Mortals had swarmed the earth, in their heyday. From the savannahs they had walked, swum, driven, and flown across the world, from the swampy Ganges Delta to the polar deserts and back again, on their way to even less hospitable climes on Mars and the lunar colony. They had left their mark, to the disgust of some immortals: rampant pollution, sculpted gardens, decadent skyscrapers and pleasure houses, strewn across the world like so many toys the dwindling human population had abandoned before the Silence.
Even the places that audio guides assured visitors were "THE HOTTEST" and "THE DRIEST," with the shivering intimation of danger in the brochure's whispering voice, even in those places the mortals’ hands had left their mark by 2361.
In the diffuse light, the rising sun still blocked by the rough dark mauve Grapevine Mountains, a short little man contemplated the time-blasted structure: adobe in the Spanish Mission style, on a scale and with a decadence the old Paters would never have dreamed.
"Of all the places to survive," his companion marveled, handing a steaming mug of coffee to Joseph.
"Desert conditions," the other immortal said, between slurping down his coffee gratefully. The dry air greedily sucked moisture from the immortal's skin in the cold thin light of the winter dawn. If he'd been mortal, it would have weathered him like the abandoned grounds of Scotty's Castle. "Dry as morality for years at a time. Other than the occasional flash flood, mud slide, or earthquake, the only real hazards to this place are time and the monkeys themselves."
Lewis flicked a reproachful glance at Joseph.
"Mortals, humans, Flint Axe Security’s possible employers," Joseph corrected himself. “Descendants of the original owners, didn’t your boss say?"
"Yep." Lewis stretched. "Alec ran into them at one of those parties – you know the type he likes. Boats, lots of booze…” He waved the coffee mug in a gently swooping arc. “They have some ideas about buying back the estate from the Republic of California, and turning this into a culture revival site. But they're worried about, well, security."
Joseph snorted. "They're going to have enough trouble luring harmless tourists out here."
Lewis shrugged. "I think they're more worried about the construction stage," he said apologetically. "But that's your area. I'm just milord the Earl of Finsbury's office-assistant-slash-friend-of-a-friend, putting them in touch with a good consultant."
"I'll have to look at the grounds some more, work up a quote, but yeah, Budu’s guys can probably do the job if these people can pry the site out of the Republic's fingers." Joseph eyed the grounds thoughtfully. For most of the work, security biis and the near-AI watchdog programs would do, but they'd need at least one Enforcer onsite, just in case...
"Mmmm." Lewis sipped his coffee, still steaming fiercely. Joseph studied him suspiciously.
"Lewis." Joseph narrowed his eyes.
Lewis shifted from foot to foot. "Alec has some... questions... about their plans. More importantly, who the mortals are working with in Sacramento. They’ve had a lot of meetings with Senator Barrymore’s office.” Joseph narrowed his eyes: the Barrymores hadn’t been directly affiliated with the Company, or its board of directors, but the family had been involved with Los Angeles and Republic politics since the Second Civil War. “Buying the site instead of working with the mortals’ governments seems a little fishy. It’s a little unclear whether the suggestion came from Scott’s descendants, or the Senator. What’s clearer is that, when we talk to the Senator’s office, there’s a lot of hints of things which might speed our requests through the Senate of the Republic of California. Alec thought, if we give the Scott project a little help obtaining things for the Senator’s office… play out enough rope to string them up..." He fiddled with his coffee mug. “ ‘Hoist by their own petard’ was his phrase.”
Joseph sighed. "We don't do things like that anymore! We had meetings about this! Meetings where I had to sit with that, that son in law of mine, all three versions of Menzoda’s Englishman, and make many, many promises for all eternity... wait," he interrupted himself. "Does Edward know about this?" His black eyes snapped with sudden interest.
Lewis sighed. "We're in an era free from Time, Joseph. If he will know, he knows now."
