It was after dark. Streetlights near Curious Notions were few and faint. That was true of street lights in most parts of this San Francisco. Cold, clammy fog rolled in off the bay. Paul was nervous even so. If somebody spotted him now, everything could still go horribly wrong.
And it wasn’t just him. His father was there, too, and Lucy, and her folks. Sammy Wong didn’t think anybody had followed Lucy’s father and mother and little brother to their meeting with him. He was just about sure nobody’d followed them all from the meeting to the now very crowded little house where everyone had stayed.
Didn’t think. Just about sure. When you were talking about most things, those little phrases didn’t matter so much. When you were talking about freedom, about getting back to the home timeline . . . Paul wanted to be sure. He couldn’t. Knowing he couldn’t ate at him.
“Go on around the corner,” Wong said. “I’ll be with you in about ten minutes. Then we’ll all go back to Curious Notions. And then we’ll go.”
He made it sound very easy. Paul hoped it would be. He had trouble believing it. Nothing in this alternate had ever been easy. But then he shook his head. He’d got out of the Feldgendarmerie jail. That had gone as smoothly as anyone could please. This could, too. And from could to would wasn’t far. Only ten minutes away, he thought.
Before they all walked into Louie’s, Paul made sure no cops were in there stuffing their faces with burgers and fries. That would complicate things, and things were complicated enough already. But, except for Louie, the place was empty. It wasn’t the sort of night that brought customers out in droves.
The Greek fry cook looked up from a crossword-puzzle magazine when the bell over the door jingled. He did a better double take than any Paul had ever seen on the movies or TV. Those were rehearsed. This one was the real McCoy.
“You!” Louie said hoarsely. “Both of you! What are you, nuts? You aren’t just hot. You glow in the dark.” He said something in Greek that sounded as if it glowed in the dark. Then he pointed at the Woos. “I don’t know who the Devil you people are, but you’ve probably got everybody and his brother after you, too.”
Lucy’s father gulped and made as if to get out of the hamburger joint in a hurry. Her mom set a hand on his arm. “It’s all right. I think it’s all right, anyhow,” she said. “They wouldn’t bring us to anyone who’d sell us out.”
“They’ve been wrong before,” her father pointed out.
Louie said something else explosive in Greek. “That’s for the cops,” he added in English. “It goes double for the Feldgen-darmerie.”
The San Francisco police and the German secret police weren’t the only ones who wanted Paul and his dad and the Woos. Nobody said anything about that. What Paul’s father did say was, “As long as we’re here, we might as well have some baklava.”
Hamburgers and franks were one thing. Baklava was something else. Baklava hit Louie where he lived. He made a small ceremony of cutting big slices and putting them on half a dozen paper plates. Lucy exclaimed in delight when she dug in. So did her brother. Paul wondered if they’d ever had it before. He would have bet they hadn’t.
Dad set a twenty-dollar bill on the counter. That was a lot of money here. When Louie started to make change, Dad said, “Don’t bother.”
The cook glared and went on pulling money out of the cash box. “I pay my way. You don’t need to give me nothin’ to keep my mouth shut.”
Paul was afraid his father had made a bad mistake. Whatever Louie didn’t have, he had pride enough for three men. But Dad saved things, saying, “That’s not why I did it. Call it a good-bye present. We’re not going to be around much longer.”
“You sure won’t, not with all the people you got mad at you,” Louie said. But he tucked the twenty away. “Okay, pal, since you put it that way. Thanks.”
What if something went wrong inside Curious Notions? What if Wong didn’t come back? Then we won’t be around here much longer. Dad would be right. But so would Louie. Paul didn’t want not to be around Louie’s way.
His stomach had started churning overtime when the door to Louie’s finally opened. In strolled Sammy Wong. “Let’s go, folks,” he said. “Everything’s just the way it ought to be.”
Everybody hurried out into the night. Louie lifted his cap off his head in a sort of salute. “Can this be real?” Lucy’s father muttered. Paul didn’t think he was supposed to hear that, but he did.
“Hang on for one second.” Wong paused in a particularly dark stretch of street. “You need the antidote, so the anesthetic inside the shop doesn’t knock you out.”
He gave everybody a shot. Lucy’s little brother yipped when he saw people getting stuck. She knew how to keep him from doing anything more than yip. “Are you going to be a baby, Michael?” she said. “/ can get a shot without making a fuss.” And she did. After that, you could have set Michael on fire and he wouldn’t have let out a peep.
