The Only Game in Town
by Poul Anderson
John Sandoval did not belong to his name. Nor did it seem right that he should stand in slacks and aloha shirt before an apartment window opening on midtwentieth-century Manhattan. Everard was used to anachronism, but the dark hooked face confronting him always seemed to want warpaint, a horse, and a gun sighted on some pale thief.
“Okay,” he said. “The Chinese discovered America. Interesting, but why does the fact need my services?”
“I wish to hell I knew,” Sandoval answered.
His rangy form turned about on the polar-bear rug, which Bjarni Herjulfsson had once given to Everard, until he was staring outward. Towers were sharp against a clear sky; the noise of traffic was muted by height. His hands clasped and unclasped behind his back.
“I was ordered to co-opt an Unattached agent, go back with him and take whatever measures seemed indicated,” he went on after a while. “I knew you best, so…” His voice trailed off.
“But shouldn’t you get an Indian like yourself?” asked Everard. “I’d seem rather out of place in thirteenth-century America.”
“So much the better. Make it impressive, mysterious.… It won’t be too tough a job, really.”
“Of course not,” said Everard. “Whatever the job actually is.”
He took pipe and tobacco pouch from his disreputable smoking jacket and stuffed the bowl in quick, nervous jabs. One of the hardest lessons he had had to learn, when first recruited into the Time Patrol, was that every important task does not require a vast organization. That was the characteristic twentieth-century approach; but earlier cultures, like Athenian Hellas and Kamakura Japan—and later civilizations too, here and there in history—had concentrated on the development of individual excellence. A single graduate of the Patrol Academy (equipped, to be sure, with tools and weapons of the future) could be the equivalent of a brigade.
But it was a matter of necessity as well as aesthetics. There were all too few people to watch over all too many thousands of years.
“I get the impression,” said Everard slowly, “that this is not a simple rectification of extra-temporal interference.”
“Right,” said Sandoval in a harsh voice. “When I reported what I’d found, the Yuan milieu office made a thorough investigation. No time travelers are involved. Kublai Khan thought this up entirely by himself. He may have been inspired by Marco Polo’s accounts of Venetian and Arab sea voyages, but it was legitimate history, even if Marco’s book doesn’t mention anything of the sort.”
“The Chinese had quite a nautical tradition of their own,” said Everard. “Oh, it’s all very natural. So how do we come in?”
He got his pipe lit and drew hard on it. Sandoval still hadn’t spoken, so he asked, “How did you happen to find this expedition? It wasn’t in Navajo country, was it?”
“Hell, I’m not confined to studying my own tribe,” Sandoval answered. “Too few Amerinds in the Patrol as is, and it’s a nuisance disguising other breeds. I’ve been working on Athabascan migrations generally.” Like Keith Denison, he was an ethnic Specialist, tracing the history of peoples who never wrote their own so that the Patrol could know exactly what the events were that it safeguarded.
“I was working along the eastern slope of the Cascades, near Crater Lake,” he went on. “That’s Lutuami country, but I had reason to believe an Athabascan tribe I’d lost track of had passed that way. The natives spoke of mysterious strangers corning from the north. I went to have a look, and there the expedition was, Mongols with horses. I checked their back trail and found their camp at the mouth of the Chehalis River, where a few more Mongols were helping the Chinese sailors guard the ships. I hopped back upstairs like a bat out of Los Angeles and reported.”
Everard sat down and stared at the other man. “How thorough an investigation did get made at the Chinese end?” he said. “Are you absolutely certain there was no extratemporal interference? It could be one of those unplanned blunders, you know, whose consequences aren’t obvious for decades.”
“I thought of that too, when I got my assignment,” Sandoval nodded. “I even went directly to Yuan milieu HQ in Khan Baligh—Cambaluc, or Peking to you. They told me they’d checked it clear back to Genghis’s lifetime, and spatially as far as Indonesia. And it was all perfectly okay, like the Norse and their Vinland. It simply didn’t happen to have gotten the same publicity. As far as the Chinese court knew, an expedition had been sent out and had never returned, and Kublai decided it wasn’t worthwhile to send another. The record of it lay in the Imperial archives, but was destroyed during the Ming revolt which expelled the Mongols. Historiography forgot the incident.”
Still Everard brooded. Normally he liked his work, but there was something abnormal about this occasion.
“Obviously,” he said, “the expedition met a disaster. We’d like to know what. But why do you need an Unattached agent to spy on them?”
Sandoval turned from the window. It crossed Everard’s mind again, fleetingly, how little the Navajo belonged here. He was born in 1930, had fought in Korea and gone through college on the G.I. bill before the Patrol contacted him, but somehow he never quite fitted the twentieth century.
Well, do any of us? Could any man with real roots stand knowing what will eventually happen to his own people?
“But I’m not supposed to spy!” Sandoval exclaimed. “When I’d reported, my orders came straight back from Danellian headquarters. No explanation, no excuses, the naked command: to arrange that disaster. To revise history myself!”
Anno Domini One Thousand Two Hundred Eighty:
The writ of Kublai Khan ran over degrees of latitude and longitude; he dreamed of world empire, and his court honored any guest who brought fresh knowledge or new philosophy. A young Venetian merchant named Marco Polo had become a particular favorite. But not all peoples desired a Mongol overlord. Revolutionary secret societies germinated throughout those several conquered realms lumped together as Cathay. Japan, with the Hojo family an able power behind the throne, had already repelled one invasion. Nor were the Mongols unified, save in theory. The Russian princes had become tax collectors for the Golden Horde; the Il-Khan Abaka sat in Baghdad.
Elsewhere, a shadowy Abbasid Caliphate had refuge in Cairo; Delhi was under the Slave Dynasty; Nicholas III was Pope; Guelphs and Ghibbelines were ripping up Italy; Rudolf of Habsburg was German Emperor, Philip the Bold was King of France, Edward Longshanks ruled England. Contemporaries included Dante Alighieri, Joannes Duns Scotus, Roger Bacon, and Thomas the Rhymer.
And in North America, Manse Everard and John Sandoval reined their horses to stare down a long hill.
“The date I first saw them is last week,” said the Navajo. “They’ve come quite a ways since. At this rate, they’ll be in Mexico in a couple of months, even allowing for some rugged country ahead.”
“By Mongol standards,” Everard told him, “they’re proceeding leisurely.”
He raised his binoculars. Around him, the land burned green with April. Even the highest and oldest beeches fluttered gay young leaves. Pines roared in the wind, which blew down off the mountains cold and swift and smelling of melted snow, through a sky where birds were homebound in such flocks that they could darken the sun. The peaks of the Cascade range seemed to float in the west, blue-white, distant, and holy. Eastward the foothills tumbled in clumps of forest and meadow to a valley, and so at last, beyond the horizon, to prairies thunderous under buffalo herds.
Everard focused on the expedition. It wound through the open areas, more or less following a small river. Some seventy men rode shaggy, dun-colored, short-legged, long-headed Asian horses. They led pack animals and remounts. He identified a few native guides, as much by their awkward seat in the saddle as by their physiognomy and clothing. But the newcomers held his attention most.
