Third World

Used up the first one. Blew up the second one. Even in a Universe where planets are regarded as disposable commodities, they don’t come cheap. Sometimes stealing is the only viable option, especially when God is on your side.

Oct 072012
 

Read me the story:
line drawing of a young boy, lying on his side in a resting position, eyes openVetkar Allis looked down at the faces of his sleeping children and fought a welling despair that threatened to close his throat. Angrily, he blinked back tears, futile and redundant. When you existed in a chasm of endless, overwhelming grief, tears were—

Well, Father Rillem talked about Man’s duty to accept the Creator’s Providence without understanding it, but Vetkar still had trouble understanding any Providence that would let a whole world of believers be destroyed. Half a billion children, men and women, including his own bride, Gislet. Gone. All that Man had created in reverent obedience to the Creator’s will, warrens and factories and domes and agroneries and, yes, Churches, including his own agronery. Gone.

He’d feel worse, he knew, if it weren’t for the anti-shock meds that were added to the food, and the subliminal broadcasts designed to soothe and encourage the survivors. At least they were honest about that. Subliminals had been outlawed for all of Klaros II’s history, their use permitted only under medical supervision and with the approval of an Ecclesiastical Court. But now, who could argue? Anything that would help them get through another day.

His hand went out, finger extended, toward the sweet curve of Kace’s cheek, but he restrained himself from touching the boy. Let them sleep. At least the nightmares were lessening, now, and the long bouts of tears and pleas to “bring back Marm, Da, please, can’t we bring back Marm?” were over. Again, he blinked back tears, and turned away from the narrow bunk Kace and Pralet shared. He needed sleep, too. Everyone’s workdays were long, now, and his came even earlier than most.

He hadn’t far to go; his own narrow, fold-down bunk was on the other long wall of the tiny compartment, a bare step away. Tired as he was, he dreaded lying there in the dark, desperately wanting sleep but tormented by the fear that he’d dream again of all they’d lost. They’d given out transdermal patches, at first, to help people sleep, but that was only for the first few days. Then they’d put sleep-induction vids on the com menu, but now com hours had been cut and the only ’casts permitted after hour twenty were emergency messages from the Church or the Civs.

Power, like everything else, was strictly rationed.

He had to sleep, though. Tomorrow they were taking down the big carb-processors for maintenance and he’d have to be alert. Having an important job was the only guarantee that he and Kace and Pralet would be able to stay together and earn a decent Colony Share when the survivors finally moved to Klaros III. Maybe even another agronery. New colonies always needed skilled producers of raw foodstuffs, and at least he had the experience. A new agronery… maybe if he could get allocated enough cubage he could even try breeding his own strain of maticale, something that could be licensed— that would ensure that Kace and Pralet would have status and generous family stakes.

When sleep came, he dreamed not of his own, familiar agronery, but of terraces and shelves of growvats, waving with pale-green spears bearing fat heads of ripening grain under an unfamiliar sun.

Oct 022012
 

Read me the story:
A long oval table with pads, chairs, water & cups arranged for a meeting, against white walls and an artificial tree and "window" viewscreen.“There’s a three-flagged message, Member.” Zarel detected a faint resentment in her First Assistant’s voice—Porlot had expected her to give him the comcodes to screen all incoming traffic, but she’d limited him to low- and medium-priority matters. He’d be complaining to her brother Jarvin any time now, but let him. Until she had a better handle on Klaros’ financial position, she wasn’t letting any of Jarvin’s greedy little timeservers paddle their fingers in the tank.

Although it would have been a great relief to have someone she could trust to discuss things with—what she’d already learned was unnerving, to say the least. Even frightening. Why hadn’t the rest of the CivAdmin asked any questions of her predecessor, when the semi-annual financial presentations were reviewed? The colony’s capital debt was being reduced at a glacial pace, and the refinancing after the Lojau Hen mess had locked them into some very risky terms. There was going to be trouble, and this triple-flag message might be it.

She entered the security sequence on her comconsole, and looked up to see Porlot hovering in the doorway. “Yes, Mainyr?” she asked, with pointed civility. He vanished.

The message queue came up, and she selected the one with three flags and entered her decrypt key.

Half an hour later Porlot was startled by the abruptness of the ping on his comconsole, and the tension in the Member’s voice. It was even more ominous that she abandoned the meticulous politeness she usually used to him, addressing him without preliminary courtesies. “I need the backup cubes from the last semi-annual Statement, including detail on all balance sheet accounts, right now.”

Resentment at being so peremptorily ordered around by a female warred with a sudden, uncomfortable reminder of Zarel’s father’s manner when he was hot after some devious commercial maneuver. Or dealing with some incompetent subordinate.

The backups were among the cubes the Speaker—the former Speaker, Porlot reminded himself—had sent up in that last shuttle. They were readily available; all the Finance-coded cubes had been promptly routed to his office. He selected the correct cube, and took it to the Member, who barely looked up, and acknowledged him only with a nod, as he handed it to her. “Member…?”

“Not now.” Curtly.

Frowning, he left the office. Should he heads-up the Speaker? Surely Jarvin would be concerned to know the extent to which his crazy sister was exercising authority in the Finance office; he had assigned Porlot as her First Assistant to do the real work. But if Porlot complained, he’d likely be moved out of the office for failing to do his job, and the post given to some other of Jarvin’s hangers-on. That didn’t suit Otas Porlot, who had big ambitions.

Zarel was annoyed to see her hand tremble as she dropped the cube into the scanner. She was getting old, she supposed. And if the cube confirmed what she suspected…

It did. Warrior’s guts, but they were in trouble. And given their reluctance to deal with “bean counter” matters and their disdain for a female colleague, she’d have to have every single fact lined up and explained in one-syllable words for the rest of CivAdmin to see it. Not to mention her dear brother Jarvin.

It was any Seated Member’s prerogative to invoke an Emergency Meeting, though it was hardly ever done. But she could not waste the time it would take to explain everything to Jarvin, get him to understand the exact implications, and convene a regular session, even if it blew her meek pro-forma Seated Member act right through the dome.

She’d need, let’s see… she frowned over the backup documentation sent with the incoming message, and the certified digiseals. A couple of hours to download, transfer, summarize and lay out the information there. Another… three hours, maybe, to dissect those financials and extract the relevant, chilling facts. They’d have to meet at…half-sixteen. Uncomfortably late, but it couldn’t be helped. And in the mean time, she’d have to work in a private place, out of Jarvin’s orbit.

Entering her encryption code, she routed the Emergency Meeting Summons to all of the Seated Members’ desks, then gathered up the relevant datacubes and plastic flimsies, and stopped in her First Assistant’s cubicle on the way out.

“Mainyr Porlot, I’ve summoned an Emergency Meeting for half-sixteen. I’ll be back in time to convene it.” And she swept past him before he could ask any questions.

Sep 162012
 

A loan statement document, blank, with boxes for interest, payments, etc.“You’ve always been lazy. Bone lazy.”

It wasn’t necessarily true, Zarel thought, but it was probably fair. She inclined her head, a little stiffly. “As you wish, Brother. You are The Kerant.” She took refuge in formality, but it did not appease him. He glowered at her.

“Dammit, Zar, even if you don’t care about the family obligation, you might consider our duty to the people,” but even as he said it, he flushed, aware he’d overstepped. “I’m not discounting the sacrifices you’ve already made. But do you realize what’s at stake, here?”

Probably better than you, you little smarp, she thought, but allowed her face to show no trace of annoyance. She assumed a feminine meekness which, had Jarvin known her better, would have set off all kinds of alarms. “Brother, I’m well aware that civ is disastrously short of leadership, but so too are the Church and the Military. We are all, as you pointed out so eloquently in your last Emergency Message, in this pod together. You’d be opening yourself to considerable censure putting a female, and one who’s so near a relation, in such a sensitive post at this point— why take the risk? Of course I’ll do what I can to help, behind the scenes, as it were.”

He was mollified. Their brother’s advice, “Never let your guard down with her for an instant,” might have been ash floating in the vortexes that engulfed the ravaged planet below them, for all he remembered. “Trust me, Zar. It’ll work out all right. In this case, it’s not so much a case of having you in the position, as not having someone else there. A Tarvine, for instance. Or a Kleksal. You see? You’ve seen the rosters, you know who we’ve got to work with, reconstituting an Administration. The Tarvines and the Kleks—among others—both have to have significant roles, but can you see the surviving doyens of either family in that Seat?”

