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William Sanders

William Sanders makes his home in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, but his formative years were spent in the hill country of western Arkansas. He appeared on the SF scene in the early '80s with a couple of alternate-history comedies, Journey to Fusang (a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award) and The Wild Blue and the Gray. Sanders then turned to mystery and suspense, before returning to SF, this time via the short story form; his stories have appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and numerous anthologies, earning himself a well-deserved reputation as one of the best short-fiction writers of the last decade, and winning him two Sidewise Awards for Best Alternate History story. He has also returned to novel writing, with books such as The Ballad of Billy Badass and the Rose of Turkestan and The Bernadette Operations, a new SF novel J., and a mystery novel, Smoke. Some of his acclaimed short stories have been collected in Are We Having Fun Yet?American Indian Fantasy Stories. His most recent book is a historical study, Conquest: Hernando de Soto and the Indians: 1539-1543. Coming up is a new collection, Is It Now Yet? (Most of his books, including reissues of his earlier novels, are available from Wildside Press or on

In the sharp little story that follows, he escorts us around the town of Sitka, which proves to be a very cold place, even in the summertime … especially when world-altering change is in the air—at any cost.

LATE IN THE afternoon, a little before sundown, the fog moved in off the ocean and settled in over the islands and peninsulas of the coast. It wasn't much of a fog, by the standards of Russian America in late summer; just enough to mask the surface of the sea and soften the rough outlines of the land.

On the waterfront in the town of New Arkhangelsk, on the western side of the big island that the Russians called Baranof and the natives called Sitka, two men stood looking out over the harbor. "Perfect," one of them said. "If it'll stay like this."

The other man looked at him. "Perfect, Jack? How so?"

The first man flung out a hand. "Hell, just look. See how it's hanging low over the water?"

The other man turned back toward the harbor, following his gesture. He stood silently for a moment, seeing how the fog curled around the hulls of the anchored ships while leaving their upper works exposed. The nearest, a big deepwater steamer, was all but invisible down near the waterline, yet her masts and funnels showed clear and black against the hills beyond the harbor, and the flag of the Confederate States of America was clearly recognizable at her stern.

"Perfect," the man called Jack said again. "Just enough to hide a small boat, but not enough to hide a ship. Less chance of a mistake."

He was a powerfully built young man with curly blond hair and a tanned, handsome face. His teeth flashed white in the fading light. "After all," he said, "we don't want to get the wrong one, do we, Vladimir?"

The man called Vladimir, whose last name was Ulyanov and who sometimes called himself Lenin, closed his eyes and shuddered slightly. "No, that would be very bad." His English was excellent but strongly accented. "Don't even joke about it."

"Don't worry," the younger man said. "We'll get her for you."

"Not for me. You know better than that."

"Yeah, all right. For the cause." Jack slapped him lightly on the upper arm, making him wince. "Hey, I'm a good socialist too. You know that."

"So you have assured me," Lenin said dryly. "Otherwise I might suspect—"

He stopped suddenly as a pair of long-bearded Orthodox monks walked past. Jack said, "What," and then, "Oh, hell. Vladimir, don't you ever relax? I bet they don't even speak English."

Lenin looked after the two black-robed figures and shook his head. "Two years away from the twentieth century," he murmured, "and still the largest country in the world is ruled by medieval superstition …. .

He turned to the younger man. "We shouldn't be standing here like this. It looks suspicious. And believe me," he said as Jack started to speak, "to the people we are dealing with, everything looks suspicious. Trust me on this."

He jerked his head in the direction of a nearby saloon. "Come," he said. "Let us have a drink, Comrade London."

AS THE TWO men started down the board sidewalk, a trio of dark-faced women suddenly appeared from the shadows and fell in alongside, smiling and laughing. One of them grabbed Jack's arm and said something in a language that was neither English nor Russian. "For God's sake," Jack said, and started to pull free. "Just what we need, a bunch of Siwash whores."

"Wait." Lenin held up a hand. "Let them join us for now. With them along, no one will wonder what we are doing here."