“A lot of pregnant mares toting packs,” he remarked, half to himself. “I suppose they took as many horses in the ships as they could, letting them out to exercise and grazewherever they made a stop. Now they’re breeding more as they go along. That kind of pony is tough enough to survive such treatment.”
“The detachment at the ships is also raising horses,” Sandoval informed him. “I saw that much.”
“What else do you know about this bunch?”
“No more than I’ve told you, which is little more than you’ve now seen! And that record which lay for a while in Kublai’s archives. But you recall, it barely notes that four ships under the command of the Noyon Toktai and the scholar Li Tai-Tsung were dispatched to explore the islands beyond Japan.”
Everard nodded absently. No sense in sitting here and rehashing what they’d already gone over a hundred times. It was only a way of postponing action.
Sandoval cleared his throat. “I’m still dubious about both of us going down there,” he said. “Why don’t you stay in reserve, in case they get nasty?”
“Hero complex, huh?” said Everard. “No, we’re better off together. I don’t expect trouble anyhow. Not yet. Those boys are much too intelligent to antagonize anyone gratuitously. They’ve stayed on good terms with the Indians, haven’t they? And we’ll be a far more unknown quantity.… I wouldn’t mind a drink beforehand, though.”
“Yeh. And afterward, too!”
Each dipped in his saddlebag, took out a half-gallon canteen and hoisted it. The Scotch was pungent in Everard’s throat, heartening in his veins. He clucked to his horse and both Patrolmen rode down the slope.
A whistling cut the air. They had been seen. He maintained a steady pace toward the head of the Mongol line. A pair of outriders closed in on either flank, arrows nocked to their short powerful bows, but did not interfere.
I suppose we look harmless, Everard thought. Like Sandoval, he wore twentieth-century outdoor clothes: hunting jacket to break the wind, hat to keep off the rain. His own outfit was a good deal less elegant than the Navajo’s Abercrombie Fitch special. They both bore daggers for show, Mauser machine pistols and thirtieth-century stun-beam projectors for business.
The troop reined in, so disciplined that it was almost like one man halting. Everard scanned them closely as he neared. He had gotten a pretty complete electronic education in an hour or so before departure—language, history, technology, manners, morals—of Mongols and Chinese and even the local Indians. But he had never before seen these people close up.
They weren’t spectacular: stocky, bowlegged, with thin beards and flat, broad faces that shone greased in the sunlight. They were all well equipped, wearing boots and trousers, laminated leather cuirasses with lacquer ornamentation, conical steel helmets that might have a spike or plume on top. Their weapons were curved sword, knife, lance, compound bow. One man near the head of the line bore a standard of gold-braided yak tails. They watched the Patrolmen approach, their narrow dark eyes impassive.
The chief was readily identified. He rode in the van, and a tattered silken cloak blew from his shoulders. He was rather larger and even more hard-faced than his average trooper, with a reddish beard and almost Roman nose. The Indian guide beside him gaped and huddled back; but Toktai Noyon held his place, measuring Everard with a steady carnivore look.
“Greeting,” he called, when the newcomers were in earshot. “What spirit brings you?” He spoke the Lutuami dialect, which was later to become the Klamath language, with an atrocious accent.
Everard replied in flawless, barking Mongolian: “Greeting-to you, Toktai son of Batu. The Tengri willing, we come in peace.”
It was an effective touch. Everard glimpsed Mongols reaching for lucky charms or making signs against the evil eye. But the man mounted at Toktai’s left was quick to recover a schooled self-possession. “Ah,” he said, “so men of the Western lands have also reached this country. We did not know that.”
Everard looked at him. He was taller than any Mongol, his skin almost white, his features and hands delicate. Though dressed much like the others, he was unarmed. He seemed older than the Noyon, perhaps fifty. Everard bowed in the saddle and switched to North Chinese: “Honored Li Tai-Tsung, it grieves this insignificant person to contradict your eminence, but we belong to the great realm further south.”
“We have heard rumors,” said the scholar. He couldn’t quite suppress excitement. “Even this far north, tales have been borne of a rich and splendid country. We are seeking it that we may bring your Khan the greeting of the Kha Khan, Kublai son of Tuli, son of Genghis; the earth lies at his feet.”
“We know of the Kha Khan,” said Everard, “as we know of the Caliph, the Pope, the Emperor, and all lesser monarchs.” He had to pick his way with care, not openly insulting Cathay’s ruler but still subtly putting him in his place. “Little is known in return of us, for our master does not seek the outside world, nor encourage it to seek him. Permit me to introduce my unworthy self. I am called Everard and am not, as my appearance would suggest, a Russian or Westerner. I belong to the border guardians.”
Let them figure out what that meant.
“You didn’t come with much company,” snapped Toktai.
“More was not required,” said Everard in his smoothest voice.
“And you are far from home,” put in Li.
“No farther than you would be, honorable sirs, in the Kirghiz marches.”
Toktai clapped a hand to his sword hilt. His eyes were chill and wary. “Come,” he said. “Be welcome as ambassadors, then. Let’s make camp and hear the word of your king.”
The sun, low above the western peaks, turned their snowcaps tarnished silver. Shadows lengthened down in the valley, the forest darkened, but the open meadow seemed to glow all the brighter. The underlying quiet made almost a sounding board for such noises as existed: rapid swirl and cluck of the river, ring of an ax, horses cropping in long grass. Woodsmoke tinged the air.
The Mongols were obviously taken aback at their visitors and this early halt. They kept wooden faces, but their eyes would stray to Everard and Sandoval and they would mutter formulas of their various religions—chiefly pagan, but some Buddhist, Moslem, or Nestorian prayers. It did not impair the efficiency with which they set up camp, posted guard, cared for the animals, prepared to cook supper. But Everard judged they were more quiet than usual. The patterns impressed on his brain by the educator called Mongols talkative and cheerful as a rule.
He sat cross-legged on a tent floor. Sandoval, Toktai, and Li completed the circle. Rugs lay under them, and a brazier kept a pot of tea hot. It was the only tent pitched, probably the only one available, taken along for use on ceremonial occasions like this. Toktai poured kumiss with his own hands and offered it to Everard, who slurped as loudly as etiquette demanded and passed it on. He had drunk worse things than fermented mare’s milk, but was glad that everyone switched to tea after the ritual.
The Mongol chief spoke. He couldn’t keep his tone smooth, as his Chinese amanuensis did. There was an instinctive bristling: what foreigner dares approach the Kha Khan’s man, save on his belly? But the words remained courteous: “Now let our guests declare the business of their king. First, would you name him for us?”
“His name may not be spoken,” said Everard. “Of his realm you have heard only the palest rumors. You may judge his power, Noyon, by the fact that he needed only us two to come this far, and that we needed only one mount apiece.”
Toktai grunted. “Those are handsome animals you ride, though I wonder how well they’d do on the steppes. Did it take you long to get here?”
“No more than a day, Noyon. We have means.”
Everard reached in his jacket and brought out a couple of small gift-wrapped parcels. “Our lord bade us present the Cathayan leaders with these tokens of regard.”
While the paper was being removed, Sandoval leaned over and hissed in English: “Dig their expressions, Manse. We goofed a bit.”