He had a point. The Tarvine and The Kleksal had both been killed in the Conflagration, among fourteen of the seventeen Seated Members of the Klarosian Civil Administration. Their responsibilities had necessarily devolved to the senior males surviving in each family, which meant in the case of the Kleks, (who were Kerant allies,) a promising but appallingly inexperienced cadet who’d been completing a Practicum rotation on the Port Authority, and in the case of the Tarvines, (who were Kerant rivals,) a venal time-server in Commerce who’d been “inspecting” some incoming cargoes on Kitran.

“Don’t you see? That hitch you did as Adlitem Trustee for Ranlis and Yallan makes it perfectly reasonable to put you in as Finance Pro Tem. Even Harlis agreed your performance was stellar, and that was a complicated Trust. It’s enough experience to make it a reasonable Pro Tem appointment, and without a Klek or Tarvine capable of contesting it, it will have to stand for now. And at least I won’t have that to worry about. I’ll give you some of the best fixers we’ve got left, all you’ll have to do is keep an eye on things and flag me if anything comes up.”

She surveyed her younger brother for a moment, without letting her amusement at his transparency show. He wanted a puppet in Finance, and would doubtless set her up with some fixer from his staff—Galdrin, maybe, or Porlot—to do all the work, while his “lazy” older sister attended Administrative meetings and looked meek and nonthreatening. She wondered, not for the first time, what Harlis could possibly have been thinking of, to confirm this youngest of their father’s sons to the Seat, rather than appointing a Pro Tem for his own younger son Duglis. Just as well, as it turned out, since Harlis, Duglis and his older brother Teb, their sisters and most of their cousins had been vaporized with Kelarant, the family dome, in the Conflagration. At least the Kerants had an adult, functioning doyen who was already in the Administration, which made him almost an automatic choice for Speaker.

She spared a thought for Wallen Torans, who’d died with his hand on the controls when the Conflagration had engulfed Center. There’d been a window of perhaps an hour or so, once the news of the chain reaction at Rayki had been transmitted. Torans could have evacuated—there was always a surface-to-orbit shuttle standing by for the Speaker’s exclusive use—but he’d chosen to load it, methodically, with crucial data cubes and a few priceless historical artifacts, and then put his Chief of Staff’s three young children, who’d been visiting their father’s office as part of a school project that day, into the passenger seats and ordered the shuttle to launch for Station One with seconds to spare before the Northring jathrin domes had begun to collapse.

Jarvin was no Wallen Torans, and Protectorate Affairs had been the least important Administrative Seat. But he’d always been ambitious, according to Harlis. Zarel hardly knew him, he was the son of their father’s fourth wife, and younger than any of her own children. Almost young enough to be a grandchild. “He’s a scrapper, though,” Harlis had said. “And not as stupid as he looks, which is a valuable thing, even if he does take after his mother. One of us—Teb or I—just has to sit on him from time to time to keep him in line. And the extra vote in a pinch is a Creator’s blessing. I let him vote against us from time to time, just keep them guessing, but I can yank him in whenever needed.”

She’d seen Jarvin less than half-a-dozen times, but had never been particularly impressed. He’d been a greedy, pushy, unattractive little boy, and grown into, so far as she could tell, a greedy, pushy, unattractive little man, acquiring nothing of value along the way except a thin veneer of subtlety and a Parkel wife. And now you’re not around to yank him in anymore, Harlis, and he’s an Oligarch, with his hands on the fate of nearly a million survivors, all that is left of Klaros.

But a Kerant Oligarch, at least. How their father would have laughed. Or maybe raged. It had been nearly a hundred years since the last Kerant had sat in the Speaker’s Chair. Tolvin Kerant had spent his whole life scheming to restore the Kerant fortunes after the disastrous Mutiny and the near civil war that had followed had decimated the family’s holdings, and he’d carefully groomed Harlis to be the next Kerant Oligarch. How bloody ironic that this youngest child, least regarded of his offspring, the late flowering of a final near-senescent fling with a fourth wife who had nothing more than looks to recommend her, would take the Chair.

Zarel stood, in a feminine deference that would have had Harlis’ eyes narrowing in suspicion, as Jarvin rose to take his leave, the cares of state almost visibly weighing on his shoulders. “Thank you, Sister. I knew I could rely on you. You’re not nearly as…” he chose a word, carefully, “…flighty, as family reputation makes you out, you know. Now if you can just, uh, tone down… some of your eccentricities… We have to inspire confidence, you know. We’re all the people have,” he said in his most solemn politician’s manner, seemingly oblivious to the offensiveness of his earnest advice.

She didn’t call him on it. She had nearly forty years on him, and a much better-developed sense of proportion. “I’ll do my best to be less eccentric,” she said; in a tone of voice dry enough to wrinkle the very air of the tiny cabin. It was wasted on Jarvin. “I knew I could rely on you to look to your duty in this time of crisis,” he repeated, and then, apparently dismissing her from his thoughts, he bowed perfunctorily and left.

Heavenly Bride! If Jarvin hadn’t been gifted with the infamous Kerant nose, it would have been easy to believe that fashionable mopstick of a bride had played her father false. Duty, indeed, and here it was, descending on her like an avalanche, she who had shirked duty and responsibility successfully, now, for nearly fifteen years. With a wry twist to her mouth, she turned to the datapak he’d left on the little fold-down desk, and began to make herself mistress of the financial affairs of a dead planet.

Sep 142012
 

Aerial view of estuarial terrain, with rivers draining into pale blue and lavender marshwater.As soon as the reflection of dawn showed, Captain Matyas lifted the anchors and allowed the ship to drift carefully eastward, although shore was no more than a hint of darker darkness against the farthest horizon. Finally he pointed to a change in the wave pattern. “I daren’t go further. Those are the Grinders… with the tide flowing, less than two meters below the surface.”

The longboat was hauled from its resting place in the waist, and lifted to fix it on an apparatus that hung it over the side of the rail. With half a dozen of the strongest rowers among the crew, we clambered into it and were lowered to the water. Leifara and I took our turns at the oars, spelling rowers as we followed the waves toward the distant shore.

About halfway there, the man in charge of the rowers handed me a signal mirror. If none of the marsh folk could see it, it would be a long and dangerous passage through the maze of twisting channels. Marsh predators are aggressive and deadly.

I took a rowing bench when we reached the Grinders, so that the crewman in charge of the longboat could lean out, over the prow, and call directions to the steersmen. The boat checked, repeatedly, and zigged and zagged amongst row after row of what looked like submerged, needle-sharp mountain tops. The further we went, the more the waves subsided, until by the time we had passed the last ridge, we rowed across a surface like a lake on a calm day. It was hot, too. The rowers were all sweating freely. The Lady called for a halt, and we passed waterskins around.

A rower who had been watching the dark smudges of marsh in the distance started. “There—a flash, I think!”

I glanced up at the degree of the sun. We would need two mirrors to return the signal, now, but with a little angling it was easily done. Anxiously, we scanned the direction the rower had indicated. Finally—more flashes. The crewman nodded. “They will send a guide.” I heaved a sigh of relief. I hadn’t relished the thought of trying to make our way through those fetid, tangled weeds harboring a dozen kinds of death at every turn.

The promised guide was two women, almost naked and smeared with a bizarre pattern of pigments. One had her head shaved and was slung with collectors’ bags, the other wore her long dark hair in marshlocks and had an elaborate neck-collar of claws and teeth. Its center point reached halfway down her breast. They both emerged from a tangle of graysedge and stood silently awaiting the boat.

The crewman standing at the front of the boat gestured for the rowers to stop, and hailed them in Southspeech. There was some rapid back-and-forthing—I don’t have any of the Marshtongue, there were few even in the College of Arms who spoke it—and finally the one with the collecting bags made a gesture.

The crewman turned to us. “We can approach, now. When we are close enough, they will examine us and determine whether they will conduct us to the dry.”

We rowed slowly in. The two women watched, warily. Their appearance was strange, even eerie, although I know that the substances they anoint their bodies with are entirely practical in function—protective coatings against certain types of water parasites, scent-deadening chemicals to make them invisible to some predators, camouflage to reduce their visibility to sight hunters, and other uses. Still, it had the effect of making them look a little inhuman, or like a cross between humans and some marsh creature.

When the prow of our boat was less than a meter from the swaying tips of the young grayreeds, the collector held up her hand, and we stopped the boat. We sat in silence as they looked us over, then the collector leaned closer to the boat and sniffed, several times, smelling us as an animal might. She looked us over, then spoke in the common tongue: “You would go to the dry?”