"Huh. Yeah, all right. Good idea." Jack looked at the three women. They weren't bad-looking in a shabby sort of way. The one holding his arm had red ribbons in her long black hair. He laughed. "Too bad I'm going to be kind of busy this evening. Give them a bath, they might be good for some fun."

Lenin's nose twitched slightly. "You're not serious."

"Hell, no. I may be down on my luck but I'm still a white man"

Lenin winced. "Jack, I've got to talk to you some time about your—"

The saloon door swung open and a couple of drunken Cossacks staggered out, leaning on the unpainted timber wall for support. When they were past, Lenin led the way through the narrow doorway and into a long, low-ceilinged, poorly lit room full of rough wooden tables and benches where men, and a few women, sat drinking and talking and playing cards. An old man rested on a tall stool near the door, playing a slow minor-key tune on an accordion. The air was dense with smoke from cheap mahorka tobacco.

"There," Lenin said. "In the back, by the wall, where we can watch the door."

He strode up to the bar, pushing past a group of sailors in the white summer uniform of the Imperial German navy, and came back a moment later carrying a bottle and a couple of glasses. "One minute," he said, setting the glasses down and pouring, while Jack dragged up a bench and sat down. "I've got an idea"

Stepping over to the next table, Lenin beckoned to the three women. They looked blank. "Come," he said, in Russian and then in English, and at last they giggled in unison and moved over to join him. "Here." He set the bottle in the center of the table, making exaggerated sit-down motions with his free hand. "Sadityes'. You sit here," he said, speaking very slowly. He touched the bottle. "You can have this. Ponimaitye?"

As they seated themselves, with another flurry of giggles, Lenin came back and sat down across from Jack. "There," he said. "That's the only table in the place close enough for anyone to overhear us. Better to have it occupied by harmless idiots."

Jack snorted. "For God's sake, Vladimir!"

"Laugh if you like," Lenin said. "I don't take risks. Already I have been arrested—"

"Me too:'

"Pardon me." Lenin's voice was very flat. "You have been arrested by stupid American policemen, who beat you and threw you in a cell for a few days and then made you leave town and forgot about you. You have been detained briefly, at a military outpost, for prospecting for gold without a permit. You have no idea what a Cheka interrogation is like. Or," he said, "what it is like to live under the eyes of a vigilant and well-organized secret police force and their network of informers."

He lifted his glass. "What is that American idiom? "The walls have ears,' yes? In the Russian Empire they have both ears and eyes—and feet, to run and tell the men with the big boots what you say and do. Until you have been stepped on by those boots, you have no business to laugh at the caution of those who have."

AT THE NEXT table the woman with the red ribbons in her hair said, "I'm looking at him and I still don't believe it."

She said it in a language that was not spoken anywhere in that world.

The woman beside her pushed back her own hair, which was done up in thick braids that hung down to the swell of her bosom under her trade-blanket coat. She said in the same language, "Well, he was one of the great figures of history, for better or worse."

"Not Lenin," the woman with the red ribbons said impatiently. "Jack London. He's gorgeous. The pictures didn't even come close:'

Across the table, the third woman was doing something with one of the seashell ornaments that dangled from her ears. She looked over at the men's table for a moment and then smiled and nodded without speaking.

"Hand me that bottle," the one with the red ribbons said. "I think I'm in love."

* * *

"OF COURSE," LENIN said, "for me things did perhaps work out for the best. Siberia wasn't pleasant, but it gave me time to think, to organize my ideas. And then the authorities decided to send some of the Siberian exiles even farther away, to this remote American outpost of the empire, and in time this presented … possibilities."

Jack gave a meaningless grunt and reached for his own glass, staring off across the room. The German sailors were clustered around the accordion player, who was trying to accompany them on "Du, Du Liegst Mir Am Herzen." Some of the Russians were giving them dirty looks but they didn't seem to notice.

"That's right," Jack muttered. "Sing, have yourselves a good time. Get drunk, find some whores, get skinned in a rigged card game. Just for God's sake don't go back to the ship tonight."

THE WOMAN WITH the red ribbons said, "He looks a lot younger. Than Lenin, I mean."