“That flashy cellophane and stuff impresses a barbarian like Toktai. But notice Li. His civilization was doing calligraphy when the ancestors of Bonwit Teller were painting themselves blue. His opinion of our taste has just nosedived.”
Everard shrugged imperceptibly. “Well, he’s right, isn’t he?”
Their colloquy had not escaped the others. Toktai gave them a hard stare, but returned to his present, a flashlight, which had to be demonstrated and exclaimed over. He was a little afraid of it at first, even mumbled a charm; then he remembered that a Mongol wasn’t allowed to be afraid of anything except thunder, mastered himself, and was soon as delighted as a child. The best bet for a Confucian scholar like Li seemed to be a book, the Family of Man collection, whose diversity and alien pictorial technique might impress him. He was effusive in his thanks, but Everard doubted if he was overwhelmed. A Patrolman soon learned that sophistication exists at any level of technology.
Gifts must be made in return: a fine Chinese sword and a bundle of sea-otter pelts from the coast. It was quite some time before the conversation could turn back to business. Then Sandoval managed to get the other party’s account first.
“Since you know so much,” Toktai began, “you must also know that our invasion of Japan failed several years ago.”
“The will of heaven was otherwise,” said Li, with courtier blandness.
“Horse apples!” growled Toktai. “The stupidity of men was otherwise, you mean. We were too few, too ignorant, and we’d come too far in seas too rough. And what of it? We’ll return there one day.”
Everard knew rather sadly that they would, and that a storm would destroy the fleet and drown who knows how many young men. But he let Toktai continue:
“The Kha Khan realized we must learn more about the islands. Perhaps we should try to establish a base somewhere north of Hokkaido. Then, too, we have long heard rumors about lands farther west. Fishermen are blown off course now and then, and have glimpses; traders from Siberia speak of a strait and a country beyond. The Kha Khan got four ships with Chinese crews and told me to take a hundred Mongol warriors and see what I could discover.”
Everard nodded, unsurprised. The Chinese had been sailing junks for hundreds of years, some holding up to a thousand passengers. True, these craft weren’t as seaworthy as they would become in later centuries under Portuguese influence, and their owners had never been much attracted by any ocean, let alone the cold northern waters. But still, there were some Chinese navigators who would have picked up tricks of the trade from stray Koreans and Formosans, if not from their own fathers. They must have a little familiarity with the Kuriles, at least.
“We followed two chains of islands, one after another,” said Toktai. “They were bleak enough, but we could stop here and there, let the horses out, and learn something from the natives. Though the Tengri know it’s hard to do that last, when you may have to interpret through six languages! We did find out that there are two mainlands, Siberia and another, which come so close together up north that a man might cross in a skin boat, or walk across the ice in winter sometimes. Finally we came to the new mainland. A big country; forests, much game and seals. Too rainy, though. Our ships seemed to want to continue, so we followed the coast, more or less.”
Everard visualized a map. If you go first along the Kuriles and then the Aleutians, you are never far from land. Fortunate to avoid the shipwreck which had been a distinct possibility, the shallow-draft junks had been able to find anchorage even at those rocky islands. Also, the current urged them along, and they were very nearly on a great-circle course. Toktai had discovered Alaska before he quite knew what had happened. Since the country grew ever more hospitable as he coasted south, he passed up Puget Sound and proceeded clear to the Chehalis River. Maybe the Indians had warned him the Columbia mouth, further on, was dangerous—and, more recently, had helped his horsemen cross the great stream on rafts.
“We set up camp when the war was waning,” said the Mongol. “The tribes thereabouts are backward, but friendly. They gave us all the food, women, and help we could ask for. In return, our sailors taught them some tricks of fishing and boatbuilding. We wintered there, learned some of the languages, and made trips inland. Everywhere were tales of huge forests and plains where herds of wild cattle blacken the earth. We saw enough to know the stories were true. I’ve never been in so rich a land.” His eyes gleamed tigerishly. “And so few dwellers, who don’t even know the use of iron.”
“Noyon,” murmured Li warningly. He nodded his head very slightly toward the Patrolmen. Toktai clamped his mouth shut.
Li turned to Everard and said, “There were also rumors of a golden realm far to the south. We felt it our duty to investigate this, as well as explore the country in between. We had not looked for the honor of being met by your eminent selves.”
“The honor is all ours,” Everard purred. Then, putting on his gravest face: “My lord of the Golden Empire, who may not be named, has sent us in a spirit of friendship. It would grieve him to see you meet disaster. We come to warn you.”
“What?” Toktai sat up straight. One sinewy hand snatched for the sword which, politely, he wasn’t wearing. “What in the hells is this?”
“In the hells indeed, Noyon. Pleasant though this country seems, it lies under a curse. Tell him, my brother.”
Sandoval, who had a better speaking voice, took over. His yarn had been concocted with an eye to exploiting that superstition which still lingered in the half-civilized Mongols, without generating too much Chinese skepticism. There were really two great southern kingdoms, he explained. Their own lay far away; its rival was somewhat north and east of it, with a citadel on the plains. Both states possessed immense powers, call them sorcery or subtle engineering, as you wished. The northerly empire, Badguys, considered all this territory as its own and would not tolerate a foreign expedition. Its scouts were certain to discover the Mongols before long, and would annihilate them with thunderbolts. The benevolent southern land of Goodguys could offer no protection, could only send emissaries warning the Mongols to turn home again.
“Why have the natives not spoken of these overlords?” asked Li shrewdly.
“Has every little tribesman in the jungles of Burma heard about the Kha Khan?” responded Sandoval.
“I am a stranger and ignorant,” said Li. “Forgive me if I do not understand your talk of irresistible weapons.”
Which is the politest way I’ve ever been called a liar, thought Everard. Aloud: “I can offer a small demonstration, if the Noyon has an animal that may be killed.”
Toktai considered. His visage might have been scarred stone, but sweat filmed it. He clapped his hands and barked orders to the guard who looked in. Thereafter they made small talk against a silence that thickened.
A warrior appeared after some endless part of an hour. He said that a couple of horsemen had lassoed a deer. Would it serve the Noyon’s purpose? It would. Toktai led the way out, shouldering through a thick and buzzing swarm of men. Everard followed, wishing this weren’t needful. He slipped the rifle stock onto his Mauser. “Care to do the job?” he asked Sandoval.
The deer, a doe, had been forced back to camp. She trembled by the river, the horsehair ropes about her neck. The sun, just touching the western peaks, turned her to bronze. There was a blind sort of gentleness in her look at Everard. He waved back the men around her and took aim. The first slug killed her, but he kept the gun chattering till her carcass was gruesome.
When he lowered his weapon, the air felt somehow rigid. He looked across all the thick bandy-legged bodies, the flat, grimly controlled faces; he could smell them with unnatural sharpness, a clean odor of sweat and horses and smoke. He felt himself as nonhuman as they must see him.
“That is the least of the arms used here,” he said. “A soul so torn from the body would not find its way home.”
He turned on his heel. Sandoval followed him. Their horses had been staked out, the gear piled close by. They saddled, unspeaking, mounted and rode off into the forest.