The Lady answered, in Southspeech. The two women’s eyes widened, and the hunter leaned over, hand cupped, and lifted some of the clear brownish water from among the reeds where they stood. She offered it to the Lady, her eyes wide.

The Lady held out both of her hands to receive the water, then lifted them with a swift, ritualistic gesture to let the water fall on her head and shoulders. She spoke again, and both of the marsh women bowed. The collector gestured, pointing to the open channel, and the two women set off. We followed with only two oars and the steersman—there was barely enough width in the channel to row.

They led us through a shifting maze of channels that sometimes doubled back on themselves, splitting and rejoining and turning this way and that—no one but a marshlander could have found that path. The sun was mostly behind us, but again we turned north, south, sometimes even back on our track into the sun for a time. Now and again we would have to ship the oars, and the collector would slip into the water and tow the boat with a rope, thrown to her by the crewman in front.

We stopped occasionally, for no reason I could discern, and twice the hunter raised an odd, animal- or bird-like cry, which was answered from a distance. We proceeded in silence. When Leifara murmured something to the Lady, the collector turned to her and made an emphatic gesture for silence. Around us, the wind kept up a constant low song in the tangles of marsh growth, underlaid with a slow lapping of water.

Once, the wind dropped, and the collector put out a hand to halt the boat, gesturing with the other for silence. She and the hunter both froze, unmoving as stone, and we tried to do likewise. The silence stretched until our ears, accustomed, began to register the small noises of the marsh—insect song, the rustling of vegetation agitated by the passage of creatures under water or on the surface, the cry of a distant bird. We held that stillness, that silence, for what seemed like a lifetime, until there was a sudden explosion of sound beyond us and to the right among the sedges: A hellish, predatory-sounding cry and a desperate splashing, unbelievably loud.

Some of us started, I know I was among them—I could not help it, the sound was so unexpected. A shadow arose where the sound had been: A nofra, spreading its huge vanes in an attempt to catch and engulf the warm-blooded noisemakers it had sensed in its hunting grounds.

How big is a nofra? I am not familiar with all the varieties; I know some are larger than others. This one was big enough—larger than the mainsail of our ship, it loomed, extended to the point of being semi-translucent, undulating slightly in the still air, seeking a breeze or air current that it could use to waft itself in our direction. It was distant enough, I thought, that it could not engulf us simply by folding over. The hunter’s fingers were working in a pouch that hung at her hip, the motion silent, small enough not to raise betraying air currents.

Even a very huge nofra could not engulf us all—their normal prey is the hyarthem, a big creature of the themfi order, larger than a human, but not by much. But the speed at which those vanes could contract, engulfing the victim and constricting with incredible force, could reduce its prey to a digestible jelly in perhaps fifty heartbeats. They wouldn’t actually eat humans, but by the time they determined that their catch was inedible it was too late for the human in question.

The reed tops rippled—the wind was returning. Now, while the creature was angling its vanes, trying to catch the moving air at an angle that would allow it to lift, the hunter moved with incredible speed, lifting something to her lips and blowing with astonishing force. A fine jet of particles burst from the end of the tube, catching the leading edge of the nofra’s vane.

With a high shrieking keen, it collapsed, shrinking, folding, contracting its vanes; disappearing among the vegetation. I was not the only one to draw a shaky sigh of relief. The Lady murmured something very quietly, and the collector glanced at her, and nodded. The air was alive with windsong again, and we continued on.

Eventually we reached a place where the marsh women instructed us to leave the boat—there were no channels remaining wide enough for its passage. We sorted ourselves into a single file, the hunter at the front, the collector at the tail, and stepped very carefully indeed, following routes as tortuous as the boat channels had been, and even more difficult to discern. Once a crewman stepped unwarily, and sank up to the knee in slimy water, drawing an angry look from the marsh women and condemning us to another long period of stonestruck silence, with the reddening glow of sunset painting the vegetation around us.

It was twilight, with night on the horizon, when we reached “the dry.” The transition was so gradual as to be almost undetectable, but finally we strode on firm ground, among more grasses than sedge and reeds, and a discernable foot trail among them. The marsh women would have left us, then, but after another short conversation with the Lady, they consented to accompany us, although they were plainly ill-at-ease when we reached a road, packed stone and sand. They kept looking about, warily. The predators in the dry were not their predators, they plainly had little trust in the crewmen and myself, although we were all armed.

Along one side of the road, rock cairns appeared at regular intervals, perhaps fifty meters apart. As full dark descended, phosphorescent lichens on these began to glow softly, guiding us until palanahr rose greenly over the flat horizon to our left. It was near the full, and bright enough to pale the lichen-glow and keep us to the road. It had risen a quarter of the sky when a figure appeared on the road before us.

“Who travels Lyrin?” came the challenge, mildly.

I answered for us: “Ilvren, Adept of the College of Arms, in the service of Veran. Who challenges the servant of Veran?”

“Narneth of Lyrin, in service to the Chancel.”

“Then we are well met, for we are bound for the Chancel, Narneth of Lyrin.”

It was only a short trek further, the road curved inland again, around a ridge of upthrust rock, and beyond we could see the lights and bulk of the Chancel against the dark eastern horizon. When we passed through the outer gate, into the light of the globes set on high posts at the entrance to the inner Chancel, we could see the porter plainly, and the porter could see us.

His eyes narrowed as they perceived the marsh women, standing close together a little apart from the rest of us, and then widened again when they rested on the Lady’s face. He bowed. “Lyrin is honored beyond words, Lady.”

She nodded. “You honor me. We are in haste, Wandan. Is Lennari awake still?”

He nodded. “I will conduct you to him.” He glanced at us, at the marsh women. “Um… all of you, Lady?”

She sensed his disapproval of the marsh women, and her own disapproval answered it. “My daughters Inri and Olani, Wandan. Without their guidance we might have perished in the marshes, yes, even me.”

“You… you came from the gulf?” The porter’s astonishment at hearing the Lady speak so of the marshfolk was compounded with amazement at our passage. He bowed to the marsh women. “My pardon, marsh sisters, for discourtesy. I stand in your debt. Lyrin Chancel stands in your debt.”

The collector nodded, gravely. “Debt is taken, pardon is given, dryman.”

The next morning, after we had (thanks be!) bathed, eaten, slept in beds, and eaten again, we assembled in the inmost courtyard of the Chancel, by the young k’blad tree that had been once a limb of the Great Tree itself, in Aurora Chancel’s courtyard. Lennari, Canon of the Chancel, held a length of loose-woven dennicloth, undyed and unmarked. Another Elder of the Chancel held a cushion before him, bearing a very sharp knife. Leifara carried her own yat-akkan in a scabbard by her side, and a sharp, short-handled shearing tool.

The Lady was very pale, and there were dark circles under her eyes. I don’t know if she had slept. She had dismissed us to the care of Adepts of the Cloister, with orders to sleep, but when we retired, she was still closeted with Lennari. She shook her head, and looked at the Canon. “Eldest, there is no tradition for this, thank the Power, and I wish none to arise. But what I purpose here is a very deep and perilous matter, and there would be no harm, I think, in a moment of prayer for those believers among us.”

We bowed our heads, all of us, I think, though I did not look. I am not, myself, a believer, but there is no hypocrisy in showing respect for the beliefs of others. I misspeak. I believe, in my fashion, that there are powers greater than humanity, unsearchable and vast, and perhaps they have something to do with the existence of this universe of matter and energy that we know. But who can say? And whether they concern themselves with the small affairs of humankind—well, there I doubt, in truth. But that is my own feeling, based on my own experience, and I would speak for—or against—no others.

After a silence, heavy with a growing tension, the Lady raised her head, and nodded to Leifara, who stepped forward, and approached the tree. She laid her hand on its bole, and whispered the invocation of the Foresters. With the edge of the shearing tool, she cut her finger, and bent, allowing the blood to drop on an exposed root. Then she stepped back.

The habit of the k’blad tree’s growth is thus: In its youth, its lower branches run long and straight and slender out from the bole in an upward-spiraling pattern. The lowest ones grow very long, eventually bending to touch the ground and root, so that an old k’blad is not one tree, but many, unless a Forester shape it otherwise. The upper branches are shorter, and stouter, but branching more profusely, in contrast to the lower branches’ straight, slender run. Wood from the k’blad tree lives for a very long time, even severed from the parent trunk. If the cut end is buried in earth, the wood will throw leaves, and even shoots, and eventually root itself.

Leifara approached one of the lower branches, and with a quick, hard stroke of the shearing tool, lopped it from the bole, leaving a short collar and a clean cut. She held the branch—now the standard of Veran Banner—in her left hand, and bowed thanks to the tree.

