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S.M. Stirling

Island in the Sea of Time


Many thanks to the people of Nantucket, and none of the characters in this book are intended to represent any individuals living or dead! Thanks also to the United States Coast Guard, which responded nobly to the ignorant inquisitiveness of the author. All errors, mistakes, lapses of taste, and infelicities of expression are purely mine. Admiration and thanks also to the archaeologists and historians who piece together the past of our species from shards and the equivalent of landfill.

Particular thanks on-island to Tracy and Swede Plaut; to Randy Lee of Windshadow Engineering; to Wendy and Randy Hudson of Cisco Brewers (who make a great pale ale); to Harvey Young, the friendly (common) native Nantucketer (less common) at Young's Bicycles; to the Bartletts of Ocean View Farm; to Mimi Beman of Mitchell's Book Corner; and to many, many others.

Thanks also to Chief Petty Officer James for the tour and answering an afternoon of questions on his lovely ship!

And to John Barnes for dialectical (in both senses of the word) help; to Poul Anderson for catching a couple of embarrassing errors; to Heather Alexander for the use of her beautiful Harvest Season; to Laura Anne Oilman, for really editing; and to Walter John Williams for the manuals.


March, 1998 A.D.

Ian Arnstein stepped off the ferry gangway and hefted his bags. Nantucket on a foggy March evening was chilly enough to make him thankful he'd worn the heavier overcoat; Southern Californian habits could betray you, here on the coast of New England. Thirty-odd miles off the coast. The summer houses built out over the water were still shuttered, and most of the shops were closed-tourist season wouldn't really start until Daffodil Weekend in late April, when the population began to climb from seven thousand to sixty. He was a tourist of sorts himself, even though he came here regularly; to the locals he was still a "coof," of course, or "from away," to use a less old-fashioned term. Everybody whose ancestors hadn't arrived in the seventeenth century was a coof, to the core of old-time inhabitants, a "wash-ashore" even if he'd lived here for years. This was the sort of place where they talked about "going to America" when they took the ferry to the mainland.

He trudged past Easy Street, which wasn't, and turned onto Broad, which wasn't either, up to the whaling magnate's mansion that he stayed in every year. It had been converted to an inn back in the 1850s, when the magnate's wife insisted on moving to Boston for the social life. Few buildings downtown were much more recent than that. The collapse of the whaling industry during the Civil War era had frozen Nantucket in time, down to the huge American elms along Main Street and the cobblestone alleys. The British travel writer Jan Morris had called it the most beautiful small town in the world, mellow brick and shingle in Federal or neoclassical style. A ferociously restrictive building code kept it that way, a place where Longfellow and Whittier would have felt at home and Melville would have taken a few minutes to notice the differences.

Mind you, it probably smells a lot better these days. Must have reeked something fierce when the harborfront was lined with whale-oil renderies. It had its own memories for him, now. Still painful, but life was like that. People died, marriages too, and you went on.

He hurried up Broad Street and hefted his bags up the brick stairs to the white neoclassical doors with their overhead fanlights flanked by white wooden pillars. The desk was just within, but the tantalizing smells came from downstairs. The whalers were long gone, but they still served a mean seafood dinner in the basement restaurant at the John Cofflin House.

Doreen Rosenthal pecked at her computer and sneezed; there was a dry tickle in her throat she was dolorously certain was another spring cold. Behind her the motors whined, turning the telescope toward the sky. It wasn't a very big reflector, just above the amateur level, but it was an instrument of sorts, and you could massage information out of the results. Sort of like 0.01 percent of Mount Palo-mar. Astronomy posts weren't that easy to find for student interns, and the Margaret Milson Association had given her this one. It meant living on Nantucket, but that wasn't so bad; she was the quiet sort even at U. Mass. She'd finally managed to lose some weight, having nothing better to do with her spare time than exercise. Well, a little weight, and it's going to be more. Even in winter, the island was a good place to bike, or you could find somewhere private to do kata. When it wasn't storming, of course; and there was a wild excitement to that, when the waves came crashing into the docks, spray flying higher than the roofs of the houses.