"Only six years' difference in their ages," the woman with the braids said. "But you're right. Or rather, Lenin looks older—"

"Sh." The other woman raised a finger, still fiddling with her seashell ear pendants. "Quiet. I've almost—there. There." She dropped her hands to her lap and sat back. "Locked on and recording."

"All right," the woman with the red ribbons said. She reached up and pushed back her hair with a casual-looking motion, her hand barely brushing the area of her own ear. A moment later the woman beside her did something similar.

"Oh," the one with the red ribbons said. "Yes. Nice and clear. All this background noise, too, I'm impressed"

The one with the braids said, "Speaking of background noise, we need to generate some. We're being too quiet. We're supposed to be cheap whores drinking free vodka. Time to laugh it up again."

* * *

LENIN GLANCED OVER at the next table as the three women broke into another fit of noisy giggles. "They seem to be making inroads on that bottle;' Lenin said. "If you want any more, you'd better go get it before they finish it off."

"They're welcome to it," Jack said. He looked at his own glass and grimaced. "Damn vodka tastes like something you'd rub on a horse. How the hell do you people stand it?"


"Yeah, well, better you than me. What I'd give for a taste of good old honest John Barleycorn?'

"It's available," Lenin said. "Though probably not in a place like this. It's just very expensive, like everything else not made in Russia, thanks to the exorbitant import duties. Another blessing from our beloved official bureaucracy."

"Tell me about it," Jack said. "Came up here figuring to dig some gold, make a little something for myself instead of always being broke on my ass. Found out foreigners have to have a special permit to prospect or even to travel in the interior, no way to get it without paying off a bunch of crooks behind government desks. So I said the hell with it."

"And you were caught"

"Yep. Damn near went to jail, too, but by then I'd hit just enough pay dirt to be able to grease a certain Cossack officer. And here I am, broke on my ass again and a long way from home. I'm telling you, Vladimir," he said, "if you wanted somebody to blow up that bunch of greedy sons of bitches who run things here, I'd be your man and I wouldn't charge a nickel to do it."

He rubbed his face and sighed. "Instead I'm about to go blow the bottom out of a German battleship and kill a bunch of people who never did me any harm, all for the sake of the great workers' revolution. How about that?"

THE THREE WOMEN exchanged looks. The one with the red ribbons said. "No." She squeezed her eyes shut. "No."

"So it's true." The woman with the seashell ear pendants shook her head. "Incredible."

"Watch it;" the one with the braids said, breaking into a broad sloppy smile. "Lenin's already nervous—see, he's looking around again. Act drunk, damn it"

"That's easy," the woman with the red ribbons said, reaching for the vodka bottle. "After hearing that, I need a drink."

"IN FACT," LENIN said, "you are doing it for the price of a ticket back to your own country. Not that I question your socialist convictions, but right now you would blow up your own mother—"

Jack's hand shot across the table and clamped down on Lenin's forearm. "Don't you ever speak to me about my mother," he said thickly. "You got that?"

Lenin sat very still. His face had gone pale and there were pain lines at the corners of his mouth. "Yes," he said in a carefully even voice. "Yes, I apologize."

"Okay, then." Jack let go and gulped at his drink. "Just watch it."

Lenin rubbed his forearm. After a moment he said, "Go easy on that vodka. You're going to need a clear head and steady hands tonight."

Jack gave a short, harsh laugh. "Save your breath. Even I'm not fool enough to tie one on when I'm going to be handling dynamite in the dark. Make a mistake with that much giant, it'd be raining Jack London for a week. Mixed up with a couple of Aleut paddlers, too, they'd never get the pieces sorted out."

He sipped his drink again, more cautiously. "Not that it's all that tricky a job," he added. "Nothing to it, really. Come alongside the Brandenburg, just forward of her aft turret, so we're next to the powder magazine. Arm the mine, start the timer—neat piece of work there, your pal Iosif knows what he's doing—and ease the whole thing up against the hull till the magnets take hold, being careful not to let it clang. Take the forked stick and slide the mine down under the waterline, below the armor belt, and then tell the boys to high-tail it. Hell, anybody could do it."