Then Lennari and the other Elder approached the Lady, with the length of cloth and the knife. The Elder murmured something to her, and she nodded, and held out her left arm. The Elder tied a ligature around it, above the elbow, and the Lady picked up the knife. Carefully, she made a small cut—some blood welled, but not much. She stood, holding the wrist upward, blood oozing sluggishly, while the Canon and the Elder unfolded the cloth and spread it, holding it in front of her.

Then she nodded, and with a quick gesture, released the ligature, so that the blood flowed freely, pooling on her wrist and hand, and beginning to drip to the ground. She appeared to set her teeth, and then lifted her arm in a gesture that splattered her blood upon the cloth, making the blood-banner of Veran. She did this three times, then let her arm drop, staring with eyes like stones at the bloody pattern she had made.

The Elder moved forward quickly, and lifted her hand, nodding to an Adept standing nearby. Together, they wiped her arm and hand, and applied a poultice of timik to the cut, binding it.

Leifara, meanwhile, had stripped the shoots from the standard, saving the largest. Now she took the cloth, and with a stout twist of denni, bound it in a long, spiraling stitch to the shoot, and with a thong of tanned talgar hide, bound that in turn to the standard. Then, holding the standard carefully parallel to the ground, she turned to the Lady, and went down on one knee, offering it to her.

And the Lady took the still-damp banner, and raised the standard. The bloody cloth hung unmoving; there was no wind to stir it.

We all dropped to one knee, and then the Lady spoke.

“I, Kuinyvara, fifty-ninth Lady of Veran, raise this banner of blood against the enemies of Veran. Let there be no peace until it is laid down!”

Sep 122012
 

Finger-like dark cloudy masses with irridescent auras rising upward against clouds of light and stars in the background.The advertising for the Pleasuredome’s Homelight Lounge featured the slogan “See the World from Pleasuredome.” It needed just …one… more word.

It was supposed to be their last day at the main Pleasuredome hostel—they’d booked a private cottage in the “wilderness adventure” section of the dome for the next week. Hostin and Demis’ leaves would be up at the end of the week and they’d be leaving, Hostin for deployment on Hecht, and Demis back downside on his regular assignment at the Centrum Bek Home Legion supply office.

They had taken the children to the Grav-Krazee park that afternoon, and mostly stood around while they went on ride after ride. Jamed admitted he was flagging by midafternoon, and although the kids were adamant that they were good until until closing time, Francet and Orshel had vetoed it on the grounds of early bed and an early departure for the cottage next day.

So they’d gone for dinner while it was still daycycle, at one of the restaurants that catered to children with “fun meals” and costumed characters for service and entertainment.

“We’ll meet you in the Homelight,” Jamed had told the two girls as they’d shepherded the youngsters off to bed, and won a grateful glance from his younger son and son-in-law. It was still early enough that they managed to get a domeside table, though the credit chip Jamed had palmed to the maiter hadn’t hurt, either.

“Holy Warrior,” Hostin muttered as they sat down. “I think I’m as tired as you, Fa.”

Demis grunted in agreement. “If I had to ride that TowerTwister one more time, I was seriously considering jumping off.” He caught the eye of one of the servers, and raised an imperative hand.

They gave orders for drinks, Hostin and Demis considerately ordering for the girls. No one had much conversation left, after the strenuous afternoon. They’d eaten all they needed with the kids; no one had the energy for another restaurant, but Jamed ordered a platter of fingernibs to accompany the drinks.

The huge, slightly curved glasteel wall that butted up against the very edge of the tavis field enclosing the Pleasuredome resort was still a trifle opaque from the glare of the fading day lights, but the outline of Reveille C could be discerned, a vast bulk hanging beyond the short horizon. The planet orbited far enough out from the primary that its natural daycycle was all but irrelevant; the jathrin domes that enclosed its two rings of habitats were engineered with supplementary light cycles, just like Pleasuredome. The habitat domes were beads of light, like necklaces draping the poles.

An attractive female server in the brief Homelight Lounge uniform (well, brief for women—the male staff had ordinary service keks and tunics with a formal sash) brought their drinks. Jamed eyeballed her cleavage and had a moment’s dreamy reminiscence of that amazingly nimble and good-natured dancer from the show lounge. Really, it was a shame he wouldn’t have time for another visit… maybe when they returned from the cottage.

“What the…?” he heard Hostin exclaim, and turned.

His son was staring at the planet.

Jamed followed his gaze.

Among the lighted “beads” of the south polar habitat chain, was an expanding, multicolored sparkle effect.

He could feel the color draining from his face. His head felt light, and very far away from the rest of him.

There was a murmur rippling through the lounge, now, and more and more of the patrons and staff were turning to the windowed wall.

Someone muttered, “Creator have mercy…”

But there was no mercy today. The sparkling effect continued to expand, and small strands of incandescence began to form, fringing the main blur.

Not many in the Homelight lounge had ever seen a tavis field in catastrophic failure. But everyone knew that this light show was no part of the Pleasuredome entertainment schedule.

Helplessly, Jamed Ursek watched millions die. “Demis.”

His son-in-law was staring out the window, brows twisted in confused alarm.

“Demis!”

“Wha…” he turned. “Is that…?” His voice was hoarse, a little breathy, his eyes unfocused.

“Demis!”

Abruptly, Demis’ eyes focused. He looked at Jamed with the automatic response of a legionary to a commander. His lips parted, then closed again.

“Demis, go and tell the girls to stay in their rooms, and keep the children there, as well. Do it now. Then get your uniform brassard and shockwand, and report to the Security desk in the lobby.”

Another half-second of frozen regard, then a truncated nod, and Demis was gone. Jamed would have been glad to follow, to have something useful to do, to have a need to fill. But there was nothing he could do, not now. Kalven… Pranis… the grandchildren… everyone.

Everyone.

Around them, the murmur was swelling. A woman’s voice rose keening above the crescendo in a high, hopeless descant. The sound of someone retching violently close at hand. Crockery breaking. Something heavy hitting the floor. Splintering sounds.

A man flung himself against the window, fists pounding. “No! No! NOOOOO!!”

Jamed took one last look out the window, then turned to Hostin, watching mesmerized as the incandescent fringe wove itself into twisting tentacles, reaching north… breaking off…

He shook his son’s arm. “Hos!”

Hostin turned his head, looked at his father as though seeing a stranger for the first time.

“What?”

“Hos, we’d better go meet Demis at the Security station. Come on.”

It was something to do. Better than standing, watching.

Hostin looked over his shoulder, more than once, as they left, shoving their way through a growing chaos. As though the view might change. As though it might turn back into the peaceful bulge of Revielle C, with its serene necklaces of habitat domes, homes to half a billion people. As though the nightmare might end.

End. That was it.

“See the World End From Pleasuredome.”

Sep 082012
 

Black and white tone drawing of figures carrying a bier through strangely curved structure.“For in the beginning, we were trapped in time.”

“And You opened for us Eternity.”

Father Rillem was performing the Funeral Service, to which he was now so accustomed that it required a stern effort not to allow the familiar words to blur his attention into a rote performance. The congregation needed and deserved better.

“And so we send forth our sons and daughters…” he paused, while the congregation murmured their litanies of names—so many names—and sank into silence again.

“…in the secure hope of being restored unto them in Your Presence.”

“Make it so, Creator, we beseech You.”

“Give us the fortitude to fight on, and let Your Avatars and Handmaidens uphold us, even as they enfold our sons and daughters into Your endless Justice and Mercy.”

“Make it so, Creator, we beseech You.”

Methodically, reverently, he finished the Service, and then, as the congregation sang the final hymn, he returned to the vesting-room and replaced the heavily-decorated robes back in the armoire. Resuming the white-piped dark green duster of a Congregational Pastor, he circled around through the back corridor to be at the sanctuary doors when the congregation left. It was the most exhausting part of the service, acknowledging, looking at, really seeing each person who stopped to greet or thank him, tear tracks on the women’s faces (and even a few of the men—it was no shame to shed a few tears at a Funeral Service, after all,) the still-choked voices, and worst of all, the eyes. Half-blind with grief, or worse, dead of all feeling, bewildered (especially the children, painful stabs of heartbreak each one,) angry, beseeching as though somehow time could be made to run backward…

He felt wrung out, sucked dry and then some, after these Funeral Services. It was what he’d committed himself to as a priest, all those years back, but no one could have seen, then, the magnitude of the demands that would be made on the Church and all of the Creator’s Servants.