The fire blazed up in a gust of wind. Sparingly laid by a woodsman, in that moment it barely brought the two out of shadow—a glimpse of brow, nose, and cheekbones, a gleam of eyes. It sank down again to red and blue sputtering above white coals, and darkness took the men.
Everard wasn’t sorry. He fumbled his pipe in his hands, bit hard on it and drank smoke, but found little comfort. When he spoke, the vast soughing of trees, high up in the night, almost buried his voice, and he did not regret that either.
Nearby were their sleeping bags, their horses, the scooter—antigravity sled cum space-time hopper—which had brought them. Otherwise the land was empty; mile upon mile, human fires like their own were as small and lonely as stars in the universe. Somewhere a wolf howled.
“I suppose,” Everard said, “every cop feels like a bastard occasionally. You’ve just been an observer so far, Jack. Active assignments, such as I get, are often hard to accept.”
“Yeh.” Sandoval had been even more quiet than his friend. He had scarcely stirred since supper.
“And now this. Whatever you have to do to cancel a temporal interference, you can at least think you’re restoring the original line of development.” Everard fumed on his pipe. “Don’t remind me that ‘original’ is meaningless in this context. It’s a consoling word.”
“But when our bosses, our dead Danellian supermen, tell us to interfere… We know Toktai’s people never came back to Cathay. Why should you or I have to take a hand? If they ran into hostile Indians or something and were wiped-out, I wouldn’t mind. At least, no more than I mind any similar incident in that Goddamned slaughter-house they call human history.”
“We don’t have to kill them, you know. Just make them turn back. Your demonstration this afternoon may be enough.”
“Yeah. Turn back… and what? Probably perish at sea. They won’t have an easy trip home—storm, fog, contrary currents, rocks—in those primitive ships meant mostly for rivers. And we’ll have set them on that trip at precisely that time! If we didn’t interfere, they’d start home later, the circumstances of the voyage would be different… Why should we take the guilt?”
“They could even make it home,” murmured Sandoval.
“What?” Everard started.
“The way Toktai was talking. I’m sure he plans to go back on a horse, not on those ships. As he’s guessed, Bering Strait is easy to cross; the Aleuts do it all the time. Manse, I’m afraid it isn’t enough simply to spare them.”
“But they aren’t going to get home! We know that!”
“Suppose they do make it.” Sandoval began to talk a bit louder and much faster. The night wind roared around his words. “Let’s play with ideas awhile. Suppose Toktai pushes on southeastward. It’s hard to see what could stop him. His men can live off the country, even the deserts, far more handily than Coronado or any of those boys. He hasn’t terribly far to go before he reaches a high-grade neolithic people, the agricultural Pueblo tribes. That will encourage him all the more. He’ll be in Mexico before August. Mexico’s just as dazzling now as it was—will be—in Cortez’s day. And even more tempting: the Aztecs and Toltecs are still settling who’s to be master, with any number of other tribes hanging around ready to help a newcomer against both. The Spanish guns made, will make, no real difference, as you’ll recall if you’ve read Diaz. The Mongols are as superior, man for man, as any Spaniard… Not that I imagine Toktai would wade right in. He’d doubtless be very polite, spend the winter, learn everything he could. Next year he’d go back north, proceed home, and report to Kublai that some of the richest, most gold-stuffed territory on earth was wide open for conquest!”
“How about the other Indians?” put in Everard. “I’m vague on them.”
“The Mayan New Empire is at its height. A tough nut to crack, but a correspondingly rewarding one. I should think, once the Mongols got established in Mexico, there’d be no stopping them. Peru has an even higher culture at this moment, and much less organization than Pizarro faced; the Quechua-Aymar, the so-called Inca race, are still only one power down there among several.
“And then, the land! Can you visualize what a Mongol tribe would make of the Great Plains?”
“I can’t see them emigrating in hordes,” said Everard. There was that about Sandoval’s voice which made him uneasy and defensive. “Too much Siberia and Alaska in the way.”
“Worse obstacles have been overcome. I don’t mean they’d pour in all at once. It might take them a few centuries to start mass immigration, as it will take the Europeans. I can imagine a string of clans and tribes being established in the course of some years, all down western North America. Mexico and Yucatan get gobbled up—or, more likely, become khanates. The herding tribes move eastward as their own population grows and as new immigrants arrive. Remember, the Yuan dynasty is due to be overthrown in less than a century. That’ll put additional pressure on the Mongols in Asia to go elsewhere. And Chinese will come here too, to farm and to share in the gold.”
“I should think, if you don’t mind my saying so,” Everard broke in softly, “that you of all people wouldn’t want to hasten the conquest of America.”
“It’d be a different conquest,” said Sandoval. “I don’t care about the Aztecs; if you study them, you’ll agree that Cortez did Mexico a favor. It’d be rough on other, more harmless tribes too—for a while. And yet, the Mongols aren’t such devils. Are they? A Western background prejudices us. We forget how much torture and massacre the Europeans were enjoying at the same time.
“The Mongols are quite a bit like the old Romans, really. Same practice of depopulating areas that resist, but respecting the rights of those who make submission. Same armed protection and competent government. Same unimaginative, uncreative national character; but the same vague awe and envy of true civilization. The Pax Mongolica, right now, unites a bigger area, and brings more different peoples into stimulating contact, than that piddling Roman Empire ever imagined.
“As for the Indians—remember, the Mongols are herdsmen. There won’t be anything like the unsolvable conflict between hunter and farmer that made the white man destroy the Indian. The Mongol hasn’t got race prejudices, either. And after a little fighting, the average Navajo, Cherokee, Seminole, Algonquin, Chippewa, Dakota, will be glad to submit and become allied. Why not? He’ll get horses, sheep, cattle, textiles, metallurgy. He’ll outnumber the invaders, and be on much more nearly equal terms with them than with white farmers and machine-age industry. And there’ll be the Chinese, I repeat, leavening the whole mixture, teaching civilization and sharpening wits…
“Good God, Manse! When Columbus gets here, he’ll find his Grand Cham all right! The Sachem Khan of the strongest nation on earth!”
Sandoval stopped. Everard listened to the gallows creak of branches in the wind. He looked into the night for a long while before he said, “It could be. Of course, we’d have to stay in this century till the crucial point was past. Our own world wouldn’t exist. Wouldn’t ever have existed.”
“It wasn’t such a hell of a good world anyway,” said Sandoval, as if in dream.
“You might think about your… oh… parents. They’d never have been born either.”
“They lived in a tumbledown hogan. I saw my father crying once, because he couldn’t buy shoes for us in winter. My mother died of t.b.”
Everard sat unstirring. It was Sandoval who shook himself and jumped to his feet with a rattling kind of laugh. “What have I been mumbling? It was just a yarn, Manse. Let’s turn in. Shall I take first watch?”
Everard agreed, but lay long awake.
The scooter had jumped two days futureward and now hovered invisibly far above to the naked eye. Around it, the air was thin and sharply cold. Everard shivered as he adjusted the electronic telescope. Even at full magnification, the caravan was little more than specks toiling across green immensity. But no one else in the Western Hemisphere could have been riding horses.
He twisted in the saddle to face his companion. “So now what?”
