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Cowboy Angels

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Cowboy Angels

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Author: Paul J. McAuley
Publisher: Pyr, 2011
Gollancz, 2008

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Alternate/Parallel Universe
Time Travel
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America, 1984 - not our version of America, but an America that calls itself the Real, an America in which the invention of Turing Gates has allowed it access to sheaves of alternate histories.

For ten years, in the name of democracy, the Real has been waging clandestine wars and fomenting revolution, freeing versions of America from communist or fascist rule, and extending its influence across a wide variety of alternate realities. But the human and political costs have proven too high, and new President Jimmy Carter has called an end to war, and is bringing troops and secret agents home.

Adam Stone is called out of retirement when his former comrade, Tom Waverly, begins to murder different versions of the same person, mathematician Eileen Barrie. Aided by Waverly's daughter, Linda, Adam hunts for his old friend across different sheaves, but when they finally catch up with Waverly, they discover that they have stumbled into the middle of an audicious conspiracy that plans to exploite a new property of the Turing Gates: it will change not only the history of the Real, but that of every other sheaf, including our own.

COWBOY ANGELS combines the high-octane action and convoluted plots of the TV series 24 in a satirical, multi-layered alternate reality thriller.


When the Company came for him, Adam Stone was tilling the narrow half acre where corn had been harvested a few weeks ago. Barechested in faded blue jeans and a frayed straw hat, steering the yoke of a scratch plough behind a plodding mule, he heard a rattling roar heading toward him and saw a Jeep speeding along the ridge beyond the patchwork of small fields. It was an old Willy M38, its aircooled radial engine loud as a lowflying aircraft on a strafing run as it dragged a long tail of dust down the rough track everyone here called Broadway because it ran more or less where Broadway ran in the Real, the real Manhattan, the real America, heading toward the stand of shade trees and the farm's whitewashed log cabin.

As Stone unhitched the mule and turned it loose to graze, Petey scrambled over the rough stone wall at the far end of the field. A sturdy strawhaired little boy in dungarees, he ran pellmell across the litter of unploughed corn stalks, shouting breathlessly that a soldier had come visiting.

"I saw him."

Stone lifted Petey up and set him on his shoulders and started toward the cabin. The boy locked his legs around Stone's neck and planted his hands on the crown of Stone's hat. "He came all the way from the gate."

"I bet he did."

"He came to see you. Can I ride in his wagon?"

"I believe it's called a Jeep."

"Can I ride in his Jeep?"

"You'll have to ask your mother." Stone raised Petey over his head and set him on top of the wall. "And you'd better be quick about it. After I've had a word with him, I'm pretty sure he'll be going straight back to where he came from."

The Jeep was parked a little way beyond the red barn, close to the manure heap where pumpkins swelled among a sprawling tangle of leaves and vines. The olivegreen paint job and the white star painted on the hood didn't fool Stone, and he felt something kink in his stomach when he saw the man in army uniform sitting with Susan at the picnic table by the cabin's back door. It was David Welch, one of the original cowboy angels.


Stone put on a shirt and walked Welch toward the marshy shore. He didn't

want to talk Company business around Susan and Petey.

"This is a nice place," Welch said. "I should have stopped by sooner."

"I'm kind of glad you didn't."

"A nice kid, too. How old?"

"He just turned six."

"Mmm. You moved here two years ago, I believe. Right after you quit the Company."

"You're wondering about his father," Stone said. "Jake died this February. A hunting accident."

Stone's friend and business partner, out shooting duck in the salt marshes on the east side of the island, had fallen through a thin spot in the ice and broken his leg at the thigh. He'd lost his shotgun and cell phone, too, couldn't call for help, couldn't get back to his boat. Susan had rallied the neighbours and organized a search party after she had realised that her husband was overdue, but wolves had found him first. He'd killed two with his knife before the rest killed him.

"Tough for the kid, losing his father at such a young age," Welch said.


"So how do you fit into this?"

"I first met Jake when he was in the army, back in the American Bund sheaf. He invited me to become a partner in his hunting business when I moved here. Right now, Susan and I are trying to keep that going, and I'm helping out with chores around the place, too."

