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Dennis Danvers has published eight novels, including NYT Notables Circuit of Heaven and The Watch, and Locus and Bram Stoker nominee Wilderness. His eighth novel, Bad Angels, was published in 2015. Short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Space and Time, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, F & SF, Realms of Fantasy, Electric Velocipede, Apex Magazine, Tor.com and Lightspeed; and in anthologies Tails of Wonder, Richmond Noir, The Best of Electric Velocipede, Remapping Richmond's Hallowed Ground, and Nightmare Carnival. He teaches fiction writing and science fiction and fantasy literature at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.

The Watch by Dennis Danvers

When an enigmatic visitor from another world appears at the deathbed of Peter Alexeivich Kropotkin in 1921 Russia, offering him a chance to be reborn, Peter gladly accepts, but his new life in 1999 America is far from idyllic as he is faced with a bizarre new world of plastic and capitalism, where other refugees, both past and present, crave freedom and justice.

 

REVIEWS

  • "Dennis Danvers is as astute a political philosopher as he is an engaging storyteller. The Watch is a page-turner with a brain, a conscience and, in Peter Kropotkin, one of contemporary science fiction's most memorable characters."

    – Jeffrey Ford
  • "A time travel romp that offers fresh occasion for the philosophical musings that undergirded his earlier novel….He wrings genuine emotion from a decision that Kropotkin must make when given the chance to bring his theoretical ideas to fruition at a price that calls into question his deepest ethical beliefs."

    – New York Times Book Review
  • "Danvers' look at Richmond through Kropotkin's eyes is a delight….[His] evident enthusiasm for Kropotkin and his philosophy of mutual aid are the spark to a passionate and charming book,"

    – The Denver Post
  • "Clearly, subtly, agreeably articulated. Danvers spins a grand yarn."

    – Kirkus Reviews
  • "A philosophical inquiry with a basic moral point, this literate time-travel tale also thoroughly entertains. …. One has less a sense of reading a story than of following the provocative thinking of the novel's displaced hero and narrator. The quotations that head each chapter from the real-life Kropotkin and such writers as Dickens and Coleridge, as well as Civil War generals and politicians lend insights into slavery, the Civil War and race in America. … Reminiscent of classic SF tales of the '40s and '50s, such as Asimov's Foundation series, this compelling novel may well become a minor classic in the field."

    – Publishers Weekly
  • "This is a novel of ideas, but it is also one of great heart and fabulous personality. As the elderly philosopher Peter Kropotkin lies dying in 1921 Russia, Anchee Mahur, a visitor from the far future, offers to bring him back to life-restored to health, in a future time and place. Peter's curiosity gets the better of him and he soon finds himself in 1999, in Richmond, VA. He is on his own, starting a new life in what, to him, might as well be an alien planet, with no capital but his intellect and a lifetime's wisdom. As the time traveler shares his story, an original and sometimes startling vision of our times emerges through his eyes; to one who lived under czars, this is a world both fantastic in its technology yet all too familiar in its ethics. Peter is part innocent, part sage, wholly charming, and extremely funny. A gregarious fellow, he feels right at home with a diverse population and relates winningly to everyone. He finds romance. He falls in with a group of creative young musicians, artists, and activists who are sure to delight teen readers. And he discovers two more time travelers: a slave and an abolitionist from Richmond's past. Peter's presence has a catalytic effect on a city that still romanticizes its Confederate history, and a new revolution brings a reckoning with the truth of its past. Read as a thoughtful meditation, or simply as a delightful yarn, this is a story and a hero that should find an enthusiastic audience."

    – School Library Journal
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

Chapter 1: I Am Reborn

Since my death, I've thought a good deal of my childhood in Russia, when I was "Prince" Peter Kropotkin, a title I renounced at twelve. These recollections serve to remind me that I have always been—from my earliest memories to this moment (some hours into my new life)—very much the same. It's remarkable when I think on it: seventy-eight years, and the same earnest fellow all along. It makes me wonder if I'll change this time round, or whether I'll keep working for my heart's desire— that the world should change instead.

My mother died when I was not yet four. I must confess, being so young, I did not really know her. I have of her a mere handful of memories—each one too grand and charged with emotions to be entirely trusted even if I could manage to disentangle reality from legend. But there was nothing illusory about the effect of my mother's memory on those servants entrusted with raising my brother and me. Even if they had not repeated it on every occasion, I would have known from the care and concern lavished on her sons that they thought my mother a fine woman indeed. Their kindness to me can never be exaggerated, nor their wisdom rivaled by later, more sophisticated teachers. As for inherited traits, I attribute to my mother whatever characteristics I possess of a worthwhile nature.