Sandoval’s broad countenance was unreadable. “Well, if our demonstration didn’t work—”
“It sure as hell didn’t! I swear they’re moving south twice as fast as before. Why?”
“I’d have to know all of them a lot better than I do, as individuals, to give you a real answer, Manse. But essentially it must be that we challenged their courage. A warlike culture, nerve and hardihood its only absolute virtues… what choice have they got but to go on? If they retreated before a mere threat, they’d never be able to live with themselves.”
“But Mongols aren’t idiots! They didn’t conquer everybody in sight by bull strength, but by jolly well understanding military principles better. Toktai should retreat, report to the Emperor what he saw, and organize a bigger expedition.”
“The men at the ships can do that,” Sandoval reminded. “Now that I think about it, I see how grossly we underestimated Toktai. He must have set a date, presumably next year, for the ships to try and go home if he doesn’t return. When he finds something interesting along the way, like us, he can dispatch an Indian with a letter to the base camp.”
Everard nodded. It occurred to him that he had been rushed into this job, all the way down the line, with never a pause to plan it as he should have done. Hence this botch. But how much blame must fall on the subconscious reluctance of John Sandoval? After a minute Everard said: “They may even have smelled something fishy about us. The Mongols were always good at psychological warfare.”
“Could be. But what’s our next move?”
Swoop down from above, fire a few blasts from the forty-first-century energy gun mounted in this timecycle, and that’s the end…No, by God, they can send me to the exile planet before I’ll do any such thing. There are decent limits.
“We’ll rig up a more impressive demonstration,” said Everard.
“And if it flops too?”
“Shut up! Give it a chance!”
“I was just wondering.” The wind harried under Sandoval’s words. “Why not cancel the expedition instead? Go back in time a couple of years and persuade Kublai Khan it isn’t worthwhile sending explorers eastward. Then all this would never have happened.”
“You know Patrol regs forbid us to make historical changes.”
“What do you call this we’re doing?”
“Something specifically ordered by supreme HQ. Perhaps to correct some interference elsewhere, elsewhen. How should I know? I’m only a step on the evolutionary ladder. They have abilities a million years hence that I can’t even guess at.”
“Father knows best,” murmured Sandoval.
Everard set his jaws. “The fact remains,” he said, “the court of Kublai, the most powerful man on earth, is more important and crucial than anything here in America. No, you rang me in on this miserable job, and now I’ll pull rank on you if I must. Our orders are to make these people give up their exploration. What happens afterward is none of our business. So they don’t make it home. We won’t be the proximate cause, any more than you’re a murderer if you invite a man to dinner and he has a fatal accident on the way.”
“Stop quacking and let’s get to work,” rapped Sandoval.
Everard sent the scooter gliding forward. “See that hill?” he pointed after a while. “It’s on Toktai’s line of march, but I think he’ll camp a few miles short of it tonight, down in that little meadow by the stream. The hill will be in his plain view, though. Let’s set up shop on it.”
“And make fireworks? It’ll have to be pretty fancy. Those Cathayans know about gunpowder. They even have military rockets.”
“Small ones. I know. But when I assembled my gear for this trip, I packed away some fairly versatile gadgetry, in case my first attempt failed.”
The hill bore a sparse crown of pine trees. Everard landed the scooter among them and began to unload boxes from its sizeable baggage compartments. Sandoval helped, wordless. The horses, Patrol trained, stepped calmly off the framework stalls which had borne them and started grazing along the slope.
After a while the Indian broke his silence. “This isn’t my line of work. What are you rigging?”
Everard patted the small machine he had half assembled. “It’s adapted from a weather-control system used in the Cold Centuries era upstairs. A potential distributor. It can make some of the damnedest lightning you ever saw, with thunder to match.”
“Mmm… the great Mongol weakness.” Suddenly Sandoval grinned. “You win. We might as well relax and enjoy this.”
“Fix us a supper, will you, while I put the gimmick together? No fire, naturally. We don’t want any mundane smoke.… Oh, yes, I also have a mirage projector. If you’ll change clothes and put on a hood or something at the appropriate moment, so you can’t be recognized, I’ll paint a mile-high picture of you, half as ugly as life.”
“How about a p.a. system? Navajo chants can be fairly alarming, if you don’t know it’s just a yeibichai or whatever.”
The day waned. It grew murky under the pines; the air was chill and pungent. At last Everard devoured a sandwich and watched through his binoculars as the Mongol vanguard checked that campsite he had predicted. Others came riding in with their day’s catch of game and went to work cooking. The main body showed up at sundown, posted itself efficiently, and ate. Toktai was indeed pushing hard, using every daylight moment. As darkness closed down, Everard glimpsed outposts mounted and with strung bows. He could not keep up his own spirits, however hard he tried. He was bucking men who had shaken the earth.
Early stars glittered above snowpeaks. It was time to begin work.
“Got our horses tethered, Jack? They might panic. I’m fairly sure the Mongol horses will! Okay, here goes.” Everard flipped a main switch and squatted by the dimly lit control dials of his apparatus.
First there was the palest blue flicker between earth and sky. Then the lightnings began, tongue after forked tongue leaping, trees smashed at a blow, the mountainsides rocking under their noise. Everard threw out ball lightning, spheres of flame which whirled and curvetted, trailing sparks, shooting across to the camp and exploding above it till the sky seemed white hot.
Deafened and half blinded, he managed to project a sheet of fluorescing ionization. Like northern lights the great banners curled, bloody red and bone white, hissing under the repeated thunder cracks. Sandoval trod forth. He had stripped to his pants, daubed clay on his body in archaic patterns; his face was not veiled after all, but smeared with earth and twisted into something Everard would not have known. The machine scanned him and altered its output. That which stood forth against the aurora was taller than a mountain. It moved in a shuffling dance, from horizon to horizon and back to the sky, and it wailed and barked in a falsetto louder than thunder.
Everard crouched beneath the lurid light, his fingers stiff on the control board. He knew a primitive fear of his own; the dance woke things in him that he had forgotten.
Judas priest! If this doesn’t make them quit…
His mind returned to him. He even looked at his watch. Half an hour… give them another fifteen minutes, in which the display tapered off… They’d surely stay in camp till dawn rather than blunder wildly out in the dark, they had that much discipline. So keep everything under wraps for several hours more, then administer the last stroke to their nerves by a single electric bolt smiting a tree right next to them… Everard waved Sandoval back. The Indian sat down, panting harder than his exertions seemed to warrant.
When the noise was gone, Everard said, “Nice show, Jack.” His voice sounded tinny and strange in his ears.
“I hadn’t done anything like that for years,” muttered Sandoval. He struck a match, startling noise in the quietness. The brief flame showed his lips gone thin. Then he shook out the match and only his cigarette-end glowed.
“Nobody I knew, on the reservation, took that stuff seriously,” he went on after a moment. “A few of the older men wanted us boys to learn it to keep the custom alive, to remind us we were still a people. But mostly our idea was to pick up some change by dancing for tourists.”
There was a longer pause. Everard doused the projector completely. In the murk that followed, Sandoval’s cigarette waxed and waned, a tiny red Algol.
“Tourists!” he said at last.
After more minutes: “Tonight I was dancing for a purpose. It meant something. I never felt that way before.”