Welch glanced sideways at Stone. "Does your pretty young widow know about your colourful past, Adam? Have you been telling her tall stories to while away the evenings?"

Stone's unease abruptly deepened. "She doesn't even know I used to work for the Company. I was under military cover back when I first met her husband."

"You were a major in one of the aidsupply companies, according to your file. Winning hearts and minds with crackers and cheese. Are you maintaining that cover here?"

"What is this, David, a security check? Even if the people here knew I worked for the Company, which they don't, I don't have any secrets worth keeping. Not after the Church Committee got through with me."

They came out of the trees and the sun was in their faces. It was one of those perfect fall days, the sun golden in a cloudless sky, a fresh breeze from the Hudson walking through the treetops, when everything seemed lifted clean out of its ordinary self into some purer realm.

Welch shaded his eyes and looked around at the vista of grassy marshland and river and blue sky. He was a tall, stoopshouldered man with a clever face and a glib manner. His khaki jacket and pants were crisply pressed and his combat boots were brand new. The knot of his tie was precisely centred over the top button of his green shirt. He took a deep breath and said, "This air is something else. You can feel it doing good all the way down to the bottom of your lungs. How many people live here?"

"Around a hundred fifty here on the island, maybe twenty thousand along the whole of the East Coast, mostly veterans and winners of the settler lotteries. There's the usual oil business in Texas and Oklahoma and Alaska, the usual exploitation of gold, silver, copper, and uranium reserves, but otherwise it's pretty much pristine. There used to be a maximumsecurity prison near First Foot, but Carter closed it down, and we've managed to keep out resorts and industrial ranches, and rich megalomaniacs who want to carve out personal empires."

"I believe you scouted it back in '67. Your first time through the mirror."

"Me and a couple of squads of gungho Army Rangers. Did you come all this way to talk about the good old days, David?"

Like Stone, David Welch had been one of the first Special Operations field officers. One of Dick Knightly's cowboy angels. He'd served a hitch in the 82nd Airborne before joining the Company, but preferred administration to action in the field. He'd been washing dirty money in the Directorate of Financial Management when Knightly had recruited him, and after five years with Special Ops had moved sideways into the Directorate of Diplomatic Support, hadn't been touched when the Church Committee's exhaustive investigation uncovered evidence of the Company's clandestine operations, unauthorised assassinations, mindcontrol experiments, and all the other dirty little secrets.

He lifted a pack of Dunhills from the breast pocket of his fatigues and shook out a cigarette and lit it with a slim gold lighter, bending to the transparent fiame, exhaling smoke. "We're, what? Somewhere in Greenwich Village, if this was the Real?"

"A little lower than that-around North Church Street, under the footprint of the PanAmerican Trade Center. The farmhouse is about where St. Paul's Chapel would be."

"That little church they have in the big plaza? I guess the shoreline has been extended into the river in the Real. Is that your boat I see down there?"

The fourteenfoot clinkerbuilt dinghy was tied up to a short jetty at the end of a long channel cut through the reed beds. Stone had put it together his first summer here, between spells working on the Long Island Railroad.

He said, "It's for hire if you want to go fishing."

"I just might take you up on that sometime. I bet the fishing is fantastic."

"You name it, we have it. Striped bass, trout, shad, all kinds of coarse fish. I caught a sturgeon a couple of weeks ago. A hundred forty pounds."

"You're kidding."

"We have lobsters that run to six feet. Plenty of oysters too, and cod and herring and mackerel out in the harbour."

"Yeah? How about the hunting?"

"There are whitetailed deer and woodland caribou and mule deer. Wolves and black bears, and shortfaced bears too-those are as big as grizzlies. A few panthers."

"Pretty good hunting for Manhattan."

"We call the island New Amsterdam here," Stone said. He was trying to picture David Welch in a camo jacket and hunter's peaked cap, following a trail through the deep woods with a Winchester .3030 slung on his shoulder. It wasn't easy. "If you want to hunt something exotic, a mastodon or a ground sloth, you'll have to go inland. In fact, I'm due to take a party over there in a few days. You're lucky you found me."

