial persons gave him incurious glances from open doors as he passed. Some were men, some were women; some were white, many were not. And none of them was local. The City imported all its managers and paper-handlers from the far side of the Mirror.

Booking’s secretary was a woman with features Jesse once would have called Oriental, though he knew the word was considered objectionable by people from the twenty-first century. She looked up from the illuminated screen in front of her and smiled. “Mr. Cullum?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Thanks for being so prompt. You can go on into to Mr. Booking’s office—he’s waiting for you.”

Booking’s office possessed a large window, and even four years in the City had not accustomed Jesse to the view from the twenty-first floor. Even calling it a window seemed to mock it. It was a wall of glass from floor to ceiling, so finely manufactured as to be almost indistinguishable from empty air. There were vertically hung blinds to ward off the sun, but it was late afternoon now and the blinds had been fully retracted. Jesse felt as if he were standing on the scarp of an artificial mountain. A flock of passenger pigeons wheeled over a distant creek, and isolated stands of slippery elms sparkled in the long light like scattered emeralds.

“Your jacket’s a little scuffed,” Booking said.

God damn it, Jesse thought. “Yes, sir, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize.” Booking sat behind his desk giving him a thoughtful look. Booking was bald and appeared to be forty years old or thereabouts, though it was hard to tell with people from the future. He wore a goatee so meticulously trimmed it seemed nervous about its own continued existence. He was generally kind to hired help, and he spoke to the security hands as casually as an old friend, though that was not a two-way street: Jesse knew Booking’s first name only because it was printed on the badge clipped to his lapel. “You had an encounter on the reception grounds today.”

“Encounter is one word for it. It didn’t amount to much, in the end.”

“Don’t be modest, Jesse. I’ve seen the video.”

Like his secretary, Booking kept an illuminated display on his desk. He swiveled it to show Jesse the screen. The pictures it displayed had been captured by a wall-mounted camera, so the view was distant and a little indistinct, but Jesse recognized himself in his uniform and his Oakleys, lumbering along the rope line. What followed was pretty much as he remembered it. He shrugged.

“President Grant is grateful to you,” Booking said.

“He saw what happened?”

“You were quick and careful, but the president has a keen eye.”

Jesse supposed Grant had seen enough gunplay in the war that he was still alert to it. “His gratitude isn’t necessary.”

“And we’ve got the bad guy in custody, which is what matters. Nevertheless, Jesse, the president wants to thank you, and he wants to do it in person.”

“Sir?”

“And because President Grant is a special guest, we want to make that happen for him. So you’ll be escorted to his quarters tonight at seven sharp. Which gives you time for a shower and a fresh set of clothes.”

Jesse glanced back at the screen. The images were repeating in a thirty-second roundelay. He saw himself wrestling with the assailant. At that point, his Oakleys had already come off. “Is it absolutely necessary for me to meet him? Can’t you just tell him I appreciate the thought?”

“It is necessary, and you can tell him yourself. But I want you to keep a couple of things in mind. First, Grant hasn’t had the orientation yet. So he’s going to be full of questions, and he might pose some of them to you. So you need to remember the rule. You know the rule I’m talking about?”

“If a guest questions me about anything I learned in my employment at the City, I should refer him or her to a designated host or hostess.” Almost verbatim, from the handbook every local employee was required to read.

“Good. But in this case you’ll need to find a diplomatic way to do it. We think it would be best if you present yourself to President Grant as a hard-working employee whose duties keep him in Tower Two and who doesn’t know anything substantial about the future. Which is pretty much the truth—am I right?”

The question—Am I right?—was one of Booking’s verbal habits. Jesse found it irritating, in part because it wasn’t rhetorical. It required actual assent. “Yes, sir.”

“In any case, I doubt Grant wants a lengthy conversation. They say he’s a pretty tight-lipped kind of guy.”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“Don’t offend him, don’t volunteer information, and if he asks questions let him know his assigned host or hostess can answer them better than you can.”

“Sir,” Jesse said.

“And if he asks about the assailant, tell him our people are handling all that.”

“All right.”

“Okay, good,” Booking said. “One more thing, Jesse. If you carry this off the way we hope you will, the City will find a way to show its appreciation.”

Jesse sensed an opening. “I broke my Oakleys,” he said, “in that scuffle.”

“Oh? I’m sorry to hear that. Do this right, and we’ll get you a whole crate of Oakleys.”

 

Jesse showered and changed into his reserve uniform and took himself to the commissary for a meal. There was a line-up at every booth, but Jesse was patient. He spent his chits on fried chicken and French-fried potatoes and a cup of coffee.

