|Author:||Robert Charles Wilson
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|Sub-Genre Tags:||Alternate History (SF)|
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In 1912, history was changed by the Miracle, when the old world of Europe was replaced by Darwinia, a strange land of nightmarish jungle and antediluvian monsters. To some, the Miracle was an act of divine retribution; to others, it is an opportunity to carve out a new empire.
Leaving an America now ruled by religious fundamentalists, young Guilford Law travels to Darwinia on a mission of discovery that will take him further than he can possibly imagine... to a shattering revelation about mankinds destiny in the universe.
The men who crewed the surviving steamships had invented their own legends. Tall tales, all blatantly untrue, and Guilford Law had heard most of them by the time the Odense passed the fifteenth meridian.
A drunken deck steward had told him about the place where the two oceans meet: the Old Atlantic of the Americas and the New Atlantic of Darwinia. The division, the steward said, was plain as a squall line and twice as treacherous. One sea was more viscid than the other, like oil, and creatures attempting the passage inevitably died. Consequently the zone was littered with the bodies of animals both familiar and strange: dolphins, sharks, rorqual whales, blue whales; anguilates, sea barrels, blister fish, banner fish. They floated in place, milky eyes agape, flank against flank and nose to tail. They were unnaturally preserved by the icy water, a solemn augury to vessels unwise enough to make the passage through their close and stinking ranks.
Guilford knew perfectly well the story was a myth, a horror story to frighten the gullible. But like any myth, taken at the right time, it was easy to believe. He leaned into the tarnished rail of the Odense near sunset, mid-Atlantic. The wind carried whips of foam from a cresting sea, but to the west the clouds had opened and the sun raked long fingers over the water. Somewhere beyond the eastern horizon was the threat and promise of the new world, Europe transformed, the miracle continent the newspapers still called Darwinia. There might not be blister fish crowding the keel of the ship, and the same salt water lapped at every terrestrial shore, but Guilford knew he had crossed a real border, his center of gravity shifting from the familiar to the strange.
He turned away, his hands as chill as the brass of the rail. He was twenty-two years old and had never been to sea before Friday last. Too tall and gaunt to make a good sailor, Guilford disliked maneuvering himself through the shoulder-bruising labyrinths of the Odense, which had done yeoman duty for a Danish passenger line in the years before the Miracle. He spent most of his time in the cabin with Caroline and Lily, or, when the cold wasn't too forbidding, here on deck. The fifteenth meridian was the western extremity of the great circle that had been carved into the globe, and beyond this point he hoped he might catch a glimpse of some Darwinian sea life. Not a thousand dead anguilates "tangled like a drowned woman's hair," but maybe a barrelfish surfacing to fill its lung sacs. He was anxious for any token of the new continent, even a fish, though he knew his eagerness was naive and he took pains to conceal it from other members of the expedition.
The atmosphere belowdecks was steamy and close. Guilford and family had been allotted a tiny cabin midships; Caroline seldom left it. She had been seasick the first day out of Boston Harbor. She was better now, she insisted, but Guilford knew she wasn't happy. Nothing about this trip had made her happy, even though she had practically willed herself aboard.
Still, walking into the room where she waited was like falling in love all over again. Caroline sat with back arched at the edge of the bed, combing her hair with a mother-of-pearl brush, the brush following the curve of her neck in slow, meditative strokes. Her large eyes were half-lidded. She looked like a princess in an opium reverie: aloof, dreamy, perpetually sad. She was, Guilford thought, quite simply beautiful. He felt, not for the first time, the urge to photograph her. He had taken a portrait of her shortly before their wedding, but the result hadn't satisfied him. Dry plates lost the nuance of expression, the luxury of her hair, seven shades of black.
He sat beside her and resisted the urge to touch her bare shoulder above her camisole. Lately she had not much welcomed his touch.
"You smell like the sea," she said.
"Answering a call of nature."
He moved to kiss her. She looked at him, then offered her cheek. Her cheek was cool.
"We should dress for dinner," she said.
* * *
Darkness cocooned the ship. The sparse electric lights narrowed corridors into shadow. Guilford took Caroline and Lily to the dim chamber that passed for a dining room and joined a handful of the expedition's scientists at the table of the ship's surgeon, a corpulent and alcoholic Dane.
