Two events made September 1st a memorable day for Jesse Cullum. First, he lost a pair of Oakley sunglasses. Second, he saved the life of President Ulysses S. Grant.
In the near future of Robert Charles Wilson's Last Year, the technology exists to open doorways into the pastbut not our past, not exactly. Each "past" is effectively an alternate world, identical to ours but only up to the date on which we access it. And a given "past" can only be reached once. After a passageway is open, it's the only road to that particular past; once closed, it can't be reopened.
A passageway has been opened to a version of late 19th-century Ohio. It's been in operation for most of a decade, but it's no secret, on either side of time. A small city has grown up around it to entertain visitors from our time, and many locals earn a good living catering to them. But like all such operations, it has a shelf life; as the "natives" become more sophisticated, their version of the "past" grows less attractive as a destination.
Jesse Cullum is a native. And he knows the passageway will be closing soon. He's fallen in love with a woman from our time, and he means to follow her backno matter whose secrets he has to expose in order to do it.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Born in California, ROBERT CHARLES WILSON grew up in Canada. He is the author of many acclaimed science fiction novels, including Darwinia, Blind Lake, Julian Comstock, Burning Paradise, The Affinities and the Hugo Award–winning Spin.
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By Robert Charles Wilson
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Robert Charles Wilson
All rights reserved.
Two events made the first of September a memorable day for Jesse Cullum. First, he lost a pair of Oakley sunglasses. Second, he saved the life of President Ulysses S. Grant.
The part about saving Grant's life was speculative. Even without Jesse's intervention, the pistol might have misfired or the bullet missed its mark. Jesse felt uneasy about taking credit for an act of purely theoretical heroism. But the loss of the Oakleys, that was a real tragedy. He had loved those Oakleys. The way they improved his vision on sunny days. The way they made him look.
* * *
Grant's visit had been carefully planned. That was how City people liked it: the fewer surprises, the better. Grant and his wife had arrived at Futurity Station in a special Pullman car, where they had endured a reception, complete with bands and a speech by the governor of Illinois, before a plush carriage carried them five miles down the paved road from the train depot to the steel gates of the City of Futurity. Jesse had ridden that absurdly smooth and perfect road many times — he had helped build it — and he knew exactly what Grant would have seen: a first glimpse of the City's impossibly tall white towers across the rolling Illinois plains, massifs of stone and glass; then the enormous concrete wall with gaudy words and pictures painted on it; the gleaming gates, opening to admit his carriage; finally the crowd, both locals and visitors, jostling in the courtyard for a glimpse of him.
Policing the crowd was Jesse's job. He had been assigned to the task by his boss, a man named Booking — the same Booking who had issued him the Oakleys six months ago. Today Jesse wore a freshly laundered City security uniform: white shirt, blue necktie, blue blazer with the words CITY OF FUTURITY / STAFF sewn in yellow thread across the pocket, a soft blue cap with the same legend above the bill — and, at least outdoors, the Oakley sunglasses, which Jesse believed lent him an air of sinister authority. When he wore his Oakleys, his reflection in the City's plate-glass windows looked like a prizefighter with the eyes of a gigantic beetle. Newcomers invariably gave him startled, deferential looks.
Jesse and three other security people had been assigned to the viewing line. The way it was supposed to work: Grant's carriage would enter through the gates; Grant and his wife would disembark; they would be escorted across the courtyard to the lobby of Tower Two in view of the guests already present. Post-and-rope stanchions had been set up to maintain a distance between the crowd and the president, and Jesse was assigned to patrol that boundary and make sure no one jumped the line.
It should have been easy duty. The weather was sunny but not unpleasantly warm, the current crop of guests seemed well behaved. Jesse was eager to get his own look at Grant, not that he had ever paid much attention to politics. So he watched attentively as the carriage came in and the gate rolled closed behind it. A valet took charge of the horses, and Grant and his wife, Julia, stepped into the sunlight. Mrs. Grant stared without embarrassment at the fantastically broad and tall buildings of the City, but General Grant himself appeared calm and measured — not as fierce in this last year of his presidency as the images of him that had been published in newspapers during the Rebellion, but just as sternly observant. He ignored the marvels of the City and surveyed the crowd. Jesse imagined the president's gaze caught and lingered on him a moment — because of the Oakleys, perhaps.