He sat at a table by himself. He could have joined friends, but he had been told not to say anything about his scheduled meeting with Grant, and under the circumstances it would have been hard to make small talk. In any case, the table where the security and housekeeping folks had gathered wasn’t as attractive a destination as it might have been. Doris Vanderkamp was there, paying obvious attention to a lanky, freckled security man named Mick Finagle. Jesse had lately extracted himself from a romantic entanglement with Doris, and he thought she might be trying to make him jealous by fawning over Mick. Jesse had a low opinion of Mick Finagle. And Doris, for all her posturing and covert glances in Jesse’s direction, clearly wasn’t at her best. She was sniffling as if her perennial head cold had come back, and her forehead was beaded with perspiration despite the machine-cooled air. He felt a little sorry for her, a sentiment that would have enraged her had he dared to express it.

He made quick work of the fried chicken. The commissary’s portions were lamentably small, and he often went back for seconds, but it was getting near the end of the month, and if he spent all his food chits he would have to resort to cash, which he didn’t want to do. What he could afford was a second cup of coffee. He bought one and sipped it slowly, watching the clock above the elevator bank, until a City woman in trousers showed up to escort him to President Grant’s quarters.

It was a well-known fact that women from the future often wore trousers. It had been remarked on in all the papers, especially since tour groups had begun visiting Manhattan and San Francisco. Visitors didn’t mingle with locals even there, but they were visible as they moved through the streets, and the presence of women in trousers was impossible to ignore. A few unctuous churchmen had condemned the practice. Victoria Woodhull, the notorious female-rights campaigner, had expressed her approval. Most commentators took the generous view that customs vary not just from place to place but from age to age, and that these novel forms of dress said more about changing customs than they did about morality or propriety. Jesse agreed, he supposed, though he had met enough City people to convince him that their morals might be almost as fluid as their fashion.

What surprised him about this woman was not her trousers as such but the fact that she was wearing them in Tower Two. Tower Two employees were issued uniforms designed not to shock sensitive guests, including skirts for females. So this was someone from the other tower, dressed according to its rules. The woman’s name, her badge said, was Elizabeth DePaul.

Whatever her assignment—and Jesse guessed it was more than just escorting him to Grant’s quarters—she seemed slightly bored by it. Her face was well formed but plain. Her dark hair was cut to a masculine length. She was nearly as tall as Jesse, thickset but not in any way ungainly. Nor was she demure. Her gaze was frank and unflinching. Her badge said CITY SECURITY.

“Good work on the rope line this afternoon,” she said.

Her accent was flat as well water and Jesse couldn’t gauge her sincerity. “Thank you,” he said.

“Seriously. I saw the video. You had the weapon out of the bad guy’s hand before anyone noticed.”

“Well, not quite. President Grant noticed.”

“There’s that. Are you looking forward to meeting him?”

“I expect we’ll exchange a few words, that’s all.” And then I can go back downstairs, Jesse thought, and have a beer. The commissary allowed the sale of beer to employees between the hours of six and ten. He wasn’t ordinarily a drinker, and the price of City beer had almost made a temperance man of him, but the occasion seemed to justify the expense. He asked Elizabeth DePaul whether she would be joining him for his conversation with Grant.

“Me? No. Though I wouldn’t mind getting a look at him. See what he’s like when he’s not decorating a fifty-dollar bill.”

Jesse failed to understand the reference but let it pass. “Have you talked to the gunman?”

“Not my department.”

“He’s just a lunatic with a grievance,” Jesse said, “I imagine.”

“I wouldn’t care to speculate.”

The elevator opened on the highest of the guest floors, where Grant had been assigned the biggest suite with the grandest view. Four City people waited in the corridor. Jesse recognized his boss, Mr. Booking. The others were unfamiliar to him. Prominent among them was a gray-haired man of maybe fifty years, wearing civilian clothes rather than a City uniform. The others seemed to defer to him. But no one bothered to make introductions. Elizabeth DePaul pointed in the opposite direction: “That way,” she said. There was only one door at the end of the corridor. “Go ahead and knock. He’s expecting you. We’ll be here when you come out.”

 

Grant’s second term as president would be ending in soon, and Jesse wondered whether he might secretly be happy to leave office. It had been a rough seven years—rough years for everyone, especially since the crash of ’73; therefore politically difficult for Grant. The railroad scandals had reached all the way into the White House, and his tenure in office had not achieved all he had hoped or promised. He had promised a reconstructed South—what he got were serial lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan. He had promised peace with the Indians—what he got were Crazy Horse, trouble with the Nez Percé, and the Little Bighorn.