"Is that how you've been supporting yourself, Adam? Playing the great white hunter to jaded businessmen who want to bag an extinct animal for their den? When you're not playing at being a farmhand, that is."

"I don't ask anything of Susan but bed and board."

"I bet."

Stone let that go.

Welch blew a rifle of smoke from his finely figured nostrils. "You know, I never figured you for the backwoodsman type."

"We have electricity-solar and wind power. We have antibiotics, cell phones, computers. .. ."

"And you plough fields with a mule. Like something in one of those old paintings."

"That's how we choose to farm here. The idea is to sit lightly on the land."

"A painting with a mythic tone. Something by Homer Winslow or Thomas Hart Benton, celebrating the foolish notion of frontier utopianism. Man and beast taming the great American wilderness. You look good on it, at any rate. A nice colour, too. Like a Red Indian."

Welch had the even tan of someone who had put in a lot of time by a country club pool.

Stone said, "Farmwork will do that for you."

"You haven't let yourself go. You look ready for action," Welch said, and took an envelope from inside his uniform jacket and offered it to Stone, his halfsmoked cigarette dangling from the corner of his smile.

"I'm retired, David."

Stone had the sudden feeling that something very big and completely unstoppable was rushing toward him at a thousand miles an hour.

"All you have to do is look at this, give me your opinion."

"It better not be a subpoena."

"Just take a look."

There were five photographs inside, two in black and white and three in colour, all different sizes, all of the same woman. In each photograph she had a different hairstyle and wore different clothes, and in each one she was dead. In three she had been shot in the head; in the fourth she had been garrotted; in the fifth she didn't have a mark on her but she was dead all the same, sprawled on a tile fioor, dry eyes staring into infinity.

Welch said, "He's killed her six times. Six times that we know about, anyway. I thought I'd spare you the one where he got her with a car bomb."

"These are all doppels of the same woman?"

Doppels were doppelgängers-alternate versions of the same person, living different lives in different sheaves, different alternate histories. It had been a long time since Stone had used the word.

Welch nodded. "Name of Eileen Barrie."

"You said ‘he.' These six doppels were all murdered by the same guy?"

"We think so."

"You think he used to work for the Company, too. For Special Ops."

"It's good to see that farmwork hasn't softened your brain."

"It's an easy reach. He can travel between sheaves. He knows how to hit a target cleanly. He knows how to get in and how to get out. You've been trying to catch him for a while, and you've come up dry-you have to be desperate or you wouldn't have come here. When did he start?"

"The first one was killed just two weeks ago. He killed three more before someone finally worked out what was going on."

"But you're protecting her now. The Real version and the surviving doppels, I mean."

"I don't know the full extent of this operation, but I do know that he managed to make two hits after we started taking measures."

"You're watching the gates, you're watching the doppels, and he's still taking them out. It must be frustrating."

"Thousands of soldiers and ancillary personnel move through the gates every day. Not to mention relief and reconstruction supplies, diplomatic parties, trade parties, businessmen, journalists, all those humanitarian workers Carter is so fond of. . . . The whole system would grind to a halt if we had to check everyone on every train."

Stone shuffled through the photographs. He was beginning to be interested. He was wondering where this was leading. "This guy is moving between sheaves, he made his last two hits while the targets were under protection, he used to work for the Company. Does he have inside help?"

"Not that we know of." Welch dropped his cigarette butt and stepped on it. "Let's cut to the chase. After he killed the last one, he got clean away from the scene, but he didn't get out of the sheaf. The locals locked down their version of Brookhaven interchange within thirty minutes, and at the moment it's the only way in and out. The other gate in the sheaf, at San Diego, was blown up a couple of weeks ago by a suicide bomber driving a truck stuffed with ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel. We know he didn't get out, Adam. We know he's still there. I've been sent to ask you to help find him."

"He's someone I know, isn't he?"

"It's Tom Waverly."

Stone felt as if someone had sapped him. "No way. Tom's MIA, presumed dead."

