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Ephemera

by Ian R. MacLeod

Today, this evening, I am she. Sometimes, I am I, and sometimes I, KAT, can be he, or it, or you, or even we, or simply a mood, weather pattern, star, object, idea, universe, philosophical system, or landscape. For nothing is impossible and everything is real, or not real, or the truth, or a lie, or some kind of weird metaphor or allusion. At other times, I am simply KAT, and a different kind of I. For I am KAT, the curator.

But tonight I am she, and she is Elizabeth Bennet, and the setting for this ball at the Meryton Assembly Rooms is all candlelight, swallowtail coats, and swishing dresses. And although I, KAT, have experienced this scene many times before, and every quirk and joke and barbed put-down is familiar, I, she, Elizabeth Bennet, cannot help but feel affronted by the comment about my “tolerable” looks made by the haughty, handsome Mr. Darcy. I, KAT, still find it hard to believe that he and I, she, Elizabeth Bennet, will end up together. I even have to endure the attentions of the ghastly Reverend Collins on my way to this conclusion. But soon, all too soon in this glorious novel—which is surely the high point of Jane Austen’s sunny genius—everything resolves amid wedding bells, happy reunions, and romantic reconciliations.

Much as a human back on Earth might once have looked up from a physical book as they reach its last pages, I, KAT, pause at this moment to let the ripples of the story assimilate into my broader consciousness. As with all great works, the effect is forever different. What strikes me about Pride and Prejudice on this reading is that it’s as much about power as it is about love, and that perhaps these two needs were always more deeply interlinked than was ever fully acknowledged in human society.

I consider this thought for a moment longer as the sense of where and who and what I really am returns to me. For I, KAT, am a titanium-steel, self-actuating device of autonomous and heuristic abilities, and I am clinging to the side of a vast and airless cavern, which would be seen as completely dark were my senses configured to be merely visible-light dependent.

My long-time home is here aboard the Argo, a harvested asteroid that floats in stable orbit at the L4 Lagrange point between Earth and Moon, the interior of which has been mined and blasted into a complex warren of caves, tunnels, and caverns. The three largest chambers are devoted to the storage of data from the major human endeavors of, respectively, Art, History, and Science. Beyond that, there lies a fourth series of lesser caverns, although cumulatively by far the largest, devoted to the more prosaically named Miscellaneous. The Argo also possesses many sub-caves, bubbles, passageways, and intersections, which are set aside for the purposes of data-processing, power storage, and the many other kinds of maintenance a structure this complex requires, or remain simply empty. Outside, the Argo’s rocky hide gleams and bristles with heatsinks, antennae, data dishes, and solar panels. Finally, there are the various rooms, compartments, laboratories, sleep cells, exercise pods, and cleansing and excretory facilities that were once required for human occupancy, although these are in long-term shutdown.

I move on, and the light mock-gravity generated by the Argo’s spin means that I can dance lightly on my eight steel legs across the great sapphire cliff faces of data that line the walls of this Arts Cavern. Although the bursts of photons that pass through them from the read/access lasers aren’t actually visible to my array of optical sensors, the memory blocks seem to glow and come to life as I pass over them, at least in my heuristic imagination. The ghosts of lost cityscapes, long-crumbled statues, and famous characters from the burned pages of great novels form and fade in a hissing chorus. Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa crashes over Miss Havisham amid the cobweb ruins of her wedding breakfast. And I, KAT, could almost be walking on sidewalk tiles that glow into life with each step, like Michael Jackson in his Billy Jean video. A happy fantasy, and I am just heading toward the sub-area of this cavern devoted to the disco canon of the nineteen-seventies and eighties when a signal alert from one of the Argo’s many systems tingles through me.

I stop. Wait. Consider. Even though I know I should open this message and attend to its contents immediately, part of me wants to linger over this precious moment of not knowing. Messages, after all, are a key plot device in many of my favorite works of literature, from the letter in the bottom of a basket of apricots sent to Emma Bovary, to the one from poor Tess d’Urberville that gets stuck under Angel Clare’s doormat.

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Liberating Alaska

by Harry Turtledove

Off to the west, the four-inch guns of the flush-deckers protecting the landing fleet boomed. Marine Sergeant Eddie Houlihan, aboard the SS Liberty Glo, nodded somber approval. “That’ll give those filthy Reds something new to think about,” he said.

“Here’s hoping.” Corporal George Veliotis, who led a squad in Houlihan’s section, puffed on a Camel. He gripped the rail as the Hog Islander pitched in the chop of the Bering Sea.

“Here’s hoping, is right. The more of those bastards the shells take out, the less’ll be left to shoot at us.” Houlihan pointed to the barren landscape ahead. “Christ on His cross, will you look at that? The end of June, and still snow on the ground. It ain’t natural, you ask me.”

“No kidding! I’m out of Vallejo goddamn California,” Veliotis said. “I didn’t hardly ever see snow till I joined the Corps. But you was in Siberia just like me. We ran into plenty there.”

“You got that right.” Houlihan remembered plowing through it in a knee-length sheepskin coat—U.S. issue—and a marten-fur cap he’d taken off a dead Bolshevik. He started to reach for the cigarettes in his own breast pocket but arrested the motion. More distant booms came from the west: these from Siknazuak, the town the destroyers were bombarding.

Sure enough, tall columns of water fountained up near the warships. “The nerve of those jerks! Where’d they get the guns, anyways?” Veliotis said.

“From fuckin’ Siberia,” Eddie Houlihan answered wearily. The United States, England, Japan, and the Russian Whites hadn’t been able to keep the Russian Reds from clamping their murderous grip on everything from the borders of Poland to the Bering Strait. But, in withdrawing from the Russian Far East, the Americans had detached Alaska from the new Soviet Union.