Last out was his bride, who wordlessly took his arm as he nodded to Delart Morkam the verger. He put his hand over hers on his arm, patted it gently. Their children, and their two grandchildren, had all been back in West Avart Warren, a bare five hundred klicks from Rayki. He’d tried to comfort her, and himself, again and again, with the reflection that the Conflagration would have come upon them without warning, giving them no time for panic or agony, just a quick and merciful translation to Eternity. She’d pretended to be comforted, and he’d pretended he believed her comforted, and that was all they could do for each other.

“Can you make it back to the Pastorage, my dear? I’m called to a meeting at the Chancery in,” he glanced at his ringwatch, “a quarter hour.”

“Yes, of course, Rillem. I’ve a committee meeting, remember? It’s Daughters of Mercy afternoon,” her shoulders lifted a couple of millimeters. If pastoral work was often a burden for a priest’s bride, it had its mercies, too. Linvet had always been a capable organizer and never had the need for her talents been greater. One could, for a time, overlay grief with the focus on work.

“Yes, certainly. It slipped my mind. You’ll look after the emergency housing recommendations?”

She nodded. “We’ve more than three thousand cubages identified that can be converted. I’ll let you know for the Ecclesial Report.”

“Thank you.” They exchanged a squeeze of hands, and he turned to make his way to the Chancery. Linvet’s handclasp stayed with him, but the warmth it had momentarily evoked faded quickly as he took his comp from the pocket of his duster and called up the figures he had to present at the meeting. It was not good, not good at all. In so many ways. Creator grant them the resources of courage and imagination, not to mention power and cubage and everything else, to deal with the problems.

***************

“I would bring your attention, Reverences,” he was saying, nearly half an hour later, “to the bottom line figures.”

“Of the total eight hundred forty-seven thousand survivors, three hundred and twenty-seven thousand are evacuees. The balance are the population of Moonstation, military and civil servants on outsystem or orbital deployment, and the various populations of colonists, researchers, transients and others who happened to be at extraplanetary facilities.”

“So it should not be surprising that the imbalance between men and women is so great, nor that the number of surviving children is so pitifully low. One hundred and sixty-six thousand women, one hundred twenty thousand or so of childbearing age. But of those, more than eighty-one thousand are married women with living spouses—colonial families, residents of Moonstation, women who joined their husbands on civil service deployments, and so on.”

“Which leaves,” Rillem looked around the table at the lengthening faces of the Ecclesial Council, “about thirty-eight thousand women of childbearing age, single or widowed. And of those,” he shook his head, “a substantial percentage represent women in military service, a good many of whom have experienced radiation exposures at levels placing their childbearing capacities at risk.”

He opened his mouth to continue, then shut it rather helplessly and shrugged. The facts were the facts, and all of the Council members had copies on their comps. He waited for the inevitable questions.

“Father Rillem, what is the margin of error on this census?” the Archprelate of Warrest spoke first, as the senior present.

He shook his head. “Naturally there is some considerable margin for error, Reverence. We have had excellent cooperation from the military authorities, and their data are probably the most reliable. The civs have been most cooperative but only the colonial data and the municipal census from Moonstation can really be considered accurate. Everything else is, well…” he shrugged apologetically, “iffy, at best. The evacuees were counted and re-counted in several locations at several times, consolidating that was a challenge. We tried to err on conservative side, but even if our margin is as high as ten or fifteen percent…” he trailed off. Heads nodded, and faces got gloomier, if possible.

“How recent is the colonial data?” Prelate Edrell of Avatar Kanstan’s asked, hopefully.

Rillem shook his head. “Colonial Affairs had just done their biennial census as part of the appropriations request. The figures are no more than a quarter to a half year out of date.” No hope, there.

There was a long silence. Prelate Viggen of All Martyrs murmured “And more than five hundred and twenty thousand men under sixty, single or widowed.”

Prelate Reervin shook his head, grimly. “It should not surprise us so much. Women do not work at orbital manufacturing facilities. Women are few and far between at the levels of senior researchers, scholars, and students at scientific facilities. We discourage military service for women, and thus less than, what, five percent? –of the surviving military are female. Even in the colonies, we hesitate to send women until the colonial security is assured, and then only as wives of qualified colonists.” He sighed. “A tragic irony, that our care to protect women has resulted in so few survivors.”

“Indeed,” the Archprelate of Stellan Down said dryly, “but it is the corresponding abundance of males that poses the greatest challenge. It’s taken more than a hundred years to transform dueling custom to nonfatal combat. Are we now to see a revival of men killing each other off for the chance at a bride?”

A cold chill seemed to settle in the room. The Archprelate of Warrest broke it, looking from the faces of the Council members, back to the podium, and nodding to Rillem. “Our thanks, Father, for your report, however upsetting the facts. If there are no further questions for Father Rillem?” He verified with a glance at his colleagues, and then nodded again. “Go with the Creator’s blessing, Father.”

Sep 072012
 

A multi-barrel configured ship making insystem transit, showing blue & green energy trails against the background of a major space station.“Sir? I’ve never seen an init code like this before…” The communications technician was an Ensign on his first cruise, so Themat Jurnis wasn’t too surprised. He didn’t hurry as he strolled to the com station, moving only with his customary orderly dispatch. He looked at the codes on the screen and frowned. He’d never seen them either, but better safe than sorry. “You’re relieved of duty, Ensign,” he said formally, as he clicked the log tab.

“Relieved, Sir,” the Ensign left.

The string of initiation codes contained some Jurnis did know, however, including the one that signified that the contents of the message was a triple-encrypt, eyes-only message for the Lord Commander of the Second Expeditionary Legion, in person and with every security bell and whistle the brass could tack on. Too well-trained to even allow himself to imagine curiosity, Jurnis initiated a security trace for the Lord Commander: In the Orbital Command Platform, not unnaturally. He didn’t need to know why or where, merely relayed the message’s init codes to the Lord Commander’s Adjutant, Major Callet, with an “urgent” flag. Then he waited, sternly disciplining himself from even thinking about what could possibly rate such a stew of security.

Callet was inspecting inventory lists when the double tone of the com flag alerted him. What he saw on the scrambler sent him to the next room, in spite of the red “privacy” light on the doorlatch.

The Lord Commander was meeting with Alren Tydar, Hecht’s new Military Governor, and the Regional Command Staff. He looked up with no more sign of annoyance than a minute eyebrow movement, but when he saw Callet, he nodded. Wordlessly, the adjutant circled the meeting table, and handed over the scrambler.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” the Lord Commander stood.

“Lord Commander, I must insist that we resolve this…” Tydar caught the Lord Commander’s eye and trailed off.

The OCP’s secure communications facility was adjacent to the main Situation Room. Karth Tallis placed his palm against the lock, then blinked into the retinal scanner, then spoke a series of nonsense syllables in a precise sequence for the voiceprint analyzer. Triply-encrypted, eyes-only messages were never sent with good news, he reflected, as the doorseal winked green. He prepared himself, he thought, for the worst.

An appreciable time interval later—less than half an hour, although it felt like a day, maybe a year—he sat back and frowned. Whatever he’d prepared himself for, it wasn’t this. Methodically, he re-checked the encryption. Then re-checked it again.

Again he sat back. That was it. Nothing more. Just that bald command. Could it be a trick? Frowning, he ran through the possibilities. None seemed likely, given the initiation codes and routing guide on the message heading. Outside his chain of command, yes, but it did carry the triple sealcode of the Three, the ruling Oligarchy of Klaros. And yet… why, if they bothered to put the sealcode on, would they not sign it? Surely, given the content of the message, they would want to forestall any conceivable doubts about its legitimacy.

He left the communications facility, punctiliously re-engaging the security seal. Callet was waiting in the Situation Room. The only other personnel were the security monitor and the Lieutenants standing watch at the various regional control consoles. Tallis gestured to his adjutant, and gave a few low-voiced orders.

Less than an hour later, the Situation Room was packed. The Expeditionary Legion Command Staff, the Fleet’s Flag Officer In Charge, and the Occupation Administration leadership were all gathered around the main table. Watch functions had temporarily been re-routed back to Combat Command, and the room was secured and sealed.

“We have a directive from the Three,” Tallis wasted no time on preliminaries. They all knew it was an extraordinary conference. Some brows rose. Tydar’s eyes narrowed, but his mouth folded in at the corners. Had he expected this? The Military Governor was not, in spite of his title, a military officer, but an appointee of the Civ, which had no secure communications facilities in the Hecht system yet. Tallis watched him as he continued.