And always, there were the stars. The rooms below the observatory held decades of observation, all stored in digital form now. Endless fascination.

She took a bite out of a shrimp salad sandwich and frowned as the computer screen flickered. Not another glitch! She leaned forward, fingers unconsciously twisting a lock of her long black hair. No, the digital CCD camera was running continuous exposures…

Stargazers didn't actually look at the stars through an eyepiece anymore. It was ten minutes before she realized what was happening in the sky.

Jared Cofflin sighed and leaned back in his office chair. There really wasn't much for a police chief to do on Nantucket in the winter. An occasional drunk-and-disorderly, maybe some kids going on a joyride, now and then a domestic dispute; they'd gone seven straight years without a homicide. But April came 'round again, and pretty soon the summer people would be flooding in. Summer was busy. Coofs were a rowdy lot. Not that the island could do without them, although sometimes he very much wished it could. Once it had been Nantucketers who traveled, from Greenland to Tahiti.

With a wry grin, he thought of a slogan someone had suggested to the Chamber of Commerce once as a joke: We used to kill a lot of whales. Come to Nantucket!

The little police station was in a building that had once housed the fire department, and across a narrow road from a restaurant-cum-nightspot. The buildings on both sides were two stories of gray shingle with white trim, like virtually everything on the island that wasn't red brick with white trim. About time for supper, he thought. No point in going home; he hadn't gotten any better at serious cooking since Betty passed on five years ago. Better to step over and get a burger.

He sighed, stood, hitched at his gunbelt, and reached for his hat, looking around at the white-painted concrete blocks, the boxes of documents piled in corners and bursting out of their cardboard prisons. Hell of a life. And he'd had to let the belt out another notch recently; it seemed unfair, when the rest of him was the same lanky beanpole it'd been when he graduated from high school back around LBJ's inauguration.

The lights flickered. Nantucket was just about to switch over to mainland power, via an underwater cable. For the next few months they had to soldier along on the old diesel generators, though.

"Christ," he said. "Not another power-out."

He walked out into the street and stopped, jarred as if he'd walked into a wall. Stock-still, he stood for a full four minutes staring upward. It was the screams from people around him that brought him back to himself.

* * *

Nor'easter at twenty knots. Just what we needed, Captain Marian Alston thought with satisfaction. She kept a critical eye and ear on the mast captains' work as the royals and topgallants were doused and struck.

"Clew up! Rise tacks and sheets!"

"Ease the royal sheets!"

The pinrail supervisor bellowed into the wind: "Haul around on the clewlines, buntlines, and bunt-leechlines!"

The upper sails thuttered and cracked as the clewlines hauled them up to the yards, spilling wind and letting the ship come a little more upright, although the deck still sloped like the roof of a house.

"Lay them to aloft," Alston said to the sailing master. "Sea furl."

The crew swarmed up the ratlines and out along the yards that bore the sails, hauling up armfuls of canvas as they bent over the yards; doll-tiny shapes a hundred feet and more above her head as they fought the mad flailing of the wet Dacron.

No sense in leaving that much sail up, on a night as dirty as this looks to be. Too easy for the ship to be knocked down or taken aback by a sudden shift of wind. The chill bit through the thick yellow waterproof fabric of her foul-weather gear like cold damp fingers poking and prodding.

She stood with legs braced against the roll and hands locked behind her back by the ship's triple wheel, a tall slim woman from the Sea Islands of South Carolina, ebony-black, close-cropped wiry hair a little gray at the temples; her face was handsome in a high-cheeked fashion like a Benin bronze. Spray came over the quarterdeck railing like drops of salt rain, cold on her face and down her neck. The sun was setting westward over a heaving landscape of gray-black water streaked with foam, and the ship plunged across the wind with the yards

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