Tom Waverly had resigned from the Company directly after the SWIFT SWORD debacle. When he'd recovered from his gunshot wound, he'd joined a private security company and gone to work in the American Bund sheaf. He'd disappeared two months later, and an obscure insurgent group had released video footage of him, claiming to have kidnapped and executed him.

Welch pulled a photograph from inside his jacket and handed it to Stone. "They got that off a surveillance camera in the Brookhaven interchange after he killed her the fourth time."

"It's pretty grainy."

But the man in army uniform, cap pulled low over his face as he walked past a crowd of aid workers, looked a lot like Stone's old friend and comradeinarms.

Welch said, "PHOTINT had to blow it up and enhance it to hell and back, but it hit twentyone of the twentyeight points of the facerecognition system. And crimescene techs lifted a partial thumbprint from a fragment of the car bomb's trigger mechanism, and also found his prints at the scene where he'd garrotted her. It's Tom, all right."

"And you think, what? He was captured and brainwashed? He allowed himself to be turned? Come on."

"We don't know what happened to him in the past three years, or why he's surfaced now. We also don't know why he's killing Eileen Barrie's doppels, but there it is."

"It could be a doppel of Tom that someone's using to smoke the trail."

"Tom's an orphan with no known mother or father, just like you and me and all the other cowboy angels. Who'd know where to find one of his doppels?"

"It would be hard, but not impossible," Stone said, remembering something that Tom Waverly had once told him.

"It's easier to believe he was turned or that he's working on some unsanctioned action of his own," Welch said. "He always did have a wild streak."

"Who is Eileen Barrie? Does she work for the Company?"

"In the Real she's a mathematician. And so are her doppels."

"Every one of her? That's pretty stable."

"There are a couple of sheaves where she doesn't exist, or where she died young. But in every other sheaf she's a mathematician, usually working on some aspect of quantum theory. She's more stable than Elvis."

"Is she working on something important? Something someone might not want her to work on?"

"Forget the woman, Adam. We want to find Tom and bring him in, safe and well. We think you can help us."

Stone let that we go for the moment. He said, "Why me? Nathan Tate worked with Tom on more operations that I did. Jimmy McMahon worked alongside Tom and me in the American Bund sheaf-"

"Jimmy McMahon retired last year after he suffered a heart attack and had a triple bypass. And Nathan Tate was working the case, until yesterday evening. The Cluster used a travellingsalesman program to work out which doppels of Eileen Barrie were most likely to be targeted next. Nathan was working protection for one of the candidates. She was living in New York, the Johnson sheaf. Tom planted an incendiary device in her house. It started a fire that drove everyone outside, and Tom shot and killed Eileen Barrie and Nathan Tate with a .308 rifle from about two hundred yards."

"Tom killed Nathan?"

Welch nodded. "Yesterday evening, New York City, the Johnson sheaf. Like I said, there's only one functional gate, and we have it locked up. But there's a complication. In addition to Eileen Barrie and Nathan Tate, Tom also killed a cop who happened to be the nephew of the mayor of New York. The local police have been authorised to use terminal force against him. I want you to come back with me. I want you to help us find him. If the locals get to him before we do, they'll shoot him down like a dog."

"Who sent you? Was it Knightly?"

"Not hardly. The Old Man is still wearing a diaper and drooling out of one side of his mouth. He hasn't even learnt how to talk again."

After the Church Committee had presented its findings to a closed session of Senate, Dick Knightly had been tried on charges of conspiracy to conceal the involvement of Special Operations in clandestine activity against governments in other sheaves. He'd suffered a massive stroke after he'd been sentenced, and was serving a twentyyear term in the hospital ward of a minimum security facility in the Florida Everglades.

"Why I'm here," Welch said, "I happen to be working for the Directorate of Diplomatic Support in the sheaf where Tom made his last hit, where he's locked in right now. The guy in charge of the investigation, Ralph Kohler, asked me to reach out to you because one of his men found a note at the scene."

"Tom left a note?"

"Carved in the bark of the tree he used as a sniper's position: I'll talk to Stone."

"That's it? You came all the way out here because someone who may or may not be Tom Waverly carved my name on a tree?"