“The directive is unequivocal. We are to withdraw all Klarosian personnel from the Hecht system, evacuating entirely, within four hundred hours. We are to commandeer every functional interstellar vessel in the system, and to load the maximum quantity of transuranics that can be transported by our own Fleet vessels plus all commandeered vessels. We are to return to Orbital One by the shortest possible route, without calling at Bejan Base, with the ker-equipped Fleet vessels preceding the standard-drive vessels, which are to be convoyed by adequate Fleet vessels to ensure they make a safe journey. We are not to discuss these orders with any personnel below Command Staff ranks.”

He touched the tab that relayed the segment of the decrypted message cleared for Command Staff ranks to the wraparound view projector at the center of the table, so that they could all see the sealcode of the Three, and waited. His own Command Staff, and Admiral Destane, the Flag, read the message carefully, but refrained from comment. The Civies, on the other hand, were agog. Amazing that a mere half-dozen individuals could generate such a babble. And, by the expression on Military Governor Tydar’s face as he re-read the message for the third time, whatever he might have been expecting, it wasn’t this.

Sep 062012
 

Landscape-aerial view of dry, ridged land.So the three of us, the Lady of Veran, myself, and Leifara, Veran Herald, set forth. She told none where she planned to go, so that there were none among the Royal forces who could betray her whereabouts. There were ways enough to maintain communication. Every Kingsroad is lined with stations for the Royal Post, every twenty to forty kilometers. And all of those stations are linked by wired telegraphy, its conduits buried securely beneath the road verges.

Several of the major Guilds and some Great Houses also have wired telegraphy systems, some even linked to local stations of the Post, and thus capable of relaying information—at some cost—as quickly as the Post itself. There is a substantial resource debt for such service, naturally, but Guilds such as the Financers’, and Great Houses like the Westmarch or Clearwater or Kencevri can reckon such debts and still regard the worth of the service.

Even the resource-frugal communications vectors can attain considerable speed. Royal Post riders, for instance, carrying a bag marked “Quick,” can traverse the length of the Royal Road, from Chorral in the East, on the shore of the Melliviran Sea, to the Hall of the Great House of the Westmarch—sixty-seven hundred and fifty-three kilometers—in just over twenty days, in summer time. A bird relay can make that distance in as little as eight days. Line-of-sight or sound signal relays cover shorter distances but are even faster, and LOS channels can be linked by bird relays or Post telegraphy for very fast transmission, indeed. And such systems are redundant, so that no one system destroyed or put out of action imperils all communications.

We went the first day afoot, by ordinary roads until we made the trail for Blackleaf Gap Ranger Station. There was little traffic on the roads, due to the Solstice—everyone was home, or a-hunt, celebrating the Festival of Air. We could see kites and balloons in the distance as we passed over High Yris bridge, where the people of Carn Yris were having their Festival. At the Ranger Station that night, we rested, but set out before dawn, taking mounts and a Ranger guide through the Gap to the Hasvé Trail. We changed mounts at the House Post stations on the Trail for as long as we kept to it, and so made good time.

Those first two days there was no time to think. We concentrated only on making ground, as much ground as we could, grudging the minutes spent in rest and taking food, usually at a Post station.

We crossed the Mirissi River and left the last Post station just before midday on the third day, again making afoot across the hillocky margin between the Mirissi and the veld country. In front of us unfolded the Reyai plains, the summering grounds of the endris herds. We continued on more slowly, and I could see the Lady scrutinizing the terrain like a Ranger. Once or twice she paused, to inspect more closely some clump of vegetation or cluster of rocks.

Finally she held up a hand: Stop here. She cast about, looking for something, and selected some clumps of dry vegetation that had been blown by the wind into a cleft along a low ridge. With this, she kindled a fire, and sprinkled it with water from Her bottle, sending a thin twist of distinctly purplish smoke high into the air. When it burned out, we sat, waiting. The sun had visibly dropped to the horizon when I perceived movement there.

They rode the stocky, low-slung mounts of the veld, the ri’lhar, relatives of the heavy draft animals used among the eastern lowlands. Not fast, but a ri’lhar can go a great many hours in a steady, ground-eating lope without stopping for food or drink.

As they approached, the Lady stood, awaiting them calmly—when they approached closer, she spoke in the Yrvanni dialect of the Arayai. I had heard that she had spent more than one year among the Irjharai. She seemed fluent. I, on the other hand, had studied the Yrvanni, among other Low Veran tongues, at the College of Arms. But I’d achieved little more than a cursory grasp of structure and a few basic phrases of greeting and good manners.

The riders—three men and a woman—dismounted, and the one wearing a heavily embroidered drape across his shoulders bowed, and gestured for a debt-favor. The Lady walked towards them, three steps, and each of them passed her, crouched and picked a handful of the tough, low-growing vegetation on which she had trodden. They stowed their prizes carefully about their persons, and then the leader nodded to Leifara and I.

They made us free of their karil, polite disclaimers of indebtedness were exchanged, and one of the riders went off, to return with additional mounts. That night, we ate fresh-roasted gerrit, and river tikash simmered in endris milk, and milk pudding with tarella fruit.

And we learned more of the barbarian invasion. The Arayai, like all of the Irjharai, have their own system of scouts and message-transmission, and they make extensive use of message-birds. They told of smoke over Aurora City, and over the Citadels of the Guardians. The King had dispatched the blood-banners, and the vassal-levies and bladesmen and militias were already on the move to their muster-points. Little was yet known of the enemy, but it was clearly more than a smash-and-grab raid.

That was when I, at least, realized that the Veran I knew was already changed irrevocably. Perhaps we could convince these invaders that whatever they came for would cost more than it was worth to them—but even if we did, change would come. Whatever particular circumstances induced their assault, distance and poverty (by Hub standards) no longer protected us. Without those protections, our future would be very different than what we would all have imagined just days ago.

The next day we began another long, hard ride down the Reyai Plains to the Great East Road that sundered it from the Aravan Barrens. It was easy the first two days, when small streams and springs from the Mirissi still intersected our route regularly. But once we passed far enough south, the smaller watercourses were all dried up for the summer, awaiting the elgeth storms. We had to carry every drop of water, and rely on our Arayai guide to find the occasional hidden wellspring.

Unaccustomed to riding, I developed painful blisters by the end of the first day. Our guide, a taciturn young woman called S’tiri, noticed my painful movements when we dismounted for rest. She seemed moderately amused, but vanished into a stand of brush as the setting sun swept the sea of dry vegetation with color.

Leifara unrolled a small thermal sheet and set a skin bag of water on it to heat. The Lady busied herself with care of the ri’lhar, unfastening the riding harnesses, and pouring water from the larger skins into a drinking bag for each animal. I offered to help, holding the drinking bags for each beast, but I lacked the knack and the first one managed to slobber quite a bit of water onto the ground. She showed me the trick of holding one side of the bag tight under the lower jaw, forcing them to drink more slowly.

By the time Leifara had brewed shirith, flavoring it with a handful of dried berries and herbs, S’tiri had returned, and the long shadows of sunset had merged into a purple dusk.

“We must watch this night,” the guide said, her hands busy with items pulled from various pockets or pouches on her person. The unfamiliar construction and the accent confused me at first. “Watch the night?”

She shook her head, amusement briefly flickering again. “No, watch. There are signs. I think a remsi pack nearabouts. Glows we set, yes?” Her Middle Veran was fluent but unaccustomed.

A remsi pack would be a considerable hazard if we were on its chosen hunting-grounds. They hunted nocturnally, estivating on sun-heated rocks during the day. Perhaps forty centimeters high at the shoulder, they are hexapedal, cumbrous-looking and lapped with heavy skin-scales that do not prevent them from moving with a disconcerting swiftness on the hunt. Their frontmost pair of legs are armed with envenomed retractable spines along the inner surfaces. When prey is surrounded by a pack—usually ten or twelve remsi—they dart in, one at a time, to inject their venom load. By the time the last approaches, the victim is paralyzed and the pack can feed –slowly— on the warm living flesh.

Fortunately remsi are photophobic. When their innermost eyelids peel back after sunset to allow them their nightvision, they are acutely sensitive to many light-wavelengths. We carried bioglows that could be activated by damping them with some of our precious water. Likely, they would be enough to keep a pack away, but a watch was a sensible precaution, especially since other predators of the region are not so photophobic. “Glows, certainly,” I nodded. “And a watch. Will you watch first, or shall I?”

