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Cloud Walker, chapter 1

 

by Mary Ann Mogus

Cloud Walker is the third book in a ‘what if’ series about the Civil War. The action takes place in a number of alternate universes. Most ‘what if’ Civil War stories revolve around the South winning the war. This series asks the question: What would happen of the North and South were forced to fight a technologically superior opponent? The answer follows the adventures of a number of individuals as they are dawn into this conflict that escalates from nineteenth-century warfare to a twentieth- first century war. The following is the first chapter of the book which is available from Wings-ePress, Amazon and Barnes and Noble as a paperback, an E-book and a number of other mobile platforms.


All universes are at the same place, but not all are at the same time.  — Codex of Flowering Butterfly

One

April 14, 1961 (Universe U0)

Gray Eagle climbed from the blue, gold, and white airplane, while a mechanic hurried to greet him.

Well, Medicine Man how’s the engine?”

She’s purring like a fat, sassy cat.” Gray Eagle smiled at the use of the nickname he had acquired during his stint with the army. “Sam, you’ve worked miracles.”

It’s easy when you have good material, as they say in Hollywood.” Sam rubbed his hands against his greasy overalls. “But then Hollywood doesn’t have an aeronautical engineer like you. I’ll miss you when Connie and I leave to start the business.”

I’ll miss you too. The only mechanic I know who’s better than you is Gordo.”

Gray Eagle felt a sudden twinge of nostalgia for the man who had taught him so much about airplanes. He wondered where Gordo, R. Gordon Sykes, was now. He hadn’t heard from the man since ’52. It was a shame the way once close friends often lost touch with one another.

Sam interrupted his musings. “So you think you and the team will be ready for the August air show?”

Yes, provided Amber doesn’t burn out one of the engines.”

She’s little hellion,” Sam agreed. “Not yet eighteen and too smart for her own good.”

Gray Eagle nodded, sobering at the thought of his pupil Amber Valic. She and the other six pilots were the children of the scientists and technicians working at ISIR, the Institute for Scientific Investigation and Research. But she was far ahead of her contemporaries in many ways, not all of them guaranteed to give her smooth flying in life.

Check out the other planes, will you, Sam? I’ve a meeting with Julian at eleven.”

Sam gave Gray Eagle a mock salute and hurried away. Gray Eagle watched for a moment, before staring at the sky empty of clouds. He lowered his gaze as one of his team started a landing approach. The runways of the private airport baked under a sun the color of melted butter. The air had a hot, dry smell to it, a smell he identified with the season. It was in stark contrast to the North Dakota reservation where he had been born.

Gray Eagle glanced at his watch, an ever-present goad to action. No one kept Indian time here. He hadn’t kept it since he left the reservation in ’41. He hummed a song as he walked toward the hangar, set parallel to the North South runway. It was a Quonset hut type building; the roof and walls supported by a metal skeleton. The hangar would house two of the Merlins Gray Eagle had designed.

The designs were based on the P-51 fighter used in WWII. He wondered if Julian Barstead, a man he considered a brother, was right about looking for a company to manufacture the new aerobatics planes. It would bring in extra money for ISIR, not that the institute needed funds. Barstead had a top engineering mind and the royalties from his patents were more than sufficient to keep ISIR in funds for years. It was Cc Rierdon, one of the anthropologists at the institute, who had the knack for investments.

If Julian lets Cc have his hand in the stock market, we’ll need no more government contracts ever,” Gray Eagle said out loud as he made his way to the empty hangar. “What a blessing that would be. I hate the security issues.”

He walked into the shade of the hangar with more spring in his step than he had felt for some time. Yes, both the planes and his pupils were performing well. They would be ready for the air show.

Buoyed by the thought, he turned to watch the second Merlin land. Heat flared in his stomach and he gasped as if he had been punched. He knew it was the sudden touch of a vision. The scene before him took on a mottled grainy appearance as if he were looking at billions of tiny colored dots. Gray Eagle grabbed at the side of the hangar entrance, anchoring his body to the earth.