He grinned crookedly. "When you get right down to it, you only need me to make sure we get the right ship. Those Aleuts are the best paddlers in the world, but they wouldn't know the Brandenburg from the City of New Orleans."

THE WOMAN WITH the braids said, "You know, I never believed it. I got into some pretty hot arguments, in fact. "Ridiculous' was one of the milder words I used"

The one with the seashell ear pendants said, "Well, you were hardly alone. All the authorities agree that Jack London's involvement in the Brandenburg affair is merely a romantic legend, circulated by a few revisionist crackpots. I don't know any responsible scholar who takes it seriously."

She chuckled softly. "And oh, is the shit going to fly in certain circles when we get back! I can hardly wait."

"NOT QUITE TRUE," Lenin said. "I also need you to make sure that our aboriginal hirelings don't change their minds and run away home with their advance money. If they haven't already done so."

"Oh, they wouldn't do that. See," Jack said, "they think it's a Russian ship we're after."

Lenin's eyebrows went up. "You told them that?"

"Hell, I had to tell them something. So they'll be there. The way they hate Russians, they wouldn't pass up a chance like this. Christ," Jack said, "I know we did some rotten things to the Indians in the States, but compared to what your people did to those poor devils …"

"Oh, yes. The exploitation of native peoples, here and in Asia, has been one of the worst crimes of the Tsarist state."

"Yeah, well," Jack said, "all I'm saying, the boys will do their job and I'll do mine. Quit worrying about it."

"HEY," THE WOMAN with the braids said. "Go easy on that stuff. You're going to make yourself sick."

"I'm already sick," the woman with the red ribbons said. "Just thinking about it, sitting here listening to them talk about it, seeing it about to happen, I'm as sick as I've ever been my life. Aren't you?"

* * *

"NOW WHAT HAPPENS after that:' Jack said, "whether things turn out the way you want, I can't guarantee. I'll sink the ship for you, but if it doesn't get you your war, don't come to me wanting a refund."

Lenin's lips twitched in what was very nearly a smile. "That:' he said, "is perhaps the surest part of the entire business. Believe me, nothing is more predictable than the reaction of the Kaiser to the sinking of one of his precious warships in a Russian port."

"Really? I don't know as much as I should about things like that:' Jack admitted. "Foreign rulers and all, I need to read up … but I can see how it would make him pretty mad. Mad enough to go to war, though?"

"Wilhelm will be furious," Lenin said. "But also secretly delighted. At last he will have a pretext for the war he has wanted for so long."

Jack frowned. "He's crazy?"

"Not mad, no. Merely a weakling—a cripple and, according to rumor, a homosexual—determined to prove his manhood by playing the great warrior."

"Ah." Jack nodded slowly. "A punk trying to pick a fight to show he's not a punk. Yeah, I know the kind. Saw a good many of them when I was riding the rails."

"Even so. Wilhelm has been looking for a fight ever since ascending the throne. Since no one has so far obliged him, he contents himself with playing the bully."

Lenin nodded in the direction of the German sailors, who were now roaring out "Ach, Du Lieber Augustin" in somewhat approximate harmony. "As for example this little 'goodwill cruise:' he said. "This series of visits to various ports by a Hochseeflotte battleship. Nothing but a crude show of force to impress the world."

"Showing everybody who's the boss?"

"Exactly. And therefore its destruction will be taken as a response to a challenge."

"Hm. Okay, you know more about it than I do" Jack shrugged. "Still seems pretty strange, though, starting a war hoping your own country will get whipped."

"I don't like it," Lenin said. "I am Russian, after all, and this isn't easy for me. But there is no better breeding ground for revolution than a major military defeat. Look at France."

"The Communards lost, didn't they?"

"True. They made mistakes, from which we have learned."

"IF HE SAYS anything about omelettes and eggs," the woman with the red ribbons said through her teeth, "I'm going to go over there and beat his brains out with this bottle. Screw the mission and screw non-interference and screw temporal paradox. I don't care. I'll kill him."

JACK SAID, "You know, the joke's really going to be on you if Russia wins."