Then Jesse had to give his whole attention to the job he had been assigned to do. He began a slow walk along the rope line, keeping a careful vigil. All the people on this side of the courtyard were local guests of the City. That meant they were well-heeled enough to afford the entrance fee, which implied a certain standard of gentlemanly and ladylike behavior to which, alas, they did not necessarily conform. Today, however, the crowd was mindful, and there was very little pushing or crowding of the ropes. Jesse told one couple to keep their children back of the stanchions, please, and he scolded another man for shouting out mocking references to Grant's role in the Crédit Mobilier scandal. Otherwise it was simply a matter of keeping his eyes open as Grant progressed from the courtyard to the Reception Center.
Had Jesse not been wearing the Oakleys he might have been too sunstruck to catch sight of the man at the rope line who reached into his overcoat with a purposeful motion. Long ago, in circumstances far from the City and vastly less congenial, Jesse had learned to recognize that gesture, and he broke into a run without thinking. Some in the crowd stared at Jesse, but no one had yet noticed the man in the overcoat, whose movements were deliberate and whose attention was entirely focused on Grant. The man's hand emerged, bearing a pistol. The pistol looked peculiar, but Jesse didn't think about that. He was racing now, closing the gap between himself and the would-be assassin, thinking: a pistol was a bad choice at this range. Odds were, a hasty shot would miss Grant altogether. But Jesse hadn't been hired to play the odds. He had been hired to make the most effective use of his size and skills. He came at the gunman like a rolling caisson.
Jesse had been taught that the two overriding principles of City security were protection and discretion. The first and most important of these was protection — of the president, in this case — and it was Jesse's priority as he made contact with his opponent. He grabbed the assailant's gun arm at the wrist, isolating the weapon, and let his momentum carry his shoulder into the assailant's chest. The gunman was taken by surprise, and the air was forced from his lungs in a startled grunt as both men fell to the ground. Jesse let his weight immobilize the assailant's body as he dealt with the weapon. The assailant's finger was out of the trigger guard and his hand was at an angle to his arm that suggested Jesse had successfully broken or dislocated the wrist. Nearby guests, still more puzzled than alarmed, stepped back to form a kind of perimeter. Jesse took the pistol from the assailant's hand and quickly tucked it into the pocket of his now-soiled blue blazer. Then he twisted the assailant's arm behind him and wrestled him to his feet.
The daylight seemed suddenly brighter, which was how Jesse discovered that his Oakley sunglasses had flown off during the altercation. He spotted them on the ground just as a female guest took a step backward, crushing one lens under her heel and bending the arms out of shape. Jesse's sense of loss was immediate and aggravating.
But the second rule of City security was discretion, and he kept quiet. The gunman began to utter sharp obscenities. Jesse murmured apologies to the ladies present and hustled the miscreant through the crowd, away from Grant and toward the staff door of the Reception Center. The man was four or five inches shorter than Jesse and a few years older. Jesse was in an excellent position to observe his pomaded black hair, thin at the crown, and to register the tang of his body odor, salty and sour.
The staff door flew open as Jesse came within a couple of yards of it. Two City security men rushed out — security men from the future, Tower One men, which meant they outranked Jesse, who had been born in this century. They were staring hard at the assailant and spared almost no attention for Jesse himself.
Like most of the Tower One security people, they were as tall as Jesse and at least as muscular. One was a white man, one was brown-skinned. They braced the gunman and secured his arms behind him with flexible ties. "Thanks, chief," the white man said to Jesse. "We'll take it from here."
"My name's not chief."
"Okay, sorry, bro. And, uh, we'll need the weapon, too."
Abashed at having forgotten it, Jesse retrieved the pistol from his pocket and handed it over. It was sleek, complex, and finely machined. Definitely not a contemporary handgun. "I broke my Oakleys wrestling with this man."