“Here we are.” Sammy Wong opened the front door to Curious Notions. Paul tried to smell neofentanyl in the air. He couldn’t, of course. It had no odor. That was one of the things that made it so useful. The other was that it would stop a charging elephant in its tracks. Paul remembered yawning in the Feldgendarmerie jail. Then he remembered waking up when Sammy Wong gave him the antidote. In between? As far as he could prove, there was no in between.
“Down to the basement,” Paul’s father said briskly. “And then down to the subbasement.” By the way he said it, it might have been his plan.
Paul found one more thing to worry about. What would the German secret police think when they found the subbasement? Nobody could put the file cabinet that hid the trap door back where it belonged. He shrugged. After so many enormous worries, that was a small one.
Down to the basement they hurried. Michael went last so he could slide down the banister instead of walking down the stairs. Paul didn’t think he would have done that in the dark when he was eleven years old. Lucy’s kid brother was a piece of work, all right.
Sammy Wong shone a flashlight on the file cabinet. “Let’s do it,” he said.
Another flashlight beam stabbed out from behind Paul. “You will put your hands up at once, all of you,” a German-accented voice said. “In the Kaiser’s name, you are all under arrest.” Spinning, Paul saw a tall man in Feldgendarmerie uniform wearing a pig-snouted gas mask. He had a flashlight in his left hand. His right held a pistol aimed at Wong.
The German paid no attention to Michael Woo, who stood right beside him. Michael might have hit him or kicked him in the shins. Instead, he did something even better. He reached up and yanked off the German’s mask.
After an outraged yelp, the Feldgendarmerie man sucked in a breath of air. That was all he needed to do. His eyes rolled up in his head. He didn’t even yawn, the way Paul had. He just crumpled to the floor. The pistol fell from his hand and skittered away, luckily without going off.
Lucy ran over to Michael. She gave him a big, smacking kiss. He yelped louder than the German had, and did kick her. She yelped, too.
“Come on,” Paul said. “Let’s get out of here as fast as we can, before anything else happens.”
Not even his father argued with him. Dad went over to the file cabinet and shoved it out of the way. By then, Sammy Wong had his little automatic out. “I’ll go first,” he said. “The stuff wouldn’t have got into the subbasement till now. If they’ve found it and they’ve got somebody waiting down there . . .”
But they didn’t. It was empty. Plainly, no one had been in there since the Feldgendarmerie seized Curious Notions. Paul hurried to the computer set off to one side from where the transposition chamber would appear. “Wake up,” he told it, and the screen came to life. Lucy exclaimed at that. So did her father.
“Voice signature recognized,” the computer said. “Go ahead.” Lucy and her father did some more exclaiming. Paul only half heard them. He spoke the code phrase that meant everything was okay and nobody was holding a gun to his head. Then he called for a chamber as fast as the home timeline could send one. His words showed up on the screen as he said them. Even Michael Woo exclaimed at that. Again, Paul hardly noticed. He hoped the Crosstime Traffic people were monitoring this chamber’s equivalent in the home timeline.
Wong scattered a little bit of white powder on the floor in one corner of the room. He dropped a gold coin near it. “What’s that for?” Paul asked.
“Let the Germans think we were smuggling,” the older man answered. “That’s a normal kind of thing, just like stealing jewelry is a normal kind of thing. If they think it’s smuggling, they won’t think about alternates. Them not thinking about alternates is what we want.” The transposition chamber appeared out of nowhere. The door opened. Wong asked, “Paul, did you warn the home timeline about neofentanyl?”
“Oops,” Paul said.
Oops it was. The chamber operator passed out as soon as she got a whiff of the air in the basement. Enough neofentanyl had come in through the trapdoor to knock her for a loop. Sammy Wong picked her up off the floor and gave her the antidote. She was not happy, to say the least.
“Never mind that,” Paul’s father said as he and everybody else hurried into the transposition chamber. “You can yell at us later. Just get us out of here now.”
The door slid shut. After that, nothing seemed to happen. “Is it all right?” Lucy asked. “Are we supposed to feel something?”
“It’s fine,” Paul answered. “It’ll feel like it takes about fifteen minutes. When we get to the home timeline, though, the clocks will say the same thing as they did in the alternate we just left.”
“That’s weird,” Michael said.
“That’s impossible,” his father said.
Paul only shrugged. “It’s what happens, honest.”
