by Greg Egan
Sagreda strode briskly through the dank night air, hoping to reach her destination and return before the fog rolled in from the Thames. It was bad enough stumbling over the cobblestones when the ground vanished from sight, but once the pea soup thickened at eye level, any assailant lurking in the gloom would have her at a disadvantage.
Urchins and touts called out as she passed. “Shine yer shoes! Thruppence a pair!”
“Block yer hat! Like new for sixpence!”
“Fake yer death, guv’nor?” The last from a grime-faced child in a threadbare coat who looked about eight years old, his eyes almost hidden beneath his brown cloth cap.
“Not tonight,” Sagreda replied. Whether the boy was sentient or not, his appearance almost certainly bore no relationship to his true nature, but it was still hard to walk by without even stopping to inquire if he had a safe place to sleep.
She found Cutpurse Lane and hurried through the shadows toward the lights of the tavern. Gap-toothed women with grubby shawls and kabuki-esque makeup offered her their services in an indecipherable patois that Sagreda hoped never to hear enough of to begin to understand. “I’m not a customer,” she replied wearily. “Save your breath.” Whatever the women took this to mean, it silenced them, and her choice of words was ambiguous enough that Sagreda doubted she was risking deletion. She was an upstanding gentleman, who’d stepped out to meet some fine fellow from his regiment—or his school, or his club, or wherever it was these mutton-chopped fossils were supposed to have made each other’s acquaintance. Having no truck with ladies of the night need not imply that she was breaking character.
In the tavern, Sagreda hung her overcoat on a hook near the door, and swept her gaze as casually as she could across the front room’s dozen tables, trying not to appear lost, or too curious about anyone else’s business.
She took a seat at an unoccupied table, removed her gloves, and slipped them into her waistcoat pocket. Her bare hands with their huge, stubby fingers disconcerted her much more than the occasional sensation of her whiskers brushing against her lips. Still, the inadvertent sex change had rendered her a thousand times safer; from what she’d seen so far of Midnight on Baker Street, women here existed mainly to shriek in horror, sell their bodies, or lie sprawled on the street bleeding until the gutters ran red. Doyle, Dickens, Stoker, Stevenson, and Shelley would all have lost their breakfast if they’d ever foreseen the day when their work would be pastiched and blended into a malodorous potpourri whose most overpowering component was the stench of misogynous Ripperology.
A serving girl approached the table. “Ale!” Sagreda grunted dyspeptically, aiming for both a brusqueness befitting her status and a manner sufficiently off-putting that she wouldn’t be asked to supplement her order with details she couldn’t provide. When the girl returned with a mug full of something brown and revolting, Sagreda handed her the first coin she plucked out of her pocket and watched for a reaction: the amount was excessive, but not shocking. “Bless you, sir!” the girl said happily, retreating before her benefactor could change his mind.
Sagreda pretended to take a sip of the ale, raising the mug high enough to dampen her mustache with foam, which she removed with the back of her thumb. No one seemed to be staring at her, and if there were customers of Midnight among the customers of the tavern, she could only hope that however much she felt like the most conspicuously talentless actor, wearing the most laughably ill-fitting costume, of all the unwilling players trapped in this very bad piece of dinner theater, to a casual onlooker she was just one more red-faced, gout-ridden extra in the Hogarthian crowd.
A spindle-limbed man with pinched, gaunt features sidled up to the table. “Alfred Jingle at your service, Captain,” he proclaimed, bowing slightly.
Sagreda stood. “A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Jingle. Will you join me?”
“The pleasure’s all mine, I’m sure.”
They sat, and Sagreda summoned the serving girl to bring a second mug.
“Do you think it’s safe to talk here?” Sagreda asked quietly when the girl had left.
“Absolutely,” Jingle replied. “So long as we move our lips and contribute to the background noise, we could spend the night muttering ‘rhubarb rhubarb’ for all anyone would care.”
Sagreda wasn’t so blasé—but if they slipped out into an alley for the sake of privacy, that would just be begging for desanguination.
She said, “I’m told you’re the man with everything, here: memory maps, instruction tables, access to the stack?”
He nodded calmly. “That’s me.”
Sagreda was taken aback by his directness. In most of the dreary game-worlds she’d traversed, her question would have been met with some kind of reticence, or the intimation of a shakedown: Maybe I am, maybe I’m not. It all depends on exactly what you have to offer.
Jingle broke the silence. “Can I ask where you’re headed?”
Sagreda stole a quick glance to each side of the table, unable to brush off her fear that someone might be listening, but all of the tavern’s patrons seemed to be engrossed in their own, more raucous, conversations. “3-adica,” she whispered.
Jingle smiled slightly. “That’s . . . courageous.” He wasn’t mocking her, but his intonation dialed the meaning a notch or two away from merely brave toward foolhardy.
