Commodore Billings [Kathy said] appeared on our doorstep one morning. I had known him years ago, in Oceania, where he worked in the Ministry of War under Dalton Lindley. As it turned out, when I had to leave Oceania somewhat hurriedly, I owed the Commodore a favor. Now he was coming to collect on it.
“It’s my nephew, Jason,” he said. “The boy is in trouble. He’s a hothead, but I don’t think he’s capable of the sort of thing he’s being accused of.” I packed quickly, and dashed off a note for you. He filled me in on the story as we traveled.
“A man by the name of Farley Patterson, one of our local inventors, was murdered the other day. No, worse than murdered – it was as though someone had taken out a great deal of anger on Patterson, so badly was his body mutilated. The police looked to see who might hold a grudge against old Patterson, and Jason’s name came up quickly. You see, Jason is a lawyer, and most of his practice deals with managing the legal aspects of large trust funds. He provides legal advice on tax dodges, so these rich people can stay rich. I don’t pretend to understand it. Patterson was one of his clients.
“As things turned out, Jason had been…tinkering with his clients’ money. He’d skim some off the top, or create phony costs for the accounts that he’d pay, ’cept he’d really be paying himself. He got caught. In fact, Patterson was the one who caught him. Seems the man wasn’t as absent-minded as he let on. So Jason was in a heap of trouble no matter what. The police seem to think that Jason blamed Patterson for ruining the boy’s career and took revenge, but that doesn’t seem right to me.”
“Where do I come in?”
“It seems that the police have all but closed down their investigation because they think they have the right man in custody. Patterson’s family – well, his daughter, Angela, and one of his investors, Colt Schneider – aren’t certain about that. They put up a large sum of money as a reward for anyone who could find proof of the killer’s identity, whether it’s Jason or someone else. Problem is, every idiot in three counties has descended on our town to try to claim the reward. I recalled your…unusual methods of finding things out in Oceania, and thought you might be the boy’s best hope. Even if you were unable to find the killer or even prove him innocent, I thought you could make Jason’s problems…go away.” Was the Commodore insinuating that he believed his nephew to be guilty? I kept that thought to myself.
“Recall that I knew the underworld in Oceania quite well. I know no one in – where did you say we were going?”
“I didn’t. That’s a story by itself.” We had arrived at the airship port, where the Commodore had docked his runabout. “If you want to file a flight plan, I suggest you take down the following notes.” He gave me detailed information about precise maneuvers an airship would have to take to reach the land to which we were about to travel. Though I did not know the meaning of these instructions, I wrote them as directed, and filed them with Mr. Daniels. We departed.
Inside the cabin, outside noise was kept to a minimum despite our high velocity. I faced the Commodore. “All right, sir, let us hear the story of where we are headed.”
“Back in Caledon, you think the year is 18__ and for you it is. As it is everywhere in the Steamlands. But the timestream doesn’t always run so smoothly between places. It may run a little faster some places, a little slower in others. That makes it tough to move between them, navigating the bumpy places in the timestream. In fact, it’s downright impossible to fly directly from one place to another if they’re not in the same stream. You have to know the precise wrinkles that allow you to move a century in this direction, a dozen years in that one, maneuvering to make sure that place and time line up the way you want it to.”
I looked at him carefully, but he showed no signs of telling a joke. Incredible as his story was, I had to admit it made some sense, as it explained the presence of so many with magical powers, not to mention the furries, in the Steamlands. (As you know, we are all far too polite to inquire of them their origins.)
“The various ways that time slips and slides means there can be multiple lands that are similar, but far away in time, or multiple lands that are close in time, but dissimilar.”
“If I understand you correctly, there could be a version of Caledon in which the fey do not exist, or in which the Wulfenbachs never encountered us?”
He nodded. “Precisely. Our destination today, Octoberville, is at the confluence of several timestreams, which has allowed outsiders of all sorts to come and mingle. Point in fact, that’s how I got there from Oceania after the government fell. I just sort of happened into it. It’s allowed us to understand the timestream faster than other places, although we’ve had to learn each stream one at a time, painstakingly mapping out where we started and where we ended. A way to map and manipulate the timestream would be worth a fortune, but our best scientists agree it can’t be controlled.” He left me to digest this information as he engaged the aircraft in several precise operations, after which the complexion of the sky had changed. I did not doubt that, had we been able to open the cabin door, the air would have smelled differently than in Caledon.
We landed, and the Commodore escorted me to a hotel. He had used his connections to secure me a room despite the unusual number of visitors to town. However, he warned me that things were done differently here, and that unescorted men would also be using the same hotel, even the same floor. I noted wryly that I had seen unescorted men before.