“Won’t be long, any which way,” his father said, and he was right. When the door opened again, they were back in the home timeline.
This new San Francisco endlessly fascinated Lucy. It was the city she knew, and yet it wasn’t. Most of the streets had the same names as the ones in her San Francisco. They went the same places as the ones she’d always known. She could find her way around. South of Market here was the same place as it was there.
But finding her way around didn’t mean a thing. The streets were the same, but most of the buildings were different. A few old ones, like City Hall and some of the churches, were the same. Somehow, that only made them seem stranger, not more familiar.
For those were the buildings that had ruled the skyline in her San Francisco. Here, they huddled in the shadows of structures she’d not only never seen but never even imagined. Paul called them skyscrapers. That word had fallen out of use in the English she knew. It seemed to fit them, though. They did leap far, far up into the sky.
Some of them had elevators you could ride all the way to the top. One had a restaurant up there, a restaurant that revolved once an hour. She could eat a hamburger and fries and a milkshake and look out at the whole city. She knew she would remember that for the rest of her life.
But the people in this San Francisco were even more interesting than the scenery. Men’s clothes weren’t too different from what she was used to. The things girls and women wore, though .. . They showed more skin, and skin in odder places, than she’d thought anybody could or would. They weren’t embarrassed about doing it, either. It was as normal to them as her clothes had been to her.
By her standards, just about everybody was rich. That wasn’t because everyone had millions of dollars, though everyone did. A million dollars here were only ten thousand benjamins, and ten thousand benjamins were worth about what she’d made in a year at the sewing machine. But people here all had cars—those who wanted them, anyway—and radios and televisions and telephones they carried around with them and those marvelous machines called computers and all sorts of other things she hadn’t dreamt of. Paul hadn’t been kidding. The things they knew about here put Curious Notions to shame.
She discovered supermarkets. So many things, all right there together! People filling shopping carts full of whatever they wanted. They didn’t seem to worry about the prices. That told Lucy they had plenty of money, too. If they hadn’t, they would have complained more or bought less.
Signs above some of the vegetables said they came from one alternate or another. Lucy pointed at Paul when she noticed those. “So that’s why you dealt with those farmers from the Central Valley,” she said.
He nodded. “That’s right.” When he was in her alternate, he’d sounded just a little funny. Here in what he called the home timeline, everyone talked the way he did. Lucy was the one with a tiny trace of accent. If she was going to stay here, she’d have to lose it to fit in. That shouldn’t be too hard.
“What about the Central Valley here?” she asked. She hadn’t seen it yet. She hadn’t seen anything but this amazing new San Francisco.
“It grows things, too,” Paul answered. “But this is a crowded place. We need more food than we can grow ourselves. We need more of lots of things than we can get from this world.”
“And so you get them from other. . . alternates,” Lucy said. “That’s what you were doing with Curious Notions.”
“That’s right,” Paul said again. “Crosstime Traffic does that kind of thing on lots of different alternates. We don’t take a whole lot from any one of them. That wouldn’t be fair. We interfere as little as we can, too. Doing more wouldn’t be fair, either.”
“But you got my family and me out of there,” Lucy said.
Paul seemed embarrassed. He was—but not, Lucy realized, on her account. No—he was embarrassed all on his own. ‘That’s one more thing we don’t usually do. We wouldn’t have if Dad and I hadn’t pulled you into what was really our problem. Getting away ourselves and leaving you stuck there wouldn’t have been right, either.”
“What are the Germans and the Triads doing there?” Lucy asked. Just putting the question that way felt funny. The Germans had been the central fact in politics in her alternate since the middle of the twentieth century. The Triads had been around in her San Francisco even longer, though she hadn’t bumped up against them till she got to know the people from Curious Notions. Now both were a mile beyond the moon.
“It’s easier to monitor the Germans,” Paul answered. “They think we were running drugs. There’s a huge price on my head, and on Dad’s. The Tongs have to be more secret. From what people have picked up, though, they’ve got a price on us, too—and on you, I’m afraid.”
That sent a shiver through Lucy. She needed a moment to remember the Triads in her San Francisco were a mile beyond the moon. Then she thought of something else. “Are there Triads here? In this San Francisco, I mean?”
“Well, yeah. There are.” Paul nodded. “They’re—mostly—legit, though. And I promise they don’t have thing one to do with the Tongs in your alternate.”