"But little Alec hasn't told him about Senator Barrymore’s possible fall from grace," Joseph said, triumphantly. "Mendoza's 24th Century Englishman is trying to pull a fast one on his Victorian… other self. Dad. Whatever they consider their relationship."
"I wouldn't put it quite like-" Lewis began.
Joseph grinned, a positively villainous look on his face. "Oh, you wouldn't, would you. Well, tell Checkerfield I'm in." He all but rubbed his hands in glee. "It's going to be just like the old days."
Lewis sighed. "We're on the side of goodness and light now, remember?" he asked his companion acerbically. A rhetorical question; barring injury or deliberate suppression, the immortal brain was incapable of losing data. “You might recall a certain day on Catalina Island in 2355, when we agreed not to meddle in mortal affairs unless asked by the mortals? No hijinks, Joseph."
“Mmm-hm,” Joseph said noncommittally. Lewis glanced at him suspiciously. “So, about that rope…” Joseph continued.
Lewis forbore – for the moment – to wrest a stronger promise from the ex-Facilitator. He sipped his coffee thoughtfully. “Senator Barrymore has a thing for San Francisco memorabilia,” he said, cautiously. “But most of the Company’s stash has been returned to the mortals.”
“His Lordship’s reconsidering that now, is he?” Joseph asked dryly.
Lewis narrowed his eyes, though possibly it was in reaction to a sandy downdraft gusting off the arid hills.
“It’s possible - possible - there’s a few Company caches that haven’t been cleared out,” Joseph continued. “And it’s possible I might know where one or two of those caches might be.”
Lewis frowned. “But the Temporal Concordance-“
Joseph shrugged. “There are a few event shadows the Temporal Concordance doesn’t fill in. What a surprise, some 24th century paper-pushers slacked off on Friday afternoons!” He grinned again. “Not the sort of thing Dr. Zeus liked to advertise, but it got around in Facilitator circles. There’s a basement in the Marina that was supposed to be the short term storage for a baseball signed by the 2082 Giants team after winning the World Series. The safe house wasn’t flagged for relocation before the ’86 quake. According to the tracker chip, the baseball’s preservation box is still airtight. It’s under about a foot of Marina fill, under new construction, so no one’s bothered digging it out.”
Lewis said thoughtfully, “There’s a few old assignments I checked on, that seemed to have fallen through the cracks. Like that filming script from that sci-fi movie,” he said. “The one with the whales? William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy?”
“Gosh, I remember that,” Joseph said. “I was working in the offices at Paramount that decade.”
“Let’s just say, it might not be where the Company thinks it was hidden,” Lewis said.
“I bet that’s how Aegeus furnished Eurobase One,” Joseph mused aloud. “A misplaced shipment here, a damaged tracker there. So, is this script in Los Angeles?”
“No, it was stashed in San Francisco after location filming wrapped. That’s why I thought of it, when you mentioned the baseball.” Lewis replied. He sipped his coffee thoughtfully as he looked across the valley’s bleached ochres, yellowed beiges and orange red highlights. “This is like the old days, isn’t it?” he asked Joseph. “This isn’t the first time questionable deals have crossed Alec’s desk in relation to Senator Barrymore. If there’s corruption, Alec wants to give the mortals every chance to make amends, or bring the guilty to justice. But this is awfully close to manipulating mortal events.”
“Don’t worry about it! Alec signed off on this plan, didn’t he? A quick trip to the Marina with a shovel, with a stop at – where did you stash the script?” Joseph interrupted himself.
“Pacific Heights,” Lewis said.
“A quick stop in Pacific Heights. We’ll be in and out in no time, nice and smooth,” Joseph said cheerfully. “How do you plan to get these antiquities into the hands of the project representatives?”
The rising sun broke over the eastern range, spreading the weak gold of the new day over the desolate valley, as the immortals urbanely plotted theft and bribery over the best coffee mortal civilization could provide.
It didn't go that smoothly, of course.