No,” he pleaded. “Not now not after ten years.” He knew there was no way to stop the coming vision; there never had been.

The graininess of his sight was followed by a prickling sensation as if he were passing through an electric membrane. Instantly his sight cleared. For a moment he thought the vision had passed. The scene before him was the same as when the sensations began, but the buzzing in his head was still present.

It’s not stopped. He called upon his power animals to help him, but the answer was a sudden appearance of two Merlins leaping into the sky like young, winged colts. The planes gained altitude, did a snap roll, and climbed higher before starting the Immelman maneuver, an old trick learned by pilots during the First World War to turn the tables on an attacker when both planes disappeared into a thick bank of clouds.

The sight of clouds in an otherwise cloudless sky reminded Gray Eagle that the vision was happening in his head and not on the airfield outside the confines of the hangar. As the vision continued, his mind was enveloped by smoke filled with the acrid stench of gunpowder, fear, and death. Voices called from a dark wind surrounding him but their words were indistinct.

He was no longer in the hangar, but on a hill pitted by repeated shelling, and surrounded by two nebulous armies. His only clear view was of the sky and the hefty cloudbank into which the little Merlins had disappeared only moments ago. His eyes caught movement as the planes reappeared. But where two planes had gone into the clouds, three tore through, diving toward the ground in what he recognized as a strafing attack.

What the hell?” he said, ducking to one side.

The planes were P-40s, just like the ones he had flown in China in ’41 when he, Barstead, Gordo, and his old teacher Murphy, had fought in the Chinese Air Corps. He would recognize the shark’s teeth on the nose symbol anywhere. But his eyes caught a detail the planes he flew never had. It looked as if someone had painted white blotches on the body and wings in a careless attempt at what?

The scene collapsed. His sight readjusted to the airfield before him and two figures running toward him. The sound of engines filled his ears, followed by the routine crackle of static on the small radio in the hangar, and the smell of stale oil and grease. His forehead was beaded with sweat. His palm slid from the hangar’s edge, catching on a sharp piece of metal, the bite of pain forcing him to full awareness.

Gray Eagle!” Amber reached him as he dropped to his knees. “Help me, Roger!” she shouted to her companion.

They helped Gray Eagle to a chair beside the table that supported the radio and piles of books and papers. He nodded his thanks, strength slowly filling his body, some of it directed to him by the young people standing on either side of his chair. He was grateful he had taught them the ways of medicine just as he had taught them to fly.

You had a vision?” Amber said with the hint of accusation.

Gray Eagle nodded.

What was it?”

He shook his head; not wanting to tell her what he had learned as the vision collapsed. That he knew she and Roger were two of the pilots in the planes of his vision and that he wasn’t the third. He reached for the medicine bag he always carried around his neck. Warmth and energy touched his hand and filled his spirit.

You’ve cut your hand.” She unwound the silk flying scarf she wore as an affectation.

I’ll get the first aid kit,” Roger offered, leaving the two alone for the moment.

Amber wrapped the scarf tightly around Gray Eagle’s hand to stop the bleeding. “It must have been some vision. What was this one about?”

War,” he muttered, pulling his hand away from her. “I’m surprised you didn’t sense anything.”

Only that you were in trouble. But I don’t have one of those strange stones that you carry.”

Gray Eagle knew the allusion was to the pouch tied around his neck. The day in 1941 when he had left Bismarck, North Dakota, for California and the war, his mentor, Two Feathers, had given him what he at first thought was a white pebble. It was a sacred stone kept by his late grandmother, Red Moon. She had left instructions that it was to be given to him when he left the reservation.

After he met Julian Barstead, the two learned that the pebble was not simply a stone but a crystal formation. Later, after the war, after Barstead formed ISIR and Gray Eagle joined him, the two were able to finally study the stone they had come to wonder about. Scientific analysis suggested the stone was synthetic, and no one could discover exactly what it was constructed for or how to use it at will.