"Not much chance of that. Russia's armed forces are a joke, fit only to keep the Tatars in line and occasionally massacre a village of Jews. The officers are mostly incompetent buffoons, owing their rank to family connections rather than ability. The troops are badly trained, and their equipment is decades out of date. The German military on the other hand, are very nearly as good as they think they are."

"Russia's a big country, though."

"Yes. A big country with too much territory to protect. A German offensive in the west, a Japanese attack in the east—it will be too much. You'll see."

"You're awfully sure the Japs are going to come into it."

"Comrade London," Lenin said softly, "where do you think our funds come from? Who do you think is paying for this business tonight?"

THE THREE WOMEN stared at one another. "Now that," the one with the braids said after a moment, "is going to knock everyone on their butts."

"THE JAPS ARE bankrolling us?" Jack said incredulously. "For God's sake, why?"

"They have territorial ambitions in Asia. Russia has become an obstacle. A war in Europe would create opportunities."

"Damn." Jack looked unhappy. "I don't know if I like that part. Working for Orientals against white—all right, all right," he said quickly, seeing Lenin's expression. "I didn't say I wouldn't do it. All I want is to get back home. I don't really care if I have to go to work for the Devil."

He looked at Lenin over the rim of his glass. "If I haven't already …."

"OH, DEAR," THE woman with the braids said. "He does have some unfortunate racial attitudes, doesn't he?"

"So did Ernest Hemingway," the one with the red ribbons said without looking up from the bottle. "And I thought we were going to have to peel you off him with a steam hose."

"THE INTERESTING QUESTION," Lenin said, "is whether the other European countries will become involved. The French may well decide that this is an opportunity to settle old scores with Germany. The others, who knows? This could turn into a general conflict, like nothing since Napoleon."

"What the hell. As long as the United States doesn't get involved," Jack said. "And that's not going to happen. We've just barely got an army, and they're still busy with the Indians. The Confederates, now, they just might be crazy enough to get in on it."

"If the war spreads, so much the better:' Lenin said. "Because if it spreads, so will the revolution."

He took out a heavy, silver pocket watch and snapped it open. "And now I think we should be going. It is still several hours, but we both have things we must do."

He started to push himself back from the table. Jack said, "Wait. Just one more thing."

Lenin sank back onto the bench. Jack said, "See, I've been thinking. Suppose somebody were to hire somebody to do something against the law. And maybe the man doing the hiring was the cautious type, and wanted to make sure the other bastard didn't get talkative afterward. Maybe the law might catch him and beat the story out of him, maybe he might just get drunk and shoot his mouth off. I mean, you never know, do you?"

Jack's voice was casual, his expression bland; he might have been asking about a good place to eat.

"But when the job involves a bomb," he said, "then there's one sure way to make sure the man never talks, isn't there? With the little added bonus that you don't have to pay him. Not," he added quickly, "that I'm suggesting anything. I don't really think you'd do something like that. Not to a good old revolutionary comrade."

He leaned forward, staring into Lenin's eyes. "But just in case I'm wrong, you might be interested to know that a few things have been written down and left in safe hands, and if I don't make it back tonight there are some people who will be reading them with deep interest by this time tomorrow."

Lenin sat unmoving, returning the younger man's stare, for perhaps five seconds. Then he laughed out loud. "Nu, molodyets!" He slapped the table with his palm. "Congratulations, Comrade London. At last you are learning to think like a Russian."

"LOOKS LIKE THEY'RE leaving," the woman with the braids said. "Do we follow them, or—"

The woman with the red ribbons said, "I can't stand this."

Suddenly she was on her feet, moving very fast, brushing past Lenin and grabbing Jack by the arms, pushing him back against the wall. "Listen," she said, speaking quickly but with great care, "listen, you mustn't do this. You're about to start the most terrible war in your world's history. Millions of people will die and nothing will come of it but suffering and destruction. Listen," she said again, her voice rising. "You have a great talent—"

Jack stood looking down at her, open-mouthed, as her voice grew higher and louder. "Damn!" he said finally. "Vladimir, did you ever hear the like? Sorry, honey." He reached up and pulled her hands away, not roughly. "Me no speak Tlingit, or whatever the hell that is."

He grinned and slapped her bottom. "Run along, now. Big white brothers got heap business."