My father incarnated the man I did not wish to be. With such a father's shadow over me, I could never subscribe to any form of genetic determinism. As for his living presence—the parent's guiding and shaping hand—he little influenced my elder brother Sasha and me, for he largely ignored us.

He was a gentleman soldier, an officer naturally, like most of the lesser nobles of his generation who could imagine no greater contribution to the world than fine uniforms and close-order drills, a ballet without music or joy. He was as stingy as my mother was open-hearted; as dull as she was lively; as vindictive as she was loving. He was rich, however, master of twelve hundred serfs, human beings he presumed to own, tending to land he presumed to own. There was no end to his ownership and presumption.

I remember one night at dinner—I was eight or so—he told Sasha and me that he had been awarded a medal for gallantry because Frol, his man, had rushed into a burning house at great risk to himself and rescued a doomed child. My father's commander, witnessing these events, gave my father the Cross of St. Anne straightaway.

"But Father," my brother and I objected, "it was Frol who saved the child!" Through my childish mind flitted the fantasy of a just ceremony—complete with military band and a goodly number of horses—Frol on a platform bearing up bravely beneath the burden of an armload of valorous trinkets.

But Father soon chased that illusion from my brain. "What of that?" he replied. "Was he not my man? It is all the same." He believed it, you see—that a man such as himself could possess a man like Frol, when the truth is my father did not possess the tenth part of Frol's virtues.

As always, Frol was present that evening, standing in his usual place like a pillar, and just as likely to move from his post at our father's elbow. Every evening, with near-invisible signals and gestures, Frol directed the throng of fifty or so men and women who labored to serve us dinner, who would see us into bed and tuck us in like tiny infants. It was a form of suicide, such wealth—the complete abdication of all responsibility for one's own life.

My father paused in his tale to make some complaint about the meat, and I attempted to catch Frol's eyes, but he avoided my gaze and looked darkly out the window into the night. I looked at my father and thought, without quite knowing what I meant, Someday Frol will toss you out that window into the snow. Someday it will be your house ablaze with no one to rescue you.

I hated my father. I have never publicly confessed that fact before. In an effort of fairness I can allow that my father was far from the worst of the serf owners—that even though he forced dozens of young women to marry young so that they might breed him new "souls," he never personally raped a woman to my knowledge;—that even though, on a whim or for some imagined slight, he was in the habit of condemning young men to a quarter-century stint in the army (a death and torture sentence rolled into one), he never murdered a man outright. Even on the battlefield.

There were worse men than my father, certainly.

I can further allow that he was a product of his time, an ordinary man who by all the standards of his class and kin was a good enough fellow. In the terribly conventional neighborhood into which I was born there were hundreds of fine houses, nearly as many princes decorated for gallantry, but scarcely two or three opinions to go round. Those who thought otherwise could live somewhere else, preferably in another country. Be that as it may, he was my father, and I wished that he were better than the times, better than his peers—wished it in vain with all my heart—and I never forgave him for being what he was.

In a sense, I suppose, I dedicated my life to not being my father. In that much, at least, I succeeded.

But what does that matter now? That life is over. My father died in 1871. I died in 1921. This is 1999, almost the end of the millennium. Surely, I can forgive him now.

I have been raised from my deathbed and given a new life by a strange benefactor from the future named Anchee Mahur. I'm resurrected full-grown like a character in a novel. I've kept my name, Peter Alexeivich Kropotkin, no reason to take another. As Anchee explained, no one is likely to mistake me for a man who's been dead for seventy-eight years. According to the papers Anchee gave me, I'm from Dmitrov, a sly irony since that's where I died. But instead of my old birth date of 1842,1 have a new one, 1967, even though it seems to me I've only been in this new time a matter of hours. In this life, I start at thirty-two and have no childhood to recollect. At that age in 1874,1 was in jail for the first time, and anything is preferable to that, even if this future, or rather, this present in which I find myself, is thus far a terrifying place indeed.

I sit inside an enormous airplane. It's the size of a country house. A nervous glance out the window confirms that this behemoth is miles above the surface of the earth. Rationally, I should not be alarmed: I am a man of science. I understand the principles of flight. But still, even though I've been here now for some hours, a terror lingers like nothing I've ever felt before, and it won't listen to reason, as if I were some wretch out of the Stone Age, cowering before the magic of my betters. The image annoys me, and I grow impatient with my fear.