The warmth of the stone slowly ebbed and Gray Eagle sighed. “I’ve a meeting with Julian at eleven.” He stood on shaky legs drawing on his new reserves of strength to shove aside the images burned in his memory. Time would not allow him the luxury of thinking about what had just happened. He would find a space for it later, and as he had done before, he pushed the images deeper into his mind.

Roger came to him with the first aid kit. “At least let us put a bandage and some antiseptic on the cut.”

Gray Eagle agreed as Amber unwound the flying scarf from his hand, discarding it on the table. Roger opened the kit, and Amber used the alcohol to wipe away the dried blood. Gray Eagle winced as Amber painted his wound with iodine and bandaged his hand.

I’m coming with you to that meeting.” She finished taping the bandage in place and returned the unused portion of the roll to the first aid kit.

No,” he cautioned. “Weber will be there.”

She narrowed her blue eyes and drew herself up to her indignant five foot three height. “I don’t care.”

He hates you,” Roger interrupted.

He hates anyone under forty,” she retorted. “The man has the personality of a box of rocks.”

Gray Eagle chuckled. “The description fits. I wish Julian hadn’t been so insistent on hiring a plasma physicist.”

You really wish Julian had hired someone else, say Dr. Hans Bechter?”

Gray Eagle nodded. “Bechter’s good from what I hear. But he was too close to the Nazis for us to hire him.”

I thought he worked for the underground during the war.” Amber snapped the metal tab, locking the first aid kit.

No one really knows.” Gray Eagle looked at his bandaged hand, wondering how he was going to explain the accident to Barstead. It was true he and Barstead were like brothers: he the younger, Barstead the older worrywart. Barstead would demand to know what happened and his already graying hair would add a few white strands when he heard the nature of the vision.

I’m still coming with you.” Amber poked at Gray Eagle’s shoulder.

You’ll need security clearance for this visit,” Gray Eagle tried to temper her determination.

I have it, so does everyone at ISIR. We live on the property, remember?”

Yes and the others won’t mind, but Weber,” Gray Eagle made a rocking motion with his bandaged hand.

Amber placed the first aid kit on the table. “Are you coming?” She asked as Roger brushed at an absent strand of blond hair.

I’d rather chew on a rattlesnake.”

I’m going. Julian can be the one to kick me out.”

Gray Eagle knew better than to argue with her when she made a decision and he didn’t have the time for subtle persuasion. If Julian wanted her out of the meeting, he would be the one to tell her.

~*~

Dr. Stan Weber glared at Gray Eagle sitting across from him. The polished, round, walnut table was a tenuous buffer against the hostility radiated by the scientist.

What the hell’s she doing here?”

I had an accident, and Amber agreed to come with me to the meeting,” Gray Eagle replied. Both true statements but their relationship was questionable.

I don’t care if you had a heart attack,” Weber blurted. “This is a secure meeting. The man coming to speak is from DC. You think he wants some dumb kid at the meeting?”

Dr. Margaret Aksawan toyed with the leather strap of her watch. The white skin beneath the watchband stood out against her darkly tanned arm. “Can it, Stan. We need to meet with this meeting with the secret service agent over with. I have a load of artifacts to analyze.”

Nobody gives a damn about your stupid potsherds. You’ve hogged half the instruments at ISIR in your study.”

She doesn’t use the same equipment you do,” Dr. Walter Reed said in defense of his colleague. He lounged at ease in his chair, his lanky body resting against the cushioned seat.

Weber’s lips twitched. “When I took a contract with ISIR, I thought this place did serious research.”

It does,” Margaret leaned forward, removed her watch and placed it on the table beside her notebook. “But not all serious research involves plasmas.”

Weber said. “You don’t know the meaning of serious.” Barstead entered interrupted Weber’s criticism.

Dr. Julian Barstead, director and foundered of ISIR entered with a man an inch shorter than he. The newcomer had dark auburn hair, hazel eyes, and the look of an agent. His navy suit, blue silk tie, button-down shirt, and wing tip shoes screamed easterner before he opened his mouth.