She grinned, then, and handed me what she’d been working on—a krell leaf, wrapped around something squishy. “Here.” She pointed at my legs. “If you will ride again.” I opened the leaf and sniffed, mingled odors of herbs and animal fat. “You watch first, use this. When virath rises I watch.”

The faint green disk of palanahr had already risen over the horizon. S’tiri wandered over to collect some shirith, and I unwrapped my leggings to apply the herbal ointment. Harness galls are no small impediment, when fast travel is required. By the time I finished, Leifara joined me, bringing a drinkskin of shirith and some of the dried, spiced meat that served the Irjharai as journey food.

I was a little shy of Leifara. Veran Herald is the second-highest position a herald can reach, second only to the President of the College of Arms, and it requires advanced studies among the Cloisters as well as at the College Chancellery, and a rare degree of aptitude and skill. Although some years younger than I, Leifara had doubtless been studying and practicing heraldry since before I’d been accepted to the Citadel Pageant.

“The Aravai says there is remsi sign about,” she said. I nodded.

“For an aspiring Herald, you do not use your voice much, do you, Ilvren?”

I made no effort to hide my surprise. “Is there need?”

Leifara chuckled, then sobered. “There is need… and need. A herald is not a Singer, certainly.” She looked at me, her head tilted a bit. “You are well spoken of at the College. Welan put you at the top of your cohort.”

I shrugged. “Perhaps maturity has some advantages after all. It was hard enough to keep up with younger and faster brains.”

“Keep up with, and surpass, according to Welan. Does Welan lie?”

“Welan is a herald of great experience, and well able to polish a gova kernel until it gleams brightly as the unbroken shell.”

She smiled, slowly. “If all Guardians are so well-prepared for heraldry, perhaps the College should seek more students among those released from the Citadels.”

“The Citadels teach discipline, and is discipline not at the heart of any worthwhile endeavor?”

“True enough.” She fell silent for some moments, then glanced over at the Lady, who was damping a glow. “And she will need to draw upon every mote of discipline, every droplet, every smallest molecule.”

I watched the flattened sphere in the Lady’s hands begin to show a faint, greenish-yellow light. She looked up, then, from the work, her face oddly shadowed by the light from below, and nodded. “Great discipline will be required. Not the least, to make Port Aravas in four sunsets.”

I would have thought it impossible before the last two days’ travel, and even so, it seemed unlikely.

“There are many hundreds of kilometers to cross…”

She nodded again. “But by midday after tomorrow’s sunset, we will strike the Great East Road. From there we will take Post mounts.” She smiled, the growing light banishing the shadows from her face. “I trust you can ride a Post chepal?”

I thought of my harness galls and tried not to let the wince I felt show on my face. “I will ride a forzak, if needed, Lady.”

She canted her head, as though considering those swift, vicious predators as mounts. “We will hope that will not be necessary.” I thought I saw a gleam of humor in her eyes as she turned to set the now-bright glow atop a pile of gear.

We did make Port Aravas by sunset, four days later.

The Post station there had news: The Citadels had all fallen. The Guardians of Veran were no more. The King had mustered all of the Eastern levies for a stand against the invaders—a battle certain to be lost, with Veran swords and twirl-spears and yat-akkans against the FE cannons, plasma mortars, and forcebeams of the enemy.

We took ship from Port Aravas into a dark future.

Sep 052012
 

Flattened circular construction are with buildings and other structures in foreground, green lighting contrasting with the dome of red-violet light above.A double line of ornamental pine trees stretched into the distance for perhaps five kilometers, bisecting the broad avenue leading to our last battle target.

We’d all but won our objective for Hecht; this battle would destroy the last command-and-control resources for the old colonial government and their Vetzkarran mercenary contractors. Two of the three Hecht planets had already declared a functional autonomy and were ready to legalize Protectorate agreements with our government; this, the third, was the seat of colonial control. Most of the colonial forces and their mercenary defenders had concentrated here.

The avenue linked the subcolony’s major mercantile and governmental facilities with its principal spaceport. There wasn’t much call for passenger transport yet—Hecht is a long way from the major commercial travel circuits—so the spaceport was designed mainly for industrial and military use. The port and its facilities occupied about a fifth of the planet’s largest habitat dome. Wresting control of the port from the Orban colonial masters would decide the balance in our favor.

This planet was close enough to Hecht’s primary that it could use a natural sunlight cycle. Filtered by the habitat’s tavis field, the angle of the light was almost perpendicular, minimizing shadow and throwing reflections upwards. That would be a factor for the gun platforms and the heavy-armor troops of the Vetzkarrans, using standard-issue visual-ranging technology.

Klarosian technology gave us an edge; Klarosian fighting experience and will expanded it. And the blessing of the Creator upon His Chosen, and the spirit of the Divine Warrior that would sustain us in battle (according to the pious,) assured the ultimate outcome.

The Intel drones supplying my vantage point on the battle were behind and just above the centermost gun platform on our forward right-wing battle group. When you wear a drone headset you feel like you’re there, physically. The impulse to duck incoming fire is almost irresistible, at first. Your body responds to the situation the way it would as if it were there, not eighty kilometers up in a low-orbit observation corvette.

It’s safer than being on a gun platform, even a shielded one, or bouncing around in heavy armor in the thick of the fire zone, but it doesn’t feel safer. Not by much. Not if you’re not used to it.

I’m not usually assigned to Combat Observation, but my Intel unit was substituting for the CO team normally attached to this battlegroup. Brass confidence in a decisive victory dictated having my chain of command on hand right away, to negotiate the most advantageous transfer-of-control terms. My boss’s boss, General Praukent, was to be in charge of the prep for those negotiations, and he wanted our people on the spot. We’d have to move fast to salvage information that the Orban government was probably trying to destroy even now.

The gun platforms ahead of me dipped sharply and the crawl alongside the drones’ analog reconstruction suddenly blossomed with data. We were on the move. Level-sounding voices gave brief, precise orders.

The avenue ahead was utterly deserted. We had warned the population to evacuate the area around the spaceport. There was no element of surprise to be sacrificed; they knew that was the critical target and they’d been preparing defenses there. One section of the readout area surrounding my headset was a feed from the team working on telemetric intercept and signal analysis that would give us realtime information on what they had where, where and when they were moving it, and so forth. Their jammers were good; we’d wasted a number of expensive skit-class nanoparasite rounds on dud targets.

Even so, over the last few critical minutes we’d managed to establish a fairly reliable outline of what waited for us, and the final victory wouldn’t be cheap. The Vetzkarran forces knew what kind of firepower we had in the system and they knew they didn’t have a chance of running past our pickets with heavy materiel transports. They’d have to expend it or abandon it to us and take the loss either way.

A big amber wash blanked out one section of my readout: They’d concentrated massive FE beamfire on the left wing command platform. A bright line of data in one of the upper corners showed three squadrons of our ATO fighters converging on the firepoint. The roofs of two large buildings nearby suddenly slid apart and fell a hundred meters to the street, flattening smaller structures and raising huge clouds of debris. Thirty or so Vetzkarran atmo fighters rose from inside the now-roofless buildings, where they’d been concealed, to engage our squadrons while the beamfire began to rake outwards to vaporize the warehouse and commercial structures behind which our Heavy Infantry Troops were massed.

I tore my attention away from that part of the readout; it wasn’t my responsibility. A quick adjustment grayed that section a little so that the activity wouldn’t distract me from my assignment: teasing apart the confusing tangle of data streams to identify personnel tracks that might locate critical command and control installations. It’s tricky work, you not only have to follow the precise degree and type of readout, but pick the right traces to collate and analyze for patterns that will reveal what’s going on. Physio, communications, weapons, and enviro power signatures all have their unique variations based on function and it all comes together in the realtime chaos of a battle situation.

Intel programs could give you an edge, if they were fine-tuned to a hair more effective than your opponent, but only if your firepower and human and strategic assets gave you time to use them. It looked as though the Vetzkarrans were trying to rush us into committing resources and overwhelm our computing power, while the Orban government forces—what were left of them—and the militia they’d recruited from among the subcolony population took chunks out of our strike forces.

I picked three promising data clusters and activated analysis subroutines that were designed to identify the relationship between their transmissions and the meta-synthesis of the battle events. If any of them showed a time lag profile match, we might be looking at command nodes.

My readout juddered and sputtered for a moment, and the headset filled with a dull roar. Then it stabilized, as the datafeed was shunted around the damaged probes, and self-repair subroutines kicked in. But the momentary disruption had fried my analysis tracks and two of the promising nodes had dissipated and were lost in the flood of information. The third was now clearly tagged as ordinary mobile assault unit command, and it was already being routed into my boss’s infeed stream. I started looking for something else to chew on.