When I asked Anchee what future age he came from, he said it was so far hence—thousands and thousands of years, that a date would be meaningless, and his science would seem like magic to me if he attempted to explain it. He quoted some fellow named

Clarke to back him up on this, which meant little to me. And I objected that perhaps I was not as dim as he supposed. But even now, in this time, a mere lifetime into the future, I must face my humbling ignorance. The sentence Anchee gave me to answer all inquiries—"I am flying to America"—is like some incantation out of 1001 Arabian Nights or else the ravings of a madman.

But it is not magic quite yet. I understand the airfoil well enough to know that it is physics and not magic that holds this huge airplane aloft. I hypothesize that the propellerless engines roaring outside the window work by propulsion, like a rocket. Perhaps most important in quieting my fears, however, is the demeanor of my fellow passengers—who look no more alarmed than if they were aboard a slow steamer floating down the Mississippi. This airship, however, is a good deal less sociable than any vessel of my acquaintance, much to its detriment. I attempt to entertain myself with the fantasy of someday plying the Mississippi. I have a great fondness for rivers. But the image will not hold, as if borne away on a current. There is more to my fear than this airplane.

I am an immigrant, my papers say. They make no reference to the fact that I have visited America twice before; nor should I, Anchee advised. Soon, in a few hours I gather, I will arrive in Washington, where I will get inside another airplane and proceed to my ultimate destination. RIC, the papers say. An official of the airplane company, Alicia—a striking young woman with a warm smile, dressed in a military-style jacket and dark trousers—explained that RIC is a code for Richmond, Virginia.

What an odd choice, I thought immediately.

The Capital of the Confederacy.

When I was last in America in 1901, by a coincidence I met Varina Howell Davis—widow of Jefferson Davis, the late president of the rebellion—in New York City. Booker Washington joined us, and they spoke briefly of Richmond. Neither had the fondest memories of the place. For the former slave, it had been a leading center of the slave trade, for the former first lady, it was a test of her self-proclaimed abundance of patience. "I could please no one," she declared. "I have never been anywhere quite so concerned with questions of etiquette and breeding when there seemed, to an outsider such as myself, so little of either to be found within the city limits." I gathered that an anarchist, even a well-mannered one such as myself, would not have been welcome there.

But that was almost a century ago. Whatever I might find in Richmond, I doubt its choice is random; it, too, is part of An- chee's design, whatever that may be.

"Tell no one you are an anarchist," he advised. "They will not understand what you mean."

"That will be easy," I joked. "That's the state of affairs now."

I close my eyes to the frantic images of a color motion picture flickering everywhere I turn, but I can still see it on my retina like bursts of flame. When it began, I forced myself to watch for a while, to see if I could sort out its constantly shifting perspectives—by my calculations, the product of no fewer than half a dozen cameras going all at once and spliced together in a furious montage. But I could make no sense of it, and my head throbbed with the effort. Everyone else stares at it transfixed, tubing snaking out of their ears. I can hear a faint sound coming from the tubing of the man seated beside me. Voices? I can't be sure. He showed little enough interest in my voice when I attempted to engage him in conversation. Earlier it was his "laptop" which gripped his attention. I was curious about the device, but his tone when identifying it was such to discourage further questions.

What have I done? What am I doing here? I've made a terrible mistake. I'm alive, but everyone and everything I've ever known are gone. Why didn't I just die and be done with it?

But as I draw in an apprehensive breath—a strong, clear breath, free of the bronchitis that has plagued me since my years in prison—it doesn't feel like a mistake to be alive. I squeeze the arms of my seat, made of a curious pliable substance like a stiff clay, and there's no pain in my hands or my joints. It is good to live. Life is good. I have always believed this, regardless of the circumstances.

When Anchee came to my deathbed, I already knew I was about to die, even if he had not told me. He knew the time by heart, it occurs to me, the day and the hour. Three o'clock in the morning, February 8,1921.

Sophie, my dear wife, was with me. Sasha, my daughter, and her husband, Boris. Earlier there had been another voice, Atabekian, I thought, but couldn't be sure. My consciousness came and went, I daresay, at least as often as my caretakers.

Boris and Sasha were talking excitedly about the most remarkable meteor they had just seen blazing across the sky. Boris babbled some superstitious hokum trying to implicate me and my ill health in the business of the cosmos. I wanted to inquire further concerning the shade of green light the meteor emanated, but it was too much effort to speak, had been for days. And with speech came the coughing, and life itself had come down to not coughing if one could help it, knowing that soon, very soon, I couldn't help it, and I would die coughing. I couldn't imagine any other death.