This is Mr. Arthur Beaumont, of the Secret Service,” Barstead introduced the man with him. Barstead glanced at Amber, then at Gray Eagle. When neither volunteered any information, he made the introductions, pausing only to assure Beaumont that the young woman had the necessary security clearance.

Gray Eagle suspected the assurance was redundant. If this agent had done his homework, he knew about everyone at ISIR, including Amber. What he thought about them was another matter.

Barstead directed the agent to a seat and took the chair next to him. “I’ve kept the number of people to a minimum as you requested. Now, would you like to tell us what the meeting is about? Your request said urgent.”

Since security clearance is not an issue for any of you, I’ll get right to the point.”

Gray Eagle sensed Amber shift in her chair. He felt it too, the silent anxiety gripping the stranger across the table from him in a bond so tight Gray Eagle wondered why he couldn’t see an image of it.

There’s a problem at the White House that the president hopes you will be able to solve.”

What problem?” Barstead asked, training his blue eyes on the agent.

We’ve had a visitor disturbing the occupants since March and it can’t continue.” Beaumont ran a hand through his hair.

Gray Eagle caught the liquid sibilance of a Virginia accent beneath the words. “Mr. Beaumont, isn’t that the job of the FBI? Or even your agency?”

Yes,” Weber leaned against his chair. “Why bother us?”

I’m working on this with two other agents, Mark Kraft and Aaron Stein. But this isn’t, shall we say, within our area of training, let alone expertise.”

We don’t do security work,” Weber’s nostrils widened. “Why would you even think this has anything to do with us?”

Beaumont met the scientist’s gaze. “The visitor is a ghost.”

Ghost?” Margaret’s eyes widened.

Beaumont nodded.

Horse crap,” Weber barked. “There’s no such thing as a ghost.”

Shut up, Stan! Let the man finish.” Margaret smacked the table with the flat of her hand, an action she had used to summon the wandering attention of numerous college students in the days when she taught at Stanford.

Beaumont smiled his thanks. Weber folded his arms across his chest and subsided.

The visitations started in the Lincoln bedroom as just a glimpse of something and when you turn it’s gone. But the encounters have escalated.”

What do you mean by escalated?” Gray Eagle asked.

The ghost has been seen by several people and we’ve been able to photograph it.” Beaumont pulled out three photographs. “Would you look at these Dr. Aksawan?”

She looked at the photographs, blinked, and shook her head.

Beaumont said. “Stein took, developed and printed the photos. The light from the visitor was enough to give us the image in a darkened hallway.”

Let’s see what you captured.” Reed leaned closer to his colleague for a look at the photos.

My God, it’s a picture of Lincoln?”

Lincoln?” Weber casually ran the tips of his fingers along the edge of the table. “Surely, you’re not suggesting that Lincoln is haunting the White House?”

I’m not suggesting anything,” Beaumont said. “I’m simply giving you what evidence we have. I’ve also brought along typed transcripts of interviews with the people who’ve encountered this ghost.”

You say ghost with some hesitation,” Gray Eagle said.

I don’t think this is a ghost. My gut tells me it’s something different.”

Do you suppose that the Soviets are doing this?” Barstead asked as he took one of the photographs that had made its way to him.

I don’t know what to suggest,” Beaumont rubbed his forehead. “Kraft actually fired off two rounds at the thing when it appeared in the Rose Garden. The bullets missed the ghost, but it looked scared as hell.”

Gray Eagle sat upright in his chair. “The ghost looked scared?”

Beaumont nodded. “I couldn’t fire at it. I mean it looks so much like Lincoln.”

Gray Eagle said. “But that doesn’t explain the reaction. Ghosts seldom interact with the person witnessing the scene.” He did not add that most witnesses ran in the opposite direction. Few drew a gun and fired at an apparition.

That’s it.” Weber let out a deep breath. “I’ve got work to do. Count me out of this. I’m presenting a paper at the Plasma Physics meeting and I have some last minute calculations to finish.” He rose and strode from the room without looking back.

Good riddance,” Margaret muttered.

Beaumont frowned. “Will he speak of this meeting?”