But he was still the hero of Appomattox, the man who saved the Union, and Jesse could not imagine what to say to him or even how to address him. He knocked, and Grant opened the door. The two men stared at each other. Grant seemed speechless. Finally Jesse murmured, “Your Excellency, I was told you wanted to see me?”

“Jesse Cullum.” Grant put out his hand, and Jesse shook it. “Please come in.” Jesse stepped into the room and Grant closed the door behind him. “Sit down. No need for formal address, Mr. Cullum. I’ve noticed strangers often prefer to call me ‘General,’ and it doesn’t displease me.”

“Thank you, General.”

The room was plush. Jesse’s duties had occasionally taken him into Tower Two guest rooms, so he knew how this one compared. The furniture was of the future: finely made but almost aggressively plain. The window was almost as large as the one in Booking’s office. Beyond the flawless glass, dusk had turned the western sky blood-red. Jesse imagined he could see as far as Montana by the fading light. Maybe the State of Oregon, if he stood on his tiptoes.

“Mrs. Grant is out taking supper with one of our hosts. She knows nothing of the events in the courtyard, by the way. And given that no shot was fired, I prefer to keep it that way. You’ll forgive me for not introducing you to her. But I wanted to thank you personally for what you did on my behalf.”

“I took away a man’s gun, that’s all.”

“Your modesty is commendable. In any case, I think Mrs. Grant feels easier away from the window.”

“The view makes some guests dizzy at first, but they usually grow accustomed to it.”

“Yes, and I expect she will, and I will, too, but just now I feel like a swallow nesting on a cliff.”

“May I draw the drapes for you?”

“Please, if you can—it’s not obvious to me how they operate. How long have you worked here, Mr. Cullum?”

Jesse tugged the rod that rotated the vertical blinds. “Going on four years.”

“From the earliest days, then. May I ask how you came to be employed at the City of Futurity?”

“It was an accident, more or less. I was traveling east from San Francisco and I had to leave the train unexpectedly.” Because he had foregone the formality of buying a ticket, but he left that part out. “Futurity Station didn’t even have a name in those days. It was just another coaling depot out in the middle of nowhere. I meant to head toward Chicago on foot, but my directions were bad. The next day I saw a plume of dust from the construction site and showed up looking for food and water. The people here fed me and offered me work.”

“Just like that?”

“The City people weren’t looking for publicity until the major construction was finished. They figured I’d be more use to them as a hired hand than I would be spreading stories about what I’d seen. The road you came by from the station? I was part of the crew that laid it down.”

“And a fine road it is, though it pales by comparison with what lies at the end of it. Of course I’ve read a great deal in the papers about the City of Futurity. The testimony is unimpeachable, but the reality of it is so much more…” Grant groped for a word and gave up: “Real. You must have seen many marvels in your time here.”

Jesse tried to imagine how this room must seem to Grant. The electric lights and the switches that controlled them, the cool air flowing from ceiling vents, the thermostat to adjust the temperature. The explanatory notes printed on paper and affixed to the walls: how to lock and unlock the door, how to summon an elevator, the finer points of indoor plumbing. A button for summoning a City host or hostess, if the instructions proved inadequate. “What seems to impress visitors most,” Jesse said, “is the airship.”

Grant winced. “I’ve seen photographs. And I’ve been invited to ride it. And not just me, but Julia as well, if she can be convinced. Is the thing as safe as they claim?”

“I’ve seen it go up and down hundreds of times without any problem.”

“Though I suppose the greatest marvel is that these things have come among us at all, from a place that is and isn’t the future. Do you understand it, Mr. Cullum, the story of where these people come from?”

“I would never claim to understand it, General. They say there is a whole sheaf of worlds, and that the City people have learned to travel from one to another. They live on one stalk in the sheaf and journey to nearby stalks. But for the traveler, all those stalks look like the past.” Jesse felt himself blushing at his own incoherence. No, he did not understand it. “I imagine they’ll explain it to you better in the orientation session.”

“We are their past, but they do not necessarily represent our future. That’s what the brochure says.”

“I guess the brochure’s right.”

“I value your opinion precisely because it’s not printed in a brochure. All these mechanical marvels are impressive, but I wonder about the nature of the people themselves. You must know many of them.”

“They prefer to keep us separate. But some mixing does go on.”

“As employers, have they treated you well?”