Everard was silent.
Until one of the horses, which had plunged at its halter’s end during the performance and was still nervous, whinnied.
Everard looked up. Night met his eyes. “Did you hear anything, Jack?”
The flashlight beam speared him.
For an instant he stared blinded at it. Then he sprang erect, cursing and snatching for his stun pistol. A shadow ran from behind one of the trees. It struck him in the ribs. He lurched back. The beam gun flew to his hand. He shot at random.
The flashlight swept about once more. Everard glimpsed Sandoval. The Navajo had not donned his weapons again. Unarmed, he dodged the sweep of a Mongol blade. The swordsman ran after him. Sandoval reverted to Patrol judo. He went to one knee. Clumsy afoot, the Mongol slashed, missed, and ran straight into a shoulder block to the belly. Sandoval rose with the blow. The heel of his hand jolted upward to the Mongol’s chin. The helmeted head snapped back. Sandoval chopped a hand at the Adam’s apple, yanked the sword from its owner’s grasp, turned and parried a cut from behind.
A voice yammered above the Mongol yipping, giving orders. Everard backed away. He had knocked one attacker out with a bolt from his pistol. There were others between him and the scooter. He circled to face them. A lariat curled around his shoulders. It tightened with one expert heave. He went over. Four men piled on him. He saw half a dozen lance butts crack down oh Sandoval’s head, then there wasn’t time for anything but fighting. Twice he got to his feet, but his gun was gone by now, the Mauser was plucked from its holster—the little men were pretty good at yawara-style combat themselves. They dragged him down and hit him with fists, boots, dagger pommels. He never quite lost consciousness, but he finally stopped caring.
Toktai struck camp before dawn. The first sun saw his troop wind between scattered copses on a broad valley floor. The land was turning flat and arid, the mountains to the right farther away, fewer snowpeaks visible and those ghostly in a pale sky.
The hardy small Mongol horses trotted ahead—plop of hoofs, squeak and jingle of harness. Looking back, Everard saw the line as a compact mass; lances rose and fell, pennants and plumes and cloaks fluttered beneath, and under that were the helmets, with a brown slit-eyed face and a grotesquely painted cuirass visible here and there. No one spoke, and he couldn’t read any of those expressions.
His brain felt sandy. They had left his hands free, but lashed his ankles to the stirrups, and the cord chafed. They had also stripped him naked—sensible precaution, who knew what instruments might be sewn into his garments?—and the Mongol garb given him in exchange was ludicrously small. The seams had had to be slit before he could even get the tunic on.
The projector and the scooter lay back at the hill. Toktai would not take any risks with those things of power. He had had to roar down several of his own frightened warriors before they would even agree to bring the strange horses, with saddle and bedroll, riderless among the pack mares.
Hoofs thudded rapidly. One of the bowmen flanking Everard grunted and moved his pony a little aside. Li Tai-Tsung rode close.
The Patrolman gave him a dull stare. “Well?” he said.
“I fear your friend will not waken again,” answered the Chinese. “I made him a little more comfortable.”
But lying strapped on an improvised litter between two ponies, unconscious… Yes, concussion, when they clubbed him last night. A Patrol hospital could put him to rights soon enough. But the nearest Patrol office is in Cambaluc, and I can’t see Toktai letting me go back to the scooter and use its radio. John Sandoval is going to die here, six hundred and fifty years before he was born.
Everard looked into cool brown eyes, interested, not unsympathetic, but alien to him. It was no use, he knew; arguments which were logical in his culture were gibberish today; but one had to try. “Can you, at least, not make Toktai understand what ruin he is going to bring on himself, on his whole people, by this?”
Li stroked his fork beard. “It is plain to see, honored sir, your nation has arts unknown to us,” he said. “But what of it? The barbarians—” He gave Everard’s Mongol guards a quick glance, but evidently they didn’t understand the Sung Chinese he used—“took many kingdoms superior to them in every way but fighting skill. Now already we know that you, ah, amended the truth when you spoke of a hostile empire near these lands. Why should your king try to frighten us away with a falsehood, did he not have reason to fear us?”
Everard spoke with care: “Our glorious emperor dislikes bloodshed. But if you force him to strike you down—”
“Please.” Li looked pained. He waved one slender hand, as if brushing off an insect. “Say what you will to Toktai, and I shall not interfere. It would not sadden me to return home; I came only under Imperial orders. But let us two, speaking confidentially, not insult each other’s intelligence. Do you not see, eminent lord, that there is no possible harm with which you can threaten these men? Death they despise; even the most lingering torture must kill them in time; even the most-disgraceful mutilation can be made as naught by a man willing to bite through his tongue and die. Toktai sees eternal shame if he turns back at this stage of events, and a good chance of eternal glory and uncountable wealth if he continues.”
Everard sighed. His own humiliating capture had indeed been the turning point. The Mongols had been very near bolting at the thunder show. Many had groveled and wailed (and from now on would be all the more aggressive, to erase that memory). Toktai charged the source as much in horror as defiance; a few men and horses had been able to come along. Li himself was partly responsible: scholar, skeptic, familiar with sleight-of-hand and pyrotechnic displays, the Chinese had helped hearten Toktai to attack before one of those thunderbolts did strike home.
The truth of the matter is, son, we misjudged these people. We should have taken along a Specialist, who’d have an intuitive feeling for the nuances of this culture. But no, we assumed a brainful of facts would be enough. Now what? A Patrol relief expedition may show up eventually, but Jack will be dead in another day or two… Everard looked at the stony warrior face on his left. Quite probably I’ll be also. They’re still on edge. They’d sooner scrag me than not.
And even if he should (unlikely chance!) survive to be hauled out of this mess by another Patrol band—it would be tough to face his comrades. An Unattached agent, with all the special privileges of his rank, was expected to handle situations without extra help. Without leading valuable men to their deaths.
“So I advise you most sincerely not to attempt any more deceptions.”
“What?” Everard turned back to Li.
“You do understand, do you not,” said the Chinese, “that our native guides did flee? That you are now taking their place? But we expect to meet other tribes before long, establish communication…”
Everard nodded a throbbing head. The sunlight pierced his eyes. He was not astonished at the ready Mongol progress through scores of separate language areas. If you aren’t fussy about grammar, a few hours suffice to pick up the small number of basic words and gestures; thereafter you can take days or weeks actually learning to speak with your hired escort.
“…and obtain guides from stage to stage, as we did before,” continued Li. “Any misdirection you may have given will soon be apparent. Toktai will punish it in most uncivilized ways. On the other hand, faithful service will be rewarded. You may hope in time to rise high in the provincial court, after the conquest.”
Everard sat unmoving. The casual boast was like an explosion in his mind.
He had been assuming the Patrol would send another force. Obviously something was going to prevent Toktai’s return. But was it so obvious? Why had this interference been ordered at all, if there were not—in some paradoxical way his twentieth-century logic couldn’t grasp—an uncertainty, a shakiness in the continuum right at this point?
Judas in hell! Perhaps the Mongol expedition was going to succeed! Perhaps all the future of an American Khanate which Sandoval had not quite dared dream of… was the real future.