The naturalists were discussing taxonomy. The doctor was talking about cheese.
"But if we create a whole new Linnean system"
"Which is what the situation calls for!"
"there's the risk of suggesting a connectivity of descent, the familiarity of otherwise well-defined species..."
"Gjedsar cheese! In those days we had Gjedsar cheese even at the breakfast table. Oranges, ham, sausage, rye bread with red caviar. Every meal a true frokost. Not this mean allowance. Ah!" The doctor spotted Guilford. "Our photographer. And his family. Lovely lady! The little miss!"
The diners stood and shuffled to make room. Guilford had made friends among the naturalists, particularly the botanist named Sullivan. Caroline, though she was obviously a welcome presence, had little to say at these meals. But it was Lily who had won over the table. Lily was barely four years old, but her mother had taught her the rudiments of decorum, and the scientists didn't mind her inquisitiveness... with the possible exception of Preston Finch, the expedition's senior naturalist, who had no knack with children. But Finch was at the opposite end of the long trestle, monopolizing a Harvard geologist. Lily sat beside her mother and opened her napkin methodically. Her shoulders barely reached the plane of the table.
The doctor beameda little drunkenly, Guilford thought. "Young Lilian is looking hungry. Would you like a pork chop, Lily? Yes? Meager but edible. And applesauce?"
Lily nodded, trying not to flinch.
"Good. Good. Lily, we are halfway across the big sea. Halfway to the big land of Europe. Are you happy?"
"Yes," Lily obliged. "But we're only going to England. Just Daddy's going to Europe."
Lily, like most people, had come to distinguish between England and Europe. Though England was just as much changed by the Miracle as Germany or France, it was the English who had effectively enforced their territorial claims, rebuilding London and the coastal ports and maintaining close control of their naval fleet. Preston Finch began to pay attention. From the foot of the table, he frowned through his wire-brush moustache. "Your daughter makes a false distinction, Mr. Law."
Table talk on the Odense hadn't been as vigorous as Guilford anticipated. Part of the problem was Finch himself, author of Appearance and Revelation, the ur-text of Noachian naturalism even before the Miracle of 1912. Finch was tall, gray, humorless, and ballooned with his own reputation. His credentials were impeccable; he had spent two years along the Colorado and the Rouge Rivers collecting evidence of global flooding, and had been a major force in the Noachian Revival since the Miracle. The others all had the slightly hangdog manner of reformed sinners, to one degree or another, save for the botanist, Dr. Sullivan, who was older than Finch and felt secure enough to badger him with the occasional quote from Wallace or Darwin. Reformed evolutionists with less tenure had to be more careful. Altogether, the situation made for some tense and cautious talk.
Guilford himself mainly kept quiet. The expedition's photographer wasn't expected to render scientific opinions, and maybe that was for the best. The ship's surgeon scowled at Finch and made a bid for Caroline's attention.
"Have you arranged lodging in London, Mrs. Law?"
"Lily and 1 will be with a relative," Caroline said.
"So! An English cousin! Soldier, trapper, or shopkeeper? There are only the three sorts of people in London."
"I'm sure you're right. The family keeps a hardware store."
"You're a brave woman. Life on the frontier"
"It's only for a time, Doctor."
"While the men hunt snarks!" Several of the naturalists looked at him blankly. "Lewis Carroll! An Englishman! Are you all ignorant?"
Silence. Finally Finch spoke up. "European authors aren't held in high regard in America, Doctor."
"Of course. Pardon me. A person forgets. If a person is lucky." The surgeon looked at Caroline defiantly. "London was once the largest city in the world. Did you know that, Mrs. Law? Not the rough thing it is now. All shacks and privies and mud. But I wish I could show you Copenhagen. That was a city! That was a civilized city."
Guilford had met people like the surgeon. There was one in every waterfront bar in Boston. Castaway Europeans drinking grim toasts to London or Paris or Prague or Berlin, looking for some club to join, a Loyal Order of this or that, a room where they could hear their language spoken as if it weren't a dead or dying tongue.
Copyright © 1998 by Robert Charles Wilson
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