by Kage Baker
Somewhere God has a celestial Polaroid of me, standing there in the dunes with a painted clamshell in one hand and a sprig of
It was 1860 and the Company had sent me to Pismo Beach. The place was not yet the vacation destination of Warner Brothers toons; the little town of cottages and motels wouldn’t exist for another generation or two, but it did feature all the clams one could eat, and all the sand too.
I wasn’t there for the clams, though.
If you stand on the beach at Pismo and look south, you can see twenty-odd miles of shore stretching away to Point Sal, endless lines of breakers foreshortened into little white scallops on blue water. The waves roll in on a wide pale beach toward a green line of cypress forest, rising on low sandhills to your left. Beyond them, and further south, rise the dunes.
You never saw anything so pure of line and color in your life, though the lines shift constantly and the color is an indefinable shade between ivory and pink, or possibly gold. Even on a grey day they glow with their own light, pulsing as cloud shadows flow across them.
Beautiful, though I couldn’t see how anything could be growing out there; and yet this was where I was supposed to find a rare variant of Evening Primrose.
Everywhere else in California,
Unfortunately for them, it will be extinct by their time, long since destroyed by the ravages of the offroad vehicles of the twentieth century. Interestingly enough, Laurent’s Syndrome and its attendant neurovascular damage occurs most frequently in people who spend a lot of time with their reproductive organs suspended over internal combustion engines—such as the ones that power dune bikes. Mother Nature giving a rousing one-fingered salute to offroad enthusiasts, I suppose.
Not my job to judge—I was only there to gather samples, test them for the suspected properties, and (if they tested positive) secure live plants for the greenhouses of my Company, Dr. Zeus Inc. Dr. Zeus operates out of the twenty-fourth century and makes a pretty penny, let me tell you, out of miracle medical cures obtained by time travel.
So I shouldered my pack, settled my hat more firmly on my head and set off down the beach, keeping to the hard-packed sand and splashing through the surf occasionally. There were clams just below the surface of the sand, massed thick as cobblestones. They were big, too, and beautifully danger-free: no sewers yet dumping
My spirits rose as I strode on, past future real estate fantasies with quaint Yankee names like Grover City, Oceano, La Grande: mile after mile of perfect beach and not a mortal soul in sight. I’d build a driftwood fire, that was what I’d do, and have a private clambake. I had a flask of tequila in my pack, too. Why couldn’t all my jobs be like this? No tiresome mortals to negotiate with, no dismal muddy cities, no noise, no trouble.
I turned inland at the designated coordinates and walked back into the dunes. Squinting against the golden glow, I almost reached for my green spectacles; then paused, grinning to myself. Nobody here to see, was there? No mortals to be terrified by my appearance if I simply let the polarized lenses on my eyes darken. Whistling, I trudged onward, a cyborg with a sun hat and camping gear.
I found, as I moved further in, that this was no desert at all. There were islands in this maze of glowing sand, cool green coves of willow and beach myrtle and wild blackberry. There were a few little freshwater lakes sparkling, green reeds waving, ducks paddling around; there were abundant wildflowers too, especially rangy stands of yellow Evening Primrose. Somewhere hereabouts must be my quarry.
Climbing to the top of a dune I spotted it, on visual alone, a mere thirty meters south-southwest: a thicket of willow on three sides around a lawn of coarse dune grass, and all along the edge the tall woody stems bearing trumpet flowers of flaming pink! Could my work get any easier? I was actually singing as I plowed on down the side of the dune, an old old song from a long way away.
So I made a little paradise of a base camp on the lawn, with a tent for my field lab and a sleeping bivvy, and got a specimen straight into solution for analysis. But even as I bustled happily about, I was becoming aware of Something that pulled at one of my lower levels of perception. You wouldn’t have heard the subsonic tone, or noticed the faint flash of a color best described as blue; you
Anomaly, five kilometers due north, electromagnetic. And… Crome’s Radiation. And… a mortal human being. So much for my splendid isolation. How very tedious; now I’d have to investigate the damned thing. Sighing, I pulled out my green glasses and put them on.
I slogged up one dune and down another, following the signals through a landscape where one expected Rudolph Valentino to ride into view at any moment, burnoose flapping. God knows he would have looked commonplace enough, compared with what met my eyes when I got to the top of the last high dune, staggering slightly.
In the valley below me was another green cove, with its own dense willow thicket and its own green lawn. But rising from the thicket on four cottonwood poles was a thing like a big beehive or an Irish monk’s cell, woven of peeled willow wands. On its domed top it wore a sort of cap of tight-braided eelgrass; a mat of the same flapped before a hole near its base. A path had been worn across the lawn, neatly outlined with clam shells arranged in a pattern. Real beehives were ranged in a tidy row there, woven skeps like miniatures of the house. All along the perimeter of the lawn, and poking up here and there out of the willows, were fantastical figures carved of driftwood, elaborately decorated with mussel shells and feathers. I saw Celtic crosses and sun wheels, I saw leaping horses, I saw stiff and stylized warriors with shields, I saw grass-skirted women of remarkable attributes.
Strange, but not so strange as the mottoes and exhortations spelled out in clam shells on the face of every surrounding dune. The nearest one said GOD IS LOVE.
Staring down, I collapsed into a sitting position on the sand. Borne faintly up on the wind and the blue streaming spirals of Crome’s Radiation were the plaintive scrapings of a fiddle.
Well, what do you know? A holy hermit, apparently; judging from the Crome Effect, one of those poor mortals who would one day be classed as “psychic.” The radiation from this one was so intense his abilities had probably driven him crazy, so he must have fled human society and somehow wound up here in the dunes. Mystery explained. I allowed myself a smile.
The electromagnetic anomaly was still unaccounted for, however… I scowled and turned my head, scanning. Now it seemed unclear, diffuse, further away. Now it faded out. Strange.
The fiddle music stopped. The Crome waves intensified a moment, and then the beehive shook slightly as the center mat was pushed aside. A snow-white beard flowed out, followed by the wrinkled and bespectacled face to which it was attached. The hermit turned to look straight at me, though I had been sitting perfectly motionless out of his line of sight.
“Did yez wish a word with me, then?” asked the hermit.
I blinked. Foolish to be surprised, though, with all the other weirdness here. “I was only admiring your, uh, art,” I replied. “It wasn’t my intention to disturb you.”
We regarded each other for a moment. He wrinkled his brow.
“Have They sent yez to console me fleshly lusts?” he inquired.
Gosh, how sweet. “No,” I answered.
“Dat’s good, then.” He relaxed. “They’re always parading them foreign beauties before my eyes and that last one wa ...