"Sorry to hear that. Maybe you can pick up another pair from the supply room."
They frog-marched the subdued assailant away.
Jesse sighed and went back to the rope line. But Grant was in Guest Reception now, and the crowd was already beginning to disperse. There was no panic. A few people had seen Jesse tackle the gunman, but no one seemed to have noticed the pistol. From any distance, the encounter would have looked like an unexplained scuffle between a security guard and an unruly guest. Protection and discretion, Jesse thought. They ought to give him a damn medal.
He headed to staff quarters for his afternoon break.
* * *
Two colossal, nearly identical buildings comprised the City of Futurity. Both buildings could be described as hotels, if you stretched that word to the limits of its definition. Both buildings were designed to house, feed, and entertain large numbers of paying guests. But the two buildings were carefully segregated. The guests who resided in Tower Two had all been born in the world outside the gate: Jesse's world. The guests who occupied the other building had been born elsewhere, in a place that claimed to be the future. The second kind of guests didn't enter by the gate, as President Grant had. They came up from underground, through the Mirror.
Jesse worked in Tower Two and slept in a windowless room in one of Tower Two's sub-basements. He took his meals at the commissary on the same floor. Staff quarters were clean and acceptably private, but never entirely quiet. The sound of the machines that circulated the tower's air and generated its electrical power seeped up from an even lower level of the tower, a faint ceaseless murmur, like the breath of a sleeping giant.
Jesse took his break at the staff commissary. Employees were issued food chits with which they could buy meals from a choice of vendors in the commissary concourse: booths with gaudy signs proclaiming them as McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, Starbucks. Locals had been hired to staff these kiosks, and most of them knew Jesse by name. He used a chit to buy coffee in a paper cup and a glutinous muffin on a paper plate from a woman wearing a hairnet: her name was Dorothy, and her husband had been killed at Second Manassas fourteen years ago. "Looks like you scuffed up your jacket," Dorothy said.
"You think I ought to change it? I'm off duty in a couple of hours and I figured on taking it to housekeeping after that."
She reached across the counter and brushed his sleeve. "You'll pass, if there's not a formal inspection."
"I busted my Oakleys today. The sunglasses."
"Oh, that's a shame. You want a second muffin, Jesse? Big fellow like you needs to eat."
"I'm saving my chits."
"On the house, then. Since you lost your eyeglasses and all."
He carried his two muffins and steaming coffee to a vacant table. There were twenty minutes left in his official break, but he had taken no more than a single bite when his pager went off. He unhooked the device from his belt and read the message on the tiny display:
JESSE CULLUM TO SEC OFFICE ASAP
Summoned by his boss. He finished the first of his two muffins in a few hasty bites, wrapped the second in a napkin and put it in his jacket pocket. He had no choice but to abandon the coffee.
He used his pass card to summon an elevator. The City's elevators were astonishing to new visitors, but Jesse had long since grown accustomed to them. His pass card was a more enduring marvel. It was a kind of key: it opened certain doors, but not others. It let him into all the places where he might be expected to go in the course of his duties, and into none of the places where his presence was forbidden. He could not imagine how this thin sliver of what was called plastic, or the slots into which he inserted it, knew or remembered which doors to allow him through. Everyone on staff carried a similar card, and each card was endowed with powers particular to its owner.
The elevator arrived with its customary pinging and sighing. Jesse stepped inside and pushed the button marked "21." The twenty-first floor of Tower Two was the administrative level. Jesse had been there before, but only on rare occasions. His boss, Mr. Paul Booking, usually came down to the staff room to issue the day's assignments. If someone was summoned to twenty-one, it was usually for a promotion, a dismissal, or a special assignment.
The elevator stopped and the door slid open on a wide, immaculate corridor. Jesse's shoes tapped cadences on the smooth and polished floor as he made for Booking's office. Secretarial persons gave him incurious glances from open doors as he passed. Some were men, some were women; some were white, many were not. And none of them was local. The City imported all its managers and paper-handlers from the far side of the Mirror.