“That’s good.” Lucy meant it. She also wondered whether he was right. If the Triads were anything, they were sneaky and patient. Crosstime Traffic might have people working for it who were working for them, too. But that was the company’s worry. It—probably— wasn’t hers.
And she had trouble worrying about anything here in this amazing temple of food. She pointed to a bin of very strange fruit. They were about the size of her fist, bright yellow, and covered all over with not too pointy spikes about half an inch long. (People here would have said a little more than a centimeter long. Everybody here used the metric system, the way the Germans did in her alternate. One more thing she had to get used to.)
That was also a worry for another time. She pointed to the yellow . . . whatchamacallits. “What are those things, and which alternate do they come from?”
He laughed. “Most people call ’em hand-grenade melons. As a matter of fact, they’re from here—from New Zealand, I think. They probably have ’em in your alternate, too, only not for export.”
“Oh.” Lucy had seen food from China and Chile and the Philippines and Canada and all over Europe and some places that weren’t even places in her alternate—Indonesia, for instance, wherever that was. “Everything’s for export here, isn’t it?”
“Just about,” Paul answered. “We—the United States—export a lot ourselves—grain and meat and soybeans, mostly.”
Lucy nodded. She believed him. In her alternate, the United States had trouble feeding itself. Maybe this USA did, too, but if it did, it was for different reasons. She wondered how many people lived here. This San Francisco was more crowded than the one she’d known. And this United States hadn’t had a lot of its biggest cities blown off the map by German atomic bombs. She gathered they’d worried about the Russians instead. That seemed ridiculous to her.
When she and Paul left the supermarket, he asked, “What shall we do now?”
“I don’t know.” Lucy stood in the parking lot and thought for a little while. (That the supermarket had a parking lot told how important it was.) The breeze off the ocean ruffled her hair. Even though this San Francisco was such a crowded place, exhaust fumes didn’t fill the breeze. Cars were cleaner than they were in her alternate. Lucy didn’t know how the home timeline managed that, but it did. All of a sudden, she snapped her fingers. “Yes, I do so know. Take me to the zoo!”
“I’ll do that.” Paul grinned at her. “The bus’ll go through the Sunset District, too, so you’ll see I wasn’t fooling you about it.”
“Okay.” She grinned back. The grin slipped a little when she found out the bus fare was $145 for each of them. Even though she was starting to know better, that still seemed like a lot of money to her. When she worked it out, though, she decided it wasn’t really a whole lot more than the nickel she was used to paying. And the buses here were much nicer than the ones in her alternate. They didn’t stink. They didn’t roar and lurch. They even had comfortable seats.
Paul hadn’t been kidding about the Sunset District. A lot of the houses were old. Some of them might have been old enough to date from before her alternate and the home timeline split apart. All of them, though, were beautifully kept up. They had fresh paint. Their lawns were green as the emeralds in Stanley Hsu’s shop. The cars in front of them were bright and shiny and clean.
“My house is just like one of these,” Paul said. “Too bad we’re not going down Thirty-third Avenue, or I’d show it to you. Oh, well— you’ll get over there one of these times.”
“Yes, I guess I will,” Lucy said. “It’s not like we haven’t met each other’s parents and everything.”
“Uh—yeah.” Paul turned red. Isn’t that interesting? Lucy thought.
The zoo was just where it would have been in her alternate. There was still a lot of ivy, and a lot of birds flew around. They were all pretty much the same birds, too. But the zoo sure wasn’t the same. No crumbling concrete here. They’d spent a lot of dollars—a lot of benjamins—fancying this place up. The enclosures all looked as if they came from the lands where the animals inside them lived. The displays in front of the enclosures weren’t just signs. They were TV screens, and told all kinds of things about the beasts and birds on display.
Not everything had changed, though. That was what Lucy thought, anyhow, when a boy threw peanuts to a bear. The same thing could have happened in her alternate. But this kid got in trouble. A guard came up to him and led him out of the zoo. There were DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS signs at the zoo in her alternate, but nobody paid any attention to them. Things were different here.
“This is what a zoo is supposed to be like,” Lucy said.
“You think this is something, you ought to see the one in San Diego,” Paul told her. “They have all kinds of animals there that are extinct in the wild. Tigers and rhinos, even.”
The zoo in Lucy’s San Francisco had had tigers and rhinos, too. None of the signs there had said they were extinct in the wild. As far as she knew, they weren’t in her alternate. Maybe not quite all the differences in the home timeline were for the best.