They thought I slept, but I was awake, listening. It was my last connection with life—their voices. Certain profound moments of complete solitude have touched me in the way, I imagine, that mystics claim to be touched by God. But for me the voices of those I love, or even the memories of them, are a sufficient reason to live. I listened. Even when my inner eye could no longer mount a reliable image of the speaker, I listened to their words.

So when there was silence, an absolute silence, I forced my eyes open to see what death looked like.

To my surprise, even without my eyeglasses, I saw perfectly, something I hadn't done in years. There were a trio of lights by my bed—the flames of the candles—but they didn't move, didn't flicker. Their light was unnaturally steady. With surprisingly little effort, I rolled over onto my back, and there was Boris standing over me, frozen in mid-sentence, his hand poised in a passionate gesture. The tears on the cheeks of Sasha and Sophie didn't flow. Atabekian stood motionless, the poker in his hand thrust into the fire. A cloud of sparks hovered above the grate.

The only movement of any kind other than myself was a man, a black man in a white robe or gown, watching me intently, his eyes blinking. When I caught sight of him, he stepped forward and sat on the edge of the bed, Boris looming over him like a statue in a park. "Peter Kropotkin," the black man said. "Do not be afraid. I am a friend. I have come a long way to see you. I am from the future. My time owes you a great deal. I have stopped time so that we may speak. You are about to die ..."

I stopped listening to his precise words—for they scarcely made any sense to me—and attempted to fathom what was going on. It was quite the speech, rehearsed I would say, but well delivered. Everything about him bespoke a sense of purpose. Is he an angel? I asked myself. Does his presence mean there is a God after all? The thought so distressed me that I felt a wave of revulsion and anger—to have been so wrong about such a fundamental question right up to death's door. Worse to imagine a God who would willingly preside over such widespread suffering and inequity as fill the world. No. No God. I refused to believe it. No angels either.

"Who are you?" I interrupted in English, for he was speaking English, though in an accent strange to me.

"I am Anchee Mahur," he said, then summarized his recitation in slow and precise syllables: "I've come from the future to offer you a second life. By scientific means, I'll restore your body to what it was in younger and healthier days, then transport you to a different time and place, where you may live out the balance of a new life. If you so wish it, that is. We force no one."

I was vainly trying to comprehend what on earth he could be talking about when he laid his hands on my head, and said, "Allow me," and all came clear like a sudden burst of inspiration when the most incredible things seem as if they have been obvious all along. Of course: my body restored to youth and fitness, transplanted into some future time like a cutting from an old tree.

But I am not a tree, and there was still much I wanted to know. "A time machine?" I asked, and it was then he claimed his science would seem magic to me, magic he could not explain in anything less than hours. "I wouldn't even know where to start," he said. "You don't have a grasp on the most basic principles involved." How odd, I thought. He can stop time, but still be in a hurry. Eager to get on with things, I would say.

But did it matter, I asked myself, whether I understood the science or not? More important (presuming this wasn't just some deathbed delirium) was whether he was telling the truth and whether he could be trusted—reminding myself they weren't always the same thing.

He was very handsome and very dark. Also quite young, maybe twenty, with a bit of that cocky brashness about him, but so old in his bearing—a great dignity that was no mere haughtiness—that I had no idea what to make of him. I'd never met anyone even vaguely like him before, and I have met a good number of people from all over the world. It was easy to believe he came from the far future. Much easier than believing him an angel.

"But what of them?" I asked of the frozen mourners, for it was as mourners that I thought of them even before Anchee showed up. "Mightn't they be alarmed when I vanish altogether? That sort of thing could arouse the most ridiculous rumors. I don't wish to be the cause of any new religions sprouting up. There are quite enough already."

He laughed heartily, and I was glad the future, even his magical future, still possessed a sense of humor. It was that discovery more than anything else that decided me. (That and the likelihood the entire experience was hallucinatory). There was no way to know if he was trustworthy. Whether he spoke truth or delusion would be clear soon enough. "No one here will know," he reassured me. "When time resumes you'll still be here just so, but you'll go on to live another life unknown to them, in the future."

"When in the future? In your time?"

He found this amusing, with a little laugh and a big smile.

"No, not nearly so far. You couldn't possibly adapt. You would say the year 1999. April 8. A lifetime from now."

"My lifetime, to be exact."

"Yes."