There are quirks and discontinuities in space-time. The world lines can double back and bite themselves off, so that things and events appear causelessly, meaningless flutters soon lost and forgotten. Such as Manse Everard, marooned in the past with a dead John Sandoval, after coming from a future that never existed as the agent of a Time Patrol which never was.
At sundown their unmerciful pace had brought the expedition into sagebrush and greasewood country. The hills were steep and brown; dust smoked under hoofs; silvery-green bushes grew sparse, sweetening the air when bruised but offering little else.
Everard helped lay Sandoval on the ground. The Navajo’s eyes were closed, his face sunken and hot. Sometimes he tossed and muttered a bit. Everard squeezed water from a wetted cloth past the cracked lips, but could do nothing more.
The Mongols established themselves more gaily than of late. They had overcome two great sorcerers and suffered no further attack, and the implications were growing upon them. They went about their chores chattering to each other, and after a frugal meal they broke out the leather bags’ of kumiss.
Everard remained with Sandoval, near the middle of camp. Two guards had been posted on him, who sat with strung bows a few yards away but didn’t talk. Now and then one of them would get up to tend the small fire. Presently silence fell on their comrades too. Even this leathery host was tired; men rolled up and went to sleep, the out-posts rode their rounds drowsy-eyed, other watch-fires burned to embers while stars kindled overhead, a coyote yelped across miles. Everard covered Sandoval against the gathering cold; his own low flames showed rime frost on sage leaves. He huddled into a cloak and wished his captors would at least give him back his pipe.
A football crunched dry soil. Everard’s guards snatched arrows for their bows. Toktai moved into the light, his head bare above a mantle. The guards bent low and moved back into shadow.
Toktai halted. Everard looked up and then down again. The Noyon stared a while at Sandoval. Finally, almost gently, he said: “I do not think your friend will live to next sunset.”
“Have you any medicines which might help?” asked Toktai. “There are some queer things in your saddlebags.”
“I have a remedy against infection, and another against pain,” said Everard mechanically. “But for a cracked skull, he must be taken to skillful physicians.”
Toktai sat down and held his hands to the fire. “I’m sorry we have no surgeons along.”
“You could let us go,” said Everard without hope. “My chariot, back at the last camp, could get him to help in time.”
“Now you know I can’t do that!” Toktai chuckled. His pity for the dying man flickered out. “After all, Eburar, you started the trouble.”
Since it was true, the Patrolman made no retort.
“I don’t hold it against you,” went on Toktai. “In fact, I’m still anxious to be friends. If I weren’t, I’d stop for a few days and wring all you know out of you.”
Everard flared up. “You could try!”
“And succeed, I think, with a man who has to carry medicine against pain.” Toktai’s grin was wolfish. “However, you may be useful as a hostage or something. And I do like your nerve. I’ll even tell you an idea I have. I think maybe you don’t belong to this rich southland at all. I think you’re an adventurer, one of a little band of shamans. You have the southern king in your power, or hope to, and don’t want strangers interfering.” Toktai spat into the fire. “There are old stories about that sort of thing, and finally a hero overthrew the wizard. Why not me?”
Everard sighed. “You will learn why not, Noyon.” He wondered how correct that was.
“Oh, now.” Toktai clapped him on the back. “Can’t you tell me even a little? There’s no blood feud between us. Let’s be friends.”
Everard jerked a thumb at Sandoval.
“It’s a shame, that,” said Toktai, “but he would keep on resisting an officer of the Kha Khan. Come, let’s have a drink together, Eburar. I’ll send a man for a bag.”
The Patrolman made a face. “That’s no way to pacify me!”
“Oh, your people don’t like kumiss? I’m afraid it’s all we have. We drank up our wine long ago.”
“You could let me have my whisky.” Everard looked at Sandoval again, and out into night, and felt the cold creep inward. “God, but I could use that!”
“A drink of our own. We had some in our saddle-bags.”
“Well…” Toktai hesitated. “Very well. Come along and we’ll fetch it.”
The guards followed their chief and their prisoner, through the brush and the sleeping warriors, up to a pile of assorted gear also under guard. One of the latter sentries ignited a stick in his fire to give Everard some light. The Patrolman’s back muscles tensed—arrows were aimed at him now, drawn to the barb—but he squatted and went through his own stuff, careful not to move fast. When he had both canteens of Scotch, he returned to his own place.
Toktai sat down across the fire. He watched Everard pour a shot into the canteen cap and toss it off. “Smells odd,” he said.
“Try.” The Patrolman handed over the canteen.
It was an impulse of sheer loneliness. Toktai wasn’t such a bad sort. Not in his own terms. And when you sit by your dying partner, you’d bouse with the devil himself, just to keep from thinking. The Mongol sniffed dubiously, looked back at Everard, paused, and then raised the bottle to his lips with a bravura gesture.
Everard scrambled to catch the flask before too much was spilled. Toktai gasped and spat. One guardsman nocked an arrow, the other sprang to lay a hard hand on Everard’s shoulder. A sword gleaming high. “It’s not poison!” the Patrolman exclaimed. “It’s only too strong for him. See, I’ll drink some more myself.”
Toktai waved the guards back and glared from watery eyes. “What do you make that of?” he choked. “Dragon’s blood?”
“Barley.” Everard didn’t feel like explaining distillation. He poured himself another slug. “Go ahead, drink your mare’s milk.”
Toktai smacked his lips. “It does warm you up, doesn’t it? Like pepper.” He reached out a grimy hand. “Give me some more.”
Everard sat still for a few seconds. “Well?” growled Toktai.
The Patrolman shook his head. “I told you, it’s too strong for Mongols.”
“What? See here, you whey-faced son of a Turk—”
“On your head be it, then. I warn you fairly, with your men here as witnesses, you will be sick tomorrow.”
Toktai guzzled heartily, belched, and passed the canteen back. “Nonsense. I simply wasn’t prepared for it, the first time. Drink up!”
Everard took his time. Toktai grew impatient. “Hurry along there. No, give me the other flask.”
“Very well. You are the chief. But I beg you, don’t try to match me draught for draught. You can’t do it.”
“What do you mean, I can’t do it? Why, I’ve drunk twenty men senseless in Karakorum. None of your gutless Chinks, either: they were all Mongols.” Toktai poured down a couple of ounces more.
Everard sipped with care. But he hardly felt the effect anyway, save as a burning along his gullet. He was too tightly strung. Suddenly he was glimpsing what might be a way out.
“Here, it’s a cold night,” he said, and offered his canteen to the nearest guardsman. “You lads have one to keep you warm.”
Toktai looked up, a trifle muzzily. “Good stuff, this,” he objected. “Too good for…” He remembered himself and snapped his words off short. Cruel and absolute the Mongol Empire might be, but officers shared equally with the humblest of their men.
The warrior grabbed the jug, giving his chief a resentful look, and slanted it to his mouth. “Easy, there,” said Everard. “It’s heady.”
“Nothin’s heady to me.” Toktai poured a further dose into himself. “Sober as a bonze.” He wagged his finger. “That’s the trouble bein’ a Mongol. You’re so hardy you can’t get drunk.”
“Are you bragging or complaining?” said Everard. The first warrior fanned his tongue, resumed a stance of alertness, and passed the bottle to his companion. Toktai hoisted the other canteen again.