“I’ve had enough,” she said, not daring to add of slavery, in case the sheer potency of the word punched through the din and made one of their fellow drinkers’ ears prick up. “I’d walk over broken glass, if I had to.” READ MORE
by Rick Wilber
August 2, 1940
Moe Berg had never ridden a horse before and wasn’t all that happy about the current circumstances of this first ride. An hour before, everything had been just fine. They’d been down on the valley floor of the box canyon and walking nicely along the river, shallow and clear. The sun had warmed things up after a cold start, so Moe and Enrico had both shed their jackets and draped them over the saddles as they talked in Italian about what life must have been like here in the gold rush days, the Wild West of New Mexico.
They’d headed up a trail that wound its way to a played-out goldmine that was cut into the side of the mountain. There, to Moe’s relief, they’d dismounted the horses for a few minutes to look around. It was fascinating: ore carts still sat on the rusted rails that led from the mine’s opening to the steam-powered grinder and beyond that the placer trough that angled down the slope, letting the miners sift out the gold. A tailings pit was dug at the end of the long trough. Two doorless sheds near the mouth of the mine still held picks and shovels inside. It looked like the miners had just given up one day and walked away unhappy. And probably broke.
After twenty minutes or so, they’d remounted the horses and started back down the trail toward the valley floor, chatting with each other when the trail was wide enough for them to ride side by side.
Enrico, worn out by four months of long days and nights working on the gadget, had requested a half-day off to go for a ride after getting his part of the work done. Some fresh air, some exercise. Leslie Groves had said okay but sent Moe along to keep an eye on him.
Fermi was easy in the saddle while Moe made constant adjustments, trying to get comfortable. Enrico had grown up wealthy on a large estate where he rode often, and it showed. He was excellent on horseback. Moe, to be kind, was not. His horse, Andy, seemed to find Moe annoying, so every time Moe tried to steer the damn horse one way or the other, it just stopped and looked back at him, snorted, then went on wherever it wanted to. Moe got the message and just sat there.
They’d reached the valley floor, splashed across the river, and headed back across the flat terrain toward the ranch where they’d arranged for the horses and left the car. Enrico had a noon meeting with Heisenberg, and it was a good half-hour drive back to the Secret City, so they were paying attention to time.
Then, suddenly, the time of day didn’t matter so much. They were halfway there when they’d heard the first shot fired, and Moe’s hat, a nice fedora he’d bought in Santa Fe just the day before, went flying off his head and the bullet then ricocheted off the boulder not twenty feet away to their left. Enrico’s horse spooked at the sound of the high whine and the crack of the ricochet. She bolted, and Moe’s horse did the same as off they all went, the horses at a gallop.
Moe was hanging on for dear life as the horse stayed right behind Enrico’s, like both horses knew what they were doing. Sure they did, Moe thought, bumping up and down and grabbing the pommel hard with both hands, the reins loose in his hands.
But what the hell? Who even knew they were here? And why were they shooting at him?
There was another shot from behind them, and some dirt kicked up off to the left. Then another still, and you could hear the bullet ricochet off the boulder to their right. They had to find cover. In another hundred yards, they reached the start of a path they’d been on just after dawn, slowly walking the horses up it to get a great view from the side of the mountain that the rancher who’d rented them the horses had talked about. Moe had still been enjoying himself then; a nice, quiet ride on a calm horse.
He wasn’t enjoying this. So, when Enrico pulled up his horse and seemed to jump down off it, and Moe’s horse came to a stop, too, Moe was happy to clumsily dismount. Then, happier to be on his own two legs and back in charge, he urged Enrico up the path and into the woods. Moe was carrying his Beretta, so once they got into the trees they had a fighting chance. His pipsqueak Beretta against that rifle—but, still, a chance.
Twenty miles from here Enrico and his friends were building two superbombs as an answer to the Germans and a warning to the Japs. The gadgets, they called them, and they could each level a city just like the Nazi superbomb that had wiped out Dublin a few months ago. But these new gadgets would be small enough to be dropped from a plane, and that was their big advantage. The Germans had been forced to use a freighter that came in from the Celtic Sea and into the River Liffey. In the hold was their bomb, and so there went Dublin.
But the American gadgets, the two of them, were one-tenth the size of the German bomb while carrying the same punch. The plan was for one bomb to be dropped by a night bomber over Berlin and a second one to take out Tokyo the same way. The new Air Corps bomber, the B–36, had the range and capacity to do that from Newfoundland in Canada and from Anchorage in the Alaska Republic and still return home after dropping the bomb. It would change the war; probably end it, in fact.
Enrico was crucial to all that, and everyone knew it. Moe thought of him as the shrinker, the hands-on designer who was also a brilliant theorist. He and Oppy and Heisenberg spoke the same language when it came to the chalkboard. Implosion or gun-type or both, they could fill a room with chalk dust and cigarette smoke inside of an hour. After these intense months together, they seemed to have it down; so close that the machinists were at work and so Enrico had his first morning off since he’d arrived. And now look at what was happening. There was a leak somewhere, a big one.
Moe stood behind a tree and looked back through the dark shadows of the forest to the bright opening that was the entrance to the trail. He brought the Beretta up to eye level, held it with two hands, and sighted down over the barrel. Nothing to see yet. Sometimes, he thought, you’re wiping out cities the way the Germans had leveled Dublin. Sometimes it’s you and your peashooter against a guy with a rifle. No sign of the shooter, though. READ MORE