Booking's secretary was a woman with features Jesse once would have called Oriental, though he knew the word was considered objectionable by people from the twenty-first century. She looked up from the illuminated screen in front of her and smiled. "Mr. Cullum?"
"Thanks for being so prompt. You can go on into Mr. Booking's office — he's waiting for you."
Booking's office possessed a large window, and even four years in the City had not accustomed Jesse to the view from the twenty-first floor. Even calling it a window seemed to mock it. It was a wall of glass from floor to ceiling, so finely manufactured as to be almost indistinguishable from empty air. There were vertically hung blinds to ward off the sun, but it was late afternoon now and the blinds had been fully retracted. Jesse felt as if he were standing on the scarp of an artificial mountain. A flock of passenger pigeons wheeled over a distant creek, and isolated stands of slippery elms sparkled in the long light like scattered emeralds.
"Your jacket's a little scuffed," Booking said.
God damn it, Jesse thought. "Yes, sir, I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize." Booking sat behind his desk giving him a thoughtful look. Booking was bald and appeared to be forty years old or thereabouts, though it was hard to tell with people from the future. He wore a goatee so meticulously trimmed it seemed nervous about its own continued existence. He was generally kind to hired help, and he spoke to the security hands as casually as an old friend, though that was not a two-way street: Jesse knew Booking's first name only because it was printed on the badge clipped to his lapel. "You had an encounter on the reception grounds today."
"Encounter is one word for it. It didn't amount to much, in the end."
"Don't be modest, Jesse. I've seen the video."
Like his secretary, Booking kept an illuminated display on his desk. He swiveled it to show Jesse the screen. The pictures it displayed had been captured by a wall-mounted camera, so the view was distant and a little indistinct, but Jesse recognized himself in his uniform and his Oakleys, lumbering along the rope line. What followed was pretty much as he remembered it. He shrugged.
"President Grant is grateful to you," Booking said.
"He saw what happened?"
"You were quick and careful, but the president has a keen eye."
Jesse supposed Grant had seen enough gunplay in the war that he was still alert to it. "His gratitude isn't necessary."
"And we've got the bad guy in custody, which is what matters. Nevertheless, Jesse, the president wants to thank you, and he wants to do it in person."
"And because President Grant is a special guest, we want to make that happen for him. So you'll be escorted to his quarters tonight at seven sharp. Which gives you time for a shower and a fresh set of clothes."
Jesse glanced back at the screen. The images were repeating in a thirty-second roundelay. He saw himself wrestling with the assailant. At that point, his Oakleys had already come off. "Is it absolutely necessary for me to meet him? Can't you just tell him I appreciate the thought?"
"It is necessary, and you can tell him yourself. But I want you to keep a couple of things in mind. First, Grant hasn't had the orientation yet. So he's going to be full of questions, and he might pose some of them to you. So you need to remember the rule. You know the rule I'm talking about?"
"If a guest questions me about anything I learned in my employment at the City, I should refer him or her to a designated host or hostess." Almost verbatim, from the handbook every local employee was required to read.
"Good. But in this case you'll need to find a diplomatic way to do it. We think it would be best if you present yourself to President Grant as a hardworking employee whose duties keep him in Tower Two and who doesn't know anything substantial about the future. Which is pretty much the truth — am I right?"
Excerpted from Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson. Copyright © 2016 Robert Charles Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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Table of Contents
Part One: The City of Futurity, 1876,
Part Two: Runners, 1877,
Part Three: The Siege of Futurity, 1877,
Epilogue: Magnificent Ruins, 1889,
By Robert Charles Wilson,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This author always comes up with interesting sci fi stories and this book is no exception. Even though the character development of the protagonist was lacking, the storytelling was still engaging. However, the ending was inferred rather than stated and I found this maddening. It made me wonder whether this was a set up for a sequel. There is enough there for a complete story but I felt short changed by all the loose ends at the end. Not quite worth the $15 I paid.