She and Paul walked past an enclosure that held slim yellow cats with black spots. “We do have cheetahs here,” he said. “None of those left in the wild, either.”
“Cheetahs never prosper,” Lucy agreed gravely. Paul nodded. He took a step, and half of another one. Then he stopped and gave her a horrible look. She winked at him. He tried to stay disgusted, but couldn’t do it. He started to laugh.
“You’re going to fit right in here,” he told her. “You’re out of your tree.”
“Thank you,” she said.
They stopped and got something to eat. For reasons Lucy couldn’t figure out, people here called wieners hot dogs. No matter what people called them, they were still wieners. Lucy slathered hers with sauerkraut and mustard. Paul put onions and pickle relish on his. They wrinkled their noses at each other’s choices. Paul said, “I think you like sauerkraut because the Germans were running things in your alternate.”
“Maybe,” Lucy said. “But plenty of people here must like it, too, or the stand wouldn’t put it out.” Paul changed the subject, which made her decide she was right.
She frowned a little as she sipped from her Coke. The straw was made of see-through plastic. In her alternate, it would have been waxed cardboard. That wasn’t what puzzled her, though. The soda tasted almost the same as it did in her San Francisco, but not quite. It tasted almost as good, too—but, again, not quite.
When she asked Paul if he knew what the difference was, he said, “Yeah. Here they sweeten it with corn syrup. In your alternate, I think they still use real sugar.”
“Why don’t they here?” Lucy asked. “Is sugar extinct in the wild, too?”
That made him laugh again while he shook his head. “No. Corn syrup’s cheaper to use, that’s all.”
“But it’s not as good!” Lucy said.
“That counts, but so does the other,” Paul said. “I guess the people who decide what goes into Coke figured they made more money with corn syrup than they lost flavor, and so they kept on putting it in.”
Lucy took another sip. This Coke wasn’t bad. If you didn’t know how it was supposed to taste, you’d think it was fine. She suspected the people in the Triads would think the same way the Coke-makers here did. A little bigger profit margin did count. But so did having something really good, not just good enough. Lucy thought so, anyway.
They rode the bus back toward the apartment Crosstime Traffic had got for her family. It was bigger than the one the Woos had had in Lucy’s San Francisco. It had a TV and a computer and a fasarta and all the other things people in the home timeline took for granted. In Lucy’s alternate, even the richest German noble couldn’t have had most of them.
The apartment wasn’t far from the western edge of this San Francisco’s Chinatown. Lucy had been there a couple of times. It amazed and fascinated her. It was so much more Chinese than the one she’d grown up in. In her San Francisco, Chinese was a secret language only the Triads and a few other people remembered. Here, people spoke it on the street. There was a Chinese-language newspaper. There was even a Chinese-language TV station in this San Francisco, with most of the shows in Mandarin and some in Cantonese.
Lucy wasn’t alone in being of Chinese blood but speaking only English. That came as a relief. But here she found herself wanting to learn some Chinese, too. In her alternate, that hadn’t even crossed her mind.
Paul got off the bus with her and walked her to the apartment. He stayed on the sidewalk when she started up the stairs. She turned back to him from about halfway up. “Thanks … for everything,” she said. “I had a terrific time today.”
“Good. That’s what you’re supposed to do,” he answered. “I’ll see you again before too long.” With an awkward little half-wave, he headed back toward the bus stop.
“Yes. You will.” Lucy nodded. Except for her family, Paul was the only person she saw here who knew about the alternate where she’d grown up. A whole world, and it was gone forever. Part of her missed it, the part that misses an old house even after you’ve moved into a better one. Most ways, this was a better world—but it wasn’t the one she was used to.
She slid the security cardkey into the lock in the apartment building’s front door. A light flashed green. She turned the knob. The door opened. She closed it behind her. The card was just a flat piece of plastic. She wondered how the lock knew it was supposed to go in there.
Electronics, she thought. That meant a lot more here than it did in her alternate. Would she ever catch up with people who were born here and had had all these things their whole lives? She sometimes doubted it. Those were the times she got homesick. That other San Francisco might not have been so much, but she’d belonged there. It was hers. Here, she felt like a stranger, a tourist. But she wasn’t going home again.
She didn’t have to walk upstairs, the way she would have in her old apartment building. The elevator here was fast and silent as a dream. When she walked down the hall to her apartment, the carpeting muffled her steps. The cardkey that had let her into the building also let her into the apartment. It wouldn’t let her into any of the others, though—she’d experimented. How did it know which was which?