Some time later, two immortals walked into Ghirardelli's on Bay Street and ordered hot chocolate.
(Not precisely "ordered". Judicious whispers in the ears of certain politicians had softened the Republic of California’s pre-Silence sumptuary laws. Chocolate’s sale might remain illegal in the Republic of California, but the laws around group possession of chocolate and other prohibited substances had been considerably softened. Thus, a one-day – or one hour – membership to Raitlin’s Local or the Ghirardelli Chocolatiers Club might be obtained for a modest up-front fee.
But let's not get bogged down in details. Two immortals ordered hot chocolate.)
"With extra chocolate," one said. His smart suit was rumpled and dust-streaked, as was his hair and handsome face, an unlikely contrast to the nearly pristine and very casual backpack slung over one shoulder.
"And whipped cream," the other, shorter immortal added. His black eyes were a little wild.
“Can you make it Irish?” the first immortal, veteran of another Prohibition, asked.
“Uh, I guess,” the young woman behind the counter said. Her eyes flicked toward her buke, sitting screen-down on the counter, as if looking for help.
The shorter immortal sighed. “With booze,” he clarified.
“Oh!” Understanding dawned on the young woman’s face. “Yeah, most def.”
The immortals exchanged a look of relief. “Thank you,” the first immortal said. “That would be wonderful.”
They found a table on the edge of the crowded seating area. Outside, the view dropped away from a patio to the sparkling waters of San Francisco Bay. The bay was dotted with white sails flashing as brightly as the glittering reflections of the midafternoon sun.
“Well,” Lewis said brightly, with a desperately cheerful air, “that was an adventure.”
Joseph snorted. "If we'd gotten into the Company files before we cased the Marina, we could have saved ourselves a lot of digging.” He gently kicked the backpack with one sturdy, mud-crusted boot, and by extension the dirt-streaked box inside. “Good work remembering where you stashed the shooting script from that sci-fi movie."
"Signed by Nimoy and the rest of the cast, hidden under the floorboards of the Octagon House, not in the Marina, thank you very much," Lewis muttered. “Interesting that someone would think of time travel to save an extinct species. I wonder if old Dr. Zeus had a hand in script?”
“Probably not,” Joseph said. “Time travel was a movie fad back then. Think about it: Back to the Future, the Terminator movies... I wonder what happened to those scripts? Maybe they’re out there, too…”
"If you want them, please ask someone else to help get them,” Lewis said, wearily. “I’ve done my bit for cinema today. This was supposed to be a nice, easy pickup for an operative..."
"...except for that dog." Joseph shuddered.
Lewis shivered as well. "Hound of Hades, I think," he corrected, absently trying to straighten his torn trouser leg.
Joseph snorted again as the PA blared. "Order 65," a flattened voice announced, "two hot chocolates, extra chocolate sauce, extra whipped cream."
"Thank Bacchus," Lewis said, as they lunged for the hot drinks.
"The script," Joseph continued between sips at the scalding, slightly alcoholic hot chocolate (scalding for mortals, merely very hot for cyborgs), “tagged for future retrieval, and accidentally-on-purpose forgotten, not bad for a Literature Preservation Specialist-”
Joseph toasted Lewis' perfidy. Lewis reluctantly toasted Joseph’s… resourcefulness.
"-which Mendoza's Englishman can give to the Scott project, who will slip it Senator Barrymore, and she'll cut loose Scott Castle in completely unrelated gratitude," Joseph finished, slurring gratitude ever so slightly. “And if we just so happen to discover, in a few months, there’s an active tracker-bug on the artifact, ha!” He giggled slightly.
Lewis squinted at Joseph. "I really thought we were done with this sort of--" he waved at the backpack, and Joseph, and by extension the entire affair. "--scheming. I'm sorry I dragged you into this, Joseph."
"Sorry?" Joseph chuckled. "Sorry? This is the most fun I've had in decades."