Another part of the readout flared blue, suddenly, stabilized, and minimized, with other sectors enlarging to occupy its area. We’d taken the habitat control facility, one of our key objectives.

I glanced at the realtime track and realized that we’d been engaged for nearly an hour already, though it felt like minutes.

Suddenly the entire readout flashed, purposefully, three quick pulses. My brain, still tracking the datastreams, froze for a moment. But my fingers were already on the controls, minimizing the readout area and switching from full-combat mode to ready mode, allowing sensory input from the actual environment where I was sitting.

I could hear the “secure for maneuvers” siren around me, and the other members of the Intel team were already retracting headset feeds—our corvette was under attack by Vetzkarran Atmosphere-To-Orbit fighters, breaching the jathrin dome fields and boosting for our low-orbit assets.

The projection film at one end of the compartment showed the corvette’s combat plot: A Vetzkarran Destroyer was maneuvering to engage us from above, and the ATO squad was already strung out in attack pattern five kilometers below. This really did not look good.

Colonel Gratev’s voice growled in my headset. “Relax, gentlemen. The Saintly Sword is on the job, and we have Glerik Squadron on their tails. There’s still a battle to conn.” The projection film went dark, which would have made me pee myself with fright if I hadn’t been suited up and fully catheterized, but I realized a moment later, as existence continued, that the film had just been deactivated to keep it from being a distraction.

You can’t work as effectively in “ready” mode, but there’s a lot you can do and the boss wanted us doing it, not worrying about whether we were about to be meet the Divine Warrior face-to-face.

It was some comfort to know that Glerik Squadron was in our vicinity. I knew the squadron leader, Matt Donley—we’d been classmates at the Academy and Matt was one crazy-dangerous son-of-a-falut who could outmaneuver anything in flight, atmo or insystem. He had more than thirty kills notched on his helmet and the Glerik Squadron’s pennon was loaded with enough battle honors to weigh it down in a gale-force fanbreeze. I got back to work.

Three hours later the Orban government signaled our command ship, asking for terms. I’d feel good about it, after the migraine wore off.

Sep 052012
 

Hydroponic equipment and racks against a reflective background.Two days before the world died, Vetkar Allis was busy spreading manure on the north forty. Well, not “manure,” as in ‘the organic end product of animal digestive processes,’ but “manure,” as in ‘exquisitely balanced chemical nutrients and enhancements formulated to produce maximum yield.’ The manure catalyst was supplied at cost-plus to Niepach Agro contractors like Allis.

The empty tank was loaded on a float pallet for the Niepach Agro supply truck to retrieve and guided to the exchange point. He glanced upward. The angle and intensity of the light told him he had half an hour or so before he’d have to collect and process the dairy outflow. That might be enough time to check on those fruit crops.

He stripped off his hazmat suit—manure catalyst wasn’t something you wanted to come into contact with—and racked it carefully in the equipment shed, then abstracted a battered float scooter and maneuvered it among the big control towers until he came out on the far end. Before him stretched—literally farther than the eye could see—row after row after row of grow vats, each row separated by maintenance racks from its neighbor. To his left, the arrays were stacked four-high, showing a uniform pale green, the soy seedlings planted ten days ago reaching sturdily upwards to the light. To his right, there was more variation.

He turned the scooter and made for the several rows of vats that were partly shielded by filters curving over them from the maintenance racks. These were the genetically modified fruitstocks that relied on changing day lengths to initiate their fruiting cycle. Less yield per vat, but they were high-price items. The first few rows were apples, the three standard varieties, and then a couple of rows of specialties. The Crimson Crunch were in blossom: Each vat held three, with narrow, straight twigs rising from two branches stretched horizontally, bent ninety degrees from the stubby rootbase. He pulled the scooter to hover close, carefully lifting one of the filter hoods, and stuck his head under. A wash of faint, sweet scent rewarded him.

Yes, they’d have to be pollinated tomorrow, surely. The dense clusters of blossom promised a good crop. He inspected the vats carefully—automatic sensors could tell you when something went wrong, but human eyes were still the best judge of when something might be about to go wrong, and it was always cheaper to catch things early. His neighbor had lost six rows of tomato vats last year because by the time a fluid pressure anomaly had registered on the sensors, a critical feeder line was splitting.

Carefully, he hovered down the rows of vats, checking connections, filter hood adjustment, indicator lights. All well. When he reached the end, it was time to go empty the dairy-production units, and start the processors.

His children, Kacek and Pralet, found him in the dairy processing shed, checking the readouts on the row of dairy producers behind their sterile plasglas window. Each producer, a vat-grown construct of the digestive system of a dairy cow right down to the rubbery, swaying udder and the puckered waste outflow valve, had a dozen sensors attached, monitoring enzyme levels, production rate, molecular integrity, and all the other factors that kept a model “Bossie 9” producing milk for up to 20,000 hours before its molecular integrity disintegrated and it had to be replaced.

“Fa, FA!!” Kace was at the stage when he couldn’t vocalize anywhere below a roar without concentrated effort. Vetkar turned around, squatted slightly, and held out his arms, relishing the sensation of having them full of warm, wriggling offspring. “FA!!” Kace bellowed in his ear.

“Whoa, there… What’s up, big fella?” He knelt with one knee, and set Pralet on the other, with Kace in the curve of his arm.

“Fa, teacher says we’re goin’ to space!” Kacek reported importantly. Pralet wriggled with excitement. “With you, Fa!”

Vetkar chuckled. “I just volunteered to drive the bus, mighty mites. Your teachers will be showing you around.”

“Oh.” Pralet sounded disappointed. “But you’ll be there?”

He nodded. “With the shuttle.”

“Have you been to the spaceport before?” Kace probed.

He nodded again. “Lots of times. When I was in the military, before you were born, mighty mite.” He glanced at his chrono. “Does your Ma know you’re home from school?”

Headshakes.

“Well, run in and tell her, then. She’s been fussing over the kitchen processor all day, maybe there’s something special coming out, hmm? I have to finish the milk run, then I’ll be in and you can tell me all about what you’re going to see in space.”

It wasn’t until hours later, when the kids were tucked up in their bunks, that he sat down in front of the battered comsuite to check the day’s messages. Gislet was wiping down the storage and processing units, and the elderly dishwasher was chugging away, so she didn’t hear his soft exclamation of dismay. But she could tell by the set of his shoulders that something was wrong. “Vet?” She dried her hands, and came over to the comsuite, setting them on his shoulders and feeling the tension there. “What is it?”

He shook his head, grimly. “Another water rate increase.”

“Oh, no! All of it?”

“Not residential. Just industry and agro on our side of the ring. Something about an upgrade to the processing facility, combined with a new share issue for Oquan Hydro.”

“But… won’t that wipe out whatever we’d hoped to get from the four percent soy yield increase?”

“Pretty much. I swear, if I had a nasty, suspicious-type mind, I’d think that Niepach tipped off Oquan about the production increases. The timing is perfect.”

“Maybe we should give up the dairy and specialties, after all…” They’d talked about it before. The dairy operation paid its way, like the fruitstocks and specialty vegetables for the restaurant market, but they didn’t net anything like the amount that could have been made from growing more soy with the same investment in space and equipment.

“No, dammit! I want the kids to drink our milk, eat our food. It’s appalling, that an agronist’s kids should have to eat standard rations, even emp-class rations.”

“They’re nutritionally complete, balanced, and supplemented at school for the childrens’ developmental needs, aren’t they? I love the stuff we grow, too, but at this rate…” she shook her head. “We’re never going to be able to buy shares.”

Although technically their contract with Niepach Agro qualified them to be approved for employee-class rations and cubage—Gislet bought staples at the Hurst Niepach Hypermarket, when they did go into town to shop—contractors never qualified for the retirement shares and other benefits that an actual company employee received. Only if they could scrape together the not-inconsiderable sum of cash needed to buy either the limited retirement shares Niepach offered for contractors, or full stakeholders’ shares, could they ever hope for any kind of economic security.

Vetkar sighed. “Maybe if I plant some faster-maturing varieties, I can get a full five crops this year.” Obsessively, he called up the planning spreads sheets for the agronery. Gislet leaned over, her arms circling his shoulders, and laid her cheek against his hair. “Not tonight, please, dearest… you’re not getting enough sleep, you know.”

It was true, he’d slept badly last night, and been up, as usual, two hours before first light. He reached up to caress her cheek. “I’ll be in to bed, soon, love. You get some rest, you’ve been up just as long.”

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