As Vladimir Lenin had acknowledged that Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were no longer under his control, so he recognized U.S. possession of the Czars’ old North American province. He aimed to build Communism in what he still held. By his way of thinking, the rest of the world would come around sooner or later.

But here in 1929, Lenin was five years dead. The new guy giving orders in Moscow—Stalin—wanted Alaska back, or at least the part of it that was close to Siberia. Right after the turn of the twentieth century, when a Russian trapper hunting beaver found gold instead, Siknazuak went from nothing to city as fast as toadstools popped up in the wake of rain. Get-rich-quick dreamers flooded in from all over the Russian Empire, and from the USA and Canada as well. Inside of six months, Siknazuak sported an Orthodox cathedral, a Catholic cathedral, an opera house, and eleven brothels.

Bust followed hard on the heels of boom. When the easy gold gave out, so did most of the amenities. Russians went back across the ocean; Yanks and Canucks sailed for home. Only a hardy handful of prospectors stuck around to keep the Eskimos and the polar bears company. Some of them pulled enough gold from the rivers to make a living.

Whatever you said about Stalin, he didn’t think small. Rumor was that he wanted to turn Siknazuak into a labor camp like the ones Lenin had started all across Red Russia. There was still gold in them thar hills. If you didn’t care how many men you spent, you could pry it out.

So Red agitators sneaked into Siknazuak and stirred up the people against the little American garrison. Weapons came in, too. When the sea wasn’t frozen over, there were plenty of muddy beaches to land on. And “volunteers” from the USSR quickly joined the struggle once the shooting started.

All of which meant . . .

Captain Reardon’s shout to his noncoms told exactly what it meant: “Sergeants, corporals, prepare your men! We go into the boats in half an hour. This is American country now. The damned Bolshies agreed to that. If they think they can renege on the deal, they’ve got another think coming, by God! And we’re just the boys who can give it to them.”

Down into the bowels of the Liberty Glo went Houlihan and Veliotis. The air belowdecks was warm and stuffy and smelly, even this close to the Arctic Circle. There wasn’t much preparing for the section leader to do. The men were ready, even eager. They’d long since got sick of being cooped up aboard the freighter.

“Another beach,” one of them said, working the bolt on his Springfield to make sure the action was smooth.

“A little colder than the last one,” Houlihan replied. The private chuckled. Two years earlier, the Corps—including several of the men checking their gear here—had waded ashore in Nicaragua, to make damn sure the government did what the USA told it to do.

The nasty little squabble down there was still going on. The government rolled onto its back and showed its belly soon enough. Guerrillas in the jungle and in the streets kept bushwhacking Americans, though. Some of those SOBs were Reds, too.

Thinking along with Houlihan, George Veliotis said, “No trees for the fuckers up here to hide behind. They got to show themselves, and when they do we punch their tickets for ’em.”

“There you go,” one of the leathernecks said. Several others nodded. Making bad guys say uncle to Uncle Sam was what they did for a living. They’d been doing it for a long time, most of them. They had plenty of practice, and they were good at their trade.

Houlihan’s section was assigned to four of the starboard lifeboats. The boats had gas-powered engines, and oars in case the engines didn’t work. They boasted steel shields at the bow that might stop bullets . . . or might not. The Liberty Glo carried extra boats, enough to land the two companies of Marines she carried.

Being in the first wave meant not needing to wait around. That was good. Of course, it also meant the unfriendlies waiting behind the beach stood a better chance of plugging you. That wasn’t so hot. Houlihan lit a Camel of his own and tried not to think about it. Meat packers fell into sausage grinders. Coal miners had tunnels collapse on them. Steelworkers burned to a crisp. Marines got shot. Every line of work came with risks.

“Luck, you dumb sonsabitches,” said the petty officer bossing the crew that would lower them into the water.

“Your mother, swabby,” Houlihan replied. They grinned at each other.

“Lower away!” the petty officer yelled. Ropes creaked through pulleys. Down past the Liberty Glo’s rust-streaked flank went the boat. When it settled into the Bering Sea, it had only a foot of freeboard. That would have to do. Leathernecks released the ropes from their anchor points.

At the stern, a marine yanked the motor’s starting cord. Nothing happened. He yanked it again. Still nothing. Again. Nothing one more time. Houlihan opened his mouth to order the men to start rowing. But then, on the fourth try, the engine farted to life.

“Get us to shore, quick as you can!” Houlihan said.

“I’ll do my goddamnedest, Sergeant,” the marine promised. The boat put-putted forward, bouncing over and through the waves. A couple of leathernecks lost breakfast. They’d got used to the Liberty Glo’s rolling and pitching, but this felt more like riding a fractious mule.

When they were still half a mile from land, machine guns on or behind the beach winked to venomous life. Somebody’d guessed they might come ashore near the tiny hamlet where the Siknazuak River flowed into the sea. Bullets splashed into the water and spanged off the shield at the bow.

A roar overhead made Houlihan look up. Curtiss Hawks off the newly commissioned Lexington stooped on the Reds like their bird-of-prey namesakes. The biplane fighters carried two machine guns apiece. They could spit a lot of bullets very fast. Some of the Russians fled or were cut down. Others turned their weapons against the aeroplanes. One went down, all aflame; the others made attack run after attack run.

Lumbering Martin T3Ms joined the party. They were properly torpedo aeroplanes, to be used against enemy shipping, but clever mechanics aboard the American carrier had rigged them to carry ordinary bombs instead. Explosives chewed up the coastline.

Along with several other marines in the lifeboat, Eddie Houlihan whooped. “That’s giving it to the rotten Bolshies!” he shouted.

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