"Is there some scientific reason for that?"

"Hmm. More aesthetic I would say."

"Why do you do this? What possible reason could there be for making an old man young again and inflicting him on future generations?"

"I don't know if you can understand."

He was beginning to annoy me. "Try me," I snapped. "I'll concede the science, even the aesthetics, but not the ethics."

"I'm sorry. I don't mean to condescend."

"Comes naturally, does it? Take your time. I gather that as long as you stay, I don't cough, I don't die." I tested this theory by sitting up, planting my feet on the floor, standing up effortlessly.

"You don't want to die?"

"Most definitely not."

This apparently encouraged him and gave him renewed patience to answer an old man's questions. "Time isn't a single stream," he said, "but an infinite number coexisting. We've learned to . . . weave them together by transplanting lives from one time to another. In this way we make new times, new realities. We move among them, experience them, learn from them."

"An experiment?"

He made a face. Tact did not come easily for him. "In a sense. Zola, I believe, spoke of his novels that way. You love the opera, I believe. It's more like that. An experience. A work of art."

"With real people. You are tampering with reality itself." I gestured at our frozen witnesses as evidence of my accusation.

"No. We're making new realities. 'Reality itself' doesn't exist." He held out one hand and then the other: "There's the time when Peter Kropotkin is reborn in America, and there's the time he isn't. Each is as real as the other. Each is its own time." He weighed the imaginary times in his hands and held them out as if I should choose.

"Once upon a time/' I said.

He laughed again. "Yes! Exactly! You're just as I imagined you."

I gathered I was to take this as a compliment. He had the unsettling look of a disciple about him. "How do you know so much about me?"

"In my time you're a famous man, Peter Alexeivich Kropotkin. I have studied your life and your works. That's why I've chosen you. Once we're under way, I'll answer any questions you ask. But before we go any further, I need to know: Do you want another life in America on the eve of the twenty-first century or not?"

He spoke as if offering me a pastry or a chop, while for me there were still questions within questions, so many I couldn't begin to fathom them all, but at the heart of them stood one question, alone: Life or death? The answer was simple.

"Yes," I said.

The next thing I knew I stood fully clothed in a cavernous building he called the Moscow Airport. It, too, was frozen in time, but it was packed with hundreds of people. Their unmoving aspect was too terrifying to behold en masse. I looked high up into the rafters to avoid their dead gaze. A finch, trapped inside the building, caught in a moment of terrified flight, hung over my head like some parody of the soul. Anchee stood at my shoulder reciting instructions, counsel, warnings, strictures— like a priest reciting a catechism. I only half listened.

Any questions?

Is that what Mephistopheles asked Faust? I thought, almost giddy. At least if he were an angel or a devil I would know what he was up to. Of course, he could have told me he was an angel, and I would have had little choice but to believe him. It wasn't real to me. How could it be? Dead one minute, alive the next. Not the next minute, almost the next century. This, all around me, was the future. Everything—the colors, the surfaces, the smells—all were different.

I heard the crinkle of paper and realized I held some docu- merits in my hands. I was in a queue of people with documents in their hands. My hands—I couldn't quit staring at them—were young and strong. I made and unmade a fist, touched the smooth, taut skin of my face. I looked around for a mirror, but there was none to be seen.

Any questions?

"No," I said impatiently, and the life and the noise and time started up again, and Anchee had vanished. In the wake of his departure, I had my first realization of a question I wished I had asked: Am I the only one here in this place like me—a transplant from a different time? Am I the only variable in this experiment? The only role in this play?

Overhead the panicked finch scrambled desperately for a purchase on a steel girder, screeching .. .

"Mr. Kropotkin! Are you all right, Mr. Kropotkin?"

I must have let out an involuntary cry and alarmed Alicia. She stands over me with a look of such heartfelt concern that I momentarily feel as if I am back in my deathbed. I look around and see that a few of my fellow passengers are regarding me with alarm as well, though most are still transfixed by the motion picture. The man who was sitting beside me has gone. I spot him loitering in the aisle. He looks away, embarrassed for me.

"I'm fine," I reassure Alicia. "Just a nightmare, an undigested bit of beef. Thank you for asking."

"Is this your first time flying, Mr. Kropotkin?"

"Yes. Yes, it is."

This seems to please her immensely. "Somehow I thought so. Would you care for something to drink, Mr. Kropotkin? We have Russian vodka."

I start to tell her I no longer drink because of my age and my health, but realize my error. "That would be lovely," I say. "And please, call me Peter."