Michael was playing a game on the TV screen. Lucy had never imagined such a thing, but her little brother took to it like a duck to water. The game involved killing dragons and the evil wizards who rode on them. Had dragons been real, they would have been extinct by the time Michael got done slaughtering them.
He’s the one who’ll do best here, Lucy thought suddenly. He has the fewest things to unlearn.
Father sat in a chair with his back to the chaos on the television set. He looked up from the book on his lap and managed a smile for Lucy. “How was your day?”
“It was great. We went to the zoo. It’s a lot fancier—it’s a lot cleaner—than the one in our San Francisco,” she answered. “And the bus went through the Sunset District on the way there and back. It really is a nice place here.” She pointed to the book. “What are you reading?”
“Well, it says it’s a basic guide to repairing small appliances.” Father’s face was unhappy. “I’m following about one word in three. I think I need something more basic than basic.”
“They’ve talked about classes for you,” Lucy said. ‘They aren’t born knowing this stuff here. If they can learn it, you can, too.”
“Maybe. I hope so. But they’ve got a forty-year head start on me,” her father said.
“It’ll be all right,” Lucy said stoutly. “Nobody expects you to understand everything all at once.”
He looked more unhappy yet. “No, I suppose not. But / expected to. I’ve been fixing small appliances since I was younger than Michael is. How much more was there for me to know?” His laugh was harsh. “Well, I’ve found out. I don’t want to be useless here, or on charity. I want to earn my keep.” He slammed the book shut with a noise like a gunshot. “Right now, I don’t know if I ever can. I just don’t know.”
Behind him, Michael whooped, “Die, villain!” He had no worries. Lucy wished she could say the same.
Ignoring her little brother as best she could, she said, “You’ll do it, Father.” She meant it—she had confidence in him. “We’ll all do it, sooner or later. Things are new here, that’s all. We haven’t been here very long. We can learn.”
“Maybe. I hope so.” Her father didn’t sound sure. That worried her. But this new San Francisco had to be harder for him to get used to than it was for her, just as it was harder for her than for Michael. He’d had longer to become a part of the San Francisco they’d left behind.
So had Mother, come to that. But she didn’t seem to be having too bad a time. She didn’t feel the need to know why things worked, the way Father did. She just needed to know how they worked, and she was fine. When Lucy walked into the kitchen to see if she needed a hand, she found her chopping green onions in the food processor and heating something in the microwave. Till she came here, she’d never seen a food processor or a microwave. That didn’t mean she couldn’t figure out what they were good for.
“Want any help?” Lucy asked her.
“Not me.” Her mother shook her head. “I’m doing fine.” She paused. “I heard what you and your father were talking about in there. I think you’re right. I think we’ll all do fine after a while.”
The telephone rang. There were telephones in the San Francisco Lucy had left, but there hadn’t been one in the Woos’ apartment there. In this San Francisco, phones were everywhere, either in buildings or carried around. Wherever you went, you heard snatches of other people’s conversations. Paul carried a telephone. He’d got a couple of calls while they were at the zoo. Lucy wasn’t sure she liked that. The phone here rang again. “I’ll get it,” she said, and dashed off to do just that. “Hello? . . . Oh, Paul. Hello!” Maybe carrying a phone around wasn’t so bad after all.
When Sammy Wong told Paul he’d never work for Crosstime Traffic again, Paul had done his best to convince himself it didn’t matter. The way his heart thudded when he and his father walked into the Crosstime Traffic San Francisco office said he’d lied to himself. He wanted to go out to the alternates again. He wanted to make a career of it. If he couldn’t, if he was stuck in the home timeline . .. That would be pretty hard to take.
His father looked nervous, too, though he tried to hide it. Dad had been going out to the alternates for years. What would he do if his bosses said he couldn’t any more?
Paul sighed. When I told Lucy how good the home timeline was, this is the stuff I didn’t talk about. But it’s here. It’s real.
All the security procedures were real, too. They had to show their IDs. They had to get their retinas and their fingerprints scanned. They went through metal and explosives and biohaz-ard detectors. Terrorists were also real. They liked to strike Crosstime Traffic operations. Why not? The company was big and rich. They’d hit Romania not so long before. They could hit the USA, too.
“Go ahead,” a guard said after everything checked out okay. “Your action hearing is set for room 582.” He didn’t call it a disciplinary hearing, but that was what it was.