Reed shook his head. “No, this isn’t something he can add to his list of publications.”

Beaumont sat back in his chair, but his eyes strayed to the now closed door.

How would you like us to help you?” Gray Eagle interrupted the agent’s thoughts.

I’d like you to come to DC and have a look for yourself.”

When?” Margaret asked.

Yesterday,” Beaumont quipped.

The ripple of laughter broke the tension in the room. Gray Eagle lifted a photograph and studied it as Barstead and the agent talked about the arrangements. Something was not quite right, he thought. The photograph was in perfect focus, but his mind insisted on blurring it, as if the focus of the action were elsewhere. He felt warmth from the stone he carried and quickly dropped the photograph.

What is it?” Amber whispered to him.

Nothing,” he lied.

You felt something from that stone.”

Beaumont looked at her. “Is something wrong?”

No, just discussing the flight east,” she improvised.

You’ll be coming with them?”

I’ll pilot the plane. Roger will serve as my copilot,” she said, keeping up the fiction she had just devised.

Beaumont glanced at the man beside him for an explanation, but none was forthcoming. He resorted to opening his briefcase and removing a set of folders that he placed on the table.

Are these the interviews?” Barstead reached for a folder.

The agent nodded. “Seven including mine. I know you people have top clearance. I’ve researched you at President Kennedy’s request. But this has to be kept very quiet.”

Reed asked, “Isn’t that plasma physics conference Stan plans to attend in Washington?”

Barstead nodded. “It starts in a week. You thinking perhaps we could go also, but check out the White House ghost instead?”

I’m thinking exactly that. It will serve as cover.”

Just what sort of cover will Cc and I serve?” Margaret asked.

Gray Eagle glanced at her. “You’re coming to speak with colleagues at the Smithsonian.”

Good idea,” she cocked a finger at him. “And you?”

I’ll check out the museum, maybe talk with some people about aviation research.”

She winked at Amber. “And the dangerous duo?”

I’ll be responsible for them,” he replied a bit too quickly. He suddenly wished he hadn’t said it. He could easily have flown one of the newer eight-passenger planes cross-country without any help. But Amber’s remark had seemed to commit ISIR to taking her and Roger as well.

Then let’s discuss what we’ve learned about the sightings and make some plans for your arrival and how we can integrate you into the White House routine,” Beaumont offered.

April 14, 1861 (Universe U1)

Desiree Bouchard hurried toward her new residence on State Street in the western Maryland town of Frederick. She stopped outside her house, glanced at the sky, and said out loud. “It will rain this afternoon.”

There was no hint of rain in the hazy sunlight filtering through the feather-like clouds, but she sensed the touch of moisture on the breeze. She was good at predicting the weather.

Returning her gaze to the house, she smiled, feeling again the thrill of freedom in her heart every time she looked at the two-story structure. The house was built in the Federal style of architecture, with window frames set off by black shutters. It was just the sort of house her late husband, Louis, would have hated. She absolutely loved it.

She hurried up the brick driveway and beneath the ornate portico with the two fluted columns, a later addition. She mounted the three steps to the door, inserted the key she carried in her hand and opened it, coming face to face with Harriette, the young woman she had raised from birth and considered her ward.

Harriette stepped back a pace to avoid a collision. “I heard you coming and meant to get the door.”

Desiree handed the young woman the package she was carrying. “I’ve brought the pastries. There was no need to worry that I would be late.”

I’ll put these with the coffee.” Harriette took the package from Desiree. “A courier came for you while you were out. He left that.” She inclined her head to the petticoat table in the hall. A thick pack of papers sat inert on a silver tray.

They’re from Henri,” Desiree knew without seeing the handwriting or the return address. She swore in French.

Harriette smiled, turned, and hurried toward the drawing room, her apricot taffeta day gown rustling as she walked. Desiree looked at her departing from. She’s eighteen and there’s no one but me to support her.

Harriette was the offspring of a liaison between her late husband and one of his slaves. Harriette had been a gift to Desiree when Louis learned she could not have children. But Desiree had always known the truth. Louis preferred other women to his wife, no matter what the color of their skin.