“Ahhh!” He stared, owlish. “That was fine. Well, better get to sleep now. Give him back his liquor, men.”
Everard’s throat tightened. But he managed to leer. “Yes, thanks, I’ll want some more,” he said. “I’m glad you realize you can’t take it.”
“Wha’ d’you mean?” Toktai glared at him. “No such thing as too much. Not for a Mongol!” He glugged afresh. The first guardsman received the other flask and took a hasty snort before it should be too late.
Everard sucked in a shaken breath. It might work out after all. It might.
Toktai was used to carousing. There was no doubt that he or his men could handle kumiss, wine, ale, mead, kvass, that thin beer miscalled rice wine—any beverage of this era. They’d know when they’d had enough, say goodnight, and walk a straight line to their bedrolls. The trouble was, no substance merely fermented can get over about 24 proof—the process is stopped by its waste product—and most of what they brewed in the thirteenth century ran well under 5 per cent alcohol, with a high foodstuff content to boot.
Scotch whisky is in quite a different class. If you try to drink that like beer, or even like wine, you are in trouble. Your judgment will be gone before you’ve noticed its absence, and consciousness follows soon after.
Everard reached for the canteen held by one of the guards. “Give me that!” he said. “You’ll drink it all up!”
The warrior grinned and took another long gulp, before passing it on to his fellow. Everard stood up and made an undignified scrabble for it. A guard poked him in the stomach. He went over on his backside. The Mongols bawled laughter, leaning on each other. So good a joke called for another drink.
When Toktai folded, Everard alone noticed. The Noyon slid from a cross-legged to a recumbent position. The fire sputtered up long enough to show a silly smile on his face. Everard squatted wire-tense.
The end of one sentry came a few minutes later. He reeled, went on all fours, and began to jettison his dinner. The other one turned, blinking, fumbling after a sword. “Wha’s mattuh?” he groaned. “Wha’ yuh done? Poison?”
He had hopped over the fire and fallen on Toktai before the last guard realized it. The Mongol stumbled forward, crying out. Everard found Toktai’s sword. It flashed from the scabbard as he bounded up. The warrior got his own blade aloft. Everard didn’t like to kill a nearly helpless man. He stepped close, knocked the other weapon aside, and his fist clopped. The Mongol sank to his knees, retched, and slept.
Everard bounded away. Men stirred in the dark, calling. He heard hoofs drum, one of the mounted sentries racing to investigate. Somebody took a brand from an almost extinct fire and whirled it till it flared. Everard went flat on his belly.
A warrior pelted by, not seeing him in the brush. He glided toward deeper darknesses. A yell behind him, a machine-gun volley of curses, told that someone had found the Noyon.
Everard stood up and began to run.
The horses had been hobbled and turned out under guard as usual. They were a dark mass on the plain, which lay gray-white beneath a sky crowded with sharp stars. Everard saw one of the Mongol watchers gallop to meet him. A voice barked: “What’s happening?”
He pitched his answer high. “Attack on camp!” It was only to gain time, lest the horseman recognize him and fire an arrow. He crouched, visible as a hunched and cloaked shape. The Mongol reined in with a spurt of dust. Everard sprang.
He got hold of the pony’s bridle before he was recognized. Then the sentry yelled and drew sword. He hewed downward. But Everard was on the left side. The blow from above came awkwardly, easily parried. Everard chopped in return and felt his edge go into meat. The horse reared in alarm. Its rider fell from the saddle. He rolled over and staggered up again, bellowing. Everard already had one foot in a pan-shaped stirrup. The Mongol limped toward him, blood running black in that light from a wounded leg. Everard mounted and laid the flat of his own blade on the horse’s crupper.
He got going toward the herd. Another rider pounded to intercept him. Everard ducked. An arrow buzzed where he had been. The stolen pony plunged, fighting its unfamiliar burden. Everard needed a minute to get it under control again. The archer might have taken him then, by coming up and going at it hand to hand. But habit sent the man past at a gallop, shooting. He missed in the dimness. Before he could turn, Everard was out of night view.
The Patrolman uncoiled a lariat at the saddlebow and broke into the skittish herd. He roped the nearest animal, which accepted it with blessed meekness. Leaning over, he slashed the hobbles with his sword and rode off, leading the remount. They came out the other side of the herd and started north.
A stern chase is a long chase, Everard told himself inappropriately. But they’re bound to overhaul me if I don’t lose ’em. Let’s see, if I remember my geography, the lava beds lie north-west of here.
He cast a glance behind. No one pursued yet. They’d need a while to organize themselves. However.…
Thin lightnings winked from above. The cloven air boomed behind them. He felt a chill, deeper than the night cold. But he eased his pace. There was no more reason for hurry. That must be Manse Everard—
—who had returned to the Patrol vehicle and ridden it south in space and backward in time to this same instant.
That was cutting it fine, he thought. Patrol doctrine frowned on helping oneself thus. Too much danger of a close causal loop, or of tangling past and future.
But in this case, I’ll get away with it. No reprimands, even. Because it’s to rescue Jack Sandoval, not myself. I’ve already gotten free. I could shake pursuit in the mountains, which I know and the Mongols don’t. The time-hopping is only to save my friend’s life.
Besides, (an upsurging bitterness) what’s this whole mission been, except the future doubling back to create its own past? Without us, the Mongols might have well taken over America, and then there’d never have been any us.
The sky was enormous, crystalline black; you rarely saw that many stars. The Great Bear flashed above hoar earth; hoofbeats rang through silence. Everard had not felt so alone before now.
“And what am I doing back there?” he asked aloud.
The answer came to him, and he eased a little, fell into the rhythm of his horses and started eating miles. He wanted to get this over with. But what he must do turned out to be less bad than he had feared.
Toktai and Li Tai-Tsung never came home. But that was not because they perished at sea or in the forests. It was because a sorcerer rode down from heaven and killed all their horses with thunderbolts, and smashed and burned their ships in the river mouth. No Chinese sailor would venture onto those tricky seas in whatever clumsy vessel could be built here; no Mongol would think it possible to go home on foot. Indeed, it probably wasn’t. The expedition would stay, marry into the Indians, live out their days. Chinook, Tlingit, Nootka, all the potlatch tribes, with their big sea-going canoes, lodges and copperworking, furs and cloths and haughtiness… well, a Mongol Noyon, even a Confucian scholar might live less happily and usefully than in creating such a life for such a race.
Everard nodded to himself. So much for that. What was harder to take than the thwarting of Toktai’s bloodthirsty ambitions was the truth about his own corps; which was his own family and nation and reason for living. The distant supermen turned out to be not quite such idealists after all. They weren’t merely safeguarding a perhaps divinely ordained history which led to them. Here and there they, too, meddled, to create their own past… Don’t ask if there ever was any “original” scheme of things. Keep your mind shut. Regard the rutted road mankind had to travel, and tell yourself that if it could be better in places, in other places it could be worse.
“It may be a crooked game,” said Everard, “but it’s the only one in town.”
His voice came so loud, in that huge rime-white land, that he didn’t speak any more. He clucked at his horse and rode a little faster northward.