And to Lenin, "Give her a few kopecks, would you, or she'll follow me like a hound pup. And then let's get out of here."

THE WOMAN WITH the red ribbons said, "But I heard myself speaking English!"

They were climbing slowly up a hillside above the town of New Arkhangelsk. It was dark now, but the stars gave a good deal of light and the fog didn't reach this high.

The woman with the shell ear pendants, walking in the lead, said without looking around, "That's how it works. Don't ask me why. Some quirk of the conditioning program."

"It was covered in training," the third woman said. "Don't tell me you forgot something that basic. But then as much vodka as you put away, it's a wonder you can remember where you left your own ass … you didn't take the anti-intoxicants, did you?"

"They make my skin itch."

"Gods" The woman with the braids raised her hands in a helpless flapping motion. "You're a menace, you know? One of these days we're going to stop covering for you"

"No, we won't," the woman in the lead said. "We'll cover for her this time—going to be a job doctoring the recording, but I can do it—and we'll keep on covering for her. For the same reason she's helped cover for us, when we lost it or just blew it. The same reason everyone covers for their partners. Because when you're out on the timelines there's no one else you can depend on and when you're back home there's no one else who really knows what it was like."

She stopped. "Hold on. It's getting a little tricky."

She took out a pair of oddly shaped goggles and slipped them on. "All right," she said. "Stay close behind me. It shouldn't be much farther."

THE ALEUTS WERE waiting in the shadow of a clump of cedars as Jack came walking down the beach "Zdras'tye," one of them said, stepping out and raising a hand. "We ready. Go now?"

"Da. Go now." Jack's gold-field Russian was even worse than their pidgin. "Uh, gdye baidarka?"

"Von tam." The man gestured and Jack saw it now, a long, low black shape pulled up on the shore.

"Harasho." Jack made a come-on gesture and the two men followed him down to the water's edge. His boots made soft crunching sounds in the damp sand. Theirs made none at all.

Together they lifted the big three-man sea kayak and eased it out until it floated free. Jack slid the heavy pack off his back, while the two Aleuts began the elaborate process of cleaning their feet and clothing, getting rid of any sand that might damage the boat's sealskin covering.

The forward paddler said cheerfully, "We go kill Russians, da?"

"Oh, yes," Jack said in English. "More than you know, you poor ignorant bastard. More than you'll ever know."

THE WOMAN WITH the red ribbons said, "I'm sorry. I let it get to me and I'm sorry." She turned her head to look at the other two. "It's just the stupid stinking waste of it all."

They were well up on the hillside now, sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree, facing out over the dark fog-blanketed harbor. It was the last hour before midnight.

The woman with the seashell ear pendants said, "It was a dreadful war, all right. One of the worst in all the lines—"

"Not that. All right, that too, but I meant him. Jack London," the woman with the red ribbons said. "You know what happens to him after this. He's going to ruin himself with drink and then shoot himself in another five years, and never write anything in a class with his best work from the other lines. And now we know why, don't we?"

"Guilt? Yes," the woman with the seashell ear pendants said. "Probably. But that's just it. He is going to do those things, just as he is going to sink the Brandenburg tonight, because he's already done them and there's nothing you can do about it."

She raised a hand and stroked the red-ribboned hair. "And that's what gets to you, isn't it? The inevitability. That's what gets to all of us. That's why we burn out so soon."

The woman with the braids said, "How many known timelines are there, now, that have been mapped back this far?"

"I don't know." The woman with the seashell ear pendants shrugged. "Well over a hundred, the last I heard."

"And so far not a single one where it didn't happen. One way or another, a huge and bloody world war always breaks out, invariably over something utterly stupid, some time within the same twenty-year bracket. Talk about inevitability."

"I know all that," the woman with the red ribbons said. "But this is the first time I've had to watch it happening. With someone I cared about getting destroyed by it."

She put an arm around the woman beside her and laid her head on her shoulder, making the seashell ear pendants clack softly. "How much longer?" she said.

"Not long. Any time now"

They sat looking out into the darkness, watching for the tall flame that would mark the end of yet another world.

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