"I came here because Tom Waverly wants to talk to you, Adam. I know you and Tom had a bad fallingout over SWIFT SWORD, but I also know that he saved your life, once upon a time. Are you willing to try to save his?"


Susan said, "After I sent Petey to find you, I asked Colonel Welch point blank why he was here, but the slippery son of a gun wouldn't give a straight answer."

Stone said, "It's how he is. Don't take it personally."

"One minute you're ploughing, the next you're packing. So forgive me for being kind of curious."

Susan, slender and tousled in jeans and one of her dead husband's shirts, its tails tied in a knot above her navel, had just climbed the ladder into Stone's temporary living quarters in the barn's hayloft. There was a single bed and a kitchen chair and a raw pine chest, and an unglazed window that looked out across treetops toward the broad sweep of the Hudson and the Jersey shore. It was warm under the slanting ribs of the roughhewn roof beams and smelled pleasantly of the straw stacked below. Stone had washed up and put on his Sunday chinos and his best checked shirt. He'd been packing, folding Tshirts into neat squares, when Susan had climbed into the loft. Now he smiled at her and said, "Are you mad at me?"

"I understand why you couldn't talk about this in front of your friend. And I'll try to understand if you can't tell me everything, but how about a hint or two?"

"It really isn't anything. They want me to help find someone."

"Someone . . . fi"

"An old friend who's gotten himself into a little trouble. I want to help him, if I can. Not because I want to help David Welch."

Stone felt bad because he couldn't tell Susan about the woman who had been murdered six different ways, about Nathan Tate and the policeman who'd been the nephew of the mayor of New York, about the manhunt. Less than an hour after David Welch had turned up, he was back inside the old world of evasion and halftruths, legends and lies.

"And you're going, just like that," Susan said. "He must be a very good friend."

"Actually, I'm not sure if we're still friends. The last time we saw each other, we had a fallingout."

"Over some femme fatale, I hope."

"As a matter of fact, it was over foreign policy."

"Not quite as romantic."

"Sorry to disappoint. But we were good friends once upon a time, and I sort of owe him a favour."

"Is it going to be dangerous?"

"He wants to talk to me. That's all I'm going to do."

"This is what Welch told you?"

"Your Mr. Welch is definitely a slippery son of a gun, but I think he told me the truth, as far as it goes."

Susan pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. She'd cut it short at the beginning of summer, and now the dirtyblonde curls cascaded around her shoulders. "I've never asked about what you were doing when you met Jake, Adam, and I'm not going to start now. But I can't help worrying that this is a lot more dangerous than making sure aid packages get to the right place, or whatever it was you did back then."

"This friend of mine wants to talk to me. That's all it is."

A silence stretched between them, heavy with evasions and things unspoken, while Stone swiftly packed folded clothes, a washbag, and his Colt .45 automatic and shoulder rig inside his kitbag. As he was stuffing socks into nooks and crannies, Blackie, the farm's Border collie, started to bark out in the yard. A few moments later, Stone heard the roar of the Jeep's engine. David Welch was back from taking Petey for a ride.

Susan said, "How long is this going to take?"

"I don't know. A couple of days if I'm lucky."

"Mr. Wallace and his son are due Saturday."

"They want to bag a sabretoothed cat. I haven't forgotten, and I promise I'll be back in time."

Susan narrowed her eyes, put her hands on her hips, and said in a playful, mocktough voice, "You'd better be back, mister, or I'm going to have to find myself another partner."

"I'll come back as soon as I can."

"Take care of yourself around that slippery Colonel Welch."

"You bet."

Petey was making a lot of noise below, calling to Susan, telling her that the Jeep had gone as fast as anything.

Susan told her son that she'd be right down, and smiled at Stone. "I guess we can manage without you for a little while."

Stone smiled back. "I know you can."

David Welch pretended not to watch when Susan hugged Stone and told him again to take care. Stone slung his kitbag into the back of the Jeep and climbed into the shotgun seat beside Welch, and the Jeep drove off down Broadway, laying white dust over the goldenrod and tall grasses that grew on either side.

Stone didn't look back. He believed that it would be bad luck if he did.

Copyright © 2008 by Paul J. McAuley


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