Now Louis was dead, as was Harriette’s mother. Harriette was free. And the dowry money Desiree had brought to the marriage was invested in stock and property in the North. At least Louis had known how to do that and see that she was provided for. The Louisiana plantation had gone to his younger brother, Henri. Desiree had all she would ever need and that she would share with Harriette.

She removed her bonnet, placed it on a wooden peg, part of an elaborately carved set of pegs fastened to the wall for just this purpose, and attacked the packet. She scanned the contents, mostly the remnants of the estate to deal with, she thought.

So he’s still in Charleston,” she muttered.

What?” Harriette stepped into the hall.

Henri, he’s still in Charleston. He will probably lead the charge on that fort everyone is arguing about. What is it called?”

Sumter,” Harriette said. “But if the fort is fired upon, won’t that mean war?”

Yes,” Desiree said. “Yes,” she repeated to herself in a softer voice. “It will indeed mean war.”

Universal Time 1. 00. 04. 14 (Universe 61)

General San felt that if Brie did not stop talking soon, she would reach across the table and strangle him, Supreme Commander of the Khysid Army or not.

And I see that we are proceeding on schedule.” He consulted a thin sheet of what looked like paper, but was really a computer.

San let her eyes travel over the domed Command Chamber, taking in the blue-gray color of the stone, and finally resting her gaze on the ornate chair occupied by Brie at the head of the crescent shape table. Since San was granted a seat on the Command Council, the room had come to have a claustrophobic feel to it. She was still a junior member and the senior members seldom gave her words the seriousness she thought they deserved.

Brie concluded. “We will invade the 1861 universe shortly after they finish their battle at Gettysburg. That will give us a chance to get some good war footage.”

San shifted in her chair. The natural highlights in her hair set off her dark skin. Her movement caused Elar to glance in her direction. San knew he was attracted to her, but he had yet to make his move.

Any questions?” Brie asked.

She spoke. “Sir, I think we had better address this latest record of instability in the universe we are proposing to invade.” She tapped the report before her with her beautifully manicured finger.

Brie made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “Have Colonel Val deal with it. After all, his new software has proved useful. I see no reason to interfere with the mission. He and Major Kester seem capable of dealing with any perturbations.”

You wouldn’t see your hand if it didn’t come attached to your arm, she thought. She didn’t like the data Val had sent to her. The incidents he related seemed too unstable. She knew the army was committed to invading the universe in question. The cache of Jewels, used to power the Source Gates that opened portals between alternate universes, was nearing depletion. The army had never been able to create synthetic versions of the original Jewels.

I’m worried about committing a nearly intact Jewel to this invasion,” she blurted.

San, we need a large, stable portal at the Embassy Club. This is no simple long-term exploitation. We intend to take this universe. Are you worried about fighting?” Elar asked.

I’m as anxious to see the troops trained, as ready to take to the field as any of your more experienced generals.”

Like Sig?”

He’s one of our best. But the instabilities in these readings worry me. I know they aren’t large, but they seem persistent. That’s not normal.”

Cal waved her hand. “They’ll dissipate in time.”

If we wait.”

General San,” Brie poured contempt into the two words. “If we wait, fighting will begin, and we’ll miss our chance at recording some good footage during the battle of Bull Run, or Manassas, or whatever they call it.” He paused. “I mean will call it when they fight it.”

The Command Council returned to deliberations as San felt her temper move up several degrees. She had rid them of Supreme Commander Hazen, paving the way for Brie to take Hazen’s seat and control of the Khysid Army. But it was Kester, her mind whispered, who had Hazen killed. She smacked down the thought.

I set the events in motion,” she muttered beneath her breath. No one was paying attention to her.

She had learned one thing from the late Supreme Commander Hazen. Events not planned for were the problem in an army dependent for survival on the products and resources of the alternate universes. Events were history and before Hazen died he had reminded her that history had a way of thumbing its nose at the best of plans.