“Yes sir. They cured me.” He spoke without thinking, then realized with dismay that Grant was waiting for him to continue. “When they hired me on, you see, the first thing they did was send me to the City clinic—sort of a miniature hospital with a half dozen doctors on duty. At the time I was suffering from … well, it’s not easy to discuss. Being a military man, I guess you’ve had experience of camp sicknesses among your troops.”

What Jesse could not bring himself to say was that he had arrived at the clinic barely able to pass urine without shrieking like a cat with its tail on fire. Grant cleared his throat and said, “I take your meaning.”

“Sir, they cured that. And not with a syringe full of nitrate of silver. They gave me pills. They said I had other conditions that weren’t so obvious, and they cured those, too. They gave me injections to the arm that made me impervious to rubeola and smallpox and other diseases whose names I can’t recall. So, yes, I can testify that they treated me well. For all I know they may have saved my life.”

Jesse wondered if he had said too much. For a few moments Grant seemed plunged in thought. “That is a marvel,” he said at last. “I hope they can be convinced to share the secret of these cures.”

“They plan to do so. I’ve heard it discussed.”

“Perhaps they should have shared it when they first arrived. Many lives might have been saved already.”

“Yes, sir, but who would have believed them? Who believed the City was anything more than a trumped-up Barnum show, those first few months? Now that the skeptics are routed, it begins to become possible. You know 1877 is the last year of the City, before they close the Mirror and go home. They say, in the last year, they’ll be even more frank and forthcoming.”

“Now that they’ve prepared the ground.”

“Yes, sir.”

Grant tugged at the sleeve of his woolen suit. Even now, with all the weight he’d gained since Appomattox, he looked as if he’d be more comfortable in a Union uniform. Or maybe his restlessness meant Jesse had overstayed his welcome. But he couldn’t politely leave until he was dismissed.

Grant said, “And have they made moral progress, too? Are they better than us, or just cleverer?”

It was a dangerous question. “Hard to say, General. The ones I’ve met, they seem … I don’t know how to describe it. There’s a kind of bonelessness about them. The women in particular seem insolent, almost louche—I’ve heard them swear like infantrymen. But they’re capable of great tenderness and intelligence. The men aren’t dishonorable, but they don’t seem to think much of honor in general, as an abstraction I mean. When I first came here many of them struck me as effeminate or unserious.”

“They struck you that way at first, but not any longer?”

“Well, they have a saying: The past is a different country; they do things differently there. Which I figure cuts both ways. You don’t expect an Irishman to comport himself like a Chinaman, so why should we expect City people to behave just as we do?”

“In matters of custom, surely, but in matters of moral duty…”

“I’m not sure I’m qualified to render judgment in that department. They don’t seem especially better or worse than the rest of us.”

“Not more generous?”

“They’ve been generous to me, certainly. But visitors don’t get into the City for free, do they? The price is paid in gold and silver, and all that gold and silver goes straight to the so-called future, where it lines somebody’s pocket. How they came here is difficult to understand; what they want of us is not.”

“Well.” Grant stood up. “Once again I thank you, Mr. Cullum. Not just for your conduct this afternoon but for your forthright conversation.”

“You have a keen eye, sir, to have spotted the pistol.”

“I saw it briefly and from a distance—more the reach than the gun itself, though I had the impression it was unusual.”

“I only handled it a moment myself. But yes, it was one of theirs.”

“Not a Colt?”

“No, sir—whatever it was, it was not a Colt.”

“That surprises me. Because your employers told me it was a Colt.”

Jesse very carefully said nothing.

“I suppose they were mistaken,” Grant said.

“I suppose they were.”

Jesse shook the president’s hand again and made his exit.

 

The next morning Jesse was scheduled to ride the perimeter fence. Fence-riding was lonely duty but he enjoyed it, at least when the weather was decent.

The City of Futurity possessed many walls and fences, many boundaries. The most significant and least visible of these boundaries was the Mirror itself, deep underground: a wall (and at times a doorway) between present and future. Then there were the walls that separated Tower One from Tower Two. And surrounding these, the massive concrete wall that enclosed the City itself.

But the City was situated in a much vaster track of land, purchased by proxy and demarked by a fence of steel wire mesh. The fence served multiple purposes. It prevented curiosity-seekers from mobbing the City walls. It kept hucksters and frauds from setting up booths or buildings within sight of guests. It allowed the City to make the land available to visitors from the future as a specimen of “the untrammeled tallgrass prairie”—apparently all such landscapes would be “trammeled” in the years to come. And it enclosed a herd of American buffalo for the same reason: The buffalo were due for a trammeling, too.

