April 2011


“Buck’s a shadow pinscher.”

“A what?”

“A dog that’s specially bred to detect evidence of spirits–ectoplasmic residue, cold or warm spots, that sort of thing.”

“That might just be the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Oh, come on. With all the stuff on the internet these days, is spiritualism such a stretch, even if you’re a skeptic?”

“Not that. That name, Buck.”

“Buck is a fine name for a shadow pinscher!”

“So, this kind of dog–which I’ve never heard of before and which for all I know you just made up in some recess of your addled brain–was bred to sniff out ghosts and you didn’t name him ‘Scooby-Doo’? What the hell is wrong with you?”

“First, Scooby-Doo was a Great Dane. Second, there were never any real ghosts on that show. If I had a dog bred to sniff out latex masks so we could see that Old Man Withers was really the Screeching Phantom of Midley Moors, then we could talk.”

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Van Djik spat on the ground. “Why should we help you?” he said. “So you can be free to ransom or execute us if our shipping line won’t pay? Bloody fucking pirates.”

Kediye, the chief of the Somalis, hefted his lavishly decorated AK. “This is not enough reason for you?” he said.

“No, it’s not,” said Van Djik. The other captured sailors murmured their assent. “We’re dead anyway if we’re not ransomed.”

Alatas, the Javan pirate, held out a hand and lowered Kediye’s rifle. “Listen to me, Netherland. Seven of our men are missing and the boat is taking on water. The engine is frozen. Without repairs, we will all drown or be taken by whatever dwells in the mists. Some of you may die later, but all of you will die now unless we work together.”

Hillthorpe was seated on the edge of the knoll, and the eroded remains of a stone fence. Janet approached him from behind.

“Watching the demolition crews at work?” she said. “We used to do that in the city sometimes. Made us feel better.”

“Really?” Hillthorpe said, without moving his eyes from what was left of the house below. “Why’s that?”

“No matter how bad things got at home, at least they weren’t tearing it down,” said Janet.

“Fair enough. Have a seat?”

Janet took a perch beside him and watched the crews at work. The mansion had been reduced to a disembodied facade and two chimneys, like a bombed-out ruin, and even those remnants were soon to vanish. “I take it this one doesn’t make you feel better.”

“You’d be right,” Hillthorpe sighed. “It’s a piece of history. Built by robber barons, inspired Hemingway, inspired Fitzgerald, hosted everyone from Einstein to Roosevelt. A piece of history, for better or worse. and they’re murdering it so the land can be parceled up for $20 million McMansions.”

Nuñez never met a wild conspiracy theory he didn’t like, but unlike most of the paranoid wackos he networked with in the musty corners of the internet, he didn’t take the whole thing too seriously. It was as much a joke as a way of life, kind of like devout Catholics with a store of priest/minister/rabbi jokes.

“I don’t buy it,” I said. “Sure, the surveyors among our founding fathers were as human as the next guys, but they were not sex perverts that redrew the map of our country to suit their own twisted mores.”

“Sure they weren’t,” Nuñez responded. “Ever look at a map? Really look at a map? The states look like things!”

“Only a few look like things. Most of them just look like blobs or squares.”

“But the ones that do look like something…think about them!” he cried. “Michigan, Florida, Louisiana…tell me that’s not intentional and perverted!”

“It’s not.”

“Oh, right,” Nuñez said, his voice dripping with what may or may not have been sarcasm. “Three states look like a hand, a dick, and a sock, and you’re saying there wasn’t a pervert behind it all. Now who’s being naive?”

Bernard’s infection was getting worse, and had become a gangrenous abscess. “I thought I’d gotten off lucky,” he kept saying; almost his entire battalion had been annihilated when the Vietminh took redoubt Eliane 2, and he had escaped to join Dubois in redoubt Isabelle with only a deep scratch from barbed wire.

“We all got off lucky,” was Dubois’ constant response. After watching the Vietminh overrun the last French positions around the Dien Pien Phu airstrip through their field glasses, the nearly 2,000 troops at redoubt Isabelle had attempted to break out to the west. The Viets had blocked the route east to Hanoi, and the river route from Vientiene in Laos was the only other safe haven for a thousand kilometers. The 2,000 men, their ranks swelled by stragglers from the overwhelmed redoubts to the north, were chewed to pieces as they left their fortifications.

By DuBois’ estimate, less than a hundred had made it through the enemy lines, a number whittled down over the intervening week by desertion or disease. And now, with roving patrols of Viets still hunting for them, the survivors had come to a place even stranger than the one they had fled: a vast plain strewn with enormous, empty jars.

Whitacre had read the file on Dr. Sekou Ankrah, prepared for him by the State Department with an unusual level of candor. It seemed that Dr. Ankrah was Western-educated, with medical degrees from Columbia University and King’s College. Not unusual; many young Africans of his generation had gone to school abroad.

More unusual was the route Ankrah had taken: he had walked nearly 500 miles from his home village to a seaport, and worked as first a stevedore and then a machinist’s mate on a tramp steamer. He’d only managed admission and tuition at King’s thanks to a patron acquired (if the dossier were to be believed) at a shoeshine station.

In fact, it seemed to Whitacre that Ankrah would have been happier practicing medicine rather than ruling a country. His New York practice had been thriving up until the point he returned to his native Azania to assume a position in the pro-independence lobby that eventually led to his installment as Prime Minister and then Minister for Life.

The suddenness of the move might have had something to do with Ankrah’s son–a topic that the file made very clear never to broach. Apparently a liaison with a nurse, and daughter of a major benefactor, was as much a scandal in 1938 as 2011.

Quite a journey from that Azanian village to dictatorial power, and thence to a second-rate nursing home in South Africa.

Through the blackness, nothing was visible save the lights of Lanth’s dreadnought and the pinpoint of piercing white in the distance. The dreadnought’s crew hadn’t seen the pursuing glow of the Kite, but it was only a matter of time until their lookouts took note.

On the Kite‘s bridge, Othe stood with his hands on the wheel, surrounded by what was left of his crew: twelve men, five women, and two that could only be called children. Barely enough to steer and man the guns on one side.

Yet they were all that stood between Lanth and the nascant universe waiting to be born ahead.

“You want to say anything, skipper?” asked Visani, the navigator.

Othe looked at his assembled rabble, short so many of the faces that should have been among them. “We only get one chance at this,” he said. “This might be the last story anyone can ever tell. Let’s make sure it’s a good one.”

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