A board of three women and two men sat waiting for Paul and his father. The chairwoman said, “These proceedings will be videorecorded for the archives and for further review if needed. Do you understand and agree?” She sounded bored. How many times had she said the same thing?
Dad nodded. Paul said, “Yes.”
A man with a white handlebar mustache said, “Summarize the events in San Francisco in alternate 3477 from the time of your arrival there to the time of your departure. Keep your summary focused on the problems you ran into.”
“Be brief,” the chairwoman added.
Paul and his father looked at each other. Paul said, “The biggest problem we had was that two sets of locals were already much too curious about Curious Notions.”
“No,” Dad said. “The biggest problem was that we didn’t know they were till too late.”
“For whatever it may be worth to you, we have had some things to say to the person who operated the shop before you took it over,” the chairwoman said.
So Elliott did get in trouble, Paul thought. He couldn’t feel too sorry for Elliott. If the other man had warned Dad and him . . . Well, how much would have been different? Some, maybe.
“We still need to know what you did, though, and why,” said the man with the white mustache. He was plainly number two on the board. “We need to know how the locals closed down the shop, why you failed to block that, and what you told them while they held you.”
“They came in with submachine guns and yelled, ‘Hands high!'” Paul’s father answered. “The only way I could have blocked that was with a tank.”
“We didn’t give away the crosstime secret, either, and the Germans and the Tongs were both sniffing after it,” Paul added. He didn’t say anything about Lucy. But he hadn’t given her the secret. She’d figured it out on her own. And besides, she was here in the home timeline. No matter what she knew, she wasn’t going to spread it.
“What about your interrogations?” the chairwoman asked.
Dad said, “I told more lies than a software salesman.”
“I don’t think the Feldgendarmerie ever thought crosstime travel was really and truly possible,” Paul said. “They would have asked different questions—they would have asked harder questions—if they had. The Tongs came a lot closer, but they don’t have anywhere near the know-how the Germans do.”
“The way we escaped will keep the Germans and the Chinese in that alternate from figuring out we came from a different one,” his father put in. He was ready to take credit for that even if it hadn’t been his idea.
But the chairwoman called him on it: “By the reports I’ve read, Special Operative Wong had more to do with your escape than you did. Do you disagree?”
Dad looked as if he wanted to. He also looked as if he knew he couldn’t get away with it. Reluctantly, he shook his head. Paul said, “No, we don’t. It’s true.”
“All right.” The man with the white mustache looked at Paul. “And what have you got to say for yourself about wandering away from the .. . the Palace Hotel?” He had to check a monitor set into the table to get the name right.
Paul’s heart sank. If they were going to blame him for that. . . But they had a right to. “What can I say?” he answered harshly. “I blew it. I was going stir-crazy, and I went out, and I got nabbed. Nobody’s fault but mine. I was really, really dumb.”
He and his father got a few more questions. Then the members of the board put their heads together and muttered among themselves. The chairwoman looked up and said, “Please wait outside for a few minutes.”
Dad managed a nod. Paul just walked out. In the hallway, Dad said, “The condemned men ate a hearty meal.” Paul turned away. He couldn’t stand jokes just then.
He waited what seemed like forever. By his watch, it was sixteen minutes. The door opened. “Please come in,” said one of the women on the board.
In they went. The chairwoman looked from Dad to Paul and back again. “You both made mistakes,” she said. “Your testimony and the reports of others all show that. But the situation had been developing before you arrived, and you both showed energy and imagination in trying to deal with the emergency. We don’t expect you to be perfect. We do expect you to try. We got that from both of you.” Her eyes swung to Paul. “We also expect you won’t go wandering off again when you’re not supposed to. Special Operative Wong seems to believe you won’t.”
“He does?” Paul knew he squeaked. He couldn’t help it. He’d thought Sammy Wong would nail his hide to the wall. “I won’t, ma’am. I promise!”
“That should do.” The chairwoman gave him and his father a wintry smile. “You are both cleared to resume crosstime duty, you”— that was aimed at Paul—”as your education permits. Any questions? No? Very well, then. That will be all.”
Out in the corridor, Dad stuck out his hand. Paul grabbed it and shook it. They both let out identical sighs of relief. Paul took his phone off his belt. He didn’t need its memory to punch in the number he wanted. He knew it by heart. “Hello, Lucy? It’s me. We’re okay—not great, maybe, but okay. . . . Yeah, both of us. And about that movie tonight…”