The attractions of the City were so great, and the price of admission so high, that it was not surprising that unscrupulous people occasionally attempted to climb or cut the fence. Which meant it had to be regularly inspected and repaired; which meant Jesse was up before dawn, signing out a mechanical cart from the horseless-vehicle barn. By the time the sun breached the horizon he was mounted on a three-wheeled self-propelled vehicle and passing through one of the gates in the City wall and out into the grassland.

The chill of the morning was a reminder that autumn was approaching, but the lingering wisps of ground fog vanished at the first touch of sunlight. The sky was as blue as a robin’s egg, and when he reached the fence the air had grown warm, and grasshoppers flew from the wheels of the cart in brown flurries. From there Jesse followed a pressed-earth trail that followed the fence, humming a tune to himself, stopping occasionally to inspect a dubious weld or a suspicious gopher hole. He was orbiting the City at a radius of roughly a mile, and by noon he had not detected any irregularities worth reporting. He stopped the cart, stood to stretch his legs, pulled off his jacket and hung it on the handlebar of the three-wheeled vehicle. He took a bagged lunch from the carry-box at the back of the cart (a sandwich from the commissary, coffee in a thermos bottle) and ate sitting sidesaddle on the padded seat. It felt good to be out of the labyrinth of the City for a day, away from its tuneless hums and whispers. Out here, only the bugs were humming. His own breath sounded loud in his ears.

He unscrewed the lid of the thermos bottle. The lid did double-duty as a cup. It was made of plastic, the City people’s material of choice for trivial things. The lid was small in Jesse’s large hands, as if he were drinking from a thimble. But the coffee was pleasant and hot.

At this distance the City dominated the horizon. Its towers sparkled like twin escarpments of mica-flecked granite, the wall a varicolored reef at the foot of them. He watched an omnibus full of tourists exit the City on a paved road, headed for the eastern pastures where the buffalo were corralled and Wild West shows were sometimes staged. The paved road paralleled Jesse’s trail at a distance of a few hundred yards, and as the bus passed he saw the passengers peering out. Wealthy people from the future. Men and women with complexions of all hues, sitting companionably with each other as the amplified voice of the driver droned out facts about the prairie. If the tourists noticed Jesse they would have registered only his uniform. Just another City employee, to be ignored—although had they known a little more about him, they might have considered him an artifact almost as interesting as the buffalo. Step up, all you ladies in short pants, you beardless men. Bring your squabbling, spoiled children, too. See the Man from the Past. See the untrammeled syphilitic drifter of the Golden West.

The bus rolled on and out of sight. Jesse savored the silence once more, until the pager on his belt chimed, a sound that never failed to startle him.

The message on the screen was another summons to Mr. Booking’s office.

Jesse sighed and called his shift supervisor to report his position so another man could come out and finish riding the fence. Then he poured out his coffee on the untrammeled prairie, brushed a ladybug off the seat of the motor cart, and drove back to the City.

 

Booking’s office hadn’t changed, except that the woman who had escorted Jesse to Grant’s room last night, Elizabeth DePaul, occupied one of the spare chairs. She gave Jesse a long, indecipherable stare.

“Have a seat,” Booking said. “President Grant spoke to us about his meeting with you last night.”

Jesse searched his memory for any gaffe or revelation might have provoked this summons or even cost him his job. He could think of a few likely candidates.

“The president was pleased,” Booking said. “He called you amiable and intelligent. He said he was glad to have had an opportunity to thank you for what you had done for him.”

“That was good of him.”

“Well, we happen to agree. You have a fine record, Jesse. This incident has made us wonder whether you aren’t being underutilized in Tower Two. We think it’s time for you to take a step up.”

“Kind of you to say so. What sort of step up?”

“Specifically, we’re going to need experienced security personnel for next year’s tours. Hard work but major rewards. Are you interested?”

Tour security was a coveted job. It might nearly double his income. He nodded.

“There’s a learning curve, of course, but we’ll have you up to speed by the new year. In the meantime I have a temporary duty assignment for you.”

“Sir?”

Booking reached into a desk drawer, took out a small wedge of plastic, and handed it to Jesse.

Jesse stared at it. It was a pass card, visually identical to the one he already possessed.

“We’ll need your old card back. You’ll find this one opens a lot more doors. Tower Two and Tower One—the job involves some crossover. Ms. DePaul can explain it to you.”

“Can she?”

“She’ll be your supervisor from now on.”

Everything comes at a price, Jesse thought.

“Oh, and I put in a call to the supply room. You can pick up a new pair of Oakleys next time you stop by.”

Copyright © 2016 by Robert Charles Wilson

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